Playwright Robbins discusses first novel

By Page H. Gifford

 For an award-winning playwright and poet Roy Robbins, it is a different experience writing his first novel. He understands that novel writing is unlike any process he is familiar with but compared to plays it is a world that doesn’t live in a box but can expand with varying experiences and adventures. His play “Slow Instructions,” which was part of the Virginia Playwright’s Initiative at the Hamner Theater in Nellysford, was a play focused on family dynamics, struggling, and controlling past events. This is where the intimacy of theater is felt, bringing the audience into the story and living it through the characters.

 He studied acting for a year at the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, thinking that it would help him in writing plays.

“What I took away from it was an understanding of the pressure of live performance. The characters don’t always have to be “doing” something, there can be moments of quiet reflection, but the audience must always be aware of a reason or force that is always compelling the movement forward. Intensity lives within the world on stage in a different way from the world of the novel.”

For his novels, Robbins draws on his rich experiences of living in diverse places. A former Fluvanna resident, Robbins lived most of his life on the eastern seaboard of the U.S. From Maine to Florida. He graduated from high school in New Hampshire, spent two years in the army, a year in New York City and Germany, and lived in Brazil and Bolivia. He got his B.A. from the University of South Carolina and a doctorate from the University of Virginia. He retired from Virginia Tech in 2004 and has been in institutional research for most of his career.

Writing a mystery novel requires more detail and research and goes beyond the interpersonal mechanics of human relationships. Everything has to be described, there is no instant view except the reader’s imagination, and it makes it more challenging for the writer to create a picture in the reader’s head. Robbins understands this process now that he has experienced it. But in “North” he still relies on his skill as a playwright.

Compared to William Faulkner, he uses the dysfunctional family relationships seeded into a mystery of intrigue and suspense.  Robbins said the story revolves around the murder of Leon Putnam, a corrupt politician. His protagonist Hal Parker learns that his mother is very ill, but he returns too late to North where he grew up and misses his mother’s funeral. Meanwhile,  Leon Putnam has been murdered.

“What interested me in “North” was how someone, like Leon, can become so powerful and corrupt and at the same time compel others to remain silent and tolerate his actions.  As a child, Hal witnessed Leon rape a young girl. Hal returns to North to help settle his mother’s estate but discovers that his mother and perhaps others, might have plotted to kill Leon as revenge.

It was Florida that inspired him for the backdrop and the setting for the town of North.

“There is something about Florida that compels my attention. The swamps, the live oaks, the brooding landscape, and the heat create an atmosphere where corrupt characters can live and breathe and where you can see signs on the road that say things like “Only five miles go to see the world’s biggest rattlesnake.”

It would appear that Robbins is hooked on writing novels and is working on his second, also set in Florida and Bolivia, and is about drugs.

Robbins lives with his wife Susan Pepper Robbins in Cartersville.  Susan is also a writer and taught English and creative writing at Hampden-Sydney College. They have two sons and five grandchildren.

“North” is available online through Amazon, or directly through Beach Glass Books and from Fountain Book Store in Richmond (online).

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