Kirk Yeager, the FBI’s Chief Explosives Scientist, knows how to keep calm under pressure while investigating the aftermaths of deadly bombings, but he enlisted help from his sister, writer Selene Yeager, to navigate the complexity of writing and publishing a book. Together, they wrote our latest Scribd Original, Out of the Wreckage, which details how Kirk and other forensic scientists responded to the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing and the 2005 assassination of journalist Samir Kassir. In this Q&A, Kirk and Selene display their cutting wit as they discuss the process of writing together and tackling highly sensitive topics.
Kirk, with Out of the Wreckage, how and when did you make the decision that you were ready to share stories from your experience working as the Chief Explosives Scientist for the FBI?
Kirk Yeager: As in many aspects of my life, serendipity actually played more of a role than cogitation. After winning an award that brought some media attention to my existence, a writer friend of Selene’s made contact asking if I would be interested in doing an interview about my job for a magazine article. I forwarded the request to the FBI’s office of public affairs, as doing rogue interviews is not really a career-enhancing strategy. They generously agreed to allow the interview and magazine article. Somehow, I found myself featured in Popular Mechanics when the smoke cleared.
The article caught the attention of Heather Jackson, who had worked with Selene in the past. Heather thought there would be broader reader interest in the world of bombing investigations I described in my interview. Again, I went back to the mothership and asked if such an activity would be allowed. With certain stipulations I was given the green light to move forward on the project.
As for why I “decided” I was “ready” to share stories, it hinged on the alignment of a few variables. First, the quantity of free time my job allows often is limited to glamorous activities such as attending to personal hygiene. I knew I would need assistance if I was going to try and write a book. There was no way I was going to use an unknown writer to help with this project. Luckily, I knew that I could lean on my sister to craft a product that would pass literary muster.
Secondly, I strongly believe that “someday” has a way of never arriving. The stars seemed to be aligned just right to attempt just such a project. I felt that if I waited, the universe — along with its limited supply of good will and chance — would close the door.
Thirdly, I love taking on challenges. Having written a great deal of technical material over the years, it sounded like fun to try and tackle something less weighty. Partially this was also driven by a passion to show the world the real stories behind a job that is only known to people through horrible forensic crime dramas.
Finally, I wanted to see this product released when my parents were still around to enjoy a joint creation from both of their kids.
How did the conversation come about that you two wanted to write this together?
Selene Yeager: As Kirk mentioned above, it all sort of came to us through our agent, Heather Jackson. Kirk obviously has a nearly bottomless well of stories from his decades of work as an explosives scientist. I have decades of work as a writer, enabling me to drop the buckets in that well and pull out the most compelling tales and arrange them in a structure that follows an arc.
Kirk Yeager: As noted by my sister, I was not about to embark on this venture without knowing I had people I could trust to help craft a product that truly represented the world I wanted to capture. I also realized that I am too close to the trees and weeds in my world. I wanted someone who could step back and see the forest and broader landscape. My sister was an obvious fit. Without Selene I would never have agreed to do this project.
What was it like collaborating together as siblings?
Selene Yeager: It was fun. Kirk and I obviously have very different brains, but we share a common wavelength that I found easy to tap into during the writing process. I know his voice and his humor. There were more than a few holidays where we’d just sneak away over a few gin and tonics and let the ideas flow.
Kirk is also a very good writer. Unlike some projects where I have created a manuscript based off of hours and hours of taped interviews, once we decided on the framework for the book, Kirk went all in (as he does when something captures his imagination) and cranked out tens of thousands — actually hundreds of thousands — of words. Right out of the gate, I felt like this was going to be something special. My job was just to whittle, shape, and integrate it all.
Kirk Yeager: It was valuable to have Selene’s insight into what a non-technical reader would be interested in hearing about. The gin — and I believe tequila, beer, and whiskey — fueled sessions used to create the outline gave me the framework I needed to focus my endeavors.
Basically, the writing process took a long, long time. I did each chapter as a separate drive when the occasional free weekend came along. During my writing I created an outline of story points and then just started pounding madly at the keyboard. As Selene noted, I was most likely more verbose than anticipated. I did attempt to include the rudiments of punctuation throughout the text, but there were numerous side ramblings and tangents thrown in along the way.
I left it up to Selene to transform something that resembled more manifesto than manuscript into a flowing narrative.
In working so closely together on this project, were there any surprising or new things you learned about each other?
Selene Yeager: I learned how important my brother is! I mean, I knew that, of course. But you know how it is when you know someone personally: you know that part of them, which is different from how they are in their professional lives. I know my very smart, funny, eccentric brother who drags me, crawling like a crab through a dark industrial concrete drainage pipe to find a Happy Meal Prize in a plastic box because he can’t leave any geocaches unfound. I can forget that he’s someone who has an enormously important job in the FBI and who is one of the brightest minds in his field. That’s especially easy to forget when you’re deep in said sewer pipe.
Kirk Yeager: I learned that without her there would be no book. I am perhaps not the most patient individual. Early adventures in shopping the book around had me swimming in waters that let’s just say had some undercurrents that I would have handled with less grace had Selene not been present. The literary world is much different from that of the bomb investigator. I am not sure which one has more mine fields in its possession.
Also, I would like to correct the record in that I never took anyone through sewer pipes. All tunnels explored were for rain run-off only. Fun was had by all that day. You can see the joy on my sister’s families’ faces as proof.
Selene, you’ve worked on close to 30 books, and Kirk, this is your first foray into publishing. Selene, what tips did you give Kirk?
Selene Yeager: Ha, this was probably the hardest part! Kirk is a very logic-based person who works in a logical field in a very cut and dried bureaucracy. The only “tips” I would continually give him were that he shouldn’t necessarily expect publishing to be logical or cut and dried. So much of what hits or doesn’t hit in this business is based off of a blend of gut instinct, current societal gestalt, and whether Mercury is in or out of retrograde. That and he should brush up on his viral TikTok dances.
Kirk Yeager: If I do any dance it is going to be a moon walking robot. I think Asimov made mention of them in one of his Laws of Robotics.
And Kirk, what has been the most interesting part of the process for you?
Kirk Yeager: I started out not thinking anyone would really be that interested in the book. Mostly I did it for the challenge and to capture the stories I could still recall. This somehow veered into a conversation with a Hollywood producer asking me if I would be interested in selling the rights to part of my life story. The answer, by the way, was no. Although if John Malkovich agrees to play me, I might be amenable to reconsidering.
I will say that I have seen both the highs and lows of the publishing industry. I will not dwell on the lows, but Scribd has definitely set a tremendously high bar for how fabulously collaborative and generous they have been. For me the whole process has been interesting. Maybe one day I will write a book about it.
We’ve all seen wreckage from bombings: The skeletons of exploded cars, the rubble of broken buildings. Out of that utter chaos, Yeager, the FBI’s chief explosives scientist, assesses how this terrorism occurred and works intricately to unravel incidents step-by-step. In this enthralling Scribd Original, Yeager lifts the caution tape to walk us through two high-profile crime scenes.
About the Author: Ashley McDonnell
Ashley is a Senior Editorial Associate at Scribd who loves Ernest Hemingway, “The Hunger Games,” and ice hockey. When she’s not reading or at the rink, she’s making nerdy podcasts about anime and manga.