Nathan Deuel’s new book Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East (Dzanc Books) is a memoir about raising his young daughter in the Middle East—living in Riyadh, Istanbul, and then Beirut—while his wife, Kelly McEvers, worked throughout the region as a war correspondent and eventually NPR’s Baghdad Bureau chief. Amid the chaos and the revolution, Deuel managed to cultivate a sense of normalcy. His deeply personal essays give voice to the everyday. He writes about schools and playgrounds, the neighborhood butcher, friends and loved ones. He shows us that where we call home is less about geography and more about the life we build around us.
How did your book Friday Was the Bomb evolve? I know you were writing the essays over a period of time, but at what point did the idea of a cohesive book come to mind?
It really happened suddenly. I saw that a great independent press called Coffee House was looking for essay books. They published Ben Lerner’s excellent novel, so I was intrigued. And I thought about it and realized, hey, I’ve written some essays. So I started copying and pasting some of the stuff I’d been working on for four years or so. This was in the spring of 2013, and by then I had about 80,000 words and I read through it and thought, by god, I guess I have an essay book.
So I put together a cover letter and a set of sample chapters and sent it around, to Coffee House, Black Balloon (another great small press), and Dzanc. I had a very pro agent at the time but I totally did this on my own, which is maybe to her chagrin, I’m not sure! In any event, I signed with Dzanc a couple of weeks later.
Regarding the writing of the essays, if we go back to when you first arrived in the Middle East, did you think about documenting it from the beginning? Or was there a catalyzing moment that kicked things off?
Backing up, I’d always wanted to write. I ran a magazine in high school and was always writing. I remember people lining up to get me to sign their yearbooks in middle school, because I would write all this crazy shit. In college I started writing stories, but they were pretty bad. Then I moved to Southeast Asia and sort of became a journalist. In Jakarta, for instance, I wrote reams and reams—mostly crap.
Then we moved to New York, and I started working for The Village Voice, where I began to, for the first time, write some weird, rugged and not bad first-person experiential stuff. I spent a day at a mall in Staten Island. I slept one night in Central Park and got over my hangover at an Off Track Betting parlor. They weren’t bad stories! Then I got poached by Rolling Stone, which was a kind of golden handcuffs in that it was great pay and glamorous and exciting, but I stopped writing. I just felt trapped. So I quit my big job, packed a bag, and walked to New Orleans. That walk was many things, but it was also a declaration: I am not a kept man! I am a crazy dude!
So I get to New Orleans and feel like we can live there forever. My wife joins me and we party and live and love it and feel like maybe we’ll stay. Then she says, nope, let’s move to Riyadh. I had a good friend who’d quit a good job in DC as a writer and editor to help start a newspaper in Abu Dhabi. Lavishly funded, the paper recruited writers and editors from around the country, including a guy who is now a New Yorker editor who was my buddy’s boss and who bought a lot of my early work from Saudi Arabia. They paid very well, and we were freelance, so in a way I was writing at a steady clip so we could eat! But I also loved it, and learned so much, and discovered the way in which writing about your life and what you encounter could be a deeply meaningful and rewarding way to make a living.
In the essays in Friday Was the Bomb, there is a sense of catharsis. Reading about you having to stay behind and hold down the fort as Kelly went off to dangerous places was gut wrenching. How did writing help you process the experience?
Gosh, it was everything! My other two balms were liquor, and we all know how far that gets us, and running—but after pushing a stroller five or ten miles every morning, running as fast as I could, I blew out my knee. So yeah, writing in Saudi was this mannered, thoughtful, journalistic enterprise, more or less. But when Kelly took the job in Baghdad, facing serious and real dangers, and I was in Istanbul trying to deal with the death of my dad and being essentially a solo dad myself, a lot of the time writing became something much more desperate and personal. I’d literally be trying to make sense of my life on the page, so that I could make it another day. I know that sounds dire, but I was a mess!
To continue a little, if Saudi was thoughtful and Istanbul dire, Beirut was where thought and action started to coincide, and after nearly two years of documenting fear and violence and deaths among the tribe of journalists, it felt like the only sensible thing to do was to leave. That was painful and unpleasant and we have regrets still, but it was time to go.
I had the good fortune of seeing you read “When I Finally Saw Blood,” one of the pieces in the book. And you were very emotional about it. Everyone in the room was left speechless, quite a few moved to tears.
Thanks! You know, there are certain pieces I am afraid to read, like anything about my dad, because I know I will just lose it. I’m not sure, honestly, if I could read “When I Finally Saw Blood” again. It’s just very emotional still. So of my two current favorites to read on stage, one is “Chest of the Horse,” about a visit to the farm of our Saudi landlord, and the fact of him pulling a gun at the end of the evening. It’s spooky and fun to read and gets people all riled up. Then I’ll conclude with “Homeland in My Home Land,” which is a kind of tense day in Beirut, when a bomb goes off. It’s got a great ending and seems to bring up some fun conversational topics for the Q&A.
In many ways, Friday Was the Bomb is a love letter to your wife, and to your daughter, too, filled with powerful feelings of concern and your longing to be with her and keep her safe.
I think that’s absolutely correct.
Are there things you left out that you wish you had written about?
That is a really fantastic question! First off, it was a hard body of work to produce. Because my wife’s job obliges her to ask questions of other people, journalists like her are reluctant to talk about themselves. So it was really difficult for her to be writing over and over about my private life, which was her private life. She really would have much rather I wrote fiction. But in the end, she produced an hour-long documentary that is largely about her attraction to doing this kind of dangerous work, and her (our) decision to leave.
So perhaps all that work I did interrogating our life contributed in some minor way to that very fine documentary. Many of my friends and critics wish I’d do more of my own reporting, but seeking out information in that way rarely if ever feels meaningful or exciting to me. I like to write about what I see! It feels much more organic and giving glory to the simpler normal side of life is where the artistic heat is for me. Does that make sense?
Yes. Well said. I’m glad you mentioned the normal side. In this country, we see the developments and life in the Middle East from such a disconnected perspective. We see it through the lens of shows like Homeland, which you wrote about. The Hollywood treatment seems skewed from the everyday.
If it bleeds it leads! I mean, I don’t necessarily begrudge all the doom and gloom, the violence and chaos, that ends up getting shown—rather than the trips to school, the line at the butcher, the price of a bag of flour. But with a whole coterie of professional journalists chasing after those stories and that kind of set of facts, I felt some minor and mostly quiet sense of duty to tell the other side, and to tell it as well as I could. However, it wasn’t always easy to convince editors that what I had to say was important! Saying I was in Beirut would always get some attention from an editor. But then I’d have some story about a playground, and I couldn’t always do the work necessary to justify why my tiny tale was worth sharing.
Coe Douglas is a fiction writer, screenwriter, and essayist. He is the Managing Editor of Bridge Eight Magazine, and formerly edited the Tampa Review Online blog. His work has appeared in 396 Hours: An Anthology of Stories, Literary Orphans, Metazen, Elephant Journal,Freelance Switch, and others. Coe is working on a novel. He’s been known to tweet @coewrote.