Earlier this month, I attended a Q&A with Roxana Robinson, author of Sparta, at Politics & Prose. I read her novel Cost a few years (reviewed here) ago and was very impressed with her writing, and I wanted to check out what she had to say about her new book.
Sparta is about a 26 year-old veteran of the Iraq war, returning from his second deployment. From Robinson’s introduction to the Q&A:
Sparta is a departure in a way from her previous novels. She started it five years ago after reading an article in The New York Times about soldiers in Iraq in unarmored Humvees driving over roads with bombs. She was also outraged about soldiers with PTSD not being removed from combat. She felt that we weren’t doing well by our troops. She wasn’t a fan of the war. She wanted to know what it would be like to be on the ground in Iraq, so she read everything she could about it.
Robinson found this topic more difficult than writing about some of her previous topics – Alzheimer’s, heroin – and the research took over her life. She read military blogs, which provided more than the journalists did, who simply reported facts. The first person narratives from soldiers showed them doing their job – fighting – rather than writing. She also watched YouTube videos of soldiers wearing mini cams on their helmets, so that she could experience what it was like to be in a firefight.
She talked to vets, which was most influential. She found it hard because the vets didn’t want to talk to a novelist or a woman. But she started a network and talked to vets at houses, cafes, and on the phone. These stories let her into the life of Conrad Ferrell, her main character.
Q: Do you deal exclusively with PTSD? How do you weave it in and out?
A: PTSD is very much a presence in the book. It presents in a variety of ways, and is stronger in some places than others. PTSD is an ambiguous condition. It is part of a lot of returning vets’ experiences. This is the story of someone coming home who is revisited by experiences with explosives. There are psychological as well as physiological injuries.
Q: How did you end up writing Cost?
A: By accident. I didn’t mean to write about heroin addiction. I was curious about why it is so hard to be a good adult child. Once could be an adult but turn into a 6 or 13 or 21-year old in the presence of one’s parents. When does that go away? I was writing a novel about parents and children of different ages, but realized as I was writing that the younger brother was a heroin addict. From there, the book exploded.
Q: Did you hear from or talk to the VA since you finished Sparta?
A: I didn’t. I went to the VA in NY but wasn’t allowed in. I hung around and saw people going in and out. I saw notices and talked to someone who worked there, and got testimony from vets who have been there. I don’t expect to hear from them.
Q: Has the government admitted anything?
A: The book is not an accusation. It is based on serious, published facts and the public record.
Q: How was it turning non-fiction into fiction?
A: With the novels I have found myself doing, there has been a lot of research. Characters in those worlds are not in my world. I have to live someone else’s life. This was the hardest book I’ve written.
Q: Did anything surprise you in your research?
A: I started at such a low level of knowledge that everything was a surprise. I only felt outrage. I learned that war is about emotion, not strategy, weapons or weather.
Sparta sounds like a very powerful read – I hope to get to it soon.