David L. Robbins
Novelist, Educator, Playwright, Essayist
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.


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.


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.


by David L. Robbins on May 19th, 2014

With so many new books being published in the U.S. each year—122,000 according to a recent tally—I know that, despite my best efforts, there are always going to be great ones that get away. I missed Scorched Earth by David L. Robbins (Bantam Books) when it came out in hardcover last year, but am thanking my lucky stars that I caught it in paperback.

Set in a fictional paper-mill town near Richmond ironically named Good Hope, Scorched Earth opens during a searing drought with the heartrending death of a newborn girl, the first child of Clare, who is white, and Elijah, who is black. Clare’s grandmother arranges for the baby to be buried in the cemetery of the centuries-old Victory Baptist Church. But the next day, the church deacons (including the grandmother) vote to have the baby exhumed because having one of “them” buried in the graveyard violates their sense of “community.” The baby is reburied at the all-black church down the road. Then Victory Baptist burns to the ground and Elijah, who cheered at the flames, is arrested for arson—only he says he didn’t do it. And that’s just in the first 63 pages. Gut-wrenching complications ensue from there, culminating in a magnificent double-whammy ending that even the most alert and suspicious reader (i.e., me) would never see coming.

Reaching Robbins by phone at his Richmond home minutes after I finish devouring Scorched Earth, I blurt out the question at the top of my mind: “How did you get so good?” Unperturbed by such a fawning query from a supposed professional, he replies, “To a great extent storytellers are born; we’re a clan. If you want to be one, you’ll read stories and tell them. I love elderly folks; a life well led is a compilation of great stories.”

That said, Robbins admits that writing “is damned hard work.” The author of the acclaimed World War II novels War of the Rats and The End of War(Last Citadel is coming in September) he teaches writing in the MFA program at Virginia Commonwealth University. “I learn so much from my students,” he says. “Every day that I go into the classroom, I walk out more committed to precise writing.” When I observe that there are no extra words in his book, he enthuses, “You couldn’t say anything better! Any writer has a story; it’s in the telling of the tale that you separate yourself. My motto when I teach and write is ‘Concision is precision.’ I spent 14 years as a freelance copywriter, and when your words are measured, timed and counted, it’s a great schoolhouse.”

Robbins grew up in the East End of Richmond; his dad worked for the FAA and mom ran a playground for Henrico County. “We had books, but it was more of a blue-collar upbringing,” he recalls. “My mother was an overt and unrepentant storyteller. I used to like to say about her that she would talk to the devil, but the devil couldn’t make the time.” After earning undergraduate and law degrees at William and Mary, Robbins practiced “one year to the day” as an environmental lawyer in South Carolina, then went back home, intending to get a doctorate in psychology. But after landing a job as a freelance writer, his childhood dream of being a storyteller “started looking like something I could do.” With single-minded tenacity, he wrote War of the Rats, then five years later a “cosmic romance,” Souls to Keep, which sold first. From then on, his dream became ever more real.

The idea for Scorched Earth came from a newspaper article about an all-white church in Georgia whose deacons voted on whether to exhume a mixed-race baby. (They decided against it.) Robbins says, “I started thinking, ‘How could good churchgoing people do such a blatantly awful thing? What kind of rationales could they come up with?’ I let my imagination go, and let nonfiction spin into fiction. Then it turned into so many other things, as books will do.”

“I wanted my reader to analyze his or her own attitudes,” says Robbins. “My goal was to have you reach that crux where the racist nature of the acts is unmasked, you hear the characters’ reasons, put the book down in your lap and say, ‘That makes sense.” And then say, ‘No it doesn’t!’ To suddenly be assaulted by your own logic, that you might for a moment agree with these people.”

Scorched Earth is of course a mystery. But to Robbins, it is “a contemplation on forgiveness. The drought is a physicalization of the refusal to forgive. There is no single villain; everyone has a logical reason for their actions. So many of those acts are villainous and defensible at the same time.” Something to ponder through the long, hot days ahead.


by David L. Robbins on May 19th, 2014

By: Rebecca A. Moon

Richmonder David L. Robbins is the author of five novels, among them Last Citadel: A Novel of the Battle of Kursk. His novel, Scorched Earth (2002), will soon be in production by Warner Brothers. When he isn’t working on his newest project, the historical novel Lifeblood, Robbins devotes his expertise to novel workshop students in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Creative Writing Program in Richmond. As if that isn’t enough to keep him busy, Robbins used his local influence and reputation to found and co-chair this year’s inaugural James River Writers’ Festival (JRWF), held at the Library of Virginia October 3-4, 2003. Created to be a celebration of both established and budding local literary talent, workshops for every stage of the writing process were conducted by professional writers of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Keynote speaker, novelist and VCU alum Tom Robbins, author of Skinny Legs and All and his latest Villa Incognito, lent his imagination and vision to all in attendance.

Born and raised in Richmond, David went on to earn both his B.A. and Juris Doctorate from William and Mary, then practiced law for a short time before making a career of writing. Robbins is engaged to Lindy Bumgarner, a Ph.D. candidate in Performance Studies at Tufts in Boston. They will tie the knot during their Italian travels this winter. An avid sailor, Robbins takes his boat “Zola” out on the Chesapeake when the weather and his hectic schedule permit. On a personal note, I’m grateful for his tutelage, and that he could find the time to grant me this interview.

For Robbins, both his creation of Scorched Earth and his work with the James River Writers Festival acted as creative homecomings. His fourth novel, Scorched Earth, is set in the fictional Good Hope, Virginia. A blue-collar town of five thousand, nestled along the Mattaponi River, the citizens of Good Hope are sweltering at the opening of the book. The landscape of the village and the fictional Pamunkey County is a familiar one. “Heat waves shimmy above the water and wetlands. Trees beside the road have scrolled their leaves, parched from an August drought.”


PL: Your research for other novels has taken you to far-flung places, to comb the beaches at Normandy, for example. This novel is set much closer to home, in rural Virginia. The drought plaguing the soil of Good Hope mirrors the sadness that seems to have sucked the goodness from the townsfolk. Of the thirsty crops of corn, you write: “Inside their shucks the ears, swelling and flushed with juice last month, cave and wrinkle in the sun…I have nothing to give you, says the earth.” How would you characterize your research of Virginia’s river country and farmland in order to create the setting for Scorched Earth?

Robbins: I’ve had the great grace to have been raised in central Virginia. Red clay, weeds between the markers in church graveyards, the smell of river lowlands, all this required little research from me Scorched Earth for the novel. When I was young, I used to walk in farm fields in Hanover and Seven Pines behind plowing tractors, carrying a metal detector to search for Minié balls, buttons, bayonets, belt buckles, coronet cap insignia, anything from the Civil War in the turned dirt. It wasn’t hard—in fact, it was a pleasure—to recall the sense of August next to a river, the brown crisp of crops in a drought.

PL: This is a very earthy novel in other ways. In particular, the female characters you’ve created become the landscape and vice versa. Clare’s blond hair is “the shade of dying corn.” She wears “the river and the moon in her face.” Nat Deeds, the hometown lawyer, looks at Clare and deems her “the stronger animal, more primal and better suited for life on this planet.” This is quite a feminist statement. Did you mean it as such?

Robbins: I have said on several occasions that if God had created Eve first, he might not have bothered with Adam.

PL: Your attorney character runs up the courthouse steps in one scene only to be confronted by a barrage of news reporters and cameras. You compare the news people to “landing commandoes streaming across a beach…” This isn’t one of your war novels, but the rhetoric is there. I’m not spoiling anything that isn’t printed on the dust jacket when I surmise that one of the controlling themes of this novel is race. Is that the war to be fought in this novel?

Robbins: Yes. One of the premises in the book is that evil—read that: racism—has gone underground, that it no longer grows just among the wicked. Today, those ideas of separation and mistrust have found fertile soil also in the hearts of good people, in simple, seemingly innocent ways. Folks tell a racist joke and say, Aw, it’s just a joke, or they demean a race, a religion or a sexual orientation and chalk it up to their community, to their traditions, and that way escape responsibility. The war has long been waged in this country for equal rights; now we must expand it, to fight for respect and acceptance, and finish the damn thing off.

PL: Race isn’t the only universal theme you tackle in Scorched Earth, but good and evil, right and wrong, and heroism all get a turn. In response to a wrong done to the character Elijah, Nat Deeds contemplates Elijah’s revenge. “They spit on his heritage. An absolute response to an absolute wrong.” Of his own power as a lawyer, Deeds says his hand is not a hero’s, but a man’s. While you seem to be saying that the law certainly wields less power than God, you make a case for the system having a great responsibility to those it defends and prosecutes. You practiced law for a time. Ever criminal law? Do you miss it? Do you miss the absolutes?

Robbins: I miss the law, but I don’t miss being a lawyer. Sure, the absolutes and boundaries of law are compelling. Clarity always is. I had hoped to be a criminal lawyer, but I got sidetracked into environmental law, being a Quixotic personality. However, the parallel between my wanting to practice law and my love of writing stories remains advocacy.

PL: Nat Deeds refers to the courtroom as his battlefield. Yours is the novel. Are writers the warriors of our time? Are novelists modern-day philosophers? Do you feel like you can enact real change?

Robbins: Lindy has said: Because art can change minds, it must. I believe this. In my work, whether in historical novels or my literary ones like Scorched Earth, I try to marshal the power of ideas for, frankly, good. I have no desire to write murder or horror tales, detective yarns or dysfunctional family literature, simple tales to tickle or frighten. I don’t see the purpose. Movies can do those things better, honestly. I hope for my readers to put down one of my books and consider something, anything, in their own heart: courage, kindness, redemption. I’m committed to fanning these better embers of the human experience more than just excitement or fear. Are writers warriors and philosophers? Always have been, always will be. The battlefield of ideas writes and rewrites history as surely as any bloodletting ever has.

PL: Speaking of change, of your hometown Richmond’s writing scene, you’ve said it’s “just like the art, music and theatre scenes—it’s underground, it’s huge and it’s talented.” Is that the impetus behind your work getting the first JRWF off the ground?

Robbins: I finally grew sufficiently tired of Richmond beating itself up for a perceived lack of culture. When you look at the music scene in this town, from opera to garage bands, it’s stunning. The same can be said for dance, art, and theatre. These are all ample communities, growing, vibrant, and recognized nationally. Yet Richmond always looks to D.C. and New York and compares itself badly, constantly wounding itself. Why? There’s no need. A year ago, several writers here noted that Richmond, the state capitol, had no literary festival, an absurdity. We decided we wanted a showcase for the substantial literary talent in this city. Along the way, we decided to reach out to encourage aspiring and student writers in the area. The James River Writers’ Festival was created to place a mirror on I-95 North, so instead of gazing north, we’d see our own image and smile.

PL: What’s the toughest stage of the transition from being an aspiring writer to becoming a professional? How did you accomplish that feat? Do you hope the JRWF will in some way ease that transition for others? How so?

Robbins: The toughest transition is actually writing. Currently I teach novel writing at VCU. I tell my students often that the thing that will keep them from being a success is not that they lack ability or a story to tell. If they fail, what they will have lacked will be the taste for sacrifice and the discipline to put the words down every day, the way a professional works. Life intrudes, you see. For me, I made a decision, pure and simple, to write. An aspiring writer had better be hardheaded. That is a strength of mine. The beauty of the JRWF is that it is not a circus for celebrity, where readers come to rub shoulders with writers. It’s a venue for writers to teach other writers, to be role models for them and avatars of professionalism. We try to impart some knowledge while we have the conferees in our house, but the most important thing is to show aspiring writers that folks, real flesh and blood people just like them, are actually doing it and getting paid.

PL: Keynote speaker and Richmond native Tom Robbins was quite a coup for the inaugural JRWF. How did you get him? How would you encapsulate the talk he gave at the festival? Do you agree with his message to novice writers? He’ll be tough to top next year, won’t he? Have any leads?

Robbins: VCU is the repository for Tom’s papers (if you want a book-geek thrill, go to Cabell Library and hold the original, handwritten notebooks for Jitterbug Perfume). The kind folks at the library put me in touch with him in Seattle. When he called me, he said, “David, this is your black sheep cousin Tom.” I hesitated, thinking I was the family black sheep, until I made the connection, Oh, we share the same last name! Once I got control of my nerves, I pitched him on the festival and our literacy mission. Because Tom Robbins is a magnificent and generous man, he agreed to be our keynote. At the JRWF, he was ferocious in praise of language. He explained that words are not the icing but the cake. I could not have been moved more by any speaker than I was by Tom. He sounded the war cry for bold strokes of the mind and pen. Top that? Never. Match it, we’re trying. Next year, our keynote speaker will be a magnificent non-fiction keynote writer of equal merit, Mark Bowden, ofBlack Hawk Down and Killing Pablo, to keep the festival balanced, varied and important.

PL: What will JRWF look like next year, in ten years? Do you hope to be a part of it?

Robbins: In ten years, I hope it looks just as energetic as it did in its first year. The 2003 JRWF was really magical. I have no doubt it will become one of the preeminent literary events on the East Coast. The volunteers behind it are committed and extraordinary (plug: if you want to join and help, contribute, or just learn more, see our Web site, JRWF.org). Richmond writers have already embraced the event, the corporate community is in full support, and to no one’s surprise, our city is full of people who want to further their writing abilities. The festival is for them, after all, and there’s no chance they’re going to go away, so we have our audience. Next year, we hope to have more public components, and more of a presence in schools during the month of October, Literacy Month in Virginia. We’re also planning a weeklong celebration of writing, involving local colleges, high schools, bookstores and public venues. Ten years from now, for the 2013 JRWF, I’d love to be the keynote speaker. I’ll settle for just being in the audience, with my quiet glow of pride.






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