David Abrams’ The Quivering Pen blog is a friend to writers and readers everywhere, politely but persistently banging the drum for literary fiction, giving authors an outlet to write about their experiences and giving exposure to recently released and upcoming books (as well as the occasional tune).
Along the way, David has occasionally updated folks on the progress of his own novel, Fobbit. Earlier this month came the most welcome news of all: Fobbit has been acquired by Grove/Atlantic. Even in his happiest moment, David was plugging for others. Here’s a snippet of his e-mail announcing the acquisition of Fobbit: “All I can say is, I am honored and thrilled to have my manuscript accepted by the same publishing house who brought you A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler, Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, Peace Like a River by Leif Enger, and Lost Nation by Jeffrey Lent–all books I count among some of my favorites.”
David was gracious enough to answer some questions. Here we go …
Give us your 25-words-or-fewer elevator pitch for Fobbit.
Elevator Pitch #1: Two groups of soldiers muddle through the Iraq War: infantry “door-kickers” on patrol and cubicle-worker “Fobbits”–those who never leave the security of the Forward Operating Base.
Elevator Pitch #2 (if we were going up another couple of floors): It’s the love child of Catch-22 and The Office.
Where did the idea for the novel come from?
It’s an explanation which requires some backstory, so bear with me. In January 2005, while serving on active duty with the 3rd Infantry Division, I deployed to Kuwait and then to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. I was a sergeant first class with the division’s Public Affairs Office and would be working media relations in the task-force headquarters. After being in the Army for 17 years, this was my first combat deployment and I had no idea what to expect. Most of my co-workers had already been to Afghanistan or Bosnia-Herzegovina; some of them had felt the hot wind of bullets flying past their heads. I felt inadequate, completely out of my element. Here I was, a senior non-commissioned officer, and I was supposed to be a level-headed, decisive leader able to clearly see ahead to the next step and the next step after that. Instead, I was a bundle of nerves. On the plane ride into Baghdad, I was crammed into the hull of the C-130 with everyone else, the weight of the Kevlar helmet crushing my skull and the flak vest cracking my ribs, and thinking I might die–not from a terrorist’s rocket-propelled grenade but from a stress heart attack. I won’t lie: I even let out a couple of nervous squirts of urine in my underwear.
By the time we landed and walked out into the hot Baghdad sunshine, I’d worked myself into a lather of anxiety. But when I reported to work at the task force headquarters the next morning, I was surprised to find I was working in a cubicle jungle–something that resembled a call-center at any U.S. corporation’s customer service. Replace the chatter about grid coordinates and roadside bombs, and we could easily have been working the Turkey Hotline at Butterball on Thanksgiving Day. Here we were, supposedly in the white-hot center of war, and people were sitting around designing PowerPoint presentations, filling out spreadsheets with statistics from sniper attacks, and playing computer solitaire. Off to my left, I swear I heard the hiss of an espresso machine at someone’s desk. My vision of war had suddenly turned into a farce. Not that I was working with clowns and buffoons or that we weren’t deadly serious about the business of war–we were, believe me. But there was so much comic potential to be mined here that I knew I had to capture it in words.
Fobbit started as a series of journal entries I kept during that year in Baghdad. I was under the delusion that I’d be the Ernie Pyle of the Iraq War. But instead of going out with soldiers on the business end of rifles–the GI Joes of Pyle’s world–I ended up staying back at the Forward Operating Base (the FOB) and it wasn’t long before I realized I was one of those despised “Fobbers” or, more popularly, “Fobbits”–rear-echelon Hobbit-like soldiers who rarely left the protective shire of the FOB. Fobbits were a bit of a joke over there–one officer even went so far as to design a Fobbit “combat patch” (I can’t remember what it looked like, but it was probably a pair of crossed pens and a pillow set against a Twinkie-yellow background). I went around telling myself, “I may be a Fobbit, but at least I’m not out there playing the Death Lottery every day.”
In truth, I was too busy working at my desk in headquarters to go “outside the wire.” I worked 12-hour shifts 6-and-1/2 days a week and only had enough energy at the end of the day to go back to my hootch, type a new entry in my journal and read a couple of chapters in my Dickens novel. Eventually, I had a good amount of material in my journal–enough for a book–but the problem was, it was boring. I mean, who wants to read about a soldier whose greatest fear is getting a paper cut when he loads a ream of paper into the printer, or whose biggest daily challenge was deciding between the short-order line or the full-course option at the chow hall? So I started to think of ways I could amp up the story of a Fobbit and soon the idea of a novel came into my head. I could still use what happened to me over there, but I would embellish it. Thus, I arrived at the “truthiness” of war. When I got down to the business of writing the novel, I took much of what I had, but then I turned the volume up to 11.
How long did you work on the novel before you considered it ready to start submitting to agents?
I was incredibly lucky, pinch-me-I’m-dreaming kind of lucky. An agent, Nat Sobel, contacted me while I was still over there in Baghdad. He’d seen some of the journal entries I’d written which had been posted at The Emerging Writers Network website and he reached out to me through EWN’s proprietor, Dan Wickett. Almost from the get-go, Nat encouraged me to view the war through the lens of fiction. One of the most significant and meaningful emails he ever sent me went like this: “I’ve come to believe that only in fiction will this insane war finally reach an American reading public. And, only a modern day Yossarian can be that vehicle. That’s you, buddy.”
I should note that while I appreciate Nat’s encouragement, I’m not worthy to touch the hem of Joseph Heller’s robe. Even though the ghost of Catch-22 haunts the edges of Fobbit, and I toss it around as a comparison, I know I’m not even close to Heller’s mastery. So, short answer to your question: I started working on Fobbit in 2005 and turned in what I’d hoped was a polished near-final draft to Nat in January 2011. It went through several more revisions after that–Nat and I going back and forth via email–until I felt it was ready to send around to publishers. Nat started shopping it around in late August. Three weeks later, I had another of those pinch-me moments when Grove/Atlantic made an offer on the book. I’m still living in the glow of that Cinderella moment–can’t quite believe it’s real.
What is your writing process like? Do you write at a certain time each day, strive for a word count, that sort of thing?
Before Fobbit came along, I was a very sporadic writer–thoroughly undisciplined. If there’s a way to Not Write, I’ll find it. But, somewhere in the third year of working on Fobbit, I decided this was getting me nowhere. If I kept this up, one day I’d be sitting in the nursing home telling everyone about this novel I was “writing” but still hadn’t finished. So, I hurdled some inner wall of procrastination, got my shit together, and established a daily routine for myself. Now I set the alarm for 3:30 every morning, come downstairs and write. For the last year-and-a-half, too much of that time has been taken up with the distraction of writing a blog, but in theory, this is the time I work on my novel and short stories. I’ve been pretty good at sticking to that 3:30 to 7:30 am routine for about three years. I never hold myself to a certain word count–it’s always a question of completing a “beat” in the narrative–you know, the natural rhythmic pauses in a story when I feel I’ve reached a stopping point for the day.
Do you have a group of “beta readers”? How do you find reliable feedback while you’re working?
Prior to Fobbit, I didn’t normally send my work to others–I’m too insecure about my writing to just “put it out there”–but after the second draft of the novel, I figured I should have one of my most-trusted Army buddies read it to make sure I didn’t completely fuck up the facts. I was, after all, a Fobbit writing about infantry tactics, techniques and procedures. That friend of mine read the manuscript and pointed out many glaring errors and places where I had no idea what I was talking about. He saved my bacon on more than one occasion. Which is not to say that I won’t still get it wrong in places–but if I do, I’ll just fall back in the safety net and say, “Hey, it’s fiction–what did you expect?”
I also had another trusted reader–a former editor at Narrative magazine–who offered to take a look at Fobbit. She helped me see the ways I could make the story better by improving the narrative structure of the book. I owe her big time for helping me see the possibilities of what Fobbit could be and where it was headed in the wrong direction. I’ve also posted a few excerpts from the novel on my blog and readers have been very good about telling me what works and what doesn’t work–advice I cherish. Now, I don’t think I’ll ever again send a book off to a publisher without having at least one other trustworthy reader run their eyes over the pages. I live in relative literary isolation here in western Montana and I need that kind of feedback, that broader perspective. Having a “beta reader” is a crumbling of pride, I suppose.
Like many of us, you’re a working stiff in addition to carving on novels, writing short stories, maintaining a blog, being married. How do you balance everything?
Caffeine and cocaine. Okay, I’m kidding about one of those. Having a very patient, understanding and supportive wife is also essential. I’d advise it for every writer. Then again, not everyone can be as lucky as me to be married to Jean (aka The Best Wife in the World). She’s one-of-a-kind and is definitely the center of my balance. She calls me on my bullshit, holds my feet to the fire, and greets me at the door every night after work wearing a sexy French maid’s outfit and holding a glass of wine. Who could ask for anything more?
You’re an active book reviewer. In what ways has turning a critical eye to other’s work made your own better?
Turning that around, because I’m a novelist I hope I’m a more sympathetic critic. I’m a firm believer in John Updike’s rules for reviewers–the first of which is “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” This doesn’t mean I should only write positive reviews–it’s entirely a good thing to warn readers away from a bad book–but I always strive to see the author’s intent and then determine whether he or she fulfilled that intent. As far as my own work is concerned, I think every book I read makes me a better writer–even the bad ones. Lame-and-lazy novels make me mad (“If they can publish this junk, then why can’t mine be published?!”) and make me determined to write a better book, give me angry confidence to pole vault over these kind of literary turds. By the same token, good novels hold the bar high and make me want to reach for excellence. Reading just one excellently crafted sentence written by Raymond Carver, Richard Ford or Flannery O’Connor fills me with a little despair, yes, but it also makes me want to grab the pole vault and spring into the air to their heights.
Several months ago, you had your first public reading from “Fobbit,” at the University of Montana Western. What was that experience like?
Not only was it the first public reading of Fobbit, it was also one of the first public readings I ever gave in my career. The only other time I publicly read my fiction was years ago as a graduate student at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks and all I can remember of that experience was a shaky voice and rivulets of sweat trickling down my back. The reading at UMW was phenomenal. The crowd was small but very appreciative. I’d go back to Dillon for a reading in a heartbeat.
You’ve also had a few interviewing coups, notably Thomas McGuane, who sat in your kitchen while you pitched questions at him. What did you learn from talking to him?
Tom is a very gracious, down-to-earth individual, someone who makes you feel at ease from the first handshake. He was kind enough to sit down with me at the start of his book tour for Driving on the Rim. We talked for an hour or more and we had a wide-ranging conversation–everything from fly-tying to Don Quixote. The thing I took away from him? Never stop being a good, decent human being, no matter how many books you’ve published or awards you’ve put on your mantel.
Did you have an “aha!” moment that solidified your desire to become a writer? Where does the passion come from?
God, the answer to that is complicated and long-winded. There have been so many “aha!” moments, I don’t know where to begin. Okay, how about this? My first moment as a writer was back in 1969. I was in first grade and I had just published my first book, “The Lady and the Clock.” It was a masterpiece of crayons and stapled paper. I don’t remember the exact details, but I believe it involved a wealthy woman, an impoverished clockmaker and the tragedy of a broken spring. I can still remember the satisfaction of making words which, when put together, told a story from Point A to Point B to Point C. This was something I had cobbled together from sounds in my head! Before I put crayon to paper, this story didn’t exist. There’s a magic and mystery to that act of channeling stories onto the page, something I feel even today as I sit here typing. Back in 1969 was the first time I felt the thrill of bringing something to life. Years later, I would probably have said I felt a little like Frankenstein assembling his monster–making something from nothing.
What up-and-coming writers should the rest of us be reading, in your estimation?
If you haven’t read Alan Heathcock’s short-story collection Volt, then your reading life is incomplete. Do it! Do it now! It’s simply some of the best fiction–short or otherwise–I’ve read in a long, long time. Other new-ish writers who have impressed me include Shann Ray (American Masculine), Cara Hoffman (So Much Pretty), Bruce Machart (The Wake of Forgiveness), Lindsay Hunter (Daddy’s), Andrew Krivak (The Sojourn), Siobhan Fallon (You Know When the Men are Gone), Justin Torres (We the Animals) and William Lychack (The Architect of Flowers). And, even though she doesn’t need any more press, I’d have to recommend Tea Obreht for The Tiger’s Wife. I’m also reading the much-hyped The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach and am pleased to report that, so far, it’s living up to the buzz. Among poets, everyone needs to read Brian Turner (Here, Bullet) who has produced some of the most important writing about the Iraq War–his poems burn inside you for months afterward.
A contrived question, but I don’t care: You’re going to be gone from home for a month and can pull only one author’s canon off the shelf and take it with you. Who’s it going to be and why?
Dickens for the endless delights.
September 26, 2011 | Categories: Authors, Novels, Publishing, Readers, Readings, Writing, Writing process | Tags: Alan Heathcock, Andrew Krivak, Brian Turner, Bruce Machart, Cara Hoffman, Chad Harbach, David Abrams, Fobbit, Grove/Atlantic, Jeffrey Lent, Justin Torres, Karl Marlantes, Leif Enger, Lindsay Hunter, Nat Sobel, Robert Olen Butler, Shann Ray, Siobhan Fallon, Tea Obreht, The Quivering Pen, Thomas McGuane, William Lychack | Comments Off