David Abrams debut, Fobbit, a harrowingly funny novel about the Iraq War, was not only a New York Times notable book of 2012, but it zoomed onto the Best Books Lists from Barnes & Noble, Paste, Amazon, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Publishers Weekly--and my own personal list, too. He's also the genius behind the blog, The Quivering Pen, and truthfully, one of the warmest, most hilarious human beings on the planet. I'll thrilled to finally have him on the blog! Thank you, David!
So, every writer's least favorite question, sometimes, but the one readers always want to know: Tell us what sparked the writing of Fobbit?
What sparks any novel? A word? An image? An off-hand comment from a co-worker, a spouse, or a stranger? In the case of Fobbit, it was a little of all of that. Maybe it was the fact that I read Catch-22, Don Quixote, and Jarhead on my first deployment into a war zone (Operation Iraqi Freedom, 2005). Maybe it was the time when I was sitting at my desk in the U.S. Army’s Task Force Baghdad Headquarters and someone in the next cubicle was complaining about a paper cut they’d just gotten after a printer jam while, at the same time, we were hearing a report through the overhead speakers of another casualty in the war—a soldier blown apart into five different pieces from a roadside bomb. Or maybe it was my agent emailing me—after unsuccessfully shopping around my “Iraq War memoir” manuscript to New York publishers—to advise that maybe what this war really needed was a novel—a work of fiction that would hit home to a reading public who’d grown numb to a nation at war. It was all of those things—a culmination of factors that led me to turn away from truthfully recounting my year-long deployment to Iraq as a much-despised “fobbit” and focus on the medium of lies instead. Near the end of my tour of duty, I realized fiction would be the most effective megaphone I could use to tell people about my war experience. And so, I set to work writing a comedy about my days in Baghdad with the 3rd Infantry Division.
Fobbit's been compared to Catch-22 in its wild, black humor and its raw look at the War. You even include a funny homage to Heller's book in your novel, by having a character reading Catch-22. Does this fantastic comparison make you more nervous about writing your next book or does it save you, or a little of both?
The debt I owe Joseph Heller for artistic inspiration is incalculable—as is the debt I owe Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, Charles Dickens, Richard Ford, Flannery O’Connor, Victor Hugo, and any number of other literary lampposts which have lit my path. In the case of Catch-22, it obviously had a direct impact in the way Fobbit turned out and since I knew the comparisons would be inevitable, I decided to give the book its own little cameo in my novel. I read Heller’s novel for the first time when I was on my way to war—literally on my way: I started on page 1 after I’d boarded the plane at Fort Stewart, Georgia and had reached the midway point by the time we touched down in Kuwait, the 3rd ID’s staging ground before we moved north to Iraq. Catch-22 was unlike anything I’d ever read. There’s slapstick on one page and horror on the next. It’s not an easy book to read; it’s illogical and irrational in structure; there are as many characters as an Osmond Family Thanksgiving guest list; and you have to work your way toward its pleasures….but when you get there, those rewards are immeasurable. I should add that Catch-22 is not the only influence behind Fobbit. I was raised on a diet of TV shows that poked fun at the military: Hogan’s Heroes, Gomer Pyle, and M*A*S*H. Those shows were subversive and, though I didn’t realize it at the time, they set the stage for the way I always root for the underdog. The little guys (the privates) always got their way while the higher echelons (the officers) came off looking like fools. Discipline was turned upside down, creating chaos. And out of that chaos came comedy. So Fobbit is as much Gomer Pyle as it is Yossarian.
I loved that you focused on the noncombat units of the Iraq War. As a former army public affairs specialist, you have an insider's unique perspective, so how much is exaggerated and how much is dead-on true?
If comedy is truth stretched out on a wad of Silly-Putty, then there’s probably a lot of truth at the heart of Fobbit. I don’t think I want to get into naming the specific elements of the novel which really happened or are daily practices of the Army at war because nearly everything in the novel is a hybrid—a fictual faction—but I can tell you there are two sections of the book which stick pretty close to the truth: the tragic scene at the on Al-Aaimmah bridge where nearly a thousand Iraqis were killed in a stampede; and Captain Abe Shrinkle’s flashback to a disastrous date in high school. The bridge stampede happened while I was in Iraq, and that date was pretty close to my own romantic fumble in junior high. For the rest of the book, I tried to filter the essence of truth through comedy. While I was writing Fobbit, I kept circling back to one of my favorite quotes from Flannery O’Connor: “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.” In order to get readers’ attention, I did a lot of shouting and billboard-painting in this book.
What's your writing life like?
I balance my writing routine with the demands of a full-time day job, and the pleasures of a very rich, happy married life (my wife and I are empty-nesters now, but we like to spend most of our time together). These things squeeze the rest of my day into small compartments. So, in my quest for better time management, I’ve started getting up at 3:30 every morning to work on my creative writing. The house is dark and quiet. It’s just me, the keyboard, a mug of coffee, and my classical music iTunes playlist. It’s an ungodly hour, but I find these are my most fertile hours. Sadly, I don’t spend all of those hours writing fiction. Lack of self-discipline is the biggest monster on my back. That’s why you’ll usually find me checking email, Tweeting, blogging, and any number of other distractions when I should be writing fiction. When I do write, it’s usually in these big bursts—lung-burning sprints to a finish line—where I write an entire short story in one sitting, or spend three days in isolation trying to get through 50 pages of my novel.
What's obsessing you now and why?
Apart from my blog, The Quivering Pen, which is always an obsession, I’ve been consumed with revising my next novel. It’s a screwball comedy set in the Golden Age of Hollywood—something pretty far removed from the bloody grit of the Iraq War. In a nutshell, it’s about a popular child actor and his adult stunt double and the trouble they get into when the kid kills a rival studio’s mascot—a scrappy little dog who always opened the studio’s films with a “Yip-yip-a-rooo!” similar to the MGM lion’s roar. On a larger level, it’s about identity, loyalty, and the conflict of protecting someone you’ve grown to dislike.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
You didn’t ask me about the time my father, a Baptist minister, paid me to read the Bible (I made it as far as Leviticus that year and earned $35); the name of my first dog (Shane, a chocolate Labrador Retriever); three things I love about my wife (her sense of fairness, the depth of her voice, and the way she collapses with laughter when I’m on a really good roll with snappy one-liners); my favorite non-writing, non-reading passion (cooking); the two TV shows which didn’t deserve to die early deaths (Southland and Better Off Ted); which type of chocolate I prefer (milk); and the moment I really, truly grew up (September 22, 1984 when my first child was born: For nine months, he’d been this mystery--identity unknown, a shifting shape behind the barrier of my wife's skin--but now here he was, pink and wet and complete, coming out of my wife's body with his arms springing open wide, as if he was at the end of a dream about falling from heaven). But then again, how could you have known those were the questions you should have asked?
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