Saturday, April 20, 2013

Postcards from L.A. and Iraq

Having a great time.  Wish you were here....

"Here" being the Los Angles Times Festival of Books.  Despite the heat (it's 8 p.m. and 74 degrees right now) and the poor choice of footwear (boat shoes) while walking around the USC campus, I've enjoyed my two days here at the annual California fest.  In the space of just a few hours, I bumped into lit-friends [name-dropping alert!] Maria Semple, Jonathan Evison, Paul Tremblay, Antoine Wilson, Adam Braver, and Pauls Toutonghi; I re-bonded with Book Pregnant gal pal Lydia Netzer; and I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel called "Fiction with a Sideways Glance" with Jess Walter, Fiona Maazel and Diana Wagman.  Not to mention hearing a speech by the spry, graceful Margaret Atwood (she was on hand to receive the L.A. Times' Innovator's Award).

All in all, it's been the typical book-festival experience: an exhilarating, completely draining brain-blur of books, authors and craft talks.  As usual, I'm coming home loaded down with novels I can't wait to read.  In this case, my festival haul included two new Hollywood novels: Little Known Facts by Christine Sneed from Bloomsbury and American Dream Machine by Matthew Spektor from Tin House Books.

Soon after I arrived in the city yesterday, Diana Wagman and I met at the Sheraton and, after a gut-filling lunch at a local bar and grille, set out on a walking tour of downtown L.A.--places like the iconic City Hall (a fixture in all those film noirs I love), Grand Park with its neon-pink benches, and the Los Angeles Central Library where Diana and I craned our necks looking at the colorful murals lining the walls of the rotunda:

Diana was a lively and friendly tour guide for this rube from Montana on his first visit to the city.  And if I haven't mentioned it before, I'll say it now: if you like novels about kidnappings, temperamental seven-foot iguanas, vain game-show hosts, strained mother-daughter relationships, and rental-car-company mix-ups, then you should definitely check out Diana's latest novel The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets.  Even if you don't generally read kidnapper-iguana-dysfunctional-family novels, you'll probably find something to like in Diana's brightly-violent, darkly-funny novel.

Once Diana dropped me off at the hotel and I took a couple of short power naps, it was time for the raison d'etre for my L.A. trip: the L.A. Times Book Awards.  Last night, Lydia Netzer and I joined a few dozen other nervous nominees in the Broward Auditorium on the USC campus for the ceremony.  Here we are, pre-ceremony:

Fobbit was nominated for the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction and Lydia's Shine Shine Shine was up for the general Fiction prize.  Neither of us won (Maggie Shipstead's Seating Arrangements took the Seidenbaum prize and Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk earned the Fiction award) but we sure had a blast seeing our faces and our books flashed across the big screen at the front of the room:

For a brief, giddy moment, we felt like royalty, like rock stars, liked stunned Academy Awardees.  I know it's a tired cliché, but it really was an honor just to be nominated.

As I sat there in the auditorium amongst the glittery literati, I started thinking about how far I've come in the past decade, both personally and professionally.  If you'd described last night's scene to me ten years ago, I would have scoffed, punched your shoulder and said, "No way--get outta here!"  So much has happened to me in the last year alone--not just the singular joy of having my novel brought to life by my dream publisher (thank you, Grove/Atlantic!), and not just the fun of traveling around the country to book-fests like this, and not even the deeply touching personal contact I've had from readers....but all of it, the whole supercalifragilisticexpialidocious mind-crumpling heart-squeezing surreality of this debut-novel party I've been living since last September.  I never take anything for granted.  I treat every day like it's a fresh surprise.  I don't know about Lydia or Maggie or the other nominees in my category, but I still feel like I'm in a Disney movie: birds are singing, mice are sewing my clothes, and it's still all so unbelievable.  Maybe I'll feel differently by the time the next novel comes out, maybe I'll be jaded and this will all be old hat.

But I hope not.  I hope I'll still be marveling at how the mice make my clothes.

Last night, after I got back to my hotel room, I decided to look in my journal to see what I was doing in Iraq in 2005.  You know, just for shits-and-giggles and to gain a little perspective on this whole weekend in L.A.  The contrast between the two days, separated by eight years, was striking.  Here's what I wrote on that long-ago April 19 from Baghdad when I was serving with the 3rd Infantry Division as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom:

Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices are becoming as regular as breakfast, lunch and dinner.  The Significant Activity Reports pour in—“1-184 reports VBIED on Route Irish 1035hrs,” “Patrol in vicinity of grid MB45003593 struck IED 1309hrs.  No casualties.  Minor damage limited to blown tire, shattered windshield,” and so forth with nauseating frequency.  The metronome of violence is ticking faster and faster as the insurgents (aka terrorists) grow more and more desperate…or more and more organized, as the case may be.  Yesterday, the entire crew of a Bradley was engulfed in flame—they all lived, but barely; two days ago, a female MP was riding in a humvee when an IED burst on the side of the road; at first, they thought she and her driver just had minor cuts from the shrapnel, but when she passed out, they realized a small jagged piece of metal had severed her femoral artery on the back of her leg; she died before they could reach the hospital. 

For the most part, however, it’s mostly Iraqi civilians dying out there on the roads.  The good people of the country who still have purple-ink thumbs from voting on January 30—they’re the ones falling victim to the remote-control-detonator hands of the terrorists, some of whom migrate to Iraq from other countries (like Syria).  As the new Iraqi government struggles to get on its feet, there is a power vacuum in the country.  The US is reluctant to get involved, for fear of the world accusing us of interfering in another country’s politics.  So, we hang back in the shadows at the sessions of the Transitional National Assembly meetings.  While the Iraqi politicians and religious leaders bicker about how control should be divided between the Sunnis and Shiites, the terrorists take advantage of the nothing-government and regroup for more attacks.

Walk around Camp Liberty for an hour and you're guaranteed to hear muffled thuds coming from beyond the borders of the camp, followed a minute later by the rising plume of death-smoke.  Tonight, as I was walking out of the chow hall after dinner, another IED went off.  The sad thing is, very few of the people walking across the gravel path ahead of me flinched.  We all looked to the horizon for the smoke, but only one or two of us twitched our shoulders up toward our ears and said “Whoa!”  We’ve become dangerously complacent about the distant thunder of bombs, the remote death of strangers bleeding out on Baghdad streets.  Most of the time I think, “Hmm, I wonder if that’s a controlled detonation by our engineers…”  I make a mental note to check the Sig Acts when I get back to the office, but then I go back to sipping my milkshake as I walk across the safe haven of Camp Liberty.

More and more, though, I’m hearing this isn’t the secure military fortress we’ve grown to think it is.  The Commanding General has said in more than one briefing he thinks the “bad guys are among us right now on an everyday basis.”  In other words, the attack doesn’t need to come from beyond the concertina-wire borders of camp—all it takes is one determined, smart terrorist to infiltrate one of the cleaning crews or other day workers—hell, maybe one of the merchants selling those cute carved camels down at the bazaar—to plot an attack.  It could be a bomb, or it could just be a guy with an AK-47 picking off soldiers one by one as they walk around camp sipping their milkshakes.

Then there’s the sporadically-lucky terrorists outside camp who launch mortar rounds with blind aim and a prayer to Allah.  The other week, a mortar whistled through the sky and landed on Camp Taji.  When it impacted against the ground, it exploded in a shower of hot, sharp metal.  A female soldier walking in the area took a piece of shrapnel and ended up with a fatal “sucking chest wound.”

Believe me, I think about these things as I walk around drinking my milkshake, but what can I do?  If it’s gonna get me, it’s gonna get me.  Apart from staying alert and walking fast (which I do), I just have to go on living as close to a normal life as I can, hoping for the best.

1 comment:

  1. What amazing perspective David- thank you for sharing, and for this: "I hope I'll still be marveling at how the mice make my clothes." Inspiration for us all, no matter what tale we're spinning, living, wandering or exploring.