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Author Interview: Mary Doria Russell

Nikki Steele / February 16, 2015

Few authors can write one of the very best science fiction novels, as well as one of the best stick-em-up, tear-jerkin' Westerns. Award-winning, critically acclaimed author Mary Doria Russell can however.

Russell is the author of three duologies—The Sparrow and Children of God, A Thread of Grace and Dreamers of the Day, and Doc and Epitaph. Her latest, Doc and Epitaph, take us to the very beginning of the events that culminated in the legendary shoot-out at the OK Corral in Tombstone, AZ. Through it all, Russell tells the characters' stories with grace, respect, and even a bit of humor.

Russell recently took the time to answer a few questions for the Tucson Festival of Books audience.

What inspired you to write your books?

Remember the history you learned in grammar school? Received wisdom seems perfectly reasonable when you were a kid, doesn't it? All six of my novels have been written because at some point in adulthood, I learned something surprising about a moment in history and thought, "Wait... How did that work? What was really going on?"

My first novel got started in 1992, on the 500th anniversary of Columbus landing in the New World. For school kids in the 1950s, European voyages of discovery seemed heroic. By the 1990s, it was pretty clear that European contact with Native Americans was a catastrophe for the Native Americans. (As one Native American comic put it, "When a guy breaks into your apartment and steals your stuff he hasn't discovered your television.") At the same time, I didn't think it was entirely fair to hold the early European explorers and missionaries and settlers to standards of cultural sophistication and appreciation for diversity that we only started paying lip service to a few decades ago.

So I thought, "Somebody ought to write a story that would put modern, intelligent, well-educated, well-meaning people into the same position of radical ignorance experienced by Columbus and his men. Let's just see how well we'd do! Even if everyone was trying to do everything right, we'd screw a lot up, too." And that became the backbone for The Sparrow and Children of God.

As for the most recent pair of novels, Doc and Epitaph... Well, like many Baby Boomers, I watched the 1950s TV show, Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal. And decades later, I was charmed by Val Kilmer's portrayal of Doc Holliday in the 1993 movie, Tombstone.

What hooked me, however, was learning in adulthood that John Henry Holliday was born with a cleft palate and a cleft lip, a family secret that was revealed for the first time in Karen Holliday Tanner's biography, Doc Holliday: A Family Portrait. There were so many surprises in that book that I went on to read biographies of the men and women Doc encountered in the West.

I read a lot of biography, and I always pay particular attention to a person's first 14 years. If those years were stable and loving, adults can build on a sound foundation; if they weren't, we expend a great deal of energy on repairing the damage we sustained as kids, or we wander in the ruins of a blighted childhood.

Now, generally, stories about the gunfight in Tombstone focus on guys in their 30s, but I went at least one generation deep on everyone because childhood is so important to understanding how and why adults behave as they do. There are no fictional characters in Epitaph and I suspect a lot of readers will be surprised by my portrayals of Doc and Wyatt and Johnny Behan and Ike Clanton and Josie Marcus and Tom McLaury and all the rest. They were real men and real women who were changed forever by those fatal 30 seconds in Tombstone, not just characters for me to play with. Their names have been stolen, blackened, used, and abused.

I wanted to do better by the dead. That's partly why my new novel is called Epitaph. I wanted to lay some ghosts to rest. I want the reader to feel some compassion for everyone caught up in that tragedy.

How did your time in Tombstone, Arizona spent researching Doc and Epitaph eventually come to influence those novels?

Oh, man. I absorbed about 19 linear feet of reference books for those two novels, but the research really came alive in 2012, when I participated in Great American Adventure's partial reenactment of the Earp Vendetta Ride. It was five days on horseback through the mountains and deserts that surround Tombstone.

Long hours in the saddle in open country over evil terrain taught my bones, my muscles, and my skin what that experience must have been like for John Henry Holliday. Some writers assume Doc must have been healthy in order to make that ride but tuberculosis doesn't work that way. Once lung tissue is gone, it's gone. You can stop getting worse, but you don't get better. Doc was ill his entire adult life. His willingness to stay with Wyatt's posse was testimony to his affection for Morgan Earp. I think it was sheer guts that kept him going and he paid a high price for it.

How have you noticed your own writing focus, style, and themes change over your years as a writer?

I seem to write pairs of novels. Each book takes about three years, which means I spend six to seven years focused on a set of characters or a period of history. At that point, I've pretty much chewed the taste out of the gum! Once I've satisfied my curiosity about a given era, I'm ready to take on something entirely different.

My style changes with each book and for each character within the book. When writing for Doc Holliday, I could use Greek and Latin quotes, literary allusions, references to classical music; there is depth and complexity of thought. When writing for Wyatt, the sentences are short, the language concrete, the moral view black and white. For Tommy McLaury, there is sweetness and patience, with a farmer's attention to weather and to husbandry. Josie Marcus's voice is initially that of a flighty, spoiled teenager, but it changes as she grows up, matures, and ultimately descends into dementia.

Themes? I am not conscious of them as I write, but they do emerge. I'm consistently drawn to those I believe are unfairly maligned – Tom McLaury, for example, and Doc himself. I like Esau better than Jacob. I want to know what Abel said that infuriated Cain! I learned long ago that the less you know about others, the easier it is to be certain about them. For me, writing is not about personal expression. It's more about getting inside the heads of others, winning some understanding and respect for those I believe have been misjudged.

The jeopardy of women comes up a lot, too. This is empathy rather than personal experience. I've led a charmed life, so far, but I am aware that this is largely a matter of luck and I recognize how quickly things can change. It's been observed that men fear women will laugh at them, but women fear that men will rape and kill them. It's a whole different level of threat and insecurity. At some level, in all times and in all places, even the most fortunate women on the planet live their lives in jeopardy.

What does the day-to-day business of being a writer actually look like for you?

Epitaph is coming out on March 3, so for the next three months, there will be a lot of publicity work – like this interview! Ecco/HarperCollins is planning a big book tour for me, so I'm also shopping online for clothes that pack well and shoes that look nice but still let me sprint to the next airline gate.

Normally, however, a typical day starts with three newspapers and two cups of coffee. My hands on the keyboard by eight in the morning, 360 days a year. I write until I notice that I'm hungry, usually around one. I eat in front of the TV and catch up on whatever series I'm currently binging on. I watch a shocking amount of television. I'm a big Vikings fan (the seaborne raiders, not the football team). I like The Americans and Elementary, and the WGN series about the development of the atom bomb, Manhattan. Looking forward to the new seasons of all those shows and Game of Thrones. I can't tell you how much of my life I've devoted to HGTV. Really. It's embarrassing.

I take a nap most days. It's like hitting the reset button. After a little rest, I practice piano, and then go back to writing in the late afternoon until my husband calls to say he's on the way home. Dinner is on the table every night. We rarely eat out. I love to cook.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Marry an engineer. Seriously. Engineers are exceptionally nice people in my experience, often funny and nearly always rational. There's been a good job market for them since the Renaissance and they get full benefits at work. You're going to need that kind of stability in your life. Bonus: if your computer crashes, they can recover your manuscript before you kill yourself in despair.

What are you working on right now? Now that you're finishing up the Doc and Epitaph duology, should we expect another series?

I've just barely started work on a Romeo and Juliet story set in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan during the 1913 copper strike – I got interested in mining while doing research in Tombstone. If I stay true to form, the following book will also be about labor unions. Maybe something about Jimmy Hoffa? But that's a long way off.

Where can we buy your books?

I'll be signing books at the Tucson Festival of Books, of course! And as the TV ads used to say: "Wherever fine books are sold." Yes, children, there was a time when books were advertised on television.

For readers who'd like signed books and can't find me on tour, you can always order from this independent bookstore:

There's a Comments box at the end of the order form where you can say how you'd like the books personalized. The owner of the store brings them to my house to get them signed.

You can find Mary Doria Russell at the following sessions at the Tucson Festival of Books:

  • "Plotting the Past: Western Historical Fiction" on Saturday at 10 AM
  • "Historical Fiction: Reimagine the Past" on Saturday at 2:30 PM

Nikki Steele is a freelance writer in Phoenix, AZ. She writes about books at Connect with Nikki on Twitter at @nnsteele.

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