My quietest literary child

In Hollywood, sequels are nearly always cynical attempts to cash in on the popularity of a hit movie. Studio executives light a joss stick in front of vintage 007 poster and offer up prayers that they can turn one success into a profitable franchise. The business plan is:

1. sign a few of the actors from the first movie,

2. bang out a screenplay by Friday, and

3. sling it into the marketplace while 15-year-olds can still remember what they liked last summer.

Novelists can’t be quite so cavalier, but anybody who writes a follow-on story knows that sequels nearly always stand in the shadow of a successful elder sibling. We know that readers are hungry for more of whatever made the first book appealing. They want to spend more time with the characters, and to find out what happened next. At the same time, we know from our own reading lives that sequels usually suck.

That experience is so common that two kinds of readers will actively avoid a sequel. Those who weren’t that crazy about the first book, and those who loved it so much they don’t dare risk reading anything that will undermine their happy memories of the original. I’ve heard from both kinds of readers, regarding Children of God. Mercifully few people have gotten in touch to say that they were so horrified and revolted by The Sparrow, they’d rather pull their own eyeballs out than read Children of God. Okay. Fair enough. Lots of books in the library. Nobody loves them all. But it’s more frustrating when somebody says, “I just couldn’t bring myself to try the sequel. I was afraid it would spoil The Sparrow for me.”

Writing Children of God was not a cynical exercise. I tried hard not to repeat The Sparrow. I felt it was important to take the story further: to follow the characters into their future without simply repeating a formula that had worked before. The Sparrow was a courtroom drama; Children of God was a three-generation family saga — on two planets with three species. The Sparrow was intimate, full of one-on-one conversations, and moments of reflection. Children of God was more epic – full of political intrigue and conflict.

I’m proud of Children of God. It’s a good sequel and many readers have said they actually preferred it to The Sparrow, and yet… even I fail to mention it when I’m called upon to talk about my novels in public. In all honesty, I haven’t thought about the book in years.

Which made it all the more surprising and touching when I was told that Frank W. Lewis gives credit to Children of God for motivating him to found the Ohio City Writers’ literacy program.

In 2010, while I was pondering whether to pursue this project, I read Mary Doria Russell‘s magnificent sci-fi novel Children of God. Near the end I came across this line: “It will be well, he told himself, and let the universe take care of itself while he took care of one apt and eager student.” This single, beautiful sentence nudged me closer to committing and still serves as a guiding principle. Is it possible to change the world one child at a time? I don’t know, but I can’t think of a better way to try.

I can’t remember writing that line. I have no idea what its context was. But my quietest literary child is out there on its own, making friends and doing its own work and … not sucking. Makes me happy to know that.

15 thoughts on “My quietest literary child”

  1. Neither The Sparrow nor the wonderful Children of God are quiet books in my life. They are two of the very few books that I revisit again and again. I have bought so many copies of them to give to friends that I just automatically buy them now when I see them in a bookstore. In my mind, Children of God is not a sequel, it is a culmination. Thank you, Mary.

  2. Your quietest literary child is one of my favorite books of all time. In fact, though I love THE SPARROW and try to re-read it at least once a year, it was CHILDREN OF GOD that inspired me to get in touch with you that first time and it was through our initial correspondence that I started to think of adapting one of your books (eventually DREAMERS OF THE DAY) for the stage and it was through that adaptation that I found the core members of my theater company…so basically, it is thanks to CHILDREN OF GOD that I have GOING TO TAHITI PRODUCTIONS…so, I don’t know about everyone else, but I’d like to express a big thanks to you for that!

  3. The Sparrow was such a fantastic book that I have to admit I was both thrilled and a bit nervous when I heard you were writing a sequel. Nervous for many of the reasons you mentioned above– too often sequels are such pale reflections of the original. But thrilled because I was so enamored of the world and characters of The Sparrow I couldn’t wait to get back there.

    Thankfully you made Children of God a worthy sequel and story all its own. It built upon the foundation you’d put down for The Sparrow, but had its own story, style, and feel. I know this might seem like an odd comparison, but it reminds me of the movies Alien and Aliens– both were fantastic movies, and the sequel nicely built on the original but was crafted in such a way to live and breathe and shine on its own merits.

    I give The Sparrow as gifts all the time, and I’m always happy to tell my friend that when he or she loves the story as I know they will, that there’s a sequel available that’s just as enjoyable a ride as the first one.

  4. Mary:
    I am so very pleased that you’re being recognized for inspiring folks to start writers groups. I am awed by your style, talking mostly about “Doc” which I just read and highly recommend – it’s has a “gasp” then “ah-ha” quality…expressions of something hitting home inside.

    My heartfelt congratulations.

    ~Ann Voorhees

  5. I always think of them as one big book. There was too much unsaid at the end of the Sparrow, and Children of God pulls it all together. And I am thinking of Children of God almost every day now as I have a big Italian (via Kansas) kid named Nico in one of my classes.

  6. The context was that Emilio was being sent home on the Bruno and declined to deal with the ‘white noise’ problem that resulted when he tried to read emails. So he concentrated on teaching Rukuei about Earth culture so he wouldn’t get blindsided by culture shock. Obviously I need to read them both again 🙂 🙂

  7. I usually try to speak With more poise but I’m rushed.
    Those two books were flipping brilliant. Glad people continue to affirm my good taste 😉

  8. It was, recently, in a conversation with my neice about faith that I realized that she was quoting the Bilbe and I was quoting ‘the Sparrow’ and both of understood the point that the other was making. I loved the Sparrow, it asked me to think much more deeply about the personality of God. There is a section in the book, which I’m much to embarassed to quote here for fear that others found it trite, that had me reshape my understanding of the nature of the relationship between ‘man’ and ‘god’. Children of God, was a wonderful sequel, and I knew to go in ready to ‘think’ and ‘ponder’ as well as ‘read’ and ‘enjoy’. It was the perfect set up to a perfect sequel.

  9. I liked The Sparrow a lot. But for whatever reason, it took me years to get to the sequel. I am not sure why. The Children of God knocked me down. In the midst of it, I just had to write you. I had never contacted an author before and I expected nothing. But I had to do it. I have seldom been so moved. It is a wonder. No disparagement is meant to your other works, but it is hands down my favorite read. I am repeating the other posts but I had to do it again. The Children of God is amazing. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  10. Hi Mary – Interesting post. While for films, I’m completely in agreement and equally cynical, I’ve never had that experience about books. If the first isn’t worthy, I don’t pursue the second. But for yours, The Sparrow and Children of God, not only was the first more than worthy, the second brings us around full circle, and enriches the experience of the first. (A unique talent and trick by the way.) In fact I just had to recommend Children again to a friend who loved The Sparrow but hadn’t read Children. (How could you not want more?)

    The question of “identity” of the second book is actually interesting as is your reference to them as your “children.” We all tend to identify a series of any kind by its first book unless the author has given the over-arching collection a name in its own right. But none-the-less, the second or third book can lose their identity in the mix, perhaps as a middle child sometimes does.

    Thanks for the interesting thoughts!

  11. I’ve read both, separately and together, many many times. I have found both spectacular. I think of them as bookends. Gelasius was right — Emilio had to go back. That story, I find, makes the first one even richer.

  12. Oh, that makes me happy as well. I love both of those beautiful, awesome books equally, and I never saw ‘Children’ as a sequel–more like a continuation. Another limb on the body. Isn’t it amazing? You put something out there in the world and it becomes like this existential magician; rabbits perpetually pulled from the hat. <3

  13. Hi, Mary!
    I SO agree with Julia above – how could you NOT want more??!! I agree with all of the above comments!! I can’t believe that YOU have not thought about it – both books are way too awesome to forget! They are among my favorites – and I say “among” because I cannot choose a favorite from your books! I just tell people that you are my favorite author and encourage them to read ALL your books! One of these days, I will reread The Sparrow and Children of God – just to keep my “high” while I wait for your next masterpiece! (I am currently making my way – slowly – through a 700+ page book on the 1961 Freedom Rides. Very fascinating and compelling book!) In short – YOU ROCK!! 🙂
    Blessings to you and yours,
    Elaine P.

  14. Being someone who hunts for outstanding Sci Fi, I found Children of God to be one of my favorites of all time. I was astounded at your inventive facility in creating cultures, language, medical and parochial references and kept looking at the book jacket re: your bio. I was so impressed. I kept thinking, ‘HERE is an author who has made terrific use of all her interests and education.’

  15. Normally I fall into the latter category; I don’t read sequels when I’ve so very much loved the original. However, the person who recommended “The Sparrow” to me also said that I have to read “Children of God,” because it is the only sequel she ever read that made the first novel even better upon reflection. She was correct. “The Sparrow” remains my favorite, but I loved and was grateful for every minute of the second! Thank you for your books!!

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