A Hardheaded Faith

Mary Doria Russell’s science fiction books The Sparrow and Children of God put Jesuits in space and wrestle with the missionary issues of first contact. She’s gone on to write historical fiction, including A Thread of Grace, which tracks the underground efforts of Italians to save Jews during the final phase of World War II, and Dreamers of the Day, which explores the 1921 Cairo Conference through the perspective of an Ohioan woman caught up in forces that would shape the modern-day Middle East. Now Russell has jumped genres again and is writing a murder mystery/Western set in Dodge City, Kansas. Sojourners associate editor Rose Marie Berger interviewed Russell, who lives in Cleve­land, this summer by e-mail.

Rose Marie Berger: How would you describe your spiritual journey?

Mary Doria Russell: Hardheaded. Pragmatic. Poetic. In that order!

How has your understanding of God changed over time? In 1955, the kindergarten kids at Pleasant Lane School in Lombard, Illinois, were told to bring in “something that is important to you” for show-and-tell. I remember this very clearly. A devout Catholic at that age, I arrived with a milk-glass statuette of the Virgin Mary and told the class that she was important to me because “she was the mother of God, and if it weren’t for her, there’d be no God, and then there’d be no world.”

Simply speaking those words aloud got my 5-year-old self thinking about the logical and sequential questions that statement begged. I became a more sophisticated Catholic as I matured, but eventually the theological package linking the Trinity, original sin, divine incarnation (with or without virgin birth), and salvation through blood sacrifice lost all credibility for me.

For 20 years, I was a contented atheist. I replaced the global understanding of the human soul offered by Catholicism with the global understanding of the human species offered by anthropology. That was good enough until I became a mother and discovered that principles of cultural relativity are of remarkably little practical use when you have your very own child to raise in your very own culture.

I wanted to raise my son in a solid moral and ethical framework, but I found that I couldn’t go back to Christ­ianity in any of its forms—divine incarnation remained an insuperable barrier to faith. After a while, though, I realized that what I valued in Christianity was rooted in the religion that Jesus practiced, as opposed to the religion that deified Jesus. In essence, Judaism is about raising children who will want to be good, without promising heaven or threatening hell. Doesn’t always work, isn’t always well applied, but that’s the heart of Judaism, and it’s an ethical system tested and retested for 3,500 years, in every conceivable moral and political climate, around the world.

After eight years of study, I made a formal conversion to Judaism. The Sparrow was a part of that process. Having decided to bring religion back into my life, I felt it was only fair to reconsider the religion of my youth. The church had changed a lot in the intervening years, and so had I. Not wanting to construct a straw man and triumph over him, I made the best case I could for Christianity in the novel, and the Christian response to the novel seems to indicate that I did a convincing job of it. But though I am bilingual, religiously, whenever I put my characters into some sort of spiritual crisis as a writer, as a human being I wanted to provide them with a Jewish perspective—giving the characters and my readers the benefit of Judaism’s delight in intellect and debate, the way it insists on questioning and reinterpreting scripture.

At 58, I remain an agnostic. By definition, we can’t know the answers to the questions of faith, but for nearly 20 years, Judaism has been the moral, festive, and poetic structure for my family, and I appreciate its celebrations and beauty as much as the ethical system that first drew me.

What are significant spiritual experiences for you? Tzedakah. The word is from the Hebrew root tz-d-k, which produces three words that seem unconnected in English: charity, saint, justice. In Judaism, a good person doesn’t share what he or she has out of anything as slippery as love or compassion. You do so because it is right, and it is just. For me, the impulse to share gains meaning in that fierce and unsentimental context.

Thanks to The Sparrow, and the books that followed it, I no longer volunteer to write grant proposals for charitable organizations I support. I write checks. I can read about a problem in the newspaper, for example, and then make it disappear—fix it, cross a problem off somebody’s list of worries! That’s so satisfying.

Do you have regular spiritual disci­plines? We are pretty good about observing Shabbat. On Friday nights, we light the candles and say the blessings over wine and bread, and often share our meal with guests. We welcome Jewish and Gentile friends and relatives at Passover. And we throw a big Chanukah party every year! We have a menorah for every child who attends—there’s a blaze of candlelight that’s just magical, with dreidels and chocolate gelt and enormous amounts of food and laughter. It’s not an important Jewish festival, but it’s definitely big fun!

Do you have regular writing disciplines? Well, I’d call them habits rather than disciplines, but my routine is two cups of coffee, two newspapers, and by 8 a.m., I’m up in my office with a third coffee. I answer e-mail to get my hands on the keyboard, and because getting fan mail is welcome encouragement—I am so grateful to readers who take time to write.

From 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., I’m locked down and working. I edit existing material to begin, and then try to get a little further in the story. After a few hours, I’m famished, so I take a lunch break and walk the dogs. I often nap, mid-afternoon. Getting old! Then I’m fresh enough to work again until my husband calls to let me know he’s on the way home from work, and it’s time to start dinner.

What is the view from where you write? My office is on the second floor of our 1929 colonial. The room is small, but it’s got five windows that overlook a wooded ravine. In summer my view is a mass of green: bright with hydrangea and hosta close to the house, dark with maples and oaks in the middle distance, and glowing with sunlight beyond. In the Cleveland winter, it’s all gray branches, gray clouds, and gray stone, but after a snowstorm, it can be a fairyland.

What’s the view from the place that you pray? I don’t pray. I often think of blessings, though—not the kind you count, but ritual blessings. Whenever I take off or land during a flight, for example, I silently recite the Shecheheyanu: “Blessed art thou, O Lord, ruler of the universe, for giving us life, for sustaining us, and for bringing us to this season.” It’s just a way to remind myself of the passing of time, and being aware of where I am and when I am. There are Hebrew blessings for everything: for tasting fruit, for noticing a particularly lovely sunset. We even bless the fact that grapes ferment!

As a writer, what’s the best thing you get to do? Re­search, which is how I make friends with my characters! What a character loves often becomes part of my life as well. For example, Emilio Sandoz (The Sparrow) is a Puertoriqueño and a mad baseball fan. He got me interested in the game, and eventually our whole family was getting season tickets. This year’s been grim, but we always hope!

Right now, I’m working on a novel called Eight to Five, Against. It’s a murder mystery set in Dodge City in 1878, with Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Doc has me studying the classics—definitely not part of the curriculum for a doctorate in paleoanthropology. He read Homer and Virgil in Greek and Latin. I had to use translations, including one written by another of my historical characters, T.E. Lawrence (from Dreamers of the Day). His translation of The Iliad was wonderful.

My own musical taste tends toward ’80s heavy metal—Def Lep­pard, Van Halen—but Doc Holliday played classical piano, and he’s got me listening to Chopin and Liszt and the Beethoven concerti. Those have been a revelation! And Wyatt is teaching me about horseracing, vice laws, and police work in high-crime areas!

What’s the funniest experience you’ve had on a book tour? Well, there was a memorable night during the Children of God tour. I was in a Midwestern bookstore when a tall, thin, serious-looking lady waited until everyone else had left the signing before she asked, “Why are the Jews keeping the face of Jesus on Mars a secret?”

This was the first I’d heard of a face of Jesus on Mars. (If you Google “face Jesus Mars,” the photo will pop right up.) Still, in a world where the Virgin Mary can appear on tortillas, I was not totally taken aback. What struck me as odd was the notion that Jews were keeping it a secret.

“Are you Jewish?” I asked her.

“No!” she said, sounding a little offended, truth be told.

“Well, then, I guess it’s not much of a secret,” I said and signed her book.

For more on Mary Doria Russell, visit www.marydoriarussell.info. For an excerpt from The Sparrow, click here.

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