David L. Robbins
Author of Scorched Earth
by Bella Stander
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 copy writer, 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 evermore 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.
© 2003 Bella Stander
Photo © Wayne Westbrook. Courtesy of Bantam Books