Last updated: March 26. 2014 9:47AM - 687 Views
By Kevin Boozer kboozer@civitasmedia.com

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NEWBERRY — As part of its Gerding visiting author series, Newberry College is hosting Mary Doria Russell.

Friday she speaks to English 112 students who were assigned her Arthur C Clarke Award winning and first novel, The Sparrow, as a reading assignment this spring.

A former university professor of gross anatomy, Russell give teach the freshmen English students opportunity to talk with her about various motifs and themes in the novel.

In The Sparrow a scientific expedition led by Jesuit Missionaries travels across to the planet Rhakat once first contact is made with alien life.

Not all of the human party is Christian, though, as one Jewish person and an agnostic journey there. As the crew travels space and time, the story is revealed in alternating chapters, some set in 2039 after the mission and others set in 2015-19 prior to and during the mission.

The novel and its sequel explore the human condition and conflict from within and without, one reason the work was chosen for students to study according to the Newberry College English Department.

Russell will be at the Newberry Opera House on Thursday from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. for “An Evening With Mary Doria Russell,” and then she will hold a book signing/reception until 9 p.m.

She will meet with ENG112 students in the Recital Hall of the Alumni Music Center on Friday from 10 a.m. until noon.

A finalist for the Hugo Award for science fiction writing, Russell shared these insights earlier this week about her career and the writing process.

What is your writing routine?

Up at 7:30, three newspapers, two cups of coffee. Then I grab a sugar-free Red Bull and get my hands on the keyboard. (My elderly dachshund knows the drill. As soon as I pop the top on the Red Bull, she heads for the office.) I’ve got four good hours first thing in the morning when I can concentrate fully on my work. After that, it’s laundry, groceries, and TV. I watch a shocking amount of TV.

What led you to leave academia and pursue fiction writing as a vocation?

Unemployment. I was teaching human gross anatomy at the Case Western Reserve University School of Dentistry but they downsized the Basic Sciences Department out of existence. Now the dental students take anatomy in the Med School, so I didn’t actually lose my job. I know right where it is: in the med school. Somebody else is doing it now.

You have a gift for pacing and suspense that keeps pages turning, yet you can weave in technical information without it becoming jargon. That takes a great deal of research, no doubt.

It’s not a gift; it’s a year of relentless editing. I love research and my first drafts are always bloated with it. Sparrow initially had a whole chapter about the Japanese space industry which eventually became two paragraphs of the second chapter. That’s typical: I learn all about something like the saloon business in 1881, and then have cut an eight-page data dump down to a few paragraphs.

To what extent did you draw upon your Catholic upbringing to write the character of Emilio Sandoz?

It was there in the background, but I left the Church in 1965 for many reasons, trivial and substantive. The Church changed a lot in the intervening 27 years, so I did a lot of research on missionaries, past and present, Catholic and Protestant, Jesuit and otherwise. Each chapter of the novel required seven or eight books’ worth of background reading.

I found the rebuilding of Emilio after his voyage home to be spot on. Without such understanding of occupational therapy and repairing a shattered man/him healing, the book would not have worked. What kinds of study/experience led you to such insight into his character formation?

Library research and empathy – thinking it through from each character’s point of view. And then – a lot of editing and polishing to make the fits and starts of progress and anger consistent over the length of the book.

Though published in 1996, you predicted tablet computers and other technology that makes the book seem as if it were written just a few years ago. Can you tell me some about the creative vision behind the technology you mentioned?

I may actually be the first to use the term “tablet computer,” although there may be internal documents at Apple or someplace that predate me! That said, I eliminated a lot of specificity about technology to keep the story from getting dated. Mark Twain doesn’t tell you how a telegram works. Henry James doesn’t explain telephones. My characters don’t check the answering machine, or email, or texts, or tweets. They just “check for messages.”

You converted to Judaism yet the novel contains a great deal of Christian content as well as the Judaism relayed by Sophia’s character. What messages of religious pluralism and truth do you expect college age readers to carry away with them after they read The Sparrow?

I never meant The Sparrow to be homework, so I never imagined that I was constructing a message for college students! I did, however, incorporate this: The less you know, the easier it is to be certain. If I had to pick a theme song for my life, it would be “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

Who are three authors who shaped you as a SF writer and why?

There are two novelists who shaped The Sparrow and its sequel Children of God. Ursula Leguin’s Left Hand of Darkness and Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. Leguin has an anthropological breadth of cultural awareness and Miller has a theological depth of field that takes a very long view of history.

As for who shaped me as a writer, that would be Dorothy Dunnett, a Scottish historical writer whose Lymond Chronicles were a graduate course in nuanced writing and layered character development.

Your fifth novel is historical fiction and a murder-mystery. Do you work hard not to be typed as a SF writer?

The only time I think of genre is when an interviewer asks me that question! I’m a novelist and genre is one of many tools a writer can use. Overall my body of work fits far more comfortably into historical fiction. From the start, I thought of The Sparrow as a historical novel that takes place in the future. The narration looks back on the 21st century with the kind of perspective that 150 years would give.

I seem to write books in pairs. There were two classic SF novels, followed by two 20th century historicals (A Thread of Grace is about Jewish survival in Nazi-occupied Italy; Dreamers of the Day is about the invention of the modern Middle East at the hilariously named 1921 “Cairo Peace Conference”). I’ve just completed two Westerns: Doc and Epitaph, about Doc Holliday and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

I write to learn and spend about six years on each pair of novels. At that point, it’s like I’ve chewed the taste out of the gum. I’m ready to spit it out and choose a new flavor.

The next book will be portrait of Edgar Allan Poe – not a novel, not a biography, but a portrait. I want it published on paper because that medium lasts for centuries but I’m also planning a really innovative approach to the e-format that I’m discussing with an artist and a software engineer now, to see if we can make it work.

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