Thursday, September 26, 2013

"Fobbit": An Interview with David Abrams

Fobbit is a darkly ironic novel of the Iraq war that takes readers into the cha­otic world of Baghdad’s Forward Operating Base Triumph. The Forward Operating Base, or FOB, is like the back-office of the battlefield—where the grunts eat and sleep between missions, and where a lot of Army employees have what looks suspiciously like an office job. The FOB contains all the comforts of home, including Starbucks and Burger King, but there’s also the unfortunate possibility that a mortar might hit you while you’re drinking your Frappucino. A lot of what goes on at the FOB doesn’t exactly fit the image of war that the army and the government feed us: male and female soldiers are trying to find an empty Porta-Potty in which to get acquainted, grunts are playing Xbox and watching NASCAR between missions, and most of the senior staff are more concerned about getting to the chow hall in time for the Friday night all-you-can-eat seafood special than worrying about little things like military strategy. The book follows dyed-in-the-wool Fobbit Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding, who works for the army public affairs office and spends his days tap­ping out press releases to try to turn the latest roadside bombing or army blunder into something that the American public can read about while eating their breakfast cereal.

Like Catch-22 and M*A*S*HFobbit fuses pathos with dark humor to cre­ate a brilliantly witty and profound work about the ugly and banal truth of life in the modern-day war zone.

An Interview with David Abrams
Tell us a little about yourself.
I’m a man who loves his wife as much—nay, more!—as he did at the start 30 years ago.
I’m a proud father of three adult children who have made their way into the world via surprising and satisfying paths. I’m a foodie who loves, in equal measure, Cheez-its and crème brulee. I’m a reader who loves both the sound of a page turning and the soft click of a Kindle button. I’m a writer whose foundation is built on the works of Charles Dickens, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Flannery O’Connor, Anne Sexton, and Alice McDermott.

What is your favorite non-writing pastime?
Of course it’s reading—what writer doesn’t also read voraciously?  But, stepping away from books and words for a minute, my most passionate pastime is cooking.  I love to spend time in the kitchen chopping, stirring, frying, baking, grilling, and basting.  It’s therapy for me after a long day at the office.  I think I like the structure of following a recipe (with allowances for spicy creativity).  Even greater than the act of creation is the act of consumption.  I love to eat!  Perhaps a little too much so.  Favorite recipes: Shrimp and Grits, a Coca-Cola Cake (tastes better than it sounds), and Ancho Pork Tenderloin with Peanut Sauce.

Is writing a full-time career for you? If not, how else do you spend your work day?
No, not a full-time career….at least, not yet.  I work full-time as a public affairs specialist for a federal land management agency in western Montana.  I have to squeeze my creative writing time in whenever I can—which usually means in the early-morning hours before I head off to the office.  Most days, I’m at the keyboard by 4 a.m.

If you had to sum it up Fobbit in 30 or less words, what would you say?
While infantry soldiers patrol the streets of Baghdad, another workforce of support staff at U.S. Army headquarters battles ennui, red tape, and paper cuts during the Iraq War.

What inspired the idea behind your book?
I was deployed to Baghdad in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2005.  While I was there, I reluctantly turned into one of the titular “Fobbits” of my novel.  For those who don’t speak military lingo, a Fobbit is a soldier who tends to avoid danger by hanging back at the Forward Operating Base.  The novel was a natural outgrowth of some of the things I observed and experienced during my time with the U.S. Army in Iraq.  A small portion of the book is based on fact, but—since it’s a satire—the majority of the novel has sprouted from the wild garden of my imagination.

Do you have a favorite character in Fobbit? Who and why?
Like a good parent, I hate to play favorites….but I can tell you that I probably had the most fun writing the emails which Lieutenant Colonel Eustace Harkleroad writes home to his mother in Tennessee.  Harkleroad is an overweight buffoon—hard of hearing and prone to nosebleeds—who, in addition to being a Mama’s boy, is a world-class truth-stretcher (some might call it “liar,” but I’ll go easy on him).  He’s always fabricating stories for her benefit to make himself look better than he really is.  Somehow, Harkleroad’s voice just clicked with me as I started writing those outlandish emails and I started adding more and more of them.

Will you share with us a short preview of the book?
Here’s the opening to Chapter 1:
They were Fobbits because, at the core, they were nothing but marshmallow. Crack open their chests and in the space where their hearts should be beating with a warrior’s courage and selfless regard, you’d find a pale, gooey center. They cowered like rabbits in their cubicles, busied themselves with PowerPoint briefings to avoid the hazard of Baghdad’s bombs, and steadfastly clung white-knuckled to their desks at Forward Operating Base Triumph. If the FOB was a mother’s skirt, then these soldiers were pressed hard against the pleats, too scared to venture beyond her grasp.
    Like the shy, hairy-footed hobbits of Tolkien’s world, they were reluctant to go beyond their shire, bristling with rolls of concertina wire at the borders of the FOB. After all, there were goblins in turbans out there! Or so they convinced themselves.
    Supply clerks, motor pool mechanics, cooks, mail sorters, lawyers, trombone players, logisticians: Fobbits, one and all. They didn’t give a shit about appearances. They were all about making it out of Iraq in one piece.

What message do you hope readers take away from the book?
I hope they’d see a slightly different side of a war—the “back office of the battlefield,” if you will.  While I take some liberties and exaggerate reality in a few places, the basic truths at the core of the novel is that this war—and all wars, really—was run by fallible human beings who are often so tangled in bureaucratic red tape, they can hardly move.

Do you have to be alone or have quiet to write?
I admire those writers who can write in coffee houses, on subway trains, or at the dining room table while the kids are running around screaming at the tops of their lungs.  Not me.  I need solitude and a language-free soundscape.  I usually play classical music while I’m writing, but otherwise it’s too hard for me to concentrate.  I’m taken out of my head all too easily.  A fly beating its wings against a windowpane can ruin me for the entire day.

Is there any place and time in the world and in history that you would like to visit?
London, October 1868.  I would have loved to be sitting in a crowded performance hall listening to Charles Dickens read from A Christmas Carol.  By all accounts, his readings were breath-taking and, reportedly, made ladies swoon.  Dickens was a rock star long before rock-‘n-roll was invented.  I would have liked to be there, taking notes on how he did it.  Our bookstore readings these day could use some of that Dickensian fervor, I think.

Is there a genre you wish you could write, but haven’t made the plunge? Which one and what appeals to you about it?
I think I could do a fairly good job at writing horror.  I was a devout disciple of Stephen King when I was a teenager and I think his books really got in my bloodstream.  When you’re that closely tuned in to a writer and his/her style, you develop an ear for the language—the pacing and the rhythm—which makes it a little easier to find your groove in that particular style or genre.  Apart from that, I just think it would be fun to scare the crap out of readers.

What are you reading now? Why did you choose that book?
I’m reading a marvelous first novel called Falling to Earth by Kate Southwood.  I was drawn to it initially because of the central idea of the plot: after a tornado devastates his small town in Illinois in 1925, a man must deal with the guilt of having the only house and family members who survived intact.  It’s a sort of reversal of the Biblical story of Job and Southwood has a terrific eye for period detail and taking us straight to the interior lives of her characters.

How long did it take to get this book from idea to being published? What was the most grueling process?
It took me a total of six years to write Fobbit.  I started working on it near the end of my tour of duty in Iraq in 2005 and it was published by Grove/Atlantic Press in September 2012.  I don’t know if there was ever a point where it was “grueling” for me—every day is like that for me in my struggle to initially get motivated for each day’s writing session—but there was a time for a period of about nine months when I wasn’t working on the novel.  I’d sunk into a depression and lost focus on a lot of things.  I felt an overall lack of ambition and discipline.  The writing went fallow and my imagination stopped sparking.  Of course, out of that dark blue period of my life came the best thing which ever happened to me as a writer:  a daily work routine.  I got so tired of hearing myself say, “I’ll write when I have the time” that I finally pulled up short one day, literally slapped myself on the face, and said, “You fool!  You’ll never be able to ‘find’ the time—you have to ‘make’ the time.”  And so, I resolved to start writing at a certain time every day and vowed never to miss a day once I got started.  That’s how I got back to writing Fobbit.  The next morning, I woke up at 5:30, started writing at 6:00 and kept at it nonstop for the next 90 minutes.  It may not have been a lot of words—maybe 600 words at best—but they were 600 words which got me closer to finishing the draft of that book.  It was progress.  The next day, I got up at 5:30, typed for another 90 minutes and maybe got 800 words out of my head.  And so on, and so on.  Before I knew it, the novel was all finished—a triumph of completion by 800-word-increments.

Laptop, desktop or notebook and pen for writing?
I’ve mainly been a laptop writer, but lately (in the last few months) I’ve been writing my next book by hand.  I write with a Pentel “EnerGel” pen in a Moleskine notebook every morning.  I’ve been surprised by two things: I don’t hate the sight of my handwriting as much as I thought I would, and my hand doesn’t cramp up at the end of a ninety-minute work session.  Some days, when the words are really flowing, I’ll keep going and going.

Meet the Author
David Abrams’ debut novel about the Iraq War, Fobbit, was named a New York
Times Notable Book of 2012 and a Best Book of 2012 by Paste Magazine, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Barnes and Noble. It was also featured as part of B&N's Discover Great New Writers program. One of his short stories, "Roll Call," was included in the anthology Fire and Forget (Da Capo Press, 2013). His short stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and have appeared in EsquireNarrativeElectric LiteratureConsequenceSalamander, The LiterarianConnecticut ReviewThe Greensboro ReviewFive ChaptersThe Missouri Review, and many other places. His work has also appeared in the New York Times and Salon. He regularly blogs about the literary life at The Quivering Pen.

Abrams retired in 2008 after a 20-year career in the active-duty Army as a journalist. He was named the Department of Defense's Military Journalist of the Year in 1994 and received several other military commendations throughout his career. His tours of duty took him to Thailand, Japan, Africa, Alaska, Texas, Georgia and The Pentagon. In 2005, he joined the 3rd Infantry Division and deployed to Baghdad in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The journal he kept during that year formed the blueprint for the novel which would later become known as Fobbit.

David Abrams was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in Jackson, Wyoming. He earned a BA in English from the University of Oregon and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. He now lives in Butte, Montana with his wife.

Connect with the author:
Twitter:  @ImDavidAbrams

1 comment:

  1. Fobbit sounds interesting. Thanks for sharing the backstory on how the book got started. And, Congratulations on the release of your debut novel - a bit late!