Monday, November 4, 2019

The First Time I Found a Title For My Novel

What you’re seeing here is the very first photo of Fobbit when it lived on a thumb drive and was called Fobber.

I recently stumbled across this image on my computer and it was as unrecognizable to me as a grainy ultrasound photo is to parents after their child is finally born, weaned, and raised to be a walking, giggling toddler. For starters, that name, that work-in-progress title! How wrong-headed could I have been?

I imagine I wrote the term “Fobber” on a slip of a Post-It note and bound it in tape to the thumb drive even before I’d left Iraq in December 2005, back when the manuscript was still a messy jumble of words and when—then, as now—I struggled with the correct grammatical usage of “that” and “which.” In its infant years, Fobbit suffered from an identity crisis, starting with its title.

Some of you are perhaps wondering about the definition of either of those words. That’s okay; before I joined the Army in 1988, I couldn’t have told you the difference between a military colonel and Colonel Sanders. For the un-militarized, a Fobbit is someone in a war zone who rarely goes “outside the wire” into the “real war.” It’s a portmanteau that (or “which”?) marries Forward Operating Base (FOB) with J. R. R. Tolkien’s Hobbits who, as those who’ve read The Lord of the Rings know, were reluctant to leave the safety of their shire. In another time and another war, Fobbits were known as pogues or REMFs (whose full meaning rhymes with “rear echelon brother truckers”). I know all about the derogatory slang term because, between January and December of 2005, I was a Fobbit with the 3rd Infantry Division serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. As I wrote of my main character (a thinly-veiled version of yours truly) in the novel published by Grove/Atlantic in 2012,
As a Fobbit, Chance Gooding Jr. saw the war through a telescope, the bloody snarl of combat remained at a safe, sanitized distance from his air-conditioned cubicle. And yet, here he was on a FOB at the edge of Baghdad, geographically central to gunfire. To paraphrase the New Testament, he was in the war but he was not of the war.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Back to that baby photo of the novel. The sight of it on my computer the other day prompted me to look up my errant use of the word “Fobber” in my journal and that sent me tumbling down a rabbit hole of memory. Here is the first time I ever typed the word in my diary:

February 6, 2005:  I read a newspaper story today featuring some Louisiana Guardsmen who were out on street patrols in Baghdad when their Bradley Fighting Vehicle was hit and two of their comrades died. In it, these hardcore infantrymen said they had nothing but scorn for the soldiers who never ventured outside the wire. They called them “Fobbers,” as in ones who never leave the FOB (Forward Operating Base). As far as I’m concerned, they can sneer in my direction and label me a Fobber all they want—if I have the opportunity to stay hunkered down inside the camp up there, I plan on staying there. I don’t need to see all the tourist sites of downtown Baghdad. I’d rather be a living Fobber than a dead hard-charger. Cowardly? No, just smart (and determined to return to my family in one piece). Hey...possible title for this book (if it ever makes it that far): Fobber: the Diary of a Soft Soldier.

Reading that now, I wither with mortification in much the same way I did when my mother trotted out the family photo album to show my fiancée nude photos of me taking a bath at four years old. I don’t know how I could have lived with myself if my first book had been called “The Diary of a Soft Soldier.”

I went back to my journal, flipped forward a half-dozen months and found the moment near the end of my deployment when I started to realize maybe I wasn’t using the correct term after all....

September 12, 2005:  I hear about some hardcore battalion commander with too much time and money on his hands who had a bunch of uniform patches made at his own expense. They looked just like Ranger tabs, but said “Fobbit.” He also had some that had “REMF” and “POAG” (another derogatory for us Fobbers).

But still, I persisted in using the incorrect term, even after I returned stateside and started taking my first toddler steps toward writing what would eventually become the correctly-termed Fobbit. Truth be told, if I had not been an actual Fobbit, if I had been an infantry soldier patrolling the streets, I would have probably been calling myself by the right name from the get-go. After all, it was an infantryman who first let the word “Fobbit” (and not “Fobber”) fall from his lips (I am guessing the reporter who wrote that story of the Louisiana National Guard soldiers misheard the word, tangled on the tongue in a Southern accent). I should have gone straight to the source of the river of slang.

March 7, 2006: 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…

Somehow, miraculously, that first sentence (with the exception of the wrong F-word) survived all the way to publication.

But still I called my characters Fobbers, even as the fire of writing the novel waxed and waned. I was now living in Maryland during my final year in the Army when I was assigned to the U.S. Army Public Affairs office in the Pentagon (the ultimate Fobbit job).

As I leafed through my journal the other day, my curiosity about the use of the word “Fobber” had become something deeper: now I was on a journey to rediscover the writer I had been, with all his aches and joys, when he was deep in the process of wrestling with words.

July 9, 2008:  Whatever belly-fire I had for Fobber has vanished. I had been doing so well up until about three weeks ago: rising every day at 4:30 a.m., going for a morning run, then coming in and sitting down to work on the novel, getting in a solid hour’s writing on the book before I have to take the train in to the Pentagon. Now, I still rise at 4:30, but I accomplish nothing. I meander across my desk like a nomad. I read e-mail, download music, putter with household chores. All the while, the words—still at that same stopping place—stare back at me from the laptop’s screen. The cursor blinks. I do not advance, I do not pile more words into the vast blank space—or, if I do, the sentences are limp, vague, and ultimately go nowhere. Even this, writing in the journal, is a means of distraction to keep me from my work.

I flipped ahead in my diary (of a soft soldier) to the year after I retired from the Army and was living in Montana and started a new career with the Bureau of Land Management (where I still work to this day). I clicked the search bar for the next instance of “Fobber.”

August 9, 2009:  My enthusiasm for Fobber started to go into a tailspin today. Engines screaming, smoke streaming past the cockpit, ground rushing up at me, I was only able to pull up out of it when I decided to look to the past for inspiration. For years, I’ve been making flirty eyes at Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead on my bookshelf, the white words on the black spine of the hardback calling to me, but have never had the time to start reading it. Today, I decided the day had come. I’m fifty pages into it and I know this is the right book for me to read right now. Mailer’s narrative moves like a camera across his big cast of characters—something which I’d been fretting about with Fobber. Mailer reassures me in his growly voice: You can do this. I tinkered a little more with what I’ve already written. I'm still not totally happy with it, but at least I’m sitting down at the keyboard and trying my best.

I drew inspiration from Norman Mailer as I pounded away at what I was now thinking was an Impossible Novel. Here is what I wrote in my journal one day while I was fretting over the tone and scope of Fobber/Fobbit. I remember worrying about whether I had the authority to write about war in all its gory glory when I’d spent my entire year bathed in air-conditioning and sipping lattes at my desk. Mailer reassured me I was on the right path:
When you talk about the difference between real experience and the experience you put into a book, you touch on perhaps the single most basic difficulty. For some young writers it’s very disturbing not to tell the story exactly the way it happened. For others it’s equally disturbing to tell it the way it happened. They want to exaggerate it. They want to make it larger. That could be good or bad. If you are truly an ambitious writer it’s not necessarily so bad to exaggerate, because that enables you to dare to take on themes larger than yourself.....I had a lot of experience in the war, but it was not as intense as the experience of the people who were the characters in my book [The Naked and the Dead]. Nonetheless, it was close enough so I could extrapolate a bit. I could exaggerate to a degree, because I had a sense of what the outer possibilities were, as you do when you get a little bit of combat. You get a very good idea of what a lot of combat might be like. Not necessarily a true idea, but a bigger idea. I came late to my outfit in the Philippines, and most of those guys went over for a couple of years already. They had been in other campaigns, so I picked up all the stories of battles that they had been in before I ever joined them. So you could say The Naked and the Dead was on the one hand realistic, and on the other hand it was an exaggeration of experiences I had.
I wrote in my journal: Someday, when I’m being criticized for not telling it like it was in Fobber, I’ll pull out this quote to remind myself that what I’ve done is okay.

This was no longer an investigation into why I’d mistitled my novel; it was an autopsy of my insecurities and all the fears and doubts I’d had while working on the book. Norman Mailer gave me permission to tell a war story in my own way, through my own lens of a stay-back, stay-safe soldier. I will forever be grateful to him for writing The Naked and the Dead which served as a brightly-lit lamppost on my path as I worked on the book from my home in Montana. I needed his words of encouragement because my writing days were a rollercoaster of peaks and valleys. Mostly, as my journal now reminded me, I seemed to live in the valleys.

August 31, 2009:  Fobber continues apace. I rise at 4:30 every morning, work out on the elliptical for 45 minutes, then sit down and write for anywhere between one and two hours. Some days, it’s writing; other days, it’s just typing. Today, I was distracted and the words had a hard time coming. Tomorrow will be better. Today’s total word count: 60,324.

October 14, 2009:  A piss-poor Fobber day. Got up at 4:20, as usual. Showered right away without working out, since I have to be to work early this morning. Got coffee, came downstairs and was immediately distracted by the Internet. Mindless surfing for far too long drained the batteries and so I only typed (wouldn’t even qualify it as “wrote”) 51 words today. Overall, the word count stands at 93,923.

October 25, 2009:  While I’m typing a particular funny scene in Fobber, I get a “Breaking News” e-mail from the Washington Post reporting on two suicide car bomb attacks in Baghdad: “At least 132 people were killed and 520 wounded…The blasts, which the Interior Ministry said were carried out by suicide bombers, detonated under a pale gray sky, shattering windows more than a mile away. Broken water mains sent water coursing through the street, strewn with debris. Pools of water mixed with blood gathered along the curbs, ashened detritus floating on the surface. Cars caught in traffic jams were turned into tombs, the bodies of passengers incinerated inside. The smell of diesel mixed with the stench of burning flesh. ‘Bodies were hurled into the air,’ said Mohammed Fadhil, a 19-year-old bystander. ‘I saw women and children cut in half.’ He looked down at a curb smeared with blood. ‘What’s the sin that those people committed? They are so innocent.’” There’s nothing particular funny about this kind of déjà vu. I squirm while writing similar scenes in Fobber. How can I make readers laugh about the U.S. in Baghdad while blasts are still cutting children in half? I can only hope my intent is in the right place.

January 23, 2010:  After nearly a month’s hiatus from Fobber, I was back at it again yesterday. I’m on the home stretch now and getting impatient, but still overwhelmed by all that needs to be done in the months and months of rewrites. After today’s three-hour session, the word count stands at 143,774. Pages: 479.

January 29, 2010:  Fobber word count: 153,230. Page count: 510. Yes, I’ve been writing like a motherfucker lately.

February 19, 2010:  I’ve hit a dry spell. Work on Fobber has stalled during the past two weeks. I’ve been distracting myself—mostly with the Internet—and have not been writing, which in turn has sent me into a spiraling depression. I know what I should be doing, but I don’t do it. I hem, I haw, I mope. Last night in bed, I said to Jean, “Tomorrow will be the day. I have to do it. To paraphrase that song in Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town: Put one word in front of the other and soon you’ll be walking across the page.” Today, I am determined.

And then, finally—after five years of typing the wrong word—I got it right. The novel received a new title and wore it like a tailored jacket. Here is the day when I typed “Fobber” in my journal for the last time:

March 27, 2010:  Today, a revelation—which must surely lead to a revolution. I have a daily Google News alert which sends me links to mentions of the word “Fobber” in news articles, webpages, and blogs. Today, one of the links led me to a blog where an infantry soldier, scorning the REMFs of today’s war, defined a “Fobber” as someone who moves from FOB to FOB—completely distinct from a “Fobbit” (a soldier who stays in the protection of the FOB, either willingly or unwillingly). Doing my own Google search, I discover that Fobbit is the common term for the people who populate my novel. Damn! I’m glad I caught that before it was too late. But now, I must rename everything and get my head trained in the right direction. Fobbit it is from now on. Of course, some agent or publisher will probably come up with a better title when the day arrives.

As some of you know by now, my bleeding-agony struggle eventually had a happy ending. Neither my agent nor my editor had any qualms about calling the book Fobbit (unlike the tug-of-war we went through over what to call my second novel, Brave Deeds. But that’s another story for another day...).

Now, the only thing that remains of “Fobber” is an old baby photo of a book that was still wondering what it wanted to be when it grew up. I look on it now and smile at that thumb drive with a mixture of pity and amusement.

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.

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