FRIDAY WAS THE BOMB: AN INTERVIEW WITH ESSAYIST, JOURNALIST AND DEBUT NONFICTION WRITER NATHAN DEUEL
THE WRITER'S JOB - 7 MAY 2014
The product of several years’ worth of hard living in the Middle East, Nathan Deuel’s debut collection of essays, Friday Was the Bomb, was just published this week from Disquiet, a division of indie powerhouse Dzanc. Deuel’s essays have been appearing all over the web and in print media for years (New York Times Magazine, Harper's, GQ, The New York Times, The New Republic, Financial Times, The Paris Review). I spoke to him about the circumstances in which he wrote and lived the stories in this book, and the collection’s charmed (but deserved!) path to publication.
Jake Zucker: I think the most ominous single line in the collection is from the first chapter/essay: “In the beginning, Iraq had seemed like the center of the universe.” Was it always the center of your writing universe? You write about your experience editing content about the War in Iraq, but was it inevitable that you’d personally write about it too, in some way?
Nathan Deuel: 9/11 completely defined my life as an adult. Prior to that, there was this ambient hunger for the kind of urgency and import that a previous generation had because of Vietnam, and World War II before that, and the Depression before that, etc. (The Civil Rights Movement is and was also very worthy but was more of a domestic cause to rally around.) With 9/11, my generation very quickly was handed an organizing principle, whether we liked it or not.
My wife, especially, took to the new world order very fast. We had met in Cambodia, where I was a college drop-out interning at an English language daily newspaper and she was the BBC correspondent (and also my boss at the little paper). She and I palled around a lot that summer—having fun and being crazy—but also really believing in the project of journalism and the art of writing and the general ethic of doing the hard thing, or suffering to do right. So when 9/11 happened, she started covering terrorism, whatever that was. She followed it to Singapore and eventually she and I moved to Indonesia, where she was an NPR stringer and wrote for a bunch of places and I was—nearly 10 years younger than her—doing my best to get editorial jobs at magazines.
It's not exactly correct to say Iraq was the center of my life when we made it back to New York City, but the overall new world order certainly was. Kelly, my wife, began following terrorism to the former Soviet Union. She covered the Beslan school siege and was detained by the FSB in Dagestan, near the capital, also known as Murder City. Meanwhile, I was editing war stories for the Village Voice. Which is why, when I went to Rolling Stone in 2006, I was so crushed to find myself mostly editing pop culture.
So I walked. I packed a bag and walked from New York City all the way to New Orleans. When I got there, I thought, Ah, this is it. I'm not going anywhere ever again. But of course we were. Kelly came down and we partied hard for a while and had a blast but it wasn't enough. 9/11 wasn't done with us yet. She wanted to move to Saudi Arabia, home to 15 of the 19 hijackers. And millions of people who had nothing to do with it. So began our half decade in the Middle East.
We had a daughter there and put our faces as close to the fire as we could. Kelly won awards, kicked ass, embedded with rebels, snuck around behind enemy lines, etc. I wrote some of the essays that now add up to the book.
Jake Zucker: Is it fair to say that all the pieces in the book are previously published as essays?
Nathan Deuel: Probably a little more than half are previously published, a few were written but not yet published, and I wrote two of them from scratch just for the book. All of it, however, is pretty substantially edited. I had great editors.
Jake Zucker: At what point in all this writing did you start to conceive of these pieces as adding toward a book?
Nathan Deuel: It happened one spring night in Beirut. I've been trying for seven or eight years to write a book about that walk to New Orleans and it's been a real agony for me. Three agents, three
big proposals and a million words—no book.
But I saw on some blog somewhere that Coffee House was looking for essay books. Essay books—I love them! And I thought, why the fuck not? I could make an essay book.
So I started copying and pasting and putting all I'd written over five years in the shit into one big-ass document. And you know what? It sort of looked like a book. So I got kind of loaded, got all psyched, then the next morning I sent it to Coffee House, Black Ballooon, and Dzanc, all of whom I knew might be game. All were into it, and I sent each of them a more complete manuscript. It turned out that Dzanc was the one.
There was no agent involved. Most roll their eyes when you talk about a "collection."
Jake Zucker: Is that more or less true for prose nonfiction collections than it is for fiction, you think?
Nathan Deuel: There are obviously exceptions. Leslie Jamison's collection of essays is taking the world by storm. And short story collections (Saunders, Phil Klay, etc.) can rock the house. But the conventional thinking among the big agencies and the big New York City houses is that a debut novel or a debut memoir is a much better sell. At least that is my experience and what I hear.
Jake Zucker: So, how much original work (I'm talking like first-drafts) was left to do after you found Dzanc?
Nathan Deuel: A fucking shit-ton. The manuscript I sent them and the published book have probably fifty percent in common with one another. Sure, there are some pieces that are pretty close to what I published: theG Q piece, the Salon pieces, even the opening essay, which I did for Slate. But my editor and old friend Jeff Parker really pushed me to work over the book big time.
He read the whole thing probably three big times, and in addition to me sending the whole manuscript three times (roughly spring, summer, fall) he looked at individual pieces sometimes five or six times. It was amazing to have someone so deft and thoughtful put that much time not only into individual pieces. I'm used to that, having written essays for some great editors. But to have a sensitive soul with a great deal of time really thinking about how the book hangs together as a whole… it was very flattering, challenging, and incredibly time consuming.
Jake Zucker: When you say Parker’s your editor, do you mean that he's a guy in your life that you trust, or that he's with Dzanc and has a professional relationship with the work?
Nathan Deuel: Parker was the lead editor of the book. He runs an imprint at Dzanc and I guess technically my book is part of that imprint. Disquiet, it's called.
Dzanc is weird and wonderful. I think I've joined them at a really great time. They've hired on Jeff Gleaves from Counterpoint and Harper’s. His only job is marketing and publicity and he is kicking ass—got me a sick book tour and is really trying hard to set up excerpts and writing opportunities. It's very flattering and exciting to have a lot of personal attention from a young, smart guy. If I'd sold this to Random House or whomever, I don't know if they'd give me one-tenth the attention Dzanc is giving me. I should also give a shout-out to Dzanc Senior Editor Guy Intoci, who came in at the end and gave the whole manuscript a really wonderful final edit.
Small presses—it feels punk rock. I like that. Fuck the man.
Jake Zucker: Did you have final cut?
Nathan Deuel: Totally. It's inconceivable that I wouldn't have. They are so cool and it's all: This is your book, nobody knows it better than you.
Jake Zucker: What made these guys good editors? You've spoken in general terms, but can you point to specific changes they convinced you to make? Or am I asking you to pull back the curtain too much?
Nathan Deuel: No, that's cool. I can talk best about Parker. He pushed me to make things better, such as: more subtle, more beautiful, more rigorous, to have more meaning, more big points. He's more a short story writer and novelist—a Saunders acolyte, and raised up in the school of Barthelme, Barry Hannah, Harry Crewes, and Padgett Powell. I'm so glad I had someone so fine and creative and weird, not some dorky politics guy.
In a way, it was like having some artsy dude read some of my kind of weepy boring crap and give it some eternal stuff.
Jake Zucker: How omnivorous are you in your reading, regarding fiction/non-fiction?
Nathan Deuel: I’m pretty omnivorous. In high school I was your typical arrogant fucker, chewing through the beats and the Russians and all the typical dude stuff. Then in my first two years of college at Deep Springs I got really into the Germans, and more pomo literature. Which was great, because then I went to Brown, where I bowed before the living genius that was Coover. Another huge early influence was Vollmann, still probably my favorite living writer. He or Saunders.
More recently, I've become a pretty regular critic, for TLS, Bookforum, The New Republic, and LARB, where I'm a contributing editor. I do novels, short fiction, memoir, essays, whatever.
I'm pretty hip to whatever's hip.
But I gotta say, a lot of those essays are largely inspired by two sources: fairly obsessive reading of all your typical magazines and newspapers, trying to understand the Middle East I lived in; and the MFA I took in the middle of it, from University of Tampa’s new low residency program of which Jeff Parker was the director.
It was a great combo: this sense that I was in a way a freelance journalist living in the most important news of our generation; but when I was exhausted by the nagging notion of cynical scolding NYC editors, I'd take refuge in my MFA, rocking out in a very non-commercial, ageless sense.
Jake Zucker: Your essays seem to me pretty narrative (probably not quite the right word), by which I mean that a lot of your drama is "in-scene" as opposed to in-summary. Is that your natural tendency to use both modes?
Nathan Deuel: I gotta give a shout-out to Josip Novakovich, the brilliant Croatian-born writer. His way of being in the world as a writer and essayist is so encoded in my writing, I don't even know. And he's all about making meaning and beauty from the every day. He can blow your mind just by recounting the path of his cat across a room one snowy morning, or an attempt to get his son's cello through Russian customs, or a meal at a train station in Zagreb. Dude is a ninja.
I just think humans think through story. It's how we order and process the world
And it pretty much always feels like the strongest move we can make as writers. What happened first. Then what? Then what? Ok, what does it mean? The end. The narrative stuff is where the heat is for me as a reader, too. I'm not big on BIG IDEAS or moments of summation or INSERT SOCIAL SCIENCE HERE. I like to know what happened, what it looked like, and for the collisions and omissions and choices of what detail is shared to tell a story larger than the individual parts.
My "sweet spot" for many years was a probably 1300-word closely observed personal narrative. I still love those and can write them with great happiness. But more recently I'm writing bigger stuff—three-, four-, five-thousand word pieces. And yes, some of that summation and science and research is creeping in. Perhaps I'm growing up.
This piece was published by The Writer's Job. Read the original here.