Roxana Robinson – Sparta


Photo by David Ignaszewski

The prolific Roxana Robinson‘s latest novel, Sparta, is a moving account of one soldier’s struggle to adjust after returning home from Iraq.

Like many who volunteer for military duty, Conrad joins the Marines because of an idea: it’s the “biggest challenge” he can imagine facing. But then he is confronted with the harsh reality of that choice. How did you approach fleshing out that contradiction?

I was really struck by the difference between the two ideas – the heroic and romantic ideal of rising to a great challenge and becoming one’s best self, and the brutal reality of the combat zone where there are no good choices. The contrast seemed particularly vivid in [the Iraq] war, partly because the troops were all volunteer – many more of them were driven by idealism than in conscripted armies – and partly because this war was fought among the civilian population, so all sorts of lines became blurred.

From the start it seemed difficult to maintain moral clarity. This was a war fought in the streets, and it was hard even to know who the enemy was–the insurgents didn’t wear uniforms, and didn’t fight in units. There was rarely a pitched battle in which the two opposing forces confronted each other directly. Instead, there were insurgents with stockpiles of weapons who had holed up in civilian apartment buildings that were full of families, or there was a single insurgent who detonated an IED with a cell phone and then melted into the crowd. All this created moral chaos, which is the worst kind of hell for an idealist. Learning about these circumstances made it possible for me to follow Conrad’s story through that complicated landscape.

To write about war, you have to be able to access what it felt like both to fight and to come home a changed person. What research did you do?

I read and read and read. I read Marine manuals, and the Small War Journal, and the tactics for MOUT – (Military Operations in Urban Terrain). I learned how to deploy my men on a walking patrol, how to clear a room, and what the Marine regulations were on moustaches. I followed military blogs from soldiers in Iraq and watched clips on YouTube of soldiers who gave testimony protesting the war, and of Marines giving each other dance lessons on a combat outpost. I was lucky enough to find two generous Marines who were writers. They gave me MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), took me to Quantico, and read my manuscript, vetting it for errors. And I talked to every vet I could find, by phone and in person, and their family and friends. I was hungry for the stories and transfixed by this rogue wave that has hit all of us: the war and its consequences.

To use your words, Conrad had “gone away to Iraq thinking that this country, everything he knew about it, would all be waiting for him…. Now it felt as though he’d been left behind.” In truth, his country hadn’t changed–he had.

I was struck by how difficult it was for some of the vets to express how they’d felt upon returning. I could hear pain in their voices, I could see it in their faces, but it seemed impossible for them to articulate. One vet talked about being at a cousin’s wedding reception, and as he talked, I could see how bad it had been. Just listening made his wife start to cry. But no-one could explain it: it seemed to be a matter of two lives lived so far apart they are hardly in the same order of experience. One life is led on the brink–a place where death, pain, desperation, and moral exigency are imminent, and the other is led in a sheltered refuge – a place where great questions are rarely asked, and generally avoided. The gap between the two can be so deep that it seems impossible to bridge. One reason it’s so troubling for the vets is that the civilians don’t even see it.

That plays into the scenes when Conrad is in New York, fuming about everyone’s “Like I care” approach to life: “Why go through this every day if that’s how you felt–sarcastic, disengaged, distant, ironic? How about watching someone you’re responsible for die…. What about ‘Like I care’ then?”

It’s something I’m very aware of–the great divide between irony and compassion. I’m particularly aware of it as a fiction writer, because I think the truly great writing – Sophocles, Shakespeare, Tolstoy – is driven by compassion, not irony. Irony is a powerful presence in contemporary culture as a means of distancing, a way to mock and devalue experience. It has its value, but it’s troubling for someone like Conrad, who has experienced things on a very profound level, and who needs to know that other people share a capacity for that.

Reading about Conrad’s attempts to get help from the VA office was infuriating.

The scenes at the VA were drawn from real experiences recounted by vets. I was appalled to realize that people who’d done what they’d been asked to do, who’d been loyal and brave and conscientious, were treated so shabbily when they returned home. It’s the same kind of disparity that allows us to spend billions of dollars on Stealth bombers, while sending troops to Iraq in unarmored vehicles, wearing outdated body armor and carrying ineffective hydration systems. The military seemed reluctant to make certain diagnoses, like TBIs (Traumatic Brain Injuries) and PTSD. There’s a very pragmatic reason behind this reluctance: these conditions are expensive to treat. But if we’re going to be pragmatic, then let’s figure the cost of treatment and rehabilitation into the costs of war – not only developing new bombers, but also helping vets reclaim their lives. Both are essential to the safety of our country.

This is a political novel. Is there anything else you want to say about your reasons for writing Sparta?

I never supported the war. I never thought we should’ve gone into Iraq. Learning that not only were we there under false pretenses, but that we weren’t treating our own troops responsibly was very troubling. It made me feel the need to set down the story of a soldier, and to explore his experience.

Originally published in Publishers Weekly on May 27, 2013

Sparta - Roxana Robinson***For those interested, here are two bonus questions that didn’t make it into the final Publishers Weekly article due to lack of space. Roxana was such a pleasure to interview, and a favorite author of mine, so I couldn’t help but overload (perhaps) on the questions. 

On an unrelated note, I’ve read many of your travel articles and have quite enjoyed them. What do you like about the combination of traveling and writing? Is there a place you’ve left a piece of your heart, and, if yes, why? 

I like writing travel pieces because it makes me focus on the experience. It means I take notes, and pay attention. You know that writers are never on vacation; we have no Off button.  So when I take a trip I like the idea that I’m giving the experience some sort of shape, and creating some sense out of it. It makes me formulate an opinion, focus on what’s most important, and  reach an understanding of it. That’s really the whole point of writing, I think – making sense of experience.

As to the other question, one of my very all-time favorite trips was a horseback camping trip on the Mongolian steppes. It was the most exciting and exhilarating – and in an odd way comforting and reassuring – trip I’ve ever taken. I’m a horse-lover, and in Mongolia horses have a central place in the culture. Riding those horses on the steppes is like nothing else. To be in that vast primal landscape, where tribal communities have lived and roamed for centuries, to ride over the crest of a green hill and see a wide river valley filled with quiet grazing herds, is like nothing else I’ve ever done. Do I want to go back? Sigh.

You have written five novels, three collections of short stories, a biography of Georgia O’Keefe, and countless book reviews, essays, blog posts, and a particularly lovely nature journal that I quite enjoy. Do you have a method for choosing what to work on when? Any hints about what might be coming next?

As you’ve noticed, I write on a lot of different subjects. I’m fascinated by the natural world, and I write about it often, in short pieces. But for longer work, I’ll write about whatever is in front of my nose and interests me – a book I’m teaching, or an idea that I find compelling. I’ve been writing recently on different subjects for the Culture Blog at The New Yorker. When I turn to fiction, if I’m struck by a moment that I find powerful and compelling, I’ll write a short story. If  it’s not a moment that strikes me, but something larger – a question I can’t answer, or a struggle I can’t resolve, then work becomes a novel.

As to what’s coming next, I can’t ever talk about what I’m writing while I’m writing. It’s like opening the oven door while the cake is baking: the cake will collapse! So I’m sorry to say that my lips are sealed.

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