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

WAG: On the surface, Scorched Earth looks like a straightforward mystery novel in the Grisham tradition. How does it differ from the standard entries in the genre?

David L. Robbins: John Grisham and the others in his genre hoe a much different row than Scorched Earth. Simply by placing a novel in a courtroom with an undetermined outcome does not make it a legal drama anymore than my other books, set on the Eastern Front during World War II, make them war novels. These backdrops are no more than that for me, places and times to lay my characters and their urgencies. Grisham revolves his plots around legal complications and does so admirably. ButScorched Earth ranges much further than a judge’s gavel or a county jail cell, it aims deep into the roots of American racism and human forgiveness. I don’t view this novel as a departure for me at all. My books are about humans under duress and the extraordinary things they will do. War is one choice to explore that theme. A dead baby leading to a church burning and an unexplained murder is another.

WAG: Scorched Earth has more than its fair share of unexpected plot twists. When you first sat down to write it, did you already know where they were going to be or did at least some of the twists surprise you as you worked? On a more general level, did the fact that you were writing a mystery novel rather than, say, an historical novel, change the way you approached the project?

Robbins: I’ll answer the second half of the question first. My approach to this novel was different than my big world-at-war books mostly because it required less factual research; I might add, by a whole lot. Scorched Earth is a look at a small Southern town, and I grew up in one, so I had a lot of these people programmed in me when I sat down to write it: Baptist churches, weedy graveyards, sheriffs, bullies, racial tensions. Other than this, however, my style of writing requires a lot of insight into my characters’ motivations, and this book gave me loads of conflicts to explore at many levels: spiritual, marital, racial, paternal, communal.

As for knowing the ending, I always know my endings before I start writing. But that doesn’t mean it’s the ending that will be the final, published one. In Scorched Earth, the last chapters changed after working with my editors at Bantam. We decided to add one more twist, and that modification makes the novel even more effective as a mystery. The moral is listen to your editors, and never be afraid to revise when they’re right. (Okay, and fight them when they’re wrong, but that’s not the focus here. Another time, perhaps.)

WAG: While it has a strong plot line, big (if seemingly diverse) themes like racial relations, religion and the media work as powerful undercurrents in Scorched Earth. Where did the idea for Scorched Earth begin? Were your initial interests thematic and abstract, or did it start out as a concrete story (inspired, for instance, by the rash of church burnings the country experienced a few years ago) that grew more complicated thematically as you worked?

Robbins: The germ for the novel came from a news article out of Thomasville, Georgia, where the deacons of a Baptist church actually voted to exhume the body of a mixed-race baby. In the real story, the full church voted in time and overturned the deacons’ decision. The child was left to her rest. But the story got under my skin. I wondered what would have happened if the deacons had not been reversed, what would I have done were that my child dug up like that? And I knew I would have been very angry. Would I have burned the church? I don’t know. But this got me wanting to explore the notions of anger, justice (both real and legal), and the remnants of racism clinging to our culture. Do only bad people do racist things, or could good but misguided people also do something like this, dig up a child from their cemetery for ancient and unquestioned reasons? I needed to know, so I wrote this book.

WAG: You’ve lived most of your life in the South, and Scorched Earthis set in a richly detailed, small Virginia town. Do you consider yourself a Southern writer? And if so, what do you think distinguishes a Southern writer from his peers?

Robbins: Yes, I am a Southern writer. Let me say, of course I’m a Southern writer. The beauty and curse of the South are the same as our humidity, they are inescapable, despite all the shade and fans and air conditioning you want. A Southern writer is a contemplative writer. We are thematic writers, laying out on the page issues and passions that warm our land often even beyond what we wish for. Southern writers long for greatness in their work, it’s another curse. We are humorous and self-bashing, more than any other American region. We can be cool to outsiders and when we write we sometimes let this unfortunate sidelight leech in, we often write just for each other. No matter if I am describing Russia or Virginia, my intentions are the exploration of man and nature. This is the Southern writer in me, sweating and marveling at Creation whether on my porch or at my computer.

WAG: As resoundingly Southern as Scorched Earth is, you’ve drawn on a plethora of settings and periods for your novels. What is your next project going to be?

Robbins: My next book will complete my triad on the Eastern Front during World War II. The novel describes the titanic Battle of Kursk—the greatest armored conflict in history—through the perspectives of a Cossack family (father, son, daughter) who have gone to war together, and a Spaniard serving in the Liebstandarte division of the SS. With this novel, I will have taken my readers from Stalingrad (site of the first great Soviet victory over the Germans) in War Of The Rats, to Kursk for the pivotal battle on the Eastern Front, concluding with the fall of Berlin to the Red Army, described in The End Of War. Where will I go after this? I haven’t a clue yet. And that’s exciting.

Posted in Interviews    Tagged with wag magazine, interview, 2002, scorched earth, david l robbins, richmond, southern writer


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