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The Flip Side of War: Independence Day Conversation with ‘Fobbit’ Author David Abrams

July 4, 2013

Once in awhile, lightning strikes. A book releases that is so relevant, touching and good that it immediately vaults into the public eye. Such is the case with David Abrams’ smashing debut novel, Fobbit.

Fobbit has been favorably compared with Catch 22, Matterhorn and the works of Tim O’Brien as the finest war-related novel of the past 50 years. This bestseller presents the Iraq War through six principal characters, ranging from a public affairs man at Forward Operating Base to quirky field commanders. The characters are diverse, eccentric, both redeeming and flawed, and immersed in a grinding, often frustrating war whose daily actions, triumphs, tragedies and deeper purpose we only vaguely knew at home.

"Fobbit" author David Abrams. (Photo: Lisa Wareham Photography)

“Fobbit” author David Abrams. (Photo: Lisa Wareham Photography)

Fobbit is hilarious at times, tragic at others, fun often, touching always, and full of dark humor that only wars can spark. Fobbit captures the sights, smells, lingo, and essence of not only armed conflict, but also the human condition when pressed against the wall. Desert sand gets in your nose when you turn these pages.

Since Fobbit’s release, Abrams, a retired 20-year Army veteran who lives in Butte, Montana, has been traveling the country on book tours. On one leg, he joined forces with Ben Fountain, author of another war-related bestseller, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Abrams’ six-year project made the Best Books lists of the New York Times, Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Library Journal and Publisher’s Weekly, which named it a Top 10 Literary Fiction pick for Fall 2012. It also was a finalist for the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, and an American Booksellers Association IndieNext pick. Reviews have been just as impressive.

I first saw Abrams at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, where he was a panelist. His comments on fiction struck me right off the bat. Though not a big fan of war fiction (that happens when your father does two Vietnam tours when you’re small), I bought Fobbit, and read it in three sittings. I laughed, I cried, I shook my head. My perception of the Iraq War changed. A lot. We’ve been in touch since.

Which leads to today. Enjoy this special Independence Day edition of The 366Writing Blog, the first of an exclusive two-part conversation from the author of a work already being hailed as a classic in war literature.

FinalCover-330366WRITING: First of all, David, was there any particular sense when you were in Iraq that you wanted to tell the deeper story of our troops’ experiences there? Or was your initial motivation that you had a distinct story to tell?

DAVID ABRAMS: Initially, I felt like I just wanted to tell my story, mundane and Dilbert-ish as it was.  When I deployed to Iraq in January 2005, I had this vague notion that I would emerge on the other side of this war experience with a creative work in hand (or, more accurately, “in head”).  I was a writer heading into combat, after all.  I’d written a novel (unpublished), dozens of short stories and poems, even a play back in my undergrad days.  I came at this war from an artistic angle.

From the moment I boarded the plane in Savannah, Georgia, my writerly senses were on full alert, creative juices flowing.  So, in one sense, I was always aware that year of being surrounded by a sense of story.  Once I got back and started working on Fobbit and got a feeling for where the novel was going and what it was saying politically, then, like you said, I had a deeper desire to communicate to a non-militarized readership the inanities and frustrations of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  Not that mine is the only “truth” of what went on there, but I do hope it sheds a light on one weird funny-sad aspect of 21st-century combat.

366WRITING: Your departure point is unique – initially, from the desk of a public affairs officer. I’ve never seen a war novel offer up this perspective. It’s almost like the ‘anti-point’. When did it occur to you that such a point of view might appeal to an audience?

DA: The moment I set foot in Task Force Baghdad headquarters and surveyed the landscape of where I’d be working for the next ten months.  As I stood there looking at all those cubicles – workspaces which could have been seamlessly transplanted from any office in America – I knew this would be no ordinary combat experience.  This was the moment when I was first struck by the ironies that would later drive Fobbit.  To give you a bit of background: prior to my deployment to Baghdad, I was scared shitless.  Not because of the usual reasons you might think of.  Sure, I was afraid of dying, of getting blown to bits—if any soldier tells you otherwise, they’re lying—but more pressingly, I was afraid of what I didn’t know, the infamous “known unknowns” of Donald Rumsfeld.

366WRITING: Had you been to war before?

DA: No. This was my first time.  Seventeen years in the Army and this was the first time I was actually setting my boots on the soil of a combat zone.  That’s hard to believe, considering all the global engagements in which the U.S. had been engaged since I enlisted in 1988: Panama, Operation Desert Storm, Bosnia, Haiti, Somalia, and Afghanistan.  Now, as a 41-year-old in the twilight of his career, I was heading off into this big adventure –“adventure” isn’t the right word….more like frightening mystery – a lot like what I felt before I went to basic training at Fort Knox.  Where would I live and sleep?  Would it be 24/7 heat and sand?  What would be my responsibilities?  How should I act? How should I set an example for those junior soldiers I was supposed to lead?  Would I walk around with my finger on the safety switch of my M-16, ready to flick it to “semi” and fire off a burst at an attacker?  Imagine Woody Allen boarding a C-130, loaded down with gear, carrying a weapon, and riddled with anxiety.  That was me in January 2005.

And so, when I arrived at my office on Camp Liberty in Baghdad, I had all these expectations and presumptions.  It was like someone had handed me a Mad Libs book about the war, but I filled in all the wrong words.  As I settled into a work routine, I quickly realized this would be no ordinary year of combat duty.  I wanted to convey that feeling of “Oh, so there’s another side of war?” to the reader.  I don’t know if Fobbit is a stereotype-buster, but for me the whole experience certainly was.  War was nothing like I’d expected.  Likewise, I hope Fobbit is not what readers thought it would be when they picked it up.

366WRITING: What was your daily duty like? 

DA: I served with the 3rd Infantry Division during Operation Iraqi Freedom, working as a public affairs NCO.  I went to Kuwait first for nearly two months, part of the division’s advance party.  When I arrived in Baghdad, the rest of my co-workers had already been on the job for weeks. Even though I’d been in-country longer than any of them, I was still the “new guy” who didn’t have a clue what was going on.  This only served to intensify my Woody Allen-ish anxieties.  I felt like the last guy picked for the team, the one who’s always a little behind, the final link on the information chain.

Eventually, I settled into a work routine which included writing press releases, monitoring Significant Activity reports, fielding phone calls and emails from the civilian news media, overseeing the production and editing of our FOB newspaper, and maintaining a photo library of all the images which came to us from the field units.  It’s a lot like what Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding Jr. does in the novel.

366WRITING: What prompted you to tell this story in the distinct POVs of a half-dozen different characters – and rotate the chapters among them?

DA: One of the epigraphs to the novel comes from Frederick Busch’s The Night Inspector: “Wars are nothing, in the end, but stories.”  That is so true, isn’t it?  All soldiers return home with a bunch of stories, in varying degrees of intensity.  Some can’t wait to tell their tales, while others keep them buried forever.  Taken together, these stories form a patchwork perspective of the combat experience.

As I was writing Fobbit, I knew I wanted to tell about the Iraq War and life on the Forward Operating Base from different perspectives and in distinct voices.  If I’d strictly narrated the war from Gooding’s perspective, it would have turned out to be pretty redundant and, frankly, boring—one reason I didn’t write a memoir about my time in Iraq.  By getting into the heads of other characters, I could broaden the scope and more easily take the reader outside the concertina wire of the FOB.

366WRITING: Like many other readers, when I wasn’t laughing my ass off, I was shaking my head. Or in tears. Can you talk about sharing funny moments, as well as taking the reader through some dark, dark phases? 

DA: I appreciate your comments about the tonal shifts from light to dark.  It was hard to find that balance, so it’s nice to hear it worked for at least one reader!  I did go to some pretty dark places while writing the book—and I could have gone even darker, but I pulled back in order to keep that tricky balance between the humor and the gore.  Working on the novel didn’t necessarily trigger any specific memories—it wasn’t like I was sweating cathartically onto the page—but midway through the six-year writing process, I did go back through my journal and reacquaint myself with the 2005 version of David Abrams and what happened to him in the desert.  That, of course, stirred up the old feelings of frustration and sadness over what we were doing over there for what turned out to be an entire decade.

366WRITING: While you were in Iraq, and after you got out of the Army, how did you feel about the way the news was being presented to the public? I would imagine that, as a journalist, you felt some frustration in the anesthetic way you had to write releases. At least, Sgt. Gooding felt that way in the book.  

DA: My frustration with the delivery system of information about the war to the general public fueled me throughout the writing of Fobbit.  I began my tour of duty in Iraq completely dedicated to the mission at hand: getting the news about our soldiers distributed to the media as accurately and swiftly as possible.  I really believed I was an important link in that chain of information.  But as time went on, I grew more cynical about the whole process.  We really were limited in what we could release to the media (sometimes justifiably so, due to operational security measures). When we did get it in their hands, it was often too little information coming too late to be of any use.  The response I got from reporters was usually something like, “Yeah, I already got this.  Tell me something I don’t know.”

If you look at the overall picture of the 24-hour news cycle, the Iraq War was just one small part of the information bombardment the media vomited out to the public.  From my perspective, Operation Iraqi Freedom was everything, and should have been the most important thing to the good people of America.  But then I’d turn on the CNN in my cubicle and be lucky to see a brief mention of what I’d just released in the scrolling ticker at the bottom of the screen, during otherwise non-stop coverage of the Michael Jackson trial or the Terry Schiavo death-watch or whatever story was the current Flavor of the Week.  I understand the media is only reacting to what they think people want to know about, but if the public is only being fed news about Paris Hilton’s latest faux pas, then obviously it’s going to look like that’s what they want to hear.  It’s an odd, vicious cycle of supply and demand, one that’s hard to break.  So yes, sitting thousands of miles away in the desert looking at America through a telescope, it was frustrating and disheartening.

366WRITING: At the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, you made a very compelling statement: “To tell anyone a truth, you have to tell a story, and if you tell a story, you quit telling the actual truth, because you’re always moving facts and memories around.” Could you elaborate?

DA: The truth is a squishy, slippery thing, isn’t it?  When it comes down to it, there is no truth except what’s happening to you right now in this moment.  And even then, it’s being filtered through your perception, folded and flattened and fluffed on its way to being a memory.  We can look at a video of something—a plane crashing onto the interstate, for instance—as documentary truth, but even then we only get one perspective.  There’s always going to be something unseen, untold in that video clip.  The truth becomes even fuzzier when it’s delivered orally or in writing.  Words are rearranged, events are told in a slightly different order.  One way or another, it will always come out as a story.  Tim O’Brien said it like this in “How to Tell a True War Story”: “In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen.  What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way.  The angles of vision are skewed.”

In Iraq, I was committed to telling the truth to the media. I did this by trying to release only verified facts: such-and-such soldier was killed in such-and-such location at such-and-such a time.  But of course, I wasn’t giving the whole picture, I didn’t fill in the story with all the details—the burning Humvee, the screams of pain, the way the medic wept when he couldn’t keep the guy alive.  Those are all elements of the story I left out (not that I even knew them in the first place), so in one way my press releases were lies by omission.  They were skewed angles of the truth.  By writing Fobbit, I had the freedom to tell the truth by packaging it in lies, if that makes sense.

(PART TWO OF OUR CONVERSATION WILL RUN ON SATURDAY, JULY 6)

 

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