In May, Roxana Robinson met with Mariette Kalinowski to discuss her new novel Sparta (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013). Robinson is the author of several novels and short story collections, as well as a biography of Georgia O’Keefe. Sparta stands out from Robinson’s other writing, because it examines the return of Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran Conrad Farrell, and comes at a time when American operations overseas are reaching their end. Sparta’s relevance to our times, and the raw truth of Conrad’s struggle, makes the novel a difficult, but extremely satisfying read.
Mariette Kalinowski (Rail): Why write about a Marine?
Roxana Robinson: You know, you’re the first person to ask. I guess most people don’t consider the difference between Marines and the rest of the services. The first really impressive first person narrative I read about Iraq was Nathaniel Ficks’ One Bullet Away (2006). The book gave me a broader access into the military mind, because he was a classics major in college, and he saw this unbroken history between present day Marines and Sparta. It gave me an intellectual approach to the book. I also realized that Marines set themselves apart and declare themselves the apex of the military, the pinnacle. They’re proud of the fact that they demand so much more from their members. There’s an element of pride and achievement. It’s the Corps.
Rail: Did you find it difficult to form the ideas, or “find the words” for this unique, almost inexplicable experience of war and of the transition home?
Robinson: No, which is really interesting. As a writer, states of minds are what we’re about, so once I had a strong feeling of understanding what war and transition is like, after speaking with vets, there was really no problem writing about it. I did my research about the physiological effects of combat: the details of an adrenaline rush, or a combat high, or a panic attack. I understood what the blood vessels in the brain were doing, and what the lungs were doing. After that, Conrad Farrell became just another mind that I could explore; he became accessible as a 26-year-old who had been to Iraq.
Rail: There’s also a lot of appropriated language of combat, the language of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which you apply to emotions. The analogies are apt, and a kind of redefinition of these terms: you can get “hit” by a bomb and an emotion alike, and seem like a natural frame for Conrad’s thinking, even after returning home.
Robinson: That language was just something I internalized from so much discussion with vets. I was so used to hearing it in conversation that it extended to my writing.
Rail: Conrad is a very intellectual Marine, which isn’t the standard stereotype of a dumb trigger-puller, and his reaction to his post-traumatic stress is active in a way. Was this a conscious construction?
Robinson: Not at all. Several veterans were very helpful in alerting me to certain aspects of Conrad’s character. But really, I live a life of the mind, which is how I felt comfortable getting into Conrad’s mind. I was asked at which point I felt certain of Conrad’s character, and it was the moment I realized I could say with certainty that this was a person who could be in the Marines. And there’s so much about Conrad that’s not like me that if didn’t I have an intellectual life, it would’ve been difficult for me as a writer. So the intellectual side of Conrad was a way for me to connect with him all the time. I knew how that kind of mind would be functioning and working. That was a great moment for me, of excitement. This was the place where we could intersect.
Rail: And this offers a balance to the belief that Marines, and soldiers in general, only have to be smart enough to follow orders. Here’s an intellectual, thoughtful Marine who comes home and has these visceral memories of Iraq—the flashbacks—his parents and his friends almost fall into the belief that he’s just a dumb grunt. They say “I don’t understand you, what happened to you?” There’s a suggestion of an intellectual regression—that trauma has dumbed Conrad down. There’s a layering of Conrad’s new, returned life with his old, combat one. There are page breaks to indicate a shift in time and perspective but, at the same time, the reader almost doesn’t see these shifts coming. Were you trying to mimic the mindset of a returned vet?
Robinson: Again, this is unconscious. I was so aware of this pressure inside Conrad’s consciousness, of this burden constantly bearing down on him. He would move, try to function. But the pressure of the day would build until he couldn’t function anymore. I was only present in his consciousness and observing the constant shift between the present and the past. He couldn’t control it.
Rail: You have a lot of male characters in your writing. Did you find Conrad any different as a combat vet? Were you learning anything new about the male psyche?
Robinson: Absolutely, it was extremely challenging, but most of the time I kept thinking “Do I have the right to this story? Do I have the right to enter into this character?” And this took on two aspects: “Can I do it?” and “Do I have the right to do it? And that second question is something a writer should never ask, because it’s a crippling question. So Conrad was the most challenging attempt at a male character, not just because he’s a man, but because of the combat trauma. He’s so extremely different from any civilian character I’ve written in the past. And I had to learn a lot of new things: vocabulary, mechanics, emotional stuff. But once I understood the emotional landscape, I became comfortable with the idea and I knew that I had a lot of material to draw from.
Rail: But at the root of it, is Conrad’s pain any different from Edward’s (the patriarch in Cost) as a former surgeon who has lost his ability to perform and lead?
b>Robinson: In some ways they’re quite similar.
Rail: To me, it seems it comes down to a man no longer having the authority he’s used to.
Robinson: I think the difference is the sense of “woundedness” the vet has. Edward has done what he’s set out to do: he’s had the career, he’s had the success, and he’s old. The system he retired out of is not the same one that he succeeded in. But for Conrad, he’s struggling against the same system that he gave everything to and that is now somehow refusing to acknowledge his generosity. So there’s something more hateful about his situation.
Rail: But there’s also the feeling that Conrad almost intentionally complicates his relationship with this system (society, the VA) that he’s trying to return to. He’s got that lofty “I’ve been to Iraq, you fuckers have no idea how lucky you are” mentality. So he’s almost a self-saboteur of his progress. There’s this dichotomy of his desire to return, to reenter society, jump right back into romantic relationships as if nothing happened, but there’s also the fact that he acts like a dick to people who love him. This raises the question of the relationship between veterans and civilians: many veterans I know play the victim card with their injuries, and I find that very difficult to watch because in a way they don’t accept responsibility for their words and actions that may complicate their transition. And victims of all traumas behave like this, “You don’t get me, there’s no point in me talking to you, so I’m going to keep acting this way.” There are moments when Conrad’s actions strike me as a sense of victimhood.
Robinson: But I’m struck with this paradoxical situation where vets complain that no one asks about their service, while at the same time they don’t want to talk about it. And civilians don’t really know what to say about it, they’re frightened by the subject. Both sides of the issues don’t know how to approach the subject. They silence each other.
Rail: Which might be connected to this idea of a “good war,” or a sanctioned war. Many vets complain, upon returning home, of the fact that society behaves as if there’s not even a war going on—about the way, especially in a city like New York where everyone is so focused on what they need to do or what they’re buying, that there seems to be more than this disconnect between military and civilian, there’s the appearance that America is functioning as if we’re not at war. So the other side of the argument is that vets try so hard to slip back into society, that Conrad thinks he only gives himself away when he flinches at loud noises. Other than his family and close friends, no one really acknowledges the fact that he even went over.
Family is also a common theme in your writing, which is interesting since any family contains the potential of taking any banal, normal event and turning it into a phenomenal, dramatic thing—you know, spilled milk. In many scenes of Sparta there’s a crackle of electricity: “Is Conrad going to break? Or maybe someone else?” Did you find the Farrells differed from your other families in a distinct way?
Robinson: I don’t really compare the families I write, so I can’t really say that I know. But I wanted to make sure it wasn’t the same family as in Cost, because there were enough similarities. In Cost, Jack, the young man addicted to heroin isn’t really struggling, he’s doing what he wants to do. It’s the family that’s struggling with his choice. But in Sparta, Conrad is actively struggling, so the family is watching and trying to participate, but he won’t let them. The family just can’t get into his struggle, no matter how hard they try. Conrad doesn’t want to confront his family; he knows they love him, he knows they’re trying their best, but they’re also driving him crazy. He can’t tolerate the kind of scrutiny they’re offering him. Wait, what’s you’re question?
Rail: Basically, was your approach to this family any different?
Robinson: Well, obviously it’s going to be different. The Farrells are middle class, all of them are educated. And they come from a background where they weren’t expected to serve, the parents never expected one of their children to sign up.
Rail: Did you choose the middle class background as a complication of the veteran stereotype?
Robinson: There’s certain things I can write about that are way beyond my experience, and then there’s some things I shouldn’t write about. Not because there’s some moral boundary I shouldn’t cross, but because there’s such a high risk. If I write about sheep herders in Peru, I’m going to get into trouble. Because there’s so much about the culture I don’t know, the details of it. This kind of family, the Farrells, is one that I’m very familiar with, so I can inhabit the whole of it—everything: what the house is like, what the meals are like, what they’ll say, how they’ll deal with an emotion. All those things are common knowledge for me, that’s my language. I can use that for Conrad to live in, in a way that uses all my strengths. That’s the landscape I know. Conrad can be in this family and explore his crises, and I can understand how the family would behave against that background.
Rail: The parents, Marshall and Lydia, are also the closest you come to a generational commentary of Vietnam versus Iraq and Afghanistan. In previous comments, you mentioned that you didn’t want Sparta to be a conversation on policy, but you wanted to look at Conrad and his transition, the veterans, and the human side of the story. But it’s difficult for the reader to avoid the fact that Marshall protested the Vietnam war, and Lydia thought her children were safe from the military lifestyle, so there is kind of a judgment by the family.
Robinson: I didn’t mean to suggest that I was completely blind to policy, just that it wasn’t going to be a focus of my study. It’s another huge subject—policy and strategy and politics—but yes, the family was anti-war. Both the parents were opposed to the war in Iraq and neither of them dreamt their son would enter into that arena. My own personal view was opposed to the war in Iraq—I never voted for George W. Bush—which was the background to my forming Marshall and Lydia.
Rail: Regarding your normal process for writing: because this is such a unique and emotional story, did you find yourself getting wrapped up in the emotion? Did you find your process complicated by this particular story?
Robinson: It was certainly the hardest book I’ve ever written. And at one point I threw out 300 pages of the book.
Rail: That must’ve hurt.
Robinson: It actually didn’t hurt, because I absolutely hated [the manuscript]—it had gone dead.
Rail: Is Conrad the first iteration of the character?
Robinson: Yes, and the original opening passages remained. I had first tried to set more of the book in Iraq. I realized I would never have enough information to place the whole thing in Iraq, since I couldn’t go there [physically], because of the war. Having written this entire section, I realized I had lost something. I had lost that presence I was building—it had gone dead. So what kept me connected was [Conrad’s] emotional life here, and yes, I became very invested in this part of him. It became the driving force. Was he going to survive another day? How was he going to get through this? Everything he did seemed to involve another set of threats to him—to his emotional well being. Part of the problem was moving toward some kind of greater risks for the narrative. The story couldn’t be one continuous stream of “today it’s this threat, tomorrow it’s that,” it had to be moving in a larger direction to avoid becoming tedious.
Rail: But these constant threats offer him a context of motivation, of action, and of resolution amidst this constant question of whether he’ll reconcile with his family. Such as when he chooses to enroll in a class and take the GMAT. His first “civilian step” points the reader in the direction that he will come out the other side okay, despite the scenes where he reacts emotionally. Did you have a happy ending in mind when you wrote this?
Robinson: I didn’t know where the story was going, what would happen. But you know, there’s a lot of different ways to approach an ending, and I knew he was headed for some kind of crisis—that he felt things were less and less tolerable for him. I had talked with a lot of vets who had gone through a phase where they found life really intolerable but had come out the other side. One vet in particular, whose wife was pregnant when I spoke with him and now they have their child, is doing better and his story made me really confident. I became so invested in Conrad by the end that I couldn’t give him up. I just couldn’t. I also think that as a writer you have a kind of pact with the reader, and to ask so much of the reader emotionally and then push Conrad over the proverbial cliff is really unfair.
Rail: But suicide is a very real issue among veterans, with an average of 22 self-inflicted deaths a day (the equivalent of the Newtown tragedy every day).
Robinson: I know, about 8,000 a year, a number I mention at readings. Suicide was very present in my mind, and Conrad came very close. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know that Oliver was going to show up—I was very glad to see him—but I thought it wasn’t the novel I wanted to write to have Conrad simply unable to face things. I would’ve had to have another character carry more of his story. But I do think that a writer has an emotional obligation to the reader. I feel angry, I feel dissed, if I read a book where the main character, who you feel you’ve spent your whole life with commits suicide or is killed on the last page.
Rail: But what if death is the so-called proper ending of a book—of the character? I feel that there is a “natural” ending for a book, a “correct” way to conclude a narrative and a character which sometimes isn’t pretty.
Robinson: Well, the end of Sparta isn’t pretty, namely because Conrad does contemplate suicide, and there is a self-inflicted death in the book. But, like in Sweetwater, it’s not the main character, and life is allowed to go on. The struggle is what interests me, and Conrad’s struggle—his life force—is the interesting thing. I haven’t thought it through enough to formulate why, but I just couldn’t give him up. It’s not that I think every book should have a happy ending. Conrad was struggling so hard, and he was really trying.
Rail: Regarding this idea of “ugly” and “pretty:” there’s a moment in Sparta where Conrad describes the ancient Spartan tradition of the condoned killing of slaves as a way of preparing young men for war and the very intimate and visceral act of killing. Ancient warfare, of course, was very different from modern warfare, because the combatants almost had to embrace in order to kill, unlike now, where violence is committed at a (relative) distance, allowing (supposed) detachment between aggressor and victim. Modern warfare has more of a moral ambiguity. The book mentions this condoned killing by the Spartan war machine, but there’s no real episode of moral ambiguity committed in modern Iraq; the closest Conrad comes is observing the death of innocents. He’s not even present for the actual killings, only the aftermath. When you considered Conrad’s time overseas, were you thinking about the so-called “moral injury” of combat? The fact that there’s such a gray area between wrong and right that veterans aren’t even sure how they’re supposed to feel about what they’ve done or seen?
Robinson: I thought about that a lot, and read a lot about this idea. Nobody I talked with would admit being party to those gray areas. I talked to people who were in firefights and I’ve been reminded countless times to never ask a vet if they killed anybody. But sometimes a vet will say—
Rail: Sometimes it’s volunteered.
Robinson: If it’s okay, if me knowing is okay. Probably if they had deliberately shot a child they would not tell me, but one guy said, “I was in a firefight, I shot my rifle, I’m sure I hit the mark, but—” And he was in Fallujah, one of the few places where it wasn’t particularly ambiguous—a place where the insurgents came expecting a fight. And there are still a lot of reasons why people will say this still wasn’t good; but for the troops, it was one of the few times in Iraq where there were massed enemies on both sides. So this one guy came back with very little moral trauma from his experiences and is a happy, productive guy with a family, who seems very cheerful.
Rail: He might also be very good at compartmentalizing his emotions.
Robinson: Maybe. But it was instructive to me that in a “good” war there is very little moral trauma. But I had also read about the instances where a commanding officer gave the command that everyone on the street is a target, “Shoot anyone who moves,” and I thought, “Really? An old man?” And often in firefights the civilians didn’t leave—they walked across the street. They just didn’t think it was going to affect them.
I was also conscious of the shift in human morals. I was very conscious that there were people who did things they couldn’t tolerate—couldn’t live with when they got home. But because Conrad was a Lieutenant, he was in charge; he was in control of a lot of things. From what I could tell, the people affected the most were the enlisted men who were ordered to go out and shoot everyone in the street.
Rail: But there’s also the consideration that in infantry platoons, the Lieutenant is, during a firefight, the immediate authority. He might have to make a split second, morally ambiguous decision. I actually wonder if some other officers had it harder, because a decision led to the death of troops, or they had to call in an airstrike on a building with civilians in it.
Robinson: I did think of the officers’ dilemma, because you’re right, Conrad doesn’t make any decision at any point that is intolerable, he only sees things that are intolerable.
Rail: Which makes me wonder if it was the observing that affected Conrad the most. The witnessing of what other people were willing to do. And it makes him wonder, “If I got so pissed off at an I.E.D. strike, and there was a chance the triggerman was in this building, could I go from room to room killing without remorse?” There’s the question of could, would, should. The one scene that stuck with me occurred on the highway while Conrad is driving his mom to the family vacation home, and he believes he’s sighted a Vehicle Born I.E.D. (V.B.I.E.D.). He takes drastic measures to avoid this suspected attack, scaring his mother in the process. The details of that scene actually forced me to put the book down, because having served on convoys, it was very close to my own experiences—to the way I behave in vehicles now. So close that when I read this section I had a very visceral reaction. The highway scene really got to me.
Robinson: I’m so sorry.
Rail: No, you shouldn’t apologize. As a writer you shouldn’t apologize, because that’s one of the aims of writing. It’s a testament to your research and style, your eye and ear for the telling detail of that particular moment. The accuracy of the moment. The fact that I’m a veteran, I think, increased the tension and emotionality of the scene. That scene actually was quite awesome, in one of those sick, masochistic ways, because it was so accurate. I don’t speak for all vets who will read this book—I don’t pretend to. But this book accomplishes the truth of modern veterans returning home.