Monday, September 3, 2012

My First Time: David Abrams & Peter Blackstock

Normally, I reserve this My First Time space for guest blogs from other writers.  Today, on the eve of Fobbits publication, I thought Id step in and tell you about one of my first times.  Im joined today by my editor at Grove/Atlantic, Peter Blackstock.

My First Book Editor

On December 10, 2010, I fired off an email to my agent, Nat Sobel, with typical first-novelist bravura and an obstinate blindness to the faults which weighed down my writing:
     After five years of writing and agonizing, my novel about the Iraq War ("Fobbit") is finally at a point where I'm as happy as I can be with it. Would you like me to send you the complete manuscript electronically? If so, what else would you need from me at this point--a synopsis, a bio, a short "elevator pitch"? Just let me know and I'll have it on its way.
     I look forward to hearing back from you.

Nat volleyed back a reply:
     Dear David,
     Thank you for your good news. I am in London, returning on Tuesday. Please send me all the things you mention in your letter, via email.  With the holidays coming on us, we have a few weeks to pull everything together.
     All the best,

Nine days later, when I still hadn’t received a reply from Nat (for God’s sake, it was the Christmas holidays!  What was I thinking?  Cut the poor man some slack), I queried him as to the novel’s status.  He replied:
     Dear David,
     Your pages are sitting on my desk, all 761 of them. A pretty big number for a first novel. The first 50 pages will have to really grab editors, to make them want to read a novel of this length. I’ll report on those pages this week. The rest will keep me reading over the holiday.
     All the best for 2011.

A few weeks later, Nat sent me another email with more detailed editorial notes, including: “Something more for you to consider: the novel is too long.  You need to do some judicious cutting of 200 or so pages.”

I gave it a little time for my head to cool, then shot back a long reply, full of prickly self-defenses and justifications like this: “I don’t want to stick to a pre-ordained number of pages and I truly don’t believe an arbitrary number of pages should dictate when the narrative ends.”  I should have allowed more time for my head to cool.

Nat, with admirable restraint, came back with: “I’d like you to cut 200 pages from the novel by being as merciless as you can.  If a scene is not as humorous as you’d want, on rereading it, it should be cut. Rereading your novel with this goal in sight will be very helpful to you and the book.”

I’ll spare you the multiple email exchanges which ensued between the two of us as we insistently lobbed the issue of length back and forth like it was a ragged and bruised tennis ball.  Let’s just leave it at this: I look back on those emails in which I pompously insisted Fobbit was as long as it deserved to be and I wince.  I was bull-headed, full of hubris, and am now thoroughly embarrassed.  Because, as it turned out, Nat was right: the fatty layers of Fobbit which bloated it to scale-breaking weight needed to go.

But it took someone other than Nat to make me see the error of my prideful ways.

Eventually, Nat and I came to an understanding--after I’d done some reluctant, but minimal trimming--that it was time to start shopping the manuscript around to publishers.  Sobel Weber Associates circulated Fobbit to eight different editors in August 2011 and it wasn’t long before the polite rejections started coming in:
     Dear Nat, Thanks for running this by me. I’m going to pass, unfortunately. I didn’t love this. FOBBIT didn’t make me laugh as much as I had hoped and I didn’t find the story an engaging as need be. Abrams is a nice writer but I had trouble really connecting with his novel.

     Nat – thanks for this but it’s not for me I think. I like the writing – and there are some gripping, horrifying images here (I’ll not soon forget the half-dead guy in the car) – but I didn’t find the black comedy quite black enough. There’s wry amusement here but not as large and fulsome as I thought might be possible given the subject.

And then, on September 13, I was in the midst of making dinner when I opened an email on my smartphone.  My wife was taking a bath and I remember bursting into the bathroom, phone in hand.  Now normally, the sight of my naked wife will send me into spirals of lust, but on this day I was breathing heavy for a different reason.  My throat was constricted and I could barely get the words out: “Oh my God, oh my God!”

Jean sat up in the bathtub.  “What is it?  What’s wrong?”  But already, by the look on my face, she could tell that something was “right.”

“I just got an email from Nat.”


“It’s happened!  I think it’s finally happened.”  I read her the email, which said, in part: “After all the rejections we’ve gotten, at last an editor has expressed interest.  His name is Peter Blackstock, and he works at the prestigious house of Grove Press.  They published the successful Vietnam novel Matterhorn.   Peter wants to talk to you about his ideas of edits and some restructuring of the novel.  While I’ve assured him how willing you have been to follow my edits, he wants to see how well you both can work together before making an offer.”

By that point, Jean was standing up in the tub and we were hugging in a sort of delirious, slippery dance.

After a few minutes, we agreed to be realistic and calm down, not get ahead of ourselves and put carts before horses or count unhatched chickens.  This wasn’t The Moment, we told ourselves.  It was the moment before The Moment.

But still, I felt big, warm flowers blooming in my chest.  After nearly 30 years of writing with little to show for it (apart from a story published in Esquire 14 years earlier), my golden ticket had finally been punched.

Well, almost punched.  Nat still wanted me to talk to Peter on the phone to make sure that we were a “good fit.”  The next day, I dialed Peter’s number and a light, chipper British voice answered, “This is Peter.”  When I told him who I was, he immediately launched into a round of embarrassing, effusive praise.  Whether it was a poor phone connection or Peter’s thick accent, I had trouble understanding everything he said.  I was, however, able to pick out the words “brilliant” and “fantastic” (words which I’d come to learn were some of Peter’s favorites).

In the first five minutes of that phone conversation, I knew I’d found my champion for Fobbit.  I've had many editors in the past, but none so gung-ho as Peter Blackstock.  As any writer can tell you, the enthusiasm of a single reader is often enough to help you carry the ball all the way from the 50-yard line to the end zone.  Even in that first phone chat, I could tell Peter was the equivalent of a tight end who’d catch Fobbit, tuck his head, and run full-bore for the goal posts.

By now, you know the rest of the story: Grove/Atlantic made an offer on the book five days later and Peter and I set to work on the manuscript--which was still as bloated and ugly as a 300-pound man eating a case of Ding-Dongs in one sitting.

Peter has believed in the book from the beginning and helped me see Fobbit not as “my” book, but as “a” book.  In other words, he made me take a step back from this thing I’d spent six years writing, this thing I’d poured everything into, this thing that had become part of my bloodstream.  To put it in symbolic terms, Peter—in the gentlest and kindest of ways—made me take that book, turn it upside down and shake all the loose change out of its pockets.  It was not the same book in the end that it was when we started.  For one thing, I cut about 130,000 words from it.

That’s right--after all the emails from Nat Sobel urging me to take a hatchet to Fobbit, it was Peter who convinced me that wide-scale excision was necessary.  My novel needed a scorched-earth treatment.  Nothing against Nat, but somehow Peter’s suggestion to cut whole swatches of the manuscript, bringing some characters to the forefront and minimizing others, was able to penetrate the thick cement walls surrounding my brain.  This, I think, was part of Peter’s genius: he made me believe his idea was my idea.  For the first time, I saw my book in a new light.

Peter did what I’d thought was impossible: he made me excited about “killing my darlings.”  Over the next four months, we reduced Fobbit to 348 pages on my computer.  There have been a lot of things I’ve learned throughout this “debut novel” experience, but that first lesson of Peter’s was probably the most valuable.  Once you’ve taken the novel as far as you think it can go, even if you’re on the seventeenth draft, you have to come back to it one more time with sharpened knives ready to do some more cutting.

So, on this day before Fobbit’s official birth, I am grateful to both Nat Sobel and Peter Blackstock--two men who gave me the courage and conviction to tear my novel apart, turn it inside out, and re-shape it into the book you now see before you.  Without their help and advice, I’d be sitting in a dim room somewhere, staring at a stack of 761 pages and wondering why no one wanted to read my obese masterpiece.

My First Book Acquisition

It’s kind of difficult getting breaks when you’re the lowest beast in the editorial food chain, the editorial assistant.  But in August, 2011, when my boss Morgan Entrekin was away on vacation and I was minding his emails, a literary agent called Nat Sobel sent in a manuscript written by someone who had served in the Iraq War, a book called Fobbit, and I was immediately intrigued.  Nat Sobel had sent only the first 100 pages, which I quickly read, and let him know I was interested in seeing more.  Having devoured the entire manuscript—which, at 190,000 words, took a little time—I set about considering whether the book could work on our list at Grove/Atlantic.

A bit of context: Grove/Atlantic is an independent publisher, set up by my boss Morgan Entrekin, who combined the list of the influential 1960s counter-cultural publisher, Grove Press, with the book-publishing arm of the Atlantic magazine.  The result, Grove/Atlantic, publishes around 100 books a year (hardcover and paperback) and has published books that have won every major prize from the Nobel to the Booker Prize, as well as runaway bestsellers like Cold Mountain and Black Hawk Down.  Being a smaller publisher, we’re extraordinarily selective about the books that we take on, especially from new writers.

But I could see that Fobbit was something special.  The voice was immediately there from the first page—you just felt you were in the hands of someone who could really write—and the subject matter was sensational.  A kind of The Office or Wag the Dog but in the Baghdad desert?  That had to be a winner.  The only problem was that I felt that the book was too long—not because books can’t be 190,000 words, but the story David was telling felt like a 100,000-word story, not an epic novel. Reading the manuscript a second time, I sketched out a rough alternative structure that reduced the number of perspectives and moved scenes around.   Simultaneously, I set about convincing my colleagues—I canvassed opinions from other editors in-house and asked my boss to read a chunk when he got back from vacation.  He agreed that the writing and idea were great, but also that the book needed a good editor.  I said that I would be thrilled to edit it and pushed for us to acquire it.  Editing the book would be quite a lot of work, but that’s how you get to take on good material as a younger editor.  Now we just had to see if the author and agent would be amenable.

Thankfully, David didn’t dismiss me as some young upstart (I’m 25 now, and was 24 when I acquired Fobbit) and we talked about the changes I thought would improve the book.  David agreed to the offer we made, and the rest is history.  Fobbit is David’s first published book and my first acquisition as an editor.  Some nice kind of symmetry there, I’d say.


  1. The best things happen on September 13th, David. That's my birthday! Can't wait to read FOBBIT.

  2. David, this was riveting. Many rounds of congratulations again!