Meeting a personal idol can be nerve-wracking. No matter how realistic you try to be, you’ve already made some assumptions or furnished some personality traits which you hope that person will have, be it a sense of humor or a way of speaking. Inevitably, this person will not match up with your expectations, but you may find that they can surprise you in a positive way.
Author Mary Doria Russell recently traveled to Anchorage for an event hosted by Friends of the Library. This advocacy group which helps promote good works of the library, provide financial support, and organize events like book sales and author presentations. As the Wilda Marston Theater at Loussac Libary slowly filled, you could hear the murmur of attendees swapping stories about which books of Russell’s they loved, and which they looked forward to reading.
I read The Sparrow, my first book by Russell, on my moving-to-Alaska flight. It was a dog-eared copy given to me by a co-worker who thought I might enjoy it. In fact, I don’t remember the plane ride because I was so engrossed in the story of group of space travelers sent by a religious sect to answer a broadcast from another world. Or, as Russell would describe it, “Jesuits in space.” Acknowledging that she didn’t make it easy for people to describe the book, Russell offered, “It’s science fiction, but it’s really really classy science fiction. It’s got Latin and everything.”
Russell wrote The Sparrow and its companion, Children of God, before the most recent turn of the century. She has followed those forays into science fiction with three historical novels ranging in topic from the Italian Resistance in World War II to T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) and the Cairo Peace Conference to Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp. Russell explains, “I have a very low tolerance for boredom.”
Russell is a slight, energetic woman who easily weaves humor and compassion into her speech. She talked earnestly about the interesting life of Dr. John Henry “Doc” Holliday, and all that he was in addition to being at “a 30-second gunfight behind a tailor shop.” For one, he was the recipient of what was likely the first cleft-palette corrective surgery in North America. For another, Holliday was an almost-fully licensed dentist by the age of 20 (he had to wait until he was 21-years-old before he could start practicing). By the age of 22, Holliday was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Russell sets her story Doc five years later, when Holliday set up his dental practice in Dodge City, Kansas. Russell says Holliday was well-loved by his mother, who kept him alive in an era where children with cleft-palettes often died within a few weeks of birth. Since he didn’t have a mother to care for him as adult, Russell says this book was her way of caring for “him as my own.”
Listening to Russell talk about Doc Holliday, you get a real sense of the enthusiasm she has for her work. Holding a doctorate in biological anthropology, she gets to put her research training to good use. “The research is often comfort to me,” explains Russell, and her goal is that “almost no readers will know more about this than I do.” She says she enjoys the writing process, too, but her real passion lies in editing.
No, you read that right. Editing. Russell loves to edit. She even enjoys editing her own writing.
“When you’ve got a complete draft from start to finish—and I edit all the way along, I’m constantly churning as I write—but when there’s a complete story that I know ‘Okay, it worked, and now I can only make it better and better. Get that out. That doesn’t have to be here. This seemed like a good idea at the time but we don’t need that anymore.’ I call it Texas Chainsaw Editing.” She says every word has to justify itself, “or it has to go.”
That’s stern advice for any writer to take to heart. Russell isn’t satisfied to stick to editing her own material, either. Citing trouble slogging through the work of Charles Dickens, Russell mentioning that she is working on a forthcoming, edited-down version of A Tale of Two Cities, “Because…damn.”
Russell is also a recent escapee of the election battleground that took over her home state of Ohio.
“Ohio has been ground zero for every nasty political ad. We have been unable to use our telephone for the last six months.” Russell said that with the end of the election, she was feeling a little neglected. “I don’t know that anyone loves us anymore. We’ve cast our voted and I don’t think that anyone will be calling us anymore. We have to get used to the silence now [laughs].”
Russell says Ohio being such a point of contention in the race was a big responsibility, and “we really did feel like we were taking one for the nation.”
It’s safe to say that the opportunity to meet one of my favorite authors did not disappoint. Russell took the time to sign every book put in front of her and to speak individually with everyone who stood in line, even if it was just to tell her an engineering joke. And even though she had an early morning flight, she borrowed a pen because she already had a chapter for the next book in her head just waiting to get out.