Soldiers in Boots, Girls in Lakes: Bill Talks with David Abrams

categories: Cocktail Hour / Table For Two: Interviews

Be the first to comment


David at his launch party. Wouldn’t a cake be a good idea?

David Abrams and Bill Roorbach first met at PNBA, Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association conference, which took place in Tacoma, Washington back in 2012, when David’s book Fobbit was new and Bill’s book Life Among Giants had just been released. These friendships on the road with new books bloom quickly, and are reinforced by chance meetings across years to come. On the occasion of the publication of their newest books, Bill and David (Not that Bill and Dave!) thought they better have a virtual conversation, as the road wasn’t going to bring them close this time around.

Bill: David, David—if only we could do this in person over a stack of books and a cup of coffee. I’m a fan since Fobbit, and love that you’re continuing to mine your own Iraq war experience for the new novel.  I hope it won’t give too much away to say that Brave Deeds follows a squad of six men going AWOL and crossing an explosive Baghdad to attend the funeral of their late, lamented leader—sounds like they’re going to be up against it from both sides. Is there an incident in your own experience that got you inventing this terrifying journey?

David: Bill, it’s great to have a dialogue with you again. We need to make plans to reunite more than once every five years; that PNBA encounter was too long ago, my friend.  You know, I actually tried stalking you last autumn. My wife and I spent two weeks in Maine, driving all over the eastern half of the state. I never did see you, though.  You’re elusive. Are you one of those “Stranger in the Woods” (http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/251786/the-stranger-in-the-woods-by-michael-finkel/9781101875681) kind of guys?  Do you retreat to a rustic cabin in the Allagash and write your novels by kerosene light?

But circling back to your question to me….

Brave Deeds was initially inspired by a 2007 Washington Post article by David Finkel (whose The Good Soldiers and Thank You For Your Service are war literature classics). In that account, an entire company of soldiers–27 of them–performed a similar “memorial march” across Baghdad to attend a funeral for their sergeant killed in a bomb blast a week earlier. While nearly every mission in Iraq at that time carried a considerable weight of danger, these particular soldiers were backed up by a full contingent of Humvees, gunners, maps, and compasses. In Brave Deeds, as a cruel creator, I stripped away all of that security. Despite their best-laid plans, my six soldiers are left with no Humvee, no maps, no compass, no food, and only limited ammunition for their rifles. They are AWOL and they are truly fucked. I thought that might make for more interesting reading–stripping away the reliable “comforts” of military life, heightening the “strangers in a strange land” aspect of wartime deployment, and giving them a ticking-clock timeline to get the job done.  So that’s how it began: I read a story in the newspaper while drinking my morning coffee and started plotting the fates of these fool-hardy, loyal, and brave soldiers.

Never having walked in the figurative footsteps of my characters–my deployment to Baghdad in 2005 was nearly all served in the confines of the Forward Operating Base–I was definitely writing as an outsider, a non-infantry soldier. But none of that mattered much once I got underway because my intent was not to write a bombs-and-bullets military thriller but a character-driven story about six co-workers who go off the grid and must survive not only the enemy but themselves.

How do you approach writing something that’s well outside of your experience?  I’ve just finished reading the first story in your collection, the wonderfully-named “Harbinger Hall.” Surprises peel like an onion in these thirty pages, so I won’t say too much except that we, the reader, eventually end up in Russia around the time of the 1917 Revolution. How did this story come about?  What paths brought you to these two characters–a sixth-grade boy skipping school and an elderly recluse whose first words to the boy are “You want to play war?”—and this dazzling story?

Bill: I love that you stripped away the security apparatus. Your mission sounds like it cost a lot less!  At least in dollars and cents.  Yes, I felt your presence in Maine. Actually, I saw your were here on Twitter. We live a little isolated from the coast world up in Farmington, which is western Maine, foothills of the White Mountains. It’s been a great place to live relatively inexpensively and at the edge of civilization. We have a place now in Scarborough, too, that puts us closer to the sea and to Portland, a city I love, and full of writers, too.

I got a cake, too! Thanks to Patty Byers.

I wrote “Harbinger Hall” a while back, published it in The Atlantic, and then revised it for this collection. It starts with a ten-year-old deciding to bail out of school forever, using a method I dreamed up in sixth grade but never dared try. Great thing about fiction is you get to see what might have happened. We kids used to play war extensively, and one of our battlefields was on an estate you could approach through the forest from my neighborhood. We’d spy on the old guy who lived there, pretend we were going to rescue him or kill him or kidnap him depending on the various storylines. This story has a kid braver than I who goes ahead and skips out of school, begins to hang around the estate on the far side of the woods.  But he gets caught, and gets a dose of history. I’ve always been fascinated by the Russian Revolution and all the mayhem that preceded it. Here was a chance to be in two worlds at once. I did a lot of research, but in the end, as you say, the story has to be about characters in motion. And really, a boy’s imagination, which is still alive in me.

Did you have any personal experience to go on for Brave Deeds? I know you were part of some dark times in Iraq. Have you been back at all since?  Is it hard to sit still and write when the memories, or the imagination they’ve unleashed, start coming back to life on the page?

Bill and the other Dave at PNBA, 2012

David: While portions of Fobbit were lifted almost whole-cloth from my war diary, the plot, characters and much of the setting in Brave Deeds were far beyond the scope of my experience in Iraq in 2005. I was, sadly, a headquarters-bound Fobbit during my entire time in-country. So, Brave Deeds gave me a chance to think about soldiers whose lives were vastly different than my own (infantry vs. support soldier) and to virtually and vicariously step out into the more dangerous world of Baghdad beyond the Forward Operating Base. If I had “dark times” during my time in Iraq, they came when I read about (or, worse, saw photos) of the grisly and unpredictable violence which more courageous soldiers saw nearly every day. This is nothing compared to actually standing on a street, staring down into a crater made by an exploding mortar, smelling the blood, and seeing–well, sights too horrible to describe. I’ve seen the pictures—many of them—from these types of attacks and that was enough for me.

To answer your other question: no, I have not been back to Iraq. Nor do I plan to vacation there in the future. Baghdad is a chapter in my life I hope to never re-read.

Speaking of stretching exercises we authors perform at the keyboard, what about your story “Broadax, Inc.”? The narrator is a self-proclaimed corporate shark who finds himself deep in a love triangle (and, boy, do I dig these lines: “Sharks do fall in love. It isn’t all just gnashing and splashing and arms coming off clean.”). You don’t strike me as the Wall Street executive type. (But maybe you have a hidden double life?  If so, I have a few questions about how I can sweeten my investment portfolio.) Ted Broadax is the kind of guy who bites his sentences into chunks, prides himself on his immense wealth, and is a total mess when it comes to personal relationships. This doesn’t sound like the Bill Roorbach I know. How did Ted arrive in your head?  And have you ever watched the Showtime series Billions? Your Ted reminds me an awful lot of Bobby Axelrod (whose name, if you stutter-slur resembles “Broadax”).

Bill: Well, I’m loving seeing your imagination at work–it’s clearly well informed.  I haven’t seen Billions, not yet, but I’m really enjoying these long-form cable series, which are like novels on TV.  I can even read them the way I read novels, going back to check on plot elements I might have missed, flipping back a few pages when I realize I’ve been spacing out.  I worked with HBO a while developing a show based on my novel Life Among Giants. It was fascinating to pull that thing apart into seasons and episodes, and to write scripts as opposed to novels, where nothing’s getting done by actors or cinematographers—that’s all in our hands. These are great narrative minds, is what I’m saying, and I learned a lot from them. Before they killed my show, that is.  You wouldn’t want to see the pictures of that carnage. Though in fact my main emotion was relief–I could get back to being a novelist, which is where I live.

As for Broadax—I just wanted a name that included a weapon, because that’s the way he’d come to see himself as the story opens.  I’ve got a number of high school friends who went into finance, as they used to call it, and these guys, math whizzes, all of them, seemed pretty mild-mannered sitting in Algebra II. But the aggression when they went out in the world, and the pure focus on money! Astounding what was hiding behind those khaki slacks and Bass Weejuns. I just wanted to see what was left of a particular guy if every bit of his business success and money dependence was taken away from him. I’m also interested in how easy it might be to manipulate the electronic everything of our lives to destroy someone. Or a country, come to think of it. “Broadax” the story comes from that. In the end, what he’s got is love, and that turns out to be enough.

You’ve been busy–this I know based on our exchange, which has taken quit a few good weeks. A new book is a whirlwind, even months before it ever hits the shelves. The Girl of the Lake is my tenth book, amazingly, and the experience of every single book has been different, with emotions from despair to ecstasy along the way, and back again.  And again.  Second books are notoriously tough—how is this one different from your first?  The reception has been fantastic.  Did you feel more prepared?

David: Putting out a second book is like the Grand Central Station of Neuroses for self-doubters like me. On the exterior, I may look much the same like I did when Fobbit came out in 2012; but inside, I’m a storm of worry. The early reviews for Brave Deeds and the reception I’ve gotten from readers on this book tour have certainly been reassuring. And yet, there’s always that second-guessing that goes on: a reverse of Sally Fields’ famous line from her Oscar acceptance speech, “Do you really like me?” But that’s just ego talking and has nothing to do with the finished, published book we now hold in our hands. No matter what my conflicted, complicated feelings are about the so-called “sophomore slump,” Brave Deeds the novel stands on its own.  It’s written, it’s published, I’ve tossed it like a homing pigeon from my worrisome grip. It has to fly to readers with its own wings.  But, yes, anxious voices inside my head still clamor. I’m not sure how to tamp them down, muffle the overthinking.  As a seasoned veteran in this business (ten books!!), do you have any Rilke Letters to a Young Poet type of advice for me?

Bill: We really like you!  I have no advice for you—I think your art and life are well in hand.  The only observation I really have after a lot of ups and downs is that nearly all of the pleasure of writing comes in the making. That’s what lasts, and that’s where we’re most in our element. Please keep it coming!

David: You are entirely right!  I will carry that forward with me to Book 3 and 4 and beyond.  Thanks again, my friend.

Bill: But wait—I want to ask you about the cave of rewrite you mention on your twitter page. It sounds fucking scary!

David: The cave of rewrite can be a dreadful place, can’t it?  Sometimes I look at the process with the same amount of joy I once felt for trips to the dentist  (Dr. Rusty Pliers, DDS). All those words—All. Those. Fucking. Words. –demanding reevaluation and judgment. It’s deflating, isn’t it?  Or maybe that’s just me. One of my faults is trying to take an all-encompassing, long-range view instead of just relaxing and taking small bites from the elephant. Too often, I deflate my tires before I start driving.

Then again, revision is the time of discovery: plunging my hand into my characters’ chests and pulling out surprises (“Wow, Rusty — I had no idea you were a dentist by day and stamp collector by night!”). So, yes, the Cave of Rewrite is dark and frightening, but if we can swallow our fear and keep walking forward to that pinprick of light at the end of the tunnel, the rewards can be infinite.

Bill: Revision is where it all happens, for me. It’s what makes our stories smarter than we could ever be. Okay, brother! See you in the wings!

David: Maybe Texas Book Festival?

Bill: Nope, not me, but I’ll be at National Book Festival over Labor Day weekend. We’ll cross paths again yet, my friend.

David: “The Girl of the Lake” is shaping up to be one of my favorite stories of all time–it goes on the shelf of honor next to the other long-time residents: Mr. Carver, Mr. (R.) Ford, Miz O’Connor, et al. Other things I still want to talk about include “The Fall”–good googly-moogly, I LOVE that freakin’ story!–your style/voice (alluded to a little in that remark about Broadax’s choppy dialect), and the relationships between men and women in these pages, not to mention your marvelous novel The Remedy for Love. So, if you’re up for it, I’d like to keep up this conversation.

Bill: That is a promise! Loved it, David. And thanks for kind words. More talk soon!