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

Soldier: Why do you have a fascination with the Second World War?

David L. Robbins: I don’t particularly have a fascination with the Second World War. My preoccupation is with grand settings for my characters. If you want to know what a character is going to do and what he is made of, have him fall in love, or have him troubled and tested, perhaps shoot at him, test him, boil him in a cauldron. Great historical cauldrons are what I look for. The Second World War is one setting that fits the bill. Plus, I look for backdrops that allow my readers to learn something; the Eastern Front of the Second World War has been badly overlooked in the West in both fiction and history. So I set three books there: the battles of Stalingrad, Kursk, and Berlin.

Soldier: Your work seems radically different from a lot of other American writers, how do you explain this?

Robbins: First, I think that’s a flattering remark, so thank you. Insofar as I may presume that you are correct, my work differs because I believe I am one of only a handful of American writers who believes you can tell a rousing good, exciting tale with beautiful language and insight. Too often, American publishers and writers fall for the easy bits of raw action and dialogue to tell their tales. I respect my stories too much to lay them out in anything but their finest forms. I love words, and I love the riddles and vagaries of the heart. Moral quandaries, terror, courage, memory, loyalty, adoration, loss—how can any machine, mystery or autopsy be better than an exploration of these? I trust words and insight to be the masters of my stories, and allow action and dialogue to serve them.

Soldier: What (or who) does influence your writing?

Robbins: My influences are few, really. I start with the daily news. Next comes history. Finally, the writers whose work I try to emulate—and by that I mean the effort of their work, their adherence to voice and pace, not their style; I have labored hard to establish my own style—include Steinbeck for his courage, Hemingway for his concision, Faulkner for his experimentation with form, Tolstoy and Nabokov for their breadth, and George MacDonald Fraser for his wit and accuracy.

Soldier: Where did the idea of Scorched Earth come from? It’s a very poetic type of novel.

Robbins: Out of the news. In 1996, the deacons of a church in Thomasville, Georgia actually voted to exhume a mixed-race baby. The membership of the church caught this unfortunate decision in time and did not allow it. But I saw the article and wondered what might have happened if they had actually dug up this child from their cemetery. I had little trouble feeling the outrage of the intended act. I let the story revolve one more turn in my head, added some twists, and wrote it. I wanted the telling to be poetic. I liked the juxtaposition of beauty and racism. It reflected the story’s characters, who viewed themselves not as racists but traditionalists. And it’s told in present tense, to express the ongoing fight against small-mindedness.

Soldier: What is the most important thing to take into account when writing a novel?

Robbins: I teach novel writing, and I tell my students to remember to never write unless they are at their best. Do not commit to the page anything but your utmost. Writing is not a sport or a relationship where you can do it again or say you’re sorry. Writing, especially the long form of a novel, means you are putting down words and ideas that are indelible. They will be read and you will not be there to explain or make an excuse. You must, every minute and every word, be on top of your game, because of the permanence of the page.

Soldier: Are we going to see more Second World War type novels? Where do you see your work going?

Robbins: I see my work staying in the realms of history and conflict, but I also want to branch out to more literary pieces like Scorched Earth. I am currently at work on one more WWII novel, then I will flip though history and choose another interesting epoch to explore for a while.

Soldier: What was the first book you ever read?

Robbins: The Hobbit.

Soldier: What did you think of the movie Enemy at the Gates?

Robbins: It was poor, frankly, The research in the movie was abysmal, the verisimilitude was way off. The writers and producers took a perfectly tragic and compelling true story of a sniper duel and a real love story and junked them up with inanities and laughably bad history, ignoring fact. I think the movie did a disservice to the courage of the real fighters Zaitsev and Chernova, and to the battle of Stalingrad as a whole. I hope it did not do so much damage that the movie industry refuses to revisit the Eastern Front. Many immense and pivotal battles were fought there, and as such, there are great stories to be told.

Soldier: How can you teach somebody to write a novel? Surely, somebody has the imagination or doesn’t?

Robbins: Everyone has imagination, and most writers have a decent story. These aren’t why a writer will fail. A particular writer will not ever write a good book because he lacks other things, like time, discipline, craft, passion, money to pay for food while he writes. You’d be amazed at the mundane reasons that stand in the way of writing. I teach my students two things: write boldly and write often.

Soldier: Do you collect books? If so, what?

Robbins: I have an impressive and growing collection of World War II history books which I have accumulated for my research. I collect mostly fiction, though, because that is my preferred reading. When I was a kid, I collected comic books and Playboy magazines, using the one to hide the other, until my mother donated the lot to a Children’s Hospital. I am sure hell awaits me.

Soldier: What are you reading at the moment?

RobbinsParis 1919. The Flashman books. Atonement.

Soldier: Do you read your own books?

Robbins: Yes. Is that bad? I was asked yesterday what books I would take to a deserted island. I named five favorites, plus all of my work.

Soldier: Have you started work on your next book? What will it concern?

Robbins: I am at work on one more WWII novel, this one set in France beginning a week after D-Day. My protagonists are a black American truck driver with the famous Red Ball Express and a chaplain rabbi. I wanted to take a look at the fighting through the eyes of two non-combatants. Also, I wanted to explore American racial mores in 1944 in regard to Jews and blacks.

Soldier: Have you thought about writing non-fiction, as you seem to enjoy researching themes quite thoroughly?

Robbins: Not really. I do enjoy the research and the travel to do it, but my real passion is story-telling. I like making things up, walking make-believe people through authentic worlds. The research helps me build those worlds, but the folks who people those worlds and times come out of my heart, head and experience. That’s what jazzes me the most, creating, more than finding out.

Soldier: What are your opinions on the war with Iraq? Do you think coalition forces were justified in going in?

Robbins: This is a good news-bad news scenario. Without question, the world is safer and better without Saddam Hussein in power. However, I believe in democracy and transparent government. I am troubled by the way America led a handful of nations into this conflict, and in the process alienated so many others who have long been trusted allies. I am concerned about what is beginning to look like the inflation and misuse of key intelligence points to warrant the action, particularly about the weapons of mass destruction Iraq allegedly possessed. No one can look at the result and the incredible victory and say the war was not called for or extraordinary. I would have preferred a better moral stance before going in. Does the end justify the means? In this case, perhaps so. But I don’t want to make a habit of asking that question about our nations’ wars.

Soldier: What scares you—if anything—about the current war on terrorism?

Robbins: Nothing about this war on terrorism scares me. Fighting against terrorists is one of the most righteous and unifying battles mankind has taken on in recorded history. I say often that we cannot listen to the grievances of a people if they use dark tools to express those grievances. Terrorism rules out any claim to rightness. No people, no matter how burdened or oppressed, has the right to maim and kill innocents, non-combatants. None of us should be scared, because fear gives the terrorists refuge. They can hide in our fears.

Soldier: Is there any country or political system that fascinates you enough to write a novel about?

Robbins: Yes. First century Israel, and I love Cold War Russia. Of course, my home, America, especially the South.

Posted in Interviews    Tagged with soldier magazine, interview, 2008, david l robbins, scorched earth, research, world war, second world war, wwii, richmond


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