In American Spartan, Tyson, a former Washington Post reporter, provides a personal account of the rise and fall of Special Forces Major Jim Gant, alongside the story of their developing romance. In this brave and honest narrative, Tyson details Gant’s passion and honor during war-time, his military career, his team of superb Special Forces operatives, and his love of the Afghanistan and its people.
How did your writing process for the book differ from what you are used to as reporter?
Writing a narrative non-fiction book for the first time was an incredible growth experience. As my agent put it, “you are a classical pianist, now you have to play jazz.” I didn’t know the end of the story when I set out to write the book. I was covering it real-time, which required a lot of flexibility and going back and forth between writing and additional reporting. The first draft was too journalistic in tone. I had to leave my comfort zone, break with my instinct to want to stay invisible and be a “fly-on-the-wall,” and insert more of myself and my opinions into the story—only by doing so, I was told, would I enable the general reader, through my eyes, to know and love the Afghans in the story. I also had to learn a new, more descriptive and suspenseful style of storytelling.
How did living with the Pashtun tribes and adapting to their lifestyle affect you as an American female?
Living with the Pashtun tribal people—both in villages and for a brief time in the city—had a profound effect on me. Sacrificing my own freedoms took patience and overcoming various frustrations, but was something I did willingly. During travel I wore a burka that covered me completely. I sweltered under the scarves and long-sleeved tunics and pants that I had to wear at almost all times. I stayed hidden for hours or days behind high walls, and I showed deference to men based on cultural imperatives. In a counterintuitive way, the restrictions freed me, allowing me to more fully experience the traditional, honor-bound lives of Pashtuns, both men and women. The Pashtun tribesmen allowed me to train with them, fire guns with them, and join them on combat patrols. Meanwhile, Jim’s team accepted me as one of them, so I played a wide variety of roles.
Have you had any confrontations or been fearful of any reprisals from publishing this book?
I requested interviews with the military commanders who were part of the retaliation toward Jim and those who carried out his punishment, but none of them took the opportunity to explain their actions or answer my questions. I have not had any confrontations, nor am I fearful of reprisals.
What was the most challenging part of re-telling Gant’s story?
The greatest challenge was capturing the depth of emotion that propelled the story, as this meant living and then re-living events with Jim that stirred in us profound pain, euphoria, pride, passion, excitement, fear, anger, and sadness. While I was writing, I was also helping Jim survive serious depression, PTSD, and suicidal tendencies. I knew that in some ways the continual focus on events in Afghanistan made things worse for Jim, but at the same time I believed telling the story was an essential part of healing for him and his comrades, both Afghan and American. Another major challenge was to weave together in a single narrative the threads of an extremely complex story, which required laying a lot of groundwork in explaining Afghan war strategy, U.S. military organizations, Afghan history and Pashtun tribes and culture. I compare telling this story to pushing against labor pains while giving birth—an exhausting and inescapable but positive act of creation and love.