Roxana Robinson is the author of the five novels Sparta (2013), Cost (2008), Sweetwater (2003), This Is My Daughter (1998), and Summer Light (1988); the three short-story collections A Perfect Stranger and Other Stories (2005), Asking for Love (1996), and A Glimpse of Scarlet and Other Stories (1991); and the biography Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life (1989). Four of these were named Notable Books of the Year by The New York Times. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, The MacDowell Colony, and the Guggenheim Foundation.
When I worked as a literary agent, I was fortunate enough to handle Roxana’s first serial rights, and got to know her as not only an extraordinary writer but also a kind, thoughtful, and generous person. I was bowled over by Roxana’s riveting new novel, SPARTA. Here’s the description of SPARTA from the publisher:
Going from peace to war can make a young man into a warrior. Going from war to peace can destroy him.
Conrad Farrell has no family military heritage, but as a classics major at Williams College, he has encountered the powerful appeal of the Marine Corps ethic. “Semper Fidelis” comes straight from the ancient world, from Sparta, where every citizen doubled as a full-time soldier. When Conrad graduates, he joins the Marines to continue a long tradition of honor, courage, and commitment.
As Roxana Robinson’s new novel, Sparta, begins, Conrad has just returned home to Katonah, New York, after four years in Iraq, and he’s beginning to learn that something has changed in his landscape. Something has gone wrong, though things should be fine: he hasn’t been shot or wounded; he’s never had psychological troubles. But as he attempts to reconnect with his family and his girlfriend and to find his footing in the civilian world, he learns how hard it is to return to the people and places he used to love. His life becomes increasingly difficult to negotiate: he can’t imagine his future, can’t recover his past, and can’t bring himself to occupy his present. As weeks turn into months, Conrad feels himself trapped in a life that’s constrictive and incomprehensible, and he fears that his growing rage will have irreparable consequences.
I recently talked to Roxana about the composition of and veterans’ reactions to SPARTA, the novel’s universal parenting lessons, her writing process, her favorite authors, and her growing interest in nature writing.
1) How and why did you decide to write a novel about an Iraq war veteran suffering from PTSD?
It started six or seven years ago, when I read a front-page article in the New York Times about the troops in Iraq. The article described what’s now common knowledge, but at the time it was new, and it stunned me: our troops were sent out in unarmored vehicles over roads studded with IEDs. They were being blown up and they were suffering from TBIs (Traumatic Brain Injuries), but the military was reluctant to diagnose this because it was expensive to treat and it would mean removing combatants from the field.
I had never supported the war, and I hadn’t ever voted for Bush. But I had imagined that, as the greatest military power in the world, that if we went to war we would do it properly, and we would send our troops with the proper equipment and offer medical treatment when it was needed. I could hardly believe what was going on. I began reading about it – not policy material, but reports about what it was like to be a soldier there on the ground. I wanted to know what it was like for them. It changed my views of soldiers, and introduced the idea of them as people who needed our protection. I read more and more about it until I realized that it had sort of taken over my writing mind, and that I was going to write about it.
2) What are some of your favorite books and films about war and/or its lingering effects on soldiers and their families? How did they influence the genesis and writing of SPARTA?
There are a lot of good books on war and combat. Some of those that I found most useful and most powerful are: The Iliad, by Homer. All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque. The Iliad, or the Poem of Force, by Simone Weill. On Killing, by Dave Grossman. The Forever War, by Dexter Filkins. One Bullet Away, by Nathaniel Fick. War by Sebastian Junger.
I didn’t read much about coming home, but I wanted to know what it was like being there. Coming home was my own territory – it was being in country that I needed to know about. I watched some war movies, for the adrenaline and excitement, but I wanted words more than images.
3) Conrad’s constant vigilance, his feeling that “at any minute something might detonate,” his getting overwhelmed by sensory stimuli, reminded me so much of my autistic son, Benj. And just after reading SPARTA, I read Temple Grandin’s latest book and was struck by this remark: “Since I started taking antidepressants, in the early 1980s, the anxiety has been under control, probably because the pounding sympathetic nervous system reaction is blocked. But the vigilance is still present, percolating under the surface. My fear system is always on the alert for danger.” What are some of the most promising treatments for this heightened sense of danger, this restlessness and inability to tolerate noise, quick movements, etc?
I’ve heard about a lot of different treatments for hyper-vigilance, and for the whole mosaic of symptoms that PTSD can produce. They include writing workshops, yoga, organic farming, talk therapy, and of course a variety of medications. My own favorite treatment is the service dog. One vet told me his story, which included something that had happened, on a particular day in Iraq, which he said he would never describe to anyone. When he came home he had panic attacks, migraines, insomnia and an inability to concentrate. He couldn’t hold a job, and took 12 different medications. Then he was given a service dog, Paddy. He told me that whenever he has a panic attack, Paddy knows it, and “he takes me to a safe place.” I asked where that safe place was. “Usually it’s the truck,” he said. At night, he had been unable to sleep, even with pills, because of his fear of the nightmares that awaited him. Now, he said, “I don’t mind admitting that Paddy sleeps in bed with me. If I start having a nightmare, Paddy knows it, and he licks my face and wakes me up and I’m safe. Now I’m not afraid of going to sleep.” He is down to three medications, and has a job. So I’d like it if all vets with PTSD were given service dogs, but unfortunately they’re expensive, and there aren’t many of them.
4) I can testify from personal experience to the recent uptick in liberal arts majors joining the military (I’ve had several especially promising students from both Yale and Vassar choose this path in recent years). Why do you think this surge in interest in military service among humanities majors is happening now? What kinds of conflicts and issues does it raise for the young men/women and their families of origin, their peers, and their universities/colleges?
I was really interested by this shift. I think it’s the result of a lot of things, but a major factor in it is idealism. I talked recently to a military wife who told me she was shocked that I hadn’t realized that idealism was the reason most people joined the military after 9/11. It was a wish to serve a larger cause, a wish to make the world a better place, a wish to rise to a kind of challenge that young people weren’t finding in the civilian world. It makes for a wide gap in understanding for the older generation, who may have stigmatized the military, or seen it during the Vietnam era as a misguided method for solving problems, one that caused great damage and offered little benefit. For that generation, it’s hard to embrace the idea of the military – or of sending off your beloved son or daughter – into the military life. The issue is also interesting for colleges: I know of one military writer who gave a talk at a liberal arts college. He was challenged by a member of the faculty, who felt the military should not have a place on the campus. His response was that the military should become liberalized by recruiting more people with liberal educations. It’s an interesting debate.
5) What has the reaction to your book been like from both veterans and their parents/loved ones? What do you hope it can do in a public policy sense?
So far, the veterans who have read the book have been extremely positive and generous about it, and I have been honored by their responses. I didn’t write it in order to change policy, only to bear witness to a situation. If it changes something for the better, I’d be pleased. What troubles me is the idea of sending troops into combat in a situation like this – an undeclared war, fought for murky reasons, with troops who are unprepared and ill-equipped, guided by an ill-defined strategy. But it seems to me that most wars are fought for reasons that are ill-considered. Who thinks invading Moscow was a good idea? Or taking over all of Europe? Stopping the invasions seems to have been unavoidable, but the invasions themselves? They seem foolish and doomed, and the consequences, misery.
6) A Williams College classics major from a liberal democratic family deciding to serve in the Marines isn’t exactly a common experience, but to me it was a particular instance of a universal story: the disjunction between what parents expect and the reality of their complex, challenging child. How do you think parents canbest cope with and negotiate this disjunction and accommodate themselves to the child in front of them rather than the child they’d dreamed of, hoped for, or thought they had?
That’s such an interesting question, and, as you say, it’s one that all parents find themselves faced with at some point. The situations can be large and life-shifting, or small and quotidien, but I think they all do similar things to us as parents: they stop us in our tracks. They confuse us and challenge us. And with luck they will make us unclench our hands and give up our fixed ideas. They will make us stretch open our hearts; they will make us listen and understand, instead of talking and enforcing. As parents, we need to be in charge, we need to make rules, we need clear, strong ideas about raising children – this is normal. Children can’t survive without parents who take charge. But we also need to be able to give up our strategies when they’re not useful. The difficult part lies in recognising that moment, learning the moment in which to yield, to accept. Being reminded that, even though you’re the parent, and even though it’s your task to cherish and sustain this life, still, it’s not your life. It belongs to someone else.
7) Tell us about your writing routine and habits. For example: do you write every day? At what time of day do you like to write? Do you have a preferred space for writing?
I try to write every day. I write first thing in the morning, for as long as I can. When I’m writing fiction, I can usually only write for a few hours, or at least until I’m far into a novel. In the later stages I can write for much longer periods of time. If I’m writing non-fiction I can write all day. But fiction is sort of tricky, there comes a time when that energy has gone for the day. I write in different places, but I need a door that will shut, and the knowledge that no-one will open it.
8) You teach writing and literature at Hunter College. Can you share a teaching anecdote that you think is especially illustrative or helpful for young writers?
When I teach writing, I often teach a series of exercises that allow the writers to explore the characters they have created: the character doing different things, in different situations that allow the writers to understand the character better. The point is to find a deep kind of empathy and understanding for the character. As the semester goes on, we all come to know each others’ characters better and better. One of my favorite moments took place during a class at Wesleyan, when one of the students incorporated someone else’s character into a scene with her own. It was so wonderful and unexpected! Everyone laughed with delight when we realised what was happening. But what I particularly loved was the fact that what I’d hoped for was happening – the characters had taken on their own lives. They had become real. We all believed in them.
9) Who is your favorite literary character and why?
I am always drawn to Anna Karenina. Not because she was so wise or made great choices, but because she did things that are so understandable. I love the way Tolstoy feels sympathy for her – through showing us, with the comment about Karenin’s awful ears – what torture it would be to have to live with someone who was physically repellent to you. Showing us the ineradicable grief that would result from the loss of a child. Showing us the brilliance and fireworks that result from a passionate affair, how the world explodes around you, and how you are unable to stop all that light and starblaze, and unable to stop the darkness and the drifting ash afterward. He creates an entire world for her, fascinating, compelling and to me utterly compelling.
10) Who are some of your favorite authors and what are some of your favorite books?
Obviously, Leo Tolstoy and Anna Karenina. Also John Updike and the Rabbit books and The Maples Stories; Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse; Shirley Hazzard, Transit of Venus; J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace; Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth; all of Chekhov’s stories. Giuseppe Lampedusa, The Leopard. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
11) You are a gorgeous and astute observer of nature and animals. Can you share a little story of a recent encounter or experience in the natural world?
I am always watching the natural world. I arrived in Maine a few days ago, to our house that sits on the edge of the woods. Ferns grow thickly right up to the porch, and tall pines and fir trees tower over the roof. The house is unpainted shingle, and on the porch column by the back door there are faint scratches that lead up to the roof. The marks are like pictographs, mysteriously regular, like strange small writing in a language we don’t read – until you tilt your head sideways. Then you understand that the faint pale marks are set in rows of five: they’re raccoon claws, the five delicated clawed fingers set against the shingles all the way up to the roof, like Spiderman, no ledges, nothing to hold onto, but up go the marks, showing that silent determined climb up towards an imagined attic. (There is no attic there, but the raccoon on his nighttime ascent didn’t know that.) The raccoons visit the house every night, hoping that I have forgotten to bring in the birdfeeder. On the mornings after the nights when I have forgotten, I find the feeder hanging rakishly against the house, the top swung off, the cylinder empty, the window covered lavishly with muddy toe-prints.
On my first night here, my husband and I were sitting in the living room, beside tall french doors opening onto the porch. “Someone’s out there,” my husband said, “I just saw him go by.” I went to the dark kitchen and watched him approach: a young raccoon, walking swiftly toward the bench beneath the feeder. He was brisk and confident, lithe and long-legged, with a bushy striped tail that just brushed the deck. With his elegant face, his long pointed nose, luxuriant whiskers and black velvet mask, he looked like an aristocratic burglar. He walked past the door and vanished into the darkness. I hadn’t even put the feeder up yet, but the sight of him reminded me to begin our summer-long conversation.
12) What’s your favorite poem?
Right now: The Summer Day, by Mary Oliver.
Find out more about Roxana Robinson and her books here: