As I’ll ever be.
First of all, I’d like to thank you for accommodating me. My schedule’s been pretty crazy lately, so I appreciate you shuffling your calendar to meet with me today. These days, I don’t know if I’m coming or going.
That’s no problem. —Hey, are you taping this?
Yeah. Is that a problem?
I guess not.
You seem to be a pretty agreeable person.
I’ve been told that. My wife goes around telling her friends I’m “the nicest guy in the world.” Frankly, it’s a little embarrassing. But, on the other hand, I haven’t stopped her from saying it, have I? I guess I’ve always been what you’d call a “people pleaser.” You know that song from Oklahoma, “I’m Just a Girl Who Cain’t Say ‘No’?” As a kid, I used to go around singing that. Quietly and to myself, of course. But it’s true, I have a hard time turning people down. This leads to over-commitment and problems with time management—which makes life harder sometimes. I was in therapy for a year before I got out of the Army and I remember at the end of one session, the doctor “prescribed” a book for me, a self-help manual called Anxious to Please. Normally, I’m allergic to self-help books—the very thought of reading one fills my head with grey static and I’m bored before I even turn to the first page. But, here’s the thing: because my doctor had asked me to read this book, I couldn’t not read it. That was either one very clever or very twisted doctor. She knew I had a problem and yet she used that very problem against me in order to “cure” me. As you can see, it didn’t do much good. I never did finish that book. I still feel guilty about that failure. [Pause] Wow, sorry about that. I didn’t mean to go off on such a deep, personal tangent on the very first question.
Oh-kaay. Let’s get back on track here. Most authors doing these TNB Self-Interviews tend to avoid talking about their new books—a tired rehash of all the questions they’ve already answered elsewhere—and who can blame them? We’ll get to some non-traditional questions in a minute, but first, in the interest of giving readers an idea of who you are and what your book’s about, give us the elevator pitch for Fobbit.
I suppose it depends on how long the elevator ride is and how many floors we’ll be going up—
You just wasted two floors with that non-answer. Why don’t you start by telling us what, exactly, is a “Fobbit.”
That’s the slang term given to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan who hang around the Forward Operating Base, or FOB. Fobbits are usually stereotyped as combat cowards, the “clerks and jerks” of the Army who make excuses not to go outside the concertina wire into the action on the streets of Baghdad or Ramadi or Kabul or wherever.
You were a career soldier—20 years in the Army—and served a combat tour in Iraq in 2005. Would you consider yourself a Fobbit?
Sure. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt. I was a Fobbit, through and through. When I went to Iraq in 2005, it was the first time I’d been deployed to a combat zone after 17 years of active-duty service. Once I was there on Camp Liberty, I fell into a routine of an ordinary, cubicle-type job straight out of The Office. It was day-in, day-out of computers, air conditioning, and comfort.
So you didn’t face any real combat?
Well, I’d say all those mortars that landed on Camp Liberty were “real.” Fobbits inside the wire died all the time….But I get what you’re saying. Did I ever go out into the thick of things, walk through the unpredictable streets of Baghdad with my nuts shriveling to the size of peas and sweat soaking my uniform not just from the heat but from outright fear and dread? No, I did not go outside the wire on missions like that. I have nothing but admiration and respect for those guys who did, though.
So Fobbit is your way of making up for the guilt you feel about having a relatively safe life in a combat zone?
No, I didn’t write Fobbit to justify my combat experience. I wrote it so that people would understand there are two sides to every war story. There’s the story everyone reads about in the headlines—the gun battles, the bombs, the air strikes—but there’s also the story of what goes on back at headquarters—the operations planning, the PowerPoint briefings, the banter between cubicle mates, the paper cuts, Lobster Night at the dining facility, and so on. I wanted to talk about that untalked-about battlefield. Now, by writing this book, I realize I’m opening myself up to more mockery and scorn for not having faced any “real” combat action in my eleven months of Operation Iraqi Freedom. But I’m okay with that. Haters gonna hate. I’m secure in the knowledge of what I did and didn’t do over there. I may not have shot anyone or been shot at, or worked a full day in 115-degree heat patrolling the streets of Baghdad, but I did work my ass off in my own way.
Which was what?
I was a public affairs non-commissioned officer with the 3rd Infantry Division and, among other things, I was responsible for writing press releases about Task Force Baghdad missions and accomplishments.
Which brings us to your novel.
Right. Fobbit follows several different characters in a task force (similar to the one of which I was a part): public affairs Fobbits and a company of combat-arms soldiers who patrol the streets. Their worlds intersect when the company commander, Captain Abe Shrinkle, commits a series of fatal blunders and Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding, a public affairs Fobbit, has to clean up the mess before the media gets hold of it. There’s a lot more to it, but that’s the essence of the book.
And it’s a comedy, right?
Correct-a-mundo. I’ll go ahead and answer the question you were about to ask. Yes, Catch-22 was an influence, as well as M*A*S*H. But also Preston Sturges.
The movie director?
Yes. I’m a huge fan of Sturges’ films Unfaithfully Yours, Sullivan’s Travels and especially Hail the Conquering Hero—which is probably my favorite of his movies. At his peak, in the 1940s, there was nobody making faster or funnier films. If he were still alive, I’d love to see what he could do with Fobbit.
Let’s shift gears for a minute.
Okay. These are the non-Fobbit questions, right?
Yes. Favorite color?
Purple. Also forest green. But especially purple. For one thing, it was the color my wife and I used at our wedding 28 years ago. So I guess it’s partly sentimental, but I also like the way purple feels. It’s royal and also comforting. I’ve been ridiculed for my purple-philia, though. I’ll never forget the time, back when I was a young sergeant working in an infantry unit in Alaska, I bought my first laptop computer case. It was the color of grape Kool-Aid. Whenever I walked through the headquarters building with that computer case, I know for a fact that some of the infantry grunts were mocking me behind my back—making limp-wristed swishy gestures, that sort of thing. I didn’t let it bother me. I held firm to my purple conviction.
A New York Strip with a honey-balsamic glaze topped with Gorgonzola crumbles.
Favorite food when your wife’s not around to give you a look of disgust?
Favorite punch line to a joke?
Oh God, where do I start? There are so many—the number increasing with every year I get older. Before too long, I’ll probably be an old man coming out his front door with a shotgun, growling, “Get off my lawn!”
But if you had to pick the one pet peeve that tops your list?
Right now, it would probably be cashiers who hand me my bag and say, “Have a good one.” The vague non-specificity of that catchphrase drives me absolute batshit. “Have a good what? A good elephant? A good proctology exam? A good sneeze? There have been a couple of times my wife has had to hold me back from going off on the teenager down at Safeway, finger in the face, the whole nine yards.
Okay, I think that about wraps it up. Thanks for—
Wait, wait. We can’t end this on that negative, crotchety-Clint Eastwood note. Let me leave them with something a little more positive. I’m a people-pleaser, remember?
Alright. Uh, name one non-writing moment in the past ten years that has brought you unbridled joy.
Apart from all those moments I spend with my wife, you mean?
It would have to be the time when I was working at the Pentagon and after work I’d take the metro to the National Gallery of Art. I’d go to the west wing and sit and stare at my favorite painting in the entire gallery: Gilbert Stuart’s “The Skater.” It’s this huge, eight-foot-by-five-foot portrait of a man skating on a pond, arms crossed and leaning forward like he’s going to come right through the canvas. I don’t know why that painting moved me so much, it just did. I remember thinking, “Man, the only thing that could make this moment any better would be if I was eating a Hostess Sno-Ball.”
David Abrams is the author of Fobbit, a comedy about the Iraq War (Grove/Atlantic) which Publishers Weekly called “an instant classic.” It was also an Indie Next pick and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. His short stories have appeared in Esquire, Narrative, Salamander, Connecticut Review, The Greensboro Review, The Missouri Review, The North Dakota Review and other literary quarterlies. He earned a BA in English from the University of Oregon and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. He retired from active-duty after serving in the U.S. Army for 20 years, a career which took him to Alaska, Texas, Georgia, the Pentagon, and Iraq. He now lives in Butte, Montana with his wife. His blog, The Quivering Pen, can be found at: www.davidabramsbooks.blogspot.com