Before he co-wrote Unlikely Brothers: Our Story of Adventure, Loss, and Redemption with Michael Mattocks, John Prendergast had written or co-written nine books, each focusing on advocacy and government policy usually in terms of poverty and war in Africa. Unlikely Brothers turns the spotlight on Prendergast as Big Brother to Mattocks, sharing their individual failings and triumphs in a dual first-person format. Their story spans more than 25 years—following Mattocks’ rough days on the streets of Washington, D.C., and Prendergast’s travels to war-torn areas of Africa—and the influence they had on one another’s lives.
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Prendergast, a co-founder of the Enough Project, an organization that works to prevent genocide and other crimes against humanity, told us that the book was a revealing process, showing him another way to write. “I think this opens the door for me to going some different directions,” he says.
How did you decide on the format for the book, a side-by-side dual memoir?
It was not easy, boy. At first I wanted it to be just about Michael, so it would be his story. But then the publisher was like, “No, it has to be joint.” So then it was like, OK, what if we did everything as “we,” and then the only things we could really write about were things that we jointly experienced, which takes out 80 percent of our lives.
So then we said, “What if it’s a third-person writing about the two of us and our lives?” And then we finally settled on the first-person dual narrative. I think it was the easiest one, in the end, because then we could both tell our stories from our perspectives. Even though a lot of it was overlapping stuff, sometimes we had very different perceptions of similar things.
Did you and Michael collaborate on the stories as you wrote, or did you just agree on a starting point?
Both of us sort of talked through, with a third person, our chronologies. I had never even remotely thought that I’d be writing a memoir, especially in my mid-40s. It just wasn’t even on the radar screen. I [think] I have a bad memory, so I didn’t have any confidence that I’d be able to construct a strong enough narrative to be able to just tell my own story. But once you start researching, once you start going back, you start telling one story, then it leads to another.
Did you find yourself examining your own life as you would any other topic?
Yeah. Microscopes and telescopes were deployed for this process. Rather than being turned outward to a war zone in Africa or an individual working for justice that I wanted to profile, I turned it on myself. The results often were unpleasant. The greatest thing about it was it kept ringing truer and truer. The beginning step where you’re like, “Oh, this is going to be a nice little book about how I was a great guy” [laughs]. Man, oh man.
Was there a lot that surprised you, both in your part and in Michael’s half?
I think [I understand] better what the connections were to my father, like any boy and his dad. Like how the things that happened to me as a kid actually directly led to why I do what I do now in Africa and do what I do now and have over the last 25 years with these Little Brothers. The dominance of this guy in my life, even in his passing, even though he’s gone now, is just quite remarkable.
And then for Michael, in terms of the depth of what he was involved in, even in our discussions after the fact when we sat around having those dinners, even now I’ve learned a lot more about how far gone he was for a minute there. To not be there and to realize how badly he needed me at the time I wasn’t there. So there were some really basic things about myself and some very basic things about my relationship with Michael over the years that completely eluded me.
Did writing the book make you two closer?
Ah, man, like gangbusters. We hang around together all the time now. I’m deeply involved with his family with his kids. He’ll be coming to my wedding on June 18 with his whole family. He’s going to get a bus and come up. He’ll even come with me sometimes when I take my other Little Brother out, Jamaar. So he’s just a good influence. He’s a cool cat and people respect him a lot. And when he speaks, he has authority as someone who’s been there, done that.
Do you consider any of your other books autobiographical? They’re not obviously autobiographical but when you have a passion in a certain direction it seems like it would be hard to keep yourself out of the narrative completely.
That’s a great question. I think, yes. In fact, in Not on Our Watch [written with Don Cheadle], we put a lot in about why we’re interested in these issues and what gets us involved. And The Enough Moment, the narrative spine of the book is a conversation between he and I where a lot of it is talking about our own stuff, issues and interests and viewpoints. We put our own stories into it because otherwise people aren’t going to be that interested.