David L. Robbins is a man used to success. As an actor he starred in many productions and commercials, even working with Glenn Close when both were students at the College of William and Mary. As an attorney in South Carolina he had a good track record, but always wanted to be a novelist. And now, after two published novels, it looks as if the third time might be the charm for this Richmond native.
"David has definitely raised the bar with 'The End of War,'" says Chris Artis, a senior publicist for Bantam Books on Robbins' latest. "We really feel he has grown as an author and this book can be his breakout novel."
Robbins came close with last year's "War of the Rats" a novel about the siege of Stalingrad and about a strange cat-and-mouse duel between a Russian and a German sniper. Now with his third book, "The End of War: A Novel of the Race for Berlin" (Bantam Doubleday Dell, $24.95), Robbins again returns to the crucible of war as a backdrop for what is really important to him: how people react in the cruelest of environments. "The End of War" tells the story of the three most important men in the free world at the time: Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, as well as three "regular" people and how they were all transformed by the war. Even with two novels set against World War II, Robbins resists the label of "war writer."
"I've always been interested in people's responses under pressure, and what is more pressure filled than war?" he asks. "I write about the people in those situations, the war itself is just a backdrop. If all you want to read about is troop movements, airplane drops and casualty counts, I can point you towards any number of great history books. If you want to read about the human drama that went into those events, then you will enjoy the books I publish."
Robbins got started in writing through a route common to many artists: He got tired of his day job. "I was doing law, but I really felt I was in the wrong field," he says. "One night it just came over me that I really needed to be a writer. Full time. I figured I would either be a success through hard work and perseverance or starve to death doing the exact same thing."
So he began writing and finished "War of the Rats." He tried to sell the book but publishers rejected it, saying it just wasn't right for them. He then started working on the book he eventually would publish in 1998, "Souls to Keep." Through sheer luck, his agent was having lunch with a senior editor at Bantam who was lamenting there were no good World War II books available. Steven Spielberg was set to unleash "Saving Private Ryan" and the publishing world wanted to jump on the bandwagon. The agent called her assistant, and before dessert was served, a dog-eared manuscript of "War of the Rats" was sitting on the table. Days later, a two-book deal for Robbins was on the agent's desk.
"The End of War" is impeccably researched and detailed. "When I was researching the book, I spent eight hours a day reading and making notes," Robbins says. "I literally punched a time clock to make sure I put in my time. If I knocked off early to go to dinner with friends, I came back later and put in more time. I approach writing a book in a very disciplined blue-collar kind of way."
While the book contains brutal and frank scenes, it doesn't stretch the realm of the believable. "People in a war have to do certain things to survive," Robbins says. "That's what I was trying to show. If you've gone months without much to eat, then you will look at a dead animal in a different way. If you take part in massive amounts of killing day after day, or if you merely record the aftermath, it will affect the way you view God. My characters are all changed by the war, the same way the world was forever changed by its horror."
Can a "war book" find a big audience? Katie Hall, senior editor at Bantam Books, thinks so. She describes reading "The End of War:" "We were anxious to get David's book," she recalls. "We were calling him every day asking, 'When will it be here?' and he was doing this Michelangelo thing from 'The Agony and the Ecstasy' going, 'It will be finished when it's finished.' So it finally arrives and for three weeks, I just couldn't bring myself to read it. Every time I've loved an author's first book with us, I've been disappointed in the second. Finally, I read it and was so moved I called him from the subway just sobbing because it was so beautiful."
Robbins just shrugs when asked about the book's potential for big-time success. "It's out of my hands now," he says. "I've told the best story of my life and now I'm waiting to see how the world likes
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