March 21, 2019

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How a Young War Veteran Became a Serial Bank Robber, Then a Novelist

How a Young War Veteran Became a Serial Bank Robber, Then a Novelist
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An Unexpected Letter

Mr. Walker never planned to write about his experience, he said. Once in a low security prison, he found ways to occupy himself: he read 19th-century Russian literature, studied Spanish, German and Latin, and tutored other inmates who were getting their G.E.D.s.

Two and a half years into his sentence, he got a letter from Matthew Johnson, co-owner of Tyrant Books. Mr. Johnson had read an article in BuzzFeed about Mr. Walker’s crimes and his military service, and began sending him books to read. After they had corresponded for a few months, Mr. Johnson urged him to write a book.

Mr. Walker was hesitant, but eventually started writing at night. He mailed pages to Mr. Johnson, and sometimes weeks later, would get edited pages back.

He spent nearly four years writing and rewriting. Some of the hardest chapters were the ones that take place Iraq. He worried he might offend people who had served or lost loved ones in the war, and that other veterans might think he was cashing in on tragedy.

“It was difficult to write about things that were more graphic,” he said. “At the end of the day, I thought, it’s better to do it like that than to lie about it.”

Beyond the logistical challenges of writing and editing a book in prison, there were legal concerns. Under the Son of Sam law, convicted criminals are barred from profiting off their crimes through books, movies or other media that describes their criminal exploits, and money made from such works can be seized and given to victims or their families. But some legal experts argue that there is wide protection under the First Amendment for convicts to publish and profit from their work.

Mr. Johnson thought the book could benefit from a bigger publisher, and eventually sold the rights to Tim O’Connell at Knopf, an imprint of Penguin Random House. A Knopf lawyer determined there that the novel didn’t run afoul of Son of Sam laws. Mr. Walker has used money from his publishing contract to pay off some of the roughly $30,000 in restitution he owes the banks. He expects to pay the remainder by January.

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