The public had never heard of childhood Sacramento friends Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos or Anthony Sadler until their encounter with a terrorist aboard a French passenger train on Aug. 21, 2015. Suddenly, they became worldwide heroes when they foiled Ayoub El-Khazzani’s planned massacre, saving an untold number of lives.
Now they’ve published a book about their encounter, “The 15:17 to Paris,” with veteran journalist Jeffrey E. Stern (Public Affairs, $26, 256 pages). It details their individual accounts of what happened on the train, and how, the moving aftermath, the timeline of their friendship, and the background of the terrorist and his motives.
Sadler is a senior at Sac State; Skarlatos is a specialist in the Oregon National Guard; and Stone is an Air Force staff sergeant. Stern worked with them at excruciating length under a high-pressure deadline. He wrote their story in alternating perspectives, overlaid with an omniscient point of view.
Stern is the author of “The Last Thousand” and a frequent contributor to Vanity Fair, Esquire, The Atlantic, Time and other national magazines. We caught up with him by phone from Washington, D.C., shortly before he left on assignment in Spain.
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Q: What was the genesis of the book?
A: As I understand it, Creative Artists Agency approached the boys, then I was brought in to figure out just what the book was going to be and to carry it across the finish line.
Q: What were your first thoughts?
A: It quickly became clear that these are really good guys who are funny, caring and interesting, which was in the win column. In the loss column was the fact that they’re young and it was a challenge to come up with a way of making (their backgrounds) seem relevant. Why would you be reading about the second-grade teacher of a 22-year-old?
Q: You needed to link their pasts with their actions on the trains?
A: One of the questions was: Do we present this as an act of heroism that came out of nowhere? No, the boys and I agreed that there were a lot of things that had happened in their lives that had prepared them for this moment. That was the organizing principle – that every anecdote not only tells readers who these boys are, but marches closer to understanding how three “normal” guys ended up doing this extraordinary thing.
Q: You re-created so many scenes, as though you were observing the action in real time.
A: There were a lot of interviews with the guys, and I leaned heavily on their families for background. The boys were very patient with questions like, “What did it sound like when the guy pulled the trigger? Did it sound more like this, or more like that?” It gets really tedious (for interviewees) to answer those questions again and again.
Q: Your deadline must have been tight.
A: It was an extraordinarily fast time line. We got the deal in January, and I had to turn in the first draft on March 15. They bent over backward to work on the book, but their lives didn’t stop for the 2 1/2 months we had to write it. Alek was doing “Dancing With the Stars”; Spencer was still in the military; and Anthony was still trying to finish college.
Q: How did they do with helping you edit the drafts?
A: They had remarkably good instincts for (people) who had never written a book. I was really impressed with Spencer in particular. We spent a lot of time going through the last draft. He would say things like, “This is technically accurate, but I feel like it gives the wrong impression. Can we shift it to this?”
Q: You were dealing with three points of view, but you brought in an all-seeing third-person omniscient narrator voice as well.
A: The idea was to give the reader an omniscient point of view, while making it very clear the boys’ perspectives (did not include) the knowledge they would have later. The boys themselves are the least-knowing party in the book. The reader knows there’s a terrorist headed their way, but the boys have no idea what’s about to happen. We thought that approach would almost literally triangulate what really happened, and a three-dimensional picture would emerge.
A: Yes, and that was impressive, but also unsurprising in a way, when you get to know them in the book. It’s probably fair to say all three of them want to use this as an opportunity to do something meaningful for their communities. Each of them said separately how powerful the Sacramento Hometown Heroes Parade was (last September). That was the moment they all felt the most moved, which is a testament to their character and humility.