“Bullshit.” So begins the epilogue of Kicking Ass and Saving Souls, David Matthews’ astounding biography of Stefan Templeton, his friend since childhood and a true-life action figure. Matthews entertainingly, and oftentimes critically, relates it, Templeton’s life is a white-knuckled read from his early days in West Baltimore to his current calling as a humanitarian aid worker.
Over the course of the book there are close calls with Yakuza thugs and hungry sharks; there are karate brawls and daring jewel heists; and there are moments of selfless heroics. In other words, there’s enough unbelievable action in Kicking Ass to shame James Bond into retirement, and though Matthews agrees that it reads like fiction, he promises that Templeton’s story is bullshit-free.
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Seriously, did Stefan Templeton really do all this stuff?
Yes, the caveat is I made him a promise that I wouldn’t get him arrested or divorced—so if something goes down in the book in Oslo, then chances are it actually happened in Copenhagen. And in a lot of cases I found myself in this weird position of underselling what actually happened, because once people started coming forward and telling me the real story it was too much.
No matter how incredible Stefan’s exploits, the book keeps him grounded. How difficult was it to keep him human-sized?
It was actually really difficult. He’s not the kind of guy you want to sit and have a beer with and talk about the girl you’re dating or if your house payment is due, because his experiences are not that. His experiences are “I just got back from Darfur,” and he doesn’t really have a chip that enables him to relate to quotidian experiences. I had to hone in on his flaws, which are that he’s not a warm or fuzzy, or laughable, or affable guy. He’s kind of part animal, part machine.
Were there questions about his life you couldn’t get answered?
The hard part was that the crux of his illegal and supersexy fun stuff happened in the 1980s and is pre-internet. And a lot of it is illegal, successfully illegal, so there weren’t records of it. I’m such a cynic that I thought this book could be kind of an unmasking of Stefan, because I wasn’t there for these adventures and I thought, what if these stories I’m hearing are all bullshit?
But the more I traveled with him and met some of these characters, not only did I get corroboration, but the real thing always trumped his version of it. When I finally got them to open up, they would corroborate key stuff for me and add detail. How do you get confirmation on a life that was lived sort of purposely under the radar in the criminal underworld? I just had to use his cohort’s accounts of it—and luckily, within a centimeter of each other, they all matched up.
How much has writing this book changed the tenor of your friendship?
I’m still waiting to see how this plays out. He thinks that his whole value lies in the good he’s doing now, and it took me a long time to convince him that there are a million 20-year-old college kids, fresh out of Harvard, who are off doing good in Africa. His value lies in the uniqueness of his experiences, the singularity of the way he trekked across cultural, racial and class boundaries, and the fact that he fucked up before he started doing good. I tried to tell him, “Without the you that did the Gibraltar Heist, the other you doesn’t matter.” It’s universal, but it’s also quintessentially American. Americans love second acts.
Has Stefan seen the book yet?
He’s absolutely incurious about this kind of stuff. He’s mystified that anyone would find his life interesting. I’ll tell him that “Hey, I just got back from L.A. and this person at this studio thinks your book would make a great movie,” and he says, “Man, Americans have such low belief horizons. How can my life blow anyone’s mind? I hang out with cats every day in the bush and in Europe whose life stories make mine look boring.” He just doesn’t get it. But it also makes him a little bit of a dick, because you’re like, “I just got some really great T-shirts at J Crew,” and he says, “Well, I just got back from saving a thousand babies.”
Come on, right?
Yeah. But when I went to Darfur with him…I mean this is a guy who can fucking bring it. It’s easy to be cynical, sure, but when you’re there and shit is happening around you and you think, “Hey, something might happen to me,” you look over at [Stefan] and you realize that things are actually going to be OK because this guy’s in your orbit. When things would go wrong, seasoned aid workers would say, “Where’s Stefan?” And I’d be like, “Oh, you mean the guy I grew up with?”