If you look for the novels of Mary Doria Russell in your local bookstore, you’ll need to search more than one place to find them. Her first two works, The Sparrow and Children of God can be found on the science fiction shelves, but you’ll have to look elsewhere for her new novel, A Thread of Grace. Where the first two stories are set in the future and concern the first contact between a Jesuit missionary and an alien culture, Ms. Russell’s latest novel takes place in Europe at the end of World War II, a world still remembered by many people today. Where some novels are consciously created to be science fiction or historical fiction, others, like those of Mary Doria Russell, find their way to different parts of the bookstore simply by being what they are.
I recently had the opportunity to discuss with Ms. Russell her work, what sets her novels apart from one another and what unites them.
Why do you write?
It’s indoor work with no heavy lifting.
I’ve observed that some writers practice their craft to communicate a point of view and others to satisfy a desire to create. Where do you see yourself in that regard?
The former is the end, and the latter is the means to it. I am a classically trained anthropologist, which means that I was expected to become competent in the four fields of that discipline: social anthropology, linguistics, archeology, and biological anthropology. Turns out, that’s a splendid background for somebody who writes fiction, not only because of the breadth of the training and experience, but also because you learn how to learn quickly and efficiently, and then to convey what you’ve learned to others.
As an anthropologist, you’re expected to thrive when dropped into an alien culture — learn the language, make friends, ingratiate yourself with the power structure, and get yourself welcomed into the lives of the natives, all while maintaining your scientific objectivity. That’s the first part of the enterprise. The second half is to write up the results of the study, often for a variety of audiences: your thesis committee, a juried journal, a popular magazine, maybe a textbook publisher, or even a general readership, and later to a grant committee, so you can continue your work! There’s a certain amount of seduction in all of those kinds of writing. You’ve got to know your readers’ expectations and meet or exceed them.
My novels always begin with some big question that I want to learn about. What makes missionary work worth the danger? How does religion affect people’s lives, even if they aren’t religious personally? Why would a fascist country like Italy have the highest Jewish survivorship in Nazi-occupied Europe? What did Osama bin Laden mean when he said that 9/11 was revenge for “the catastrophe?” How come nobody in the West remembers the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference, if it was so important?
I’m used to having big chewy ideas to structure my reading, and I enjoy the research my books have required. But the whole time I’m reading, I’m also thinking about the best way to convey what I’m learning. That’s the craft, the artistry — balancing content with conveyance.
Neurobiologists have found that learning is easier when the emotions are in play. If information comes through the limbic system, the connections are much faster. That’s why you can remember things about movies so much easier than you can remember geometry formulae. With a movie, ideally, you’ve not only got a ton of sensory data, you’ve also character, plot, drama, surprise, humor — all limbic system stuff.
So as I read, I pay close attention to the moments when I was surprised by something, or moved, or stopped to imagine that event, or otherwise had my own emotions triggered. Those are the elements of the background reading that I try to incorporate into the novels.
Your first two books can be classified as science fiction, but your new book is rooted in history rather than science. Some readers may see your new book as a departure from your earlier works, but is it? In all of your books, you are looking at the world through the prism of another time.
Exactly. As I wrote The Sparrow, I thought of it as a historical novel that takes place in the future. I wanted an omniscient narrator to have a kind of “looking back on it all now” perspective. The tone for that was set in the last line of the first page of The Sparrow: “They meant no harm.”
Each of [the novels] required me to imagine living in a time and a place that are not my own. That’s half the fun of fiction — getting out of South Euclid, Ohio. Especially during the Bush II administration.
Did you approach the writing of these books differently because of the genres to which they belong?
Well, with the first two books, the future had to be plausible, but what the hell — if the author tells you that Australia and Japan had teamed up to do asteroid mining, you just shrug and think, “Okay, if you say so…” As long as it’s plausible, you let it go and enjoy the ride. So there was an aspect of playfulness and creativity that I could indulge in as I created Rakhat and made passing reference to future events.
(Mostly I took whatever was absolutely inarguable in 1992, and reversed it, which is why I put in that throw away line about Republicans from Texas. When I wrote that, Ann Richards was unassailable and Texas was solidly Democratic. I had no knowledge of Karl Rove then, but I figured somebody like him was out there, looking to turn things around for the Republicans. Grunge was normal in 1992, so I wrote about lovely Stepford Wife-y fashions for my future, and sure enough, Sex in the City comes along, and women are wearing Jimmy Choo stilettos and flouncy skirts.)
With Thread, I was working with living memories, with the stories told to me face to face, by people whose opinions I cared about, and whose stories I wanted to convey with power and compassion. I was writing about an era of history that is massively studied, hugely important, and constantly referenced in contemporary culture. I felt a great responsibility to those who had entrusted me with their personal history, as well as an academic need to get the details of the larger war right. All that was merely the foundation for the need to create characters and plot and dialog that would connect readers with the emotions of the moments. Much harder book to write, and it took seven years to do it.
Maybe the bigger question is, do you see any of your books as belonging to a genre at all?
Not really. Genre is a tool. I don’t sit down and think, I should write a mystery. Now, who gets murdered? Instead, I get interested in something, like the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference, and as I read, I’m thinking, “Hmmmm… Should I attempt to write this in first person as T.E. Lawrence? Nah… But maybe as a first person narrative… wait! Here’s a missionary lady from Ohio who taught Lawrence to speak Arabic! I’ll be damned… Now that’s interesting. Except I’ve already done so much religious stuff… What if it were her sister who was the narrator? She could be a teacher…”
All that’s going on while I’m still farting around reading biographies and histories and political analyses of the Middle East. As it happens, Dreamers of the Day is turning out to be magical realism, but in a very flat midwestern way with a whole lot of realism and just a rather bemused dash of magical. Luisa Middleton is a very sensible lady who is simply telling you how things turned out without really understanding quite how they came to be that way.
Why did you choose the time you did for The Sparrow and Children of God?
In 1992, I looked at the pub date for Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001, and subtracted. That was the time scale I used for my similarly near future. I wanted to set the story close enough to current time and culture that I could make reference to it.
Just as Sir Arthur was wrong about some things and right about others, The Sparrow has hits and misses in its predicted future. Emilio Sandoz is currently working in the Sudan, which unfortunately is just as violent and heartbreaking as I imagined it would be back in 1992. Sofia Mendes is currently a child whore in Turkey during the second Kurdish War, which is damned close: we’re in the midst of the second Iraq war, and it wouldn’t surprise me if there are little girls being pimped to US soldiers today. I called it “pointcast,” and in reality, it’s being called podcast, but the idea was sound. On the other hand, we’re nowhere near having asteroid mining as described in The Sparrow, nor was there anything like a moon colony when the year 2001 came and went.
I find it interesting that even though science and religion are often at odds, there are excellent works of science fiction that explore religious themes. In addition to your works, some stories that come to mind are “The Star” by Arthur C. Clarke and the film The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Do you think that science fiction is particularly suited to exploring questions of religion, perhaps in the same sense that legends and folk tales do in other cultures?
Well, as Stan Schmidt once said, human beings have always told stories about alien beings, but in the past they were called angels and demons and elves and trolls. Folk tales and science fiction are often about what it means to be human in a large and terrifying and beautiful universe, so naturally they overlap a good deal. As for religion, well, the great monotheistic world religions address the same concern. And if God is real, and the ruler of the universe, then logically that sovereignty must extend to other worlds and their inhabitants. That’s a perfect set up for SF.
You’ve mentioned your current project, Dreamers of the Day. Would you be willing to talk about it?
Sure. It’s about the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference, during which a handful of European dreamers and politicians and pencil pushers got together to flirt and eat and go out to the pyramids to get their picture taken on camelback, and oh, yeah — create the modern Middle East. The characters include T.E. Lawrence, Winston Churchill, and Lady Gertrude Bell.
Bookslut: An interview with Mary Doria Russell (September 2005)