Q&A with Mary Doria Russell

Mary Doria Russell has written five novels to date: The Sparrow, its sequel Children of God, A Thread of Grace, Dreamers of the Day and her latest book Doc. Her writing spans several different genres and her way of telling stories draws readers in.

She kindly agreed to answer some questions for Brighton Plot Bunnies.

PB: Do you ever come to a standstill while you’re writing, and how do you pick up a lost thread?

MDR: Do I ever? Hell, yes. I come to a standstill once a week. Twenty years ago, when I was writing the short story that was turning into The Sparrow, I would announce to my husband every Monday, “I quit. It's too hard. I don't know what made me think I should try this. The whole idea is stupid.”

Then on Tuesday morning, I'd be standing in the shower and think, “Oh... Wait... What if it's Jimmy Quinn's point of view? What if he's the one who's reacting to Peggy Soong instead of her reacting to him?” As soon as I was dry and dressed, I'd open the file and rewrite the scene that went dead the day before. The dialog would start flowing. By the time my kid got home from school, I'd have written past the problem and was well on the way to creating a new element in the story's development.

Here's what I've learned about hitting a wall: when a story goes dead on me, I can nearly always get it moving again with a change in Point of View. Multiple POVs are not technically easy: I do a lot of rewriting. Even so, inflecting the narrative in various voices makes the story more interesting for the reader – try to imagine how narrow and unappealing The Sparrow would have been if it were only presented from Emilio's POV or Anne's or George's or Jimmy's. For me, writing in multiple POVs is more satisfying even when it's a struggle. Each POV is a tool, and as I approach a new section of the story, I like to root around in my toolbox looking for just the right chisel or screwdriver or hammer to do the next job.

So that's what works for me. When your momentum breaks down, my advice is: give up. Seriously. Don't sit there staring at the screen, trying to BE BRILLIANT RIGHT NOW DAMMIT. It won't work. Walk away. Go have your own nonfiction life for a while. Do something completely different. The solution will come to you if you give yourself time.

There is good neurophysiology behind that advice. You need to let the right hemisphere of your brain do its work. It has to take a mental walk and mull things over without your left hemisphere fretting and whining and hollering at it.

After writing 5.6 novels, I trust this process completely. Usually my mind takes less than 24 hours to come up with a fresh approach, but only if I don't push. The more nerved up and anxious I get, the longer it takes to relax and let the solution bubble up into consciousness.

PB: Have you ever been part of a writer's group?

MDR: No, never. Lots of reasons. Being with people drains my energy. I'm a situational extrovert – I'm chatty and lively and ON at a party, but then I need days of silence to recover. And deadlines paralyze me. Knowing I'm required to come up with something for Tuesday would not be helpful. It really would retard progress.

PB: Has a reader ever made an insightful comment on your work, that perhaps made you look at it in a different way?

MDR: Oh, yes, constantly! And readers are my functional equivalent of a writers' group. Each of my novels has had 2 to 4 front-line readers who are willing to read and reread, chapter by chapter, draft by draft, while the novel is coming to life. They are not themselves writers; they are passionate readers – the very kind of people we writers want to buy and read and love our work.

So they get a draft of a new chapter, and they might say, “This paragraph just isn't working. I'm lost.” Or, “You're being too clever and allusive here. I don't know what this is supposed to mean.” Or, “This part makes me laugh every time I read it. Never cut this part!” Or, “I'm just not buying this relationship. I don't see why she'd go out with him in the first place.” Or, “Oh, God. I never thought of that, but it makes sense to me now that I've read it.”

When the novel is complete (not finished, mind you), there's another group of 20 to 30 readers with various backgrounds and reading tastes who come into the process. I give the manuscript to one or two people at a time, and work with their comments, and then hand the corrected, improved story on to the next pair of readers. This goes on for up to a year. I keep grinding away the rough spots, cutting unnecessary scenes, improving the rhythm and the pacing of the story. Then I send it to the publisher to let the professionals have a go at it. At each stage, readers' reactions will point up to me what I can improve on every level: plot, prose, structure, dialog, characterizations.

It's all done by email and with comments embedded in the manuscript file. I almost never sit in the same room with anybody who's reacting to my work. Doing this work electronically lets the readers be blunt, and gives me time to absorb what they've said without getting defensive or hurt.

PB: One of the main themes in The Sparrow is religion. Is there anything that Emilio Sandoz told you, during the writing of the book, about how he felt by the end of the story, but which you didn’t feel was right to add in?

MDR: I was halfway done with Children of God before I had the nerve to write what Emilio thought: “It was all over for Jesus in three hours.” I'm still amazed that nobody burned a cross in my front garden for that. It's a gut-punch.

PB: Do you write to a plan or do you have just a vague idea of what you want to say before you start?

MDR: A little of both. When I'm between books, my antennae are waving in the air, alert for stories that engage my emotions and will hold my own attention for the three years or so it takes me to write a novel. A lot of topics fizzle out.

For example, I considered doing a novel about Margaret Mitchell and her husband. Gone With The Wind was spectacularly successful, and remains a beloved novel around the world. Why did she stop writing? Was it a conscious choice? Was it fear of failure?

And then there was the fact that she was killed by a drunk driver, along with a hint that she might have allowed herself to be hit. Hmmm. Was it suicide? Did she stand in the street and wait to be killed because it was better than living in the dense shadow of her own debut success?

So I had a frame for the story: the car accident in the first chapter, and her husband sitting at her hospital bedside going over their lives in his mind, and her death seven days later...

I dropped the idea because I didn't like her or her husband. I just didn't enjoy their company. She was a narcissistic hypochondriac and her husband was a ninny. That's harsh judgment, but hell! It's my life, too, and I get to choose the fictional company I keep. So I boxed up all the biographies I'd accumulated and sold them at a second-hand bookstore.

To continue with a book – whether I'm reading it or writing it – I have to fall in love with at least one character, or with the narrative voice. I have to yearn to be in that voice day after day, for years at a stretch. I was completely in love with Emilio Sandoz, for example. I loved Renzo Leone and Agnes Shanklin.

I feel intensely maternal about Doc Holliday, which is a good example of how I sort of ease into a story. The “infamous gambler and gunman” Doc Holliday's real life seemed to me to be genuinely tragic and I didn't think it had ever been well-told. When I began writing that novel, I knew I wanted to win that boy the respect and compassion I believe he deserved, but I wasn't sure what the novel would be about, or how I would go about telling his story.

All I knew was how I wanted readers to feel as they they turned the last page of Doc. I wanted them to think, “That poor boy. What a pity... How sad!” I wanted to make readers weep for him and his blighted life, and to admire the courage with which he lived it.

PB: Do any of your characters haunt you after you’ve finished the book, or do they leave you more or less alone? If they haunt you, does this mean you need to write another book featuring that character?

MDR: When I'm done with characters, I barely think of them again. I certainly don't start out intending to do a pair of novels with the same characters, let alone a series. I write to learn. I love the research and the challenge of taking on a wholly new project. The idea of being stuck with the same cast of characters, and the same genre, and the same time and place... God! Shoot me. I'd rather not write at all, if that were the price I'd have to pay.

But you're right: sometimes there is something about the characters or their situation that seems to require more than one book, and I will go on to a second novel. When I started Doc, I intended to allude to the famous gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, but not to describe it directly. And yet, when I was finished with that novel, I felt I had a good understanding of the pressures and personalities and historical context of the gunfight. Even though that event has been been portrayed in over 30 feature films, and hundreds of novels and radio plays and TV shows, even though it's a seminal moment in American folklore, I believe I can tell the story differently and more realistically as the genuine tragedy it was.

So I've gone on with a second novel: The Cure For Anger. Doc was The Odyssey. The Cure for Anger is an American Iliad. My intention is to redefine two iconic figures of the American frontier – Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday – by retelling their stories as honestly and accurately as I can. When I've done that, […] I'll go on to something entirely different.

PB: What’s your take on the concept of ‘genre’? The Sparrow is clearly science fiction, but it could also fit into several other categories. Do you feel hemmed in when critics describe you as a science fiction writer?

MDR: Hemmed in? Why would I feel hemmed in? It's not like being called a SF writer kept me from doing anything I wanted to do, or made me write something I didn't want to work on. I started with SF because that was the best genre for telling the first story I wanted to tell. I didn't take a vow. I didn't promise to honor and love and obey Science Fiction, forsaking all other forms of literature.

I am a science fiction writer: I've written two enduring science fiction novels. I've also written a World War II thriller about Jewish survival in Nazi-occupied Italy. I've also written a political romance about the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference. I've also written a murder mystery set in Dodge City in 1878, about Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp. And now I'm writing a second Western about the famous gunfight, but it's set in the Gilded Age when the music was by Tchaikovsky and the novels were by Trollope, and the first wave of globalization had dragged the world's economy into a ditch for well over a decade.

I might do a spy novel next, but I'm getting interested in Dickens and I have an interesting idea about how to present Jack the Ripper's story. I'm a novelist. I write about whatever characters and situations that catch and sustain my interest.

Here's my take on genre: it's a marketing category for publishers and a business category for giant bookstores. It has to do with which marketing and publicity departments launch a book, and which store buyers order which books, and what section of a big bookstore those books are shelved in, and which profit center gets credit for the sales.

I support independent bricks-and-mortar bookstores and do everything I can to throw sales their way, but when you look up “Mary Doria Russell” or one of my titles on Amazon.com, all five of my novels are right there on one screen, a single click away, not scattered or hidden in different corners of a physical store. My guess is that genre will become less important as that sales and distribution business model becomes more dominant.

PB: Some of the most successful and critically acclaimed female SF writers have written from a more openly feminist perspective than you seem to have used in The Sparrow (for example, Ursula Le Guin, Sheri S. Tepper, Octavia Butler). And yet, the SF genre (and particularly so-called 'hard SF') is often described as 'male-dominated' and even 'sexist'. Would you care to comment on this?

MDR: I'll comment, but I'm going to phrase it as advice to the Plot Bunnies:

Write with power and authority. Tell whatever story you want to tell, however you want to tell it. Don't ask permission. Don't apologize. March up to any damned genre you choose, kick open its door, and fucking OWN it.

That, my darlings, is feminism.

PB: And finally: We’d like to invite you to become an honorary Plot Bunny. Do you accept?

MDR: I'd be delighted. As long as I don't have to go to any meetings.

Thanks once again to Mary for answering our questions. If you’d like to show your appreciation in a personal way, the best thing is to buy one of her books. We recommend you start with The Sparrow.