Episode 276: The Impact of a Story Theme: An Interview with Scott Mann and Randle Surles about the book Operation Pineapple Express

Tim Grahl  00:00

Hello, and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. My name is Tim Grahl. I’m the CEO of Story Grid Universe. And I’m a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. This episode is a little different. One is it’s coming out on a Tuesday instead of a Thursday. The other is Shawn’s not going to join me Danielle Leslie, they’re not going to join me. Instead, I did an interview with Randall Surles and Scott Mann. So Scott Mann is the author of a book that just came out called Operation Pineapple Express. And it’s all about the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the role that Scott played in trying to get people out of Afghanistan safely. Randall Surles is a Story Grid certified editor, we’ve had him on before to talk about projects. And he was one of the editors on this particular project, and worked really closely with Scott on writing the book, doing all of the interviews, pulling it together, and getting it ready because they had a really short timeline, which we talked about in the interview. This was actually really interesting to me, because one is, of course, Randy’s involved. They’re using Story Grid. They’re using it on a project with a traditional publisher, Simon and Schuster. And I was really interested in that side of things. But I was also interested in how they dug in to find the story theme, the controlling idea, and how that helped them. Craft this story. I think a lot of times, when people are writing books, I think this idea of telling a true story is often harder, because in fiction, you can make up whatever you want to make up. But in, when you’re telling a story that actually happened, it’s an editing job, you have to figure out how to take this giant thing, all these different things that happen, you know, it’s a word that or phrase that Shawn likes to use a lot. combinatorially explosive, right? There’s so many different things you could put in the book, how do you decide what to cut out? And how do you decide what to actually put in the book? And how do you make sure it all hangs together. And of course, it comes to this idea of a controlling idea. So this is a really important book, I really highly recommend you go and you read it ever, I had only read a small portion of it. When I did the interview, I’ve gone on to read a lot more of it. It’s a fantastic book. And I think it’s a really, really powerful story. Even if you don’t know anything about what happened in Afghanistan, or you have a really strong opinion about it. I think this is a book that’s going to cross political divides partisan stuff, and really cross time, as I talked about a little bit in it. It’s a really strong controlling idea that I think will strike to the heart of all of us because they ask a question that we all have to come up against at some point. So it’s a really interesting interview, we really talked about a lot of things about working with an editor how to write a book under a short timeline. But again, I think the most powerful thing we talked about was this idea of landing on a really solid controlling idea, and how that helps you in the writing. So it’s a really fun interview, I think you’re really going to enjoy it. So let’s jump in and get started. All right, Scott. So I want to start with you. And just you kind of give me what this book is about, like, you know, what’s your description when somebody asks you what the books about? What what do you? What do you tell them?

Scott Mann  03:33

Yeah, this is something Randy and I talked about, like in the very beginning. And if for me, it is really simple. It comes down to what is a promise mean to you? And how far would you go to honor it? Like that’s what this books about? In the highest stakes environment you could possibly imagine. When people’s lives are on the line, and everything is falling apart, what does the promise mean? And how far would you go to honor it? And and it examines that, I think in you know, just real world detail through storytelling.

Tim Grahl  04:02

Yeah, I’ll tell you. I haven’t read the whole thing yet. I read like the beginning. And then I skipped to the end. And I got like, emotional, like it already hooked me. And so I thought it was really interesting. You know, we talk a ton and Story Grid about double factor problems, which is basically problems that aren’t clear black or white. Right? They’re always answered with it depends. And I really thought you nailed that with this book as well. But, but besides even that higher level thing, just, you know, What’s the book about it? Yeah,

Scott Mann  04:37

it’s about the collapse of Afghanistan. That’s the setting in 2021. And it’s it’s about a group of Americans who came together to volunteer and try to help as many Afghan partners and allies as they could get to safe passage before the law As the American plane left the country?

Tim Grahl  05:02

Well, Randy, I want to ask you the same question, because I’m sure you have a slightly different perspective, because you were the editor on the project, not the writer, per se. So when you think about the book, what do you think the books about? Well, first of

Randall Surles  05:17

all, I was one of a couple of different editors. So take, I’m gonna take stuff away from some other people that were involved. But when we first started talking about this, when Scott first invited me on board, it was hard to, it was hard to come up with the promise was the was, was the actual what the book was about, we always knew is going to be about Afghanistan, we also knew that there was going to be a variety of characters, and there was going to be a couple that would stand out as primary characters, and then there was going to be a bunch of other characters. But it’s about people. And it’s about relationships, right? It’s about the relationships between the Americans and the Afghans, it’s about the relationship between the Afghans, to it’s about the, the, the villain, is the Taliban, and it’s about the relationships between those people and the Taliban. And also the changing almost crazy, you know, different relationship that a lot of Americans had with the Taliban during the time of this fall of Afghanistan, because up until that moment, the Taliban were the enemy. You saw them, you killed them. And now, in a way, they were semi assisting us in some ways. And they weren’t. And they weren’t, they were right there with us. And we weren’t shooting each other. So it was it’s all about relate, it was all about relationships, and, and changing, really ever changing relationships all through the book. There’s there’s realizations on all sides about how things are changing, and how and trying to get to the objectives. Through those relationships.

Tim Grahl  07:07

You said it took you a while to come to that. So Scott, how did Simon and Schuster approached you about this book? Or how did this book come about? And how was it first pitch? Because to me, I’m guessing it was something like, Hey, you know, we want you to write about this thing in Afghanistan. And yet you ended up writing this book about a much deeper question.

Scott Mann  07:26

Yeah. And I think the other thing too, Tim, is that I was living it at the time, right. So you know, I had I had as a Green Beret, I had moved on from my time in service, I had retired just like Randy had, I retired a little bit before he did, I think, and I, I was in a different place in my life. I was, you know, a playwright and an actor, and had written other books, but they were either self published or smaller houses, that kind of thing, very niche. And when Afghanistan collapsed, you know, I found myself like many other volunteers working to help a friend, that that was really the extent of it, and then it just blew up from there, where, you know, it became kind of a free for all to help a whole bunch of friends. And it was in the aftermath of that literally, where the ISIS K explosion had happened, the suicide bomber had detonated himself on 26 August, and it’s kind of like, you’re just looking around going, what the hell just happened? Like you hadn’t slept in 10 days. Everything that you thought you knew about your life, and your time in war was torn asunder. And I mean, I was questioning everything. And then I started getting these because pineapple was pretty visible, I guess, in the media and that kind of thing. So I started getting these inquiries about writing a book and the movie and it really, I’ll be honest, it pissed me off. Because I’m like, that’s the last thing in the world I want to friggin do right now is write some damn book about this shit show that just happened. Like I mean, and I that’s I’m just being honest. Like, it’s not what I wanted to do. But it was several mentors. Randy being one of them we talked about it was like, Look, if you don’t tell it, somebody’s going to tell it. And and and so that was I started to kind of come around to that, that maybe I could be the storyteller on this thing in a way that really honored the journey of those that lived it. And I started thinking about writing in third person well anyway. one other person gave me some sound advice and get an agent for this one pal because you do not know what you’re doing here and and they’re going to come at you a million ways to Sunday. So I did that and it ended up being I’m glad that happened because we went through a process to select the right publisher and Simon and Schuster to me, really got it. They understood the importance of not only telling the story authentically, but getting it out in a year for God’s sake on their own. The anniversary they were adamant about that, just like we were. So that was the process for it. But even then, and this was like September, October, I was still wrestling with the fact that man, I can’t believe I’m going to try to write and tell this story after this. He was so wrong.

Tim Grahl  10:16

Well, how did you two meet Randy and, and Scott, how did you guys meet?

Scott Mann  10:21

So I’ll start, and then they can jump in. But Randy and I both were in special forces together. But not only were we in special forces together, we were in the same unit, like we were in seventh Special Forces Group. At the same time for years, but the way it works in Special Forces his if you’re not in the same battalion, really, if you’re not even in the same company, you’re gone so much, that you could literally be a half mile from each other and never know, that person on that team. And that is exactly what happened to us. I’m sure we cross paths. But I didn’t know Randy until a friend of his recommended that he comes see my play last out elegy of a Greenbrae in New York City. He came with his family. And we ended up connecting. I happened to be writing this was how long ago? Randy? 2018. Yeah, I mean, it was a it was a quite a while ago, you’re playing in New York. Yep, in New York City. And then I was writing a book town called rooftop leadership. At the time, and I asked Randy to come in, because I knew he was, you know, from Story Grid. And I had become familiar with Story Grid. I actually knew Shawn. Almost immediately after I transitioned, I’d met him through Steve Pressfield. And he and I had become, like acquaintances and worked together on some projects. And so knowing that Randy was out of Story Grid, like and a sergeant major, and I was really keen to have him work with me on my rooftop book, he tore it apart, like literally tore it apart. And and we ended up starting over. And then we went all the way through that. And this is why I wanted to go first. We went all the way through it, like a year. And then he goes, Hey, you should go to this big idea. Workshop, this nonfiction Big Idea workshop in Nashville. So I did. And I listened to you and Sean riff for another weekend, and I got outside and I called Randy, I was like, you asshole. We’re starting over again. And we did. And we did because it was great. It was a great workshop. And it really helped me really get clear on what a big idea nonfiction book is. But Randy, and I’ve known each other I mean, for years, we’ve been working on projects, and it just so happened that when the pineapple thing kicked off, I called him up and I was like, brother, I can’t do this without you like, you’re gonna have to help me. And he was kind enough to drop everything and jump in with me.

Tim Grahl  12:47

You got anything to add Randy?

Randall Surles  12:49

Well, first of all, I left. I left group for about four years in 2007. The last time I went to Afghanistan was 2007. And, and shortly after that, Scott became more well known in Special Forces. Because he started the village stability operations, he kind of helped it, nudge it along, and started to train a training for that, which is where a lot of these relationships were built that were in the book. And he also wrote a book called game changers that described how that was used in Afghanistan by Green Berets. And I didn’t know any of this. I went to, I went to Columbia for four years. I came back in 2012. And the guy who introduced us, Chris, he’s like, Hey, you’re so smart in Colombia. We need to have these briefings that Scott man did for Afghanistan, all these experts to talk talk all our guys about Colombia, like I didn’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t know, it’s got man is, I don’t know what briefings are talking about. But sounds like a great idea. So But Chris was my commander. So that’s, that’s how, you know, other than that, that’s how he he’s the one introduced us. He’s the one that says you go to the play. My parents and I went to the play, Scott is a really, you know, he’s a kind of a forward thinker, and that when he does, is plays, he has after the plays done, all of the actors and directors come out, and they sit down with the audience, and they talk to the audience about veterans issues and some of the themes that were in the play. And, and I had an opportunity, I was like, hey, you know, Chris, only come to your play. And he’s like, Yeah, I know exactly who you are. You’re struggling. We need to talk. And that’s how you know what like he said, that’s how we got together. And then we spent two years on your leadership book, rooftop leadership, that whole field at the end of this year, and we’re about two weeks from being done. When when he went dark is Afghanistan is started falling. I’m like, Hey, are you going to do this edit that you’ve had it for like three weeks, we I didn’t talk to him like that. But I was like, I was like my head. I’m like, what’s going on? We’re like, almost finished. It’s right there, reach up, grab it, you know, the oil change. And, and he’s like, Hey, I gotta I got it later. And since I never I haven’t been back to Afghanistan until 2007. All my relationships, I already helped my interpreters get out of Afghanistan, I wrote the notes, they had veces, they were training, language training the States, I don’t really I didn’t really have a lot of other Afghanistan Afghanis that, that I needed help getting out at that time. So when all this was going down, I was I had my own feelings about, you know, whether what was going on and what those 20 years meant. But I didn’t have a lot of friends that were Afghanis that were trapped there. And so I wasn’t, I wasn’t calling on this. And Scott kept trying to bring me in. But I was like, I don’t want to sound like there’s a lot of people going on just kind of chaotic. I don’t want to step in there and not be able to help and cause more commotion. So I didn’t, I wasn’t very aggressive, I would go into the chat rooms that were in the book, and listen and watch and see if anyone needed anything that I could assist with. But most people were already running with the ball, doing things they people they knew, and were really invested in it. And so I didn’t see it really a place for me at the time. And then, and I didn’t really understand what was going on and what they were doing. Until, you know, he called me and said, Hey, I need a project manager. And I was like, I don’t know what that does. And he’s like, Well, I wouldn’t write up a contract. And the contract says you’ll do whatever we asked you to do. And I said, Okay, and so that’s how we that’s how we started working together. But and then then I’m Simon Schuster, I’m sure the first couple of meetings we have with Simon and Schuster editors and people. They’re like, Who’s this guy? But yeah, so. And then also, he actually he asked me to look at his play, too. And I don’t know if I took the my suggestions. But over when over COVID He actually made his play into a movie, and it’s on, it’s on Amazon, you can buy it on Amazon. So it so we worked on that for a little bit too.

Tim Grahl  17:20

When Scott, you know, with you signing a, you know, a deal with Simon and Schuster, I’m sure they had their own editors, their own team. So when you were looking at the project, what made you think like, I gotta have Randy, on this project?

Scott Mann  17:35

That’s a great question. Well, there were a couple of things. One is, I had worked with Randy, you know, I have an immense appreciation for Story Grid, as a as an approach, right. And, and both writing, editing. And I had, I had worked with Randy, on it with my own book that was my heart. You know, it was it was all the lessons I’d learned on leadership coming out of special forces. And so I, I knew that whatever this book was going to be, it was going to be the expectations were going to be enormous, you know, it was the responsibility of carrying of telling the stories that otherwise would not be told that voice is just that did not have it, they did not have a voice. And and that really bothered me in the sense that I felt like, okay, I can I am a storyteller. I’m an oral storyteller. I’m a decent writer. But I really need the discipline and rigor and structure that I know, comes with Story Grid, and what and how you can really hammer and chisel out the true narrative, the true story of what’s going on. And that’s going to be required, like there’s not going to be any appetite for fluff or anything that’s just, you know, not that just the efficiency and emotional resonance of the story itself. And I had gone through such a journey with Randy over I mean, I’m not even kidding. He’s serious. We were 98% of the way done with the book. And it was a two year journey. And we shelved it, you know, to do this project. And so I knew that he could bring in that to it. And I think he was a little reluctant at first because of the fact that Simon and Schuster was, you know, at the helm of this thing, and, and I told him, I said, I don’t really care about that what I care about is like we are going to have to interview all of these people. Some of them are still in Afghanistan. Some of them are severely traumatized. We have like 45 days to do that on Zoom. Then we’re going to have to write this sucker in like 120 days, you know, and then or, you know, some maddening number It wasn’t much somewhere between four and six months and then we’re gonna have to, you know, submit it and get it out the door for the anniversary. So I just, I don’t know, I just I knew that working together. We could probably have a chance. And I felt like working solo, there was no chance there was no way I was going to be able to carry that load and, and do that and or produce what people deserved. So that was my rationale on it. And, and I just I, I trusted him, not just as a, as a Story Grid editor, but also as a Sergeant Major as a guy that, you know, really got what this was like, he understood it at a visceral level. And he took it very seriously. And that’s what I needed. Like, above all,

Tim Grahl  20:34

yeah, I always think it’s interesting. Because this is, you know, this is a true story. This is a memoir, basically. And yet, you’ve got to write it in a way where it’s, it’s interesting, and it has narrative drive. And I always, I always wonder, like, is his memoir and true stories, like harder, because you can’t just make up whatever you want to happen next. So this could be a question for both of you, but how do you approach that when you’re thinking through like, Okay, this is a true story. And now, it’s not just like a normal memoir, where it’s like, you know, my sad life, right? This is an actual important story that you got to tell truthfully. But you also need to do in a way where people actually read the book to the end. And so how do you approach that a true story, while applying, you know, narrative drive narrative techniques to make it an interesting story. It for,

Randall Surles  21:35

for talking about the Story Grid? I started with the five commandments. You know, Scott was already familiar with it, talked it through with some of the other editors, and they’re like, Okay, well, let’s mess around with it. But, but the, the key was, it’s, it’s very uniquely written in that some of the scenes are like, super, super short. And it’s almost, it was almost impossible to get five commandments out of it. But look, what I what I was looking for was looking for a turning point slash prices question. For each, let’s, let’s call it a sequence, you know, each group of scenes involving that specific character, and, and kind of evolving the whole thing around that, like, there’s, I don’t know, there’s probably 15 secondary characters, that all have pieces of their story told chronologically through the book. And you might not have gotten that far, Tim, but I wanted, you know, it was really important to Scott, and, and, and me, and I, to make sure that all their stories were resolved, right, they made choices. During their, during the two weeks of this of this book, they made choices to risk their families, they made choices to quit, some of them didn’t even get out. I won’t tell you who they are, is gonna ruin it for him. But, you know, some of them, some of them died, because of their choices. But, but they made choices. And then there’s a resolution to that choice that they made. So that, you know, that’s the crisis, the climax and the resolution. And, you know, when we finish the, when we young, we thought we finished the book, we looked at the final chapter, so like, hey, we, we got to resolve some of these people, because I know, they’re going to read this book, but what happened to what’s his name now, so, so we really, really hammered in result tried to resolve all of the secondary characters at the very least. And then also trying to write the scenes with an inciting incident. I mean, we really focus on the five commandments. This is a really, it’s not a book I’ve ever, ever imagined writing. And it’s not a book that I ever imagined, you know, trying to figure out, it’s very unique in that the first half of the book is about one, pretty much one person and his relationship with a variety of Americans that helped him get out. And then the second half of the book is about everybody else. And so and he’s a he’s a small piece of that, but a very small piece of the rest of the book. And so he’s still needed a resolution at the end of the day that we almost forgot to put in there but kind of kind of worked out it just just it just as we were finishing the writing the book, that is more information about where he was in life came out. So that the other piece I tried to, like, first of all, Scott, I feel like it was three months. You’ve seen four to six months, but there’s three months of rewrites and whatever but the thing the thing was, it was three months and we started two weeks late because we thought that Simon Schuster would have a better plan and and then we just we got we got tired of waiting we made a plan. So it was really really, really quick turnaround on getting the first draft. doubt. And then we had at least two major rewrites. And then a couple other kind of small rewrites. And and as a result, you know, if I had two years with it like, Scott Scott one day, I think it was through the second rewrite or something Scott’s like, hey, is this a really good book? Can we make it better? And I was like, I think we’re at, like, 90 95%. Scott. And you’ll, if we had another year, we could bring it up to 99. But is it worth it? And, you know, is it worth it? Because, you know, it’ll be more significant coming out on the anniversary of what happened and in delaying it. And, you know, if you want to delay till Christmas will be that much better to make a difference? Because does it all match? Does every, every scene? And does every character arc match a kind of a five commandments kind of thing? Or the conventions or the obligatory moments? Absolutely not. But we we had that goal to begin with, and, and we we tried our best, but also real life doesn’t always give you those answers, as well. So and my experience with memoirs, and true stories like this is, you really need to during the interviews, and we had to go back and re interview people to get the answers to some of these questions. You look for that moment, where there’s a turning point leading to a crisis question. And it’s not always obvious. It’s, it’s that it’s not a turning point, crisis question when they’re faced with death. And they choose life? That’s an obvious that’s an obvious direction, right? The question is, there’s, there’s more nuanced stuff that you have to look for. And you go into the interview, ideally, with questions, trying to dig those out of the interviews. So it’s a different process. And, and We by no means got it right, every single time. And sometimes there was no interview, there’s no second or third interview, because they’re in Afghanistan communication is horrible, or they’re in hiding in a different country, or there’s they’re evading through Afghanistan to get out of the country, and there’s no way to reach these guys again, or they don’t want to, they don’t care to talk to you, because you left them behind. So, so there’s, there’s a lot of PTSD, and there’s a lot of bitterness, and and so you get sometimes you get one shot. And you you kind of have to also craft those crisis questions as potential pricing questions. I don’t know what he was thinking I get a chance to ask him again, that didn’t ask the right questions when I had the interview. But I can kind of picture what he might have been going through. And I can pose that as a potential crisis question. Like what he could have been thinking. And that’s another way we, we we address some of the issues.

Scott Mann  28:04

And I would just say from a narrative drive perspective, Tam, like is I thought about it, you know, as a storyteller, like, how in the world are we going to break this thing down to a way that it’s readable and digestible, and you just don’t want to stop turning the pages, because that’s what it was like when you were in it. Like it was so fast and so intense, like you didn’t sleep, you didn’t sleep, you didn’t sleep for 10 1214 days, because you literally had your phone on your chest and the first little buzz, you were back up on your phone. And because when we were asleep, they were moving. And when they were moving, we were like, periods of darkness were reverse. So you couldn’t you couldn’t live with the guilt. If you woke up and somebody had been beaten or left alone, like, you know, so I wanted, I knew that capturing that intensity. I wanted the reader to feel what it felt like for yes, those Afghans that were waiting through, you know, knee high feces, feces filled trenches, and 105 degree temperature with their children, while getting beaten by a Taliban rubber hose. Like I wanted that level of emotional detail. But I also wanted people to understand like to be sitting at the breakfast table with a double amputee, who’s trying to save the interpreter who saved him on the battlefield, while his kids throwing cheese grits at him from the breakfast table, you know, and he’s got his head down and his phone and he’s reading a message about you know, how this guy’s wife’s been beaten. And he’s trying to like, conceal that from his child, because that’s all he’s done. His whole life is to keep this kind of thing from his family. And now it’s at his breakfast table, the one like safe haven he has, you know, and and I just thought, Man, how in the world are we going to do that? And we just to me, I could see it in the narrative drive For this was it had to be written in third person, it third person on this it had to be written in a way that like it was not, hey, this is what I did at bandcamp rescuing my afghan friend like it needed to be, you know, toggling back and forth almost in a Dunkirk kind of way that latest movie Dunkirk, where you’re just toggling back and forth between these different points of view, and you’re just going for the ride, you know. And then the last thing I’ll say that I knew we had going for us in the story, the narrative tools was we had two clocks, we had two ticking clocks, we had the, the timeline of departure, which was stated as 31. August. And so and we knew in the chat rooms and everything else that it was going to be more like 26 August, because by the time you can’t be pulling Afghans down on the last day of your evacuation, like you’ve got to make way to get your own people out and, you know, posture yourself for self exfiltration. So we knew it was going to be around the 26th that it was going to wrap up. And it started on the 15th. Right, so you’ve got a definite ticking clock there. And then you have very early on in the process, the the threat of the suicide bomber from ISIS, Kay, like the threat, the threat stream reporting is profound. And you know that it’s going to happen, like, you know, it’s going to happen, like whatever conversations in the chat room, like, how long do we have, like these people are all combat veterans, they are all analysts like they know that this is going to happen. And it’s more about, you know, how do we make the most of the time we have. And so you’ve got these two ticking clocks that are happening, that I think lend a tremendous amount of urgency to the drive in the story. And then finally, you’re on your, if you’re a shepherd, you’re on your phone. So you’re literally looking at the action through a soda straw. You know, you’ve only got one little microcosm of what’s going on. And then it’s in the chat rooms where information is revealed by what other people are seeing. And then all of a sudden, you toggle toggle to the commando wading through the canal with his children and his arms and his wife at his side. And you’re looking through his eyes, and then you’re back to looking through the soda straw. So all of those to me seemed like really useful tools. And then as Randy was talking about bringing the rigor and structure of the Story Grid into it, and allowed us to play with those openly, but yet still bound ourselves in a way that was responsible. And let us move to resolution.

Tim Grahl  32:33

When in the process did you realize this book was about making and keeping promises?

Scott Mann  32:38

It was a pivotal for me, Randy and I and we had we were having a conversation. And it was we would do these pull up calls. I just thought about that as we were doing for so 90 days of just literally to 3000 words a day. And we would pull up in the morning, and we would pull up in the evening. And I had sequestered myself up in the mountains of North Carolina, and was jamming away and Randy and I got on a call. And at some point, I just remember saying to him, you know, what I think this thing is about is just two basic questions. Is what what the hell does a promise mean to you? And how far would you go to honor it? Because as I’ve started to get into the interviews, and was asked, I started asking that question, and it was amazing. The the responses that we were getting, and it just became so basic and simple to me. And as soon as for me, as soon as that clarity, I got that clarity, everything changed. Like it just became for me it was like, like, I for me, I know, that’s what this is really, this is really what this came down to. For those of us who fought in that war, we gave our youth to that war we gave our friends to that war, like Man, we gave, we gave it not all of some gave more than others, but my God 20 years, you know, and and now, you want us to just walk away from these people like that. Some of us are here because of them. And just something as simple as what you learn in kindergarten, just a promise and extending by your friends when they’re in trouble. Like that’s really it. And what does that look like when people really do it? And what does it look like when people who you would expect don’t? And the contrast in that is deafening. And so for me that was just super fulfilling and clear. And and that’s never changed for me. And the more I do this a year later, and I am absolutely certain that was the right angle to take for this

Tim Grahl  34:45

book. And is that what kind of helped you decide what to keep in the book and what to take out of the book. Because again, like if you did all of these interviews and just you know right off the bat, the book is this just giant cast of characters that you’re about to learn about in The book. And even though it’s like 400 pages long, that’s still heavily edited to what actually happened if you wrote it all down. So like, What helped you like, decide what to go in, and what to leave out,

Randall Surles  35:14

we had at least, probably somewhere between eight and 10, other stories, other characters, which had sub characters and other characters inside it. And we really had to look at two things. One did the writer pineapple, because some of them have extraordinary escape stories, but they didn’t, they weren’t involved with what just got created. Or if they were, it was very, very, it was a fingerprint, not a handprint for for, or he carried a mountain, you know, with the with the help of pineapple. So we had to really go, how much did this person involved in the Pineapple Express? You know, capability. And the second one was, you know, how much how much relationship with the, the one we’re trying to say here, that, you the, the, the, the dashed thing is the relationship with the prom? Well, going back to the promise, the promise has to do with United States, promising Afghanistan by giving them 20 years of you know, having bringing this to a resolution, and also the promise of the individual American characters to the Afghani characters and their relationships. So finding a person who got out by themselves, which there weren’t very many, and they weren’t involved with someone for pineapple once again, or there’s no relationship there that we could fit. We could we could track we can trace we can touch than that, then we that’s when we had a really, I mean, it was hard for Scott, like I said it a couple times X guy and this guy goes in there. It’s like no, we got to put it in there. I was like, and I was like, I just don’t think it goes in this book, Scott. I don’t think it goes in this book. We had a bunch of conversations with this. And, you know, and it was some of them were really hard to take out like, he’s like, okay, okay, except I want to put a little bit here a little bit. There’s like not I think we just take it all out. It’s like, we’ll just put a little bit here is like, I just don’t think that guy has has a story in this book, man. We can write another book. But I don’t think this book, I think it’s just not going to fit. It doesn’t fit the purpose.

Scott Mann  37:40

And understand to Cham that like so as I was rolling into it from an author’s perspective, my my emotional connection to all these people was, you know, enormous and raw and, and again, looking at it through a soda straw. I didn’t even honest to God, I didn’t even really know. When we agreed to write the book. Going into the interview process. I thought, I have no clue who I mean, I knew some of the protagonists like for example, Zack, Zack is a former Greenbrae turned inner city school teacher whose hero is Harriet Tubman. And he fashioned an underground railroad using paratroopers and Afghans to move them through a sewage filled canal. I mean, are you shitting me like that? That’s okay. Yeah, that guy’s definitely a central character here. But, you know, then some of the others, I had no clue like the Minister of women’s affairs, one of the four female ministers in the country, actually waded through that sewage filled canal and went out our apparatus. And we didn’t even know who she was. Until afterwards, we find out that she was like the most senior hunted, you know, female leader in the country. And she had gone out on the Pineapple Express. So like, we didn’t know, but it was clear as we interviewed her were like, yeah, definitely a primary character. So for me, what I tried to do was was asking myself, alright, like Randy said, those criteria were there, but also who embodies certain somatic elements of what this thing was? That, you know, they’re kind of a universal singular for all of that, like Hasina, represented to me. What so many at risk women in Afghanistan, were and are going through. There was another female NCO who we felt like really embodied the pride and underrepresented voices of female Afghan soldiers. There was an American citizen who was not going to leave his family behind. He refused to follow state department directives and was not going to leave his parents that embodied so many assets that America is furious about right and so that was the other thing is I wanted to again in a Dunkirk kind of way you to sit in that cockpit with a fighter pilot on you know and feel like you understand the whole Royal Air Forces perspective like same thing. Like if you walk with this one commando through this canal, you got a pretty good read on what the commandos went through. So that was my and that was very arbitrary. And so I had the thematics in my mind and then I would have to, you know, do jujitsu with Randy on which one stayed and went and, and but overall man at the end of the day, and I think he would agree with this, like I didn’t, I didn’t override any of them. Like if he said they needed to go they went because I knew I was close to it. And I knew that you know, it would be that he would actually have a better call on that than me.

Randall Surles  40:50

I knew I’d wear him down. And when we got the last few days I was like, Okay, we’re gonna throw this guy out, right? You’re like, whatever. I was like, okay.

Tim Grahl  40:57

Yeah, you know, it’s, it’s interesting. Cuz it’s so interesting to hear you guys talk about this in here, you guys land on things that we’ve been talking about more in recent times and Story Grid. Like, okay, so a couple weeks ago, I was in Colorado with this thing. And I met this guy that runs his name is Josh Scott, he runs K chess pedals. It’s a guitar pedal company. And he’s working on this book. And he’s like, he’s like a fucking, like guitar historian. Like he can tell you everything that’s ever happened around the guitar since, you know, the beginning of guitars 1000s of years ago. And he was trying to write this story or trying to he’s working on this book. And I was like, Well, why do you let and he’s having the same trouble. What do you put in? What do you take out? And I was like, Well, what are you trying to say? Why does this matter to you that these stories get out there because we all read it. You know, we all went through a US history book, when we were growing up. And it was like, on this day, this happened on this day, this happened and nobody gives two shits, except to pass the pass the test. And I think what was so interesting in this case, is the way that you landed on that fundamental question, and really controlling idea about promises. And then once you have that, like, that’s a question that everybody has to ask ask themselves in their life, right? Like, I’ve never been to war. But I have to ask that question. You know, I have to ask that question in my marriage with my kids with my business with my friends. Like, that’s a question you bump into all the time. And I want to get to a question to you, Randy, on this, because inside of Story Grid, we talked about how like, the, the editors job is to stand in the gap for the reader, right, like you’re there to make sure the final product is something that will change the readers life. And so when you are approaching these things, and you’re trying to decide what to tell Scott to keep in and what to tell Scott to take out, like, what kind of again, what kind of things are you You thinking through to make those decisions and make those suggestions?

Randall Surles  43:15

Well, as far as the characters are concerned, you know, I, I’m very, I’m very spreadsheet oriented, I guess, for lack of a better word. So I started making, and some of this was it was, you know, kind of Scott’s like, hey, I need a spreadsheet, this, this, this, and this is like, I already got that. I just, he’s like, Oh, okay. And then I was like, I just gotta tweak it, and then I show it to him. And it would be like, how, which character showed up in which act for instance? And, and, and how many times and what he’s doing. And and if if we had two characters that was pretty similar. Like, we we we had a couple of incidences where like, hey, we have these four characters are all special operation Afghanis trained by Americans with an American who’s guiding them out? Are they different enough with a family with four out of six kids trying to get out? So are they too similar? We need to tell different, you know, a different diversity of stories. And we can And so really, we got to look at these and say, Are they are they different enough to include in the book, and because they’re both they’re all for extraordinary stories, and they’re all for, you know, really heartbreaking. But if you heartbreak them in the same way every time it loses its strength. So we looked at that we looked at it that way. The great thing that Scott did was come up with the promise, which we hit and when you asked when that came up, we had a we had we started two weeks late because we He didn’t have. We had, we had done all the interviews all the way through December. And we had we, we had a, we had a really great proposal, which had a lot of starter, introduction and starter stuff. But we didn’t have a plan on how it was going to get written. And, and we didn’t have this mantra of the promise at the moment. And you know, that once we had the promise, then we went forward and said, Okay, this is, you know, this is what that one’s gonna look like, this is what actually, this is what act three is. And it was a combination of Scott and I batting it back and forth. And, and then making a PowerPoint slideshow because we’re Green Berets. And that’s what we’re best at, besides killing people, I guess, is making making this PowerPoint spreadsheet. And we were like, Okay, this is the act, these are the people in the x, these are the relationships in the x. And we started and then and then we looked at it and like, oh, this acts really long. And it’s got relationships that are very similar. So do we need those and does do all of them have promises involved, and the overarching promise, and it was a, it took about a month to get it rolling. And once we started getting the spreadsheet filled out, which was my job. And once we started, you know, and I wasn’t in every interview, I was feeding them sometimes information to ask them the interview. But I was transcribing the interview and then taking the information and putting it in my spreadsheets. And, and so I didn’t want to listen to it twice, for lack of a better word. So I didn’t go to the interviews, a lot of times, I would transcribe it and listen to it there and then then put it in the spreadsheets. So after the first month, once we really got a handle on what the Promise meant, and what how we wanted to get a diverse cast, and that have these things that were similar. That’s how we kind of decided who we’re going to eliminate what scenes we don’t really need because they’re similar and things like that.

Scott Mann  47:05

Yeah, the only thing I guess I would just add, and I don’t even know where this fits, but I just I keep thinking about the the workshop in Nashville in, you know, the, the big idea, nonfiction approach. And one of the things 10 that came to me as we, I mean, it was in my it was in my heart. But as we as we started talking about how the book ends and how it lands, was it always it always just struck me about and how in a big idea book that, you know, it goes in a different direction. At the end, there’s a there’s, you know, there’s a real turn and polarity there. And I felt that like I’m like, yeah, man, like, this may not be like the, you know, the quintessential Big Idea Book, I get certainly heavier on the memoir side, but there is a question I’m going to ask at the end, that I don’t think anybody’s going to see coming, you know, and I think it’s, it’s, it brings it home, right, and I just, it just felt good to think about it. And it felt good to know that I could do that. And it was okay to do that. And I just I want to throw a shout and in all seriousness to you and Shawn, for gifting me that because I came to that very, very early in the process. And, and I knew that’s how I was going to land that chopper like I knew that’s what it was going to be. And that it was an extremely generous thing that could be done is to let the reader really think about this question in their own life. And and, and I would never I don’t think I’ve given myself permission to do that or even known that was an option. In this, you know, and I think it everybody I’ve used and Randy will attest to this, like, I’ve given a lot of talks on the book already. And I asked that question at the end. And it’s the thing that everybody comes up at the end and says, Wow, man, thank you for that. Like, I didn’t see that coming. And and you can tell they’re introspective, and they’re looking at their own arena. And damn, like that’s, that’s why we do this, I think. And it really, I mean, you guys are seriously onto something with that. And it was so cool to see that even as a possibility and something as heavy as this.

Tim Grahl  49:17

Yeah, I mean, I think you’re we’re talking about the surprising but inevitable end, right. And yeah, I think that’s what is so interesting to me with a book, like what you’ve written here, and other ones that we would all probably kind of talk about is this idea that like I think what I love about this is that it’s not just a book about what happened in Afghanistan, right? Because there is a really small number of people that would read a book that’s just like, you know, kind of listing out details of what happened. Where this is a story where you’re trying to get people to see the world in a certain way. And then and even the way that you set it up, you give them something, you know you’d like right hook them when they’re not looking right at the end of the book. And I think that’s such an important thing. And what I think is fascinating. And maybe it was just the whole, like, you know, having to operate in such tight constraints of writing the book so fast. But it’s like the fact that you guys landed on that, when you did saved you so much time and effort of like, you know, landing on the controlling idea landing on where the book was going to end allowed you to make those those decisions along the way, when you only have three months to write this entire book. Yeah, I just think that was that that was fascinating.

Scott Mann  50:49

Yeah, it really helped. It really did. It helped. And it gave us, I think, an anchor point throughout the whole thing, particularly when things got really dicey. And they did, there were some periods where the deadline and just the, the dynamic realities of life, it threw every just about every curve at us you could possibly imagine. And, and, you know, the other thing too, man, and I gotta say it, like, it was nice to have a Greenbrae with me on this, because there was just something because we were times when we would both just start laughing, the same way that you would laugh on a mission in the middle in the mountains in Afghanistan, when like, literally every fucking thing in the world is going wrong. And you just start laughing, you know, because there’s like nothing else you can do. And, and then it’s okay. You know, and that was a lot of this. I gotta say, I absolutely love working with Randy. And we have a lot of fun. And, you know, we it’s been a real really cool experience. But there were some times, man, I didn’t know, like, I really wondered if we were going to make it to the, you know, in time, because it just, it was so much.

Tim Grahl  51:54

Yeah. And I was also interested, since you know, Randy, you’re so steeped in Story Grid, and but then working with Simon and Schuster, who probably has no idea what Story Grid is. And so what was your they do now? That’s great. Like, what was that? Like? Did they? Did they care? Did that ever really come up? Were they just happy? You were hitting your deadlines? And it was written halfway decent? Or? Or? Or were they interested? Or did they ask questions? Like, did it ever kind of come up in that I’m just curious, their reaction to using something like Story Grid so explicitly.

Randall Surles  52:32

You know, I didn’t call it Story Grid when we were talking to my talk shop with the other editors. But I but I, I sometimes they would try to change stuff or cut stuff that I knew a was emotionally needed to be kept in there. Because they didn’t understand the big picture. And Scott was gonna fight him on it. And then I had to explain it. And I would use Story, Grid verbiage, vocabulary to kind of say, hey, you know, this is why this has to be in there, because you haven’t read the end yet. But it has to be in there. It’s setting it up. And you understand that setup. And ultimately, Story Grid helps you write a good story that works, right. That’s the definition of Story Grid, almost. And they can recognize a story that works. So we wrote a story that works. And there, they had other editors that came in after Scott and I, that we got to veto later on. And we did sometimes I’m like, That’s not when we wrote that scene. That’s not what we intended, we need to put some of that back. And then in some cases, they did make it better. They were better with words, they had better word choice than we did. Or they rearranged something that it made it better. We’re not infallible and either a day, and so we ended up working pretty well with them. In the end, I mean, they had two other editors involved. And most of the their editing was after Scott wrote, I edited and wrote maybe did some fillers to that he wrote most of it. And so after that was all done, we would submit it to the first first guy who’s working with us through the whole thing almost. And he would we’d send the full the chapter, the sequence the scene, whatever to him, he would mess with it, send it back. I would look at it. I would prepare Scott. So he wouldn’t tear his hair out and say, Hey, this is what he said. I think he’s right. Or I think you’re he were right. We to convince him we’re right. And he was he, he worked for Scott. He worked for us, right. And so, but he also knew the business. So we knew what Simon and Schuster were expecting as well. And so that was a that was a conversation. We had a lot. And then there was another guy after we’d gotten through the first act and a half Another guy came on for just a week. And he just read it start to finish. It was like this has got to go here for the big picture and stuff like that. Some of this stuff made sense. And some of it was like out there, like, No, we’re not doing that, put that back. And, and in the end, Simon and Schuster were very, you know, hey, if Scott wants that in there, we’re leaving it in there. That’s, that’s, that’s, that’s how it ended. It was never, like, if you don’t put this in, or take that or turn this, it’s over. It was always like, you know, if if they if there’s three people against Scott and I or against Scott, and they said, Hey, we really, it’s got to like I, I I’m gonna die on this. They’re like, Okay, we’ll leave it in there. That only happened. That happened very rarely. And even when it did happen, we so he’s still agreed to a tweak or something like that, because he didn’t he didn’t not see what they’re saying. He just thought that was a really emotional part that had to be kept in the book.

Scott Mann  56:00

And the other thing, too, that gave us 10, that I think was a competitive advantage was that you know, Randy’s absolutely right. Like, there were a lot of people in the orbit around this book, because they placed a lot of bets on this book early on. So they, you know, they were heavily invested in their human capital with it. But what I would say is what Randy and I had, that nobody else had was we had a grammar for all of this, like, you know, and and so I would, even if, as I was starting to map each chapter out, from inciting incident all the way down to resolution, like, we had a grammar like we had an outline, oui, oui, oui, you know, and he had really schooled me on that, just in our interactions with rooftop leadership over two years, like we had a way of talking about this. That was, that was kind of funny, because other people started to just pick up on it. And they started to use those terminologies, because it was a grammar that we could all get our head around. And I think looking back on it now, that was huge, because when you’ve got that kind of a disparate, diverse group of of people trying to converge on this high stakes event, if you don’t have a grammar, or a language or a way of looking at the problem, like man, you’re you’re in trouble. And and we had that Randy gave us that. And I’ll tell you the other thing, too, and he won’t tell you this, but I will, is it he, by the end of it, he was quarterbacking the whole thing, man, like there was no doubt in anybody’s mind. And the most senior editor at Simon and Schuster will tell you the exact same thing. Like he was quarterbacking, the whole thing. And And I’m convinced because A, the methodology was sound, and he knew it and understood it. And everyone trusted it, because they saw it happen again and again. And again, whenever we went up against walls. But I think the other thing was just that there was a language for it. And I think it made everybody feel safer. And so by the end of it when we were really out over our skis, you know, he was quarterback and and I think that was great, because it gave me confidence. But it also gave everybody else confidence. And I you know, I thought it was cool. I thought it was cool to see from the start, were they looking at like hey, though, who the hell is this dude, and who led him in? To at the end, like he’s quarterback and and I think that was really great. And I think it was a real testament to what we were able to do. And and the confidence that that organised that huge organization has in us now is off the charts, like I mean, it’s crazy, the amount of confidence they have in us for the marketing side and everything else. And I think it’s a it’s a direct result of that. So it was it took some time, but that that language and that process definitely was entrenched at the

Randall Surles  58:44

end. So one of one of the thing too, is that our process in the first four or five chapters were hard, we had to figure it out. And after that, I would we would we would talk about, hey, what’s what’s going to be the first act second act third act, right? So I would look forward, and I would, I would extrapolate a five commandments for that chapter. And I would put that at the front of a template and say, I think the five commandments are this, I think, and then I would connect the transcript to all the all the the the interviews that had anything to do with those five commandments, so that they knew exactly where to find the information. And I would extrapolate quotes that would support those five commandments, and I would stick those in there underneath the five commandments. And that’s what and then Scott would roll after he finished the last chapter. He’d roll into that and like, and he may not, I mean, I think about 75 80% of the time, it worked out the way I thought it was gonna be with the five commandments, but then, you know, we’d have a conversation like, I don’t think it’s going to work. I think it should go like this. And I’m like, well, let’s, let’s see what happens and we’d roll with it. But that’s what we started doing is I started helping outline the stuff ahead of time, which gave Scott kind of marching orders like he’s like, Alright, now I know exactly what I’m looking for. And also, oh, I need to interview this person again, because I need to understand what they’re thinking about to get this crisis question stuff done.

Scott Mann  1:00:07

Yeah, it’s kind of like, you know, if you know, like, at night when you’re moving on a rope, and there’s like knots in the rope, it’s like that was kind of because you didn’t know what the hell you were doing, as you explored into each chapter. Really, it was just kind of those knots in the rope that gave you footing, you know, to build it out.

Tim Grahl  1:00:22

Yeah, um, let me let me end with this question for you, Scott. Now that it’s a year since this happened, you’ve gone through this process of writing the book, the books coming out, right on the year anniversary. I’d like to hear from you like, what you’re hoping, happens as a result of people reading this book, and kind of where you see that we’re at now, a year later?

Scott Mann  1:00:50

Yeah, I think I’ve reached a level of clarity on the book. I’ve gone through the whole emotional rollercoaster that I suspect every author goes through, particularly when they work for, you know, big organizations for the first time and you know, the project is bigger than they are. And I’ve gone through all that have gone through all that emotional agita of what I want this thing to be. And I think at the end of the day, what I’ve landed on, is I just want people to care more about this problem than they do right now. And I hope that they will find some measure of clarity for their own life, on how they can play a bigger game. Like if those two things happen. At any level of scale, I would be an extremely happy guy. Like, I mean, I’ve just tried to keep it really simple. Just people to care more than they do right now, and, and get a bit deeper on what their Pineapple Express is on what it is that they want, or can do when things fall apart. And yeah, that’s it for me and everything else will work itself out.

Tim Grahl  1:02:02

Thanks for listening to this episode of The Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related check out story grid.com. Make sure you sign up for the newsletter so you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid Universe. If you’d like to check out the transcript for this episode in the show notes for this episode, and to buy a copy of Operation Pineapple Express by Scott man which I highly recommend. If you’re watching on YouTube, there’s a link below in the description. If you are listening, you can go to story grid.com/podcast And we put a link in the show notes there or of course, just go to Amazon and search for it. I’m sure you can find it. If you want to access any past episodes of The Story Grid Podcast, you can go to story grid.com/podcast. And as always to support the show. You can do that by telling another author about the show or by going to Apple podcasts and leaving a rating in review. Thanks as always for being a part of our community here at Story Grid. We’ll see in a couple days.


The Book

Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.

First Time Writer

Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.


Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.