David Robbins doesn't seem larger than life just because he's 6-foot-6, has a booming voice and enjoys an intimate relationship with the New York Times bestseller list. A founder of the Richmond based nonprofit James River Writers and co-founder of the Podium Foundation, the Sandston native divides his time between his six guitars, his sailboat on the Chesapeake Bay, exotic research locales around the globe and his secluded second-story writing sanctuary in the South Side.
His ninth novel, “Broken Jewel,” just published by Simon & Schuster, follows the lives of prisoners and comfort women during the World War II Los BaAños prison raid. Style Weekly recently talked with Robbins about sex slaves, fact vs. fiction and his closer-than-this relationship with film director Quentin Tarantino.
Style: What was your great challenge in writing “Broken Jewel”?
Robbins: I knew going in [to “Broken Jewel”] my central challenge would be, one, how do I establish a love story between a boy and a girl who've never touched each other, never been within 50 yards of each other. What pretext can I use that's authentic and revealing? So I picked this notion of how they struggled. There's that line in the book that they save themselves by choosing to save another. What the big creative challenge was, I said OK, I'm going to be handling a woman whose life is, to a large extent, just one string of abuses after another, sexual abuses, and how do you handle that tastefully without blinking? Because when I teach I'm real specific. I say you got to the moment, the crossroads of this highway and you blinked? You have to show the sex. So how do you do it so it's not gratuitous, it's not cheap, that respects the brutality, respects the damage it does to the person, yet preserves the dignity of suffering? Because again, if the book has a leitmotif, that's it for this book. Toshiwara enunciates it when he says: “You want to be a samurai. When you've suffered enough you'll know honor.” How can great suffering turn into great dignity? And that's what I was exploring.
What drew you into this more contained, particular situation?
The thriller isn't a genre I read, but there are attributes to thrillers that really make for great, tense fiction. After so many large-scale books, very large canvases, what I began to be interested in was this notion of not the thriller, but books that were perhaps more claustrophobic, narrowing the focus. Like a venturi tube, you reduce the aperture and increase the pressure. I'm still using the same pressure; it's still in the context of war, but I've become interested in staying in large scales but ratcheting the focus down even more. Instead of telling the story of tanks and large units and death and destruction, I'm trying to tell the smaller stories of the starvation of a father and a son and the sexual abuse of a young girl, still resting on a large pedestal.
Tell me about this being a woman's book?
I like writing about women. I like exploring. Because to me being a guy, having written about a lot of men shooting each other, it's cool to write about women also being shot at and I'm not going to miss either. I think that women will enjoy a good, thumping adventure book. They don't have to read about dysfunctional families. I want to show women as what they are: a whole lot stronger than men.
I'm interested in that balance of fact and fiction. How did you strike that balance?
Well, there's actually a formula. And it's a secret formula, don't tell anybody, but I'll tell you. It's actually simpler than you think. What you do is you research until you wear your eyes out like cheap batteries, until you can't learn any more about your subject, where you start reading the same thing for the third time. … You have to put on that lens. You have to research, talk, read, study and take notes until you understand the world through the eyes of your character. … Once you've got that down, then you lapse into fiction. You create characters that can be authentic because you understand them.
So tell us about your relationship with Quentin Tarantino.
I went to see the premiere of “Sweeney Todd” in New York with Clay Chapman, and Tarantino was working the buffet. He was eccentric, but not off the hook. We're kibitzing during the whole movie. People are shushing us and I'm like, “Go to hell, I'm talking to Quentin Tarantino.” Then we jump in a car and go to dinner in Tribeca. He's obviously a raconteur. We're going off about movies and things. He says, “David, you carry yourself like you have some actor training.” … The next thing you know, we're both singing “Trouble” from “The Music Man.” The whole restaurant is singing the chorus back to us. So now we're blood brothers, bonded in combat. This summer I get a phone call that Quentin wants me to write the intro to the script for “Inglourious Basterds.” I did a stop, drop and roll and tossed off a two-page intro. Quentin wanted me to go to the premiere in New York. He said, “You know, I owe you for this movie.” The urban legend was that he'd had the script for 10 years and couldn't finish it until he read “The Assassin's Gallery” and saw the way I handled the assassination of Roosevelt. … I like Quentin and I would work with him again.
Will you give us a hint about your next project?
So far it has a title “The Angel Mission.” I am bothered, I think like any thinking American, about the ethical quandaries of being involved in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. I'm not saying we should or shouldn't be there; I'm saying it's on my radar. … It will be my first modern setting in a while. I'm on my way to spend a week at an Air Force base on Long Island. I've gotten permission from the secretary of the Air Force to work on the base and I'm going to do a novel about a … I'm protective of my plot but it's going to be about the rescue of an American pilot behind Taliban lines, but she's a woman.