David Abrams, who spent 20 years as an Army journalist, is the author of the acclaimed debut novel Fobbit. His blog can be found at The Quivering Pen, and he lives in Butte, Montana.
Q: Why did you decide to write a novel based on your experiences serving in Iraq? Did you ever consider writing a memoir instead?
A: From the start of my deployment to Iraq in 2005, I knew something creative would come out of my time in the combat zone. This was my first time going to war, so it was a Significant Life Event which I figured would inevitably be turned into some sort of writing project.
At the time, I didn’t know what form it would take—a short story, a play, maybe even a single poem—but I knew I needed to be open, creatively, to however it presented itself to me. So I started taking notes and keeping a detailed journal into which I poured everything—what I had for dinner, how many miles I ran around Saddam Hussein’s man-made lake, the bats swooping to nip away insects in front of my face.
I recorded some of the more unique and startling significant activity reports which came into our task force headquarters, I paid attention to the smells in the air, I eavesdropped on conversations while I sat in a bathroom stall. Everything went into that journal. When you write as much material as I did during that year, eventually you’re going to see a pattern and characters will emerge.
I think it was near the end of my deployment, in the autumn of 2005, when I started writing little scenarios involving the people who would later turn into Captain Abe Shrinkle, Lieutenant Colonel Eustace Harkleroad and Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding Jr. They grew organically out of my journal, and once they showed themselves, I liked who they were and the things they said and so I just kept throwing more and more things into their paths.
Did I ever think about writing a straightforward memoir? Sure. For about two minutes, but then I rejected that idea because, I thought, I didn’t have enough to say about the war or my place in it—that is to say, if I stuck to the truth of my time over there. I figured nobody would be interested in reading about the humdrum daily routine of an office cubicle jungle—even one that was in the middle of a combat zone. Most of my days were pretty redundant—with only a few exceptions. I came up with an interesting title—“The Diary of a Soft Soldier”—but that’s as far as I went with that idea.
Besides, at the time there was a glut of war memoirs flooding into bookstores—some of them very good—and I knew I couldn’t compete. I wanted to do something different, tell my experience from an obtuse angle. If fiction was a wall socket, I wanted to plug my story into the outlet and turn up the voltage.
Q: You served in the U.S. military for 20 years as an Army journalist and the book focuses in part on the military-press relationship. How has that dynamic changed (or remained the same) over the years, especially looking at the period from the Vietnam era to today? In your opinion, did the military learn lessons from the Vietnam War and apply them to later conflicts?
A: The Vietnam War left a lot of bruises on both the military and the press. Mistakes were made, feelings were hurt, and the “Five O’Clock Follies” dented the military’s credibility for decades. It took nearly a generation of soldiers to pass through the ranks—those senior officers who couldn’t let go of their distrust of the media—but gradually the military started seeing reporters not as adversaries but as potential allies.
By the time I came in to the Army in 1988, the glaciers had started to thaw and the Grand Canyons of division had started to close. There were still plenty of colonels and generals who had nothing by fear and disdain for the media at that time, but eventually they retired and attitudes started to shift.
When I went to Iraq, the Army was still picking through lessons learned in Operation Desert Storm and earnestly applying them to how they’d work with the media in this new, wired Information Age. I think, to a degree, the military has been pretty successful in at least trying to meet the press halfway with embedded media and more timely news releases. They’re not all the way there yet—as the satire in Fobbit points out—but they’ve come a long way since Vietnam.
Q: Fobbit does indeed take a satirical look at the Iraq War, and has drawn comparisons to Catch-22, which in fact one of your characters is reading. In your acknowledgments, you thank writers Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller (author of Catch-22), Richard Hooker, Tim O'Brien, and Karl Marlantes "for paving the road and lighting the streetlamps." Can you describe how each of them served as an inspiration or influence for you?
A: I think collectively all five of those authors gave me courage to step outside the boundaries of what readers have come to expect from a “war novel.” When I read The Naked and the Dead, Catch-22, M*A*S*H, The Things They Carried and Matterhorn, I was in awe not only of the wordcraft on the pages, but in how fearless each of those writers was in sticking to their vision of writing fiction which would test the limits of convention.
This is kind of a personal thing and it’s hard to describe, but in a way I felt like each of those authors clapped a hand on my shoulder and whispered in my ear, “It’s okay. Go for it!” And so I took a deep breath, shook off the worry, and wrote a comedy about explosions and severed limbs—as well as a tragedy about buffoons in bureaucracy.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Right now, I’m working on fine-tuning some short stories, with an eye toward someday putting out a collection centered around the Iraq War. I’m taking a look at some of the material which was cut from Fobbit in the final revisions and seeing some possibilities for a second life as stand-alone stories.
My most recent completed project, however, is a 180-degree departure from the war and gore of Fobbit. It’s still a comedy, but it’s set in Hollywood in the 1940s and stars a short man who gets a job as a stuntman for a child actor. It’s a dark screwball comedy about identity, loyalty and fame.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Normally this is the part of the interview where I’m asked what was the last great book I read, or what I’m currently listening to on my iPod, or what my current obsession is. The answers are: I Want to Show You More by Jamie Quatro, the new Airborne Toxic Event album, and my wife. Of course, “my wife” will always be the answer to Question No. 3.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb