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 exposé 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.