Saturday, March 1, 2008

Author Interview: Mary Doria Russell

By Lesley Scher

Mary Doria Russell is an author, Doctor of Biological Anthropology, wife, mother, and "genre slut." Her novels have been translated into dozens of languages, and her novel, A Thread of Grace, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2005. Her latest offering, Dreamers of the Day, is scheduled for release on March 11th.

Lesley Scher: You obviously know your Middle East history, yet near as I can tell, all your degrees are in Anthropology. You must love all the research that goes into a novel such as this (and A Thread of Grace).

Mary Doria Russell: Research is what I like best about being a writer -- it's Anthropology without Portfolio. I love finding some new topic that pulls me deeper and deeper into the background of the world and time I'm writing about.

So far A Thread of Grace has taken the most effort and time -- seven years -- because it was such an important topic and so many people had entrusted me with their memories. Dreamers of the Day was a lot easier -- much more restricted in time and place, fewer characters, one point of view. Still fun, though. I learned a lot, writing it.

LS: How long did you work on Dreamers of the Day?

MDR: Two years to a complete first draft, and then about six months of editing.

LS: Did you make a similar journey to that of Agnes'? The details were deliciously descriptive, reading like a travel essay.

MDR: Thanks! I'm glad they seemed that way. This book was all library research. I considered traveling but it turned out there's not much to see in Cairo that dates to 1921. Cairo is like Chicago with earthquakes -- lots of fires and it's constantly rebuilding itself. I relied on a shelf full of period travel memoirs for the incidents and detail that make the novel seem real. There's a list of them in the acknowledgments. I also used modern studies of Nile flora and fauna and asked two recent travelers to check my details to correct errors.

LS: Was any of Agnes' story based on your own family history? Was your mother the basis for Agnes’ "Mumma"?

MDR: In part, this book was a thought experiment: what would I be like if I'd been raised by my mother's mother? I don't know that I really learned very much about my mother's psychology, but I did learn a lot about childrearing ideas at the turn of the last century. Baby Boomers were raised by people born in the 1920s who were raised by people born in the 1890s. I suspect a lot of my readers in their 50s will recognize attitudes and techniques their parents used to raise them.

BTW: The Boomers weren't really Dr. Spock babies. That was more the Gen Xers, who are now in their 40s, being raised by the Silent Generation that came of age after World War II... Whole different world...

LS: I was going to ask you if Rosie was based on a family pet, but I answered my own question by reading the "About the Author" page on your website.

MDR: YES! Annie is definitely the model for Rosie, and I must say that I believe my portrait of Rosie is the finest portrayal of a 15-pound long-haired black and tan dachshund in modern American literature.

LS: I noticed that Agnes liked to say, "You see" quite a bit. Just as I began to notice her "verbal tick," it suddenly disappeared. Was this intentional?

MDR: Agnes becomes less apologetic as her story progresses. Her personality emerges more strongly as her experience goes on. She no longer has to explain herself to her mother and as that need for Mumma's (rare) understanding fades, Agnes is more direct in her opinions. She stops asking you to confirm to her that you see, that you understand. She's more sure that she is being clear and that you will understand, once Mumma has stopped undermining her confidence.
LS: I loved all the tidbits of information/trivia. I had no idea Bob Hope's real name was Lesley Hope.

MDR: True! And he really did date a Cleveland girl named Mildred!

LS: Or that the apex of the Great Pyramid is a flat square and not a point!

MDR: You can see it, once you know to look.

LS: Or that the shortening of skirts (and thus, a significant change in fashion design) was due to the lack of available fabric during the war.

MDR: Similar things happened in World War II. The Andrews Sister look -- pencil skirts, no lapels -- lasted until the war ended, when Dior's New Look -- big, billowy, full skirts -- replaced it.

LS: Not only did I enjoy learning about the outcome of the Cairo Conference, but I found all the personal details about T. E. Lawrence (Neddy!), Gertrude Bell and Winston all quite entertaining and enlightening.

MDR: Glad to hear it. Fascinating folks, but of course, I liked Neddy best.

LS: If the movie rights are purchased for Dreamers of the Day, who would you like to see play Agnes?

MDR: Well, there is a movie rights agent shopping the manuscript already. Her first thought was to approach Nicole Kidman for the role.

Now Nicole Kidman is not the last person I'd have imagined to play Agnes Shanklin. Probably David Spade would be the last person who'd come to mind... but even with an unattractive fake nose, Miss Kidman seems a little glamorous for Agnes.

Not sure who I'd cast in the role. When I was writing the book, I could hear Betty White's voice, but she's not the right age!

LS: Do you have a favorite scene in Dreamers of the Day?

MDR: Had to think for a minute, but yes, I love the scene where Churchill gets Agnes drunk on gin and tonics, and when she gets sick on the way back to her hotel, Lawrence tells her, "I was an undergraduate at Oxford. I've seen worse."

LS: I see that you have another novel in the works! Sounds like a fun project (and quite a departure from your previous four!). Where do your story ideas come from?

MDR: Not enough data points to form a statistically significant pattern, but for three of the five? Movies.

The Sparrow was, in part, a response to the disappointment I felt upon seeing Black Robe. I thought, "Nobody involved with this movie gets the main character. None of them understand why he does what he does, why he suffers all this... He isn't psychotic and he's not a masochist. So what's driving him?"

And for Dreamers of the Day, of course, there was Lawrence of Arabia, which changed my 12-year-old life and gave real direction to my studies as an adult.

For my fifth novel (no title for that one yet -- I keep changing my mind), the movie Tombstone got me thinking about how contemporary the issues of the Old West still are. Illegal immigration, conflicting commercial and legal interests, gun control, vice laws, etc. Lots of other things will be going on in the novel, but Tombstone got me started.

LS: Which authors have most influenced your work?

MDR: Dorothy Dunnett and Robert Ludlum. How bizarre is THAT combo? Dunnett was a superb Scottish historical writer whose Lymond Chronicles were like a graduate degree in writing fiction: layered, complex plots; the slow peeling back of the characters' motives and psychological drives; gorgeous prose.

Robert Ludlum's thrillers written back in the 1980s taught me that trick of having two or three braided storylines that keep readers turning the pages.

LS: What books are currently on your nightstand? Do you find time to read for pleasure every day?

MDR: Oh, dear. You're going to be disappointed in this list. I have a stack of books about Dodge City in the 1870s:

The Merchant Prince of Dodge City by C. Robert Haywood

Dodge City, Queen of the Cowtowns by Stanley Vestal

Cowboy Capital of the World by Samuel Carter

I'm doing research for my 5th novel, which is a murder mystery set in Dodge in 1878. A genre two-fer!

LS: What were some of your favorite books as a child?

MDR: Interestingly, I'm rereading a lot of them right now because they're good sources about horses: Black Beauty, King of the Wind, Black Gold. I loved all those horse stories written for pre-adolescent girls!

LS: Of the novels you've written, do you have a personal favorite?

MDR: You know, I like Dreamers a lot. I miss Agnes! She was such a good companion to write for, and I enjoyed her company. I guess, though, that The Sparrow is probably my favorite overall. First child, you know. Always special.

LS: Finally, I read that you wrote the introduction for the reissue of A Canticle for Leibowitz. I have a very old copy of the book in my stacks and was planning to read it this month for an online Sci-Fi Challenge. I just finished Alas, Babylon, which I absolutely loved, and I hope to read several more post-apocalyptic works. I'll have to buy a new copy of A Canticle for Leibowitz so I can read your intro!

MDR: And what a huge thrill that was -- being asked to introduce a book that had such an impact on me! That was the first present my future husband gave me -- we were in high school in the mid-sixties at the time.

Estella's Revenge wishes to thank Lesley Scher for sharing her fantastic review, and to Mary Doria Russell for being one of Lesley's favorites and rubbing off on us.

1 comment:

Iliana said...

Great interview Les! I had no idea her books are so varied. I thought they all were futurist and in the same vein as The Sparrow. I'll have to watch for this one when it comes out.