Interview: David Abrams on Comedy, the Iraq War, and Finding Your Golden Sentence
I recently sat down with David Abrams to talk about his forthcoming novel, Fobbit, a comedy about the Iraq war. David offers a glimpse into how he became a novelist, his service in the Iraq War, and how, as he puts it, “Comedy was just one way—the easiest way—of dealing with all that stupidity and bravery and sadness.”
In this interview, he shares his philosophy on living the creative life, and well, pencils of course.
My Interview with David Abrams
When did you begin writing creatively, and what is it that keeps you inspired to continue to write now?
At the risk of sounding too pretentious, I have a simple answer for that: “When I started to breathe.” It seems like the urge to create has always been in me. Even as a very young kid, I would spend a lot of time creating scenarios with my plastic cowboys and Indians or my set of Matchbox cars. I’d invent stories full of elaborate car chases across the living room rug, that sort of thing. It was the early germ of narrative, I suppose. Then, when I got older and started reading—somewhere around the age of 5—well, then I was just completely done in by the idea of putting words, one after the other, in proper and perfect order to create a “story.” That’s when I think it really started—there in the public library of Kittanning, Pennsylvania, when I opened my first book and read my first sentence on my own, or maybe even earlier than that—when my mother read stories to me at bedtime. In a sense, I was writing stories in my head long before I learned how to hold a pencil in my hand. But, to specifically answer your question, I remember writing my first story when I was 6 years old. It was called “The Lady and the Clock” and was about a rich lady who takes her clock in to a kind old man to be repaired. If I remember correctly, the drama all hinged on a broken spring. That was the start of my writing “career” and that need to tell stories and play around with language has been driving me forward ever since.
What is your preferred method of composition? Do you prefer to write exclusively on a computer, jot down your drafts with pen or pencil in a notebook, or a combination of these methods? In short, what does your writing process look like?
I’m ashamed to admit this on a site called Pencils.com, but I’m pretty much a computer guy. The idea of writing a story by hand is romantic and a little retro—though I know plenty of novelists these days who say they write their first drafts longhand—but I really don’t like the way my handwriting looks on the page. It’s not so much the words themselves, but all the scribbles and cross-outs that dirty up the page. I’m a guy who revises as he goes along and the computer backspace key just makes that so much easier. Now, having said that, I’m going to contradict myself and tell you that I recently started writing a novel in longhand as a sort of experiment, to see if this kind of intimacy with the physical process makes a difference in how the story comes out. I’m finding it’s a slower, more deliberate pace, forcing me to choose my words carefully as I go along. We’ll see how it goes and how far I get before I run back to the familiarity and ease of the computer keyboard.
In an earlier Short Story, “Joyride,” which appeared in The Literarian, your character Jacob P. Zeildorf’s mind is marred by memories of the untimely deaths of his brothers in arms. The story also seems to remark on the confinement of the story’s characters to Forward Operating Base Triumph and the conflict it imposes on Zeildorf, filling him with a desire to escape not only the base, but his memories. How did you come up with the idea for this story?
Thanks for mentioning that story—it’s one of my favorites. I like how you say it’s a story about escape—escape from the boredom of guard duty, escape from the rigid regulations of the Army, escape from the military base itself. “Joyride” was originally a chapter in my novel Fobbit, but it was eventually cut because the original draft of the novel was too long. As soon as I cut it, I realized I had a complete, self-contained story on my hands. I revised it a few more times, then sent it off to The Literarian and they were kind enough to publish it. Like a lot of the scenes in Fobbit, “Joyride” was based on an actual incident, which happened while I was in Iraq in 2005. I worked as a media relations non-commissioned officer in an Army task force headquarters in Baghdad and it was my job to monitor the serious incident reports involving U.S. troops. One day, I read of a soldier who got drunk while on guard duty, stole a Humvee out of the motor pool, then went joyriding out on Route Irish. My fiction radar went on full alert and I was already starting to write sentences in my head before I finished reading that report. What I eventually came up with probably had little to do with the reality of the situation, but that’s where it got its start—a dry, just-the-facts military report.
In “Known Unknowns,” a story that appeared in War Literature and the Arts, your story dealt with serious and dangerous situations with a delicate balance of levity and wit. How do you approach such a serious subject as war, using humor, without diminishing the severity of the situation? What are some difficulties you had early on when developing your style?
That’s really the key question I struggled with as I wrote Fobbit (“Known Unknowns” is an early version of Chapter 2 in the novel). How can I make war funny? How dare I make war funny? Joseph Heller did it with Catch-22, of course, but it’s a tricky, tricky thing. A real tightrope act. I worried then and I still worry now that readers will think I’m mocking the war or that I’m diminishing the deaths and injuries of our men and women in uniform. Far from it. Okay, maybe I’m mocking the war itself as a concept of failed diplomacy—especially in Iraq—and I guess I’m ridiculing the tragi-comedy of military leaders who walk around in a constant state of ass-pucker because they’re worried the commanding general might not like their PowerPoint briefing. But the men and women doing the hard, deadly job of the door-to-door, street-by-street mission? No comedy there—or, if there is, it’s grim, black humor. For the most part, the “boots-on-the-ground” aspect of war is dangerous, tedious business. I tried to provide some of that sobering balance in Fobbit.
Your novel, “Fobbit,” due for release in September of this year by Grove/Atlantic Press, is a comedy about the Iraq War. For our readers, can you explain what a Fobbit is? Also, can you tell us how this title came about?
A fobbit is a soldier who avoids combat—whether deliberately or subconsciously—by spending most of the time in the confines of the Forward Operating Base. The term is a marriage between “FOB” and a “hobbit” from J. R. R. Tolkien. In his books, he describes hobbits as creatures who are reluctant to leave the comfort of the shire. In the military, the word “Fobbit” started off as a joke to describe support soldiers who busied themselves with office work and PowerPoint briefings and who were out of touch with what was going on outside the main gates of the FOB. It didn’t take long for the word to become a really scornful putdown. These days, “fobbit” is a four-letter word to most members of the military. The book always had the title of “Fobbit.” I like its simplicity, its directness, the stark sound of the word. Of course, it will also be something of a riddle to non-military readers, so my publisher has smartly put a definition of the term on the front cover of the book. The novel centers around a public affairs team—dyed-in-the-wool fobbits—who work in an Army task force headquarters in Baghdad. It also follows a company of combat soldiers who go out on patrol and make life difficult for the public affairs fobbits by being the cause of some “bad news” situations, which must be cleaned up and “spun” for the news media.
Readers who want to get the real story from the frontlines read novels about war with great anticipation. When writing Fobbit, who was your ideal reader? In addition, what thoughts did you have in your mind given the huge body of work written on the subject of war?
My ideal reader? Hmmm. I guess it would be the 26-year-old woman reading the book while eating her lunch in the employee breakroom and thinking about her brother who’s serving his second tour of duty in Afghanistan. She’s read a lot of news stories about the war but is skeptical about everything official “Army spokesmen” have said. She would also be someone who likes to laugh out loud and wouldn’t hesitate to say to her co-workers there in the lunchroom, “Hey, listen to this.” Is that too specific? Okay then, how about “anyone with even a passing interest in what’s going on in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Also, people who like screwball comedies, who cheat on their “diets” by eating dinner at Red Lobster, who read Charles Dickens and David Baldacci, who program their TiVos for all episodes of The Office (especially the British version), who passionately debate politics with co-workers, who don’t debate politics but sometimes wish they did, and who cried when Old Yeller died. I think that about covers it. But really, when it comes right down to it, I wrote the book for myself as a way of making sense of everything I saw and heard while I was in Iraq. Comedy was just one way—the easiest way—of dealing with all that stupidity and bravery and sadness.
What is your favorite novel about war and why does it resonate with you in particular?
I think the work of war fiction that resonates strongest with me is Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which is a collection of short stories (though it’s sometimes labeled a “novel in stories”). He absolutely nails the mindset of war to the wall—the misery, the chaos, the humor. Other war novels that have been strong influences in my writing include Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer, The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak, A Midnight Clear by William Wharton, and of course the granddaddy of them all, Catch-22.
What advice would you give to writers trying to make their debut today, given the opportunity to self-publish, the rise of eBooks, and the growth of small literary presses?
There will be times when you think your writing is absolute crap, that it’s so bad you think you ought to just give up, that you should just take a ballpeen hammer to your keyboard. Don’t let yourself get like this. Go back over something you’ve written, find that one golden sentence that leaps off the page with life. Embrace it, kiss it, then go out there and make another one like it. The other thing I would say to writers who are hoping to make their “debut” in writing: it doesn’t have to be big; it doesn’t have to be a splashy book deal right out of the gate. I spent nearly 15 years publishing short stories and poems in microscopically small literary magazines—usually for no pay—before I got my “big break” with a short story in Esquire. Then it was another 14 years before Fobbit, my debut novel, was published. So, sometimes it takes time. If you have the passion and the belief in your writing, and if you every now and then write a golden sentence you love, then I say, “Don’t stop typing.” Or, more apropos to this website, “Never stop sharpening your pencils.”
David Abrams’ short stories have appeared in Esquire, Narrative, The Literarian, Connecticut Review, The Greensboro Review, The Missouri Review, The North Dakota Review and other literary quarterlies. His novel about the Iraq War, Fobbit, will be published by Grove/Atlantic in September 2012. He regularly blogs about the literary life at The Quivering Pen. Read an extended bio at his website, David Abrams Books.