Fobbit (Grove/Atlantic 2012) to the blog today. Like the main character in Fobbit, Abrams served in a Forward Operating Base outside of Baghdad during the Iraqi War, his experiences serving as inspiration for his book. Abrams' short stories have appeared in literary journals and magazines including Esquire, Narrative, The Literarian, Connecticut Review, The Greensboro Review, The Missouri Review, The North Dakota Review and others. He is also author of the excellent literary blog The Quivering Pen. Fobbit is his first novel.
Fobbit is set in a Forward Operating Base on the edge of Baghdad, much like the one you served in (Camp Liberty, later named Camp Victory). Please tell us a little bit about your role and your experiences serving in Iraq, and the seeds of inspiration for Fobbit.
Though Fobbit is most definitely fiction, some the events I describe were inspired by my experiences during Operation Iraqi Freedom. When I was at Camp Liberty/Victory in 2005, I was part of the 3rd Infantry Division’s public affairs team, serving as a non-commissioned officer in charge of media relations. I had several different duties, but primarily I was in charge of writing official press releases on behalf of the Army task force whenever any significant activity happened within our sector. In other words, if there was an IED attack, I wrote a news release giving the basic who/what/where/when (but never “why”) of the incident. If our soldiers found a terrorist’s weapons cache, I tallied up the loot and put that information in the news release and sent it out to the civilian news media. As you can imagine, in a combat zone the cycle of press releases is never ending. I kept a spreadsheet of all the releases I put out in the 10 months I was in Baghdad. By the time I left, I think I was up to nearly 1,500 releases. Sadly, too many of them began with “A Task Force Baghdad Soldier was killed today when…”
You describe one of your main characters, Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding as “fobbitiest” among the fobbits – what is the nature of being fobbity? What makes one soldier more fobbity than another?
“Fobbit” is a hybrid word combining FOB (or, Forward Operating Base) with Hobbit. In J. R. R. Tolkien’s world, hobbits are creatures who prefer to remain in the comfort of the shire, reluctant to venture forth into the larger, scarier “outside world.” In Iraq and Afghanistan, the term “Fobbit” very quickly became a derogatory slang term to describe a soldier (usually, but not always, a support soldier) who rarely went off the base. Infantry soldiers in particular have a lot of scorn for Fobbits—sometimes rightly so. Fobbits are seen as having the cushier life, spending their days in an air-conditioned office, buying up all the potato chips at the PX before the grunts can come off patrol and doing their shopping—that sort of thing.
In Staff Sergeant Gooding’s case, he’s a Fobbit through and through—cut him, he bleeds marshmallow. He’ll be the first to admit that. He’s okay with just staying inside the confines of the concertina wire, doing his job writing press releases in his cubicle at task force headquarters. But of course, this leads to a very skewed vision of what the war is all about. All he knows about the conflict is what he reads in the significant activity reports and watches on the video feeds from the blimp-cams over Baghdad. This creates a real disconnect with the reality of the war which plagues him throughout the novel. When infantry soldiers come in to Gooding’s dining facility reeking of blood and sweat, they’re like aliens from another planet. As I say near the beginning of the book, “To paraphrase the New Testament, he was in the war but he was not of the war.”
In a recent blog post considering the end of the war, you described feeling nostalgic for Camp Liberty, and shared an excerpt from your novel describing the fictional Forward Operating Base. What do you miss most about Camp Liberty(Camp Victory)? What do you not miss at all?
Being in a combat zone is a very intense experience for anyone—Fobbit and grunt alike. It’s nothing like “real life” back here in the United States. You live in compound that’s like an instant, pop-up city in the desert (“just add water and watch it spring to life before your very eyes!”); your entire day is structured around the job, the mission; and so, your downtime is all that much more precious. You learn the value of sleep, the pleasures of a day’s-end shower, the laser-focused concentration on what you do in the few hours which are yours and yours alone. In my case, I spent the majority of my downtime reading books and watching classic movies on my computer. To anyone who knows me, this will come as no surprise. Some of the other soldiers played Xbox, or batted a volleyball back and forth, or “hung out” with members of the opposite sex. Me, I got deep into Don Quixote and Mrs. Miniver. What don’t I miss? That’s easy: being an ocean and two continents away from my wife and three children. Man, that was a rough, rough year. We all felt this ache, this gaping empty spot. Half-hour phone calls twice a week could do nothing to fill that hole. Separation made the reunion all that much sweeter, but I’d never want to go through that kind of experience again—spending months and months without having my wife, my best friend in the world, at my side.
You describe your novel as “a behind-the-scenes portrait of the real Iraq war, in all of its bloody, dark, and often hilarious glory.” War is, of course a terrible thing, but the novel does sound quite funny, and you credit Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 with giving you “permission to let the jokes drop onto the page as I wrote my novel.” How do you know when you’ve found the right balance between the darkness and the humor? What were some of the choices you had to make along the way to get it just right?
On the surface, there’s nothing very funny about war, is there? I mean, what is war? It’s one man legally killing another man to gain an acre of soil or, in the case of the Iraq War, fighting to regain our national honor after the bully insulted us on the playground (mind you, I’m not saying that bully didn’t deserve to get his ass kicked in order to make the playground a better place). In 2005, 844 U.S. service members were killed in Iraq. There’s nothing funny about that, is there? No, there’s not. But, without diminishing the importance of those lives lost, I have to say there was also a lot of absurdity going down in Iraq—a lot of it to be found in the halls of the military headquarters.
About halfway through my tour of duty over there, I decided that if I was going to write about this war, it would be in the form of fiction and it would be funny. Humor was the canvas of Fobbit from the start. I honed some of it to a finer point as I went along, but there was always the intent to write a book about war which would, hopefully, make people laugh at the silly way men behave on the battlefield. There are also some very grim, very serious patches of the book. I mean, it can’t be all Marx Brothers all the time, right? Bombs explode, people die, and mortars rain down from the sky. Sometimes, it happens in mid-laughter. Joseph Heller was a genius at getting this rhythm down to near- perfection. Death, joke, death, joke. I tried to find this same kind of light-dark balance when it came time to write my book. I don’t want to sound like I’m comparing myself to Joseph Heller—I’m not worthy to touch the hem of his garment—but, yes, I drank deep from the well of Catch-22 as I wrote Fobbit, along with Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer (not for humor but for its narrative structure). Those were just three of the books which gave me permission to write about the war the way I did.
"The Hours I Keep" is a lovely essay about writing habits– you are a wee hours of the night/early morning writer, noting “It’s only when the house is at a standstill that I'm able to listen to my imagination.” What are some other essential writing disciplines or mantras you live by?
Avoid writing at all costs.
Just kidding. Sort of. Procrastination and self-distraction are my biggest demons and in order to fight them I have to discipline myself to a daily regimen. The alarm goes off at 3:30 am, I get a cup of coffee and a glass of water, I come to my office in the basement of our house, I sit down, I type. A good day of writing is when I plan ahead and turn off my computer’s Wi-Fi switch the night before. I go to bed telling myself, “Okay, dummy, in the morning you’re going to get up and work on Story X or Novel Y before you read email or write your blog post for the day.” If I’m smart, I’ve pulled Story X up on the screen the night before so it’s there waiting for me with open arms in the morning. These are the things I do to trick myself into writing. Once I get going on the keyboard, I wonder why I ever avoided this joy, this feeling of creating something out of nothing. But yeah, when it comes to writing habits, I’m my own worst enemy.
I’d also like to ask a little about your blog – one of my favorite features is “My First Time,” in which you ask writers to talk about their first experience being published (or rejected, getting a nasty review, etc.) There are wonderful insights to be gleaned from their experiences. How did that feature come about? If you were invited to write your own “first time” column, what would you write about and why?
Thanks for mentioning “My First Time,” Jennifer. It’s been one of my favorite parts of doing The Quivering Pen blog. It came about when I realized I couldn’t keep up the pace of daily blogging by myself, that I’d need help from others. I started thinking about what I’d be interested in reading about and quickly realized that I’m most curious about writers’ beginnings. Where did they come from? What or who had an early impact on their writing? On his podcast Other People, Brad Listi does a really good job at engaging writers in casual conversation and getting them to open up about their “genesis years.” I wanted to do something like that on The Quivering Pen, so I sent an email to about two dozen writers I knew. I was overwhelmed by the response I got. Everyone likes to talk about their “first time,” it seems. The stories my contributors have come up with have been such a wide range of experiences, but all of them deeply personal.
As for my own first time…I would probably write about my first book editor (who is, of course, my current book editor): Peter Blackstock at Grove/Atlantic. My agent, Nat Sobel, played matchmaker between Peter and me about a week before Grove formally accepted Fobbit for publication. Nat wanted to see if Peter and I would be a good fit for each other, so he had me give Peter a call to talk about the book. In the first five minutes of that phone conversation, I knew I’d found my champion for Fobbit. Peter has believed in the book from the beginning and helped me see Fobbit not as “my” book, but as “a” book. In other words, he made me take a step back from this thing I’d spent six years writing, this thing I’d poured everything into, this thing that had become part of my bloodstream. To put it in symbolic terms, Peter—in the gentlest and kindest of ways—made me take that book, turn it upside down and shake all the loose change out of its pockets. It was not the same book in the end that it was when we started. For one thing, I cut about 130,000 words from it. That should tell you how bloated it was—and how blind I was to its faults. Peter did what I’d thought was impossible: he made me excited about “killing my darlings.” There have been a lot of things I’ve learned throughout this whole “debut novel” experience, but that first lesson of Peter’s was probably the most valuable. Once you’ve taken the novel as far as you think it can go, even if you’re on the seventeenth draft, you have to come back to it again with sharpened knives ready to do some more cutting.
Many, many thanks to David Abrams for taking the time to be a guest here on the blog. You can learn more about Fobbit on David's author website davidabramsbooks.com or at his literary blog, The Quivering Pen. You can also find David on Facebook and Twitter: @ImDavidAbrams.