Mary Doria Russell Flying Higher than the Sparrow

Born just outside of Chicago in 1950 to a Navy nurse and a Marine Corps drill sergeant, Mary is most noted for being an award winning author, but she was (and is) a paleanthropolgist. She explains, “Paleoanthro is the study of fossil human species, the Neanderthal era being my specialty.”

She earned a Doctorate in Biological Anthropology. At the time there were only three job opportunities for someone with a doctorate in this field and over 500 applicants. One of the positions interested her – a three year fellowship in bone biology at Case Western Reserve School of Dentistry. She applied for, and got the position and with that, Mary Russell came to Cleveland.

She left that position as a result of cost cutting at Case that eventually led to the elimination of the entire Basic Sciences Department where she was employed. She went to work at Picker International writing manuals explaining and describing methods and techniques for Magnetic Resonance scanners.

Her work was so fast and so good that she was hired to do a complete manual for a new MR scanner that was still under development. This project led to many others and she remianed a freelance technical writer for five years.

Mary had been happy as a scientist and missed working at Case. But when she became a tech writer she was also happy with that, and again did the job very well. But those contracts became few and far between and it was time for Mary to try something else. She decided to try her hand at writing “what I thought might be a short story and honestly, I figured I’d crap out after 11 pages.” That was a far cry from what happened.

Her first attempt was the best selling Science Fiction book, The Sparrow.

It begins in 2019 and involves a scientific expedition into space conducted by eight Jesuits. They find a new world and amazing discoveries on all levels are made. Forty years later there is only one survivor of the expedition and he returns to Earth and attempts to explain their findings.

Mary created new languages for the book. She says, “I’ve studied a couple of hands full of languages, mostly Romance and Slavic. So I knew how languages are structured and how they differ. I didn’t make up the alien languages. I used non-Indo-European languages as the basis, because they’d be completely unfamiliar to most readers. The Runa language is based on Quechua, which is spoken by the Indians of the highlands of Peru. The Jana’ata language is based on Nepali.

Sometimes I used real words; other times I tinkered with the initial letter or changed the vowels or something. A lot of readers don’t sound unfamiliar words out, and just take note of the shape and length of the word, so I tried to make each alien word look distinctive.”

Children of God was Mary’s next book and continued the saga of The Sparrow.

Although she continued to write, her next books were not Science Fiction. A Thread of Grace is “a historical thriller about the Jewish underground near Genoa during the Nazi occupation of Italy.

And Dreamers of the Day is also historical — about the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference.” She is, however, very grateful to the Science Fiction community and readers. “They are the most passionate, intelligent and enthusiastic readers around, and it is my privilege to remain part of that community.”

Although her plans included time off between books, the reality was she was working on her 4th novel in 36 hours. “… can’t seem to help myself.”

She’s surprised by the reaction her books have received. “I always expect silence, disapproval or dismissal. Any kind of positive reaction is both stunning and wonderful.”

She creates her characters a bit from real people and a bit from imagination. She elucidates, “The character’s dialog seems to be what brings life to the page for me. There are a few characters who speak directly in my voice, though their gender and generation and nationality and work are very different from my own. Most characters have a little bit of who I might have been, under different circumstances.

Somebody called writing fiction autophagia: eating the self! And you do pull out various aspects of yourself, but that’s not enough for a character who’ll come alive and feel real. You’ve got to fill out the childhood influences, think about the historical moments that shaped the character, create a variety of personalities with a core of authenticity.”

Mary is married to Don, a software engineer since 1970. As she says, “We met forty years ago when I was a chubby freshman at Glenbard East High School and he was a sophomore with really bad skin. When you start out at the absolute nadir of your lives, it’s almost guaranteed that the relationship will better year by year.”

And it has. They share a strong foundation of values and attitudes, including a shared passion about social issues and political issues. “We’re sensible about practicalities. So if you think of the old Venn diagrams from math class, we have a big intersection — a big overlap in what we believe and how we react to things. On the other hand, he’s an engineer and I’ve always been involved with human relations, and that brings complementarity and surprise to the table, sometimes literally: we can still make each other laugh so hard, coffee shoots out our noses. That’s a big plus.”

Don and Mary have one child, Daniel, whom they both adore. Daniel was born in Croatia in 1985. He is “more libertarian than his leftie parents. We feel a responsibility to fix things and he is more pragmatic about what simply sucks about life and can’t be fixed. Sometimes I think he’s too cynical, but he’s lived through history that would make a cynic out of Gandhi. And he’s been bathed in a sea of parental irony and sarcasm since infancy!”

When Mary says they feel “a responsibility to fix things” they back their words up with actions. She read about St. Adelbert Catholic School in an article in the Plain Dealer in 1988. The article explained that the school was in a rundown neighborhood, but still doing a terrific job in educating the children.

Don and Mary discussed the article over dinner and decided that they would commit to paying the tuition for one child of the principal’s choice. That continued for a number of years.

Then she got involved with fundraising for a new classroom and a new cafeteria. She donated half of her advance for “The Sparrow” to that project.

After awhile Mary wanted to help the school with a library. “By that time, I was getting a larger advance for my second book, and I got my friend Karen Hall to go in with me on the library. Karen is a screenwriter in Hollywood who’d been going to a shrink for, like, 20 years. I said, “Look, just try this: take the money that you would spend on one year of therapy, and use it to improve somebody else’s life. See if you feel better about yourself. If not, you can always go back to the therapist.”

She went way beyond that suggestion and has been bankrolling three libraries since then. Good person, Karen. Her shrink found other patients…”

Mary also is the proud owner of two dogs, a Dachshund, Annie and a Golden Retriever, Leo. “We’re together more than I am with any other beings. My husband goes to work; my son is at college in Toledo.

The dogs and I are constant companions, night and day. And because they’re so different the political maneuvering is endlessly amusing.”

Mary does not see herself as a role model, and frankly, doesn’t want to be one. “Don’t be like me, is my attitude. Go be YOU. ”

Mary’s books have won numerous awards. The Sparrow won Kurd Lasswitz Preis (German Nebula), 2001 Winner Spectrum Classics, Hall of Fame, 2001 Winner, John W. Campbell Award for the Best New Writer in Science Fiction 1998 Winner, International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, 1998 Nominee, Arthur C. Clarke Prize, Best Novel, 1997 Winner British Science Fiction Association, 1997 Winner James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Prize, 1997 Winner Book-of-the-Month Club First Fiction Award, 1996 Finalist.

Children of God won Spectrum Classics, Hall of Fame, 2001 Winner American Library Association Readers Choice Award 1999 Winner Hugo Award 1999 Finalist and The Cleveland Arts Prize for Literature 1998 Winner.

Mary herself has also been honored with many awards and tributes not the least of which was being named by Northern Ohio Live magazine as a 2005 Award of Achievement Finalist and Crain’s Cleveland Business named her a Woman of Influence in 2000.

She is angered by arrogance but is generally easy to please. “My husband Don giving me a foot massage while Annie the dachshund cuddles up with me and Leo sleeps nearby. Add a good movie on TV, and that’s bliss.”

Mary may not want to be a role model, but it is almost inevitable that she is. She is a vibrant woman with a family that she loves spending time with. Yet she is also an intelligent, creative woman with a career and a life all her own.

Some say you can’t have it all but it would appear that Mary Doria Russell does just that from her Cleveland Heights home. Many young women looking at Mary’s life would aspire to be like her. But, as she says, we must all be ourselves.

Profiled by Debbie Hanson


Profile of Mary Doria Russell by Debbie Hanson in Crain’s Cleveland Women