Originally published in True/Slant, September 16, 2009.
Krakauer speaks: As his new release hits shelves, an intimate recap of an accidental career
From the windows of his home outside Boulder, Colorado, Jon Krakauer can look west to find the silhouettes of the Flatiron mountains.
From the windows of his home outside Boulder, Colorado, Jon Krakauer can look west to find the silhouettes of the Flatiron mountains. With a self-imposed writing regimen that dominates his waking hours, Krakauer often wishes he spent more time outside, in the silent respite he finds on climbs of those nearby peaks. So incompatible are his two passions – to climb and to write – that he spends most of his workday contained in a basement office, with nary a window to tempt the inner adventure seeker.
It is from this underground isolation that he reaches me, as I navigate the characteristic New York bustle of human commotion while inspecting toilet paper brands in an aisle of Whole Foods. Ironic, as the notoriously withdrawn Krakauer would likely bristle with discomfort at the claustrophobic mania of a grocery store on this Saturday afternoon. But there is no time to share a bemused moment.
“I don’t really give interviews,” his gruff voice pronounces bluntly, alone in an office lair some 1,600 miles away. “But I’ll give you a few minutes.”
He pauses. “Now.”
Though hardly the most auspicious of beginnings for an interview, a few minutes turn into an hour, and notes scribbled onto post-consumer recycled napkins soon reveal the career of a man whose consistent, daily writing routine belies the accidental nature of his introduction to journalism, and the distaste he feels whenever he sits down to work.
“Every single time I write, I ask myself what the fuck I’m doing, why the fuck I’m writing,” he says, comfortably off-the-cuff at the midway point of our conversation. “Every book I finish, I swear I’ll never write another one.”He’s been obsessed with climbing since childhood, but Krakauer never had the same enthusiasm for writing. After earning a degree in environmental studies from Hampshire College, he spent his 20’s working odd jobs, then venturing out to get his fix in the mountains. When he married wife Linda in 1980, Krakauer was ready to slow down and earn a steady income, but work in his trade of choice, carpentry, was hard to find. It was then that a former professor at Hampshire, David Roberts, himself a longtime outdoors writer, suggested freelancing.
“He said that freelance writing was the best gig you could get, and I always said I’d never do it,” Krakauer recalls. “It was a last resort, but I gave it a shot and it paid the bills.”
That backup plan was soon a full-time job, as he successfully pitched stories to Rolling Stone, Smithsonian, and a handful of small, now defunct fitness magazines. In 1993, Krakauer landed a staff writing position with Outside, where he would pen the articles that became his bestselling adventure books, Into The Wild and Into Thin Air. Despite success in the early 90’s, Krakauer struggled to earn a living, and calls ninety percent of his magazine work from the decade, most notably a fitness column for Playboy, “total crap” done for paycheck rather than passion.
Not that he regrets it. Instead, Krakauer prefers to think of his earlier articles, like low-carb manifesto “Carbo-Unloading,” or paean to flexibility “Fitness Smarts: It’s a Stretch,” as lessons in concise writing – and padding for his resume. By the time Krakauer wrote his first full-length book, Into The Wild, he had published nearly 100 magazine and newspaper articles, most of them on the familiar topics of fitness and the outdoors.
It was Krakauer’s close friend, Mark Bryant, the editor of Outside in the 90’s, who assigned him the story of Chris McCandless, the 24-year-old whose fatal venture into the Alaskan wilderness was the subject of Krakauer’s first book, published in 1996 as an expanded version of the 1993 article he wrote for Outside. Krakauer’s initial reaction to Chris’s life and death is emblematic of the endless curiosity that informs his writing, Bryant says.
“I had read this little blurb in the paper about a kid who died hiking in Alaska, and I asked Jon to follow up. Within three days he was completely obsessed, making calls, wanted to go to Alaska, find the bus where Chris had died, meet his parents,” Bryant says. “He was gone.”
But Krakauer’s curiosity soon turned obsessive, as he became haunted by the similarities between himself and his subject. In McCandless, Krakauer had found another stubborn, lonely soul; a man at home in the solitude of nature. Krakauer writes that he was struck by “the parallels between events in his life and those in my own,” most notably a reckless passion for risk and adventure, and a fragile paternal connection. The strained nature of McCandless’ relationship with his father permeates the book, and it’s a situation that Krakauer empathizes with on paper, but shies away from discussing.
I’m met with a thick, unyielding silence when I bring up Krakauer’s childhood on the phone. “Anything I’ll say about that I’ve said [in the book],” he tells me. “It played into my connection to Chris and those events, but Chris was an amazing person in his own right and he had his own story. That’s what I wanted to tell.”
Reviewers were almost unanimous in their praise of the book. The Los Angeles Times Book Review noted Krakauer’s “telling eye for detail” and Men’s Journal remarked that his intimate narrative transported readers into the tortured depths of McCandless’ “heart and soul.” Krakauer’s debut spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list, and saw a resurgence in popularity in 2007, after Sean Penn directed a well-received film adaptation of the story.
With a hit book and ebullient praise from reviewers, Krakauer suddenly became a bestselling author and respected adventure writer. Already reeling from this success, his secluded world was soon disrupted again, after the death of eight fellow climbers during Krakauer’s 1996 ascent of Mount Everest for an article commissioned by Outside. Ironically, Krakauer had intended to document the very dangers, wrought by the fervent commercialization of the mountain, that would befall his own team.
“Everest changed Jon, completely and totally, and how could it not?” says Bryant, who recalls hour-long phone calls with a tearful, anguished Krakauer in the days following the tragedy. It was Bryant who had given the final thumbs-up for Krakauer to travel to Nepal, in hopes of attaining the summit of Everest under the guidance of Rob Hall, a seasoned climber who would perish on the trip. Although the editors at Outside didn’t want Krakauer to ascend the mountain, Bryant knew the stubborn adventurer wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Sitting at base camp and writing about other people wasn’t something he was prepared to do,” Bryant recalls. “So we gave the go-ahead for him to climb, and he was intent on reaching the summit.”
Sadly, Krakauer’s experience on Everest epitomized the dangers he had set out to document: nine climbers perished on the trek, after a blizzard struck while Krakauer’s group made their way to the summit. In his book, Krakauer ruminates on grief and culpability, and the arrogant hubris that characterizes anyone rash enough to attempt Everest. “It was titillating to brush up against the enigma of immortality,” he writes of the climb, which he says forced him to confront his own mortality. “The stain this has left on my psyche is not the sort of thing that washes off.”
Shaken and disturbed, Krakauer returned home to Colorado. Almost immediately, he started to write. Brad Wetzler, an editor at Outside who worked with Krakauer on the article, recalls waiting by the fax machine for each page of the 25,000 word draft.
“A lot of people told Jon to wait, get his head right and sort himself out,” Wetzler recalls of Krakauer’s agonizing aftershock following the three month journey. “But he insisted on writing it immediately – I think as a catharsis, or a purging of what had gone on up there.”
What followed was an 18,000 word article for Outside, published in September of 1996, only three months after his return from Nepal. Soon after, Krakauer released a longer book, Into Thin Air, in hopes of correcting errors made in the rush to write his article, which he admits was marred by “memories distorted by exhaustion, oxygen depletion, and shock.”
The book spent two years on bestseller lists and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Still, debates over Krakauer’s account persisted, culminating in the 1997 release of The Climb, a defense of Everest guide Anatoli Boureev, whom Krakauer alleges was responsible for reckless, fatal missteps on the mountain.
“I was getting death threats, and they were legitimate ones that had the FBI on alert,” Krakauer says of the controversy elicited by the book. “People called me an opportunist, a liar, a murderer – and those were the gentle people.”
Already quiet and guarded, Krakauer took on a new intensity about his private life, granting few interviews and bucking against his now firmly solidified reputation as an outdoors writer. In the six years that followed, he wrote only three magazine articles, opting instead to dedicate himself to a book that would defy his status as an outdoors-only journalist: religion.
Having grown up surrounded by Mormons in Corvallis, Oregon, Krakauer had long been fascinated by the faith, and decided to capitalize on his bestselling prestige to challenge his reputation. After the controversy he courted with Into Thin Air, Krakauer’s decision to report on the contentious history of the Mormon church is surprising, but he says he can’t ignore the topics that pique his curiosity. “When a subject grabs me, the way Chris did or the way Everest was such a formidable challenge, I’m fixated on it,” he says.
The starting point of Krakauer’s research was the 1984 murder of Brenda Lafferty, and her infant daughter Erica, at the hands of Brenda’s fanatical brothers-in-law, Dan and Ron Lafferty. After several disturbing jailhouse interviews with Dan, still ardently remorseless nearly a decade after the murders, Krakauer embarked on three years of research to trace the origins of the religion and its dual incarnations as mainstream faith and fundamentalist sect. The result was Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, a book that was met with skepticism from Krakauer’s publishers at Random House. When his editor read the first 100 pages, she sent Krakauer an email lamenting “a lack of mountains in this,” to which he responded by moving to Simon & Schuster, who published the book in 2003.
Krakauer was out of his element, and according to some reviewers, it showed. Accustomed to Krakauer’s intimate understanding of his topic, several critics lamented his incomplete portrayal of the Mormon Church, and The Yale Review of Books contends that Krakauer’s “intransigent beliefs [about religion] cloud his ability…to delve deeply into important questions.” Still, others saw past his adventure-writer persona, recognizing Krakauer as a narrator with a knack for vivid, insightful reporting. A review in Publishers Weekly praised his talents as a “journalist and storyteller” and USA Today called Krakauer “a preeminent, intrepid reporter.”
What did Krakauer think of the reaction to his foray into a new genre of non-fiction? He couldn’t have cared less. After two bestselling books and two decades of magazine work, Krakauer had the financial security, and the reputation, to write whatever he wanted.
“I didn’t need the money, I don’t care about fame, and I could get something published if I wanted to,” he says. “I just do what interests me, and this was a story I’d been wanting to research for a long time.”
It is this, the challenge of research, that lures Krakauer from the secluded comfort of his wife, his home, and his mountains. He’s never hired an assistant, preferring to travel to his subjects and interview them in person. Often, Krakauer admits that he overdoes reporting to delay the inevitable challenge of sitting down to write a first draft – a process that he finds agonizingly difficult.
Although his finished work shows no sign of struggle, Krakauer credits his editors with giving direction on structure and syntax. Bryant, however, says he thinks that Krakauer’s distaste for writing yields a clean, unique style.
“Jon has this no nonsense way with words, he just cuts away the fat and leaves you with this basic, raw work,” Bryant says, adding that Krakauer may ask editors for guidance on his overall direction, but when it comes to line-by-line edits, he’s notoriously stubborn.
“With Jon, it’s direction, but never dictation,” Bryant says.
Krakauer’s stubborn insistence on controlling each line of his writing is paralleled by his refusal to adhere to expectations of publishers, reviewers – even fans – who see him as, at heart, an outdoors writer. Though he admits that writing about mountains comes easier than other, less familiar topics, Krakauer points out that much of his writing through the years has strayed from his purported niche. Indeed, tucked amid articles on national parks and powder skiing are features about everything from urban apartment architecture to the 1945 Nagasaki bombing.
“If a publisher can make a writer into a brand, they will,” Bryant says of Krakauer’s struggle against his outdoors-writer persona. “Jon hates that, he grates against it, and he won’t have it.”
Today, with his living safely eked out, Krakauer need not sit down to write another word. But curiosity struck yet again, and Krakauer’s latest, Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, was released this week. The book is an investigation into the death of Tillman, the NFL player-turned-soldier who died under suspicious circumstances in Afghanistan. Krakauer’s research included six months embedded with the U.S. military in Afghanistan, and exclusive access to Pat’s private journals and letters to family and friends written during his deployment. Despite intense anticipation and a planned first run of 500,000 copies, Krakauer suddenly pulled the book three months before its scheduled release in the fall of 2008. He tells me the decision was made after he uncovered “explosive material…stuff that I had to check out.”
“I couldn’t, in good faith, release the book as it was and potentially make mistakes,” he says, perhaps recalling the uproar over the purported inaccuracies in Into Thin Air, events he still replays in his mind, hoping to unravel their complexity once and for all.
For now, Krakauer doesn’t have any new projects on the horizon, and says he isn’t sure when – or if – he will. What he does know, he tells me, is that while he writes and climbs for similar reasons – solitude, intensity, masochism – mountains are an off-limits topic. His passion for the outdoors earned him respect, renown and financial security, but Krakauer insists he never sought to turn climbing into a career. Now, he intends to reclaim the mountains as his own, private escape.
“When I climb these days, I don’t even bring a camera, because I’m so tired of trying to record and write about it,” he sighs. “When I’m out there, it’s this chance to just zone out and focus so intently on the climb. That’s why I’m there. I don’t want to feel forced to bring anything back.”