Simon Winchester, OBE (born 28 September 1944), is a British author and journalist who resides in Massachusetts, in the United States. Through his career at The Guardian, Winchester covered numerous significant events, including Bloody Sunday and the Watergate Scandal. As an author, Winchester has written or contributed to more than a dozen nonfiction books, has written one novel, and his articles have appeared in several travel publications, including Condé Nast Traveler, Smithsonian Magazine, and National Geographic.
Early life and education
Born in London, Winchester attended several boarding schools in Dorset. He spent a year hitchhiking around the United States, then in 1963 went up to St Catherine's College, Oxford to study geology. He graduated in 1966 with a degree in geology and found work with Falconbridge of Africa, a Canadian mining company. His first assignment was to work as a field geologist searching for copper deposits in Uganda.
While on assignment in Uganda, Winchester happened upon a copy of James Morris's Coronation Everest – an account of the 1953 expedition that led to the first successful ascent of Mount Everest. Reading the book instilled in Winchester the desire to be a writer, so he sought career advice from Morris by mail. Morris urged Winchester to give up geology the very day he received the letter, and get a job as a writer on a newspaper.
In 1969 Winchester joined The Guardian, first as a regional correspondent based in Newcastle upon Tyne, but later as its Northern Ireland correspondent. Winchester's time in Northern Ireland placed him around several events of The Troubles, including the events of Bloody Sunday and the Belfast Hour of Terror. In 1971 Winchester became involved in controversy over British press coverage of Northern Ireland when he was denounced on the floor of the House of Commons by Bernadette Devlin for his part in justifying the shooting to death of Berney Watt by British soldiers.
After leaving Northern Ireland, in 1972, Winchester was briefly assigned to Calcutta before becoming correspondent for The Guardian in Washington, DC, where he covered news ranging from the end of Richard Nixon's administration to the start of Jimmy Carter's presidency.
In 1982, while working as chief foreign feature writer for The Sunday Times, Winchester was on location for the invasion of the Falkland Islands by Argentine forces. Suspected of being a spy, Winchester was held as a prisoner in Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego for three months.
In 1985 Winchester shifted to working as a freelance writer and travelled to Hong Kong. When Condé Nast re-branded Signature magazine as Condé Nast Traveler Winchester was appointed its Asia-Pacific Editor. Over the following fifteen years Winchester contributed to a number of travel publications including Traveler, National Geographic and Smithsonian magazine.
Winchester's first book, In Holy Terror, was published by Faber and Faber in 1975. The book drew heavily on his experiences of the turmoil in Northern Ireland. In 1976 he published his second book, American Heartbeat, which deals with his travels through the American heartland. His third book, Prison Diary, recounts his imprisonment in Tierra del Fuego.
Winchester's first truly successful book was The Professor and the Madman (1998) published by Penguin UK as The Surgeon of Crowthorne. Telling the story of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, the book was a New York Times Best Seller, and the rights to a film version were optioned by Mel Gibson, likely to be directed by John Boorman.
Though he still writes travel books, Winchester has used the narrative non-fiction form he adopted for The Professor and the Madman several more times, resulting in multiple best-selling books. The Map that Changed the World (2001) focuses on the geologist William Smith and was Winchester's second New York Times best seller. The year 2003 saw the publication of The Meaning of Everything, which returns to the topic of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, and of the best-selling Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded. Winchester then published A Crack in the Edge of the World, a book about San Francisco's 1906 earthquake. The Man Who Loved China (2008) retells the life of the scholar Joseph Needham.The Alice Behind Wonderland, an exploration of the life and work of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), and his relationship with Alice Liddell, was published in 2011.
Winchester's latest book, Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World's Superpowers, was published in 2015.
Winchester lives in Berkshire County, Massachusetts.