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Interview with Mary Doria Russell Spriteling Send a noteboard - 25/09/2009 10:46:22 AM
Mary Doria Russell is the author of The Sparrow and its sequel, Children of God (both science fiction novels), as well as A Thread of Grace and Dreamers of the Day.

When did you originally decide to write The Sparrow, and what was your inspiration/motivation?

The idea came to me in the summer of 1992 as we were acknowledging, if not celebrating, the 500th anniversary of Columbus landing in the New World. There was a great deal of historical revisionism going on as we examined the mistakes made by 15th century Europeans when they encountered previously unknown peoples in the Americas and elsewhere.

It seemed unfair to me for people living at the end of the 20th century to hold the earliest explorers and missionaries and settlers to standards of cultural and racial tolerance we can barely manage even today. I wanted to show how difficult first contact would be, even with the benefit of 500 years of hindsight. So I thought somebody ought to tell a story that would put modern, intelligent, well-meaning, well-educated characters into the same position of radical ignorance experienced by Europeans at the beginning of the Age of Discovery. Let's just see how well we'd do!

There's nowhere left on Earth for us to be that ignorant, so the only way to tell the story was to take my characters off-planet.

Emilio is a male character who undergoes severe psychological and spiritual trauma. Did you experience any difficulties writing from Emilio's perspective, considering his gender and the trials he faces?

Well, gee. That's kind of a novelist's job, isn't it? Imagining lives that aren't our own? Sofia Mendes also undergoes severe stresses, but her being a female character didn't make it any easier to imagine her or the impact of her experiences on her -- I've never been a 14-year-old orphaned Turkish prostitute anymore than I've been a 40-year-old Puerto Rican Jesuit.

The only remotely autobiographical story I've written is Dreamers of the Day, which drew on my relationship with my mother and grandmother, for example, but even there, the character was decidedly not Mary Doria Russell. She was Miss Agnes Shanklin, fifth grade school teacher, survivor of the great influenza of 1919. I've had the flu, but nothing as awful as what Agnes had...

In my novels, there are usually one or two characters who speak fairly directly in my voice, but even those voices have to be embedded in characters who have their own integrity. In The Sparrow, both Anne Edwards and the Father General were in some sense speaking for me, but Anne was 25 years older than I was when I wrote the story, and Vincenzo Giuliani was a 79-year-old male celibate and CEO of an international organization.

I think writing good characters requires a thorough imagining of a life, and that requires knowing something about the parents of the character, the place he or she was raised, the moment in history that molded the character's generation, the economy and culture and so on. That's what I like about this work: getting outside my own life and into the minds of believable, fully realized, four-dimensional characters.

Both The Sparrow and Children of God are told through framed flashbacks, with chapters alternating between Earth and Rakhat. Is there any particular reason that you chose this style?

Well, it was kind of an accident, with The Sparrow. I had an idea for what I thought might be a short story, and then had to back up and explain how this person got started on the journey, and so on. The rhythm found me, I guess. I would move as far forward with Emilio's
present as I could, and then go back to Emilio's past. The story just kept pulling me along.

Once I had a complete first draft, though, I formalized the accidental structure and worked hard to balance the chapters and make them play off one another thematically.

When writing, did you follow the style of the novels, alternating between the past and the present, or did you write the past and present sections separately?

I alternated between past and present, as the text reads now. I was discovering the story as I wrote. I had no idea what happened to Emilio, except that the hands were not the issue.

What is the most difficult part about structuring your novels in this fashion? What are the benefits as a story-telling tool?

Well, everything about writing The Sparrow was difficult. It was the first fiction I ever attempted, and I had never taken a creative writing course, and was also coping with writing habits leftover from being a scientist. I felt I had to account for every single fact -- there was a whole chapter about the Japanese-Australian space industry, for example. I massively overwrote in that first draft, and it took months of Texas Chainsaw editing to make it work smoothly as a novel.

The benefit of the structure is the maintenance of suspense, and the reader's opportunity to construct an understanding of Emilio Sandoz and his experience as Emilio himself tries to understand what has happened to him and to the ones he loved. And the structure keeps the mood of the book shifting, as well: you aren't trapped in Emilio's misery. You can feel the hope and the excitement of the mission, enjoy the humor and the friendships, and the quiet conversations again before plunging back into his despair.

When you set out to write The Sparrow, did you already have a sequel planned? If not, what prompted Children of God?

I thought I was writing a short story, so it never occurred to me to plan a novel, let alone a sequel to a novel. But the story slowly developed, and when I finished The Sparrow, I simply could not break out of where Emilio Sandoz was. He was so angry, so bitter -- but I had a real, live 7-year-old son and husband who didn't deserve to live with me stuck in that misery with a fictional character.

About a month after I finished The Sparrow, my stepmom called and at the time, all three of her daughters-in-law were pregnant. Mary Ellen said she was having a gorgeous lace christening gown made by her cousin, an Irish nun. The names and baptismal dates of each grandchild would be embroidered on the hem as each child was born. That led me to imagine Celestina Giuliani: a 4-year-old girl who would be unintimidated by Emilio's tragedy and who would connect to him directly and emotionally in a way that no one else could. That gave me a way back into the story that became Children of God.

The Jana'ata have a highly advanced social structure, reminiscent of older cultures on Earth. Did you base their society on anything or anyone in particular?

Oh, yes. First: the ecological relationship between the Jana'ata and their domesticates, the Runa, was that of cheetah and Thompson's gazelles. Cheetahs are obligate carnivores -- they can't eat anything but meat -- and they only hunt one species of gazelle. They appear to be dominant in the relationship, but a predator's position is always risky. If anything happens to the prey species, the predator is in trouble. A virus that wipes out Thompson's gazelles would make cheetahs extinct within the month.

Culturally, I was thinking of Romanov Russia and the 1917 revolution. The aristocracy of Russia produced a brilliant high culture with poetry, music, dance and artistry that has never been surpassed on this planet -- equaled, but never surpassed. All that brilliance depended, however, on the brutal exploitation of a vast population of serfs -- there's a reason why that revolution happened!

So in Children of God, I wanted to show that even if your sympathies were entirely with the Runa, who had a right to rise against their masters, something valuable was lost as well, and should be mourned.

I don't think much of the old saying, "The truth is somewhere in between." That's a cop out. Sometimes one side is just wrong. Sometimes both sides are equally true, but irreconcilable. It's sloppy and lazy to shrug and say "the truth is somewhere in between."

Who is your favourite character, in either The Sparrow or Children of God and why?

Ah... My favorite was Brother Edward. Dumpy, unassuming, and quiet but funny and dear and fierce in his loyalties. My kind of guy.

Are there any authors who have particularly influenced you, stylistically or otherwise?

Ursula K. LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness taught me about how an unreliable narrator can make you think you understand what's going on, and be completely wrong. Robert Ludlum's thrillers taught me that trick of using two storylines to create and maintain tension. Dorothy Dunnett's novels taught me about style.

Do you have any plans to write another science fiction novel in the future? You have also written in the historical fiction genre. Which do you prefer?

When I was writing The Sparrow, I thought of it as a historical novel that takes place in the future. Notice that the narrator's voice is that of someone looking back on the events with full knowledge of them? I wanted the story to feel as though it were inevitable, the way history seems, even though there are always many points where things could have gone very differently.

That said, I consider myself a genre slut. I will stand on the literary corner and get into any genre that drives by and promises to take me to a good party. The Sparrow is both first contact science fiction and a courtroom drama. Children of God is a three-species three-generation family saga. The next two were 20th century historicals, but A Thread of Grace is a World War II thriller, while Dreamers of the Day is both a romance and a geo-political novel.

And I'm almost finished with Eight to Five, Against. That's a murder mystery set in Dodge City in 1878, the summer that the friendship between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday's began. So it's mystery and a Western as well. And I may -- just may -- do a police procedural about the gunfight at the OK Corral, but I haven't decided about that. I'm getting interested in the American revolution now, and the Enlightenment and baroque music, but I don't have a character yet. I'm starting to read, and alert to the possibilities...

Anyway, all my novels are about lives and times and places that are not my own. I'm a housewife in Ohio -- I write to leave the laundry and the housework and the chores behind...
This message last edited by Rebekah on 25/09/2009 at 10:55:25 AM
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Interview with Mary Doria Russell - 25/09/2009 10:46:22 AM 5488 Views
Nice interview! - 25/09/2009 11:49:15 AM 1766 Views
You should. I think we have The Sparrow in our flat somewhere. - 25/09/2009 02:52:17 PM 1725 Views
We do have The Sparrow. Except that it's currently in New Zealand. - 25/09/2009 03:28:53 PM 1705 Views
I almost brought it with me. - 25/09/2009 03:36:05 PM 1606 Views
Thanks, Mary. This is a great interview. - 25/09/2009 05:12:23 PM 1800 Views
Great interview Mary! Sounds like an author I'll have to check out. *NM* - 25/09/2009 09:21:32 PM 961 Views
You really should. - 25/09/2009 10:34:40 PM 1809 Views
Thanks for the interview. - 26/09/2009 03:28:34 PM 1682 Views

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