Rumored since late July to be close to an agreement for a book with Pvt. Jessica Lynch, Knopf announced last Tuesday that it had closed the deal, following the 20-year-old's honorable discharge from the army. Called I'm a Soldier Too: The Jessica Lynch Story and set for publication on Veteran's Day, November 11, it has become one of the fall's most anticipated books almost overnight. "The retail response in one day has been phenomenal," said Paul Bogaards, senior v-p and executive director of publicity at Knopf. "Major accounts have been coming in for bigger numbers than expected. We're probably going to be shipping more than 400,000 copies."
The book will be written by Rick Bragg, the bestselling author of All Over but the Shoutin' and Ava's Man, who is known for the jugular storytelling instincts he honed as a Pulitzer Prize—winning reporter at the New York Times. Lynch will retain all royalties from the book, though she will split the $1-million advance with Bragg, who will be paid as a writer-for-hire while receiving the sole author credit on the book jacket.
In his first interview about the project, Bragg told PW that the appeal of writing the book lay foremost in the "wonderful story" Lynch has to tell. "What happened was unexpected: a 19-year-old supply clerk was pressed into driving a truck into a war. It was an unscripted drama. Some people died, others got broken. But at least where Jessie is concerned, there's a win. I've written so many stories where there wasn't a win. Lots of mommas and daddies didn't get anything back from the war except a medal."
Acknowledging that Lynch's story resounds with themes that have surfaced repeatedly in his writing, Bragg said, "In my experience, wars are almost always fought by sons and daughters of working people. They see the military as a way to serve their country, sure, but it's also a way to make some money and get some skills, to avoid the inertia of a place where the jobs are gone—long gone—because the plants have moved. They may also join up to see something, even if they only get as far as El Paso. Jessie wanted to see what was 'on the other side of the holler.' These are people who fight and die and serve their country, and they deserve some good attention, something beyond the sneers of intellectuals."
Since the announcement of the deal, media reports have revisited lingering questions about Lynch's memory of her experiences during the war and Bragg's reputation in the wake of his resignation from the Times on May 28. Regarding Lynch's memory, Bogaards said that in contrast to news reports that make it sound like she lost weeks and months, "it was a matter of a few hours, while she was unconscious. The doctors at Walter Reed [hospital] who said she had lost her memory were trying to protect her. Media people were trying to get to her there." Bogaards also dismissed speculation about Bragg's resignation following a charge that he had taken credit for reporting by a stringer: "People in the wider world don't care."
As for the erroneous early reports that Lynch had received her wounds in combat with Iraqis, and the question of whether the Pentagon overplayed the danger involved in her rescue, Bragg was resolute that he would "let Jessie talk about the misconception of her as this action figure, and about whether or not she feels like she was used." He added, "For her, the rescue was terrifying. Jessie considers those people who came in and got her as heroes, whether or not they had to fight their way into the building. So they did not have to shoot anyone and they did not meet an armed resistance—but how could they be sure about that? Would they have trusted intelligence that most of the Fedayeen and Iraqi military had moved out, or would they have gone in hard and careful?"
Lynch "doesn't look at her situation as a political situation," said Bragg. "She looks at it as a personal situation involving sacrifice and loss, great sadness, but also pride. She is proud that she was a soldier. And she will forever know the cost." Asked if Lynch was constrained by any military restrictions on what she can reveal, Bragg responded, "I do not believe so. She has been discharged and is free to tell her story."
Given Lynch's still-fragile condition, Knopf will be "very selective" about media interviews, which will largely be taped at her home. Though it's not yet clear which network will run the first interview with Lynch, a one-hour prime time TV special will coincide with the book's publication date, involving interviews not only with Lynch, but with her parents, brother, sister, fiancé and Bragg as well. "In the 20 years I've been doing this, I've never seen such fierce competition," observed Bogaards. Though NBC will air a movie based on Lynch's experiences, she has not been involved with it.
For Knopf, Bragg was the right writer for such a deeply personal story, most of all because the family was comfortable with him. "They had read All Over but the Shoutin' and liked that book a lot," said Bogaards. "When they met Bragg, they felt he was someone they could talk to, and that Jessica's story would be safe in his hands."