Where did you get the idea for War of the
Rats? Were you trolling for stories or did you
just stumble onto it?
My Dad was at the battle of Pearl Harbor. Just prior
to the attack, my mother, a WAC, left Honolulu for
Kentucky. In 1985, my father passed away. One day,
years ago, I was missing my Dad, and I wanted to
read about Pearl Harbor. I read about the Japanese
attack and where my father was during the battle.
I began to get carried away with thinking about
him. When you read history books, they tend to be
one-dimensional stories. But boy, when you put your
Dad there, it really becomes three-dimensional fast.
Then I started reading about some
other battles, about the Battle of the Bulge and
obviously D-Day and Normandy. I kept thinking about
my father being in the war. That lead me to get
really personal with these titanic stories. Then
in this one book I was reading (it was a compendium
of World War Two), it kept referring to the Battle
of Stalingrad as a reference point: "While
not as pivotal as the Battle of Stalingrad"
and "While not as bloody as the Battle of Stalingrad..."
And I said, Jeez, who cares about the Battle of
Stalingrad? That was Germans and Russians. But I
flipped over to reading about the Battle of Stalingrad.
I was appalled at the level of brutality and the
magnitude of the battle, which Churchill very accurately
called "the hinge of fate."
I think all historians are going
to agree that the Battle of Stalingrad was the turning
point in World War Two—not just between the
Russians and Germans, but for the whole anti-German
In this description of the Battle
of Stalingrad, I found a paragraph which I'll paraphrase:
Not all the battles of Stalingrad were large
troop movements. Some were bizarre, small and personal,
like the cat-and-mouse duel between the top German
and the top Russian snipers. Then, like Dagwood
Bumstead, I got the light bulb over my head. I said,
That is a story that's got legs. I went to
the bibliography in the back of the book and found
where the reference to this duel came from. The
next day I secured that book. (I had to go to the
Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.; it's a
fairly obscure book.) I found this whole story about
Zaitsev and Thorvald. But what I found on top of
it is reference to Tania Chernova, the love interest
in War of the Rats.
Tell us a little bit about Zaitsev.
He was Siberian by birth, a master sergeant and
a wonderful hunter. He was an ancestral hunter—father,
grandfather and on. They made their money in the
Ural Mountains, bringing back pelts of foxes, rabbits,
etc. This man finds himself at the Battle of Stalingrad.
Zaitsev could do something no other Russian sniper
could do—he could move silently through the
rubble, using the skills he had developed, of course,
moving through the Siberian woods.
That's why he was called the Hare. He
was able to move in and out with ease.
Right. Also, his name, Zaitsev, comes from the Russian
word 'zayats,' which means 'rabbit' or 'hare.' Plus,
he was a small, wiry man.
The typical technique for a Russian
sniper would be if you had a shooting range of four
hundred meters, you would fire from about two hundred
meters behind the line because to get closer than
that would be suicidal. So the math dictates you're
only penetrating the front line by two hundred meters.
Zaitsev was so good he could crawl up to and beyond
the frontline, totally unseen, with techniques that
he pioneered—moving through the rubble, moving
across open spaces using craters, using natural
Again, remember: the Germans had
bombarded Stalingrad and basically blew the city
into the streets, creating for the Russian snipers
and the Russian defenders an ideal set of hiding
places that ruled out the classic German military
technique, which was Blitzkrieg.
Right. You've got to be able to move fast,
go through and take everything out.
Sure. You send in the airplanes, you send in the
armored personnel carriers and the artillery, and
you send in the men. But when you run up against
a city that's laying in the streets, against a city
that has at its back a mile-wide river, the Volga,
then it becomes man on man. That's where the real
butchery came in Stalingrad because it was fought
at very close quarters.
Zaitsev was so successful that
the Russians asked him to create a sniper school
right there in the rubble of Stalingrad. He called
his cadre of snipers 'the Hare,' after himself.
This bunch became so lethal that the Germans wired
back to Berlin and said, "We have to counter
this sniper threat from the Russians. Who's our
best sniper?" The answer was SS Colonel Heinz
Thorvald, who was the headmaster of this special,
elite Berlin sniper school. The Germans shipped
Thorvald to Stalingrad to match Zaitsev. The Russians,
on the other hand, found out that Thorvald was there,
so they said, "Zaitsev, your job is to find
and kill Thorvald."
This is where the story really
fascinated me. I thought: how bizarre to be at the
Battle of Stalingrad, where a million men are trying
to find me and kill me. But I have one man who may
arguably be the most dangerous man in the world
trying to find and kill me. And I'm assigned correspondingly
to find and kill him. What would it be like to have
your own angel of death if you were, for him, the
angel of death?
How would you describe Thorvald?
Thorvald was a sniper of phenomenal ability. A little
bit creepy, but a lot human. He was a man trapped,
just like everybody at Stalingrad was trapped. You
wouldn't wish that on your worst enemy—and
the Germans and Russians were each others' worst
You waited quite a while to introduce
Thorvald in War of the Rats. Why not introduce
Many years ago, I was cast as Dracula at a local
amphitheater outdoor production. I had one of the
smaller roles in the play. But the play was named
after Dracula, and everybody on stage at every moment
was talking about my character. Dracula motivated
all the action, though he didn't have to be physically
on-stage. I watched with amazement at the reaction
I got when I was on stage. When I was off, they
kept waiting for my character. I remembered that
lesson when I was constructing the villain for War
of the Rats.
Finally, tell us a little bit about your
third main character, Tania Chernova.
Tania was in Zaitsev's cadre of snipers. She became
Zaitsev's lover, as well as a fearsome sniper in
her own right. The book tracks the duel between
Zaitsev and Thorvald and the budding love story
between Zaitsev and Tania. Again, a true story:
this actually happened.
Tania's a strong character because she
brings another dimension to your story.
I got good advice one day years ago: a book has
to have three acts. In War of the Rats, Act
One is the Battle of Stalingrad itself. It's a magnificent
stage. Act Two is the duel between Thorvald and
Zaitsev. But that itself wasn't enough. The love
story between these two people—Zaitsev and
Tania—trying to find some tenderness in the
midst of the worst battle in the history of humankind:
that was my Act Three. I knew then I really
wanted to write it.
Were you worried when you stumbled onto
the story that somebody has already done the story?
Or did you think it was such an obscure reference
that you were in virgin territory?
In historical fiction, virgin territory is a great
advantage, but it's not the whole thing. It really
does hinge on what you bring to it. How many times
has Lincoln's assassination been covered?
But did you feel that you had to guard
your story from other writers?
No, I wasn't worried. This was damned obscure.
How long did you allot for research?
I spent three months in the Soviet Union—two
months and four weeks of that very hungry. I was
hungry from the day I got off the plane.
You were actually interviewing survivors.
And there are very few of them left. And while you
were there, you managed to interview Zaitsev himself?
Yes. That's correct.
How many titles did you go through before
you settled on War of the Rats?
One. It was always War of the Rats. It comes
from the Germans' calling the battle Rattenkrieg,
which translates as 'war of the rats.' That's how
they fought: in ditches and culverts and basements
What did you set out to accomplish in
War of the Rats?
I wanted to write a book about Stalingrad, not about
two snipers. I wanted to show the misery of Stalingrad
through these two people as opposed to hiding the
city's misery behind this man-on-man duel.
To put it in context, in the American
Civil War, both sides lost a million men. During
World War Two, the United States had three hundred
thousand killed in action. The Russian toll alone
at the Battle of Stalingrad was in excess of six
hundred thousand. Throw in the German forces—which
consisted of Germans, Italians and Hungarians. They
had with them a force that consisted of 1.2 million
men on the Russian steppe outside Stalingrad. When
the war was over and in 1954 the last German soldier
was repatriated from imprisonment in Russia, there
were fewer than thirty thousand left alive.
So we can say that the largest
armed force ever assembled in the history of armed
warfare disappeared. When you add in the
civilian causalities from the residents of Stalingrad,
you have two million people. And that's the Hank
Aaron of butcher bills for warfare. In fact, until
we bombarded Kuwait in 1990, the bombardment of
Stalingrad by the Germans on August 22, 23 and 24,
1942 was the largest bombardment—the greatest
number of sorties and the most explosives—dropped
on an urban area in the history of mankind.
The Battle of Stalingrad stands
pretty much alone as the high-water mark of bloodletting
How far along on War of the Rats were
you when your first novel, Souls to Keep,
To tell you the truth, Souls to Keep was
written after War of the Rats. The story
behind the publication of War of the Rats
flows back to Saving Private Ryan. My agent,
Marcy Posner (in New York with the William Morris
Agency) was having lunch with Katie Hall, my editor
at Bantam. Katie made the comment that there were
no really good World War Two stories out there.
World War Two had grown cold over the years, and
Private Ryan was going to re-animate the
field. Marcie's ears perked up. She put a manuscript
of War of the Rats in Katie's hands.
In a matter of weeks, I had a
The book has been available for
a few years; I've been working on other projects.
But the national climate for World War Two has changed.
There really isn't a topic that is more timely right
now, for baby boomers remembering our departed parents.
The generation that fought in World War
Two does seem to be getting the attention and respect
they deserve these days.
I got an e-mail this morning from a man who had
read War of the Rats. He said he had listened
to the Battle of Stalingrad on an illegal radio
during his thirty-seven months of detention in the
Philippines during World War Two. One of the Japanese
guards had studied in America and had a radio. He
let a couple prisoners listen to BBC broadcasts
in the middle of the night.
There is no parallel to this in
my life. All I could do was write the man back and
say, "Sir, my hat is off to you."
When I'm sitting down writing
these stories (the book I'm working on now is another
World War Two story, about the fall of Berlin),
I really do feel a secondary benefit of keeping
these stories alive, taking history and making it
into novel form.
You studied theater at William and Mary,
where you were classmates with Glenn Close; you
became a practicing attorney; you're a black belt
in Tae Kwan Do; and you're a skilled guitarist and
harmonica player who's been known to pop up performing
at local clubs. What do you bring from all these
fields into your writing?
Good question. I'd say discipline. In martial arts,
very much so in sports, definitely music—you
learn to accept being humbled. I remember the first
day I started studying martial arts. I said: I can't
do this. I'm surrounded by all these lithe, very
quick practitioners who are very good at this and
have been practicing for years. It's a troubling
thing to be an adult and be humbled. Because let's
face it: we tend to turn away from things if we
can't master them as modern people pretty quickly
in this world of convenience.
When I sit down to research a
book and certainly to write a book—which is
one word, one thought at a time—it's humbling.
It mounts very slowly. I mean, you work your fingers
down to the bone and your spirit down to a nub for
a month and you've got forty pages. The temptation
to walk away never goes away.
The other thing you learn along
with discipline is flow. To know when you're in
the cupped hands of the medium. When you're sparring
and everything is in place or when you are playing
music and you're in that groove or hitting jump
shots and you can't miss. Love can be like that.
Relationships can have a groove. Being in that groove
as a writer is what you search for every time you
sit down to write. You know it when you're there.
And you throw it away at the end of the day if it
wasn't there when you were working.
I like to think my varied background
shows up not so much on the page as in my work ethic.
Do you enjoy writing?
I don't allow myself the luxury of enjoying what
I do. Because enjoying it would almost make it finite.
At such point when writing becomes unenjoyable,
I might stop doing it. So I really don't allow myself
the luxury of determining whether I'm having fun.
This is my destiny. It's what I do. I'm proud enough
to say it's my gift. I'm not going to subject it
to the minutiae of whether or not I enjoy it.
It is profound to me. That goes
so much deeper than enjoyment.
What's the actual writing process for
I have scrupulously adapted Hemingway's writing
ethic, which is two single-spaced pages per day.
Seven days a week. I don't walk away from the work.
I try to—like Thorvald—limit
the incursion of my body. The snipers did everything
they could to limit the incursion of the body. It
was the enemy of the scope: the heartbeat makes
the crosshairs jump, the finger-pull can pull the
barrel left or right a millimeter. The body gets
in the way of the accuracy of the rifle.
Writing is kind of the same thing.
So I stay in the best phyisical condition I can.
Do you use the same disciplined approach
to research or is it more free-form?
Disciplined. When I was researching the book I'm
on now, it was a very conservative research effort.
Every day, seven days a week, at least eight hours
a day. I kept a log to make sure I stayed on pace.
If I did five hours in the morning and I came home
at eleven o'clock at night, I read till two to get
in an extra three hours.
I set myself a goal of reading
at least two books a week. I usually read three,
until I ran into the biographies of Stalin, Roosevelt
and Churchill, which tended to be pretty much the
size of cinder blocks.
By then, could you skim occasionally?
No. And I'll tell you why: I would have missed that
Stalin smoked a Dunhill pipe with shredded Herzegovina
cigarettes as tobacco. I would have missed that
Churchill's pocket watch was nicknamed the Turnip
because it was so big. That's what you miss when
Outside your research, what do you read?
If I read ten books, eight of them are classics.
I read Steinbeck, Tolstoy, Nabokov, Hemingway—they're
the building blocks for my work. Right now, I'm
reading Terry Pratchett (a magnificent stylist),
Annie Proulx and Cormac McCarthy.
You mentioned the book you're working
on next. Why don't you give us a peek underneath
Sure. The name of the book will be Death of the
Gods, after Wagner's Götterdämmerung—which,
of course, is the demise of Valhalla and the death
of all the Norse gods. The book is about the fall
of Berlin to the Russians at the end of World War
I'm trying to create a Greek tragedy.
Think about Agamemnon, where you had Apollo, Hera
and Zeus talking about Clytemnestra and Agamemnon.
It's the classic Greek tragedy scenario, where the
gods talk about what they're going to do. Then we
witness it on ground level, where we see the effect
of the Olympian intent.
I'm creating a book—and
I think I'm going to do this again one or two more
times with this format—where I literally have
Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt as characters. Beside
them, I have three corresponding fictional characters:
an American photojournalist named Charlie Bandy
(I chose "Bandy" because that was Robert
Capa's nickname as a child), a woman cellist with
the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and a Red soldier
named Ilya, a defrocked captain who's been busted
down to private.
I spent seven months researching
this through sixty-eight books (I've got three shelves
at home full of them). I'm condensing this history
down, as I did with War of the Rats, into
what I hope will be a very compelling story as well
as fastidiously accurate.