THE KEY TO becoming a leading writer and pioneering thinker on the global soul is to be 'in between everything', according to Pico Iyer. His fluid life allows him to articulate the idiosyncrasies of the global era and the psyche of those who float between homes and states. 'I'm not very good at committing myself entirely to one course, and am much better at wavering between two different poles,' he says. Iyer describes himself as lacking 'fixed co-ordinates'. Born in England to Indian parents who later moved to California, he now shifts between Japan, where he immerses himself in a Buddhist sensibility each winter, and a Benedictine monastery in California. 'I recoil from certain fixities, even certain fixities of opinions.' Iyer says the centre of this emerging global culture is Hong Kong, which he first described in Global Soul (2000) as 'the launching pad for the 21st century'. 'What makes it a model of a city of the future is that everyone there comes from somewhere else, it seems,' he says. 'And they almost reflect the different kind of foreign-nesses, whether it's a wealthy business expat from England or America, the Filipino nannies who are working for them, the 97 per cent of Chinese who are expats in a less privileged way, or Vietnamese boat people.' Iyer first put his finger on the transnational pulse in 1988, with Video Night in Kathmandu, which outlined the confluence between east and west. He has enchanted readers with the story of his own paradoxical quest for the mysterious 'other' and the familiar in The Lady and the Monk. In between shoring up his reputation as an essayist for Time magazine, Harpers and The New York Times, he visited the world's loneliest and most eccentric places for Falling Off the Map, and then wrote a novel about Castro's Cuba, Cuba and the Night, long before it was fashionable. On September 11, 2001, he sent his publisher the manuscript for a novel about the west's relationship with Islam. That novel, Abandon, did not appear until 2003. Set in Iran, it used Sufism as a way to look at the dialogue between the cultures, and turned on 'the very real fact that the singular, most popular poet in America for the last 10 years has been Rumi, the old Sufi poet'. 'It struck me, at a time when Washington was more or less officially at war with radical Islam, Americans are reading more of Islamic poets than they are of Whitman or Emerson. It spoke to my prejudice about cultures being able to heal the oppositions that politics sometimes make.' But until the attack on the World Trade Centre, 'it seemed like a bit of an eccentric idea to try and bring these two together, even though there'd been differences for a long time'. September 11 has renewed Iyer as a travel writer. 'There's been a sudden resurgence of mutual suspicion and hostility toward other cultures, and I think the more hostility toward other cultures there is, the more the travel writer can serve a purpose.' His latest book, Sun After Dark: Flights into the Foreign, newly released in paperback, is a collection of essays on recent travels. 'Sun After Dark arose out of spending a lot of time in America in the last couple of years and my sense that Americans, who are not great ones for venturing outside their own borders, in the last two or three years have become even more insular. 'I suppose there's a slight evangelical impulse in me that has made me especially anxious to go out and see the rest of the world and then to try and smuggle it back into America.' Sun After Dark took Iyer to the poorest countries 'to try to make sense of what poverty really means; deliberately travelling into those questions which can't be easily answered'. From essays on his experiences in Cambodia and Yemen, Laos and Ethiopia, Tibet and Bolivia, Haiti, Bali, India and Easter Island, to musings on his meetings with the Dalai Lama and Leonard Cohen, who became a Buddhist monk in his 50s, Sun After Dark overhauls the notion of travel. The essays are shaped around experiences and questions that 'left me shaking in some way'. 'I'm always trying to shake myself up, and in Sun After Dark, I also wanted to shake up the notion of what a travel book is, and how travel is actually taking place, which is often in a stationary position.' A stroll around the streets of Phnom Penh and through its Museum of Genocidal Crime reveals the most unbearable ironies and unanswerable questions. New Year on Easter Island shows him the poverty of horizon, 'as paralysing as other kinds'. An encounter with the work another scribe devoted to dislocation and estrangement, Kazuo Ishiguro, prefigures his own belief that 'the very notion of foreign-ness has changed in the global age'. Iyer sees travel 'as a way of being stood on your head, and forced to rethink things, and forced to come to new understandings. Home has become abroad.' Even if you never travel outside New York or London, 'you're suddenly surrounded by Yemenis, Iranians, Vietnamese or Afghanis. You can no longer just screen yourself off the way you could in our parent's generation.' That mysterious other, he says, 'is in our midst and we are there in their midst more and more, and that makes for a different kind of question we have to address.' Iyer describes his experiences of growing up in a Hindu household in the largely Christian terrain of 1960s Britain as the perfect training in exile, or in living in what he calls 'the floating world'. As a child, he never saw another boy of Indian descent. 'I thought of myself as a typical English boy, but every day when I returned to my parents' home - I didn't know it then - but I was going into a completely different world from everyone else's.' At the age of nine, he began travelling between school in Britain and California, where the family had recently migrated. 'I couldn't call myself Californian, and I couldn't call myself English and I couldn't really call myself Indian, so maybe where I belonged was in that space between all places.' 'Movement was my blood,' says Iyer, who began travelling while still in high school. He started writing about world affairs for Time magazine soon after graduating from Oxford and Harvard, and hasn't stopped writing or travelling since. 'I feel a strong need to go back and forth between places of contemplation and between those places of confronting very different realities, like in Cambodia and Haiti. I keep on trying to make sure that I'm aware of both sides of the world, because I feel that each explains the other.' Even when his house in California burned down in the early 90s, he saw it as a confirmation of his belief that, in this day and age, 'home has less and less to do with actual region, and more and more to do with those values and cultural traditions that you carry around you'. 'I don't think that travel has to do with going abroad, and I don't think that home has to do with living within four walls necessarily. But both of them speak to us in some deeper way.' Although Iyer's renown has come from non-fiction about travelling, the bigger adventures are had alone at his desk - writing novels. 'With travel writing and with essays, I know the terrain,' he says. 'Fiction is like driving into the desert at night. You don't know what's going to come next.'