The Man, The Myth, The Leader: David Robbins on David Robbins

David Robbins’ list of accomplishments isn’t short – seven-time historical fiction author, VCU professor, and founder of James River Writers, Podium, and the Mighty Pen Project, to name a few. But that’s not how I first came to know him. When we were first introduced, I was simply told that David Robbins is “the man.” And in the short time we’ve gotten to know one another, I’d say the description fits.

Some might find this description belittling, and that’s certainly not my intent. I suspect he earned the nickname because, rather than trying to list all of their qualities, it’s easier to oversimplify when trying to describe a person with an impact as powerful and immediate as David’s. He’s an insightful teacher, one of the best I’ve encountered. And his ability to hold an audience, even that of a tired Zoozil employee who’s pored over hundreds of pages and spoken with countless authors, is unparalleled. Pair that with his intellect, which might be intimidating if it weren’t tinged with his classic honesty and humility, and you’ve just begun to scratch the surface of what makes him the great writer and teacher that he is.

Zoozil is extremely proud to have David serve on our Board of Advisors. To have the endorsement and ear of such an important teacher, writer, community leader, philanthropist and friend means more than he’ll likely realize. I got a chance to interview “the man” himself, and I hope it’ll inspire lovers of writing and reading alike.

What was it about Zoozil that made you want to join their advisory board?

David: How clever, to teach history through stories instead of a mere litany of facts. How smart and flexible to engage the reluctant and eager reader alike by using the device of alternate endings. This is a chance for me to be part of a sea change in education, in which I’m confident Zoozil is going to be a leading player. This is 21st century innovation, the first time since its creation that the book has been tasked with doing more than being passive. It’s been said that if you want to know history, read a history book. If you want to understand history, read historical fiction. To give students understanding alongside knowledge? Slam dunk. So I’m in.


What would you say is the one thing that draws creatives to a career in writing? And what drew you to a career in writing?

David: Art of every kind is, at its core, storytelling. Imagine any form of art, and it’s a story. So it’s either this or sales.


As a teacher of creative writing, what is a common trait that you see in a lot of your students?

David: There’s two, really, that are the most common. One or the other. Either they lack confidence, and so overwrite, show off what they know on the page, get in the way of the story with their own emotions, experiences and insights, blather on about dream sequences using experimental prose, gumming the language up with poetics and solipsism. Or they are naïve, even knuckleheaded, about the amount of work needed to learn the craft of storytelling. They approach writing like a pastime, a hobby, something that an intelligent person ought to be able to do naturally, with far too much confidence (often given to them by roommates, parents, co-workers lovers and spouses who read their stuff) and too little regard for the complexities, architecture and real work of writing masterfully.


Why are you drawn to historical fiction in particular?

David: I once had a brief and memorable conversation with William Styron, who said to me that his writing beacon was to educate, elevate, and entertain his readers. Historical fiction, I find, gives me the best opportunity to do all three. Too much contemporary work strives only to entertain.


If you had to choose your favorite era, what would it be?

David: No question the mid-20th century. The political and human landscape was almost molten, so much shifting and changing was taking place. World war, regional wars, Cold War, communism as the great bête noir, the political arrival of women, African Americans, gender politics, nations rising from rubble or descending into it, transformative inventions, tectonic cultural upheavals, I mean, this is the richest century in mankind’s existence. Oh, and I was there for a lot of it, too.
What is your favorite non-writing thing to do?

David: Sailing. Guitar. Reading. I list three because they all feel the same.


You play music as well, so who would you say your biggest musical influence is, and why?

David: James Taylor. He was the first artist who I tried to emulate and understand. So I started playing guitar. I found, of course, that I couldn’t. But his music set me on the road to discovering myself as an artist.


You have pioneered many writing non-profits for various demographics around Richmond. How would you say the act of writing helps people?

David: Catharsis, healing and being understood are essential ingredients to a sense of belonging amongst one’s own people. You can’t fit in and you can’t take part if you stand alone, either because you are forced to by your social status or by your own experiences which have set you apart. Writing is voice, voice is persuasion, and persuasion is being a part of something greater than yourself. This is the greatest of human drives.


From where do you get inspiration to create?

David: Waking up, generally. It sort of starts when I open my eyes. This is an impossible question to answer, because an artist, especially a writer, doesn’t run on inspiration; we operate on observation. That isn’t temporal, it doesn’t ebb and flow like inspiration, it’s always there to a writer. It’s gravity.


Where is the most unusual place you’ve ever traveled?

David: Vietnam. Hands down the world’s worst Charades players. They intuit absolutely nothing from waving your arms around. Their tolerance for staring us unsettling. Their language is tonal, so asking for water may sound like asking for a tree. And they will wonder silently why you have asked for a tree in your glass. I’m not making this up.


Where is your favorite Richmond spot/hangout?

David: Crossroads Coffee and Tea on Forest Hill in the mornings. Joe’s Inn for dinner. My screened porch overlooking Riverside Drive for a book, a cigar, my guitar, and/or friends.


What is one mistake that you would urge young writers to avoid?

David: Do not take writing lightly. To do it professionally, the study and practice of writing can and should consume many years before you can begin to understand how much more you need to learn. No one looks at a ballet dancer or a symphonic cellist or a nuclear scientist or a heart surgeon and says ‘I’m gonna do that in my spare time.’ But aspiring writers too often do. They think, because they can read wonderfully, they can write so. Or because they may be imaginative and even gifted with language they can use those tools to shape a proper tale. They do not see what seethes and courses beneath the works, the writer’s structures and skills, the tricks and architecture. My advice is to do something else with your life if you lack the endurance to go hard at becoming a good writer. Like, sales.

To learn more about David’s work, check out his website.