FACETIME- Don't fence her in: Russell defies categorization

Mary Doria Russell

Novelist Mary Doria Russell's literary universe bestrides centuries, galaxies, and genres, its settings ranging from an alien planet in her multi-award-winning science fiction novel The Sparrow to Doc Holliday's Dodge City in her upcoming western Eight to Five, Against.

She may pen SF and westerns, but the stuffy literati don't dare dismiss her as just another genre writer.

As fantasist (and former Book Fest guest) Kevin Brockmeier tells the Hook, "Mary Doria Russell is one of the first writers I turn to... when I'm trying to convince people who don't read science fiction that the field might have more to offer them than they imagine. What I admire about her books– and what I think other readers of literary fiction would admire– is the craftsmanship of her prose, the complexity of her characterization, and the daring with which she addresses the big questions of doubt, faith, and cultural misunderstanding."

Despite such latter-day praise, Russell's first novel, The Sparrow, was rejected by 31 agents.

"I'm a bit smug about that, actually," says the vindicated Russell, now 58.

The Sparrow, which follows a Jesuit expedition to a newly discovered alien civilization, won numerous awards, and spawned a sequel, A Thread of Grace (2005). Her background in anthropology heavily influences her science fiction work, as does her fascination with religion, which she considers a cousin to SF.

"What we now call science fiction is the oldest kind of human storytelling– stories that were told by firelight," she explains. "We have always speculated about alien beings, but in the past we called them centaurs and nymphs, elves and goblins, angels and demons. At heart, those stories are about what it means to be human in a vast and frightening and beautiful universe. At the heart of religion, there are similar concerns."

Russell's newest novel, Eight to Five, Against, due out in 2010, chronicles the oft-retold and misrepresented life of "Doc" Holliday. While meticulously researching its wild west milieu, she realized that the "technical demands" of SF and westerns aren't as different as they might seem.

"In either," Russell says, "I'm writing about a time and place that are not my own, and I have to construct a world I've never lived in."

All genres aside, the recurring theme in her multi-faceted work is probably "stories of people who've been unfairly and harshly judged," she says. "Not sure why. Maybe a shrink could tell you."

So what book's next in this vein? She's contemplating writing about perhaps the most harshly judged men in American history: Benedict Arnold, "Whose name is actually synonymous with treason," she says, "but I think he got a very raw deal.

"Random House keeps giving me contracts, God bless them, so I keep writing novels," Russell relates. "Sort of the same reason I got my PhD in anthropology: I kept getting scholarships and As, and it seemed like a harmless vice."


Mary Doria Russell headlines "The Art of Historial Fiction: A Conversation with Alan Cheuse and Mary Doria Russell" on Thursday, March 19, at 8pm at UVA's Culbreth Theatre.