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War of the Rats
David L. Robbins
Bantam Books
496 pp.



The Wag Chats with
David L. Robbins

David L. Robbins discusses the role research plays in historical novels and tells us why he doesn't allow himself the luxury of enjoying the writing process.

WAG: Where did you get the idea for War of the Rats? Were you trolling for stories or did you just stumble onto it?

Robbins: 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 cause.

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.

WAG: Tell us a little bit about Zaitsev.

Robbins: 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.

WAG: That's why he was called the Hare. He was able to move in and out with ease.

Robbins: 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 cover.

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.

WAG: Right. You've got to be able to move fast, go through and take everything out.

Robbins: 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?

WAG: How would you describe Thorvald?

Robbins: 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 enemies.

WAG: You waited quite a while to introduce Thorvald in War of the Rats. Why not introduce him earlier?

Robbins: 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.

WAG: Finally, tell us a little bit about your third main character, Tania Chernova.

Robbins: 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.

WAG: Tania's a strong character because she brings another dimension to your story.

Robbins: 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.

WAG: 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?

Robbins: 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?

WAG: But did you feel that you had to guard your story from other writers?

Robbins: No, I wasn't worried. This was damned obscure.

WAG: How long did you allot for research?

Robbins: 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.

WAG: You were actually interviewing survivors. And there are very few of them left. And while you were there, you managed to interview Zaitsev himself?

Robbins: Yes. That's correct.

WAG: How many titles did you go through before you settled on War of the Rats?

Robbins: 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 and cellars.

WAG: What did you set out to accomplish in War of the Rats?

Robbins: 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 in warfare.

WAG: How far along on War of the Rats were you when your first novel, Souls to Keep, came out?

Robbins: 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 two-book deal.

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.

WAG: The generation that fought in World War Two does seem to be getting the attention and respect they deserve these days.

Robbins: 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.

WAG: 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?

Robbins: 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.

WAG: Do you enjoy writing?

Robbins: 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.

WAG: What's the actual writing process for you?

Robbins: 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.

WAG: Do you use the same disciplined approach to research or is it more free-form?

Robbins: 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.

WAG: By then, could you skim occasionally?

Robbins: 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 you skim.

WAG: Outside your research, what do you read?

Robbins: 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.

WAG: You mentioned the book you're working on next. Why don't you give us a peek underneath the veil.

Robbins: 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 Two.

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.

—Interview conducted by Doug Childers, John Porter and William Shinault IV

Posted August 1, 1999


Photo Credit: Doug Childers

David L. Robbins is a former lawyer and freelance writer. His second novel, War of the Rats, was released by Bantam Books on July 13th of this year. His first novel, Souls to Keep, appeared last year and is now available in paperback. He lives in Richmond, Virginia.



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