9 in ’09 with Mary Doria Russell and book giveaway, part 2

To read the first part of this interview, click here.

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.  Read Part Two and comment  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.

And now for the rest of the interview…

5. I’ve read that you became a novelist because you were out of work.  Is that true?

Yep.  There was this big recession at the end of the Bush administration…Wait!  I’m having deja vu…

Anyway, I lost my job and I had an idea for a short story about Jesuits in space.  That turned into The Sparrow and Children of God.

Would you recommend the writer’s life for the rising number of unemployed Americans?

Um.  Only if you’re married to an engineer with a secure job and medical benefits.  Seriously.  Publishing is under severe stress as an industry, and it was brutally competitive even before the latest economic pooh hit the national fan last fall.  The odds of an unknown getting a first novel published were approximately 4 million to one back in 1995 when I got my first contract.  Today, you’ve got a better chance of fame and fortune if you buy lottery tickets.

On the other hand, if you can’t help yourself, and you live to write, and you are talented and have something interesting to say, the blogoshere is an amazing new outlet.  Making money that way is a different thing.  Occasionally a blog will take off, and be parlayed into paying work, but it’s a lot like standing in a field during a thunderstorm hoping to get hit by lightning.

6. I love quotes.  Do you have a favorite?

You probably mean quotes from famous authors or something, but in our household, about 64% of the conversation consists of quotes from movies.  We use any of a hundred lines from the Princess Bride on a regular basis, but we just watched Moonstruck again a couple of nights ago, and I particularly like “Yeah, well, someday you will die, and I’ll come to your funeral in a red dress!”

My husband and I also use “You’re still gonna die, Cosmo!” whenever we see some middle-aged idiot trying to pretend he’s a young stud.

7. What are you currently reading?

At the moment?  Two non-fiction studies of the Kansas temperance movement in the 1870’s – that’s background research.  Also “Born Fighting,” by Jim Webb, about the history of the Scots-Irish, which explains a huge amount about contemporary American politics.  I’m also reading The Last Judgement by James Connor, which is a wonderful art history book that clarifies the swirl of politics, science, art and war that was the Renaissance.  And recently, I loved a book about death called  Nothing to be Frightened of” by Julian Barnes.  Exquisitely written and funny as hell.

I also read stacks of magazines: current affairs, economics, decorating.  And I watch a lot of TV.  I’m not a snob.  Baseball, HGTV, the History Channel.  Just discovered Dead Like Me, on DVD.  Getting into The Dollhouse, by Joss Whedon.  LOVED Firefly!

8. If you were stuck in the life of one of your fictional characters, who would you choose?

Interesting question…I guess I’d choose Agnes Shanklin, in Dreamers of the Day.  Yes.  Definitely.  Agnes.

I like the way she questions everything and slowly takes charge of her life and handles adversity.  I also like that she stays true to her sensible Midwestern self, no matter who she finds herself among.

9. What are you currently working on?

This time, I’m taking on two iconic figures of the American frontier.  Eight to Five, Against is a murder mystery set in Dodge City in 1878, the summer when the unlikely by enduring friendship between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday began.

The novel takes place almost 4 years before the famous gunfight at the OK Corral, but there’s a direct line from the summer in Dodge City to the gunfight in Tombstone that made the Earps and Doc Holliday notorious.

I’m about 8 chapters from having a complete first draft.  Usually Wyatt is the focus of these stories, but I am totally in love with Doc.  That boy just breaks my heart…

He’s often portrayed as a coldblooded psychopathic killer, but he wasn’t like that at all.  At the time of the novel, he was a frail, proud, beautifully educated 26-year-old dentist living on the rawest edge of the American frontier, still hoping to recover from tuberculosis in the warm dry climate of western Kansas.  That summer in Dodge was the last time Doc was well enough to attempt to practice his profession.  He still believed that he was going to get better and go back home to Atlanta someday, but it never happened.

When will it be out?

Sometime in 2010 is my guess.

BONUS QUESTION   What’s next for you?

I’m starting to get interested in Benedict Arnold now, and there might be a book in that.  I seem to be drawn to characters who are unjustly condemned by people who don’t know anything about them, and I do think Arnold got a raw deal from Washington and the Continental Congress.

I like the idea that Arnold could draw me into the Enlightenment and Baroque music, and early American history.  Not sure what the story would be, though.  When Eight to Five is done, I’ll start reading biographies of Arnold and his wife, and Washington, and so forth.  Maybe a plot will emerge.  Maybe not.

On the other hand, and this is a scoop for you: I may go back to paleoanthropology.  I’ve been thinking about the Dark Ages in Europe, and how everybody – including pregnant and nursing mothers – drank beer and wine almost exclusively for long stretches of European history.  The Dark Ages have been described as a thousand years when each generation knew less than the one before it.  It was a great melting away of high culture, and I wonder if endemic fetal alcohol syndrome had something to do with it.  So I have and idea for how to test that idea using skull measurements from cemeteries.

Have to think some more about this, but it would be fun to get back into the bone biz.


I want to thank Mary for taking the time to participate.  I appreciate it and I’m sure all of you did too!

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…

Dreamers of the Day, by Mary Doria Russell

Cover ImageFinished 3-13-09, rating 4/5, historical fiction, pub. 2008

If we are timid or rebellious or both, then travel – by itself and by ourselves – forces us to leave our old lives behind.  Travel can overcome habitual resistance and the soul in motion along magnetic lines of attraction.  On foreign soil, desires – denied, policed, constrained at home – can be unbound.  What hides beneath the skin-thin surface of the domesticated self is sensual, sexual, adult.

Why then, truly, had I come to Egypt?  To flee everything that was conventional and predictable and respectable.  I wanted to lock up my mother’s house in Cedar Glen and walk away from my own dull mediocrity.  I wanted to escape anyone and everything that had ever told me No.

page 138, hardcover

The dead narrator, Agnes Shanklin, is a forty year-old spinster who loses her entire family, and almost her own life to the 1918 influenza outbreak.  A school teacher in Cleveland, Ohio, she  decides to use some of her inheritance to travel to Egypt, where her sister spent many years as a missionary.  She travels with her little dachshund, Rosie, who causes more than a few problems in Cairo.

In 1921 the fate of the current Middle East was squarely in the hands of the power players at the Cairo Peace Conference.  T.E. Lawrence, Winston Churchill, and Gertrude Bell were a few of the people that Agnes came in contact with.  Lawrence had been friends with her sister before he became Lawrence of Arabia and through him Agnes was shown into the inner circle where she often shared her hardly esteemed American views.  Her unexpected contact with these power brokers, placed her squarely in the path of the German spy, Karl Weilbacher.

I was enchanted by Agnes .  The running dialog in her head from her mother and a few others imortant to her was a wonderful way to show how she gained strength and confidence and finally become her own woman.  The fact that she was dead when she was narrating this book was unexpected and enjoyable.  Her attachment to her dog Rosie, was a hit with me and I’m sure any other dog lover.  This is as much of her coming of age story as it is an historical one.

Russell did extensive research on the main players.  I was excited to learn that Churchill’s bodyguard was based on the real man who had written a book about that time.  Agnes’s detailed tour through Palestine, Jerusalem and Nile made you feel as though you were right there, although they were the only parts of the book I founds myself sometimes skimming.

I love the nod to Russell’s Cleveland roots by featuring the famous department store Halle’s (inspiration for Halle Berry’s name) and the clerk who was dating Les Hope, who was thinking of changing his name to Bob 🙂

This book is so relevant today that I must recommend it for anyone interested in what is going on in the Middle East and our foreign policy.  Russell became interested in this topic when Osama bin Laden claimed this Peace Conference in Cairo was the reason for the 9-11 attacks.  It could not be any more timely.