David L. Robbins
Novelist, Educator, Playwright, Essayist
Random House Interview (2002)
by David L. Robbins on May 19th, 2014

Q: Your first WWII suspense thriller (War of the Rats) was set in the battle of Stalingrad; your second (The End of War) concerns the race for Berlin at the close of the war in Europe. Neither is a “traditional” setting for a thriller. What appealed to you about these textured backgrounds? What inspired you?

A: Every great story begins with characters. But even splendidly conceived and drawn characters will founder unless there is conflict to measure them against. It’s been said that I write war novels. I don’t subscribe to that. I write stories of conflict. And the greatest conflict of our century—of any century, I believe—is war. War Of The Rats caught my eye for several reasons. First, it’s a true story. Second, the battle of Stalingrad, although history’s bloodiest campaign, is mostly untraveled territory for novels in America. Third, there are two intensely personal confrontations in the book: Thorvald and Zaitsev as deadly and equally-matched antagonists, and Zaitsev and Tania as lovers in the heart of the carnage. For The End Of War, I found many of the same ingredients. The final days of the war in Europe have not been the basis for very many novels in America, mainly because the fall of Berlin was primarily a Soviet affair, and the United States relegated itself to observer status. But on closer examination, the cunning and chicanery between the Allied leaders—Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt—rivaled anything I’d ever read in fiction for twists and turns and manipulation. The egos of the Big Three are absolutely Shakespearean. To flesh the tale out, to enable the reader to view the events from multiple perspectives, I invented three corresponding fictional characters and placed them into the maw of the 20th century’s defining conflict. Then I turned the story loose on itself. As a literary device, history is wonderful for that.

Q: In both books, you take actual people—the snipers of Stalingrad, for example, or the Allied leaders—and create fiction around them. What are the challenges in using historical figures in fiction? What do they offer an author? What limits do they pose?

A: There’s really just one challenge to portraying all characters in a novel. They must be authentic. Readers of novels delegate that chore to the writer, and it is the core trust. The responsibility of creating a fictional character is no greater than re-creating an actual person out of history. The difference is the reader comes to a historic character with preconceived ideas, often deep knowledge. You do not disappoint that reader, or he will have no patience or love for whatever else you do. You cannot write a fine enough tale for someone who knows a thing or two about FDR or Churchill if you don’t present the leaders’ voices and actions in ways that ring true. That means intense research and travel, and insight. I get to know my real characters in a different way than the ones I create out of my head or experience. They have loves and honor and woe I do not give them. To be honest, it’s much tougher to walk in footprints than it is to forge a new path. But what a historic character can offer the story is often magnificent, because the reader already has a relationship with the person even before the book begins. Done well, a writer can exploit this link, making his real character even more tragic and three-dimensional, because—in the past—he or she actually was. The greatest limitation is following the time-line of a character’s life. Often they didn’t spend their days in a way that, when laid out in a novel, is the best for denouement or exposition. I have to get pretty creative sometimes to keep their stories cohesive, accurate, and, at the same time, entertaining. But my discipline is to never violate the life. I do not invent events. I don’t take them out of order. I try my hardest to make the characters’ presence and significance in my books reflect what they were in reality.

Q: What research did you undertake? What was different about the research for War of the Rats than for The End of War?

A: For both novels there was a wealth of reading. Preparing for War Of The Rats, I read thirty-five books. For The End Of War, I read seventy-eight. Each novel required that I gain a working knowledge of both Russian and German militaries (for The End Of War, throw in the American forces), the histories of the battles, appropriate weaponry, and the backgrounds and nature of each historical and fictional character. ForWar Of The Rats, I traveled to the Soviet Union, visiting Volgograd (the renamed city of Stalingrad) where I spent a week studying the battlefield. For another three months I traveled and spoke with veterans of the battle for Stalingrad, going to Moscow, Leningrad, Siberia, and Kiev, the home of Vasily Zaitsev whom I was able to interview. For The End Of War, my travels took me to Berlin, Brandenburg, and to the sites of combat leading up to the siege of the city, specifically the fortresses in Kstrin and Posen, Poland, and the Seelow Heights east of Berlin. I also spent time in the concentration camp of Sachsenhausen, plus London and Washington, D.C., where I made good use of the Library of Congress. The presence of Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill in The End Of War made that book the more daunting of the two for research. It was no small undertaking to animate three of the most described and recognizable historical figures in all of history. But the most interesting research I did was, of course, my conversations with Vasily Zaitsev in 1990, two years before his death. Much of the detail in War Of The Rats comes from his lips, of which I am very, very proud. In 2001, a major movie was released recalling the confrontation between Zaitsev and Thorvald and the love story with Chernova, called Enemy At The Gates. The producers, for reasons of their own, diverted far afield from the actual tale. I admit I am at a loss to understand how anyone could believe he might imagine a more compelling and thrilling story than what actually happened in Stalingrad between Tania, Vasily and the Headmaster. I view my role as author differently: To read everything available on my subject, to travel, talk, listen, learn, then bring it all back in one piece, wrapped in an exciting tale.

Q: What question do readers most often pose to you?

A: Readers want to know what happened to Tania at the end of War Of The Rats. Does she live or die? Does Zaitsev ever see her again? The answers are: yes, she lives, but she is terribly wounded. The young girl is surgically menopausal at the age of twenty-two, and her health throughout the rest of her life reflects this. Zaitsev, in real life, never does see Tania again. He was blinded rounding up surrendering Germans in the Kessel when a phosphorus bomb blew up near him. The wounds were temporary and he regained his sight. Zaitsev went on to fight all the way to Berlin with the Red Army, achieving even more heroic status. After the war, he married and became a civil engineer in Kiev, where he had three daughters. Tania loved him, and she was wrongly told he had been killed. Tania went into a severe depression over her loss and her own wounds. In 1969, she learned he survived when a foreign reporter asked her about her time in the Hares. She asked how this man knew of her, and he replied that Zaitsev had spoken of her. Then Tania knew that Vasily had never come back for her and her heart was broken afresh. Zaitsev himself told me years later that he tried to find Tania, but that records were scarce in Russia after the war. He lost track and, saddened, went on his way.

Q: What’s next for David Robbins?

A: My next novel, Scorched Earth, will be published in hardcover in March 2002. After that, I will write The Sunflower Field, about the Battle of Kursk, the largest and grandest tank engagement in the history of warfare. In the same way the reader learned about the skills and the courage of snipers in War of the Rats, he will be educated about the abilities and heroism of a tank driver in The Sunflower Field.

Posted in Interviews    Tagged with random house, interview, david l robbins, 2002, richmond, war of the rats, end of war, scorched earth


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