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David Abrams and Karl Marlantes at Powell’s

October 12, 2012

I haven’t been shy about my admiration for Karl Marlantes on the pages of this blog. He’s the author of Matterhorn (2009) and What It Is Like to Go to War (2011).  I’ve been to a few Marlantes’ readings and they’re always emotionally charged. (Read about  one here.) They make me realize how important it is to get outside my bubble to listen to someone who has lived the life of a soldier. So, imagine my delight when I saw that Fobbit author David Abrams would be teaming up with Marlantes to talk about their books at Powell’s.

Abrams, who had a 20-year military career, based his debut novel Fobbit on his experiences while stationed in Iraq as a military journalist. It’s biting satire at its best. Think Catch-22 or M*A*S*H and you’ll have a good idea of what to expect. I loved it! (Read my review here.)

Before reading from his book, Abrams talked about the genesis of Fobbit saying that while he was deployed in Iraq, he kept a journal. “Out of that journal, stories started to form, and eventually they coalesced into what I’m holding in front of you now. I started writing Fobbit while I was in the war zone and really worked on it in earnest when I came back in 2006.”

Marlantes asked Abrams whether he had known he was going to write Fobbit when he was deployed. Abrams said, “When I went over to combat, I went over as a novelist. I had already written books. I’d been writing short stories published in places like Esquire and small literary reviews and magazines. I went over with the idea that this experience would probably change me in some way, and I would eventually get something out of it. I didn’t know it was going to take this shape or form or that it would be a comedy. I just figured I should pay attention to what was going to happen to me over there in the war zone. As I was over there keeping my journal and recording things that went on in the task force headquarters where I was at, some of the absurdities started to come through. The story kind of wrote itself, really.”

They both talked about the trials and tribulations of getting published. Marlantes said, “I actually tried to publish Matterhorn in 1977 and no one would read it. I  would get the query letters back and it would be like, ‘Vietnam? We can’t sell a book about Vietnam. Are you kidding me?’ In ’78 I had the first of my five kids so, you know, you have to get the money to straighten the teeth, and so I put it aside. I would work on it on weekends. In the mid-80s I tried it again, but this time when the query letters came back, it was, ‘Well, it’s too bad you missed the market. Hollywood’s already saturated with Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now. So the same thing went on–more teeth growing. In the mid-90s I tried again and I honestly got letters back from publishers saying, ‘Gosh, you could just make this relevant. Why don’t you just take this platoon you’re talking about and put it into the Gulf War. I was so happy that Microsoft had come out with Search and Replace so I could put desert in for jungle in the novel. Then in the OOs it was the same. ‘Matterhorn’s a mountain, right? Why don’t you just move it to Afghanistan?’ So, it was a long, long haul. I think it was 30-some years before finally somebody read it.”

Abrams said, “About half way through writing the first draft of what became Fobbit, this book came across my desk called Matterhorn. I was a book reviewer and I would get advance copies. Along with the copy of Matterhorn came a nice letter from the publisher giving the back story of Karl. So I looked at that and said ‘Golly!’ if this guy could spend 30 years on his book, I’ve got another 25 to go and I’m in pretty good shape. In all seriousness, I admire the hell out of Karl for sticking with it for all those years and not to be all gooey but he did inspire me at that point to stay true. But my path to publication was a little bit easier. If there were any stumbling blocks in the writing of this book, they were me. My procrastination…because on a daily basis I do anything to avoid writing. That’s the mantra of most writers, I think. It took me about five years to get to a point where I was happy with the draft of this novel.”

Later Abrams mentioned that “as any writer knows, it’s a relief to get something down on paper, finished and bound and printed, which is a friggin miracle. I still look at this book everyday and say, ‘Is that mine?’ So, just the joy, from a very personal standpoint, of having a book finished and published and accepted, and I guess talked about in some circles–my family mostly–but so for that it was a great experience for me just to get it done.”

Marlantes said that when he hit the NYT bestseller list he got a call from a cousin who said, “Karl, your novel’s on the NYT bestseller list! I didn’t know we had that many relatives.”

Fobbit, Black Cat/Grove/Atlantic, 2012

What It Is Like to Go to War, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011

  1. John McNeese permalink

    I’m so glad you are back!!!!!!!

  2. Thanks, John! Impossible to stay away.

  3. In choosing to interview two authors who are writing about the military, both in and out of war, Diane displays her expansive literary range and a willingness to serve the interest of her many readers. She has not served in the military and wa, and all that is a part of it, is foreign to her gentle nature.
    Authors who write about the military, and hope to succeed as David Abrams and Karl Marlantes have succeeded, must meet two criteria: They must write well and they must write the truth about their chosen subject. Some outstanding examples come to mind:
    “Ben Hur” written by Union General Lew Wallace, was first published as a novel in l880 and also produced as a play. Basically a love story, the larger theme of the book is resistance to limitless authoritarian power.
    “The Red Badge of Courage,” a story about a fictional battle from which a soldier flees because of his fear, but returns to the battle as a standard bearer. The novel is a wonderful testament to the human spirit and reminder that “The best measure of courage is fear that is overcome.”
    “Catch 22” by J.D. Salinger is a satiric novel about the “murderous insanity of war and a critique of
    bureaucracy. Those of us who have gone to war understand the madness of it all. There are few college reading lists that do not include Salinger’s novel, his only genuine writing success.
    “The Best and the Brightest” by David Halberstam In his prize winning l960’s book, he wrote in careful and comprehensive detail about the hubris that prompted flawed military judgments and political miscalculations, both of which shattered the trust in government and caused domestic disharmony that has lasted even until today.
    Finally, perhaps the most eloquent writing of all, by Shakespeare, of a speech by King Henry asking his troops to summon their courage and become a never to be forgotten part of England’s glorious history:
    “We few, We happy few, We band of brothers—For he today that shares his blood with me—-This day shall gentle his condition…They fought with us on Saint Crispin’s Day.”
    Diane’s review of works by David Abrams and Karl Marlantes confirm that both writers have met the two standards noted above: Public acceptance confirm that the authors wrote well and they wrote the truth, even in fiction.
    Well done Diane.

  4. Thanks for reviewing both authors, Diane. As the wife of a Vietnam Vet who served in the Army and ex-wife of a marine in the Vietnam War and Tet, I know the aftermath of that war on families and the men who served. Marlantes, whom I so admire, and Abrams, have brought the atrocity of war to the public with their stories and shown the courage it takes to keep at it when the publishing world finds so many excuses not to publish. I’ve known other vets who have written novels and memoirs that were never published, some for reasons such as “We already have a book like that.” Whenever vets persevere and bring us these most necessary stories, I choke up with gratitude. They served their country once. They’re serving their country again.

    • permalink

      Diane, Because of her personal experiences with two men close to her who spent time in the military during a war, Valerie has a special understanding and affinity for the work of Abrams and Marlantes. Now there are three people in your life– Valerie Brooks, Jim Dunne and your father who were associated with a shooting war. Each of us I named paid a price for that association, sometimes tangentially, and sometimes more directly. And then of course, there is you with your memories of a father who lost part of himself in the “Big War”– yet was a part of your daily life for years. I’m pleased that Valerie wrote her Comment and reminded all of us about the reparations of war that are rarely mentioned but never end. Best Regards, Jim

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