From a recent interview:
How did you first hear of Chris Kyle’s story?
The idea for the book actually came from an editor at Harper Collins, Peter Hubbard. Peter heard about Chris from another SEAL and contacted him, asking if he'd be interested in telling his story. Chris was a bit reluctant - he didn't want to seem like he was bragging, basically - and it took a while for Peter to persuade him.
I think what finally convinced him was the fact that he had heard that two other people were planning on writing about him, and he wanted to make sure the story was told correctly and honored the men he'd fought alongside, especially two men (Ryan Job and Marc Lee) who were wounded and killed, respectively, while with him in Ramadi. (Ryan died later on from complications resulting from an operation due to his wounds.)
At some point during their talks Peter called me and asked if I'd be interested in working with Chris. I'd like to think he did that because of my track record and reputation, though it's also possible I was the last number on his Rolodex.
I had a bunch of other projects at the time and had just been approached about another high-profile memoir, but the story sounded interesting and I had a lot of respect for Peter, so I told him I'd talk to Chris and get back to him.
I'd say that within five minutes of the call with Chris I was on board. The way he talked about his dead friends and the fact that he wanted to give their families the money from the book convinced me that I had to be involved.
Beyond that, Chris agreed with the two things I thought would be critical:
1. No pc bullshit; the story had to tell what a warrior REALLY was thinking in war. Too many memoirs soft-pedal this, talking vaguely and loftily. Rarely do warriors talk frankly about how much they hated the enemy, or how much they enjoy the fight. It’s not considered PC.
I'm not saying those things are true for every warrior, but for someone who is operating at Chris's level, it's pretty much a prerequisite.
2. I wanted to include what it was like at home for his family. No other war memoir from this period, and few from any others that I can think of, had done that at the time. The family was always an afterthought, at best. I saw them as a critical part of the story.
Chris's response to #1 was along the lines of, no shit, what else would we do? And he was all for number 2. He ended up helping me convince his wife to get involved. I’m sure she wouldn’t have without him telling her that her story was important, too.
I got a lot of pushback from the publisher on both 1 & 2 - Peter absolutely hated my insistence on using the word "savages" in the book, for example - but to his credit he hung in there with us.
How did you approach [Chris] about a book? Had to be intimidating, given the subject matter and his reputation.
I wasn't intimidated. That’s basically my career: I work with high-profile people on high-stakes books. Chris's was the fourth or fifth memoir I worked on.
If anything, Chris was extremely easy to get along with, and very accommodating. My method on memoirs is both intense and intrusive - besides my own research, I spend huge amounts of time with the person I'm working with, and talk to their family and friends. In this case, we spent a lot of time together in Texas and up here in NY. He probably got sick of me after a while but he never admitted it.
I don't necessarily have to become friends with the subject but you do have to reach a level of respect and trust or it doesn't work.
People have asked why we hit it off so well so quickly. My answer partly is that I think it would be impossible not to like Chris, and partly that once Chris made up his mind that he wanted to do something, he went ahead and did it. Beyond that, I guess I’m not as cranky as I think.
What was his reaction to a book? Most of these guys are predisposed to be flat-out reluctant about talking about themselves and skeptical of the media in general.
He was pretty modest. At times he felt he was bragging and I had to keep prodding to get more details out. There were a few incidents I know he held back on because they seemed pretty incredible. We just kept going back over stuff. It helped to talk to other people and to know about the battles he was in, etc., because that gave me questions to ask.
As far as being skeptical about the media, I'm not the media.
The really hard thing in this case was the fact that Chris had only been out of the Navy about a year or so, and he really hadn't processed a lot of what had happened. I knew of course that it would take a toll, but I didn't really realize exactly how much until I was talking to his dad a few months after we started and he mentioned something about how beat-up Chris looked after our first really long session in Texas (we'd been at a ranch for a few days working).
Did you visit any of the sites he wrote about? Or did he do that part. Did you want to trace his footsteps?
We were working on a really short time schedule, and arranging to go the spots would have been impractical. In some cases it would have been impossible, actually. Chris had no desire to go back at that point.
I would have liked to do that kind of book but it would have been a different kind of book. Now of course that’s not going to happen.
What was it like to hear him talk about actually killing and shooting? There had to be moments where you had to steel yourself even in the professional role of being true to his story and him trusting you as a writer.
He was a soldier. His job was to kill people. That's what he did. That was the story I came to tell. So from that aspect, it wasn't very surprising. I wanted to show people exactly how you have to narrow the world down to black and white when you are at war. So I expected to hear all that.
What should have been harder - though thanks largely to Taya (his wife) it wasn't - was getting the story of him back home without making it into a cliché or something very trite. I was very fortunate that Taya agreed to tell her story in the book, and that she didn't pull back. If I had used his voice there, I don’t think it would have worked nearly as well. It’s one of the un-sung reasons for the book’s success.
My goal was to write a book that would stand with other American war memoirs, beginning with Private Yankee Doodle (from the Revolutionary War). It’ll be for others to judge whether we succeeded, but that was the goal.
Talking about me personally as far as being shocked: I’ve written a lot about war (though not exclusively), so I guess I am somewhat familiar with the territory. Earlier in my career I wrote a book about two kids who murdered their grandmother so they could have sex and eat candy. I don't think there's too much that’s going to shock you after that.
What was the toughest part for you in writing this?
Everything pales compared to Chris's death. I remember that morning like it was yesterday. I still don't believe it.
What was the most humorous take away you got from your time with him? There had to be some levity between you.
Sometimes to just relax we would play video games. Chris was ridiculously good at Madden. Obscenely good. I think he beat me like 120-0 once. Taya took a picture once of us playing. We’re both laughing hysterically - him because he is pulverizing me, and me because I am being pulverized.
He wasn't so good on Borderlands, though. And I was way better at killing Zombies in Call of Duty.
Chris was a great practical joker. I live in the Hudson Valley of NY, and we get a decent amount of snow during the winters. I usually keep a few beers in the garage for the winter; if it's a good enough storm, a cold one when you're done clearing the driveway is a good reward. (That and a cigar.) When he was up here - during the winter - Chris somehow got into my stash and managed to empty one of the cans with a pinhole without me knowing it. He left the can at the bottom of the box, knowing that at some point I'd grab it and wonder what the hell happened.
It took months, but he got me on it.
How many hours did you spend with him? Hours, days?
A lot, but I’m not precisely sure how much.
We started working in December before we even had a contract, and I had to turn in the book in May or June. We basically talked as much as possible to April or so. There were stretches where we talked every day on the phone for a couple of hours at a pop. A lot of texting and email. I went down to Texas for a couple of 4-5 day stints, and they came up here once for the same. We'd work from as soon as we got up until we were brain dead.
Once I had enough basic material and had done most of the research, I started writing. It actually wrote pretty quick - I think we're talking about six weeks on the first rough draft, with maybe two weeks (?) to polish. Then Chris and I went over it. He answered my questions and we added more detail about different things, took out some stuff – that sort of thing. We went back and forth mostly on the phone in that phase. Then I did a final polish and gave it to him to read; he came back with a few things and we were done.
We spent time together later on promoting the book and that sort of thing; we’d check in every so often. We were eventually going to work on some other projects together.
I write about going down to the 9-11 site with him in the Memorial Edition. That was a pretty emotional experience for both of us, actually.
Was the writing easy or difficult?
The writing itself was easy, once I had the voice. The trick with a memoir is to make it sound like the person, but of course you can't simply duplicate what they say, because it won't work on the page.
I generally work with voice recordings, listening over and over to the person talk, then start getting it down, looking for hooks that will work in print.
I knew how I was going to structure it before I started writing it, and that pretty much held true (which isn't always the case). And of course I’d known the overall goal thematically very early on.
Another thing you want to do in a memoir is make sure it’s the person’s book, not your own. You have to avoid putting words and observations in his mouth inadvertently, either when you’re writing or when you’re talking. That’s always a challenge. I’m not sure that there’s a particular method to deal with that, beyond being aware and always trying to let the person you’re working with lead in the conversations as much as possible.
Is there something that the American people need to know about military men like him that still hasn’t been?
I think a lot of people are overly cynical about patriotism as a motivator. I think it's more powerful than many people realize.
I also think that the Vietnam War and the reaction to it continues to shape attitudes not just toward war but toward the people in the military that are out of date. And while I know you have to narrow the world down to black and white when you’re in battle, at home I think we have to appreciate the larger subtleties and stark realities.
I don't think people have to be experts on war, but if you're going to have an opinion on something, it pays to do a little research so you know what you're talking about. Snipers, for example, were employed in Iraq to cut down on civilian casualties and collateral damage in urban warfare. But a good portion of people who haven't read the book think just the opposite, that they were indiscriminate killers. They also don't understand the dynamics of the different groups, or the fact that for the most part Americans during the occupation were essentially caught in the middle of a civil war, not fighting against would-be liberators.
I respect people who are legitimately against war or pacifists – it’s a religious thing for many of them, and I believe we have to respect other people’s religion and beliefs. But by the same token, I think they should admit that the other side in that war is not necessarily righteous. It certainly wasn’t here. And just because you oppose a war doesn’t mean the people your government has ordered to wage it are evil.
How have you changed as both an individual and a writer as a result [of this book]?
I'm not sure. Every book changes you in some way; you learn something about the world or yourself. I don't mean to be trite, but that's what makes it interesting day after day. I honestly haven’t plotted out how my psyche has changed, what I might have thought if I hadn’t met Chris, etc.
Now, certainly on a day to day level, there have been effects, good and bad. For one thing, there seem to be a lot more media interviews.
And as I tell my wife, producers and publishers are hell of a lot more polite when they turn down my proposals.
More seriously, I guess the changes are mostly what I would consider superficial. There is more attention: I've been on TV enough that it's surely gone to my head. There are more requests for speaking engagements and helping charity events and that sort of thing. The truth is, I've written or co-written 14 NY Times best-sellers (and a few other books that actually sold better than some of those), and none of those compare in terms of public reaction to Sniper. The fact that it was made into such a huge movie confers a certain status that is less about me than other people's perceptions, to be honest. At least in my head, I'm still the same guy who walks the dog and takes out the garbage, and coached my son's rec soccer team. And I'm still the same guy who would have written Sniper for free because I believed in the guy whose story it was and his desire to help the families of the men who'd fallen on his watch.