Saturday, September 15, 2007

Looking Ahead: Mary Doria Russell's March Release

I interviewed Mary Doria Russel for the first time about a year and a half ago (available here). I had just discovered her book A Thread of Grace, the story of 40,000 Jewish refugees taken in by Italian citizens who saved them from work camp executions. I wanted to know more. Who was this woman who wrote The Sparrow and Children of God, books that take place in the year 2019 and 2059 and are centered around a group of Jesuits who, hearing about life on the planet of Rakhat, get there before the US government?

The answer is quite simple. Mary is a kind, boisterous, funny, and an honest woman who once told me that, in order to make sure she wasn't writing a "feel-good Holocaust novel", she had quite literally flipped a coin to find out which characters would live and which would die. Mary Doria Russel likes to cuss and I like not stopping her.

Mary's next novel, Dreamers of the Day, takes place behind the scenes of the Cairo Peace Conference of 1921 in the midst of a quickly-changing Middle East. The novel centers around Agnes Shanklin, a retired school teacher who sets out to travel through Egypt and the Holy Land. Agnes finds herself involved in political machinations and love. I knew the moment that I heard about Mary's new novel that I wanted to get the scoop from her so I could share it here:

Kelly Hewit: When I heard that you had a new book coming out I knew I had to get in touch. Can you give my readers a teaser?

Mary Doria Russell
: Sure. I'm really curious to get into the questions for this book, because it's so different from the other three.

Are you old enough to remember Chatty Cathy dolls? Kids would pull a string in her back, and the doll would recite a random selection from a limited list of recorded remarks. That's what it feels like when you've been on a book tour for a while. I'm looking forward to developing a new list of recorded remarks!

Kelly: I think I already like your new heroine, Agnes Shanklin, who finds herself in the Egypt and the Holy Lands rubbing shoulders with a German spy, involved in dangerous geopolitical happenings and finally, perhaps most importantly, finding romance as a 40 year old who has wandered pretty far from her native Ohio. Where did you get your inspiration for Agnes? Or to be more bold ... are you Agnes?

Mary: The real Agnes Shanklin taught freshman English in 1964 at Glenbard East High School, in Lombard, Illinois. She was a tiny little "maiden lady" with 1920s bob that had remained the same for forty years, if you don't count the gray. She taught precision grammar by diagramming sentences,and there is a generation of Glenbard girls who remember her with great affection. I expect to hear from a lot of them when the book comes out. Miss Shanklin lived with her older sister, who was also unmarried and reportedly a pain in the ass. She was quiet and refined and gentle, butevery now and then, there would be a flare of her true personality: a moment of political passion, a ferocious opinion revealed.

Those moments were so startling, she remained in my memory as the years went on. As I aged, I began to put her life in context, and realized that she must have been a teenager during the Roaring Twenties. She wasn't always the retiring and sweet old lady we kids assumed she was! So that's the kernel for Agnes.

That said, I have to admit that there is a great deal more autobiographical content in this book than in my first three. The one great failure in my life was my relationship with my mother. She was a silent and opaque person who worked very hard to be above reproach. She relentlessly said and did all the correct things, but it seemed forced and, ultimately, counterfeit. Every moment with her vibrated with cognitive dissonance. What I saw and heard never matched up with the emotion I sensed.

I was never able to break through the glassy, reflective surface Mom kept polished, not even at the end of her life when I was at her side constantly while she slowly died of ovarian cancer. All of the passages about Agnes going through her dead mother's estate were directly from my life, by the way, which helped me process the experience. That sort of thing doesn't change.

Because Mom was so closed off, I spent a lifetime trying to understand what made her the person she was and made myself an expert on her family history. In writing Agnes, I took the opportunity to imagine a sort ofthree-generation amalgam: what would I be like if I had been raised by my mother's mother?

Agnes is not a portrait of Louise, or me, but her family dynamic does draw on some of my own. The idea was, Maybe if I could get a sense of how Loella raised Louise, I would understand Louise better.

I don't know that writing this novel helped me with my mother's memory much. Nevertheless, I got at some real issues in 20th century childrearing and parent-child conflicts that I think will resonate for a lot of readers.

Kelly: The last time we talked we discussed your great depth of knowledge about WW II as is evident in A Thread of Grace. Some of that knowledge, you said, had come from your father's influence and knowledge of militariana -- the rest you noted was a result of your scholarship of the time period. Did you spend as much time studying the Cairo Peace Conference and the major political figures there?

Mary: No, not as much. A Thread of Grace drew on a massive historical record and on my original research done overseas. Dreamers of the Day was written in the aftermath of that effort, during which my mother got her diagnosis. My original intent was to take a year off after A Thread of Grace, but I started writing Dreamers of the Day during the hardcover book tour for A Thread of Grace, which coincided with the last six months of my mother's long death. Amazingly dumb, but there you go. Can't seem to help myself.

I did have the brains, at least, to take on something easier, smaller scale, less sweeping and epic. For one thing, everybody in Dreamers of the Day speaks English. And it takes place partly in Ohio, so not every fucking paragraph required research. The Cairo Conference barely gets a mention in most histories, so I didn't have to read mountains of texts. And nobody who attended it is alive today, so I don't have to worry about one of them showing up at a book signing to embarrass the shit out of me.

All I had to know is what Agnes would have known or learned while she was in Cairo for ten days. She meets T.E. Lawrence, Winston Churchill and Lady Gertrude Bell, but she's not a participant in the conference, and only hears about it second hand. It's a backstage look at the events and personalities. I do suggest the larger issues behind the dialog, so that anyone who's very knowledgeable about the historical background will see what's implied.

Then I had a highly respected Lawrence scholar vet the book for me. Steve Tabachnick said the book is dead on historically and thinks I did a good job of portraying the personalities. That was a huge relief.

Kelly: You are still on my shortlist of authors I have had the funnest time interviewing. I loved that you cussed several times during the interview.

Mary: My dad was a Marine Corps drill sergeant and my mom was a Navy nurse. Try to imagine what I sounded like in kindergarten...

Kelly: Is that something I can continue to look forward to in future interviews?

Mary: Shit, yes. See "every fucking paragraph," above.


Anonymous said...

Hi :)

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