Mary, thanks very much for this interview. I’d like to start with the background to your writing: having been an academic, how did you turn to being a novelist?
I was out of work!
My academic department was downsized out of existence in the late 80s. I did make a pretty serious attempt to stay inside Academe–I applied for jobs and got shortlisted at Yale, and was actually offered an anthropology professorship at the University of Calgary. That was a dream job–first rate graduate students and faculty to work with, a superb physical plant, a view of the Rockies from what would have been my lab… About ten seconds after I accepted the offer, one of the Canadian faculty members threatened to sue the department if the job was given to an American. The department head told me that they’d fight to keep me, but I could tell he was really hoping that I’d withdraw my acceptance. It would have been a very divisive, very expensive procedure, and it would have spoiled the atmosphere that attracted me to the department in the first place.
So I turned the offer down, and ultimately went into business as a freelance technical writer, doing operator’s manuals for medical imaging equipment like CT and MR scanners, three-dimensional image processors, technical translations, and so on. I worked freelance for 5 years, and really enjoyed it–engineers are my favorite class of people, and it was a treat to work with them.
Then there was a recession toward the end of the Bush administration, and my contracts dried up. My son had just started school full-time, and I had an idea for what I thought might be a short story. I just started writing as an experiment, really. I wanted to see what it was like to create dialogue and characters.
And: why did you choose to write science fiction?
The story chose its own genre. I started writing The Sparrow in 1992, which was the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s landing in the New World. That year, there was a lot of historical revisionism going on, condemning the Europeans for their terrible sins and mistakes, as though they had set out from Spain intending to wreck Indian cultures and destroy whole populations. I thought, “Wait a minute here–those guys have been dead for 470 years! It’s just not fair to hold them to standards of cultural sensitivity and appreciation for diversity that we only pay lip-service to at the end of the 20th century.”
It just seemed to me that somebody ought to write a story that would put modern, intelligent, well-meaning, well-educated people into that same state of radical ignorance that the early explorers and missionaries experienced here in the Americas, and let’s just see how well we’d do! I thought it would be almost inherently tragic. There is no way to do First Contact right–the language trouble alone would generate endless possibilities for disastrous errors and mistakes.
Anyway, to put people like us into that situation, it was necessary to place the story off the planet. There’s nowhere left on Earth where we can experience that kind of radical ignorance.
Are you widely read in the SF genre?
For many years SF was my genre of choice. Most of my favorite books are SF: Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, Gibson’s Neuromancer. More recently, I’ve moved into historical novels, but they have the same appeal as SF: they take the reader into another time and place. I’ve always thought that James Clavell’s Shogun is actually an excellent First Contact novel!
Do you as an author identify with SF?
I think science fiction is an important genre, and I am proud to have contributed a couple of novels to the field, but no, I don’t identify with the genre as such. Maybe that’s because I came to writing in my mid-40s. I already had an identity! I never say, “I am a science fiction writer.” I will say, “I am a writer.” If you saw my CV, there would be pages of scientific, technical and business publications. My two SF novels are embedded in a large, if obscure, body of work.
Parallels have been suggested between your Rakhat novels and James Blish’s A Case of Conscience. I know you weren’t conscious of any influence, or homage on your part…
I’m not sure I can even be unconscious of it–I was 8 when Mr. Blish’s story was published and I don’t believe I ever came across it. If I did, it didn’t make any impression on me.
I am always hugely amused by the suggestion that Emilio Sandoz was named in homage to Blish’s Spanish Jesuit, Ruiz-Sanchez. Actually, Emilio’s last name came off a medicine bottle–my son had a cold when I started the book, and he was taking Dimetapp, made by Sandoz Pharmaceuticals. That’s where I got the name! I just liked the sound of it.
But do you think these Blishian comparisons are in any way productive, in helping assess your subject matter from more than one perspective? Personally, I see your books as a big improvement on Blish, especially in their human detail and greater realism.
I can’t really answer that question myself because I’m not familiar with Blish’s story. Someone who’s read both The Sparrow and A Case of Conscience would have to address this. There are also reviewers who draw parallels to CS Lewis’s work, but again, I’ve never read Lewis, so any similarities have to be due to what a palaeontologist would call convergent evolution.
As a palaeoanthropologist, you have a thorough acquaintance with the human past. Can you say something about any historical (and biological) models you may have used in constructing the Rakhati cultures?
Well, there have been times in hominid history when more than one species of intelligent, upright, tool-using ape was around and there were times when they were probably in contact with one another. But for the two intelligent species on Rakhat, my ecological model was the relationship between cheetahs and Thompson’s gazelles. It’s a very elegant but very fragile ecological arrangement. We consider cheetahs to be the dominant species, because we tend to respect predators more than herd animals, but in reality, they are utterly dependent on the gazelles. If anything changed in the gazelle species, the cheetah could very well become extinct in a few weeks’ time.
For the events in Children of God, I drew on the culture of Romanov Russia. Recently the Cleveland Museum of Art had an exhibit of Faberge Eggs. They were breathtakingly beautiful, but I could not look at them without trying to calculate the number of lives each one represented. How many serfs laboured all their lives to concentrate so much wealth in the hands of a single family that the husband could afford to give these eggs to his wife for Easter? It was staggering, and reminded me once again that there was a reason for the Russian Revolution of 1917. So yes, Romanov Russia deserved to be overthrown, and yet that culture produced artwork, dance, literature and music that has never been surpassed in world history, let alone by the Soviet culture that succeeded it.
In Children of God, the Jana’ata were absolute and pitiless despots, but the destruction of their high culture is a tragedy, and there’s no way of knowing if the Runa will ever match what the Jana’ata accomplished. Maybe, maybe not. But whether they do or not, the Runa were entitled to liberate themselves from an oppressive system. And of course, should they themselves become despots in turn, the sin is on their own heads, not on those of the Jana’ata.
Still with history, you’ve already commented in this interview on your treatment of the theme of exploration and its sequel, colonialism. Would it be fair to say that while you’re presenting the inevitable evils of the colonial process, you’re also trying to argue how those evils can be palliated thereafter, even turned to the good (as in the liberation of the Runa)?
I would not say that evil is palliated by good. Evil is evil. Good sometimes follows evil chronologically, good may even come about in reaction to evil, but that doesn’t excuse or lessen the evil. Just as an example: in the past few decades, West Germany has had one of the most enlightened and liberal refugee policies in Europe. That policy was instituted in direct reaction to Germany’s own horrific history as a maker of refugees. The current policy of decency is a result of historic savagery, and it reflects well on the German people who instituted and supported the welcoming of the dispossessed. It does not in any way palliate the evil of the Third Reich, but it is an honorable and admirable reality in its own right.
The Runa Revolution is simultaneously a catastrophe for the Jana’ata, and the best damned thing that ever happened to the Runa. At the end of Children of God, the Runa are creating a vibrant culture while the Jana’ata are clinging to a precarious existence in unrelieved poverty. It’s too soon to tell how these groups will develop. I don’t believe that power necessarily corrupts, any more than I believe that poverty ennobles. If the Runa create something good, it won’t palliate the despotism of the system that drove them to revolt. If the Jana’ata create something good, it won’t palliate their own near-extinction at the hands of the Runa. I guess I don’t believe in that kind of redemption.
I think we have to understand historical contexts, but every generation is handed a history, and each individual then decides what to do about it. Every parent makes a hundred daily decisions about which aspects of the prevailing culture are worthy of being perpetuated, and which are too stupid or ugly to hand down to a child. This is what Ha’anala does, in her tiny mountain enclave: she tries to see clearly which things are worthy of being taught to children.
The story of Hlavin Kitheri’s rise and fall from power was historically resonant for me when I read Children of God. He tries to make something more flexible and durable, but simultaneously more predatory, of a deeply tyrannical system, as has often been attempted. Do you see all such essentially selfish reform initiatives by political elites as doomed?
I think I have more compassion than that for individuals who are genuinely trying to reform a system. For example, the Chinese leadership are currently trying to feel their way along this knife-edge between stability and change. I don’t admire their regime, but what they are trying to do is very, very difficult–if they miscalculate the balance, China could go the way of the Soviet Union, which is not an attractive prospect. Reform is very hard.
Tinkering often destabilizes things, and societies can shatter very quickly. Repression is bad, but chaos, civil war and economic collapse can be lethal. Personally, I’d rather be oppressed than raped and murdered, thanks very much. I saw Hlavin as an enlightened reformer, who loosened up the cultural and political straitjacket of his society. That resulted in a remarkable creative ferment, but it also unleashed all kinds of competing political and economic interests, and life became very dangerous. He tried to replace a stable hereditary hierarchy with a meritocracy, and the result was first exciting and wonderful, and then careened out of control. There was a political backlash, and then revolution. But Hlavin did his best, and his best was admirable. He deserves to be honored for the attempt.
You’ve already mentioned your interest in historical novels; you’ve cited Dorothy Dunnett as a major influence, and are yourself producing an historical novel. Having already written two history-tinged SF novels, do you see close technical parallels between the genres of SF and historical fiction?
The similarities lie in world-building. In my third novel, A Thread of Grace, I have to take the reader back to September 8, 1943. I have to overcome the fact that you know who won the Second World War; you know where those cattle cars filled with Jews are going; you know that the War is going to go on for nearly two more years. But the characters don’t. I have to get you to buy into their decisions, to understand how and why people made those decisions–without knowing what the outcome would be. I have to take you to a time and place that doesn’t exist anymore, into a culture and a political situation that is hard to see with clarity, without the lens of hindsight. And of course, I’ve got to get all the details right–no anachronisms. The big difference is that history is writing the outline for me, this time.
CHARACTERIZATION AND NARRATIVE TECHNIQUE
Your characterization of Emilio Sandoz seems to me one of the most vivid and complex in SF’s history. Can you say something about how you conceived of him?<
He became a person of great integrity for me–I knew him intimately, and he didn’t always please or charm me, but he was very real. There are strands of his story that come from my father’s background–growing up Italian on the south side of Chicago, back in the 1930s when Italian boys were born suspects, and were presumed to be involved with organized crime. My grandfather actually did time for armed robbery, so my father could easily have sunk into that morass. Instead, he joined the Marine Corps when he was 17. The Marines provided my father what the Society of Jesus provided Emilio Sandoz: structure, discipline, a sense of history, a code of conduct, adult males to admire and emulate, a clear hierarchy, order, accomplishment. There are two other people who contributed to Emilio’s basic personalities (I use the plural there because there is Emilio Before and Emilio After). I am not at liberty to tell their stories publicly.
But all that being said, the character was his own person. As I wrote, he accreted characteristics, prejudices, likes and dislikes, blind spots, bad habits, friends, experiences–eventually the accumulation of written detail takes on a life of its own and the character begins to live. You can’t go back and revise much at that point, without losing the integrity of the person you’ve created. Emilio would have been very different if I’d decided he played football rather than baseball, for example, because he’d have been a large and physically imposing man rather than one who was small and wiry but indomitable.
A generally memorable feature of your novels is your depiction of the political, psychological, and philosophical interactions of men: Jesuits, Mafiosi, Jana’ata aristocrats, and so forth…
I am always delighted when this comment is made. One of the most wonderful reactions I’ve had from Jesuits was when Bill McKinney, SJ, contacted my friend Ray Bucko, SJ, and asked, “Okay–who was it really? It’s got to be somebody inside.” He thought Mary Doria Russell was a Jesuit writer’s pseudonym! I thought about publishing under my initials, so that it wouldn’t be clear who the writer was: male or female, gay or straight, Jesuit or lay…
So: Are you conscious of having a particular insight into what one might call the sociology of the masculine?
I am consciously aware of liking guys. Let me think about this for a while… I would have to say that I am a well-fathered woman. My father’s general tone with me was one of amused approval and tolerant affection. A psychologist would probably say my father gave me a fundamental confidence that men will enjoy my company and value me. That confidence has been reinforced and sustained by a really satisfying marriage that is about to enter its 30th year, and then added to by the experience of mothering a son whom I not only love but also like.
These core relationships are so strong and so consistently gratifying that I have always been comfortable in the presence of men–professionally, I’ve commonly worked with groups of men in science and engineering, for example. The friendship and teamwork I can offer isn’t marred by the need to be manipulative or seductive. I don’t have to score points or settle old grudges or bolster my self-image with sexual conquests, and I’ve been rewarded for having a basic ease and naturalness, a directness with men. I am not one of the guys, you understand. I suppose that when I was young, I was sort of a mascot, and as I hurtle toward 50, I am more and more like an affectionate aunt or sister. But guys can be themselves around me–they don’t have to pretend or posture or conceal themselves. Maybe all that has contributed to an ability to portray males realistically in fiction.
Both Rakhat novels consist of parallel temporal streams: in The Sparrow, there’s the counterpoint of the voyage out (generally cheerful) and the much later agony of Sandoz back on Earth. Then, in Children of God, there’s the very tense mounting of the second Jesuit expedition, contrasted with the revolutionary events that have been occurring all the while on Rakhat. Can you comment on why you so consistently employ this narrative bifurcation?
Well, originally, it was because I liked reading stories that had that kind of parallel plotting. Those were the novels that kept me up late at night. My eyes would be burning, and my husband would be complaining, “Turn off that damned light, will you?” and I’d say, “I just have two more paragraphs to go, for this chapter.” Then I’d peek at the first line of the next chapter, and think, “Oh, yeah! I’d forgotten about them…” and get wrapped up in that storyline and those characters, and read some more.
When I was writing The Sparrow, I found that having two plotlines kept me from getting stuck. I’d get to the end of my ideas for Before, and then I could go back to After, and that kind of alternation was very productive. It was much harder to write Children of God, and I rearranged the chapters over and over and over, constantly struggling with the pacing, the timing of revelations, the balance among the timelines.
On a deeper level, in both novels, Time itself became a character. I used the past to shine a slanted light on the present, and the present to throw significant events of the past into high relief with the light of hindsight. You never fully understand things as they are happening. The stories in Genesis and Exodus have survived for 3500 years, and continue to be told and found resonant across so many cultures, in part because they demonstrate how to give meaning to events, how to make a great, unfolding drama out of isolated incidents, family upheavals, bad luck and good times. And they provide some hope that what seems to be a senseless tragedy today might one day seem to be the seed from which great good grew. Time is sacred in Judaism. Time is the essence of Jewish theology and ritual. In Jewish thought, God paints on a vast canvas, and his brush is Time. With the third novel, time is straightforward, but I have two geographies–I have one storyline taking place in Genoa, and another one in the Maritime Alps.
The trouble with this tactic for storytelling is that you have to introduce two groups of characters, so the first 100 pages are pretty heavily freighted with names and situations. I do a great deal of rewriting and revising and editing of those pages, to get the two plotlines laid out as economically as I can. But the advantage is that when I do braid the two stories together, the last 100 pages of the books become more pressured and compressed, more intense–and that keeps readers up late at night. I have what I call the 2 AM Club–readers who tell me that they started reading the last 100 pages when they went to bed at 10 PM and just couldn’t stop turning the pages. I’m always pleased when I hear that.
IDEOLOGY AND GENDER
Do you regard your books as examples of feminist SF?
Not really, although I’m pleased that feminists have embraced my characters and their stories. The books have also been embraced by theologians, by priests and ministers and rabbis, by gays and lesbians, by Latinos and Poles, by blacks and whites, by old ladies and young men… I tried hard not to make any of my characters emblems or political caricatures. I certainly have personal opinions about damned near anything you’d care to name, but my novels are not political screeds. I didn’t want the whirring sound of axes being ground to drown out the story.
It was very important to me that neither of my books had a single political or religious statement that wasn’t countered by something else, elsewhere in the books. One of my greatest convictions is that very few things in life are Either/Or. In my observation, almost every issue is And And And And And. So as I work and rework, revise and add, twist and braid my novels, I am always trying to undermine the reader’s certainty, to force the reader to question assumptions and conclusions. The theme song of my intellectual life has always been, “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” There’s no single way to understand anything.
So you take no definite stance within the broader spectrum of feminist positions?
I’m far too old and pragmatic to be an ideologue, personally, but I’m definitely left of center on most issues.
Hlavin Kitheri’s aesthetic code is one of the most fascinating elements of the Rakhat books. In rendering this remarkable obsession with the sensuous, are you saying something about the social roles that art and the artist can play?
No, I didn’t mean Hlavin to be an emblem of the Artist. His personal life is based on biographies of the Marquis de Sade–a very sad person whose life is practically an instruction book demonstrating how childhood neglect and parental indifference can construct monsters. One of the most chilling and tragic things I read about him was this quote: “When people are screaming, I know they’re paying attention to me.” De Sade believed himself to be an artist and aesthete whose life was a triumph over powerlessness. Hlavin differs from de Sade in that Hlavin is a genuine genius–he really is a great poet.
Hlavin’s political life is based on that of Henry II of England, who was also brilliant and fairly amoral, a great political innovator and effective military leader.
Both Roman Catholicism and Judaism are prominent belief systems in your novels. How does your portrayal of them reflect your own experience as a Catholic who converted to Judaism?
I wasn’t a Catholic who converted to Judaism. I was an atheist who converted to Judaism. I left the Catholic Church in 1965, and was a contented atheist for 25 years. I retained the Roman elements of Roman Catholicism–a sort of stoic philosophy that virtue is its own reward, and that one leads a decent and honorable life without fear of hell and without hope of heaven.
That was enough for me until I became a mother, and started having to make those constant decisions about what I wanted my son to aspire to and value, and what I wanted him to avoid. I realized that the moral and ethical framework I wanted him to have was founded on the religion of my childhood, but I could not bring myself to return to Christianity in any of its forms. For me, the Incarnation is an insuperable barrier to faith, but after an embarrassingly long time, it occurred to me at last that Judaism was the source of the ethics and morality I valued in Catholicism, and all the theological problems associated with the Incarnation simply evaporated.
In a private way, The Sparrow was about giving Catholicism one last chance to claim my soul. While writing it, I became increasingly certain that I wasn’t simply not-a-Christian, that I was in fact a Jew. Of course, having eliminated the Incarnation and all its allied dogmas about virgin birth, salvation from original sin by blood sacrifice, and resurrection theology, I was diving into the problems associated with post-Holocaust Jewish theology. Children of God is about the aftermath of an irreversible and massive tragedy, and all the ways that individuals and societies try to encompass that kind of assault on the notion of an interventionist God who is also loving.
To the extent that Emilio Sandoz can be considered a Christ figure (especially in his suffering and in the huge symbolic significance he acquires in the minds of others), does your narrative of his life stand as an example of how an ordinary person (‘a punk from Puerto Rico’, you’ve said elsewhere) can emulate and echo the Divine?
I don’t consider Emilio a Christ figure. If anything, the suggestion that “Even Jesus thought God had forsaken him,” enrages Emilio. “It was all over for Jesus in three hours,” he replies–one of the most brutal statements I have ever written. (And one that was inspired by the biography of a Catholic priest who underwent a bone marrow transplant for cancer. This man was warned that the procedure could be unimaginably awful, but was determined to get through it by thinking of Jesus. In the event, he could not do that. What appalled me was that the priest was ashamed that he couldn’t sustain his identification with Jesus. He just wanted to die. He wanted the suffering to end. I wanted to tell him, “Look, it was all over for Jesus in three hours! Having all the mucous membranes of your gut tube, from mouth to anus, slough off-and then enduring weeks of vomiting and diarrhea scouring the raw tissue of your body–that is in fact, in reality, worse than crucifixion. Stop feeling like a spiritual failure!”) Emilio is not a spiritual masochist. He was brutalized by suffering, made murderous by abuse.
Not even Jesus welcomed suffering, according to the gospels written closest to his death. It’s only a century or more later, when John imposes Olympian divinity on a dying Jew, that we get that extraordinary and beautiful statement, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” If you insist on making Emilio into a type, then you must think of the abandoned and wretched Jesus who cried, “My God! My God! Why hast Thou forsaken me?” not of the transcendent Christ who knew he was God and whose cross was a throne.
For me, however, the parallel was quite explicitly with Jeremiah–whom God also used ruthlessly and who cried, “You seduced me, O God, and I let you. You raped me.” Jeremiah and Emilio have been ravished by God–they are bridal mystics who experience the divine as oceanic, encompassing Love, and consequently they are very bitter about their treatment at the hands of God. They have been reduced to the status of tools that God has selected for His own purposes, used and abused, for a larger Purpose. Read Jeremiah’s Lamentations, and you get a sense of shattering grief, uncomprehending sadness, and raw outraged fury at it all. That’s Emilio, After.
Another religious figure who seems to find parallels on Rakhat is Moses: could one fairly see Hlavin Kitheri and Supaari as contrasting variations on the type of Moses, prophetic leaders of their respective peoples into the wilderness?
You’re the reader, and you outrank me, so I guess if you see the story like that, it’s a perfectly valid interpretation. But in my mind Ha’anala was the explicit parallel to Moses (“What if Moses were an Egyptian who was raised by the Hebrews?” Sean Fine suggests at the end of Children.) Hlavin is a political reformer. He doesn’t want to lead his people into the wilderness, he wants to lead them into the suburbs! He wants things to be better, different, but he is not a revolutionary. Supaari becomes almost Hitlerian–he defines his own kind as parasites and his final solution to the Jana’ata problem is genocide. To me, he and Sofia are tragic figures. Sofia literally loses sight of half the world…
You’re presently busy with your third novel, A Thread of Grace, set in World War Two. How is that proceeding?
I’ve got about 140 pages of what will run to about 500 in manuscript. So about a third of it is written. But I do a lot of rewriting and revising. The first draft is really only half my work. I don’t anticipate publication before the end of 2000.
Do you plan any further ventures into SF? Specifically, any Rakhat sequel?
No, I don’t think so. There is nothing about the situation or the characters that draws me back to Rakhat. I really feel that I’m done with Emilio and Rakhat, and I’ve said everything I have to say about theology and religion!
As for science fiction, I have no ideas in mind for anything that requires an SF setting. At the moment, I’m tempted to say that A Thread of Grace will be my last novel. Writing fiction’s such hard work for me–much harder than doing science or being in business. I’m beginning to yearn for a simpler and less demanding life. But I never intended to be a novelist in the first place, so I won’t make any predictions about what I’ll be doing in 10 years! Time will tell.
Mary, again, thanks very much. The best of luck with A Thread of Grace.