9 in ’09 with Mary Doria Russell and book giveaway, part 1

Mary Doria’s first novel The Sparrow and it’s sequel Children of God, combined to win 8 regional, national, and international awards.  She followed with two books of historical fiction, A Thread of Grace, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and Dreamers of the Day.  She holds a PhD in Paleanthropology and taught human gross anatomy at the Case Western Reserve University School of Dentistry before becoming a full-time writer.

Mary is a wonderful speaker and you should take advantage of any opportunity to hear her.  Here‘s my post on a book signing I attended last year. Visit her website for more information, http://www.marydoriarussell.net/

I will be giving one lucky commenter his or her choice of one Mary Doria Russell title.  After reading part one of the interview leave a comment and you will be entered.  Come back tomorrow and comment on part 2 and earn a second entry.  Those who have gotten a correct answer in my Green Title Quiz have earned an extra entry and those who are winners in my upcoming quiz on Monday will also earn extra entries.  I will draw the winners on March 31st at noon.  I will ship anywhere.

Without further ado…

1. Dreamers of the Day takes place as the fate of the Middle East was being decided in 1921 and many historical figures play roles in the book. How true to the real players are the characters?

I did my level best to portray all the historical characters with accuracy. My goal with historical novels is never to contradict the facts, but to work with them and deepen the reader’s insight into personalities and events. I will sometimes fudge dates by a few weeks, to make a narrative work, but I really try to keep things as accurate as possible. I’m still an academic at heart.

2. The Sparrow is one of my favorite books and was optioned by Brad Pitt’s production company. What is the status on The Sparrow making it to the big screen?

 Producer Nick Wechsler called me at the end of February (2009) with an update. According to Nick, Mr. Pitt is passionate about getting the film made and “Brad’s been concentrating on doing his own treatment of the novel since finishing up with Benjamin Button and the Oscar hoopla.” The whole project could still evaporate, but it seems more likely now that it is the focus of Mr. Pitt’s attention.
3. Your historical novel, A Thread of Grace, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.  Can you tell us about your personal experience of becoming a nominee?
Well, as everybody says, it’s great honor to be nominated – a heartening validation of a writer’s skill and very nice recognition of a particular work.  It’s also the only thing that impresses people more than “Brad Pitt might do The Sparrow!”
To me, however, the most gratifying recognition is the email I get from families of veterans of the World War II Italian campaign.  These are notes from people whose parents served in the armed anti-fascist resistance, or in the German, Italian and Allied armed forces.  I also hear from children of Jewish refugees whose lives were saved by the Italians, as described in the book.
Veterans and survivors rarely talked about the occupation of Italy, and the novel fills in a lot of gaps for families because the silence of Claudia at the end of the story is typical.  Partly, it’s the difficulty of conveying political and strategic complexity in what is often a third or fourth language for he parent.  But it’s also very difficult to relive those emotions, and most people in the World War II generation believe such memories are better forgotten.
Of course, war trauma is never forgotten – it’s there, and the consequences echo down the generations.  It was my privilege to start a few conversations, even ones that are now posthumous.  The book seems to fill in gaps and connect dots for many in the second generation.
4. Your books must require so much research.  You invented a whole language for The Sparrow…
Two actually!
And Eight to Five, Against, I even ‘interviewed’ horses to get the personalities and capabilities of an intact quarter horse, an Arab mare and a gelded hunter-jumper right!
And since Doc Holliday went to dental school in 1871, I read all the issues of the professional journal Dental Cosmos between 1871 and 1878, so I’d be familiar with the instruments available to Doc and his patients.
This kind of research is just a joy to me.  I love love LOVE this stuff.
…and your two historicals are jammed full of information.  How much research do you do for each book?
Tonnage.  I mean: YEARS of research for each of them.  And I go deep on the main characters.  I need to know what they knew, and I also have to understand their parents’ lives and the kind of relationship they had with their parents.  I know more about Doc Holliday’s family than I do my own, and if I get started on him, I’ll go on forever, so I’ll tell you about the research on the Earp brothers, because I can shut up about them more easily.
I started with all the biographies, but I still didn’t believe I understood their family dynamic.  Just looking at the whole group – Newton, James, Virgil, Wyatt, Morgan and Warren – I knew there was something going on at the home that nobody was writing about.  My guess was that they were beaten as children, but none of the biographers mention it.
Then I dug up a diary written in 1864 by a woman on a wagon train to California that was led by Nicholas Earp, the boys’ father, back when Wyatt was 15.  Sure enough, Nicholas was a mean, profane, violent sonofabitch.  The diarist gave example after example, and this was years before any of the Earps was famous, so I think it’s reliable.  It was a great validation of my developing insight into the brothers’ personalities and was of dealing with the world.
I’m also pretty certain Wyatt was dyslexic, based on descriptions of his attempts to read law, but Morgan was a reader, and that told me something about their relationship – Morg was four years younger, but he and Wyatt were extremely close.  So there’s Morg’s hero worship of his older brother Wyatt, while Wyatt was dependent on Morg’s help with letters and newspapers and so on.
And I’m becoming very fond of their older brother James, who was crippled during the Civil War.  Each of the boys has reacted differently to their father’s bullying, and James is the kind whose reaction is to remain gentle in a quiet existential defiance of the abusive parent.  He’s a remarkable guy…James was in every town where Wyatt served on the police force, but he’s almost unknown to history – I have a colleague digging out James’s war record  right now, to get a feel for where he’d been and the intensity of the fighting he saw.
to be continued tomorrow…