Mary Doria Russell, author of The Sparrow, Children of God, and the Pulitzer Prize-nominated A Thread of Grace, visited campus in November as Whitworth's 2006 English Endowed Reader. Students from the English department's Reading Literature class, taught by Laura Bloxham, '69, submitted questions to Russell, who provided the following piquant, to-the-point, sometimes irreverent (and always interesting) answers.
What made you decide to become a writer?
Unemployment. I was teaching anatomy at Case Western Reserve University in the 80s, when my department was being downsized out of existence – it's not breaking tenure when the university cans the whole staff all at once.
You don't see a lot of want ads for biological anthropologists with specialties in craniofacial biomechanics, so I left Academe to work as a freelance technical writer for medical-imaging equipment – CT, MR, 3-D image processing, etc.
That was great for about five years, until the economy tanked. So I was out of work again, and my son was in first grade, and I had an idea for what I thought would be a short story. It kind of got away from me, and turned into The Sparrow and then Children of God.
So far, Random House keeps paying me, so I'll probably go on writing until I do a book that sucks so seriously that nobody wants the next one.
Why do you make your characters' names so difficult to pronounce?
Names that are really easy to pronounce are too hard to remember. Example: The Cleveland Indians have a great new player named Shin Soo Choo. Each syllable is easy to pronounce, but it's taken months for announcers to get the name straight. (Soo Chin Shoo? Choo Sin Shoo?) Longer names look distinctive on the page, and once you learn them, you remember them. Arnold Schwartzenegger once said that he didn't change his name when he started acting because once a director learned it, he never forgot it.
Quick! What was the name of the Cleveland baseball player? See? You already forgot it.
How do you come up with new material to write about without making it sound like previous works?
Well, it's unwise to infer anything from a database consisting of 3.8 books, but I usually start with an "I'll be damned!" moment.
A Thread of Grace started when I read that more than 85 percent of the Jews of Italy survived the Holocaust. Dreamers of the Day (due out in early 2008) began when I found out that Lawrence of Arabia learned Arabic from an Ohio missionary lady named Mrs. Rieder. She also provided him with two Colt .45 pistols, which he carried into combat.
My fifth novel got rolling just three weeks ago, when I found out that the vaudevillian Eddie Foy was in Dodge City with Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and Bat Masterson. They all knew each other! That collection of real people is so unexpected, and the era is so interesting, I'm pretty sure there's a novel in it for me.
I don't know yet what the through line is, but I suspect that greed and corruption are probably going to show up as themes. Right now, I'm buying tons of old books, just wallowing in them, waiting for something to emerge for me.
As you researched A Thread of Grace, you must have come across horrific accounts of the Nazis' cruelty to Jews, Gypsies and others. How did you keep from falling into despair as you wrote this book?
Who says I didn't despair? I am deeply disappointed in my species, hon. Scratch a bitter cynic, and you'll find a failed idealist. I'm just about in the right frame of mind to write about Wyatt Earp. . . .