War requires bravery—but so does writing about it.
After serving five years in the Middle East as an infantry officer in the U.S. Marines, Stony Brook Southampton student Brian Abrams has taken his experience and turned it into a collection of award-winning stories. This spring, Mr. Abrams was named winner of the Thayer Fellowship for 2013, and took home $4,000 to his budding family.
The award, funded through an endowment established in honor of Jeanne C. Thayer, a former trustee of the State University of New York system, is given to SUNY students who show professional potential in the arts and have outstanding achievements.
Mr. Abrams, who lives in Sag Harbor, was recognized for his collection of poems and short stories, as well as a screenplay that he wrote about an Iraqi translator working with the U.S. government during the transition to a democratic government.
The screenplay, simply titled “Roy,” is based on the story of a translator Mr. Abrams worked with while in the Iraqi countryside. Roy, as he was called, translated Arabic for “straight-line grunts,” and was a tireless workhorse, according to Mr. Abrams. His story was tragic, however: He lost his parents during the Gulf War after the U.S. military pulled out of Baghdad.
Roy’s “capacity to forgive is amazing,” Mr. Abrams said. He has a propensity for English and majored in the language at the University of Baghdad, he added. He has since lost touch with his comrade.
In his screenplay, Mr. Abrams takes liberty with Roy’s story and creates a suspenseful plot line. Roy must race against the clock by working with the U.S. military to try and save his sister from a violent and abusive home. His efforts could be rewarded with a safe haven for his sister.
According to Annette Handley Chandler, screenwriter, Emmy Award-winning producer and the director of the Southampton Screenwriting Conference, Mr. Abrams is a good storyteller.
“He creates characters that are complex and conflicted, deeply human, flawed and vulnerable,” she said. “He understands the need for conflict to keep the momentum of a story building. The experience of being in Iraq and the constant threat you’re under, it comes across on his pages. There is an underlying foreboding throughout.”
Ms. Handley Chandler is Mr. Abrams’s thesis adviser and has helped him through his last year in the Master of Fine Arts program. He plans to graduate in December 2013.
In addition to his screenplay, Mr. Abrams is putting together a collection of poems and short stories about his experience as a captain and the struggle to assimilate to civilian life.
“It’s really exploring heart of the volunteer in combat,” he said, noting that preconceived notions of war are all too quickly crushed. “You do have a high idealism when you go over there, doing for God and country and the Corps. The images those in their 20s grew up on—the John Waynes and ‘Saving Private Ryans,’ and all those images of what a man is, of what a good American is—are exposed for the bullshit that they are. But the fight stays important, because the guys you serve with are your brothers, your comrades. Adversity builds tight bonds quickly. That’s reason enough to stay in and fight.”
Mr. Abrams’s honesty and realism is reminiscent of writers like Tim O’Brien and Ernest Hemingway, whose bleak war stories can haunt a reader’s mind like a big, heavy question mark.
“I’m writing to the guys who still love our country, probably love it more, and feel more distraught because they’ve seen it overseas for what it is and kind of mourn that,” he said.
Mr. Abrams said he hopes to make a living by his pen, writing screenplays and books. So far, his hard work has paid off mightily—he and his wife, Sarah, who is expecting a baby girl, will use his award money to take a “babymoon” to Paris and prepare for their newest addition. The couple met while on a medical mission to Mozambique.
Originally from Texas, Mr. Abrams decided to attend Stony Brook Southampton because of its interdisciplinary creative writing program.
“It was the best educational decision of my life—if I didn’t take interdisciplinary studies I wouldn’t have learned how to write a screenplay,” he said. “I know this is my calling in life, even if I have to go out and get a ‘real’ job, this is what I have to do, what I want to do. I know I’m a talented writer, and I put a lot of work and effort into it. It’s just a matter of time.”