Mary Doria Russell is a writer of extraordinary range and talent. Her first novel, The Sparrow, won the BSFA, Clarke, and Tiptree awards, and Russell herself won the Campbell award for Best New Writer. Children of God, the sequel to The Sparrow, was a Hugo finalist in the Best Novel category. Russell next turned her hand to mimetic fiction. A Thread of Grace tells of the Italian resistance to the Germans during the last two years of World War II, and was a Pulitzer nominee. Dreamers of the Day takes place during the Cairo Peace Conference, and was a International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award nominee.
Russell’s most recent book, Doc, is already garnering rave reviews. Set in Dodge City, Kansas, Doc is the story of John Henry “Doc” Holliday, and his friendship with Wyatt Earp. Eloquent and lyric, Doc makes the residents of Dodge fully human, rather than mythologized, and draws its power from grace and tragedy of lived stories.
Russell was kind enough to answer some questions about world-building, myth and storytelling, researching first contact scenarios, as well as the similarities between a space-traveling Jesuit from the future, and a twenty-six year old tubercular dentist in Dodge.
Rakhat, from The Sparrow, is a world of your own creation. Dodge City, Kansas is a historical place, and you as a writer made it real in Doc. Can you talk a little about the delights and challenges of each type of world-building?
Well, I begin by reading travelogues and biographies and histories, to immerse myself in the culture and times. If I’m writing about 1944, or 1878, I read the novels of the era, and listen to the popular music. What was common knowledge? What things would characters take for granted? I try to immerse myself in the lives of the main characters—sort of method acting—so I can begin to hear them think and react to things. What’s novel and surprising in their time?
That done, I try not to let the “world” be too intrusive while I’m writing. I don’t mention physical surroundings unless the characters themselves would notice them. People notice weather when they’re getting dressed (sleeveless blouse or sweater?) or when they’re about to leave a building. They notice ambient sounds, but only when there’s a lull or awkward pause in a conversation. I rarely describe clothing in detail unless that’s part of a character’s self-presentation.
Usually we notice landscape when we’re seeing a place for the first time, but only if it contrasts markedly with what we’re used to. To build a picture of, say, the Kansas prairie in the reader’s mind, I choose a POV character who’s used to rolling hills or mountains. That character’s reaction to the plains provides an economical way to reveal the character’s past environment and his present state of mind while describing the current setting.
And the technology of the time? How deeply do you delve into that?
As for the technological or cultural environment—I don’t do much with those unless they’re really something a character would be thinking about. Would Henry James stop and explain to his readers how a telephone worked? No! So, for example, in The Sparrow, Sofia Mendes simply checks her messages. When I wrote that line in 1991, she’d have checked the telephone answering machine. By the time the book was published in 1996, she’d have checked her email. Now, she’d check her iPhone. The important thing is that she’s never really checking her technology—she’s checking her messages!
In Doc, however, the story emphasizes John Henry Holliday’s excellence as a dentist and his dedication to that honorable profession as he attempts to establish a practice in Dodge City, Kansas. At one point, he’s leafing through a dental supply catalog. He notices a motor-driven drill, but decides it’s too expensive to order. That’s a nice detail because it tells you something about dentistry in 1878 and that Doc is strapped for cash. There’s also hotel owner who’s very proud of having a room service bell, “just like in Chicago and San Francisco,” but the remark is what a proud proprietor would point out to a newly arriving guest.
That kind of thing gives the reader a cultural or technological hook, but doesn’t feel like a Wiki grab. The idea is to anticipate what the reader will fill in mentally about “the world,” and then either confirm it with an allusion, or contradict expectation in a way that feels fresh and surprising. “Oh,” you think. “They had motor-driven drills back then? I’ll be damned …”
In Children of God, in response to a question about how things were explained, one of your characters says, “Ha’anala understood the difference between God and science, that there were different ways—parallel ways—to think about the world.” I love this idea that there are parallel ways of thinking about the world.
Did I write that? It’s been thirteen years since I last looked at that book!
Anyway, it’s a pretty standard observation for an anthropologist like me, or for a psychologist, I’d presume. Neither individuals nor groups have a single point of view about anything, when you think about it.
In my mind, 60-degree days in January in Cleveland are surprising and enjoyable, but also kind of creepy and disturbing because they’re evidence of climate change. In somebody else’s mind, the very same weather is evidence of God’s love for a bride who was praying for a nice weekend for her wedding, and also a good omen for the couple’s future, which is a pagan notion. We’re always seeing things kaleidoscopically.
I suppose the most consistent theme in my work is the fact that people see things differently—not just in parallel ways, but in conflicting ways. One person’s indisputable fact is another’s foolish delusion, and another’s fraud, and another’s half-truth, and another’s ambiguity. I rarely let any character’s interpretation of an event stand unchallenged. Somebody else will see things differently, within a page or two. If my personality had a theme song, it would be “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” from Porgy and Bess!
What did this fascination with seeing things from many different perspectives stem from?
I was an outsider in my natal family—the only Democrat among a hundred or more Republicans! From earliest childhood, I had the challenge of understanding how people I loved and admired could be so … well, wrong! I was forced to understand how they saw the world while also sharpening and articulating my own views. I wasn’t willing to dismiss them or their views as stupid or evil. To be a member of my family, I needed to understand how others felt and how they came to think and act the way they do. That’s good training for a novelist.
So I am drawn to telling stories that challenge my own beliefs and which force me to articulate those of people I don’t agree with. That pushes me to take on characters like the Nazi doctor in A Thread of Grace, or Winston Churchill in Dreamers of the Day. When writing Doc, for example, I had to try to see the Civil War from the Southern perspective, and that wasn’t easy for an Illinois girl—I grew up thinking of Lincoln as a secular saint. The Holliday family of Georgia did not see things that way! My job is to make every character’s attitudes and beliefs comprehensible, though not necessarily sympathetic.
And I like borderlands, because those regions of life can be observed and noticed as foreign from at least two perspectives. That’s why John Henry Holliday was so interesting to me: He was born in the South and educated in the North for a life in the East, only to be exiled to the West by tuberculosis. He was out of place everywhere—even at home in Atlanta, where he’d been raised for the life of a minor aristocrat in a world that ceased to exist at the end of the Civil War. That biography gave him a distanced and ironic perspective, which allows him to see things in ways that nobody around him perceives them.
In Doc, you mention the idea of a “ghost life”—a life that is the way things might have been, had a choice been made differently. How does this life shape characters steered by chance in Doc, or characters like Emilio Sandoz, in The Sparrow and Children of God, who is given the blessing and curse of seeing a greater than normal span of time on Earth?
The line “That’s your ghost life, Wyatt,” came to me as I was writing the story, and thinking in Doc’s character. But in real life, any decision, whether made in haste or well considered, can change everything, often suddenly, and usually in ways we don’t or can’t anticipate.
When my son was small, I had to balance my fears for his safety with my desire to bring up a confident and competent young man. Often this required me to imagine worst case scenarios to allay my own anxieties before I inflicted them on Dan. Should I allow him to go to day camp? He might be in a bus accident on the way! On the other hand, if I kept him home, a car might come flying around that bend in the street and kill him in his own front yard.
You took your real-life fears and put them into fiction?
When I started writing The Sparrow I was thinking about the unintended but tragic consequences of simple decisions made in good faith. During these admittedly neurotic internal debates, I came to realize that we never know what disaster we unknowingly averted, nor could we blame ourselves for the unintended consequences of perfectly ordinary decisions. Shit, after all, happens.
There are always things that we regret or wish we’d done differently, but it’s not like you get up in the morning, look in the mirror and say, “I’m really going to screw things up today! I’m going to go out there and make a really massive mistake!”
In my observation, people always do what they think is the right thing (though not necessarily the moral thing) at the time. The important part of that observation is “at the time.” Kierkegaard was right: life is lived forward but understood backward. Wisdom requires the long view, and that long view is something that comes naturally to me while writing about decisions people make before they have the benefit of hindsight.
At a certain level, it seems to me that both The Sparrow and Doc deal with the process of turning a myth back into a person, stripping away the fictions that surround Emilio Sandoz and the mission to Rakhat, as well as around Doc Holliday, the Earps, and the other residents of Dodge. How to you balance the need to speak the truth about their stories with the need to write a story that shows how those myths grew up in the first place?
Well, I do an immense amount of editing. The first choice is always to stay within characters’ points of view, but sometimes there are places in the story when it feels permissible to use a more noticeably omniscient narrative voice.
In both The Sparrow and Doc, that narrator has a distinctive tone. In The Sparrow, I imagined a Jesuit historian who had not only had access to records of the events, but also the kind of long view that comes from a century or more of consideration and reconsideration. With Doc, I could hear the voice of the real historian Shelby Foote: slow and low and Southern.
The narrators of The Sparrow and Doc have a sort of dispassionate compassion for the people they’re telling us about. Those people are now long dead, but the historian believes it’s important that we not judge them as harshly as their contemporaries did.
This style of Ken Burns documentary narration is not always an easy authorial trick to pull off in the context of a novel; there are moments in all my books where I’ve failed. I console myself with the recognition that the novel is really a 19th century art form. There are many examples of writers from that century intruding on their stories and commenting quite directly about what’s going on among the characters. So I reserve the right to speak directly to the reader now and then. There’s ample precedent.
Many of us think of works of science fiction when we hear “first contact stories.” Of course, another genre of first contact stories can be found in the diaries and records of various religious missions in Earth’s own history. Did you rely on those records in creating the Jesuit mission to Rakhat? If so, are there any you found particularly interesting, and could recommend?
I drew on my own experiences overseas as an anthropologist. I also had a shelf full of ethnographic and ethological studies—a doctorate in anthropology is pretty good training for a novelist, it turns out.
Among Jesuits, Riccardo Ricci’s missionary work in China was particularly fascinating. Ricci actually converted maybe three guys, but he practically invented cultural anthropology in the 1600s. I wasn’t able to use any detail directly in my writing, but reading about China in that era it was a good way to break out of a 20th century American mindset.
That said, first contact is constant: It’s all around you. Watch children! They haven’t been on this planet for long, and it’s all new to them. Get out of your own culture. Travel. Be confused. Be out of your depth. Be dependent on the kindness of others. Read widely, and read autobiographies of people you loathe. Listen to NPR and AM talk radio. Be revolted. Be thrilled. Be delighted. Pay attention to your own reactions to novel situations, and to the reactions of strangers. It’s all grist.
Because of the unique temporal realities of space travel, the events of The Sparrow and Children of God occur in a fairly complex time line. Did that ever cause difficulties in the pacing of the events of the book? Can you talk a little about what you did to keep track of when each of the characters were in relation to events and to each other?
I wrote The Sparrow in the order in which you read it, with one exception. There was one big chapter that I cut in half while editing—I realized that if I separated the halves and moved the first half up, then the structure would alternate between time lines more rhythmically. Beginner’s luck!
Children of God, by contrast, was a bear to structure. I reorganized the chapters in that book close to 20 times. A Thread of Grace stalled in the spring of 1944, when I just couldn’t quite see how to get my characters to the summer of that year. (I was also dealing with three terminally ill relatives and my own health went to hell, so it took nearly two years to get back on track.) I finally found a way to bring two story lines together in a way that felt natural, but it took months of false starts and blind alleys.
When I get completely confused about character arcs and story lines, I cut up a lot of little squares of paper and write each character’s moves out, and then lay the pieces of paper on our big dining room table, trying to figure out how to pace the story by physically moving the pieces of paper around. Sometimes I try color coding character notes, trying to keep the dates straight.
Does any particular system work best?
All my systems break down pretty quickly, but they’re worth the effort. When I abandon a system of organization, it’s because the work of developing it made me focus better and see connections. Time lines work like that: I will do something quite formal for a while, and then it stops being necessary as I absorb the dates and places and events.
When the story is completed, I reread and re-edit dozens of times, to make sure I haven’t left something in that should have been cut, or that a minor change early in the book is followed through consistently. Along the way, I’m finding ways to cut unnecessary moments and find poetry in others. Characters deepen. Motives get clearer. Voices become more distinctive. Editing is the best part of the job, for me. The story is there, and all I need to do is make it better.
Music plays a key role in these two books. Why did you choose to work with that particular art form?
Music is a thread through the center of everything I write. Not sure why, except that I react very strongly to the emotion of music. In Contact, Carl Sagan wrote about an alien group that communicated with us by sending a series of prime numbers, and I thought, “Personally, I wouldn’t walk across the street to meet someone who thought prime numbers were enticing.” But music? That has such a direct emotional pull—across cultures, across time. We are literally moved by music. We sway to it, we dance, we make love, we pump our fists and bang our heads. We weep.
I could imagine being pulled across space by music, and that became the premise for The Sparrow. Opera runs through Children of God and A Thread of Grace. There is a short consideration of Mahler in Dreamers of the Day. While writing Doc, I spent three years immersed in the 19th century piano repertoire because John Henry Holliday played classical piano. The entire novel is structured around the Emperor Concerto, and a series of pieces by Chopin.
When I sent in the manuscript for Doc, I celebrated by buying a piano. I’ve been taking lessons for about a year and love it. There’s something quite wonderful about feeling completely incompetent at the age of 60—I recommend it!
One of the things that most attracted me to these books, especially The Sparrow, was that it allows for the coexistence of faith and science, both at very high and intellectually rigorous levels. Yet I think many people find religion and science to be anathema to each other. What made you choose to blend the two together?
There are two cultural elements that exist in all human cultures, all the way back into the Neandertal era: music and religion. Some people are tone deaf and some people are atheists, but music and religion are as diagnostic of our species as opposable thumbs and bipedal locomotion. Science, by contrast, came late to the species, and it is still a foreign way of thought for most people. Any accurate portrayal of human beings in fiction has to reflect that.
I am a hardcore biological anthropologist schooled in Popperian logical positivism, but for me, religion is very much like music. Nobody would argue that music is the opposite of science. Nobody would expect a scientist to reject music simply because it is not a collection of empirical observations organized into a body of theory that produces testable hypotheses. Nobody would ask if music is scientifically accurate, or if music less true than science. Comparisons like that are simply meaningless.
Consider this: when a stroke destroys the ability to speak and understand spoken language, the ability to sing and to recite prayers remains intact. We store language and rationality on the left sides of our brains, and we store music and religion on the right side.
In health, we are not required to choose between the right side and the left. In wholeness, we can avail ourselves of both. I find majesty in Moses, in Beethoven, and in Darwin. I see no compelling reason to choose among them.
What we now call science fiction is actually one of the oldest forms of storytelling. As Stanley Schmidt once observed, we have always speculated about alien beings, but in the past we called them centaurs and nymphs, elves and goblins, angels and demons. At the heart of religion, at the heart of science—and right in the middle of science fiction—there is always one question. What does it mean to be human in a large and frightening and beautiful universe? That’s an immense question, and there are many kinds of answers.