Q: Your novel Sparta won the James Webb Award for Distinguished Fiction given by the Marine Corp Heritage Foundation. The question is often asked the writer: who do you write for? In the special case of Sparta–which considers a soldier’s return from Iraq–is there particular satisfaction in the work being recognized by this audience of veterans? Did you have them in mind as you wrote?
A: When I decided to write a book about a Marine (or rather, when that idea took me over), I began to do research about a culture that is famously insular. I learned very quickly how guarded and protective this culture is – how “tribal,” as one Marine called it–and how deliberately and absolutely they exclude outsiders. At a professional level I was rebuffed, over and over. I realized that it would only be on a personal level, through direct encounters, and through word of mouth, that I would be able to talk to the people who so interested me. They did interest me. I was not just interested but fascinated by every part of the experience of being a soldier. I was deeply sympathetic, but that wasn’t a reason for them to talk to me. I might get it very wrong, regardless of sympathy. No one knows what a novelist is up to, and I couldn’t explain it exactly myself. There was no reason for people to trust me.
Which is why I was humbled by the trust I did receive, when I reached people individually. I listened to their stories, and heard their voices and watched their faces, and the faces of their wives and children. I was enthralled by this narrative, and grateful to have the opportunity to learn it. While I was writing the story I was always conscious of how much I owed them, for their trust. I was also aware of what a risk I was taking, in telling a story that was not my own, about an experience that’s guarded so jealously by those who do own it. I knew that all my sympathy to veterans wouldn’t matter to them if I got the story wrong. I wanted to get it right for them. They had trusted me, and I didn’t want them to regret it. When I had finished, I approached the publication of Sparta with great trepidation, not knowing how it would be received by that most important of all audiences, the veterans. So there is hardly a greater possible honor to have received than one from the Marines themselves. Of course, in Sparta, I haven’t told everyone’s story, no one could do that. But I’ve told a story that veterans recognize as one of theirs, and it’s one they have honored. I couldn’t feel more proud.
—Roxana Robinson is the author, most recently, of Sparta: A Novel. She has written five novels including Cost, three collections of short stories, and the biography Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. She last wrote at 2paragraphs about the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman.