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From War Journal to Bestseller: How David Abrams Created ‘Fobbit’

July 6, 2013

PART 2 of a 2-Part Blog Interview


David Abrams didn’t know what to expect when his smashing debut novel, Fobbit, was released in late summer 2012. Would readers like his sideways approach to the war in Iraq? Would they understand and like his characters? Would they resonate with the bevy of emotions and circumstances that surround soldiers and families in war-time situations? Would they like the way he interwove dark humor, sarcasm and the way people interact in a theatre of operation?

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

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

A review in The Washington Post summed up the answer: “Fobbit blends fiction and journalism, an apt reflection of literary influences combined with [Abrams’s] experience in an Army public affairs team. . . . Though absurd, these Dickensian characters are all so skillfully wrought that we quickly accept their idiosyncrasies. . . . What’s most intriguing about this work is that, at its center, it is both a clever study in anxiety and an unsettling expose of how the military tells its truths. Fobbit traces how ‘the Army story’ is crafted, the dead washed of their blood, words scrutinized, and success applied to disasters.”

Fobbit landed with a flourish, becoming a bestseller and a fixture on the Best Books lists of many organizations. Every bookseller, it seemed, jumped on the bandwagon, including the biggest: “Barnes & Noble has been very good to me,” Abrams said. Not only did the subject matter captivate readers who wanted to know the truth of how it felt to be in Iraq and fight a war many thought unnecessary and poorly conceived, but also how the book was written.

In part two of our exclusive interview with Abrams, we discuss the process of creating Fobbit, and the book’s inherent value and legacy moving forward.

366Writing: Are you surprised with response Fobbit has received?  

David Abrams: This is going to sound really corny, but I wake up every day feeling like—as Gary Cooper said in The Pride of the Yankees—“the luckiest man on the face of the world.”  I’m proud of Fobbit and I’m grateful for the way my publisher got completely behind the book in support, but I never expected it would have the level of response from critics and readers that it did.  I thought I’d publish the book, enjoy a couple of months of reviews and readings and emails from readers, and then slide back into semi-obscurity.  I’m so very grateful that it’s continued to have a life of its own—one that’s totally out of my control at this point.

366Writing: What was your process of going from daily journal in Iraq to writing the final manuscript? How long did it take, and how dissimilar to your first run was your final draft?

DA: I think of my journal as a muscle-stretch before writing Fobbit.  I did a lot of writing on a daily basis during my year of deployment (the only time I ever stopped writing in the journal was during the two weeks I was home on leave with my wife….when I had other priorities).  I think all that information-dump and crafting these little scenarios out of what I saw and heard really helped limber me up for the larger experience of writing what was initially a 200,000-word manuscript (later dieted down to a slimmer 100k).  I think tonally Fobbit was pretty much the same from first draft to final draft.  There was still all that same anger and irony on the page.  Plotwise, it was a lot different, though.  The earlier drafts had a lot more story—I overstuffed it with plot—too many sardines for the can—and it took a very wise, very patient editor to help me see the book Fobbit needed to be, the smaller guy inside the fat suit.

366Writing: None of the writing or set-ups felt forced. You exercised considerable restraint, not going over the top with hyperbole or overwriting battlefield scenes. Could you talk about the importance of writing within the emotional field, as it were, that the subject suggests?

DA: Well, thanks for saying that, but truth be told, we cut a lot of unrestrained passages during the editing process.  It can be hard to identify a situation or a line of dialogue as over-the-top when you’re in the act of creation.  To the writer, it just feels like a piece of writing that tickles something deep inside.  I’m learning to distrust those times when I’m tickled by my own writing.  I look at them askance, suspecting they’re imposters who need to be sent back where they came from.  Even when writing satire—perhaps especially when writing satire—the writer has to keep pulling back, exercising restraint.  Comedy is so delicate.  One word too many and you’ve blown it, one word less and the joke is too obscure, leaving readers scratching their heads and going, “Huh?”  I’m still learning the difference—which is not to say I’m not still guilty of crimes against comedy.

366Writing: You also went to great lengths to be sure we knew the emotional impact Sgt. Gooding, Capt. Shrinkle, Sgt. Lumley, Commander Duret and the others felt from each action or decision – inside the FOB, out in the field.  We not only got sand in our noses, but hits to the heart. How did this work itself out as you wrote the book? Did you follow the course of the characters?  Or the situations?

DA: Character and situation are intertwined and so, looking back, it’s hard to say which came first.  Did I create the situation in order to illuminate a certain aspect of the character?  Or did I just follow the character and let him lead me to the situation?

Take that first major scene involving the stand-off around the possible suicide bomber rammed into the back of the tank.  When I started writing that chapter, I knew I wanted to place my characters in a tense, morally-challenging situation, but I never expected Captain Shrinkle to piss his pants, and I never thought Brock Lumley would be the one to finally pull the trigger on the terrorist and then go privately vomit up his fear.  Both of those actions would eventually define the characters. Since that chapter was one of the first scenes I wrote involving Shrinkle and Lumley, it led me down a path toward better understanding of who they were as people.  But when I created the situation, I didn’t know how it would all turn out.

366Writing: My dad was a commander in Vietnam, so I remember being parked in front of the TV every night during the Tet offensive, getting fresh information the Huntley-Brinkley Report or Walter Cronkite. This leads to my next question: Why will wars never be reported to the American people again in the way they were during Vietnam, when we were implanted in the thick of it, night after night?

DA: I, too, remember sitting in front of the TV watching Walter Cronkite deliver the latest news about Vietnam while American and Viet Cong body counts were shown in the corner of the TV screen like they were baseball scores.  I think both the media and the military learned some valuable lessons during that conflict: the media learned to distrust the military, and the military likewise started to look on the media as the enemy. It took a long time for the military to recover from the mistakes it made during Vietnam—they were still making some of those same mistakes when I joined in 1988—but eventually, the commanders burned by reporters in the 1960s and ‘70s retired and a new generation of colonels and generals begrudgingly admitted that maybe the media wasn’t the enemy, and perhaps we should loosen up and see how we could use them as a strategic tool to “tell the Army story.”

I think the military has come a long way in evaluating itself, identifying its flaws, and earnestly working to improve its relationship with the media.  Embedding reporters with units and trusting them to tell a balanced story is just one example of how we’ve bridged the divide.  We’re still not all the way there, but at least for now it’s like a bitterly divorced couple trying to be best friends.  We’re on good speaking terms with each other.

366Writing: Who are a few of your greatest writing influences? Fobbit has been compared by some reviewers to work by Joseph Heller (namely Catch 22), Ernie Pyle and Tim O’Brien, even Karl Marlantes (Matterhorn author) in your battlefield scenes. We’ve also seen comparisons to Dickens in your presentation of humor, but to me, some of the dark humor has a little of the over-the-top outlandishness of Tom Robbins. But all in a distinct voice we’ve never read before in the genre — yours.

DA: I’m ashamed to say I haven’t had the chance to read anything by Robbins (but I hope to correct that soon).  As far as comic influences, I can point to writers like Flannery O’Connor and Charles Dickens.  They were fearless and pitiless in their humor.  But I also can’t discount the movies, which were part of my cultural diet growing up, films by Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and, later, the snap-crackle-pop dialogue of Preston Sturges.  While we’re at it, let’s not forget the TV shows like Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. and Hogan’s Heroes, which formed my earliest impressions of the military.

 366Writing: A lot of writers try to convert their journals into memoirs, novels or travel narratives. Very few succeed. What are two or three pieces of advice you would give writers seeking to move journal material into narrative form?

DA: If we’re talking about turning that material into fiction, then I’d say: consider the journal only as an inspirational starting point, a diving board into a swimming pool of stories.  You have to give yourself permission to lie and take the narrative into unexpected directions.  While writing Fobbit, I used my journal only as a diving board; there are only a very few passages which were lifted almost verbatim from what I wrote in my hooch on Camp Liberty in 2005 (some of Gooding’s diary entries, for instance).  For those wanting to turn their journal into a non-fiction narrative or memoir, give yourself permission to offend the real people who might show up on the page.  If you’re sticking with the truth, then you can’t worry about pissing off your mother, your best friend, or your boss.  Nobody’s ever going to be completely happy with the way you write about them anyway, so why not just tell the truth?

366Writing: What have been the most surprising responses you’ve received from readers, and people who have come to your signing events?

DA: I’ve been surprised at the way a comic novel has helped readers in some very serious ways.  To give a couple of examples, when I was on tour in Oregon and talking to a group of high school students, this very bright girl came up to me afterwards and said to me, “You know, your book helped me cope with my mom’s colon cancer.  Right after we found out she had it, I wanted to read something which would help take my mind off it.”  She told me that laughing her way through Fobbit made her forget the cancer, if only for a few hours.

More recently, I was giving a reading in Billings, Montana and during the question-and-answer period, a woman told me, tears in her eyes, that thanks to Fobbit, she’d learned the truth about her son’s death in Iraq:  “I had the official account of his death, the basic facts.  When I read your novel, I learned there was such a thing as a Significant Activities Report.”  The woman did some digging and eventually found the Sig Act report for the incident in which her son died.  “So, I want to thank you for leading me to the truth about his death.”

Both of these are completely unexpected reactions which floor me, humble me, and remind me that you never know how your words will go out into the world and what they’ll do once they get there.

366Writing: What’s next for you?

DA: All I can tell you is that I’m still getting up at 3:30 every morning and banging out the words on the keyboard in hopes that some decent stories will emerge.  Actually, I’m trying something new, handwriting the first draft of a new piece of fiction set in Iraq.  Every morning, I grab my coffee, sit down with my Moleskin journal, and fill as many pages as I can before my hand gives out or it’s time for me to go to work at the Day Job.  I was reluctant to write another war story, but I like where this one is going.  I thought I was through with the Iraq War, but apparently it wasn’t through with me.

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