David L. Robbins
Novelist, Educator, Playwright, Essayist
WAG Magazine Interview (2000)
by David L. Robbins on May 19th, 2014

WAG: In the Foreword to The End of War, you write that your new novel

is constructed along the lines of a Greek tragedy: the gods discuss the affairs of man, then their Olympian intents are played out at human level. In this novel, the gods are Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin, and Franklin Roosevelt. Lesser deities include General Dwight Eisenhower and Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. The book’s corresponding mortals are three fictional characters—one Russian soldier, one German civilian, and one American photojournalist.

It’s a great way to structure a novel that must, by necessity, humanize war and politics without shortchanging their complexities, but I’m curious: where did you get the idea? And how early in the planning stages did it come?

Robbins: The paradigm of the Greek tragedy was there at the beginning. It seemed to well replicate the way historical events affect the common man; a president or a premier decides there will be a war, or he decides there will not, and millions of lives necessarily follow. In every culture, including the Greeks, this is the way we attribute the impact of the will of our God(s) on ourselves.

Also, I’ve always been impressed with how great events—the ones we call ‘historical”—are often, when you scrutinize their beginnings, the offspring of innocuous, even petty, human moments. In The End Of War, I describe how the Iron Curtain fell across Germany after World War II simply because Roosevelt wanted to curry favor with Stalin, over the objections of Churchill. Add to that Eisenhower’s loathing of the British general Montgomery, and Ike’s favoritism for his West Point classmate Bradley, and you begin to see why Berlin was ceded to the Russians when it was very available to our forces. The decision to halt at the Elbe was partially military, but a closer look suggests that Ike and FDR did not want Monty in Berlin. Stalin certainly did not. So, the final result was that Berlin was captured by the Soviets, and America had nothing with which to bargain at war’s end. Thus began in Eastern Europe a half-century of oppression under the communists.

I elected to write The End Of War because, on close 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.

WAG: One problem with writing a novel that contains well-known historical figures is that you have to make your fictional versions of them ring true for the reader. How hard was it to get the voices for Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt right?

Robbins: There’s really just one challenge to portraying all characters in any 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 an 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 historical 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 trail. 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 historical characters’ presence and significance in my books reflect what they were in reality.

WAG: Your crosscutting among the six principle characters makes for fast, even cinematic reading, and a film adaptation of The End of War seems like an obvious project. Have you been approached about the film rights yet? And do you write with the possibilities of Hollywood adaptations at least in the back of your mind?

Robbins: My agent is always on the lookout for film deals. As yet, it’s still early in the book’s life and nothing concrete has been offered.

I do not write for Hollywood, nor do I choose my topics to attract their attention. I’m not anti-Hollywood; I’m a movie addict from birth. But I am a novelist, and a movie is a separate art form. A movie may (often at its best) be rooted in a book, but a book stands separate, as an artistic experience for the writer as well as the reader / viewer. I can only get in trouble if I write a book for the movies. It works best the other way around.

WAG: Did you work from an outline for The End of War or did you let the narrative develop as you went along?

Robbins: I never work from outlines. I know the beginning and the ending of all my novels, and I let the characters live the middle.

I have a working theory about creative writing. Consider the difference between recollection and recordation. When a writer drafts his prose as though it is something he has remembered—which is often what happens when he has plotted everything out, reduced his story to a road map—the language often lacks life and spontaneity. His words ring cool, even distant, like a memory. But when a writer lives the moments of a book in his head, and he writes from a reportorial posture, recording what happens as it happens, his descriptions can be much more sensory, near and immediate. I find if I create good, three-dimensional characters in my imagination, if I know them and can hear and see them, yes, and can trust them, then it’s a thrill to cut them loose and write down for the reader what they do. Hopefully, that thrill makes it on the page.

WAG: In the process of researching your second novel, War of the Rats, you traveled to Russia and interviewed survivors of the Stalingrad siege. Did you travel abroad to research The End of War as well?

Robbins: For both novels there was first 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.

For War of the Rats, I traveled to the Soviet Union, visiting Volgograd (the re-named 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 Küstrin 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 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.

WAG: What attracts you to war as a setting for historical novels? And is there something about the Second World War that you find more appealing than, say, the Crimean War or the Civil War?

Robbins: My Stalingrad novel, 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 untrammeled 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 Berlin have not been the basis for many novels in America. And the conflicts of interest between FDR, Churchill and Stalin were magnificent, the outcome of which became a world-wide legacy.

The Civil War in particular has no interest for me as a writer. It has been covered exhaustively and continues to be annual fodder for novels. I aspire to illuminate the dustier episodes of history. At some point, I hope to write about the siege of Jerusalem, maybe Jericho, or Carthage, perhaps the nine hundred day assault on Leningrad if I return to the 20th century for my backdrop. It’s exciting having the history of the world beckon my keyboard.

WAG: Do you ever worry about being pigeonholed as a military fiction writer?

Robbins: The novel I’m writing now, The Brink, concerns the days of 1961 when the Berlin Wall went up and the world teetered on the nuclear brink. There’s no military fighting in this one, but there’s lots of history (Kennedy and Khrushchev, what great characters) and suspense.

After that, Bantam will publish a novel of mine called Scorched Earth, about a church burning in a small southern mill town. I’ve always viewed myself as a Southern writer, and as such, I am called to observe on the issues of class and race.

I will never stop being fascinated by history and large conflicts as wonderful, revealing crucibles for characters. But I don’t worry about being pigeonholed. I’m working hard to build a readership who, I hope, will respect and trust me enough to follow where I feel the urge to go. If I’m successful in doing that, I will have achieved my own highest goal as a writer—to write about what jazzes me and moves me. I am my first reader.

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