David Abrams' debut novel about the Iraq War, Fobbitt, was a New York Times Notable book of 2012 and a Best Book of 2012 by Paste, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Barnes and Noble. Everyone knows his wonderful blog, The Quivering Pen. His newest masterpiece, BRAVE DEEDS, is published today, so go out and buy a few copies!
Plus, he's one of the nicest guys around. I'm honored to have him here.
What was the why now moment that made you write this novel? And why do you think it took five years (says the writer who always takes four years...) Is this just the way you write, finding the story as you go along?
For starters, I still work a 9-to-5, 40-hours-per-week day job (like the large majority of my fellow authors) and so that cuts into creative time. I write when I can—small pockets of opportunity—trying to maintain a flow and continuity to the story. Most of my daily writing consists of note-taking and long handwritten passages in my journal, and then a crazed, brain-on-fire, all-fingers-flying marathon session on the laptop when I can afford a longer stretch of time.
Other factors I can blame for slowing Brave Deeds to a five-year crawl: blogging, my daughter’s wedding, travel, reading more and more books per year, a plot synopsis for a TV sitcom that never went anywhere, writing a play that never went anywhere (I’ve really got to start seeing things through to completion), jogging on the treadmill, and too many hours of bingeing on Netflix. In all fairness to Brave Deeds, I honestly thought a previously-written novel would be my “second book,” but I realized that manuscript needed a surgical facelift, so I set that aside after devoting a year or so to it.
In the meantime, I was making the first marks on a page for a short story that would eventually turn into Brave Deeds. That also might be part of the issue here, I was treating Brave Deeds as a short story, or more likely a novella, and not giving it my full attention. After separate lunches with my agent and my editor several years ago, I decided to get serious about Brave Deeds as a longer project. It was when I was writing my characters’ backstories that I really fell in love with this book. I loved these flawed, foolhardy soldiers and wanted to spend more time with them. And so, 250 pages later, here we are.
You're such a critically acclaimed author, I wonder if each new book feels like the first? Or do you feel that you now have learned new lessons that you can apply to a new work?
Every blank page feels like the first time. I think to myself, “You have a wonderful opportunity here to tell a story. Don’t screw it up.” As I mentioned, Brave Deeds started out in life as a novella told in a fairly traditional way, but then I started narrating it in first-person plural (the collective “we” representing the Army squad as a whole) and that changed the whole tone of the novel. First-person plural was risky and exciting, and I plunged ahead, eager for the stylistic challenge. In the last year, I think my very best day came when my editor said he loved the “we” of the book.
What was your research like?
My research consisted of going to war in Iraq in 2005. That sounds flippant, but personal experience can be the best kind of research. An immersive experience (like combat, like childbirth, like losing your virginity) can provide the kind of sensory details that dry facts and figures on a piece of paper or a screen could never duplicate.
That being said, I should point out that, unlike Fobbit, the characters in my book have a very different war experience than I did when I deployed with the Army’s Third Infantry Regiment in 2005. My characters are infantry, I was a support soldier; they steal a Humvee, I never even drove a Humvee (at least not in Iraq); they walk through hostile territory, I only left the security and comfort of the Forward Operating Base once (and that was for a 20-minute ceremony near the Green Zone). I was out of my comfort zone writing Brave Deeds and it felt good. I needed to stretch and take risks.
As for the more traditional kind of research, I looked up information about weaponry, studied maps, and stared at lots and lots of pictures that showed daily life in Baghdad. But that’s about the extent of “research” for Brave Deeds.
What's obsessing you now and why?
I’m writing this on the eve of the publication of my second book, am about to embark on a tour to promote the novel at bookstores, and am writing essays and doing interviews like this one. I can’t imagine what kind of obsessions you’re talking about.
Eat. Sleep. Brave Deeds.
Eat. Sleep. Brave Deeds.
Eat. Sleep. Brave Deeds.
(Repeat as necessary)
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
What’s the best 2017 book you’ve read so far?
The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler. It’s about Boy Scouts, bullies, bugles, war, mothers, fathers, sons, camp counselors, cruelty, longing, love, duty, honor, joy, disappointment, and about a thousand other things that make up life as we know it. It shook me to the core and even now, all these many months after turning the last page, it has stuck with me.