David L. Robbins
Novelist, Educator, Playwright, Essayist
Pleasant Living Interview (2004)
by David L. Robbins on May 19th, 2014

By: Rebecca A. Moon

Richmonder David L. Robbins is the author of five novels, among them Last Citadel: A Novel of the Battle of Kursk. His novel, Scorched Earth (2002), will soon be in production by Warner Brothers. When he isn’t working on his newest project, the historical novel Lifeblood, Robbins devotes his expertise to novel workshop students in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Creative Writing Program in Richmond. As if that isn’t enough to keep him busy, Robbins used his local influence and reputation to found and co-chair this year’s inaugural James River Writers’ Festival (JRWF), held at the Library of Virginia October 3-4, 2003. Created to be a celebration of both established and budding local literary talent, workshops for every stage of the writing process were conducted by professional writers of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Keynote speaker, novelist and VCU alum Tom Robbins, author of Skinny Legs and All and his latest Villa Incognito, lent his imagination and vision to all in attendance.

Born and raised in Richmond, David went on to earn both his B.A. and Juris Doctorate from William and Mary, then practiced law for a short time before making a career of writing. Robbins is engaged to Lindy Bumgarner, a Ph.D. candidate in Performance Studies at Tufts in Boston. They will tie the knot during their Italian travels this winter. An avid sailor, Robbins takes his boat “Zola” out on the Chesapeake when the weather and his hectic schedule permit. On a personal note, I’m grateful for his tutelage, and that he could find the time to grant me this interview.

For Robbins, both his creation of Scorched Earth and his work with the James River Writers Festival acted as creative homecomings. His fourth novel, Scorched Earth, is set in the fictional Good Hope, Virginia. A blue-collar town of five thousand, nestled along the Mattaponi River, the citizens of Good Hope are sweltering at the opening of the book. The landscape of the village and the fictional Pamunkey County is a familiar one. “Heat waves shimmy above the water and wetlands. Trees beside the road have scrolled their leaves, parched from an August drought.”

PL: Your research for other novels has taken you to far-flung places, to comb the beaches at Normandy, for example. This novel is set much closer to home, in rural Virginia. The drought plaguing the soil of Good Hope mirrors the sadness that seems to have sucked the goodness from the townsfolk. Of the thirsty crops of corn, you write: “Inside their shucks the ears, swelling and flushed with juice last month, cave and wrinkle in the sun…I have nothing to give you, says the earth.” How would you characterize your research of Virginia’s river country and farmland in order to create the setting for Scorched Earth?

Robbins: I’ve had the great grace to have been raised in central Virginia. Red clay, weeds between the markers in church graveyards, the smell of river lowlands, all this required little research from me Scorched Earth for the novel. When I was young, I used to walk in farm fields in Hanover and Seven Pines behind plowing tractors, carrying a metal detector to search for Minié balls, buttons, bayonets, belt buckles, coronet cap insignia, anything from the Civil War in the turned dirt. It wasn’t hard—in fact, it was a pleasure—to recall the sense of August next to a river, the brown crisp of crops in a drought.

PL: This is a very earthy novel in other ways. In particular, the female characters you’ve created become the landscape and vice versa. Clare’s blond hair is “the shade of dying corn.” She wears “the river and the moon in her face.” Nat Deeds, the hometown lawyer, looks at Clare and deems her “the stronger animal, more primal and better suited for life on this planet.” This is quite a feminist statement. Did you mean it as such?

Robbins: I have said on several occasions that if God had created Eve first, he might not have bothered with Adam.

PL: Your attorney character runs up the courthouse steps in one scene only to be confronted by a barrage of news reporters and cameras. You compare the news people to “landing commandoes streaming across a beach…” This isn’t one of your war novels, but the rhetoric is there. I’m not spoiling anything that isn’t printed on the dust jacket when I surmise that one of the controlling themes of this novel is race. Is that the war to be fought in this novel?

Robbins: Yes. One of the premises in the book is that evil—read that: racism—has gone underground, that it no longer grows just among the wicked. Today, those ideas of separation and mistrust have found fertile soil also in the hearts of good people, in simple, seemingly innocent ways. Folks tell a racist joke and say, Aw, it’s just a joke, or they demean a race, a religion or a sexual orientation and chalk it up to their community, to their traditions, and that way escape responsibility. The war has long been waged in this country for equal rights; now we must expand it, to fight for respect and acceptance, and finish the damn thing off.

PL: Race isn’t the only universal theme you tackle in Scorched Earth, but good and evil, right and wrong, and heroism all get a turn. In response to a wrong done to the character Elijah, Nat Deeds contemplates Elijah’s revenge. “They spit on his heritage. An absolute response to an absolute wrong.” Of his own power as a lawyer, Deeds says his hand is not a hero’s, but a man’s. While you seem to be saying that the law certainly wields less power than God, you make a case for the system having a great responsibility to those it defends and prosecutes. You practiced law for a time. Ever criminal law? Do you miss it? Do you miss the absolutes?

Robbins: I miss the law, but I don’t miss being a lawyer. Sure, the absolutes and boundaries of law are compelling. Clarity always is. I had hoped to be a criminal lawyer, but I got sidetracked into environmental law, being a Quixotic personality. However, the parallel between my wanting to practice law and my love of writing stories remains advocacy.

PL: Nat Deeds refers to the courtroom as his battlefield. Yours is the novel. Are writers the warriors of our time? Are novelists modern-day philosophers? Do you feel like you can enact real change?

Robbins: Lindy has said: Because art can change minds, it must. I believe this. In my work, whether in historical novels or my literary ones like Scorched Earth, I try to marshal the power of ideas for, frankly, good. I have no desire to write murder or horror tales, detective yarns or dysfunctional family literature, simple tales to tickle or frighten. I don’t see the purpose. Movies can do those things better, honestly. I hope for my readers to put down one of my books and consider something, anything, in their own heart: courage, kindness, redemption. I’m committed to fanning these better embers of the human experience more than just excitement or fear. Are writers warriors and philosophers? Always have been, always will be. The battlefield of ideas writes and rewrites history as surely as any bloodletting ever has.

PL: Speaking of change, of your hometown Richmond’s writing scene, you’ve said it’s “just like the art, music and theatre scenes—it’s underground, it’s huge and it’s talented.” Is that the impetus behind your work getting the first JRWF off the ground?

Robbins: I finally grew sufficiently tired of Richmond beating itself up for a perceived lack of culture. When you look at the music scene in this town, from opera to garage bands, it’s stunning. The same can be said for dance, art, and theatre. These are all ample communities, growing, vibrant, and recognized nationally. Yet Richmond always looks to D.C. and New York and compares itself badly, constantly wounding itself. Why? There’s no need. A year ago, several writers here noted that Richmond, the state capitol, had no literary festival, an absurdity. We decided we wanted a showcase for the substantial literary talent in this city. Along the way, we decided to reach out to encourage aspiring and student writers in the area. The James River Writers’ Festival was created to place a mirror on I-95 North, so instead of gazing north, we’d see our own image and smile.

PL: What’s the toughest stage of the transition from being an aspiring writer to becoming a professional? How did you accomplish that feat? Do you hope the JRWF will in some way ease that transition for others? How so?

Robbins: The toughest transition is actually writing. Currently I teach novel writing at VCU. I tell my students often that the thing that will keep them from being a success is not that they lack ability or a story to tell. If they fail, what they will have lacked will be the taste for sacrifice and the discipline to put the words down every day, the way a professional works. Life intrudes, you see. For me, I made a decision, pure and simple, to write. An aspiring writer had better be hardheaded. That is a strength of mine. The beauty of the JRWF is that it is not a circus for celebrity, where readers come to rub shoulders with writers. It’s a venue for writers to teach other writers, to be role models for them and avatars of professionalism. We try to impart some knowledge while we have the conferees in our house, but the most important thing is to show aspiring writers that folks, real flesh and blood people just like them, are actually doing it and getting paid.

PL: Keynote speaker and Richmond native Tom Robbins was quite a coup for the inaugural JRWF. How did you get him? How would you encapsulate the talk he gave at the festival? Do you agree with his message to novice writers? He’ll be tough to top next year, won’t he? Have any leads?

Robbins: VCU is the repository for Tom’s papers (if you want a book-geek thrill, go to Cabell Library and hold the original, handwritten notebooks for Jitterbug Perfume). The kind folks at the library put me in touch with him in Seattle. When he called me, he said, “David, this is your black sheep cousin Tom.” I hesitated, thinking I was the family black sheep, until I made the connection, Oh, we share the same last name! Once I got control of my nerves, I pitched him on the festival and our literacy mission. Because Tom Robbins is a magnificent and generous man, he agreed to be our keynote. At the JRWF, he was ferocious in praise of language. He explained that words are not the icing but the cake. I could not have been moved more by any speaker than I was by Tom. He sounded the war cry for bold strokes of the mind and pen. Top that? Never. Match it, we’re trying. Next year, our keynote speaker will be a magnificent non-fiction keynote writer of equal merit, Mark Bowden, ofBlack Hawk Down and Killing Pablo, to keep the festival balanced, varied and important.

PL: What will JRWF look like next year, in ten years? Do you hope to be a part of it?

Robbins: In ten years, I hope it looks just as energetic as it did in its first year. The 2003 JRWF was really magical. I have no doubt it will become one of the preeminent literary events on the East Coast. The volunteers behind it are committed and extraordinary (plug: if you want to join and help, contribute, or just learn more, see our Web site, JRWF.org). Richmond writers have already embraced the event, the corporate community is in full support, and to no one’s surprise, our city is full of people who want to further their writing abilities. The festival is for them, after all, and there’s no chance they’re going to go away, so we have our audience. Next year, we hope to have more public components, and more of a presence in schools during the month of October, Literacy Month in Virginia. We’re also planning a weeklong celebration of writing, involving local colleges, high schools, bookstores and public venues. Ten years from now, for the 2013 JRWF, I’d love to be the keynote speaker. I’ll settle for just being in the audience, with my quiet glow of pride.

Posted in Interviews    Tagged with pleasant living magazine, interview, david l robbins, scorched earth, writing, richmond, 2004


Leave a Comment