A conversation with SPARTA author Roxana Robinson about women writers on war


I did encounter opposition, and not just because I was a female but because I was a civilian….But when I was accepted, especially by vets, I was amazed by their generosity and trust.”     

robinson_roxana with book cover

Photo by David Ignaszewski

What inspired you to write about the Iraq War, specifically the challenges facing a returning Marine?

I hadn’t planned to write this novel, especially about a subject that I knew little about, to start with, but I was struck by an article in the New York Times, maybe seven years ago, about what it was like for our troops on the ground over there. It described the unarmored Humvees, the IEDs, the TBIs, and the military reluctance to diagnose these traumas. I was shocked by all this. I began reading more and more about the conditions over there, and finally I reached the moment in which I realized that I was going to write a book about it.

Conrad Farrell’s base camp is called Sparta. What message(s) were you hoping to convey by titling the book Sparta?

I was fascinated to learn about the long historical and intellectual connection between Marine culture and the ancient world. Marines feel a strong connection with the military state of Sparta, because of its commitment to the warrior ideal. Contemporary Marine culture is full of references to Sparta; they use the word as an adjective and a noun, they use the name for all sorts of  things. In actual fact, the real outpost camp in Haditha, at the time of the event in 2005 that I describe in Sparta, was named Sparta. So I was really interested in underscoring the relationship that exists between an ancient, proud and ultimately doomed warrior culture and the military warrior culture of today.

The scenes in Iraq are so vividly portrayed that one would think you had been embedded with a squad of Marines. I know you did a great deal of research, including speaking to veterans. What is the key to obtaining the facts, details of location, the sensory details of a firefight, etc. and then making them your own so you can weave them seamlessly into your narrative?

The research was fascinating to me. I used every source I could think of. Of course I talked to vets, and listened to their stories, and read their accounts. I also read military blogs – I was doing a lot of research while the war was still going on. I watched YouTube videos: a lot of soldiers wrote home and asked for babycams, and they’d put them on their helmets before they went out on patrol, and they’d turn them on when they had a firefight. So I was able to find myself in the middle of a firefight in the streets of an Iraqi town, where I could play it over and over, paying attention to everything. I used Google Earth, and I made diagrams of the streets and buildings, so I could understand exactly where everything was, where the light fell, where the cars pulled over, what lane the Humvees were in. I needed to know everything visual as well as everything psychological. You can only describe a scene well if you feel you can close your eyes and see it.

Did you encounter any resistance to the idea of a female novelist writing a book about war and its consequences? If so, from what quarters, and what did you do to counter the resistance or opposition?

I did encounter opposition, and not just because I was a female but because I was a civilian. I offered  to teach workshops for vets in many quarters, and I was turned down everywhere. One person told me frankly that the vets wanted a guy, and someone who wrote thrillers, not literary fiction. And I received a number of other rebuffs that I think were due to my female civilian status. I had expected this – as one vet friend said, the military is very tribal. I persevered, though I have to say I was a bit unnerved, as it’s never pleasant to be rebuffed. But when I was accepted, especially by vets, I was amazed by their generosity and trust. They met me at cafes, they invited me to their houses, they introduced me to their families, they told me their stories, they offered me MREs. One of them even took me to Quantico, which for me was like being invited to the Vatican. So I felt that I had to earn their trust, and it was worth it when I did.

Do you see a trend developing in the last year or two of women writing about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars? If so, why is it happening now, after a decade of war? Do you expect the number of female-authored war novels to increase in the next decade?

I’m really interested at the number of women writing about the war. I think fiction takes longer to emerge than other genres, so I’m not surprised at the timing, which is the same for men and women fiction writers. (The first kind of war writing that appears is journalism, the next, memoir, and the last, fiction. I think it’s because fiction is produced differently from the other genres, it comes from a different place, and it derives from a different process.) But I think the surge of women’s novels about this war suggests that women are now feeling that they can write any stories, they aren’t limited by gender or occupation or experience, and this is a great thing. I think women writers used to feel that war stories were for the men to write. That’s no longer true, and I like this.

I was impressed by the realism of the dialogue, whether it was between Conrad and his fellow Marines, his family, or his girlfriend Claire. As with question #3, it seems as if you were a fly on many walls. How did you manage to get the tone and content of all those conversations so spot-on?

I have always loved writing dialogue. It’s full of revelation and action. I can’t start out with it, though. I get to know my characters very well before I start writing. Then, when I do, I can get into the scenes between them. By then everyone is so clear in my mind, and so well-defined that it is like listening to a conversation, rather than trying to make it up.

As Conrad struggles to readjust to life at home, he insists on solving his problems himself, rather than availing himself of help. Is he simply stubborn, is he just following the Marines’ idea of what constitutes a man (or at least a Marine), or is something else behind his refusal to talk or get help sooner?

A number of readers have commented on this, so it’s something I thought was clear but it seems I should have made it more explicit. Most vets, and Marines, even more so, resist the idea of getting help. All their military training urges them to be self-reliant, to deal with their problems on their own. It is humiliating, in military culture, to admit to psychological problems. So there is a very powerful resistance even to admitting a personal problem. Once one has been acknowledged, there is powerful resistance to discussing it outside the military world. The belief is that civilians can’t understand veterans’ problems, so talking to them would be difficult and unproductive. And in some ways vets are right about this: war is a world which most civilian therapists don’t know or understand. What is common behavior in a war zone would be classified as sociopathic in the civilian world. No vet wants to be shamed or misunderstood, nor do they want to struggle to explain the enormous gap between the two worlds. So, often, vets will refuse to see a civilian therapist. As a Marine officer, Conrad is determined to deal with his problems on his own. This is what he’s been trained to do.

Sparta includes a scathing portrayal of the Veterans Administration as an abyss of inefficiency,  incompetence, and indifference. There seems to be so much needless suffering. What is your analysis of the issues involved in providing better medical care to returning veterans, especially mental health care?

Listening to vets made me very aware of the flaws in the V.A. It’s a huge, clumsy bureaucracy.  But I also know that it contains people within it who are dedicated to helping vets, and who work very hard to do so. What I’d like to challenge is our policy of dedicating such huge sums to the waging of war, and such relatively small ones to taking care of the veterans who incur the risks and the damage of those wars. As a country, when we do that we are wasting the core of our community, just as the original Sparta did.

Which authors and/or books have been most influential in your life generally and your writing specifically?

My great hero is John Updike, and if I can write, it’s because his writing taught me. There are many others writers whose work has offered revelations to me: Woolf, Tolstoy, Coetzee, Wharton, Austen, Bronte, Chekhov, Alice Munro, William Trevor, J.S. Pritchett. Elizabeth Bowen, Henry Green, Shirley Hazzard, Paul Scott. I grew up reading English writers, and I’ve been deeply influenced by the long Anglo-American, or Anglo-colonial, literary tradition.

Which current authors and/or books have most impressed you? Can you share the names of some authors you feel have been overlooked or whom you believe are underrated?

Recently I encountered two authors I hadn’t known before, whose work I admire enormously.

One is Alistair McLeod, whose beautiful book of short stories, Island, celebrates the lives and the world of the Scottish emigrants to Cape Breton Island. His language is spare and lovely, and the stories are deeply compassionate. Another writer, new to me, is Elena Ferrante. I’ve just read her briliant novels, part of a triglogy, about two women growing up in Naples after the war. The third book in the trilogy hasn’t yet been translated, and I’m looking forward to it. Ferrante is shocking for all sorts of reasons: her fearlessness, her imagery, her ruthlessness, her honesty and her emotional vitality. Her rendering of this Neapolitan community is electrifying and full of pyrotechnics, like the street parties she describes.

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