The Best Books Of Their Lives: Iraq Deals Rife

When
Paul Rieckhoff, a 30-year-old first lieutenant with the New York Army National
Guard, returned in February 2004 from a year-long tour of duty in Iraq, he did
a number of things: He founded an advocacy group for veterans of the wars in
Iraq and Afghanistan called Operation Truth; he started making media
appearances criticizing the war; and he wrote a book proposal for a memoir.

The
only hitch was that there were so many other proposals for books about Iraq
that it was a struggle to differentiate his own project. Finally, after
shopping the book around for a number of weeks through his agent, Laurie Liss
at Sterling Lord Literistic, Mr. Rieckhoff sold the book in June to Mark Chait,
an editor at Penguin/NAL. (It will be published in 2006 by the company’s
military-nonfiction imprint, Caliber.) The book is to be called Sector 17: A Warrior’s Criticism of the War
in Iraq
.

“I
know that when I was submitting my proposal, there was a glut of other stuff
out there,” said Mr. Rieckhoff, adding that there was “good interest” in his
book, despite all the competition. “Now it seems like everybody coming back is
submitting proposals.”

The
publishing industry has fiercely embraced Operation Iraqi Freedom, driven in
roughly equal measure by profit motives, do-gooder instincts, genuine interest
and herd mentality, and the pending books take the “lost American in the
desert” theme to new heights. A sort of competition is emerging between the
journalists, whose accounts include brushes with death, moments of kinship with
Iraqi children, and love affairs ignited at the Palestine or Al-Hamra Hotels in
Baghdad, and the soldiers, who are trying to position themselves as the next
Anthony Swofford, the former Marine Corps sniper, Gulf War veteran and author
of the best-selling memoir Jarhead.

And
for some publishing veterans, it’s already too much.

“As
a reader and as an agent, I’m not interested in another account of a soldier’s
march to Baghdad or a journalist being a fish out of water,” said Larry
Weissman, a literary agent who mostly represents authors of narrative
nonfiction. “If I want the definitive account of the march to Baghdad, I’ll
either read John Burns or Dexter Filkins in The
Times
, or Jon Lee Anderson’s book,” The
Fall of Baghdad
, which came out in 2004. (Mr. Weissman said he would,
however, be interested in Iraq-related fiction, citing the movie Three Kings as a gem from the first Gulf
War.)

“There
have been just a tremendous number of what you might call disillusioned-soldier
narratives,” said Scott Moyers, senior editor at Ann Godoff’s imprint at
Penguin, who edited Jon Lee Anderson’s book and is working on two others—one by
Tom Ricks, the Pentagon correspondent for The
Washington Post, and another by two
young slacker Americans who worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority in
Iraq, called Babylon by Bus. “I think
it’s very important that we be publishing books on this important subject. We
just have to do so in as clear-eyed a way as we can.”

Some
houses are paying up—for the soldier books, at least. Houghton Mifflin is
publishing One Bullet Away, by a
Marine captain named Nathaniel Fick, which chronicles his time in Afghanistan
and Iraq and was reported to have garnered a “mid-six-figure” advance. Mr.
Rieckhoff wouldn’t comment on how much he received for Sector 17, but an editor at a rival publishing house who saw the
proposal in May said that the project was being circulated with a $250,000
floor on it. Mr. Rieckhoff wouldn’t confirm whether the book sold for that
amount, but the proposed “floor” on the bidding indicates the confidence with
which it was first submitted.

The
rival editor, who requested anonymity, said that Mr. Rieckhoff’s proposal had
landed on his desk on the same day as another proposal from a veteran critical
of the war—both part of a long march of similar projects he’d encountered,
which had left him sounding vaguely disgusted.

“Do
people go into the war thinking, ‘Hey, maybe I can get a movie deal’?” he said.

According
to Colby Buzzell, a U.S. soldier who managed to satisfy the publishing
industry’s dual obsession with bloggers and warriors all at once, publishers
and agents started chasing him eight
or 12 weeks after he started blogging from the Iraqi front lines in 2004. That
led to a write-up about him in Esquire magazine
and his present book deal with Putnam, which is releasing his bloggish memoir, My War: Killing Time in Iraq, this fall.
(The catalog description of the book reprises a familiar theme, of war as an
antidote to aimlessness: “Like many of his generation, Colby Buzzell was
jumping from one dead-end job to another … he spent his time skateboarding and
killing as many brain cells as humanly possible. Tired of the monotony, he
found himself in front of an army recruiter ….”)

“I
don’t know anything about agents, which ones to trust, the publishing world,
all that stuff,” said Mr. Buzzell, 28, who now lives in Los Angeles, trying to
figure out what to do next. “My intention was just to screw around; [writing a
book] wasn’t my intention. Once the agents started contacting me, I was like,
‘Shit, when I come back out of the Army, I’m going to be back to what I was
doing before’—just temp jobs, screwing around.’ So I thought I’d do it.”

A
publishing-industry source estimated that the sum paid by Putnam for his book
was a generous six figures. Mr. Buzzell declined to comment on his advance,
saying only: “I can afford to super-size my meals.” He added that his wife had
put it into perspective by pointing out that if it represented all the money he
was ever going to make as a writer, it wasn’t that much (though Mr. Buzzell
said that he “would have written it for free”).

Meanwhile,
a fleet of Buzzell wannabes—soldiers who have gone, returned or are currently
stationed in Iraq—have set up imitator blogs (Mr. Buzzell said he can spot the
ones angling for a book contract right away). They also call him for career
advice.

“I’m
like the guy who went to the war and came back and wrote a book …. Now I’ve got
all these soldiers who have gone to Iraq asking me all these questions,” said
Mr. Buzzell. “‘How do I secure an agent?’ ‘How do I secure a huge advance?’ I
get several per week. It makes me sick. When I went out there, I didn’t think,
‘O.K., I’m gonna get a book, get an agent’—all that stuff. If you have that
mentality, your book isn’t going to be the pure thing. I don’t know—that’s not
writing. I don’t respond to those e-mails when I get them. I don’t know
anything about all that stuff. It all just happened for me without really
trying.”

 

Too Dangerous to Finish the Book

For
every aspiring Jarhead, there’s at least one reporter trying to be this war’s David
Halberstam or Michael Herr.

At
The Washington Post, reporters like Anthony Shadid, the Islamic affairs
correspondent who won a Pulitzer last year; Rajiv Chandrasekaran, The Post‘s former Baghdad bureau chief; and Tom
Ricks, its longtime military reporter, all have books in the works. So does
Michael Gordon, The New York Times
military correspondent, and George Packer of The New Yorker. (The missing link is John Burns, The New
York Times
‘ Baghdad bureau chief, who, according to publishing executives,
continues to elude their attempts to lasso him into a book contract. “I and
many other editors have been chasing him for years and years,” according to
Penguin’s Mr. Moyers.)

Then
there’s the smaller-scale fare, journalistically speaking, from reporters who
spent little actual time in Iraq, such as The
Times Alan Feuer, who seemed to have crossed Iraq’s border for only
three weeks or so, and Chris Ayres, whose War
Reporting for Cowards
recounts his ineptitude while covering the war for
the London Times “from 2002 to 2003,”
according to its review in Publishers
Weekly
.

But
there is one advantage that soldiers have over the journalists: Most
journalists can’t actually go anywhere anymore to report for their books. It’s
too dangerous. One British reporter, Wendell Steavenson, who filed stories from
Iraq for Slate, the Financial Times and Granta over the course of about eight months, said that the violence and chaos in the country had
become so extreme and unpredictable that it was impossible for her to complete
the research she’d planned for her own book, which was due to the U.K. arm of
Grove Atlantic Books in June.

“I
don’t know what I’m going to do,” Ms. Steavenson said.

She
described her book as a “sort of highfalutin’ conceptual idea” looking at the
historical circumstances of Iraqi families over the last 25 years, as well as
an investigation into the background of the Sunni ruling class, which would
involve lots of interviews and a discussion of morality. Ms. Steavenson said
that she’d never seen as many journalists as she did during the first few
months that she’d spent in Iraq in early 2003: There were literally thousands
of them roaming the streets, clustered around the Palestine Hotel. There were
two English-language start-up newspapers and documentary film crews on street
corners.

“You
could drive down any road in Iraq. It wasn’t safe, but it was perfectly
reasonable to do so,” she said.

Then,
toward the end of the summer of 2003, people just started leaving. It became
unsafe to drive down any road in Iraq and almost impossible to interact with
the Iraqi people. “And every month after that, it just got a little bit worse,”
said Ms. Steavenson. “There were times when you noticed it getting worse, and
times when you pretended not to notice it.

“I
haven’t been there since February, and I know that there are people who do a
much better job than I was managing to do,” she continued. “But I can’t imagine
a worse scenario for trying to have an idea of what’s actually happening as a
reporter. You can’t calculate a risk; because the violence is so bad and
extreme everywhere, you can’t be clever. There’s no way to push the envelope a
bit. It’s quite depressing. It makes you feel horrid and useless and stupid.
And you’re scared all the time, which is debilitating.”

Her
plan for salvaging the book would entail missing her deadline and trying to
reorient the story as something “more memoir-y,” Ms. Steavenson said. “There’s
a part of me that also feels a bit weird, to write a book about Iraq when we’re
still so much in the middle of the story of Iraq. In a year, it might look
completely different. I hope it does.”