Literaturschock: Before we start: Is there any question you are never asked, but you wish people would ask you?

Mary Doria Russell: Hey, Mary--what was it like to tour with the Rolling Stones?


Is it difficult for you, being so ravishingly beautiful?


What's it like to get the Nobel Peace Prize?


Was it hard to cure cancer, or did you just get lucky?

Literaturschock: Mary, if you look in the mirror and into your own soul, what would you see? (Could you tell your German fans something about yourself?)

Mary Doria Russell: Ah. Well, looking into the mirror and into my soul are two very different experiences. The mirror is saying, "You need a haircut. And maybe a little plastic surgery." My soul says, "Don't be so shallow. And anyway, you aren't so bad for a 53-year-old."

You can assume that Anne Edwards and I are very similar. We share a biography to a point, but my husband and I adopted a child at the age that Anne decided to go to medical school. Being childless allows a sort of wistful freedom to do as you please, to go places and take risks that parents would never consider. So I let Anne and George go to another planet, just as my husband and I were settling down to parenthood. Eighteen years later, we've got a splendid son who is ethical, funny, hard-working, intelligent, and takes out the garbage without arguing very much. That's a lot better than being dead 4.6 light years from here.

Literaturschock: If you would have a time machine like H.G. Wells' to which time(s) and place(s) you would travel and what would you you do there?

Mary Doria Russell: I'd like to be a part of the negotiations leading to the Versailles Treaty after the first World War, and I'd like to warn everyone, "You are creating the conditions that will lead to another century of wars." I'd tell them that humiliation is the root of resentment and violence, and that respect isn't appeasement, so don't be such assholes in dealing with defeated enemies. And I'd advise France and England to take tribal and ethnic and linguistic groups into account while drawing national boundaries, instead of just where the oil fields are.

Then they'd ignore me, so I'd go have a drink with Gertrude Bell and ask her what T.E. Lawrence is really like.

Literaturschock: You studied seven languages and anthropology and you are specialized in bone biology and biomechanics. In addition you mixed your knowledge and wrote two books. Does there remain enough time for yourself?

Mary Doria Russell: No. That's why I need a haircut. No time for an appointment...

Seriously? I didn't do all that stuff at once. I did it in a row. In each stage of my life, I've been able to keep a reasonable balance between work and family and personal needs. I have about 4 hours in the morning when I can be focused and productive intellectually. After lunch, I pay bills, do the laundry, shop for groceries, spend time with my son, get supper ready, etc. After the evening meal, I watch TV or read (or both at once). I should exercise, but most of the time I'm not motivated. On the other hand, we have a very tall house, with three staircases from cellar to top, so I climb the equivalent of Mt. Everest every four months. Really. I did the math once.

Literaturschock: We recently discussed in our reading group, whether that kind of contract Sofia Mendes in is bound to at the beginning of "The Sparrow" (what she calls "intellectual prostitution") would be ethically justifiable. Since you didn't make a direct assessment on that in the book (at least we couldn't make one out :-)), what's your attitude towards this topic?

Mary Doria Russell: I'm an aging leftist, so I think society benefits when taxes are spent to make education freely available and without direct cost to the student. People like George Bush believe that the purpose of government is to make the world safe for corporations, and that The Market sets the value of anything and anyone. I now live in a country dominated by that kind of idiocy and greed and short-term thinking, so it wouldn't surprise me if my prediction comes true.

Would Sofia's kind of contract with Jaubert be better than shooting Brazilian streetchildren, because it gives them a market value? Yes. Is it an ethical way to run a society? No.

Literaturschock: What does faith mean for you?

Mary Doria Russell: For many people, faith is the blind acceptance of some belief. There are people in the US who say, "It's in the Bible. God said so, and that's enough for me." For me, faith requires uncertainty and doubt. If you're sure, then what do you have faith in? You don't have to have faith in gravity. You just take it into account as a fact of being on this planet.

Like Anne, I don't need to be bribed with heaven or threatened with hell to act ethically. And yet, what makes human beings interesting as a species is not that we have opposable thumbs and bipedal posture, but that we create things like music and art and poetry and theology. So even if God is "merely" human intellect caught in the act of creating poetry, God is still an idea worth thinking about.

Besides, fictional characters are often more real than real people. I'd argue that Sherlock Holmes is more real than 99.9% of the real people who lived in the 19th century. They're dead, gone, and forgotten, while Sherlock Holmes lives on into his third century.

On a different plane, there's this practical consideration: you spend your life, day by day, and it matters what you spend it on. There are ideas and people and things worth living for, and there are ideas and people and things that are a waste of our limited time here. Religions are, in essence, attempts to define what is worthwhile and what's a waste of that time. The great world religions are ones that have been tested and found useful over millenia and across cultures. Each of us can try to figure out Life, The Universe and Everthing on our own, but it can be helpful to consider what other human beings have found significant enough to preserve and perpetuate.

By the way: many people see only the damage religions do, but I would argue that it's the combination of religion and power that does the damage. If the Dalai Lama was given control of an army, I don't think Buddhism would be peaceful for more than one generation.

Literaturschock: "The Sparrow" was the BSFA's winner for Best Novel of 1997 and "Children of God" was nominated for Best Novel in the 1999 Hugo Awards! Congratulations! What does that mean for the personal and for the professional Mary Doria Russell?

Mary Doria Russell: And don't forget the Kurd Lasswitz Preis, which was a huge thrill for me!

I began The Sparrow believing that it was just a short story that I was writing as an experiment, to see what it was like to write dialog and create characters.

Not only did it become a novel, it was published, and was well-reviewed in the mainstream press, and then it got the Tiptree Award, and then it surfaced among science fiction readers, and then it jumped over the Atlantic and was noticed by British readers, and then the Germans discovered it. I get email every day from readers who had a strong emotional reaction to the story, and some of them have become close friends of mine. All of this, for a manuscript that 31 literary agents turned down. So this book has far exceeded my expectations. And now there will be a full-scale opera based on it, as well as a rock opera, and probably a movie, although Hollywood is always unreliable. So the whole experience has been amazing and utterly unexpected.

That said, I also feel a a great responsibility. I get email from readers every day telling me how passionately they connected with my characters. I know that people read what I write very carefully, that every detail is noticed, that all the research and care I put into the first book is expected of me. Because I'm aware that every word is scrutinized and appreciated, and because I hate to disappoint people, I work like a crazy person!

Literaturschock: What do you think is the most difficult and the easiest thing about writing?

Mary Doria Russell: Oh, dear... Nothing is easy. Every single aspect of the process is a struggle, which is why I constantly swear, "This is my last book! When this goddamned thing is finished, I will never ever write again!"

Dialog is the least difficult, and that's how my characters come to life in my mind. The most difficult thing is the deep structure--what do I reveal and when? What are the underlying bones of this book, and how are the themes best conveyed? I do a vast amount of revision and rewriting, often changing which character sees the action. And I rearrange the sequence of events a lot. Each time I do that, it requires changes up and down the plotline, to maintain consistency and balance. Endless tinkering, and multiple reorganizations of the entire novel...

Literaturschock: What are your current projects? Can you give us a little sneak preview of the next books?

Mary Doria Russell: A Thread of Grace is about World War II in German-occupied Italy. I got interested in this topic about 7 years ago, when I read that 85-87% of the Jews in Italy survived the Nazi occupation, which is the opposite of what happened elsewhere. For 60 years, people have asked, "What went wrong in Germany, Austria, France and Poland?" Why did people betray old friends and neighbors and strangers? What made people decide that some of us are disposable and others are important? I decided that it was important to ask, "What went right in Italy?" Mussolini invented fascism, Italy was a member of the Axis, it was a Catholic country filled with uneducated peasants who had heard all the same Christ-killer mythology that Germans, Austrians, Poles and the French had. The occupation was just a brutal, just as dangerous to anyone who resisted. So why did so many Italians risk everything for people they didn't know?

At the same time, I wanted to create German characters who weren't Colonel Klink caricatures, or screaming foaming madmen. Nazi ideology was immensely popular, and authoritarian government is more common than liberal government, historically and geographically. Tyranny works, and not just for the men at the top. Sadaam Hussein was as foul a tyrant as any in history, but there was electricity and petrol, and very little petty crime, and lots of people are nostalgic about the good old days when Iraq was a fine place to be a Sunni Muslim from Tikrit. My Nazi characters are men and women with rational and practical reasons for what they do.

I'm probably going to get lynched for this book. I want to make war crimes comprehensible, but I anticipate that some people will think I'm endorsing the ideas that lead to the crimes.

Literaturschock: Who are some of your favorite writers? What are you currently reading?

Mary Doria Russell: Well, any good writer in western civilization knows that you can't go wrong by stealing from Shakespeare or the Bible. But here are the others that come to mind:

Dorothy Dunnett--a Scottish historical novelist. I worship at her feet. She was great on all levels: prose, plot, character.

Karen Joy Fowler--a contemporary American novelist. Sly, subversive wit, great beauty of language, wonderful characters. One of the mysteries of life is, Why isn't Karen Joy Fowler rich? Why do people read crappy writers like Anne Rice when Karen's books are available? Karen herself says that her weakness is plot--she doesn't put her characters into situations that evoke strong emotion. But everything else she does is gorgeous.

I like Simon Mawbry a lot, too. His novel Mendel's Dwarf had it all: language, big issues, memorable characters, good plot.

I'm currently reading Vamped by David Sosnowski. I loved his first book Rapture, and his new one is wonderful as well. David isn't even as well-known as Karen, but he should be. The first book was about a virus that sweeps through the world like AIDS, but which causes its victims to go into a coma within a coccoon and to emerge with wings. Nothing else is changed--they still smoke and drink and swear, but they have wings, and all of society is affected. The world divides into Angels and Pedestrians (with a minority group called Penguins--they have wings but never figure out how to fly). Car manufacturers start making autos without seat backs, so Angels can drive, etc. In the second book, vampires have found a way to "vamp" people the way Henry Ford built cars: quickly and in great numbers, and again, all of society is changed in ways that are hilarious and touching, and wonderfully imagined.

Literaturschock: What is the thing, that makes a book to a very special book for you? And/or what makes a book (of another author) for you importantly? Does it have to contain a message? Or just have to amuse you?

Mary Doria Russell: I have two hoops that a novel has to jump through, just to get me past the first few pages.

1. I have no patience with imprecise, sloppy or lazy use of language. The first time someone describes black hair as "raven-colored," it's a nice simile. The second time is plagiarism, and after that it's a cliche. I work hard on my prose, and I expect the same of other authors.

2. I rarely enjoy first-person narratives, because the point of view is so limited. And a first-person narrative that simply tells the story from start to finish almost always bores me. One damned thing after another...

David Sosnowski's Vamped is a first-person narrative, but because the character's point of view is so twisted and funny, and because the language is so wonderful, I love it. By contrast, last week I read Anita Diamant's The Red Tent, which almost failed both tests for me, although it's been a hugely successful and popular book in the U.S. The first-person narrative is flat, and the language is ordinary, but there were enough interesting ideas to keep me reading.

Another thing I hate is anachronism. Female characters who act like 20th century liberated women, when they'd have been beaten or killed for not knowing their place in the 15th century. Slaves who are clever and well-spoken, and not just too damned exhausted and ignorant to do more than get survive one hour at a time without being beaten or killed for not knowing their place. Powerful white aristocratic men who are sensitive and kind, when in real life, they'd have beaten or killed anyone who annoyed them. That's just sloppy writing. I want the author to be aware of enough history to know when attitudes and turns of phrase and inventions occurred. A character who is too enlightened too soon in European history is as bad as one who uses a telephone in 1750, or one who talks like he watches Seinfeld on TV in the 27th century.

Sorry. I guess I was pretty negative with that answer. But it's true: I quit reading anything that contains obvious errors like that. For me to remember a book, it's got to have the whole package: good prose, interesting plot, emotionally engaging characters, and originality of thought.

Literaturschock: Thank you very much for your time, Mary! Many greetings from the Black Forest!

Mary Doria Russell: You're entirely welcome, Susanne. And next time I visit my friend Dr. Susanne Bach in Freiburg, maybe I can meet with you!


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