Cullen Thomas, writer

Cullen Thomas is the author of Brother One Cell, a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book and recommended reading by Lonely Planet. His stories about meeting the president, young militants, classical musicians, crime and punishment, Korean affairs, and interviews with other writers, among other topics, have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, USA Today, GQ, The Rumpus, Foreign Policy, Penthouse, and the Daily Beast. He's been a talking head on the National Geographic Channel, MSNBC, and CNN, and teaches writing and literature at New York University and Gotham Writers' Workshop.


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How To Stop Prisons from Turning Criminals into Terrorists

Aeon, May 5, 2016
Cullen Thomas: How To Stop Prisons from Turning Criminals into Terrorists

Each time I learn of another terrorist who spent time in prison, I'm taken back to my own prison time. In 1994, I was caught smuggling hashish into South Korea and spent three and a half years imprisoned there. Since then I've struggled to understand the nature of confinement and its effects on the individual. (more)

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Iran's Cold Cases Are Coming Back to Haunt Us

The Daily Beast, February 22, 2015
Cullen Thomas: Iran Cold Cases

Argentina is only one site where murderous attacks inspired or directed by Iran have gone unpunished. It's time to pull out all the old files.

History repeats itself, whether we've forgotten it or not, and sometimes what used to be considered cold cases come back to haunt those governments that hoped they'd just crumble away like old newspaper clippings in rusting file cabinets. (more)

Cullen Thomas on The Rumpus
Cullen Thomas on Anne Perry

Pakistan Journalism: A Fantasy

Sonora Review, Issue 66, Fall 2014

He's looking at newspaper articles about CIA agent Raymond Davis, arrested for murder, then released, in the shattered zone of Lahore—the story a mystery.

Davis shot two Pakastanis on a motorcycle who'd supposedly ridden up to his car as it was stopped in traffic, or he was chasing them, maybe on a back street, by a crumbling wall, in broad daylight... (more)

Cullen Thomas on The MatadorNetwork
Cullen Thomas on Anne Perry

Crossing Convictions: Trains, Borders, and a Criminal Past

MatadorNetwork, December 17th, 2014

Just before eight in the morning on September 6, I caught the Amtrak Adirondack Line at Penn Station, a ten-hour train journey up the Hudson River and the eastern edge of New York State, past Lake Champlain, snaking along a path carved into bluffs so that at times the rest of the train was visible through the windows ahead and behind me on the tracks above the water and the pines.

Destination Canada, Montreal, where I'd never been. I had no other purpose for the trip but to get out of the every day, stir my imagination, do some writing in a new city and country. (more)

Cullen Thomas on The Rumpus
Cullen Thomas on Anne Perry

Mystery To the End

The Rumpus, October 16th, 2013

My mom recently read about Anne Perry in The Writer's Almanac and sent me the link, still feeding me what's good to eat: Perry, an international bestselling crime novelist who at fifteen had helped murder a friend's mother. The Almanac was featuring her on her birthday, October 28. A Scorpio, like me... (more)

Cullen Thomas COnversations with Ex-cons Series on The Rumpus
Conversations with Literary Ex-Cons Series
Cullen Thomas conversation with Vickie Stringer

Vickie Stringer

January 25th, 2016

Vickie Stringer's voice is soothingly sweet and smooth over the line. I notice she keeps using my name, drawing me in—"Don't you think so, Cullen?" and "Cullen, isn't it true…" I could have listened to her for a few more hours.

Stringer has made sharp choices and paid for them: running an escort service, dealing cocaine with her ex-boyfriend, spending seven years in prison in the 90s, growing a publishing company. She's a hustler, an ex-con, a mogul, and a mother. (more)

Cullen Thomas conversation with Jackson Mitchell

Jack Gantos

June 1st, 2015

In 1971, Jack Gantos, a twenty-year-old, good-kid criminal, dodged the Feds at the Chelsea Hotel. They knew of his role in the smuggling of 2,000 pounds of hashish into New York City, on a boat he'd helped sail up from the Virgin Islands. The authorities knew who he was, where his family lived, that he'd been selling the hash around town out of a shopping cart he freewheeled down the streets.

So he turned himself in... (more)

Cullen Thomas conversation with Jackson Mitchell

Mitchell S. Jackson

March 31st, 2014

Mitchell S. Jackson has written a fine one. His acclaimed novel The Residue Years (a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction) is the story of a young mother and son plagued by love and drugs, heartbreak and hard wisdom. A fiction of truth, told with compression and velocity.

I sat down with Mitch at the Center for Fiction in the old Mercantile Library in midtown Manhattan. (more)

Cullen Thomas conversation with Billy Hayes

Billy Hayes

December 31st, 2013

Billy Hayes is restless. I'm sitting across from him in the Hudson Diner, on a balmy fall afternoon in the West Village. He's a child of the '60s, a seeker, an experimenter. Not many realize the role writing played in his Turkish adventure, described in his 1977 internationally-bestselling book Midnight Express and depicted in the Academy Award–winning movie of the same name. (Oliver Stone won his first Oscar for the script, the movie's fictionalized, harrowing version of Hayes's experience seared into the memories of many who've seen it.) For years, Hayes wanted to be a writer, and believed he needed to go out and seek stories, to light after inspiration with a club—or, less favorably if you're caught, with bricks of hashish. (more)

Cullen Thomas conversation with Patricia McConnel

Patricia McConnel

October 3rd, 2013

On her Goodreads page, Patricia McConnel describes her life arc as "vagrant, drug mule, and dilettante hooker to award-winning author in a mere forty years."

She writes boldly and shoots straight. I loved her book Sing Soft, Sing Loud, which contains short stories of prison and survival among hard-living women, with a young narrator who thinks, observes, and feels through the scrabble. Writing in The Los Angeles Times, Carolyn See called Sing Soft, Sing Loud: "Extraordinary, heartbreaking….The tales here range from grizzly to harrowing and back again….But there is some good news. You can write your way through the bars, through space, through time." (more)

Cullen Thomas conversation with Matthew Parker

Matthew Parker

February 13th, 2013

You know what struck me about Matthew Parker, one-time homeless wanderer, former drug addict with more than ten years of prison under his belt, between his ears, now a writer and graphic author?

A basic decency.

We met in the New York Botanical Garden in mid-January. The Bronx River was frozen with rich swaths of emerald in it. At times, Matt looked carefully out into the main space of the café where we finally sat. We were safe, against a brick wall and with a full view of the room. But I wondered if it wasn't the ex-con in him warily peering out at the world. (more)

Cullen Thomas conversation with Piper Kerman

Piper Kerman

October 23rd, 2012

I took a tall seat at the Old Town Bar, next to the front doors, opened on that sunny fall day to the street. Old Town, been here forever almost, on New York City's 18th Street, just above Union Square. It's proud and lived in. You can feel it. No doubt many a lost soul or saved woman has sat here amidst the drink and the story-soaked wood.

In walked Piper Kerman to join me. She is the author of the 2010 memoir Orange is the New Black, a catchy title for her story of how, years after briefly running money for an international heroin gang, she was indicted, convicted, and served roughly a year in the federal women's prison in Danbury, Connecticut. (more)

Cullen Thomas conversation with J. M. Benjamin

J. M. Benjamin

September 12th, 2012

Back in 2007, I read a New York Times article that told the unlikely story of a recent ex-con who had given up the drug game and was now hustling his own books. The story struck me.

J.M. Benjamin grew up on the streets of Plainfield, New Jersey. He spent more than twelve years—most of his adult life—in state and federal prisons in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. (more)

Cullen Thomas conversation with Neil White

Neil White

August 8th, 2012

Here is Neil White, author of In the Sanctuary of Outcasts (2010), a vivid and popular account of the year he spent, in the early 1990s, in the federal prison in Carville, Louisiana, which also held within its walls one of the last leper colonies in the United States.

I spoke to Neil by phone as he whipped through the back woods of Alabama. (more)

Cullen Thomas on Olympic Inspiration

Gold Medal Minds:
The Team That Gives US Olympians the Edge

Newsmax, July 27th, 2012
Cullen Thomas on Olympic Inspiration

In 1980, then 15-year-old Peter Haberl sat with his parents at home in the small town of Lustenau, Austria, and joyfully watched as the U.S. men's Olympic hockey team beat the Soviet Union, shocking the world.

"This was really inspiring for us Europeans," Haberl recalled for Newsmax. "We were bordering the iron curtain and the looming threat of the Soviet Union, and having played hockey myself, knowing how powerful the Soviet team was, it was amazing to see the youthful spirit of those young American college kids, that belief in what is possible. It impacted the world." (more)

Cullen Thomas on The MatadorNetwork

Reflections Beneath Mt. Katahdin

MatadorNetwork, October 28th, 2011

In the basement waiting area of New York City's Port Authority Station I watch the buses dock and depart from tight channels and chutes like sea creatures, floating in and disgorging, engorging and floating out.

Cullen Thomas from atop Mt. Katahdin

Seated on my right, two old Amish women in black headscarves bent forward at the waist, heads in exhausted hands, like matching birds on a branch. Within reach is a moon-faced Hispanic fellow talking at cross purposes with a West Indian woman about nothing that, as far as my dim reach can manage, makes much of any sense at all; it seems they've just met: the apocalypse; a young kid who speaks Russian and should be in school, who they aren't sure they can trust; some powerful or dangerous country she is trying to think of and he can't name." (more)

Cullen Thomas on The Rumpus

All Quiet on the Northern Front, August 25th, 2011

In banning innocuous tourism websites, "seditious" anti-capitalist books, and information about Pyongyang, South Korea's intelligence service is acting a lot like its brother to the north. (more)

Cullen Thomas on The Rumpus

The Rumpus Interview with Tony Perrottet

The Rumpus, June 10th, 2011
Cullen Thomas interview with Tony Perrottet

On a recent hot afternoon, Tony Perrottet, veteran travel writer, journalist, historian, raconteur, man of ribald curiosity, invited me up to the poolside bar on the rooftop of the Soho House to discuss his latest book, The Sinner's Grand Tour: A Journey through the Historical Underbelly of Europe.

For the book Perrottet sought out arcane places, characters, and objects of decadence and sex, from London to Capri: the Marquis de Sade's castle in Provence; the pornographic bathroom, painted by Raphael, in the Pope's Vatican apartments; the notorious "sex chair" of King Edward VII.

As we talked, bodies in bikinis and shorts drank cocktails, jumped in and out of the pool, and surrendered to the sun, the Hudson River, Chelsea, and the West Village stretching languidly below us. (more)

Cullen Thomas interviews Bernard Kerik

What the Klink Taught Kerik: The Jailhouse Interview

New York Observer, April 6th, 2011
Cullen Thomas interviews Bernard Kerik

Last Thursday morning, Bernard Kerik's lawyer, Andrew Schapiro, called Kerik's wife, Hala, to give her the bad news before it became public. Kerik's federal appeal of the four-year sentence he was given last February, for tax fraud and lying to the White House, had been denied.

The decision came swiftly and took Kerik, his family and his legal team by surprise. Federal appeals decisions often drag on for four to eight months. It had been just a week and a half, however, since oral arguments in the appeal of the United States of America v. Bernard Kerik were presented at the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Courthouse near City Hall.

A thin crowd of around 20 people were scattered around the dark wood gallery that morning. Ms. Kerik; Kerik's son from a previous marriage, Joe; and John Picciano, Kerik's longtime friend and corrections, police and security consulting colleague, sat in the back row. (more)

Cullen Thomas interviews Bernard Kerik

A Tourist's Afghanistan

WorldHum, December 10th, 2009
Cullen Thomas interviews Bernard Kerik

Of course, people in Kabul asked my friend Barry Misenheimer what he was doing in Afghanistan. Not a spook, not military, not a contractor, not a consultant or NGO worker, he was rarer, more absurd than all those.

"I'm a tourist," he answered people, recalling his trip recently from his apartment on the Lower East Side. The other foreigners laughingly called him "the tourist."

And so he was without an agenda, had no objective in Afghanistan other than his own on-the-fly itinerary: to see and experience the country independent of General McChrystal and President Obama, the front pages of the Wall Street Journal. (more)

Cullen Thomas interviews Bernard Kerik Blogger Bunch Commentary

CNN, August 9th, 2009
Cullen Thomas interviews Bernard Kerik

On March 17, 2009, North Korean border guards detained two American journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, who were working for the U.S. independent cable television network Current TV (defunct since August 2013), after they crossed into North Korea from the People's Republic of China without a visa. They were found guilty of illegal entry and sentenced to twelve years hard labor in June 2009.[1][2] North Korean leader Kim Jong-il pardoned the two on August 5, 2009, the day after former U.S. President Bill Clinton arrived in the country on a publicly unannounced visit.'s Blogger Bunch comment on the release of the two U.S. journalists in North Korea. (more)

Cullen Thomas interviews Nick Bonner

Interview with Nick Bonner

WorldHum, August 7th, 2009
Cullen Thomas interviews Nick Bonner

For a place customarily viewed as an enemy, an antagonist and a bizarre anachronism, North Korea showed a different side with the release of the two imprisoned American reporters, whatever one makes of it. And what do we make of it? How do we reach a better understanding of what is perhaps the most inscrutable country in the world?

Englishman Nick Bonner can shed some light. He is the founder of Koryo Tours, the longest-running travel company providing tours to North Korea. Teaming with director Dan Gordon, Nick has also produced three acclaimed and fascinating documentaries about the country (The Game of Their Lives, A State of Mind and Crossing the Line). There are few Westerners with his experience and insight into the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

I reached Nick via email at his office in Beijing. (more)

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How My Life in Korean Prison Foretold Bill's Success

The Daily Beast, August 4, 2009
Cullen Thomas Knew Bill Would Succeed

Bill Clinton's furtive mission to North Korea this morning to negotiate the release of jailed American reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee had a greater chance of succeeding than most realized, thanks to an innocuous but important gesture last month that provides some cover for the leaders of a country obsessed with—and driven by—perceived respect.

While observers can titter about how Bill is trying to rescue his wife, the secretary of State, and his running mate, Al Gore, whose Current TV employs the jailed reporters, more attention needs to be paid to a phone call last month. Specifically, Ling, whom along with Lee was sentenced to 12 years hard labor after wandering across the border from China, made explicit in the permitted phone call to her famous sister, TV personality Lisa Ling, that she "broke the law." A coerced confession? More North Korean mind games? On the contrary. It was a very positive step. (more)

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Local Hindu Temple Offers Peace

Hudson Reporter, February 22, 2009
Cullen Thomas in port with Sailor Girl

On a recent Saturday evening, 150 Indian worshippers continued a more than 20-year-old spiritual tradition at the local Swaminarayan temple. Men in sweaters and button-down shirts and women in colorful shalwar kameez prayed and sang while facing a golden shrine encasing vivid paintings of Hindu deities.

The temple, tucked away on Louisa Place overlooking the Hudson River, is an A-frame made of stone and wood. It looks like an old New England church or schoolhouse. Before it was converted into a Hindu temple in 1987, the building was a Christian Science church. (more)

Cullen Thomas in port with Sailor Girl

Sailor Girl

WorldHum, February 5th, 2009
Cullen Thomas in port with Sailor Girl

In mid-May, one day out from the Virginia coast, the State of Maine ran into 100-knot winds and 20-foot waves. In his digital log Captain Wade kept a brave face: "Weather is horrible. Swell came around to almost port beam and the vessel rolled more and more. Pitching, rolling, shipping seas ... we have it all." Under "Today's Activities" he'd written, "Hang On!"

The more than 200 cadets on board were tying everything down with rope, but they missed Mom. My white-haired 68-year-old mother was getting thrown around her room on the third deck. She was terrified; it was her first time at sea, the poor pollywog. (more)

Cullen Thomas on National Geographic's Locked Up Abroad: Korea

Nat Geo's Locked Up Abroad: Korea

National Geographic Channel, June 30th, 2008
Cullen Thomas on National Geographic's Locked Up Abroad: Korea

In the first episode of their second season, National Geographic's Locked Up Abroad prison series tells story of Cullen's capture, arrest and imprisonment.

Cullen Thomas decides to spice up his life in South Korea by traveling to the Philippines and sending himself a lump of hashish that ends up costing him his liberty. (more)

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GQ Magazine, March 7th, 2007
Cullen Thomas My Korean Nightmare

Cullen Thomas made one small mistake. (It weighed one kilo.) And he spent the next three and a half years shuffling between South Korean prisons, living his own maddening version of 'Midnight Express.' Here's how he made it out alive.

An excerpt from Brother One Cell (PDF 1.6 MB)


Current Biography, published 2005
Cullen Thomas Biography of Aga Khan IV

Biography of Aga Khan IV

"The current Aga Khan assumed that hereditary title upon his grandfather's death, in 1957, and thus became the 49th imam, or spiritual leader, of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims, a diffuse Islamic community of 15 million faithful living primarily in West and Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa."

Published by the H.W. Wilson Company (PDF 3.6 MB)

Cullen Thomas in NY Times Magazine


NY Times Magazine, February 3rd, 2002
Cullen Thomas: Waiting on the Prez

In 1994, we went to the Philippines in search of adventure, never imagining that we would meet the future of terrorism.

His English was almost perfect. As we passed a row of low houses, a Filipino boy called me a "white monkey," calmly and hatefully. He was young, maybe 16. He had appeared out of nowhere and was standing with his friend in front of us on a broken street in Isabela, the brooding capital of Basilan island. "Why did you come here?" he asked. (PDF 1.6 MB)

Cullen Thomas: Waiting on the Prez in Salon


Salon, December 5th, 2001
Cullen Thomas: Waiting on the Prez

After dinner, after the dignitaries had left, a guy in a blue suit came back to the kitchen—a Texan named George.

We were in the spacious dining room at the top of the Waldorf Towers, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N.'s residence, looking down at the place settings on the table. Good-looking china made especially for the State Department: richly blue-ringed plates and glassware eblazoned with an eagle.

I stood off to the side in my tuxedo, a mercenary waiter. One of the U.S. Mission's protocol people had called me the night before. "Please, I hope you can do it. I'm so sorry for such short notice, but it's a real emergency; I'm not supposed to say, but it's for our head of state." (more)

©2014 Cullen Thomas