Roxana Robinson on Sparta, Killing People, Iraq, and Writing

By MaryAnne KoltonJune 3, 2013

EXTRAORDINARY, brave and compelling, Sparta enfolds the reader. It wraps its arms around you, much too tightly, and won’t let loose until you’ve read the last page. Roxana Robinson has written a tour de force, a raw, unflinching look at Conrad Farrell’s efforts to re-enter everyday life and reclaim the sanity he stepped away from when he enlisted in the Marines and was sent to Iraq.

MARYANNE KOLTON: Please talk a bit about what led you to write Sparta.

ROXANA ROBINSON: I remember very specifically reading an article on the front page of The New York Times. I don’t remember the year — it was probably 2005 or 2006 — and it was about the conditions under which our troops were functioning in Iraq. I was struck by it: the way they were being sent out on patrol in vehicles without armor, and being blown up by IEDs. They were suffering from trauma and brain injuries, and these were not being diagnosed or treated. It was so appalling to me, that we would put our young soldiers into a situation that was so devastatingly unsafe, and ignore the consequences. I was also deeply troubled by the reasons that we had gone into Iraq in the first place. That made it worse: we were there for no good reason, and we were treating our soldiers in such a miserly way. I started reading all the articles I could find about the war, and then after a while I realized that I wanted to go further into the subject: I wanted to write about it.

MAK: This book must have required a great deal of research. Did you have any difficulty getting military personnel to speak with you, and how did you approach them?

RR: It required an enormous amount of research, and it was very difficult to find a way inside the military culture. I was rebuffed again and again, and warned to stay out. I kept on trying, of course. I went to public events, talked to people I met there, got a notice posted on military bulletin boards, heard from friends about friends of theirs, talked to military writers. I was viewed with grave suspicion for a number of reasons: I was a woman, and military culture is overwhelmingly male; I was a civilian, and military culture is intensely guarded toward civilians; and I was a novelist, and military culture is much more open toward nonfiction writers: reporters and journalists. But when I finally did begin to find people who were willing to talk to me, they were extraordinarily generous, taking hours of their own time, and giving me introductions to other friends, who in turn gave me more introductions. I found that the subject was highly charged, and I had to negotiate the interviews very carefully. But I was intensely interested by the stories I heard, and very, very grateful for the trust I was shown. I heard from vets themselves, from their wives and mothers and fathers, I met their children. I visited them at home, I talked to them by phone across the country. I found an entire world of experience I had never encountered before — one that was rich, deep, and very powerful.

MAK: Do you think this is the only way we can prepare our troops — by traumatizing them and preparing them for battle at the same time?

RR: It’s a really interesting question: how best to prepare our troops. In order to be effective as fighters, they need to be able to kill, in the fastest and most powerful way. That's what war is about: killing. But killing another human being is not easy. The act goes against a very old and very deep-seated resistance to killing our own kind. It’s unnatural. Nature has set up strong obstacles to the act: the shock we feel at the sight of gushing blood, the alarm we feel at the sound of human screams, the intense realization of human pain, the terror of approaching death — all those function as deterrents. Or they do when death is dealt by hand, and up close. Guns, long-range weapons, and bombs make all this less potent, and psychological training plays another part here. The subtle and not-so-subtle aspects of military training — shouting “Kill!” over and over, shooting at man-shaped targets, hearing violent rhetoric — make soldiers more effective on the battlefield. But this training, the persuasion that human life is valueless, also affects the soldier coming home. If he has done things on the battlefield that a man should never do, how is he to reconcile those acts with the rest of his life? How can he take pride in himself as a human being, (something we all require), if he knows that he has failed as a human being? The military is silent on this issue.

MAK: Your interwoven references to the original Spartan warriors were chilling:

All Spartan citizens were full-time soldiers. Citizenship was limited to male descendants of Sparta’s founders, but only healthy ones. Selection began at birth […] [I]mperfect and weak infants were abandoned to die of exposure on a mountaintop. Healthy boys lived at home until the age of seven, when they left to start training.

I was fascinated by the profound philosophical affinity that the Marines feel for the ancient Sparta. It seemed to me both very sensible and deeply troubling, because Sparta’s culture seems to reflect and embody the paradox of the warrior — that his job is to save the world, but not to live in it. And then who shall live in that saved world?

The kitchen was dark. […] He started to count again, trying to slow his heart. Against his leg he felt the soft hideous brush of a camel spider, and he kicked out violently. He caught the cat on his instep and she gave a cry. Jesus.

Conrad knelt, reaching for her in the dark. His hand found her, the light, bony body upholstered in fur. He took her, soft but struggling, into his arms and held her still, her tail switching angrily against his chest.

“Sorry, Murph,” he said, his heart racing again.

Those fucking spiders didn’t bite, they ate. […] She had stopped struggling, but would not purr. She waited in his arm, ready to leap out.

“Purr,” he said. Held her against his chest, stroking hard. “Purr, Goddammit.” He thought of slamming her against the wooden counter.

Poor Conrad. Perhaps a lengthy debriefing program for those returning from battle zones should be mandated. It was truly amazing how easily you seemed to slip inside his head.

RR: There is actually a decompression period after deployment, and often troops were sent to a base in the desert before they came home. This was meant to allow them to start the transition back to civilian life. But it didn’t seem very focused or directed, and it didn’t seem to have much effect. The real challenge still came when they tried to live in the civilian world again, once they were home for good. That was when they started to flounder, and lose their bearings, because the two lives — military and civilian — seemed utterly unconnected. That’s when they needed help.

I felt such sympathy for Conrad.

MAK: Did you find that writing Sparta was more difficult than other books you’ve done before? If so, in what way?

RR: Sparta was by far the most difficult book I’ve written. I know that’s been true of all my novels, and also the biography, so in some ways I know it’s simply that I am always trying to do something I’ve never done before — but this time I was trying to learn about, and enter into, a culture to which I had no connection. This was also true in Cost, of the addiction/recovery community, but that community was very welcoming to me. I received a very different reception from the military community at first. Once I went to a Marine recruiting center, just to see what it was like, and I was practically ushered out of the door with a broom. Besides the resistance to civilians, there is such a huge body of knowledge to be learned in the military culture. I bought a copy of the Marine handbook and studied MOUT — Military Operations in Urban Terrain. I read about how to clear a room, and I learned how a patrol is configured, walking down a street. I learned what the weapons looked like. Once my husband and I were watching a war movie — something I had never done before I started this book — and an insurgent showed up with a gizmo on his back. “What’s that?” my husband asked. “An RPG,” I said. He looked mystified, and I explained: “Rocket Propelled Grenade.” I learned as much as I could, though I also despaired, knowing there was so much I could never know. But I was so completely engaged by the subject I kept plowing along. You can’t imagine how many books I bought for this subject — Amazon still sends me updates on titles like Black Hole, Disaster Alley, The Weapon. I read everything I could find for four years. I met with everyone who would talk to me. When a Marine offered to take me on a visit to Quantico I was thrilled — it was like being taken into the Vatican. It’s a place forbidden to the general public, so for me it was like going to a holy site.

MAK: Is there something that I haven’t asked you about Sparta that you would like the reader to know?

RR: It’s funny — Sparta the book is like a whole country to me, and there are innumerable parts to it that I could talk about. I wanted to go to Iraq, of course, to see for myself what it was like. I found an archaeological trip to northwestern Iraq — the same region as Haditha. I practiced telling my husband that I was going. Just 10 days, I would say, and then I’ll be back! The whole time I was working on the book Iraq was on the warning list from the Department of State — travel not advised. I knew my husband would absolutely disapprove of my going, along with the State Department. I kept thinking I’d go anyway, but then I didn’t: that part of Iraq is really not friendly to Americans. I asked myself if I would be willing to die for the book? That seemed a bit extreme, so in the end I didn’t.

MAK: You said previously about writing: “I was doing mostly short stories and not getting published, so I thought a novel might be easier.” This makes you substantially different from many writers who prefer to write short fiction and dread a request from their publishers for a novel. Was the novel-writing in fact easier?

RR: There is a sort of creative tension between short fiction and long fiction, which I enjoy. The impulse to write a short story is very different from the impulse to write a novel, for me.

At first I was writing short stories, which came from specific moments that I wanted to explore. I was publishing some of them, but I wasn’t having much success in publishing a collection, and I decided to try the long form and see if I could publish that. I had never written a novel, and didn’t know how to do it. I actually started writing my first novel, thinking that it was a short story. When I got to the end of it I realized it wasn’t a story at all — I hadn’t finished anything. I had started something: I had written the first chapter of a novel. That was a terrifying — and exciting — moment. All writing is a kind of exploration, and in that moment I felt as though I had just come into the view of the Himalayas.

MAK: Do you have a specific time and place set aside for writing?

RR: I write first thing in the morning. Right after breakfast I carry a mug of coffee into my study. In the city, my study has an internet connection, so I usually unplug the computer and carry it into another room where I can’t go online. I like to write in an empty house, if possible, but if anyone else is around I write with the door shut. I don’t like hearing approaching footsteps — I am very easily distracted.

MAK: What are you working on now?

RR: Sorry — I never talk about what I am working on. I learned years ago that talking about it is a bad idea — some delicate balance gets destroyed, and I can’t get back to the place where I was before no one knew about it. Other people’s thoughts are now in there, fingering things. I think a writer needs to exist alone with the work until it is done — anyway, I do.


MaryAnne Kolton's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous literary publications including the Lost Children Charity Anthology, Thrice Fiction, Lost In Thought Literary Magazine, and Connotation Press.

LARB Contributor

MaryAnne Kolton’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in myriad literary publications including the Lost Children Charity Anthology, Thrice Fiction, and Connotation Press, among others. Her story “A Perfect Family House” was short listed for The Glass Woman Prize. Author interviews have appeared most recently in the Herald de Paris, Los Angeles Review of Books, Her Circle Zine, The Literarian/City CenterJanuary Magazine, Word Riot and Prime Number. MaryAnne can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.


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