Acclaimed author Mary Doria Russell settles into successful routine in her Lyndhurst home office
By Joanna Connors, Cleveland Plain Dealer
Mary Doria Russell wrote her first novel, “The Sparrow,” in the spare bedroom of her house in South Euclid.
Make that half of the spare bedroom. She shared the little second-floor room with her husband, Don, a software engineer. Who, much as she loved him, drove her crazy as an office-mate.
“In my worldview, there are filers and there are pilers,” Russell said. “Filers think alphabetically. Pilers think geologically.”
Don’s geological approach, to hear Russell describe it, includes the looming possibility of avalanches and earthquakes.
Russell, on the other hand, not only organizes all her research and papers into file folders, she uses a labeler to identify the files.
“Oh, I love my labeler!” she said, leading the way into her kitchen to show off shelf after shelf annotated with color-coded labels: “Nuts,” “Spices,” and so on. Even that doesn’t entirely satisfy her impulse for neatness, though.
“It actually bothers me that I didn’t use the same font on all the labels,” she said. “Put in that I understand this is pathetic.”
Needless to say, the Russells’ shared office space didn’t last long. Russell left the spare room to her husband and took over the guest room, figuring she needed the room more than guests, who could always stay at a hotel.
She moved in old furniture and called the room shabby chic — “a lot more shabby than chic,” she said — and wrote her next three novels there. But it wasn’t until three years ago, when the Russells moved to their current house in Lyndhurst, that she finally got what she calls her “grown-up’s office,” a large corner bedroom on the first floor.
Now Russell works on a new, glass-topped desk she keeps so clean it could, in a pinch, be used for outpatient surgery. Bookcases on two walls hold neat rows of the histories, biographies and other books she used to research her new novel, “Doc,” published last May, and its in-the-works sequel, “A Cure for Anger.”
Except for a few carefully chosen mementos and pictures, and floor cushions for her dachshund, Annie, and her golden retriever, Leo, that is it. No artist’s squalor or creative mess for Russell.
In fact, Russell could have been writing about her own office when she described, in “Doc,” the Dodge City dental office opened in 1878 by Dr. John Henry Holliday: “No. 24, Dodge House was dustless and orderly, furnished with exactly what a dentist required for his work and nothing more.”
Russell’s space may have changed over the almost two decades she has been writing, but her work routine remains the same.
When she started “The Sparrow,” she was in her early 40s and suddenly unemployed.
She had a doctorate in biological anthropology but had lost her job at Case Western Reserve University when it downsized her department out of existence. Then she freelanced as a technical writer, but that work dried up in the early ’90s recession.
Worse, she couldn’t find any fiction worth reading.
“I thought, ‘If you’re so smart, you try it,’ ” she said. ” ‘This is not an easy game to play.’ ”
Russell’s son, Danny, was off to first grade. “I had time on my hands and an idea for what I thought would be a short story,” she said. She figured she’d write 11 pages “and crap out.”
Every morning, after Don went to work and Danny to school, she went to her little office to work on what would become “The Sparrow,” her novel about Jesuits who embark on a mission to a distant planet in the year 2019.
“I just got sucked in by the characters,” she said. “I worked in total concentration, something I had never experienced before. It was difficult to tear myself away when Danny got home.”
She got past 11 pages and kept going. But she found that the game, indeed, was not easy.
Monday morning always brought a crisis of confidence. She hated what she had written, she didn’t know what to write next, and she’d tell her husband, “That’s it! I can’t do it!”
So she quit. Every single Monday.
Her characters, however, did not quit.
On Tuesday, she’d be in the shower, or maybe the kitchen, and she’d hear a piece of dialogue. Back she went to the office.
On Wednesday, she would hear the characters so clearly, she felt she was getting somewhere. On Thursday, she’d start to like what she was writing.
“And by Friday, I was a [expletive] genius!” she said.
She suffered through months of rejections before she found an agent, who then quickly sold the manuscript to Random House. When it was published in 1996, critics and readers agreed with Russell’s Friday assessments: genius.
“The Sparrow” sold more than 500,000 copies and won several major awards, including the Arthur C. Clarke Prize, the Oscar of the speculative fiction (or sci-fi) world.
She wrote a sequel, “Children of God,” and then switched genres to write two historical novels set in the 20th century, “A Thread of Grace” and “Dreamers of the Day.”
Westward ho for new book
With her fifth novel, “Doc,” she hops genres again, into the Western. But as with her other books, the genre is a vessel for something much deeper.
With “Doc,” Russell set out to do nothing less than restore the reputation of one of the legends of the frontier, Doc Holliday, who had been mythologized — due to the storytelling of Bat Masterson — as a ruthless gunslinger, gambler and drunk.
Russell was first inspired to look into his life after seeing the movie “Tombstone.” Val Kilmer was a revelation, playing Doc in a way Russell had never seen: as a courtly Southern gentleman who played the piano beautifully and was actively dying of tuberculosis.
Research turned up other nuggets: He was a dentist educated at the best dental school in the country at the time, and he was born, in 1851 in Georgia, with a cleft palate. At the time, the defect was almost a death sentence for infants, who often died of starvation or pneumonia.
But John Henry Holliday was lucky. His uncle, a surgeon, repaired the palate, and his mother, Alice Holliday, fed him with an eyedropper. When he was older, she developed her own form of speech therapy for him.
Reading about his childhood struggle, and his beloved mother’s early death from TB, Russell felt her heart break. “He didn’t have a mama to love him when he was grown, so I took him for my own,” she said.
Russell also discovered that Doc Holliday was related to Margaret Mitchell, who used many Holliday family stories when she wrote her little book about the Civil War.
Russell decided early on to focus on one year in the life of Doc Holliday, 1878, three years before the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which she considers his last year of true happiness.
He had gone to Texas at the age of 22, hoping the Western climate would relieve his TB. He’s 26 in 1878, the year he meets his longtime companion, the sometime-prostitute Kate Harony — a fiery Hungarian who sparks his interest by speaking to him in Latin — and moves to Dodge City, where he meets Morgan Earp and his brother, Wyatt.
Russell throws in a few fictional characters and adds a murder to give a bit of a mystery structure to the novel. But how much of what she writes is real?
Russell answers that question in her Author’s Note at the end of the book: “Not all of it but a lot more than you might think.”
Research plays a vital role
In her pristine office, the rows of books — Russell estimates she accumulates 20 to 30 linear feet of research for each novel — and the neatly labeled files show her devotion to historical fact. Her research takes her to unexpected places sometimes.
For “Doc,” she read every issue of “Dental Cosmos,” the 19th century dentistry journal, and took riding lessons at the KD Guest Ranch in Adamsville, Ohio.
She also listened to the music Doc Holliday would have played: Chopin, Schumann, Beethoven — whose Fifth Piano Concerto, “The Emperor,” plays a key role in the book.
She became so entranced with the music, she celebrated sending off the manuscript for “Doc” by buying a piano for herself. At the age of 61, Russell is taking piano lessons, and practice has become part of her daily work routine, which still starts at 8:30 a.m. when Don leaves for work.
Still in her pajamas, she will “coffee-up” and work until 1, when she stops to get dressed and eat breakfast. She does errands and household stuff until about 4, when she goes back to work, sipping Red Bull, until dinnertime.
At night, her characters often talk to her.
“Doc would wake me up,” she said. “I’d hear, ‘Write this down, darlin’,’ and I’d get up and write it. They really come to inhabit your head.”
Her writing routine has been disrupted a bit by “Doc,” which she’s still promoting, even after a whirlwind six-week book tour. “Publishers expect writers to promote their books themselves now, using Facebook and Twitter and blogs,” she says.
“It’s culturally imposed ADD. It feels like you’re writing, because your fingers are on the keyboard, but a whole week will go by, and I’ll realize I haven’t finished one thing that I’m supposed to be doing.”
It helps that “Doc” earned her the best reviews she’s had since “The Sparrow.” The review in The Washington Post, for instance, opened with this line: “If I had a six-shooter (and didn’t work in the District), I’d be firing it off in celebration of ‘Doc,’ Mary Doria Russell’s fantastic new novel about Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp.”
“I’m thinking about getting that tattooed on my arm,” Russell said.