David Abrams: The Birth of Fobbit, and Other Happy Accidents in a War Zone

David Abrams’ debut novel, Fobbit, is one of the most anticipated releases of the fall. It’s a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, a Publishers Weekly Top 10 Pick for Fall Literary Fiction, and a September Indie Next Pick. Darin Strauss calls the Iraq-war comedy “that rarest of good things: the book you least expect, and most want,” and goes on to say, “It is everything that terrible conflict was not: beautifully planned and perfectly executed; funny and smart and lyrical; a triumph. David Abrams has taken up Joe Heller’s mantle–or not mantle; more like his Groucho nose and his whoopee cushion–and so his debut marks the arrival of a massive talent.” As you might imagine of a war comedy novel, the story of how it came to print is a compelling and amusing one. – Meg

Sept. 3, 2012
9:30 a.m.
Butte, MT

One minute ago, as I sat here at my computer, wondering how to start this 1st Books essay, a Google calendar reminder popped onto my screen: “FOBBIT Day!!! @ Tues Sept 4.”  Yes, I set an alert to remind me that tomorrow will be one of the biggest red-letter days of my life.  I even added three exclamation marks which hopped around like cheerleaders on pogo sticks.  As if I needed reminding.

Tomorrow, the first Tuesday after Labor Day in the Year of Our Lord Two-Thousand-and-Twelve, I will officially wake up a changed man, the proud owner of a new appendage to my name: Debut Novelist.  I suppose it will be a day like any other.  I will yawn, scratch myself, put on my slippers, shuffle to the kitchen to pour a mug of coffee, then head downstairs to face a blank computer screen and a keyboard waiting for my fingers.  Just another ho-hum, hum-drum day, right?

If you believe that, then you haven’t been hanging around my Facebook wall or my Twitter account—places where it seems like everything I post is shouted in letters the size of billboards (or, better yet, cheerleaders on pogo sticks yelling through a bullhorn): “Fobbit is coming!  Fobbit is coming!”  And now that day is here, standing on the front porch, ringing the doorbell.  Tomorrow, my novel about Operation Iraqi Freedom, which I’ve dubbed “a comedy about the tragedy of war,” will be released by Grove/Atlantic.

How did I get here, a stunned, amazed, and grateful 49-year-old holding his freshly printed-and-bound book in his hands?  It seems like it was a long road, but the last few miles were covered in a gallop.  I could rewind as far back as 45 years ago when I first learned to read and discovered the malleable possibilities of words; or I could take you to my teenage years when I first started writing short stories and submitting them (in manila envelopes with the requisite SASEs) to magazines with dogged determination; or I could show you that picture where I’m holding my first check as a published writer when my story appeared in a local, Eugene, Oregon magazine in the mid-1980s; or I could describe the next two decades I spent in our basement typing words upon words upon words until I became a virtual stranger to my wife and three kids with little to show for it, other than a big sale to Esquire, a medium-sized sale to The Greensboro Review, and multiple “sales” to micro-magazines like Snake Nation Review which paid in contributor’s copies.

But really, Fobbit’s journey began on January 2, 2005 when I boarded a chartered plane at Fort Stewart, Georgia with an M-16 slung over my shoulder, bound for the combat zone.  In that instant, on that day, I knew something would come of my experiences of the next year, so I knew I should pay close attention to everything I saw, heard, smelled, tasted and touched.

Like one of the characters in my novel, Chance Gooding Jr., I was being deployed to war as an untested mid-career non-commissioned officer in the Army.  At that point, I had 17 years of active-duty service but I’d never been in the path of a hostile bullet.  What waited for me in Iraq?  I had no idea, and the very fact that it was out there, pulsating like a misshapen, many-tentacled monster in the fog put all my senses on full alert.  Even as the plane lifted off from Savannah, Georgia, I was already writing in my journal, my hand moving so quickly that the tip of the pen pierced the paper and ripped a gash between the words “Iraqi” and “airspace.”

For the next eleven months, I continued writing like mad—through finger blisters, cramped hands, and a painful bout of “Baghdad Bowel Syndrome” which kept me curled on my bed covered in a sheen of sweat.  I jotted notes in a little green notebook I kept in the cargo pocket of my desert uniform, I typed for hours on end after work while sitting in my trailer at Camp Liberty on the western edge of Baghdad, and once when I was especially desperate for writing materials I tore the flap off a case of MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat) and wrote a few lines of dialogue on the cardboard.  Even as I carried out my mission as a public affairs sergeant with Task Force Baghdad, my mind was racing ahead to how I would describe the events of my day.

With every journal entry, I laid the groundwork for what would become a satire about the Army, centered around the life of Fobbits—the slang word for soldiers who avoid hazardous combat by hanging back at the Forward Operating Base, or FOB.  Midway through my tour of duty in Iraq, I started seeing patterns in the material I was gathering: a cyclic redundancy of effort on the Army’s part.  While there were many triumphs and good work being done at the street level by U.S. service members and their allies to rebuild the nation, I also saw a lot of people at our headquarters building who I can only describe as squirrels running on a wheel (it wasn’t all their fault—more often than not, they got tangled in red tape and tripped on the way to “Mission Accomplished”).  Press releases required approval up the chain of command before I could send them out—a laborious process that delayed the news from being released.  PowerPoint briefings were the bread and butter of staff officers and required hours of fine-tuning.  Believe me when I say the satire practically wrote itself on a daily basis.

The more I wrote about the odd, funny things I witnessed in the headquarters’ cubicle jungle, the more my imagination started spinning wildly (almost as fast as a wheel being turned by a squirrel).  I still took notes, never flagging in my entries, but at the same time a novel was gathering steam in my head.  Characters were clothed in flesh; dialogue played on a loop in my mind; outrageous situations suggested themselves in a series of “What if…” brainstorms.  Once I’d returned to the United States, hugged my wife and kids, and settled back into a domestic routine which didn’t involve the threat of mortars flying overhead, I was ready to bring my novel to life.  I cracked my knuckles and started typing.

And I kept typing for the next five years.

Just now, as I was looking back over my journal for interesting details to include in this essay, I came across this entry from March 7, 2006 (back then, I mistakenly used the term “Fobber” instead of “Fobbit”):

Mark this day!  I think I might have—maybe, possibly, perhaps—gotten a start on my novel today.  Tentatively calling it “Fobber” and tentatively starting it out with this sentence:  “They were Fobbers because, at the core, they were nothing but marshmallow.”

More to follow…

More did indeed follow.  I spent the next five years putting Fobbit through multiple drafts, adding more and more scenes—inspired in part by my original journal entries—until the book was at last finished.  It was overweight and undisciplined and would need the wise editing of my agent and my editor at Grove/Atlantic, but it was finished.

Many things have changed since I first handed in that “final” draft to my agent—words have been cut, characters have made sudden departures, similes have been euthanized—but I was delighted to find, courtesy of that March 7 entry, one thing which didn’t change. Today, I can open my freshly-published novel and read the first line: “They were Fobbits because, at the core, they were nothing but marshmallow.”

I think that calls for a few pogo sticks, don’t you?  !!! – David