Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Jon Krakauer talks about his new Pat Tillman book

by Chris Nashawaty
Entertainment Weekly

In the frenzy-filled final days leading up to the Sept. 15 release of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, you might think that there are no other blockbuster titles being published this month. You’d be wrong. On the same day Brown’s novel hits stores, Doubleday will also release best-selling author Jon Krakauer’s Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman. For those who don’t remember, Tillman was the NFL star who gave up a $3.6 million contract to volunteer to serve with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Then, in 2004, he was killed by friendly fire. His life (and the cover-up surrounding his death) is the subject of Krakauer’s tear-jerking follow-up to his Mormon exposĂ© Under the Banner of Heaven, the Everest tragedy Into Thin Air, and Into the Wild, his nonfiction blockbuster which was adapted into a movie starring Emile Hirsch and directed by Sean Penn.

We spoke with Krakauer for a Q&A in this week’s issue of EW. Here are some of the outtakes from that interview.

EW: Tillman’s family told you that your book Eiger Dreams was found in his backpack when he was killed in Afghanistan in 2004. That’s pretty eerie.

Krakauer: It’s very eerie. I didn’t put that in the book because it seemed self-serving and didn’t really add anything. But I was pretty blown away by it. Tillman really liked Under the Banner of Heaven apparently and gave it to a Mormon cousin. Pat’s wife is very private and circumspect and she thought it over before deciding to work with me. I got lucky that Tillman knew my work.

EW: You’ve been working on this for years and you said it was the hardest book you’ve ever written. Why?

Krakauer: Dealing with the Army, trying to make sense of thousands of pages of redacted documents, it was…as you probably know, I canceled the book at one point. It came out a year late, but it was time really well spent. I needed more time. When I first told my editor that I was canceling it, I’m not your basic neurotic author, I don’t have to have my hand held. I deliver on time, I don’t freak out. But I freaked out! And they told me to calm down and take a deep breath. I didn’t want the pressure, I just wanted to stop. I had this bad feeling that if I didn’t stop, it was going to come out in a form I wasn’t happy with.

EW: I was surprised at how much the book takes on — not just about Tillman, but the war on terror as well.

Krakauer: When I start any book, I have no idea what I’m going to do. I went to Afghanistan not really knowing. And when I started Under the Banner of Heaven, it started out as something quite different, too. I go with what the material gives me. I don’t try to impose a narrative on it. With Under the Banner of Heaven, I took a lot of s— from people who just wanted a true crime story. I didn’t give them that. And it’s like, that’s fine. I’m sorry that people got the wrong impression, but the reason I don’t write for magazines any more is I love focusing on one thing for years and being able to tell this story as completely as I think it needs to be told, including all of these digressions. I’m sure the book would be more marketable and more popular if it was more straightforward, but that’s not what I do. Heaven, for me, is one focused project — it’s like a weird form of autism. And if it pans out, you get the royalties and you get to write the next one. And if it doesn’t, you don’t. I’ve had a lot of crappy jobs, but on of my favorites was working as a commercial fisherman in Alaska. What I loved about it was, you got paid for what you caught.

EW: What surprised you in your reporting about Tillman?

Krakauer: Having spent all of these months embedded with the Army, man, it is not an easy f—ing job to be a soldier! I was thinking after he came back from Iraq and his agent said to him that the NFL could get him out of his Army commitment and he could have gone back to football, I wouldn’t have thought twice! I would have been out of there so fast! And he hated the Army! He hated what he was doing to his wife! He was miserable. But he wouldn’t even consider it. Because if you’re Pat Tillman, you do what you say you’re going to do!

EW: In talking to American soldiers over there, how did they feel about Tillman?

Krakauer: There is an intense respect and admiration.

EW: After Into Thin Air, you were criticized pretty strongly for profiting off of a tragedy. How do you escape that criticism this time around?

Krakauer: I’ve taken so much s— over the past 12 years with Into Thin Air that I have pretty thick skin. More than that, I have armor. And now, perversely, I enjoy criticism. I write these books and people don’t have to buy them. It’s not like I get $10 million advances. I basically make money off the royalties. So if people buy the book, then I make money. And if they don’t, I don’t. I’m grateful because I didn’t have money for years. I don’t suffer from too much guilt or angst any more. I certainly did for Into Thin Air. I was blindsided by the success of that book and all the attendant backlash. I wasn’t ready for it. But I went into this book knowing it would be controversial for all kinds of reasons.

EW: I’m sure you were scared when you were over in Afghanistan, but as a climber, did you ever stop and think, I would love to come back here and climb when the war’s over?

Krakauer: Oh, all the time! We’d go up to 11,000 feet and it’s like Nepal. You could see the Hindu Kush. You’re not that far from these 19,000-foot peaks. And I was just salivating. It’s a beautiful country, but such a tragic place.

EW: I have to ask because Under the Banner of Heaven dealt so much with polygamy, do you watch Big Love?

Krakauer: I don’t get HBO. But I was at a family reunion last summer and my family are big fans of the show. So I saw a few episodes. It’s probably a really good show, but it bothered me because I think those fundamentalists are really evil. The show presents it as Polygamy-Lite, which makes people think it’s not as dangerous as it is. It’s not funny or entertaining. It’s not cute.

EW: Do you already know what you’ll be working on next?

Krakauer: It’s way premature. I am just so f—ing fried and burned out. It’s always this way. I could have the best idea in the world land on my desk right now and I’d just crumble it up and throw it out because I couldn’t bear the thought of it. I need to decompress. It’s not like I have a compulsion to write, so who knows, there may not be another book. This book was really hard. I don’t necessarily need to do this again. Writing, to me, is really f—ing hard. It sucks. I’m embarrassed to say it, but that’s how I feel.

McChrystal is currently being sold as the most brilliant military mind -

oh how quickly Petreaus has been forgotten - mostly because he embraces the right wing narrative that a surge will end the US's problems in Afghanistan.

However, as Jon Krakauer points out here, McChrystal was involved in the cover up surrounding the friendly fire incident which killed pat Tillman, and Krakauer also goes on the describe his explanation of how this happened to be "preposterous".

MR. KRAKAUER: After Tillman died, the most important thing to know is that within--instantly, within 24 hours certainly, everybody on the ground, everyone intimately involved knew it was friendly fire. There's never any doubt it was friendly fire. McChrystal was told within 24 hours it was friendly fire. Also, immediately they started this paperwork to give Tillman a Silver Star. And the Silver Star ended up being at the center of the cover-up. So McChrystal--Tillman faced this devastating fire from his own guys, and he tried to protect a young private by exposing himself to this, this fire. That's why he was killed and the private wasn't. Without friendly fire there's no valor, there's no Silver Star. There was no enemy fire, yet McChrystal authored, he closely supervised over a number of days this fraudulent medal recommendation that talked about devastating enemy fire.

GREGORY: And that's the important piece of it. And, and he actually testified earlier this year before the Senate, and this is what he said about it.
(Videotape, June 2, 2009)

LT. GEN. STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: Now, what happens, in retrospect, is--and I would do this differently if I had the chance again--in retrospect they look contradictory, because we sent a Silver Star that was not well-written. And although I went through the process, I will tell you now I didn't review the citation well enough to capture--or I didn't catch that if you read it you could imply that it was not friendly fire.

(End videotape)

GREGORY: Even those who were critical of him and the Army say they don't think he willfully deceived anyone.

MR. KRAKAUER: That's correct. He, he just said now he didn't read this hugely important document about the most famous soldier in the military. He didn't read it carefully enough to notice that it talked about enemy fire instead of friendly fire? That's preposterous. That, that's not believable.

Pat Tillman, Anti-War Heroby John Douglas Marshall

After his death, the NFL star was portrayed as a warrior jock. But a new biography by Into the Wild author Jon Krakauer depicts a liberal who vehemently disagreed with his mission.

That Pat Tillman’s biographer would turn out to be Jon Krakauer now seems inevitable. Who else to chronicle the short, tragic life of the late NFL star turned U.S. Army Ranger than the bestselling writer who told the tale of Chris McCandless, the idealistic sojourner in Into the Wild? Or the accomplished mountain climber who offered his anguished personal witness to the 1996 catastrophe atop Mount Everest in Into Thin Air?

But Krakauer’s journey with Tillman’s story almost ran aground. It would prove to be his hardest book yet, with singular challenges, including two separate embeds with troops in the Afghanistan combat zone where Tillman was killed in 2004 by friendly fire from one of his fellow Rangers. The writing proved so daunting that the frustrated Krakauer fell far behind his deadline and got so “freaked out” that he withdrew the Tillman book from possible publication at one point. But part of what kept him going was the powerful voice of Tillman, who never publicly discussed his decision to leave the Arizona Cardinals for the Army in the aftermath of 9/11. Tillman’s widow gave Krakauer access to Tillman’s personal journals, and what emerged was a portrait of a complex, smart, sensitive, eloquent, and questing figure far different than the stereotypical hardass football jock portrayed in so much coverage of his life and death.

“He even had a copy of my book, Eiger Dreams, in his backpack when he was killed.”

Krakauer’s Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman (Doubleday 416 pages $27.95) is a riveting examination of another American idealist’s startling path and haunting death, as well as a trenchant recounting of this country’s troubled course amid terrorism and war. Krakauer considers the dual narratives to be a risky approach, but says it reflects how he “wanted not just to write about Tillman, but put him in the context of his day and age.” In one of his few interviews discussing the book, the 55-year-old author spoke to The Daily Beast from his Colorado home.

Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman. By Jon Krakauer. Doubleday. 416 pages. $27.95 What interested you in Pat Tillman as a book subject?

Tillman has always been on my radar as a PAC-10 sports fan who grew up in Corvallis, Oregon. I remember the Rose Bowl where he played for Arizona State. And like everyone else, when Pat Tillman was killed, I was blown away. I also thought, wow, there might be a book in this someday, but it was too soon after my Mormon book (Under the Banner of Heaven) for me to consider it. But Tillman kept coming back to me. I was sure somebody else must have a contract to write about him, but one afternoon, I thought, what the hell. I sent off copies of my books to the Tillman family and got an encouraging response even from his mother, Mary “Dannie” Tillman (who later wrote a memoir of Pat Tillman entitled Boots on the Ground by Dusk).

What was the biggest challenge in writing this book?

There were so many. This was definitely the hardest book to research and write for me. It was challenging to get Tillman’s platoon-mates to talk to me. It was really challenging to be embedded with troops in Afghanistan for five months—that was an education for me, really hard. And the book turned into a big sprawling thing and I didn’t think that would happen.

Pat Tillman’s widow, Marie Ugenti Tillman, cooperated with you. How did that come about?

I first contacted Pat’s mother and she urged me to write to Marie, since she is his literary heir. She had his journals and letters and I would need her permission to quote them. But Marie is a very private, very wary person. I got a huge break when it turned out that Tillman liked my writing. He even had a copy of my book, Eiger Dreams, in his backpack when he was killed. He also liked Under the Banner of Heaven. That got my foot in the door with Marie.