Posted March 9, 2016 by Jeff in Books

Kim Barker on Picking the Challenging Choice

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

In her 2011 memoir, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, journalist Kim Barker documents her experiences in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Based in New Delhi and Islamabad from 2004 to 2009, she served as the South Asia bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune from 2004 to 2009. The book drew rave reviews for its ability to balance humor and drama. Now, it’s became the basis of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a comedy-drama starring Tina Fey. Barker recently phoned us from New York, where she currently works as an investigative reporter for the New York Times, to talk about the book’s transformation into a film.

Given your sense of humor, how’d you end up gravitating toward writing about news?
I don’t know. I think every writer can do a lot of different things. I really enjoy writing things that are funny but they’re more observational or situational-funny. Even the story I wrote on Anthony Scalia being from Queens has some pretty funny lines in it. They let me do at the Times and they’ve let me do that at other places but it wasn’t until I did this book that I could use dark humor so effectively in the story.

In the film, there’s a moment when your character explains that she was in the gym when she realized she needed to take the gig as a war correspondent. That’s not how it happened. Can you talk about what inspired your decision to become a war correspondent?
After 9/11, any journalist who was a news journalist wanted to be [in New York]. I wanted to go to New York from Chicago. I wanted to go cover the biggest story that was going on in America and then the biggest story going on in the world. I wanted to see if I could do it. Always in my career if I’m faced with two choices and it’s the safe choice versus the more challenging, scarier and more difficult choice, I’m going to pick that more challenging and difficult and scarier choice. Always.

A New York Times’ review of your book said that you depict yourself as a Tina Fey-type of character in the book. Did you have her in mind when you wrote the book?
She was one of the people I was channeling. I think she’s hilarious and really smart. I loved 30 Rock. I like Kristen Wiig and any of those people. Nora Ephron is another example of a woman who uses humor effectively with real life. Sometimes, I would write things that were too serious and I tried to make them funny. But sometimes there were things that weren’t and I would just would let them be serious. War is obviously very serious.

Talk about what Tina Fey brings to the movie.
We haven’t spent a lot of time together but I think we might be similar in real life. I think she shows her range in this role that she hasn’t necessarily shown before. She’s done some dramatic roles. It’s rare for her to a role that’s funny and dramatic. I think she shows her range. I’m not saying this just because it’s me but I think it’s her best role.

She certainly gets most of the screen time.
Yes, and I love how it highlights the friendship between women. There’s a lot of things I really like about this movie.

At what point did the book become optioned for a film and how closely were you involved with its transformation?
Within two weeks of that review describing me as creating a Tina Fey character, Tina Fey had read the book and pushed Paramount and Lorne Michaels to get behind this project. I found out the night of my book party in New York that they were optioning it and that she was going to play me. It all seemed theoretical at the time. I have a lot of friends that that’s happened to. I didn’t think it was going to happen. It’s Hollywood, you’re talking about doing M*A*S*H 2.0. The odds were not high that this was actually going to work out.

In the film, you seemed ill-prepared to deal with Afghanistan. Was that the case?
I knew how to report and write. It’s not like I was completely green when it came to reporting. I had a good track record with domestic reporting and investigative stuff. But man, I forgot my money the first time I went to Afghanistan. I forgot my power adapter. I was asking them where the closest ATM machine was and this was January of 2002. To call me naïve doesn’t do any favors to the word naïve. I just didn’t know what I was doing. I learned on the ground.

What was it like for you to see how women are treated?
That’s an interesting question. No one has put in so bluntly like that. In the beginning, to be honest, I thought I had to respect the culture and the fact that this is the way things are done. Women there were always incredibly kind to me. As a female reporter, I felt I could get stories that male reporters couldn’t because we could tell the stories of both men and women because we had access to the women. They hugged me when I first saw them in January of 2002, and one teared up. They were looking at my cuticles and hair and asking me what moisturizer I used. They treated me like a sister as if I somehow knew what they had been through. I didn’t even understand. At the beginning, I looked at it as a culture and it’s just the way it is. By the end, you write stories about the strong women who stand up against that system. I would challenge anyone to find a stronger woman than a woman who stands up for herself and stands up against the patriarchy and warlords in Afghanistan.  They beat me any day off the week. I could always just leave.

The moment in the movie when the women gather at the well depicts them rather favorably. But did it really happen?
With me, they would take my head scarf off and play with my hair. They were incredibly generous. The well thing didn’t happen to me, but it might have happened to other people. With [screenwriter] Robert [Carlock], he talked to so many people about being in Afghanistan, there’s stuff in the story that is overlaid on top of my story. I could sit there and say it’s fictional and it never happened but it probably happened to someone else.

The film provides a commentary on news coverage of the war in Afghanistan. Eventually, the public interest declines and the TV network that Kim works for in the film loses interest as well. Is that consistent with your perspective in the book?
Hell yeah. Hell to the yeah. It was very difficult going on as Sam Zell bought the newspaper and the emphasis became more local. His people didn’t even know that if there was a dateline that said Kabul, Afghanistan, that people were actually in Kabul, Afghanistan. He has no clue as to how journalism works. For whatever reason, my name and the fact that I was in Afghanistan became a real target for Sam Zell. He would call it out at various press conferences and ask, “Why does the Chicago Tribune have a correspondent in Afghanistan?” That became a real target for Sam Zell. He would call it out. I’m not going to make it so dramatic as I’m risking my life but it wasn’t the safest place to be. It was very frustrating. You felt like what you were covering was so important and so much blood and treasure had been spent there, you wanted people to read about it. I get it. There’s a sense of war fatigue. There’s still a real sense of war fatigue. That’s why I was trying to write this in a darkly comedic way. I wanted find a way to make people pay attention to everything that had happened in Afghanistan and Pakistan.


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].