We Alaskans book critic Nancy Lord recently talked with author Don Rearden about how the book "Never Quit" came together.
Q: You knew Jimmy Settle when he was working at Skinny Raven Sports (an athletic apparel store) in Anchorage. How did you learn about his history and become friends?
A: A longtime friend from my high school years in Bethel dated Jimmy for a few years. We quickly became friends. He taught me how to skate ski, wax my skis, and put in laminate flooring. At the time I was in graduate school, thinking more about writing horrible comedy screenplays, and Jimmy's life story seemed tragically funny.
The two of us often joked about a movie we would call "Shoe Guy." The premise would be that a goofball (not unlike Jimmy) becomes a state champion runner and gets to run for the Naval Academy, has a heart attack, and is back at home sizing women for running shoes. From there our story fell apart. I didn't see a funny ending for it, and there wasn't anything funny about Jimmy having these big hopes and dreams and having to work on his hands and knees fitting shoes.
Q: How did the book idea evolve?
A: I think I knew when Jimmy started training with the local PJs that his story was no longer funny. I found his drive and ambition inspirational. Each time he returned from different courses on his path to become a PJ he'd share stories of his crazy training. I was enamored with that life. When he became a PJ I started logging his stories in my head. I started dreaming of writing my own fictional PJ story.
Then, my wife and I were watching the Nightly News when Lester Holt came on, reporting from Afghanistan. Annette screamed, "It's Jimmy!" And there he was — my buddy on his back beneath a helicopter, pointing to a bullet hole in the fuselage. Jimmy had a bandage on his forehead. I'd later get the full story. The head wound was no joking matter, even for Jimmy who could laugh at everything. He was going to have to leave the career field. I'll be honest — this upset me. He'd worked so hard and had nothing to show for it. I told Jimmy as much. I said if he ever wanted to write his story I'd help him.
Understandably, he wasn't ready back then.
Q: What was your role with the book?
A: I guess in terms of the "never quit" philosophy, I never quit thinking Jimmy had an amazing story to tell. And I only knew a sliver of the real story.
My role was unique. In many cases I was the keeper of some of Jimmy's stories. His head injury left him with some memory gaps. He'd told me stories before his injury that he no longer recalled. I could prompt him with details and he could access the memories again and fill in the stories even more vividly than before.
When he decided he was ready to tell his story, I interviewed him and wrote a book proposal. My agent sold the proposal to St. Martin's Press and we set off to work. I was terrified. I was venturing into new territory. I had no idea how we would actually write a book together. He lived outside of Seattle. I was in Anchorage. I ended up flying to visit him, and he came home to Alaska. He told stories, and I sat and listened with a recorder running. I think I had 25 hours of recordings.
From there I took the transcribed material and figured out an order — a "line through the woods," like Jimmy says in the book. Once I had some structure to the larger story we began working together online and over the phone to give each scene shape and depth.
Q: You're known as a novelist and screenwriter. What was different (or the same) about working on another person's memoir?
A: The difference for me was responsibility to the men and women involved. I already had so much respect for the PJs and so many of my friends and family who serve our country that I couldn't do what I do with fiction and screenwriting and make up whatever I wanted. If Jimmy's memory lagged on a scene I would talk to people involved or do research to fill in details and confirm them with him so that he could include it in the story.
What is crazy is that this project has led into another that I'm really excited about — a really powerful memoir related to Jimmy's story. And, Jimmy and I have already adapted "Never Quit" into a really fun young adult version that will be coming out soon.
Q: The book is an amazing look inside the training and experience of a PJ. Did the text have to go through a military approval process to be sure Jimmy wasn't writing anything that could compromise procedures or safety? Did he have to hold back certain material?
A: The approval process for a book to go through the military's bureaucratic sausage maker is what everyone wants to avoid. Jimmy omitted sensitive training details and made sure to leave me out of the loop on the stuff that would require killing me after he disclosed the information. We did have several people higher up in the chain of command read the manuscript and suggest edits in a few places.