Mary Doria Russell is interviewed by Lt. Colonel Roger C. Thompson, professor of English at the Virginia Military Institute, in Lexington, VA.
RCT: Mary, your career as a writer is hard to classify because your books don’t fit very neatly into any particular genre box. Why is that?
MDR: Honestly? I didn’t know any better. Maybe if I’d studied writing instead of anthropology, I’d be more sensible. You know — pick a genre, follow the rules, stay in the box — but let’s face it. Sensible people don’t major in anthropology.
In film, it’s normal to change genres. Ridley Scott made Bladerunner, Gladiator and Titanic. The Coen Brothers take on one genre after another — Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou? Johnny Depp and Meryl Streep are celebrated for disappearing into an amazing range of roles —
RCT: But novelists are expected to obey genre boundaries!
MDR: I know! Isn’t that weird? But thinking about why I don’t… I guess, my real commitment is to the main character, and that’s why each novel is different.
In Dreamers, for example, Agnes Shanklin wanted to speak directly. Mumma told her what to think and say and do all those years, and Agnes wasn’t having any more of that. This was her story, she was going to tell it, and I was politely told to get out of her way.
Problem was, Agnes was 40 when she went to Egypt in 1921. That would’ve made her 127 when Dreamers was published, but the record for human longevity is 121. So rather than deny Agnes her voice or introduce a biological impossibility, I wound up writing a novel with a dead narrator.
It’s not like I thought, “Hey! Magical realism might be a good career move after a Holocaust novel…” The style and genre were dictated by the main character. As Agnes said, “If ghosts are good enough for Shakespeare and Garcia Marquez, they’re good enough for the likes of you, Mary.”
RCT: Your novels always deal with one culture coming in contact with another. Your first two describe contact with an alien world. A Thread of Grace explores the Italian population coming into contact with Jewish refugees. How would you describe the cultural contacts in Dreamers?
MDR: Inept, arrogant and destructive!
In the other novels, people are trying to do the right thing. They make mistakes, their good intentions may have tragic outcomes, but they’re trying to be decent. The diplomats at the Cairo Conference weren’t trying to be moral or ethical — or courteous, even! Their goal was undisputed imperial domination of resource-rich colonies, guarded by military might and fueled by oil. You can see how well that worked out for everyone…
RCT: The Prelude in A Thread of Grace describes the unremarkable death of a woman under the care of a Jewish doctor, but that the woman’s child was Adolf Hitler. Dreamers also seems to be the unraveling of a similarly ordinary event that changed the course of our history.
MDR: Yes! I never thought of that, but you’re right — President Wilson came down with the flu – just like 55 million other people did — but he got sick the night before the Versailles Peace Conference was convened.
Now, maybe his Fourteen Points wouldn’t have passed anyway, but if he’d been healthy, Wilson might’ve negotiated a fairer conclusion of the Great War. We’ll never know, but there’s consensus among historians that the humiliating, vindictive terms of the Versailles Treaty led directly to World War II.
And the Cairo Conference was supposed to tidy up a few problems left over at Versailles. Eight decades later, Osama bin Laden said that the attacks on 9/11 were in part “to avenge the catastrophe of 80 years ago” — the 1921 Cairo Conference! So there’s a direct line between Wilson’s flu and the fact that my nephew, Lt. Tim Riemann, was commanding a platoon of Marines in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province when Dreamer of the Day was published.
Around the world, today’s headlines are rooted in 19th century colonialism. In some sense, troops and civilians dying now are casualties of the Great War.
RCT: One day, historians may call the conflict that began in 1914 another Hundred Years’ War.
MDR: Yes, and this one may go on even longer. It certainly involves more people and vastly greater tragedy than the original.
RCT: You did significant historical research for this novel and A Thread of Grace, and your work in anthropology required rigorous research methods. How do you go about research for fiction?
MDR: I start with biographies. Well, actually — dialog comes first. A character’s sense of humor or lack of it, the cleverness or stolidity of expression… I hear characters long before I see or understand them.
But then, to understand a character – real or imagined — I need biographies. I need to know about that person’s parents, too, and to understand the parents, I have to dig into their historical context as well. Time depth is crucial. So I try to study at least 40 years of history prior to the novel’s period.
RCT: When you finish a novel, do you miss the daily interaction with any of the characters, or are you glad to have them out of your hair?
MDR: You know, I was just thinking about this! The characters I’m most emotionally involved with are like friends you leave behind when you move away. You don’t see them regularly anymore, but you still love them and keep in touch. For example, Emilio Sandoz made a baseball fan out of me. Every summer we get in touch, if only to commiserate about how awful the season is this year!
Right now, I’m working on Eight to Five, Against. [Note: this novel will be published under the name Doc in 2011.] It’s a murder mystery set in Dodge City in 1878, with Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday–
RCT: Wait – a murder mystery Western? Talk about not staying in the genre box!
MDR: I know, I know… Anyway, Doc is my new best friend. I am totally infatuated — but he’s dead, so it’s okay with my husband…
Doc played piano and he’s introduced me to 19th century piano concerti. And he got me to study Homer and Virgil. I can’t read the classics in Greek and Latin, which Doc did, but I was able to use T.E. Lawrence’s translation of The Iliad. It’s very good, and it was an opportunity to get back in touch with another old friend!
My characters always teach me things, and they remain a part of my life even when I move on.
RCT: How soon can we expect Eight to Five, Against?
Maybe 2010? I don’t want to rush this book. I love Wyatt and Morgan and Doc so much, and want to spend time with them…
Doc just breaks my heart. It’s so different – having a real person as a main character! I did terrible things to Emilio Sandoz, but I could give him a daughter and a grandson and the fictional prospect of a contented old age at the end of Children of God.
Nothing I write can change Doc’s fate. That poor soul is going to die of tuberculosis, destitute and in misery. At 36, he’ll be buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave, 1500 miles from home, and I can’t do anything for him — except maybe win him some of the respect and compassion I think he deserves.
RCT: Thanks, Mary.
MDR: It was a pleasure, hon. Always fun to talk with you!