Spotlight: Mary Doria Russell

Following the success of her first novel, The Sparrow, author Mary Doria Russell has been writing world-class historical fiction. While The Sparrow dealt with first contact with extraterrestrial life, all of her works share some common elements- rich atmosphere, character, and deep rooted feelings about topics such as faith. Russell has the wonderful talent of creating vivid characters and settings, made even more impressive by the scope of her chosen stories. Whether she is writing about a interstellar travel or Doc Holliday, Russell makes the emotions of the novel feel real and substantive.

Russell is an interesting figure because she can't seem to escape the critical and public success of her first novel. The film rights to The Sparrow were purchased by Plan B, Brad Pitt`s movie production company. Since that exchange in 2006, Russell decided to retain the rights to any movie version of the book, believing that any adaptation of the story would not be faithful to the original material. 

When contacting her, I did not consider that Mary Doria Russell had been talking about The Sparrow for over fifteen years. I did not consider that after so much time there was little left to be said about that material, and that she must be frustrated with constant questions about such an old project. Instead, what followed was a frank discussion about literary and commercial success, the realities of the publishing industry, and why she chose not to allow a film adaptation to be made:

In all of your work, you've developed a great sense of place. How important is a rich and detailed setting for you?

Actually, I have to force myself to stop and describe place. Dialog is in the forefront for me but in any conversation there will be a lull when you suddenly become aware of your surroundings. So when there's a break in the dialog - when I want the reader to stop and consider something, or when the characters have hit an awkward moment - I ask myself, Where are they? What do they hear? What can they smell?

The thing is, I'm mentally blind. I don't picture things the way engineers or Temple Grandin can, but I do hear dialog very clearly. I know it's old-fashioned to use adverbs, but I want the reader to hear the lines the way I'm hearing them. I do a lot of stage-managing and directing but setting is secondary and I don't care what people are wearing unless it reveals character or drives the plot somehow. But I know some readers need to see things, so I make myself provide colors and scents and sounds.

I've written about you before, and your ability to evoke emotions and images without forcing it on the reader (as in, you make the reader do the work). How difficult is it to hold back and write with subtlety? Is this something you do consciously?

Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond series taught me to trust the intelligence of the reader, to let the reader put two and two together. I enjoyed being given the space to come to a personal conclusion so in my own writing I try not to spell things out directly.

Sometimes I can be "too clever by half," as my Aunt Mary warns me. I rely on a team of readers who are willing to read draft after draft as a novel develops. I tweak the wording until they get what I'm driving at but it might take me six or seven tries to find a phrase that's just to the left of obscurity.

That's probably my best tip to writers, by the way. Write for people who love to read, not for other writers. Don't workshop your stories. Find a book club to read your drafts.

Around 2006 you considered, and then reconsidered, selling the movie rights to the Sparrow, finally electing not to do so. How difficult was it to protect the legacy and integrity of your work, over the potential monetary gains of a movie deal?

The monetary gains would not be life-changing, but the immense publicity that attends a movie adaptation or an HBO series might be.

For example: Brad Pitt had the movie rights to both The Sparrow and to World War Z by Max Brooks, but he eventually produced WWZ. Now, I've been told that the movie has almost nothing to do with the book, but the important part is that I know Max Brooks' name now and never would have heard of him otherwise. People can't buy books they never heard of, and publishers do almost no advertizing for anything except a guaranteed blockbuster by a brand name author. It's stupid and self-defeating, but that's the way the industry works.

So even if the credits had read, "Based on a title by Mary Doria Russell," a Brad Pitt movie would have made a difference in my visibility and in publishers' interest in my next novel. I don't have to apologize to readers for how badly mangled The Sparrow was, but my sales have never made headlines, and that cost me my publisher. All five of my novels have been bestsellers, but Random House dumped me two years ago because they weren't blockbusters, defined as 100,000 copies in hardcover. I do a third of that.

Fortunately Ecco (HarperCollins) picked my sixth novel up, but I know a dozen other midlist novelists with great reviews and good sales who've been dropped and never found another publisher because their numbers "didn't fit the algorithm."

Fair warning to writers trying to break into the industry: if you want fame and fortune, don't write a novel. Buy a lottery ticket. The odds are better. Sad, but true.

A lot of musicians say that once they are finished with a record or project, they can't go back and listen to it, because it has exhausted them. How do you look at your past works, and your experiences with publishing? Do you look fondly at these memories? 

How can the Rolling Stones play Jumpin Jack Flash again without having their heads explode? I mean, I love that cut, but having to play it at every concert for 27 years...

When there' a follow-on book like Children of God or Epitaph, it's an indication that I wasn't finished with the characters. I wanted to spend more time with Emilio and Doc. There was more story to tell. 

That said, sequels are WAY harder to write, in my experience. You have to reprise enough to introduce new readers to the characters without boring the pants off people who just read the original book. And I try very hard never to repeat myself, so all of my initial solutions to representing these people have to be re-thought. Maybe that's why I get so burned out -- a sequel takes so much tinkering and hammering and sawing and sandblasting... By the time I finish the second book in a pair, I'm really ready to move on to the next project. 

So the truth is that I never think about Emilio Sandoz or Renzo Leone or Agnes Shanklin. I am still very fond of John Henry Holliday, but Epitaph is nearly finished. At this stage in the process, it's all about the prose and structure and technical elements of writing -- timing, rhythm, tone, etc. Emotionally, I'm done with Doc and Wyatt now, too. I'm pretty sick of the 1870s and 80s at this point. I loved Doc and Wyatt, but I'm ready to move on. I change genres with every book (first contact science fiction; family saga; World War II thriller; political romance; murder mystery; classic Western) but I do seem to write novels in pairs that are connected somehow, even if they're stand-alones like A Thread of Grace and Dreamers of the Day.

I don't know how other writers stand doing a series. After two books, I've chewed the taste out of the gum.

So I've started the basic research for a portrait of Edgar Allan Poe. The Poe book takes me into the era between the American revolution and the Civil War, and that means decades of new history to learn and a whole different cultural context for the book. I have to go back into the 1700s to understand what Poe and other early 19th century writers were rebelling against. New music, new books, new political issues...

I love that. I love research. Each novel is the equivalent of another doctorate. If I'm not working on something big, I watch way too much TV and drive my husband crazy.

I seem to be at my best when I'm the defense attorney for someone I feel has been unfairly maligned. I was really fierce about defending Doc Holliday and I believe I've changed attitudes about his life and character, but now I'm going on to the next case. Edgar Poe deserves better than he got, and I'm going to convince you that he was not a drunken self-destructive genius. He was a hardworking editor and critic whose goal in life was to support his family financially while jacking up the quality of American letters.  

He made most of his (very inadequate) living doing lectures about writing, and any working novelist can relate to that. We all turn into Willie Loman when the book is finished. Which brings me to my experiences with publishing.

Apart from The Sparrow, none of my novels were brought to market by the editor who bought it. I had nine editors at Random House for my first five books. Seven of them quit or were fired or died. I found that I couldn't work with one of them, but that was the only time I ever initiated the change. I only met two editors face to face and I've learned not to expect anything from them. If they are helpful, it's a bonus, but not something I rely on. When an acquiring editor leaves, the author and the book are orphaned, in a sense. I never know if I'm just getting happy talk from someone I was foisted onto, or if they are genuinely enthusiastic about the new book, so I never know where I fit in the food chain. 

Meanwhile, Random House itself was bought by Bertalsmann and within Random House, I went from imprint to imprint. I'm at Ecco (HarperCollins) now, but who knows if my editor will still be there fifteen months from now when Epitaph comes out? 

The Random House sales force championed my work, as your store did and as did bookstores around the country. They know I'm at Ecco now and will coordinate with the HarperCollins salesforce when Epitaph comes out. And I've had the same agency from the beginning -- Dystel and Goderich. But those are the only sources of continuity that I've experienced in publishing.

And, of course, the publishing industry itself is in the middle of a revolution. It's not just ebooks, it's marketing, it's editorial policy, it's sales algorithms and shareholders who don't give a damn about literature. It's self-publishing on Amazon and blogs and online feeds, like Huffington Post, that ask writers to work for free to gain "exposure." It's social media and arranging to speak at libraries and making your own noise. There is no place for a becoming modesty. You've got to go out there and hawk your wares.

I recommend that new writers get John B. Thompson's book Merchants of Culture: the publishing business in the twenty-first century (Polity Press, 2010). Publishing today is almost as exploitive, heartless and chaotic as it was when Edgar Poe was trying to make a living -- another reason I'm interested in telling his story! 

Sorry to be so down on the industry, but I've just spent time with yet another literary novelist who got dumped by a publisher and was then told by her agent, "Books about mothers searching for kidnapped children are hot. Write one of those, and I can sell it." When I hear that from a talented author, I despair. 

And yet... I can't wait to get started on the Poe book. Go figure.

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Mary Doria Russell`s next novel, Epitaph, is set to be released next year by HarperCollins. It is the conclusion of her two book series on Doc Holliday. You can find Russell at http://www.marydoriarussell.net , and on twitter .