David L. Robbins
Novelist, Educator, Playwright, Essayist
Richmond Magazine Interview (2008)
by David L. Robbins on May 19th, 2014

By: RIchard Foster

At 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds, David L. Robbins doesn’t do anything small. When the prolific best-selling novelist does research for one of his books, he researches in a big way. He’s ridden in stunt planes and tanks. In the last year, he traveled to the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster to gather information for a new book. However, Robbins’ publisher didn’t think a Chernobyl novel would ignite sales, so the native Richmonder switched back to writing what he’s best known for, a World War II novel. He’ll be traveling to Manila soon to begin research on The Comfort Woman, his ninth book. It will chronicle the amazing true-life story of the Los Baños raid, in which American troops liberated more than 2,100 Allied civilian and military POWs from a Japanese concentration camp in 1945, just one day before the camp commander had planned to execute all the prisoners. “They killed all the guards and got everybody out. It went off like clockwork,” he says of the astounding tale.

Robbins’ eighth book in 10 years, The Betrayal Game, a sequel to his 2006 thriller The Assassins Gallery, will be released on Jan. 28.

“My template,” says Robbins, “is this: I bleed into a cup to learn about every aspect I can of whatever historical episode and time and place I’m writing about.”

Robbins, who turns 54 in March, lives off Riverside Drive in Woodland Heights in a modern, pastel-colored home overlooking the James River. He was raised in Sandston, east of Richmond, the third of four brothers in a Jewish family. It was a little redneck then, the kind of place where his family would get swastikas drawn in soap on their windows at Halloween. They went to synagogue at Temple Beth Israel at the corner of Grove and Boulevard.

His father, Sam, who died in 1985, worked as an air-traffic controller at the old Byrd Airport. A Pearl Harbor vet, he had MS and walked with a cane, stoically working through the pain as he held down multiple jobs so that the Robbins boys could go to college. David Robbins’ mother, Carol, was a garrulous homemaker and substitute teacher who ran a Highland Springs rec center in the summers. Both were first-generation Americans; Sam changed his surname from Rabinowitz to Robbins while he was a staff sergeant in the Army Air Corps. The tale of their meeting is like something out of a movie — Sam Robbins won Carol’s mailing address from her boyfriend in a poker game after seeing her photo. After “Sgt. Sam” and Carol had been corresponding awhile, Carol joined the WACs without telling Sam and surprised him by showing up at Pearl Harbor.

A center on his high-school basketball team, David Robbins entered Vermont’s Middlebury College on an athletic scholarship but later transferred to the College of William & Mary, graduating in 1976 with an undergrad degree in speech and theater.

Home during a break from college in the summer of 1973, Robbins showed up at the doorstep of Kennedy and Green Communications, a Fan District ad firm, announcing that he wanted to work in advertising. Tom Kennedy and Gary Green, the firm’s creative director and president, respectively, hired the teenage Robbins on a freelance basis. Robbins ended up working off and on for Kennedy and Green, his mentors and dear friends, for more than 20 years.

“It was a wonderful schoolhouse,” Robbins says of his time at the agency. “When you measure your language, when you count your words for a billboard, when you time them for a broadcast commercial … you learn concision, you learn precision.”

Green says they can take only so much credit: “I don’t think it taught him to be a writer. I think that was natural.” However, Green says, the job did teach him discipline. “And after a lot of two-by-fours across his head, he learned to take criticism,” Green adds with a laugh, describing the young David Robbins as “bullheaded as anyone could possibly be, but you would expect that out of somebody with talent. … He was a keeper.”

After college, Robbins took a year off to travel and teach remedial English at Hermitage High School before going back to William & Mary for law school, what he calls “the great catch basin for the unfocused overachiever.” After getting his law degree, he worked for a year in 1981 as a deputy attorney general in South Carolina, specializing in environmental law and “loathing” every minute of it. “Being a child of the late ’60s and early ’70s, I had that idealism like ‘I don’t want a job, I want a calling.’ And law wasn’t my calling, trust me.”

Instead he started restoring houses in Church Hill and went back to freelancing for Kennedy and Green, which he did right up until his breakthrough book, War of the Rats, a fictionalized tale of real-life Russian and German snipers set amid the carnage of Stalingrad, became an international bestseller in 1998.

His last assignment for Kennedy and Green was a case statement for the Virginia War Memorial. Robbins donated his fee in memory of his parents, both of whom served in World War II.

In many ways, it was their service that started his career, because after his father’s death, Robbins began feeling regret at not asking his father more about his war years. That prompted him to buy a set of Time-Life Books on the war, which in turn led to his idea for War of the Rats. In his reading, he saw references to the Battle of Stalingrad as perhaps the bloodiest battle in human history, yet he’d never before heard of it. “For a single location for a battle, the casualties exceeded a million,” Robbins says, “and that’s just unheard of  — the entire death toll of the American Civil War in one battle.”

One volume also mentioned the mortal, cat-and-mouse confrontation between Russian sniper Vasiliy Zaytsev and his German counterpart Heinz Thorvald. The snippet captured Robbins’ imagination and his wallet. In the summer of 1990, he cashed out his savings and spent 11 weeks in the Soviet Union, roaming Kiev, Moscow and Leningrad, doing research for a book of his own. In getting permissions from the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., he also learned that Zaytsev was still alive. Robbins visited the dying war hero, interviewing him to get background material for a novel. For the next two years, Robbins alternated between months of research and months spent writing about five hours a day.

Dozens of rejection letters later, Robbins didn’t have a publisher for War of the Rats, but he also didn’t give up. “It was the classic long dark nights of the soul, but I knew [writing] was what I wanted to do and I wasn’t going to be easily dissuaded, believe me,” Robbins says.

Opting instead for a change in scenery, Robbins sold some remodeled houses in Church Hill and moved to Santa Barbara, Calif., for two years to write in a little bungalow on a Pacific mountainside. It was there that he penned Souls to Keep, his first published book, a metaphysical comic romance novel released by Harper Collins in 1997. He also landed a literary agent at the William Morris Agency. At a purely “serendipitous lunch” between his agent and an editor at Random House’s Bantam Books, the editor mentioned that Steven Spielberg had a blockbuster movie coming in 1998, Saving Private Ryan, that would make World War II books hot. Did the agent know of any unpublished World War II novels? the editor asked.

“Saving Private Ryan saved David Robbins,” Robbins says, heartily laughing.

Ask someone in Robbins’ large circle of friends to describe him, and the first word most utter is “loyal.”

He learned it from his late best friend Moose, his beloved dog, who died at age 12 in 1995. Moose was “half border collie, half something big and half English professor,” Robbins says. “He had the best view on life. He was unendingly loyal to me. We had a remarkable relationship, and I am keenly aware that I am saying this about a dog.”

He got Moose from the SPCA with an old live-in girlfriend. When the relationship broke up, she took Moose, but Moose wasn’t happy with that arrangement and let her know it. He chewed off the arm of her sofa — the entire arm — upholstery, stuffing and a wood two-by-four. Moose also urinated on the ex-girlfriend’s bed. She called Robbins to come get the dog, and he never had a problem with Moose. “That was commitment,” Robbins says, marveling at the dog’s destructive achievement, “and I’ve consciously tried to live by his example. That dog showed me how to want something.”

He also taught Robbins loyalty. Robbins hasn’t had another pet since Moose’s death.

“David is one of the most loyal people I’ve ever known, and even though we haven’t been friends for a very long time, I do know that if I ever needed his help in any way, he’d be on the next jet to Seattle,” says Tom Robbins, the legendary author of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.

No relation, he and David Robbins met through James River Writers, the nonprofit literary group David founded, and became fast friends. They jokingly call each other “Cousin” and talk on the phone at least once a week, usually arguing politics. Though they don’t talk writing much, theirs is a friendship based on mutual respect.

“As a longtime pacifist and advocate of nonviolence,” Tom Robbins says, “you would not think that I would ever read a book that primarily concerned the various aspects of warfare … but I’m a language lover … and in David’s war novels … there are so many beautifully written passages that even if I wasn’t sucked in by the story, I would just read it for his use of words.”

Like the rest of David Robbins’ friends, Tom Robbins says that the size of David’s personality outmatches his large stature. “When I’m in town, it’s hard to avoid him — he’s such an imposing figure. It’s like trying to avoid the Robert E. Lee Bridge or the statue of Robert E. Lee. I should just stand David in the middle of Monument Avenue. He’d just be another monument.”

But sometimes that big personality can rub people the wrong way. “When I first met David, I wasn’t sure I liked him,” says local author Phaedra Hise, who today describes Robbins as one of her closest friends. “He’s an interesting person; he has varied interests and he’s very confident and he’s very blunt, and that’s hard for some people to take.”

For Hise, what brought her around was the work. After reading David Robbins’ novel Scorched Earth, a racially charged courtroom thriller, she was wowed: “He’s clearly got talent, and he’s clearly creative and he’s clearly willing to take risks, and I admire that in a person.”

Robbins is aware that he can sometimes come off as brusque. He chalks that up to the solitary nature of his work. He loves conversation and his friends, but the contradiction is he spends months alone on the road, researching, and at home writing.

“Plus, let’s be fair: I’m 6-foot-6 and 250,” he notes. “When you’re my size … if I do show some distemper, even if it’s measured distemper, even if it’s exactly the appropriate amount, even if my reaction is identical to someone else’s … it gets inflated by people. … I surely don’t intend anything other than kindness.”

When Robbins met now-deceased author William Styron (of Sophie’s Choice fame) in 2005, Styron told Robbins that a writer should strive to elevate, educate and entertain. For Robbins, it perfectly summed up his own philosophy of writing: “I hope that I write an entertaining story, but to me it’s not enough. I want the reader to put my books down and say, ‘Wow, I know more about Stalingrad, Berlin, Roosevelt, Cairo’ — whatever my subject is. ‘I know more about this than I would have imagined I could have learned reading a piece of fiction.’ I take that responsibility very seriously. It’s not just to bring the backdrop alive or to make it compelling and entertaining; I really am trying to educate.”

But Robbins isn’t interested in writing “the typical potboiler kind of novel,” says Hise. “He works so seriously, he takes it so seriously, his research. … The publishing company wants him to write the same kind of thriller, and he doesn’t want to do that. He could do the same thing and become a caricature of himself, and a lot of writers do that; it’s easy, but he’s not taking that road.”

That’s why it’s so surprising that his new book is both a thriller and a sequel, the first time he’s revisited characters from a previous book. When his publisher urged him to write a thriller in the wake of Dan Brown’s bajillion-selling The Da Vinci Code, Robbins at first dismissed the idea out of hand. Then he came up with The Assassins Gallery, a fast-paced, cat-and-mouse thrill ride prefaced on the curious speculation that FDR was assassinated.

And Robbins didn’t change history to do it — FDR still dies in 1945 from a seeming stroke while having his portrait painted at his retreat in Georgia. Robbins painstakingly researched FDR’s schedule and plausibly inserted both his Middle Eastern assassin Judith and her pursuer, the professor and assassination expert Mikhal Lammeck, into the actual history. Robbins says that he changed nothing about FDR’s historical schedule from the White House logs: “If he’s on a train, he’s on a train. If he’s asleep, he’s asleep. If he’s talking to Joe Blow from Minnesota, that’s who he’s talking to.”

Now Lammeck’s back in The Betrayal Game, Robbins’ first Cold War book.

Robbins admits to having “creative qualms” about plowing the same earth again but also says that “I found Lammeck to be a clever enough and interesting enough and broad enough character that I thought I could live in his skin for another round.”

Set in the 1960s, Betrayal Game focuses on the CIA’s partnership with the Mafia, which hatched various half-baked schemes for assassinating Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Like his other historical books, the novel covers more than history — it comments on events today. “What I’m really talking about is George Bush’s policy of torturing foreign nationals,” says Robbins, who considered himself a Republican before the current administration came along. “Spanning the ’60s and into the ’70s, these attempts to assassinate [foreign targets] are the functional equivalent of the modern Republican Party’s stance on torture. That compromises our ethics, so much so that it compromises American prestige. Now, you compromise American prestige, in my view, you diminish the greatest force for good in the world, and that is American will. We have to be a force for good, and we can’t be when someone looks at us and sees that we’re hypocrites.”

None of Robbins’ books has been adapted into a movie yet, but the 2001 film Enemy at the Gates told a story very similar to War of the Rats, and Robbins and others believe that it ripped off the idea from Robbins’ best-selling book. Lawyers were telling him he had a good case, and Robbins considered suing, but “I just frankly chose the karmic high road, and I’m glad I did, because for the year it would have taken me to pursue him, I instead wrote Last Citadel, which is one of my favorite books. So would I have rather had Jean-Jacques Annaud’s million dollars or one more book in my oeuvre? I would far rather have the book.”

For an author who values educating his readers, Robbins also has a great passion for aiding other aspiring writers.

He’s the writer in residence this year at his alma mater, William & Mary, teaching a weekly afternoon class to 16 undergrads. In 2002, he founded James River Writers (JRW), an active group dedicated to building a literary community and supporting the Richmond region’s published and unpublished writers.

“When I started writing in this town, there was only Patricia Cornwell, and she was kind of remote, you know?” Robbins says. “I’ve met Patricia a bunch of times, and she’s pleasant enough, I’ve nothing but kind words to say about her, but there wasn’t a writer’s community at all.”

So Robbins befriended other local writers. It was at a poker game that included local novelists Howard Owen, Dennis Danvers and Tom De Haven that Robbins floated the idea of starting a group for Richmond-area writers. With the help of those writers and prominent local authors Dean King and Phaedra Hise, he founded JRW.

Since 2003, the nonprofit group has hosted a variety of regular events, including a major annual writer’s conference every October, with keynote speakers like novelist Tom Robbins and memoirist Jeanette Walls (The Glass Castle). JRW hosts monthly Q&A sessions with publishing professionals on the last Thursday of every month at the Science Museum of Virginia.

“[Robbins’] commitment to literature in Richmond is phenomenal,” says King, the best-selling author of Skeletons on the Zahara. “He’s put so much energy into the James River Writers and the conference. He’s committed to making Richmond a more literary place, and I think his energy and enthusiasm are infectious.”

For Robbins, who’s divorced and doesn’t have children, JRW is his baby, says Hise. Robbins allows that he’s “really proud of bringing that into being — legacy proud,” but says that the credit belongs to “a whole lot of very generous and talented writers and volunteers.”

Robbins himself says, “I’m just convinced that as an artist one of the best things we can do is encourage others.”

As a self-made author who became published through talent and persistence, Robbins understands that “being a writer is a dream for a lot of people. It’s more than a professional aspiration. It’s a dream.” And “every time I have a challenge in my own work, a setback, I remember being the guy that wanted it, not being the guy that has it.”

In his downtime, Robbins plays classical guitar, picking with fingernails he allows to grow unfashionably long. Self-taught, he plays a little Segovia, a little jazz, a little classical. Lately he’s been learning Joplin rags.

Health-conscious, he’s not much of a drinker, though he will indulge in a cigar about once a week — usually a Punch or a Macanudo. A comforting reminder of his late cigar-smoking father, it also quiets his internal dialogue. “I’ve got a head that doesn’t easily still,” Robbins says. The other thing that calms his head is sailing his 35-foot Hunter on the Chesapeake Bay. He’s sailed it everywhere from Miami to Maine and often entertains friends on the boat.

Robbins also works out regularly, alternating between lifting weights at the James Center Y and running Belle Isle. Staying fit is nothing less than a professional necessity to Robbins: “I don’t like my body to be a distraction. I’m like the sniper in War of the Rats: The heartbeat is a distraction to the aiming. I try to rule my body out so that when I sit down to write, my back doesn’t ache, my joints don’t ache, I can stay in the saddle. I will routinely sit for four hours and never stand up.”

Besides, he adds, only halfway joking, “I’ve got to live until I’m 90 to get all the books written I have to get out. I have no intention of retiring. I can’t wait to find out what I write when I’m 103.”

Posted in Interviews    Tagged with richmond magazine, interview, 2008, david l robbins, writing, richmond, life


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