“Wonderful and bizarre and completely familiar”: In conversation with Nathan Deuel
Writer Nathan Deuel and his wife, NPR correspondent Kelly McEvers, were living in Saudi Arabia on journalist visas when their daughter Loretta was born in 2008. Shortly thereafter, Kelly accepted a new post as NPR’s Baghdad bureau chief. Nathan and Loretta relocated to Istanbul while Kelly moved to Iraq to report on the Arab Spring uprisings, troop withdrawals from Iraq, and escalating conflicts in Syria and Yemen.
In Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East (Dzanc Books, 2014) Deuel recounts his own experience of family and fatherhood in the Middle East from 2008-2013. These poignant and thought-provoking, sometimes darkly funny essays take the reader from security checkpoints and fortified compounds in Baghdad to hospitals in Riyadh and Florida, a barbershop in Istanbul, a butcher shop in Beirut, a Lebanese ski resort, and a vacation cottage in Broad Channel, Queens (pre and post-Hurricane Sandy). They explore what it means to be a first-hand witness to a changing world order: an American citizen living abroad, a war correspondent risking her safety to report on stories that would otherwise go untold, and a writer summoning the words to relate his own experience of living on the sidelines of war.
Friday Was the Bomb is also a love story: examining what it takes to maintain a supportive partnership, share responsibility, and hold onto family bonds in the face of grief, fear, and homesickness, across borders, checkpoints, and time zones.
ANNE RASMUSSEN: Can you talk a little bit about what led you and Kelly to move to Saudi Arabia in 2008? At this point you were both seasoned travelers, having lived and written abroad for years. What drew you to Saudi Arabia in particular, at this point in time?
NATHAN DEUEL: We met in Cambodia, when I was 20-year-old intern and Kelly was a 29-year-old former Chicago Tribune reporter, both of us working for this English-language daily newspaper in the capital, Phnom Penh. We were just friends that summer, but again and again we were the last two people awake, the two who thought it was a great idea after a night of partying to drive four hours to the beach on no sleep. When she left abruptly that fall to tend a family member in dire straits, I’d just signed a contract to stay for a year — and I was crestfallen, realizing in her absence that I hadn’t just fallen in love with journalism and the high-octane life of the expatriate, but with this older woman. I tracked her down and it was during a month hitchhiking and taking buses together in Mexico that we become more than just friends.
In the coming years, we were in and out of Southeast Asia — living at one point in Jakarta for a year and a half, at which point it felt like time to get a real job, to see if I could hack it in a city like NYC. We spent nearly five years there, buying a place on the Lower East Side, me working at The Village Voice and Rolling Stone, Kelly traveling back and forth, mostly to the former Soviet Union. It was Rolling Stone that inspired me to leave New York, to walk out of the city one day on foot. Five months later, I’d made it to New Orleans, where Kelly joined me for several weeks. I thought we might stay there forever. But New York and the walk had been for me. It was Kelly’s turn. And she wanted — after covering terrorism around the world — to hit the big leagues: The Middle East. So in September 2008, we moved to Riyadh.
AR: In 2010, Kelly is offered an amazing (and increasingly dangerous) career opportunity to work in Iraq as NPR’s Baghdad bureau chief, and you settle in Istanbul where you are responsible for all the details of creating a safe, stable home for your one-year-old daughter Loretta. Why Istanbul?
ND: In hindsight, I suppose I could have moved back to New York City, raised our daughter among familiar friends and the charms of a life in a fabulous city. But we wanted to be in the same time zone. Because in addition to caring for our daughter, my second chief duty was to facilitate a digital motherhood. Most days, we’d Skype for hours at a time: breakfast, lunch, dinner, bath time, and then after Lo went to sleep, Kelly and I would talk again. It was jarring and confusing enough for all of us to attempt to be a family across the web, from a fortified compound in still-dangerous Baghdad to an admittedly gilded life in a smart flat in historic Istanbul. Imagine the contrast and dislocation if we were eight time zones apart? And I was dialing in to the wife on a laptop set atop Bryant Park’s emerald lawn? Another possibility, more monstrous — and which we never seriously considered — was for Loretta and I to move to Baghdad. Sure: It’s a city of 10 million. There are tons of babies growing up in Iraq’s capital. But to voluntarily choose to bring a tiny human there, where mortars landed day and night sometimes? Nope.
AR: How did you approach your own writing during this time? Did you have the time and headspace to adhere to a writing routine?
ND: Part of why I walked away from Rolling Stone is that I wasn’t writing and saw no obvious path toward writing, at least the kind of writing I had in mind. In Saudi Arabia, because the country was so odd and misunderstood, every time we walked out the door there was a story. I produced a tremendous amount of material there, mostly journalism, but most of it first person, some of it quite rugged. Then we had Loretta, an event that was followed too soon thereafter by the death of my dad, and then Kelly’s posting to Baghdad.
Living in Turkey, mostly alone, grappling with my dad’s death and my wife’s new job, I turned my focus inward, trying to understand the shell of the man I’d become, what I’d lost, the dad I’d yet to become. I worked for nearly two years on an essay about my father I published in Salon, among other projects. I had a spot in a shared office. I wrote a lot in Turkey. But a lot of it was garbage. It wasn’t until we moved to Beirut that I started producing more serious work, and writing in earnest nearly every day.
AR: That Salon essay, “The Little Things My Father Would Never Do Again,” ended up as a chapter in this book, as do a number of previously-published essays. At what point did you start to envision these fitting into a collection or more full-length memoir? Can you tell us more about the process of shaping what were then stand-alone essays into a longer narrative?
ND: Two years: That’s how long I spent writing that Salon essay. In the wake of my dad’s abrupt death from cancer, followed by Kelly’s posting to Baghdad and my move to Istanbul— where I was raising our daughter — it took months to have the wherewithal to sit in front of a computer, to assemble anything but gibberish. Getting that piece the way I wanted— about my dad, caring about life again — helped unlock a bunch of other material, and toward the end of my time in Turkey, I wrote more regularly, including some rugged stuff for The Awl, Slate, and others. When we moved to Beirut, I enrolled in a low-residency MFA program back in the States. With the help of some great mentors, I started writing the stuff I’d always wanted to write: artful, urgent personal essays with big questions and subtle answers, or half-attempts at answers.
One evening, I was alerted to the fact that a press I really admired was looking for essay collections. I thought about all the writing I’d done — the first-person journalism from Saudi Arabia, the grueling grief work in Turkey, and then the big body of work about living beside war in Beirut — and I thought, Hmmmm, maybe I have an essay collection? I copied and pasted everything I’d written and it was a whole hell of a lot of crap, I realized, but maybe the seeds of something that could hold it together. Within a few days, I’d assembled five of the best essays, along with a tight introduction and pitch letter. I sent it off to three presses, and within a few weeks I’d signed up with Dzanc.
AR: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that your editor Jeff Parker (Disquiet Books) played an invaluable role in your revision process after Dzanc picked up the manuscript. In your acknowledgements, you write, “This book wouldn’t exist without him.” Had you known or worked with Jeff before? How different was the final manuscript from what you had initially submitted, and in what ways?
ND: Jeff was my guy for most of the book, and he saw me through three major revisions. The first draft was a sprawling monster, and Jeff very kindly and astutely challenged me to get rid of more than half of the previously written material. From there, he suggested a really masterful organization: We’d start with my Slate essay about visiting Baghdad, then jump back to my early Saudi pieces, moving from there to Turkey and Beirut. We were still living in Lebanon when I sold the book, and neither of us could have realized that the ending of the book would indeed be our departure from the Middle East.
So at Jeff’s urging, I delivered a second draft that had several new essays, one describing the birth of our daughter (excerpted in full by Longreads.com and in part by Vice.com), another using pieces of various essays, stitched together to portray the grim winter in Lebanon when we lost so many journalists, and a final opus about going back to Beirut one last time, which was published in a slightly different form this May by The Morning News.
Without me really realizing it, Jeff slyly led me to create from a mess of essays a kind of narrative — or even a memoir, as some have called it — ultimately built of 20 highly edited final pieces. Without Jeff’s input, I shudder to think what kind of book it might have been — one with a lot less cohesion and power, no doubt. Then, in the fall of 2013, there was one final revision, which wouldn’t have been as polished without the help of Dzanc Editor-in-Chief Guy Intoci, who is awesome.
AR: In that opening essay, “Holiday in Baghdad,” you describe your first trip to visit Kelly in Iraq in 2010. There is an almost out-of-body feel to the way you try to reconcile the Iraq you are encountering in real-time (your terror of checkpoints, the daily business conducted out of half-destroyed buildings) with your personal and political trajectory (your fervent opposition to the war in 2003, for example). And in 2012, “Homeland in my Homeland,” you set out to contrast the real-life experience of walking along Hamra street in Beirut, “a series of thriving restaurants and nightclubs, a Crowne Plaza, and a new H&M” with the way Hamra street is portrayed in the TV series Homeland as “a narrow alley lined with sandbags and desert people, everyone waiting to be shot at.” Then a car bomb goes off not far from the café where you write and these disparate realities converge. Which details that you encountered living in the Middle East were the most surprising and different from what you had been led to expect?
ND: Gosh, I guess — as a member or at least former member of “the media” — I hesitate to acknowledge or put blame on a bunch of editors and reporters doing their best. But I do recall in 2003, when we lived in Indonesia, writing a (really bad) short story set in Iraq and in it I mainly superimposed what I’d seen of slums and great wealth in Southeast Asia and the mix of squalor and history you see in the former Soviet Union, placing all that on a desert landscape. Nope.
Nothing really prepared me for how proud and huge Iraq and its history would feel, from the big boulevards and mighty rivers of Baghdad to the ancient cave churches of Kurdistan. I had no idea how beautiful and overwhelming it would be to behold the mosques and squares of central Istanbul, and no amount of gushing from friends who’d been there could have convinced me of how cool and picturesque seaside Beirut would be. It’s tempting to think of the “Middle East” as this big monolithic thing but it’s really an assemblage of ten thousand very unique cities and ways of life, each of them wonderful and bizarre and completely familiar, too.
AR: The conflicting emotions in these essays really resonated with me. You seem caught between a genuine desire to appreciate the rich and incomparable experience you are having, your growing concern for the safety of family and friends in an increasingly volatile region, and the isolation of being a new father in a foreign country with neither peer group nor playbook to guide you. And you remain almost painfully conscious of your own relative privilege—that during the most harrowing times, you still have a choice to stay or go where many around you do not. At what point do you finally give yourself permission to tell the story?
ND: I’m still looking for the permission to write, I suppose. In Beirut, especially, I was often embarrassed by the kind of writing I do — y’know, about my feelings? I’d be at dinner with the correspondents for The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Financial Times, and — my wife — NPR, and they’d be talking feverishly about how to get back into Syria, or what was happening in Iraq or Egypt or Bahrain or Yemen, and I’d have spent the day trying to write a really moving and subtle essay about discovering the power of…yoga, or something like that. It was hard. And I know some members of that community did and still do regard what I do with a bit of distaste or at least discomfort, often justifiably, I think! They report the stories that would go untold, about fragile communities and state malfeasance. I write about the sadness of a white man. But it’s been incredibly gratifying to publish the book, to tour with it, and to find crowds of people at readings telling me the stories about a sad white man really speak to them — about the loss of family members, about writing, about being a father or parent or son, and how we all do our best, whatever the circumstances.
AR: What does your daughter seem to recall from those early years in Istanbul and later, Beirut, where you lived together as a family for a few years before returning to the States? Now that you are back in the U.S. what do you hope she will take away from the experience of living abroad at such a young age?
ND: She remembers little — but it bubbles up now and then. Her best friend in preschool was named Haya, and the other day, Loretta says, “I think at my old school they are talking about me right now. I think Haya is missing me. I miss her.” But I think the violence and the chaos and the worry I felt —all of that is gone for her, I think, if indeed it was ever there. Who can know? In any case, for the rest of her life, her passport will list her birthplace as Saudi Arabia. She’ll always have those years as a foundation, a thing that makes her different, for better or worse.
In preschool here in LA, the teacher the other day was asking everyone where they were born. She took us aside later, just to make sure Loretta was telling the truth. The little girl is young enough that it’s all words — but as she gets older, our time in the Middle East will loom larger, I think. I don’t necessarily look forward to taking her back to Saudi, but I’m sure she’ll want to go eventually, and it’ll be an adventure!
AR: There’s a palpable current of homesickness that runs through many of these pieces—the feeling that for the traveler “home” is both anywhere and nowhere. You have all these richly-lived experiences and milestones tied to so many places (in the U.S. and abroad) and yet those places themselves are not standing still. How has it felt to be back, living stateside (for the time being)? How have your years away shaped your current experience of the United States?
ND: I am so incredibly thrilled to be back in the United States! On many occasions, I feel a bit like Unfrozen Caveman Dad, in that I am so dazzled and tickled by rather ordinary things — delights that your typical American probably doesn’t see anymore: Like a giant wall of hydrogen peroxide bottles on sale at Wal-Mart in Iowa for 88 cents. The plenitude and cleanliness! A city bus in L.A. that shows up on time, is cheap, has open seats, cool air-conditioning, and a pleasant driver!
For so many years, I felt like a ghost, like I was just drifting through cities that didn’t notice or care what I thought or did. In America, I am relearning what it means to be a citizen, and what it’s like to live in a place where I can vote, where I own a house, where the school I choose to send my daughter for Kindergarten has serious consequences for who I am, who she’ll be, and what kind of country we all want to become. I’m loving it.
Nathan Deuel has contributed essays, fiction, and criticism to The New York Times, Financial Times, GQ, The New Republic, Times Literary Supplement, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Paris Review, Salon, Slate, Bookforum, Los Angeles Review of Books, Columbia Journalism Review, Tin House, The Atlantic, and many others. Previously, he was an editor at Rolling Stone and The Village Voice. He holds an M.F.A. from the University of Tampa and a B.A. in Literature from Brown University, and he attended Deep Springs College. He recently moved to Los Angeles from Beirut with his wife and daughter.
Get a copy of Friday Was The Bomb at IndieBound