Insight from Afar

An Interview with novelist Mary Doria Russell

From the National Jesuit News

Though the thought of Jesuits exploring space may raise a few eyebrows in the provincial’s office, the idea seems quite natural to anthropologist – turned-novelist Mary Doria Russell. Her 1996 novel The Sparrow tells the story of a Jesuit-led expedition to make contact with the population of a world circling the three suns of Alpha Centauri. The story begins with the expedition in ruins and gradually untangles the complex series of events leading up to the disaster. In a recently published sequel entitled Children of God, Russell explores the aftermath of first contact both on Earth and on the other world, Rakhat.

Russell converted to Judaism from agnosticism during the time she was writing the two books. Her faith transition is evident not only in the Jewish characters in the book but also in her treatment of religion as a whole.

The two books offer an intimate view of both the interior life of the Jesuit characters and their interaction with others. The characters experience joy and hope, anguish and desperation, and then attempt quite explicitly to make their experiences fit into their faith-inspired world view.

The success of that intimate view belies the fact that Russell’s only contact with the Society prior to finishing the first book was “driving through the campus of John Carroll university on the way to synagogue every week.” A draft of the novel was read in the final weeks before publication by Father Ray Bucko, a Jesuit anthropologist who teaches at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York. Russell met Fr. Bucko via e-mail after finding his Jesuit Resources page on the internet.

Widely read by Jesuits, both The Sparrow and Children of God offer an interesting view from the outside of life on the inside of a Jesuit community. Russell discussed the writing of the two books in a recent interview with Matthew Paschke, NSJ, a Jesuit novice from the New England Province who was working at NJN this spring.

What follows is the full interview, part of which was published in the June 1998 issue of NJN.

How did you choose to write about priests, and why the Jesuits in particular?

This all got started in 1992, which was the 500th anniversary Columbus’ landing in the New World. The first thing that came to me was the notion of trying to update the experience of the explorers and the early missionaries and the settlers. At the same time it was announced that down at the Arecebo telescope and around the world they were beginning a concerted effort to monitor the sky for radio communication in hopes of picking up evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence.

I began to think about what we would do if we actually heard something. If we really got evidence that was not iffy, that was definite. What would we do? What would it be like? Then I asked the next question, which was, if it were possible to get there within a single human life span, who would go? So, I was looking around for an international organization with scientific expertise and a motive to go, and it occurred to me that the Jesuits have a 500-year history of having done this kind of thing for a living.

So, it’s more important that he’s a Jesuit than a priest?

Yes. It just seems to me that this is something that is in the tradition. The other thing I thought was interesting, is that from everything I have read about modern Jesuits, there is not a lot of proselytization, but there is a lot of missionary work. You go out and you do the work, and if anyone asks you, “Why do you do what you do? Why are you here? Why have you spent your life this way?” you’re very happy to explain it to them. But there’s not the idea that you should go out and see how many people you can baptize this year.

I also think the opportunity to do first contact right would be interesting, and it would be something that would motivate Jesuits. The notion that you have seen how things can be damaged and how dangerous it can be would lead Jesuits to want to analyze that, and then try to do it right the second time. It just seemed like, to me, an interesting idea.

Is there a particular incident in Jesuit history that caught your attention?

I used Ricci. I loved his book. One of the reasons that I know about the Jesuits is that as an anthropologist I come across Jesuit ethnography in my work. The ethnography tends to be very thorough and very sympathetic. There is a real respect for the belief systems in situ, and I think an admirable hope to share what these men really believed about eternal estrangement from God and eternal closeness to God. I think they showed a very good balance between respect for what they found and an eagerness to share what they had.

What’s your experience of the Jesuits, and the Society as a whole?

My only connection with the Jesuits prior to writing this book was that I drove through the John Carroll University campus on my way to synagogue.

You have said that you had very little contact with the Jesuits before writing the books. How did you come to know the Society?

Autobiographies. In the last thirty years, the Catholic Church has lost 100,000 priests, and many individual priests have found it helpful to write autobiographies that explain what drew them to the priesthood, what the satisfactions were, what the frustrations were, and why they either stayed or left. I also read the sociology works that had been done.

The other aspects of this project were that I know academic politics, I know corporate politics, because I worked in business, and I know family politics. For Jesuits, all that happens in the same building. I just figured that I had enough understanding of what it’s like to have to work in those three areas, and then collapse it into a single area. For Jesuits, it’s all happening in one room, sometimes.

Along the same lines, you captured the interaction among Jesuits very well. What did you use as the source for that interaction?

It’s guys. You guys are not that hard to figure out. You want someone who’s hard to figure out, I’ll introduce you to my mother sometime. I just got this from a reporter in Florida who was reading the book and said that I just get male interaction so well, and I’m delighted to hear that. I just have a lot of guys in my life whom I really love. I have a wonderful father, and a terrific husband and a great son, and I am just very comfortable with men. I just figured it was guys who were also academics and scientists and have jobs and stuff. And yet, underneath all of that, there’s a central core of spirituality that from what I have read and from what I have learned from just being friends with Jesuits, doesn’t often surface.

How large a role did people like Ray Bucko have in your research of the book?

None in the research. I had finished the book, and it took 18 months to find an agent. I was turned down 31 times. Within eight weeks of finding an agent, I had a publisher. I realized that it’s not just between me and my computer anymore. I had to get someone inside to take a look at this. I had had physicists read it, I had had astronomers read it, I had had anthropologists read it, I had had engineers read it, I had had just folks read it. I didn’t know any Jesuits. So, I opened up the paper the Sunday morning after I had a publisher. There was an article in the religion section of the Cleveland Plain Dealer on the Vatican Web site. Religion on the Internet. It gave the address for the site. We got on to see what was there, and there was a hot button to the Jesuit home page. I clicked on that, and there’s Ray Bucko’s name at the top. The guy is an anthropologist. He is running a newsletter with a Lakota co-editor. I’m already 15 chapters into the sequel. I have a Lakota Jesuit character. So, I sent him an e-mail message saying “I have written this book, and it’s about — don’t stop reading — Jesuits in space. And it’s going to be published. Would you read it first?” And he wrote back that it sounded terrific, that he’d love to.

We only had to change a few things. I used the word seminary. I knew that it was really formation, but I thought, lay people, they’re not going to get it. But his attitude was that I taught them about Rakhat, I taught them about the aliens. I was introducing a lot of words they don’t know. “Get this one right,” he said, “explain it, work it in.” So, people now know it’s formation.

The other thing I had wrong, and I fixed this one by taking a paragraph out, was that I had a sense of tension between the Society and Islamic countries. But he said, “No, we have a long history of very good relations with Islamic countries. That’s just not on.” So, I took that out.