© Annick Sauvageot.
Final Salute: A Story
of Unfinished Lives
The Penguin Press
MC: When did you decide
to write Final Salute, and why? Did your reasons
for wanting to write this book change at all as you
worked on it?
When I was first approached to write the book, I declined,
claiming that I was too busy covering the war. Looking
back, that was only partially true. Revisiting these
stories would mean giving in, emotionally, all over
again. These stories hurt, as does telling them. At
the same time, I realized that the emotional weight
I felt was nothing compared to the loss these families
shoulder every day. I asked some of them if I should
write the book, and they urged me on. I wouldn’t
have written it without their encouragement and their
MC: How did you decide
on the structure for the book, and how do you feel this
particular form serves the book’s content in a
way other structures could not?
The first day I sat in Major Steve Beck’s office,
alongside photographer Todd Heisler, the Marine told
us that if we wanted to get this story correct we had
to be prepared for a long journey. At the time, I had
no idea what that meant. In writing the book, I realized
I had to take readers on a similar journey – emotionally
and physically - submerging them in these lives, while
being led through the story by the same hand that knocked
on their doors, bringing the worst news imaginable.
By using Major Beck as the character who leads us through
the story, the readers have a chance to experience the
story the way we lived it.
MC: Are there any books you held in your peripheral
vision as models while you worked?
Tim O’ Brien’s
The Things they Carried has remained in my
periphery since I first read it, and it rang even more
true as widows showed me envelopes, wallets, and steamer
trunks filled with the belongings of their husbands
and sons. I also reread the compilations of Ernie Pyle’s
dispatches—both from the home front and the war.
Jimmy Breslin’s classic piece on John F. Kennedy’s
funeral—in which he focused on the man who dug
JFK’s grave—likely led me behind the scenes
at Fort Logan National Cemetery, where the caretakers
offer amazing insight into another part of the war that
not enough of us see, and fewer of us feel.
MC: How does your experience outside the literary
world of nonfiction—as a teacher, a journalist,
a parent, a novelist, etc—inform your work as
a nonfiction writer? How has it informed this particular
One of my first jobs at the newspaper was in the place
most reporters dread: the obituary desk. While there,
I decided to write about people who were not famous—people
whose names had never before appeared in the newspaper.
Instead of conducting interviews on the telephone, I
interviewed families in person and, when possible, attended
the person’s funeral. I think it gave me a better
ability to feel comfortable in a home where nothing
is comfortable. Once the family realized that I really
wanted to know the story of the person’s life,
the awkwardness almost always disappeared. I also know
I would have written a different story if I wasn’t
a husband and father. So many of the stories inside
this book are essentially love stories, and I don’t
know if I could have written them if I didn’t
have my own.
MC: What was the most difficult decision you
had to make while writing Final Salute, and
why was it so hard?
I felt terrible each time I
removed a family’s story from the original draft.
I didn’t want to confuse the readers, but at the
same time I had stood and cried with these families
and they had shared so much. I felt awful taking out
their stories, but I thanked them all at the end, and
made sure that each family knows that even if their
story isn’t in the book, their names live on between
MC: If you could choose
one person to read your book, who would it be, and why
would you want that particular person to read it?
Who needs to read this book?
Me—at least, the person I was before I attended
my first military funeral. When I began the story, I
had no military experience. I didn’t even know
the difference between referring to troops as “Marines”
or “soldiers”, a mistake you only make once.
I also had little emotional connection to the war. Most
civilians who haven’t served in the military or
lived in a military family have no grasp of the sacrifice
these families endure every day. Some of these mothers
drive around their neighborhood, scouting for military
vehicles that don’t belong, worried that the knock
might follow them home. Children go to school while
their mother or father is on their fourth deployment
and are confronted by their friends’ petty problems
and schoolwork that doesn’t seem to matter. They
wake with nightmares that might come true, then go on
about their day, blending in with the rest of us. They
taught me that the word “sacrifice” is inadequate.
MC: What moment in
the process of working on Final Salute will
you never forget?
before Jim Cathey’s funeral, his 23 year-old pregnant
widow, Katherine, wanted to spend that last night with
him. The Marines set up a makeshift bed in the funeral
home in front of his casket, and she snuggled in with
the shirt her husband wore the day before he left for
Iraq—the shirt that still smelled like him. Just
before she fell asleep she looked up at the Marine and
asked, “Are my reporters still here?” He
looked out at us in the pews and said, “Yeah,
you want me to get rid of them?”
“No,” she said.
“I just wanted to make sure they were still here.”
After she fell asleep, I walked
outside in the parking lot with photographer Todd Heisler,
and we noticed that if any of the cars on the nearby
street had slowed down, they could have seen Katherine
through the enormous picture window on the outside of
the mortuary. Instead, the world went by, past this
beautiful, tragic scene of pure devotion and absolute
love. There was a reason she wanted to make sure we
were there. Nobody stopped, nobody slowed. I wrote it
Crist is reviews editor at The Believer, and
her nonfiction book, Everything After, is forthcoming
from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She holds an MFA from
Columbia University, and is currently an Olive B. O'Connor
Fellow at Colgate University.