An Interview With Mary Doria Russell.

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E-Mail Interview June 2000.

Mary Doria Russell is the author of the science fiction books "The Sparrow" and its sequel "The Children of God" which are both incredible stories of first contact with an alien species, faith, hope, redemption, and the human spirit. If you have not read these two stories then I advise that you should.

Q: You were here in New Zealand earlier this year; what brought you to our shores?
A Boeing 747, I think. Might have been an Airbus. I don't pay much attention to planes. Sorry. Serious answer: Random House brought me in for the second annual Auckland Writers Festival.

Q: Did you enjoy your time here & will you be back?
"Yes," to the first part, and "I sure hope so!" to the second. I truly enjoyed the writers festival, which was beautifully organized and packed with people who were a treat to talk to, especially the brilliant science writer Margaret Wertheim, who is already helping me with references for what is probably going to become my fourth novel. Then I took a three-day bus tour of the northern end of the country, up to Paihia, Russell, Cape Reinga, 90 Mile Beach, the kauri forests, etc. You have an enviable country. If it weren't for the fact that my husband and I have elderly parents we can't leave behind, I'd move to New Zealand in a heartbeat! Maybe I could get everyone in my family to emigrate...? Even without that extremity, I do expect to be back in NZ after my third novel comes out at the end of 2001. Things went very well last month, and Random House is planning on bringing me back to publicize A Thread of Grace when the time comes.

Q: What inspired you to write?
Unemployment. Honestly! I used to teach clinical anatomy, but then the basic sciences department at Case Western Reserve University school of dentistry was made redundant. In 1986, I became a freelance technical writer, doing operators manuals for sophisticated medical equipment like CT and MR scanners, 3-D anatomical image processors, etc. That was a great gig for about 5 years--interesting work and I really love working with engineers. Then there was a recession at the end of the Bush Administration, and my contracts dried up. Our son had just started to go to school full-time, so I had 7 hours a day on my own, and an idea for what I thought was going to be a short story. Apart from having time on my hands, I had gotten to the point where I was pretty fed up with bad novels, and was starting to second-guess the authors relentlessly, when I wasn't pitching books across the room in disgust. Just before I began The Sparrow, I'd read a book that had a wonderful premise but which devolved into an utter cliche, and I thought, "Damn. I could have done a lot more with that..." As Orson Scott Card has observed, a lot of writers get started by thinking, "I could do better than this crap."

Q: Where did the idea of the Sparrow come from?
I found it abandoned in an alley, poor little thing...Sorry. There's a long serious answer for this on my website, if anyone wants to check it out FAQs in Briefly, there was a great deal of rather silly and annoying historical revisionism in 1992, on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of Columbus landing in the New World. I mean, it's not as though he left Spain in order to make contact with previously unknown peoples and then deliberately screwed it up! He thought he was going to Japan! The concept of Making First Contact wouldn't be thought of until 450 years after Columbus was dead, so cut the man some slack! The Sparrow was my attempt to update the experience of the 15th century explorers and missionaries in the New World by putting modern, intelligent, well-educated, well-meaning people into the same state of radical ignorance that Columbus and his successors experienced in the New World. It's not possible to be that ignorant on Earth anymore, so the story had to be science fiction.

Q: How did the sequel come about?
Well, first of all, I want to make it clear that I did NOT write the sequel in order to cash in on the commercial and critical success of the first book. In fact, it took me 18 months to find an agent willing to represent The Sparrow--the manuscript was turned down 31 times. "Jesuits in space" was a tough sell, believe me. So there was no reason at all to believe that either story would ever be published, but I had already written about half of the sequel when Jane Dystel became my agent.
What happened was, when I finished The Sparrow, I simply couldn't get myself out of Emilio Sandoz's head. That was a very bad place to be. Like the Father General (a character who speaks very directly in my own voice, disguised as the 79-year-old CEO of an international religious organization!) I felt the need to bring Sandoz to some kind of resolution, but I didn't know how. Then about a month later, my stepmother phoned, and mentioned in passing that since her daughters-in-law were both pregnant, she'd decided to order a lace christening gown from her cousin, an Irish nun. Each succeeding grandchild's name and baptismal date would be embroidered around the hem of the gown and it would be passed down as a family heirloom. That gave me the push-off point for Children of God.

Q: I hear the Sparrow will be turned into a movie. Can you tell us anything about it? If so what stage is it at now?
It's been through the usual Hollywood mill. Universal Studios held the option for two years, and paid out about a million dollars on the project (of which I received a VERY small but nonetheless welcome percentage). They insisted on dictating the story to their own (highly paid) screenwriter, and turned it into Casablanca in Space meets Deliverance on Mars, with Lawrence of Rakhat staplegunned to the last act. Not surprisingly, seven major directors turned the project down, and Universal decided to pass. Thank God.
When the option expired in April, 2000, I snatched back the rights to the story. I will be writing the screenplay with Karen Hall, a friend of mine who is also a 20-year veteran of Hollywood. Karen has worked on every classy dramatic comedy you can think of: MASH, Moonlighting, Northern Exposure, Grace Under Fire, Roseanne, Hill Street Blues and, currently, Judging Amy. She's won 6 Emmys and has a dozen other screenwriting awards. She's also a convert to Catholicism who takes religion seriously, but is nevertheless hilarious and wry about it. We're going back to the original story. Since we are doing the work on spec, we can offer a finished product to studios, rather than being forced to turn The Sparrow into The Thorn Birds Go To Jupiter because we're being paid by a studio to shut up and do as we're told. If a studio says, "Gee, we love it, but the end is pretty dark," we can ask, "Well, what did you have in mind?" If they suggest an end that we can live with, we'll make the change. If they want us to make changes we find offensive or stupid, we'll walk away. If you are willing to turn your back on a ton of money, you can maintain some integrity in this process.
As of last month, Antonio Banderas was still committed to playing Emilio Sandoz, but his production company went bankrupt last weekend, which may or may not be a problem for The Sparrow. We're hoping that eventually, the right combination of people and companies will come together and the film will be made well.

Q: Will you ever take your readers back to Rakhat?
No, I'm really truly done with that story. The characters don't haunt me anymore. The situation has been resolved, and left unresolved, to my satisfaction. Writing fiction is so difficult and life-consuming for me, I have to go where my personal curiosity and passions lead me. It's the only way this work is tolerable.

Q: As your first two books deal with first contact do you think Human beings will ever get it right (here or when and if we ever make contact with other planets). Which lead me to ask do you believe in life on other planets?
Will we ever get it right? The language problems alone make it almost inevitable that we will screw things up. The closest of friends, the dearest of spouses can and do misunderstand each other constantly--and they share a language, a history, a culture and a species. And presumably, they even love one another!Is there life on other planets? Yes, I think it's very likely statistically. As Bertrand Russell said, "Mere consideration of scale would lead us to believe that we are not the sole purpose of creation." I think there's a LOT of life out there, but not much of it is sentient, judging from the proportion of sentience to biomass on Earth.

Q: I understand that you are now writing your third book. Can you tell us about this story? When will it be released?
A Thread of Grace is a historical thriller about the Jewish underground in Genoa during the Nazi occupation of Italy. Eighty-five percent of the Jews of Italy survived a vicious 20-month occupation by Germany. That's the opposite percentage of nearly all other occupied countries, where only 10-12 percent survived. In Italy, not only native born Jews but even foreign refugees were hidden, fed, and cared for by a vast informal conspiracy of clergy and peasants who were in constant danger of being shot, hanged, or burned to death if Jews were discovered on their land. Hardly anyone knows about this aspect of World War II history, and the story deserves to be better known. The other day, I found a quote from William Faulkner's Nobel speech. He said that a writer's obligation is to help man "endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past." That is what A Thread of Grace is about. Writing it is a debt of honor to the past.Originally, I'd hoped to have the book finished for publication in November of this year, but the process has been delayed by two long bouts of ill-health. I'm fine now, and making steady progress on the manuscript. Even so, there's an immense amount of research that goes into every chapter, and I am an obsessive and relentless editor of my own work, so it'll be the end of
2001 before the book is published.

Q: Did you expect (or hoped) that your first two stories would be as well received as they were with the public and critics alike?
.I certainly didn't expect it, but every writer hopes for the kind of reception they've gotten. I expected a small press publisher, with a print run of maybe 4000 copies, of which 2000 would be returned, after The Sparrow was on the shelves of boutique bookstores for a month. I hoped for a
fanatical cult following of 200 readers who would tell their friends, "It's about Jesuits in space, but it's good, honest! Trust me and read it!" What has happened is that readers did indeed fall in love with the book, one by one, and they told their friends. Importantly, however, those readers turned out to be my agent, two editors at Random House, the head of North American sales for RH, and then individual salespeople who went to the owners of independent bookstore and said, "Trust me, read this one." Retail booksellers fell in love with it, and told their customers, "I am so certain you'll like this, I'll give you your money back if you don't." It got picked up by book clubs, and then by teachers who started assigning it to their classes in literature, linguistics, anthropology, theology, sociology. There has been absolutely stunning word-of-mouth on The Sparrow. I am intensely grateful that readers just seem to feel compelled to tell others, "It's not stupid! Really! Just try the first chapter--you'll see!"

Q: When writing are you influenced by the outside world (e. g. current affairs, politics)? Oh, absolutely. One of the ways I can tell that I'm on the right track with a book is that I start seeing references to what I'm writing about all, over the place. It's like God is dropping material into my lap. And I'm always trying to make parallels between how things are now and how they might be in the future, or how they were in the past. I try to get readers to buy into the decisions that my characters are making, and think, "Yeah! That's what I'd do!" and then I blindside them with the unanticipated consequences of those decisions. I am always trying to get people to understand how easily things can go wrong, even if you are a decent and ethical person trying to do your best. Modern media put everything in the harshest possible light, and I keep trying to say, "Look, if any of us had to live under the glare of pitiless publicity, we'd all look like monsters."

Q: Do you read in your spare time if so what do like to read?
Spare time? If only... For all practical purposes, I work three full-time jobs: author, writer and housewife. When I finish this interview (author), and then make some headway on the 5th draft of Chapter 13 (writer), and wash the third load of laundry and shop for groceries and make dinner and pay the bills piled up on my desk, I plan to fall into bed in a private little coma.
Nearly all the reading I do now is for research, so it's almost all nonfiction, and God help me, that's been a huge bolus of history about Nazis, death camps, warfare, death and misery. I've promised myself that when A Thread of Grace is done (writer), and when I've finished the months of touring and publicity work required to support it (author), I will cut down to one job and take a whole year off so I can read for pleasure again, while the washing machine hums and bread rises in the kitchen.

Q: What is the best thing being Mary Doria Russell and the worst?
What a startling question! I have never thought about that... Okay, I guess the best part is that every day, I get some indication that the books I've written made a difference in a reader's life. There's a lot of feedback from e-mail, and there have been heartbreaking letters from people who've gotten in touch to tell me that The Sparrow helped them cope in the month after being widowed, or after losing a child to cancer. All the work,all the effort and misery of writing novels--it's all worthwhile, if something I've written eases the heart of such a person. There have also been readers who've had wonderfully funny and insightful commentaries on the books, on life, religion, kids and everything. Several have become such good e-friends that we've visited one another in 3-D. (I just got back from Freiberg, Germany, where our family stayed with a professor of English Literature who visited us here in Cleveland last January!) These two books have made me dear friends who are now part of my adoptive world-wide family. That's the best part about being Mary Doria Russell, as opposed to Mary Russell, who's a normal suburban housewife with a teenage son, an engineer husband, and a big stupid collie who barks all day long, and who has lots of lovely friends who live nearby but certainly wouldn't have been in Freiberg last week with Susa and Manfred. Or in New Zealand last month, for that matter! The worst part? Having to turn offers to speak down, and having to get protective about my time and the demands on it. I hate to say no, and I am asked nearly every week to come to bookstores, book clubs, to do speeches at synagogues or libraries or churches, to attend science fiction conventions, etc. My son Dan is almost 15 now, and he handles that problem for me these days. He writes back to people and says, "If my mother doesn't stop talking about the first two books, there's never going to be a third one. So thanks very much for the invitation, but I'm not scheduling anything new for her until she finishes this book!" I feel bad about that, but Dan's right. Enough is enough.

Q: What does the future hold for you?
In the past 25 years, I've been a professional anthropologist, a university anatomist, a hired-gun technical writer, a stay-at-home mom, a novelist, and with any luck, the next step is screenwriter. Apart from the anthropologist part, I never anticipated any of the paths my life has taken. I'm almost 50 now, and I suspect that for the next five or six years, I will continue to write. I can see two more novels, and also a memoir about my conversion to Judaism, which a lot of readers seem to want me to write. After that? I don't know. My son will be in college, my husband will be ready to retire. Rabbinical school, maybe? Who knows... --MDR