David Abrams is an American author of two novels and several short stories. He served in the United States Army for twenty years and was deployed in Iraq in 2005. Abrams’s experiences in the military were the inspiration for both of his novels: Fobbit (2012) and Brave Deeds (2017).
Mount Hope: You’ve described yourself as a “people pleaser” in the past. Did you worry about what your fellow servicemen or colleagues would think of the satirical honesty in your first novel, Fobbit?
David Abrams: I share the same pre-publication anxieties as most writers: Will readers appreciate what I have to say? Will they love my characters or loathe them? Will the book become a Frisbee that’s tossed across the room in disgust? This is all the needless worry and fretting creators are riddled with when it comes time to publicly unveil the creation.
In my case, concern, and trepidation about what military members, veterans, and their families—particularly those who’ve lost loved ones in combat—would think about Fobbit was paramount in my mind in the months before it was released. This was a novel that, on the surface, appears to mock all that patriotic Americans hold dear to their hearts. Would they think I was ridiculing or diminishing what they or their families had sacrificed for this country? It kept me awake at night.
As it turns out, I could have slept peacefully: Fobbit was embraced with open arms by my fellow servicemembers. I was surprised, humbled, and brought to tears on a couple of occasions when people came up to me after readings or emailed me to say how much they appreciated Fobbit and what it had to say. I learned a valuable lesson with that first book: trust your readers to “get it.” They knew I was mocking the bureaucracy of war, not those who were only carrying out their orders in a complex tangle of a war.
MH: Would you say that writing acts as an outlet of sorts for expressing your frustrations through snark and sarcasm? Such as the parts of Fobbit that show the ridiculous bureaucracy behind each press release, or your short story “Thank You” (if I am remembering the title correctly), which is both funny and heartbreaking.
DA: Oh, absolutely. Humor is a way for me to vent about issues that frustrate and anger me. Fobbit was a guided missile launched into the sky, aimed toward all the things that tied me in knots during my year in Iraq: the tangle of bureaucratic red tape, the clowns in the White House who never seemed to understand what was happening in the desert, and the blind American patriotism that vigorously waved the flag while glossing over the real questions like why were we there in the first place? I vented and vomited my anger all over the pages of Fobbit while, at the same time, I perfumed it with jokes.
Don’t get me wrong—the United States did accomplish some good things in that country over the long slog of the war. And while I would never discount the value of the humanitarian projects the military undertook during my time in Iraq (which included building schools, upgrading and providing security for power plants, and repairing infrastructure—which U.S. forces had damaged and destroyed during the invasion-slash-liberation), I would characterize most of our efforts there as one-step-forward-half-a-step-back. It was that disconnect between the way the Fox News anchors seemed to sing The Star-Spangled Banner while reporting the news and what I saw actually taking place on the ground which was the ultimate driving force in writing this novel. One of my favorite quotes from Flannery O’Connor is about how sometimes you have to use “violent” literary ways to get your vision across to a hostile, ignorant, or reluctant audience: “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.” In my case, I loaded those guided missiles with whoopee cushions. It was totally cathartic for me and gave me a sense of comfort knowing that I’d vented my feelings. It just so happened that spew of anger manifested itself as humor.
MH: What was the transition back to civilian life like for you?
DA: I served as an enlisted soldier in the active-duty Army for twenty years and twenty days (yes, I was counting). It was a career that provided job security for those two decades and took me to places I’d never been (among them, Alaska, Atlanta, Texas, and Iraq). It was a job that demanded a lot out of me over those years: hard, physical exercise on a daily basis, long hours which essentially were round-the-clock when it came right down to it (I felt like I was always “on-call”), sacrificing time spent with my family, and always worrying about taking care of the soldiers under my supervision as well as dealing with the demands of those who supervised me. It was a life that always left me feeling as anxious and exhausted as the proverbial “long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.” By the time I retired in late October 2008 (on Halloween—trick or treat!), I no longer knew how to live without someone else telling me what to do or where to be, day and night, across the calendar. I couldn’t remember what it had been like to be David Abrams, Civilian—someone who wore comfortable clothes and let his hair grow longer than an inch. I was so bound up with years and years of “Yes, sir!” and “No, ma’am!” and, when told to jump, asking how high on the way up. When I retired, I went through an identity crisis: I needed to find the person I once was before I donned the uniform. Was he still in there? So, that first post-retirement year was an interesting one for me. I had to learn to relax, to unclench, to understand that there was no longer anyone looking over my shoulder and judging what I said or did.
MH: How did you come to work for the Department of the Interior after you retired from military service?
DA: A year before my retirement date, my wife and I sat down and did the math. We had a little bit of savings, but that money, along with my pension, wouldn’t be enough to live on. I knew I needed to keep working, it just wouldn’t be in the military—that was one thing we knew for certain: we both needed to unclench.
I was okay with this decision. I have never been allergic to work, to doing whatever it took to put food on the table and extra coins in the piggy bank (for instance, even while I was in the Army, I took on after-hours jobs like delivering pizzas, tutoring in a community college writing center, and working at a video rental store). And so, facing “retirement,” I blitzed the job market with my resume. One month after I was officially out of the Army, I was hired by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management as the public affairs specialist for its Western Montana District. I’ve been at this job ever since, essentially doing the same type of work I did in the Army, but without all the push-ups and yelling.
MH: You’ve mentioned the discipline you need in order to write every day while also working full-time. How do you approach writing on days when you have no idea what to write? Or when you are too exhausted to write?
DA: Even though the BLM is a relatively easier job than what I was doing in the Army, it’s still a full-time job and pares away the hours on my daily clock. At some point, while writing Fobbit and working eight, nine, ten hours a day, I lamented, “I’ll never find the time to write!” After the twenty-third time saying this out loud, I was brought up short by the very words that had just come out of my mouth. For the first time, I really listened to what I was saying and I realized I was right: I would never find the time. Instead, I would have to take the time in my daily schedule to write. Fortunately, if there was one thing the Army taught me, it was how to rise before the roosters—well before reveille and the crack of dawn—and start my day with a burst of energy. And so, I started setting my alarm for 4:30 a.m., a good four hours before I had to shower, dress, and get out the door for my work at the BLM. I made that time sacrosanct. In the hushed hours of the house as my wife still slept and my only companions were the cats and a good cup of coffee, I found it easier to write without all the noisy distractions of the world pulling me east, west, north, and south.
Oh, sure, my discipline was sometimes weak and flabby and I hit the snooze button too many times; or there were days when I stared at the computer screen, my brain a blank void. But I try to forgive myself for those days when nothing gets written. There will always be another tomorrow with its 4:30 a.m. alarm bringing me back fresh to the keyboard.
MH: You have been pretty candid on your blog, The Quivering Pen, about your lack of discipline when it comes to reading all the books you’d like to read. However, you’ve spent the last six months chronicling your journey through James Mustich’s 1000 Books to Read Before You Die. What were the books that inspired you as a young, aspiring writer?
DA: 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die is both a blessing and an agony. If the sixteen-year-old me had received that book for Christmas, he’d be rubbing his hands with glee and turning to the first entry (Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire) with brash confidence, saying, “I got this!” But forty years beyond my teenage self, I realize I will indeed die before I can read everything on Mr. Mustich’s list. Some of the thousand books on his list I’ve already read, of course, but in addition to the well-known classics and contemporary works, he has some interesting selections that are completely new to me. Every day is an exciting discovery (I’m being methodical—some say, anal—in my approach to 1,000 Books: going alphabetically, I’m reading one new entry each morning).
Most of my favorite authors are on his list: Charles Dickens, Flannery O’Connor, and Richard Ford—all early influences and inspirations. Surprisingly, the writer who impacted me the most when I was an emerging writer, Raymond Carver, is not in Mustich’s roll call. Because I love 1,000 Books so much, I suppose I’ll forgive him this one egregious slip. But yes, Carver was a large, bright lamppost in my early years—he still is, I guess. He and Flannery O’Connor came into my life right around the same time and they were a nice balance against each other: he with his minimalist style, and she with her often-maximalist prose.
MH: When Fobbit was published, you cited your “Next Big Thing” as a twenty-plus-year project about a little person who works as a Hollywood stuntman for a spoiled child actor. However, Brave Deeds ended up being written and published as your second novel. How do you prioritize which work-in-progress gets your attention? Does it vary depending on the day?
DA: The stuntman novel, set in 1940s Hollywood and featuring a little person (a former Munchkin, now a stunt double) and a child movie star, was actually the first novel I ever completed all the way through to a final draft. That was more than twenty-five years ago. Soon thereafter, it went into the proverbial desk drawer where it has waited patiently all these years. I haven’t given up on that book, and in fact, it may very well still be the “next big thing” I work on—this time around, completely re-visioning it (not just “revising,” but a whole new vision for the plot and characters, which I’m actually pretty excited about). After Fobbit was published, I sent that wrong-headed draft of the stuntman novel to both my agent and then to my publisher; they rightly rejected it in favor of this other idea I’d mentioned I was working on: a novel about six soldiers trekking on foot across Baghdad in order to attend their sergeant’s memorial service. This, of course, would eventually become Brave Deeds.
Right now, in addition to the Hollywood novel, I’m noodling around with a memoir about my marriage (thirty-six years and counting, this December). One of these days, I’ll have to lace up my boots, crack my knuckles, and decide which of those manuscripts will get my full-time attention. I’m currently in the deciding stage. And who knows, maybe a new third book will unexpectedly come shooting out of the sky like a blazing meteor and land in my lap!
MH: Do you anticipate your future work pivoting away from the military, or do you think you might have some more war stories in you?
DA: With Fobbit and Brave Deeds, I think I’ve said all I need to say about the military—or, nearly everything. I do have some military-centric short stories I’ve published over the years I’d like to gather into a collection. So, yeah, maybe that will be my third book. Only time, energy, and the 4:30 a.m. alarm will tell…