Mary Doria Russell was born in suburban Chicago in 1950. Her mother was a U.S. Navy nurse and her father was a Marine Corps drill sergeant. She and her younger brother, Richard, consequently developed a dismaying vocabulary at an early age. Mary learned discretion at Sacred Heart Catholic elementary school and learned how to parse sentences at Glenbard East High; she moved on to study cultural anthropology at the University of Illinois, social anthropology at Northeastern University in Boston, and biological anthropology at the University of Michigan.
After earning a doctorate, Russell taught human gross anatomy at Case Western Reserve University in the 1980s but left the academic world to write fiction, which turned out to be a good career move. Her novels have struck a deep chord with readers for their respectful but unblinking consideration of fundamental religious questions. The Sparrow and Children of God remain steady sellers, translated into more than a dozen languages. Russell has received nine national and international literary awards and has been a finalist for a number of others. She and her family live in Cleveland, Ohio.
Author biography courtesy of Random House, Inc.
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Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Russell:
"I honestly think getting up early gives you cancer. You should definitely sleep in as often as possible."
"Coffee is good for you. Don't believe anyone who says different. All research concluding that coffee is bad is seriously flawed in scientific design."
"Here's how you know when you're grown up: you decide if you get to have a pet. You don't have to ask anyone else's permission. I just got myself a 4-year-old miniature dachshund named Annie from Petfinder.com. She makes me laugh out loud first thing in the morning, and at least half a dozen times a day after that."
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In the winter of 2005, Mary Doria Russell took some time out to talk with us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence (1935). I saw the David Lean movie Lawrence of Arabia when it first came out in 1962. I was twelve then, and ripe for hero worship, living in Lombard, Illinois, but ready to imagine a larger world than the Chicago suburbs. I found a musty old copy of Seven Pillars, and to this day I remain fascinated by the book and the man who wrote it. I can name a number of direct effects of reading the book.
Initially, I became interested in archeology because of Lawrence's early work, and that led me to anthropology, which sustained my interest through three degrees and years of professional work. I keep my hand in by editing the professional papers of friends in the field.
Lawrence taught me that speaking more than one language opens doors to experiences you'd miss if you only speak English. Over the years, I've studied Spanish, Russian, French and Croatian fairly formally, with less studious stabs at Latin, Hebrew, Italian and German. Each one has led me places I'd never have gone other wise. My study of Croatian led directly to the adoption of our son Daniel in Zagreb -- so Lawrence is Dan's sort-of godfather!
I learned that intentions are irrelevant and regrets are useless: it doesn't matter what you thought would happen, or that you meant no harm. Unintended consequences of good intentions are a theme I return.
Lawrence taught me that how you write is as important as what you have to tell about. Choice of word, rhythm, detail, editing and overall structure make Seven Pillars literature, not just a military history or personal memoir.
There are echoes of Lawrence's experience in Deraa in my first novel, echoes of his war guilt in my third. I'm beginning research for a novel about the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference, and will come full circle: T. E. Lawrence will actually be a character in that one.
I also caught the colon habit from reading Lawrence's work: quod erat demonstradum.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
In science fiction, two books stand out: Ursula LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness was the first novel I read twice, and then again every few years. She brought an anthropological sensibility to science fiction that I appreciated. There were multiple cultures, multiple languages, and the inevitable misunderstandings that result when a stranger is coping with utterly foreign concepts. I loved the device of an unreliable narrator, and reread this book before beginning The Sparrow, to study how she used literary aikido on her readers.
The second book is Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz. That book, too, is approaching its 30th anniversary, and stands up to rereading well. Again, there is a theme of well-intentioned misunderstanding of language, and a sort of archeological approach to science fiction, this time with an appealing religious twist: after a nuclear holocaust, literacy is preserved in isolated Catholic monasteries.
Among more recent books, I lean toward the kind of exquisite and hilarious observation of contemporary society that Karen Joy Fowler provides in The Jane Austen Book Club, or in her earlier World War II home front novel The Sweetheart Season. Karen has a way of making devastatingly funny remarks about less than admirable behavior, without ever being nasty or hurtful to the person involved.
Another author whose work is both laugh aloud funny and ironic, but also slyly sweet is David Sosnowski. In his latest novel Vamped, he takes modern American culture and twists it around a single fictional fact: what if vampires were not only real, but eventually vamped nearly the entire population of the world? (Each meal makes a new vampire, a logical outcome of vampirism nobody else seems to have noted.) David makes you believe that this is just how America would react: with marketing campaigns for vacations in Alaska during the winter (no sun for six months, get it?) and illegal hunting trips for "free range" human blood.
In preparation for the 1921 book I'm working on, I've been reading a lot of novels and memoirs from the 1920s. These books are far closer to the kind of style I admire than most contemporary writing, and it's sheer pleasure to read them. Richard Aldington's Death of a Hero is startlingly modern in attitude. Katherine Anne Porter's Pale Horse, Pale Rider was also a revelation.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
I seem to gravitate toward big operatic movies. Besides Lawrence of Arabia, my favorite large-scale movies are The Godfather and Tombstone. I like a moral and literary structure, the sense of trying to live by some moral code, even in when society is debased by war or crime.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are comedies that my family and I watch until we know the entire script by heart. The Princess Bride and Young Frankenstein were early favorites. And then there's Guy Ritchie's gloriously Snatch, which is nonstop violence and obscenity, but somehow not offensive! Again: there is a structural perfection in those that I admire.
And I love movies with great dancing: Bob Fosse's All That Jazz, Carlos Saura's flamenco Carmen.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
There's a theme here: big, emotional, layered stuff appeals to me. I love arena rock like Van Halen's 5150 and Def Leppard's Hysteria. To me, those have the same fist in the air power that Beethoven's odd-numbered symphonies have.
Johnny Lang's way too young to sing the blues so well, but I love his stuff. And I love every second Sting album. Cerebral and beautiful -- gotta love a guy who can work curriculum vitae into a pop song.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
I'd probably steer it toward David Sosnowski's Vamped, because they'd already have read Karen Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Nonfiction, generally, both to give and get. For my husband's birthday, I bought him The Know-It-All by A. J. Jacobs, and Tycho and Kepler, a joint biography by Kitty Ferguson.
For my mother, I'll be getting the new biography of Florence Nightingale, Heart and Soul, by Gena K. Gorrel. Mom was a registered nurse who trained in the 1940s, and I think she'll enjoy revisiting the story of a woman who invented the profession.
What are you working on now?
Dreamers of the Daywill be about the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference. After the first World War, a handful of British and French diplomats got together in a nice hotel for a few days, took some fun camel rides out to see the pyramids and get their pictures taken, gossiped, flirted, argued, and -- oh, yes, invented the Middle East as it is today. My characters will include T. E. Lawrence, Lady Gertrude Bell, Winston Churchill, Chaim Weitzman, and Prince Feisal, of the Hashemite royal family. I think I'll try a first person narrative this time, with an American missionary lady named Loella Rieder as the voice.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
Well, my story is that 31 agents turned The Sparrow down before Jane Dystel finally decided to take me on as a client. I don't know if that's inspirational or horrible, but it's true.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
I am going to give a leg up to a young poet named Gary C. Wilkens, by having him write a series of poems that will come between my chapters in Dreamers of the Day. I think this kid is a gen-u-wine genius, and I want to do what I can to get him some visibility. Our plan is for him to write in the persona of a 12-year-old Egyptian girl, whose life will be profoundly changed by what the people in the hotel decide about the Middle East, but who is completely invisible to them. Gary and I will write separately, but I will tell him what the themes of each of my chapters is, so he can imagine the girl's life, so distant from power.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Don't rely on other writers to critique your work. Find passionate readers who know what they like and why. Ask them to read for you, and tell you what works and what doesn't, where they didn't buy a motive or believe in a character, when the dialog was clunky, or the description hackneyed. It's thrilling to be part of the creative process, and good readers can be better than another writer for diagnosis and even prescription. I rely heavily on a team of friends who can criticize my work without breaking my heart or discouraging me. They get a lot of the credit for the success my novels have had.
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