Investigative but Intimate: A Conversation with Robert L. Shuster


Bonnie Jo Campbell, who made the final selection in the latest AWP Award for the Novel, singled out Robert L. Shuster’s To Zenzi. The story struck Campbell as a “miraculous” combination: “part Billy Pilgrim, part Huckleberry Finn, part Candide.” That’s great company, and yet entirely congenial, as I found out when the press approached me for a blurb.

To Zenzi begins as a survivor’s story, with an old man in contemporary New Jersey looking back on the Berlin of his childhood in spring, 1945. Thereafter, amid an inferno of Russian assault and Nazi madness, the narrative generates skin-prickling suspense over who might get out and how. The boy even seeks shelter in Hitler’s bunker, a hive of maniacs. At the same time, however, Zenzi cultivates the flowers of first love, and traces adolescent explorations of an artistic calling. Altogether the novel’s a breathtaking juggling act, alive with strange colors, far beyond what most first-time novelists can deliver.

Yet Shuster’s isn’t a first novel, exactly. He’s finished two earlier manuscripts, which found agents but not publishers. He’s won fellowships and awards while placing fiction in North American Review, in anthologies like Yellow Silk, and elsewhere. Other work includes stints as an art critic at Village Voice, and cultural criticism in Threepenny Review.

All this background and more came to light as Shuster and I began to exchange emails for this Rumpus interview. Our give and take was entirely electronic, safely distanced, combining email and occasional stints on Messenger. Throughout, Shuster opened up freely as if we sat down over a pair of pints—a powerful reminder of how good fiction always feels familiar, taking us magically from a madman’s bunker to a family TV night.


The Rumpus: Few first novels flaunt the rules so freely as To Zenzi. The story’s in no way autobiographical, as nearly all of it takes place a long way from your own experience, during the final days of World War II in Berlin. Inspiration is always hard to put into words, but what can you say about why you first climbed onto such a wild ride?

Robert L. Shuster: I’ve been fascinated and horrified by the drama of war since about the age of six. As a child in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, I grew up with Vietnam on the television every night, described by Walter Cronkite. But my father was the greater influence; though an ardent pacifist in his youth who’d feared nuclear Armageddon, who had argued post-Korea with the draft board for conscientious-objector status, he couldn’t get enough of WWII, the war of his boyhood. But he didn’t glorify it. Maybe because he feared the endlessness of Vietnam, he wanted me and my two younger brothers to see how gruesome war could be.

Once, he showed me Randall Jarrell’s poem, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” pointing out the last two chilling lines: “I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters. / When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.”

In the summer of 1969, he took the three of us to see two big cinematic spectacles, The Battle of Britain and, especially riveting, The Bridge at Remagen. There’s a scene in The Bridge at Remagen in which a German teenager, trying to protect his family, is gunned down by an American soldier. The shock of it, among others in the film, was seared into me.

A lot of the older war films, too, were shown regularly in my boyhood on television on Saturday afternoons, and along with neighborhood friends, we’d reenact everything in backyards. Later, as a teenager, looking to books, I devoured Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, and Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (all influencing To Zenzi).

Rumpus: That’s a lot of exposure to the War. It’s almost as if this debut were autobiographical after all! But then again, it’s not as if you had firsthand experience in one of the novel’s central settings: the madness in Hitler’s bunker.

Shuster: The bunker was the seed of To Zenzi, but it came to me, as story ideas usually do, by happenstance. At the time, I had already written two novels (neither autobiographical); both found agents but not publishers. Frustrated by the experience, I thought I’d try my hand at easier-to-sell nonfiction, with a book on the cultural appeal of war. Researching it, I somehow ended up reading Alan Bullock’s one-thousand-page tome, Hitler and Stalin. At the end, Bullock examines the insanity of the Führerbunker. I had always imagined it as a small, cramped enclosure, with Hitler cowering inside, but not so: the place was a vast labyrinth, complete with meeting rooms, storerooms, a large kitchen, a surgical ward, a dental facility, and so on—and at the end, it was a buzzing hive of desperation, delusion, and considerable debauchery. A perfect setting, it suddenly seemed, for fiction.

Rumpus: You know, over in Berlin, some of the space the bunker occupied remains undeveloped scrub land, even in the heart of the city. The complex was such a vast honeycomb, sections of it still can’t be safely built over.

Shuster: That’s probably as it should be—a permanent reminder of what happened down there, a tyrant and his henchmen hiding in relative comfort beneath a ruined, massacred world that they continued to destroy. But that megalomania presented a problem for me. I did not want to write from the perspective of a dedicated Nazi. Then I read about the ceremony held outside the bunker on April 20, 1945, for Hitler’s fifty-sixth birthday, in which the Fuhrer presented nineteen boys with the Iron Cross. There was my answer: a boy, who would be, in the novel, the uncounted twentieth. But—to further separate the character from die-hard beliefs—a boy who was there by accident. And further—a dreamy boy who loved to draw spaceships (just as I did at Tobias’s age, which gets back to your reference to autobiography: there’s a touch of it here and there).

So, I put my nonfiction idea on the back burner (where it still simmers) and started on the novel.

Rumpus: This leads to a natural follow up, still about research. Your novel achieves far greater intimacy than a history like The Last Battle. What can you say about that source, closer to the bone?

Shuster: There’s an earnestness to my narrator, eighty-four-year-old Tobias Koertig, as he describes events in 1945 Berlin, and I wanted to capture that feeling not only in his tone and style, but also with a high degree of verisimilitude. I wanted everything he experiences, even the most bizarre, to be plausible, which meant doing a lot of research.

Bullock’s bibliography led to other books and bibliographies, and soon I was poring over everything I could find, in print and long out of print: histories, memoirs, diaries, old maps, photographic records, and even technical booklets with details on things like Berlin’s Ubahn, the Zoo’s flak towers, and uniforms of the time (the full list is on my website).

Watching footage of the war was also important, not just for accuracy, but for getting the mood of the time. I went back to another significant event of my childhood, from 1973, when my entire family watched the twenty-six-week broadcast on PBS of The World at War, certainly one of the best documentaries ever made about WWII. Going through it on DVDs, I was once again transfixed by everything: the opening heavy-hearted theme; the clipped, melancholy narration of Laurence Olivier; and above all, the captivating scenes of battle and suffering.

For images of ruins (in Berlin and elsewhere), two films made right after the war were very useful, too: The Search (with Montgomery Clift)and Rossellini’s bleak Germany Year Zero—both of them, as it happens, about children.

I plucked bits and pieces from all these sources and tried hard not to make that historical-novel mistake—showing off all you’ve learned. My arbitrary rule is to know ten times more than you’ll ever include. That way, you can be more confident of your portrait. Certain books, of course, became primary sources, such as the one you’ve mentioned, Ryan’s Last Battle, and James P. O’Donnell’s The Bunker, Helmut Altner’s Berlin Dance of Death, and Marie Vassiltchikov’s Berlin Diaries.

Let me confess that I’ve never visited Berlin. I strongly considered going there for more research, but the city in the spring of 1945 was a pile of rubble, and I decided that seeing how it looks today would not help, and might hinder, my imagination of the hellscape.

Rumpus: Well, then, let’s talk about imagination. As a story, To Zenzi delivers a lot of skullduggery, the vicious tug-o’-war between factions in the bunker. This shadow-struggle, grasping at the dregs of the Reich, provides one of the drivers for Tobias’s coming of age. What can you say about combining those two elements?

Shuster: For Tobias, a naive thirteen-year-old dreamer, all the difficulties of adolescence—establishing an identity, dealing with emotions, craving and resisting adulthood—are magnified not only by the war’s terrors, but also by the scheming and deceit of those, like Martin Bormann, who will do anything to survive. Bormann, who was a constant presence in the bunker, looms large for Tobias, taking advantage of the boy whenever he can. But the gradual breakdown of Tobias’s innocence leads him to question his acquiescence to power and then, in moments of extreme crisis, to commit acts of defiance and violence. That’s not exactly uncommon behavior for a teenaged boy in troubled circumstances, but here, in a world gone mad, it’s a matter of living or dying.

Rumpus: Such a desperate landscape, of course, features desperate people. Yet some go bad, like Martin Bormann, more malicious than Hitler himself, while some try for better, like young Zenzi; she and Tobias could be said to save each other’s lives. Can you talk about developing such divergent characters, and setting them in opposition?

Shuster: The setting of Berlin in the spring of 1945 provides a full range of extreme behavior and extreme characters. But I didn’t want cartoonish evil or pure righteousness. It was important, I felt, to keep everyone believably human. Hitler speaking fondly of his dog, Bormann fiddling with his wedding ring, Axmann joking around with his prosthetic arm—these are lighter, even comic, details that make their acts and attitudes all the more monstrous.

Likewise, a commonplace tension between a teenaged boy and girl strikes an ironic and poignant contrast with the dire situation of a ruined city. Tobias, trying to be dutiful in the bomb shelter, is embarrassed by the attentions of assertive, know-it-all, poetry-loving Zenzi, but also by his own lust. As their love develops, and their conversations deepen—about the fate of the Jews, about fleeing Berlin, about their own futures—awkwardness and friction still get in the way. Zenzi is irritated by Tobias’s boyish concerns and impatient with his sexual timidity. Tobias bristles at her condescension, particularly her unhelpful contempt for Russian culture when they come under the enemy’s occupation. It took a lot of work, especially in dialogue, to find the right balance between relating their foibles and conveying (without overdoing it) their sense of doom.

Rumpus: Doom lurks everywhere, no question, and yet from the first pages we know that Tobias, at least, has survived. Hope for more of the same, for small triumphs over the carnage at least, suffuses the text. Can you talk about sustaining that tension? Earlier you spoke of how you used humor, for instance, and now I’m following up, asking about how a scary story sustains hints of a way out. I realize that details of your plot are off-limits, but perhaps you can come up with analogies, either out of experience or from your reading?

Shuster: Hope rises and falls in the novel like the theme of Wagner’s overture to Tristan and Isolde, up and down, tension building then relieved, with an overall movement to greater and greater volume as the danger increases. The opera, in fact, gets mentioned in the story near the end, but that analogy of form has just occurred to me—which maybe points to the behind-the-scenes work of the subconscious in writing a novel.

In any case, some of the hope—glimpses of the way out—comes from history. A lot of people, good and bad, did manage to escape Berlin and the Russians in the final month of the war, following path-clearing efforts by General Wenck’s Twelfth Army to reach and surrender to the Americans, who had been ordered to stop their advance at the Elbe river, some sixty miles west of Berlin. There’s some heartbreaking footage I found of refugees crossing the Elbe over a destroyed bridge—a bit of which I used at the end of To Zenzi’s video preview. The hope of taking that route comes up a few times in the novel, first for Zenzi’s father, who studies his maps, and later for Zenzi and Tobias.

And in a story so weighed down by doom, you must give the characters (and the reader) moments of relief—of that melodic lift. Several scenes push things into the absurd, making for black humor or sometimes leading to a surprising humanity. And hope for survival is also buoyed by instances of fleeting joy from small things: an unexpected meal, an adolescent kiss, boyish antics, the smell of springtime.

Rumpus: The novel opens as a letter from a survivor, and that later perspective pops up occasionally thereafter, and then towards the end—we can say this much—the twenty-first century takes over. In short, this novel depends on a frame tale: the story of the story, how it came to be written, and what readers it found. What can you say about this element? Again, since we don’t want to give away the plot, perhaps you could find comparative cases.

Shuster: The novel’s Afterword, which comprises the longest modern-day section, came from that wish for versimilitude, for an “outsider’s” stamp of “authenticity.” You get this in Nabokov’s Lolita, with the Foreword by the fictional John Ray, Jr., Ph.D., and in Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, with its Translator’s Note by a fictional translator. Another example, which became something of a model for me, was Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, in which 111-year-old Jack Crabb’s adventurous story of the Old West is discovered (and given “credibility”) by a man of letters, Ralph Fielding Snell.

Originally, To Zenzi had a lengthy Foreword, footnotes, and an Epilogue, and it actually fooled a couple of early readers (an agent’s assistants) into believing that Tobias’s account was real. But those extras ended up being too much, getting in the way of the story. In the end, I jettisoned all but the last piece (now the Afterword). There, my fictional historian, Christopher Voss, “proves” the truth of Tobias’s story, but also continues it, shifting to an outsider’s viewpoint, and lending a kind of documentary style—investigative but intimate—to the final scenes.


Photograph of Robert L. Shuster by Leslie Kahan Photography.

John Domini has published four novels and three books of stories, as well as poetry, criticism, and journalism. His next book will be a memoir, The Archeology of a Good Ragù. More from this author →