Nathaniel Fick was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1977. He graduated with high honors from Dartmouth College in 1999, earning degrees in Classics and Government. While at Dartmouth, Fick captained the cycling team to a U.S. National Championship, and wrote a senior thesis on Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War and its implications for American foreign policy.
He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps upon graduation, and trained as an infantry officer.
Fick led his platoon into Afghanistan and Pakistan only weeks after 9/11, helping to drive the Taliban from its spiritual capital in Kandahar. After returning to the States in 2002, he was invited to join Recon, the Corps' special operations force. Fick led a reconnaissance platoon in combat during the earliest months of Operation Iraqi Freedom, from the battle of Nasiriyah to the fall of Baghdad, and into the perilous peacekeeping that followed.
Fick left the Marines as a captain in 2003 and is currently pursuing a masters degree in International Security at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, and an M.B.A. at the Harvard Business School. 60 Minutes, the BBC, and NPR have featured his work. Fick's writing has appeared in newspapers across the country, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The International Herald Tribune.
He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Author biography courtesy of the author's official web site.
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Some fun and fascinating outtakes from our interview with Fick:
"My favorite meal is a dozen steamed Chesapeake Bay blue crabs, covered in Old Bay seasoning, and a pitcher of cold beer. Throw in a pretty picnic table near the water and fresh corn on the cob, and you're going to have a hard time getting me to leave."
"My first job was as a lifeguard at a neighborhood pool. I expected to spend the summer working on my tan and talking to pretty girls. Instead, I had to keep the four-year-olds from killing themselves, the nine-year-olds from killing one another, and there was always the specter of having to use the ‘bodily fluid spill kit.' I worked the next summer as a bike mechanic, alone in the basement of the bike shop. It was more my speed."
"I love books as physical objects. I've always envied people who can keep a shelf of well-thumbed paperbacks because all they see are the ideas between the covers. That's hard for me. The real indicator of how much I like a book is whether or not I upgrade to hardcover and give it a permanent place on my shelf. A well-made book smells good -- the paper and ink, maybe leather or a nice blocked cloth cover. Of course, I then violate their sanctity by scribbling in them as I read."
"The highest compliment an audience can pay me, after two hours of reading and questions about Iraq, the military, and my experience, is for someone to ask, ‘So, what exactly are your politics?' My friends are still fighting in Iraq. Maybe I'm naïve, but this stuff is too important for politics."
"I see myself as a pragmatist. I like coming up with practical solutions to tough problems. Talking about these issues is what keeps me getting out of bed every morning. Most war books are published long after the fighting has ended. One Bullet Away and the other Iraq memoirs are out there while the war is still being fought, so they're intrinsically a part of the national debate. But I don't take a political position in the book. Instead, I try to inform people about what it's really like. ‘Pro-war' or ‘anti-war' are meaningless distinctions for me. We have 170,000 Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq today, and the one thing we must never do is forget that they're there."
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In the winter of 2006, Nathaniel Fick took some time to talk with us about his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
"Most useful" is easy -- Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. "Most used" is easy also -- The Chicago Manual of Style. But influence is something more. The book that most influenced is the book that had the biggest effect, the book that left its mark most strongly. It would have to be The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. Steve's thesis is that writing is pretty straightforward. The hard part is nailing your ass to the chair. He labels all the forces of procrastination and distraction as Resistance, and then outlines a strategy to defeat it. I love this book so much that I bought a dozen copies of it. Whenever someone tells me he is thinking about writing a book, and then asks for advice, I send him a copy.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald -- Every word in every sentence in every paragraph is a gem. Perfection isn't how much you can add, but how much you take away. Fitzgerald (and Max Perkins) pared this one to perfection. My mental image of Gatsby standing alone outside his mansion on the Sound is so perfect that I refuse to see the movie, no matter how good it may be. It would ruin the scene Fitzgerald sketched on my brain.
Walden by Henry David Thoreau -- It's purely and simply American. Since I live in Cambridge, I can ride my bike out to Walden Pond, and sometimes I tuck a paperback Walden in my pocket. Sitting by the water's edge and reading Thoreau is...transcendental. He's modern in a lot of ways -- an iconoclast, an environmentalist. And he's hilarious. I think Thoreau would be disappointed to see people reading his book and not laughing out loud.
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius -- I first read the Meditations when I learned that one of my heroes, Marine general Jim Mattis, kept a copy by his bunk in Iraq. It's a handbook for stoic, selfless courage -- a virtue our society undervalues. These are a great political leader's distilled lessons on how to lead. There's nothing about polls or marketing or public relations. It's all internal: self-control, self-discipline, study, practice, work. Kind of like writing.
Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence -- Lawrence is a literary Giving Tree -- schoolboy hero, historian, and travel writer, professional counterinsurgent. I've read the book three times, and saw something wholly different each time. When I went to London as a kid with my parents, my dad asked where I wanted to go, expecting me to say the Tower, or the guards at Buckingham Palace. I wanted to see the bust of Lawrence in the crypt at Saint Paul's.
The Odyssey by Homer -- What can I say? It's history's finest saga of a warrior's long way home. Weapons and tactics in warfare change, but the human beings remain the same.
Fields of Fire by James Webb -- Webb inspired a whole generation of Marine infantry officers with his "fictional" account of combat in Vietnam. I've probably read this book a dozen times, and I cry every time. I once had the honor of meeting Webb and telling him how much it meant to us that he wrote the book. He replied, "Hell, that book wrote me."
The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman -- President Kennedy is said to have made this mandatory reading in the White House around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Tuchman's great lesson from the summer of 1914 is that miscommunication, pride, and inertia can lead to a war no one wants. I find it comforting to think of leaders learning from history, and I love the intersection of scholarship and policy, so Tuchman's book, in addition to be being beautifully written, expresses my ideals.
The Second World War by Winston Churchill -- Epic? Magisterial? There's no way to describe this history of the 20th century's greatest cataclysm without sounding like a publisher pitching a book to a reviewer. Suffice to say that it's worthy of a New Year's resolution, e.g. "In 2007, I will read Churchill's The Second World War."
Castles of Steel by Robert Massie -- I went to a Jesuit high school, and I confess that I don't remember much, but I've never forgotten a piece of advice one of the priests gave me: "Each year you should read a big book about a small subject." Massie wrote 900 pages about British-German naval battles in World War One, and he is superb.
A History of the American People by Paul Johnson -- In Iraq, I had room in my rucksack for one book, and I picked this one. I needed something that would keep me occupied for months, and that would shed some light on why the hell I was in Iraq. Johnson did both. Sometimes it's enough just to watch a brilliant mind work. Paul Johnson has written histories of art and of the Jews, plus biographies of George Washington and Napoleon. Talk about variety. The guy's simply a joy to read.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?Patton -- "Rommel, you magnificent bastard! I read your book!" George C. Scott becomes George S. Patton in this movie. The two have merged in our national, historical memory.
Lawrence of Arabia -- I make a point of never seeing movies based on books I like, since I'm invariably disappointed. But I came across Lawrence of Arabia while channel surfing, and I was completely hooked by the time I realized what it was. Trapped. Fortunately, it does justice to the spirit of Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
Glengary Glen Ross -- Nothing happens. No car chases or shootouts or monsters. It's stage acting onscreen, and it's wonderful.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
'Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form.
I love Bob Dylan. If I had to read only one writer till the end of time, it would be Shakespeare. If I had to listen to one artist, it would be Dylan. One of my coolest "you are there" moments was driving along Highway 61 in Minnesota listening to Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited.
While writing One Bullet Away, I listened to a single three-CD set for a whole year. It was Gatecrasher's Digital, this soothing but percussive techno trance music. I bought it in Australia, and it's perfect writing music for me -- few lyrics, very rhythmic, and great variety. You'd think I'd be sick of it after that year, but now it's in my car. Good driving music, too.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
In a sense, I do have a book club. It's called graduate school. A group of us get together in the classroom twice a week to discuss the books we're reading. Most of my courses are in national security policy, so the sample set is a bit skewed.
Right now, we're reading The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting It Right, by Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon. It's a chilling look at what our future may hold. Just one example: At the end of the Cold War, there were 22,000 tactical nuclear weapons (these are the "little" ones, what Hollywood calls "suitcase nukes") in the newly independent Soviet republics. Let's say the Russians did a phenomenal job of collecting those things, and got 99 percent of them back. That means there are 220 little nuclear weapons out there. And there's no way the Russians did that good a job collecting them. A good book club -- or grad school class -- takes all the different life experiences and perspectives of its members, focuses them on the same thing for a little while, and then allows for the free exchange of ideas. It's a wonderful process.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I love to receive books that aren't related to my own interests, but rather are of interest to the person giving them to me. My girlfriend gives me books about poverty and education and feminism -- things I'm not likely to read much about on my own. But she reads tons of that stuff, and so if she gives me something, I know it must be really good. I try to give books according to the same policy, but usually stick to my interests beyond military history and national security strategy. I have better success with books about Maxfield Parrish or American history or cooking.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I was a total novice when I started writing this book. In the beginning, I told myself that I would sit down to write whenever the Muse was singing. But after a couple weeks, I'd hardly written anything.
So then I decided to treat it like a normal job. I'd sit down at my desk by about 8:00 each morning, and stay there till 5:00 in the evening. But I ended up staring at the wall and wasting time. So finally I settled on writing 1,000 words each day, and editing the previous day's thousand. Sometimes I was finished by 10:00, and sometimes I was up all night. It worked for me. I think every writer has to settle on his or her own process.
I learned that I needed two things to write: a strong pot of coffee and my Gatecrasher CD. It was nine months of this bizarre, hermit-ish existence. I've always been an outdoors person, but I'd sometimes stay in my apartment for days at a time and then go out blinking into the sunlight – unshaven, bleary-eyed, and emotionally spent. I developed a weird fascination with peoples' workspace, that place where they write or paint or whatever. But the interest is almost academic; I don't expect to learn anything from it. My dad's aunt -- a formidable Louisiana woman in her 90s -- used to say, "Listen to everyone, and do as you damn well please." That's how I feel about work rituals.
What are you working on now?
One Bullet Away has kept me busy much longer than I thought it would. I took the fall semester off from school in order to tour and do readings, but the travel has continued into 2006. I'm also trying to keep a foot in the policy world by writing Op-Eds and going to conferences in Washington. Contributing to the public's understanding of the Iraq war, the military, and what public service in a democracy really means has become a mission for me. I'm also back in school, completing my master's degree in international security policy at Harvard and getting ready to start at the Harvard Business School. My girlfriend is a competitive marathoner, so I also try to run with her -- or at least behind her -- as much as I can. The only thing I'm not doing is sleeping.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I didn't plan to write One Bullet Away. When my sisters and I were young, our parents made us keep journals whenever we traveled as a family. Old habits really do die hard, and I kept a journal during my time in the Marines -- training, East Timor, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kuwait, and Iraq. When I left Iraq and returned to Kuwait, I had an armful of maps and satellite pictures and patrol logbooks. We dug a burn pit in the desert where we were destroying all this stuff before going home, but I decided to hang onto most of mine, and stuffed them in my rucksack.
About six months after getting out of the Marines, I started writing my stories down. In the beginning, it was a purely cathartic exercise. Writing helped me to process the experience. I also figured it would be a nice record, something to show my kids someday. I thought I'd shove the papers in my desk drawer, and never anticipated publishing anything. Then, in April 2004, my replacement, an infantry captain named Brent Morel, was killed near Fallujah. That's when I realized that maybe my perspective was worthwhile.
We'd heard from the generals and the journalists and the politicians, but not from the troops actually fighting the war. I thought I could tell the story of people who, for one reason or another, weren't able to tell it themselves. Being a total neophyte, I went to my local Barnes & Noble and looked at the spines of the books I liked most -- in order to see who had published them. Then, I sent what I'd written to the 25 different publishers. Twenty-three of my packages disappeared into the ether, and I never saw them again. One came back with a form-letter rejection, and one came back with a very kind, handwritten rejection that referred me to an agent. So I sent a few chapters to the agent. He called me and said, "Nate, this stuff is good enough for me to take you on as a client, but not nearly good enough to send to editors." I went back to work, we sent the revised version to six editors, and five of them were interested. The whole process for me was one serendipitous encounter after another.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
I don't think poetry gets its due in our society. Maybe people have always been saying that, but I do feel it's true today. We want to be spoon-fed. Anything that requires effort to understand is ignored. A soldier named Brian Turner wrote a book of poetry called Here, Bullet. It's about his time in Iraq (which, incidentally, is the place of the Epic of Gilgamesh -- maybe an encouraging historical backdrop for a poet), and it's stunning. If history is any guide, perhaps the next generation of society's keen observers is driving around Baghdad today, being forged in the fire of real experience. Turner is a good candidate to be one of those. He's gotten some attention, but not nearly what he deserves.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
I don't think of myself as a writer. I'm a guy who happened to write a book. I know nothing about the world of fiction, but my advice for aspiring nonfiction authors is not to get all wrapped up in being a "writer." Be an observer, be curious about the world, look for interesting problems and issues, places where a little clarity and analysis would increase peoples' interest in, or understanding of, an issue. Then attack it. Writing something that justifies people spending 25 bucks and investing hours of their leisure time sets the bar pretty high! In the Marines, I learned about the "80 percent" solution. Too often, we sit around waiting for the perfect scenario -- the perfect paragraph, perfect job, perfect restaurant table, or whatever. Marines are taught not to let the great be the enemy of the good. Act, and your action will create a cascading series of opportunities. Writing is experiential. You have to learn by doing.
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