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2008 National Book Award Nonfiction Finalist Jim Sheeler Interview

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Photo © Annick Sauvageot.
Jim Sheeler
Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives
The Penguin Press

Interview conducted by Meehan Crist.

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 courage.

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 book?

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 the lines.

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?

The night 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 down.

Meehan 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.



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