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READERS GUIDE

A Conversation with  Mary Doria Russell 

Random House Reader’s Circle: Until The Sparrow you had only written serious scientific articles and technical manuals. How did you end up writing a speculative novel?

Mary Doria Russell: The idea came to me in the summer of 1992 as we were celebrating the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the New World. There was a great deal of historical revisionism going on as we examined the mistakes made by Europeans when they first encountered foreign cultures in the Americas and elsewhere. It seemed unfair to me for people living at the end of the twentieth century to hold those explorers and missionaries to standards of sophistication and tolerance that we hardly manage even today. I wanted to show how very difficult first contact would be, even with the benefit of hindsight. That’s when I decided to write a story that put modern, sophisticated, resourceful, well-­educated, and well-­meaning people in the same position as those early explorers and missionaries—­a position of radical ignorance. Unfortunately, there’s no place on Earth today where “first contact” is possible—­you can find MTV, CNN, and McDonald’s everywhere you go. The only way to create a “first contact” story like this was to go off-­planet.

RHRC: How did religion come to play such a central role in the story?

MDR: At the time I wrote this I was in the process of bringing religion back into my own life. I was brought up as a Catholic but left the Church in 1965 when I was fifteen. After twenty years of contented atheism I became a mother. Suddenly I was in a position of having to transmit my culture to my son. I needed to decide what things to pass on and what things to weed out. I realized my ethics and morality were rooted in religion and began to reconsider those decisions I had made when I was young. I found myself drawn to Judaism and eventually converted. When you convert to Judaism in a post-­Holocaust world, you know two things for sure: one is that being Jewish can get you killed; the other is that God won’t rescue you. That was the theology I was dealing with at the time. Writing The Sparrow allowed me to look at the place of religion in the lives of many people and to weigh the risks and the beauties of religious belief from the comfort of my own home.

RHRC: What exactly are the risks and beauties of religion?

MDR: The beauty of religion is the way in which it enriches your understanding of what your senses tell you. I see no conflict between scientific and religious thought. They are just two very different ways of interpreting what we see all around us. What I gained was a cultural depth, a perspective that reaches back 3,200 years. There’s a certain kind of serenity that comes from knowing that the ethics you draw on have been tested and re-­tested by one thousand generations in every possible cultural and ethical climate, and that they have been found reliable and useful by so many people for so long under many different circumstances.
The risks have to do with believing that God micromanages the world, and with seeing what may be simply coincidence as significant and indicative of divine providence. It’s very easy then to go out on a limb spiritually, expect more from God than you have a right to expect, and set yourself up for bitter disappointment in His silence and lack of action.

RHRC: Where did the idea come from for the two alien races on Rakhat, the Runa and the Jana’ata?

MDR: It started with a look at two austratopithecine species from Earth’s prehistory: herbivores and carnivores/scavengers. I began by thinking, What would it be like if the herbivores were still around? That was the beginning of the idea. Then I asked myself, What would civilization be like if a carnivore had domesticated its prey species? That’s where I came up with the idea for the relationship between the Jana’ata and the Runa. The Jana’ata are a carnivorous herding society that breed their prey, the Runa, for intelligence and adaptability as well as meat.

RHRC: What’s the hardest thing about using two narrative lines to tell a story?

MDR: Pacing. You have to stop and think, Who does the reader want to be with now? Some time ago I realized the books that kept me turning pages were the ones that had two or more story lines. It’s a structure I admired as a reader. As a writer, having two story lines proved to be of great value. When I played out my imagination in one story line I could take a break from it and turn to the other with fresh enthusiasm. The tricky part is in introducing two separate sets of characters in the first one hundred pages. There’s a lot of setup that goes into it and you have to keep readers interested while developing the new characters.

RHRC: What sort of writing routine do you have?

MDR: I sit down in the morning when my husband’s at work and my son’s at school, and I spend seven hours in front of the computer. My working method is to make yardage every day. I don’t expect to throw a long bomb each time I sit down to write. Occasionally a whole chapter does come all at once but that’s the exception rather than the rule. The main thing to remember is that writing happens by doing the writing.

RHRC: Are any of your characters based on real people?

MDR: Some of them are. Anne and George share a biography with my husband and me, within certain limitations. Anne was willing to go to another planet and I won’t even go camping. Nevertheless, she speaks fairly clearly in my voice. I used my brother’s voice for John Candotti. There’s a kind of “Chicago attitude” in his character that came from my brother. There were also real people who gave me the voice of D.W. One of them is a Texas congressman and the other a real-­life New Orleans provincial. Emilio is his own person. I know nobody like him. I’m not sure I could be friends with a person like that. He’s too intense in a lot of ways. Sofia is also her own person.

RHRC: Why did you use the Jesuits as main characters and how did you gain such insight into their world?

MDR: The reason for using the Jesuits was simple logic. If we were to receive incontrovertible evidence of an extraterrestrial culture that could be reached in a human lifespan, who would go? I thought of the Jesuits because they have a long history of first contact with cultures other than their own. The problem was I knew no Jesuits at the time I wrote this. And you can’t just knock on a Jesuit’s door and say, “I’m writing a first novel about Jesuits in space. Tell me your intimate thoughts about being a priest.” What I did have, however, was access to dozens and dozens of autobiographies written by priests and ex-­priests during the last thirty years. Since Vatican II, 100,000 priests have left the active priesthood. Many priests have written autobiographies in which they discuss the motives that brought them to the life, the satisfactions and frustrations of the priesthood, why they decided to leave it behind, or why they remained true to the vocation.

RHRC: One reviewer calls this “a parable about faith—­the search for God, in others as well as Out There.” Another says it’s about “the problem of evil and how it may stand in the path of a person’s deepest need to believe.” How do you describe the themes in this book?

MDR: The central theme is an exploration of the risks and beauties of religious faith, If there isn’t a God, then Emilio Sandoz is all alone. And yet he’s terrified of the God he thinks he has discovered. But the story also revolves around the theme of family. One of the things I noticed after the story was finished was that all the main characters are childless, and yet they create a family for themselves, They relate to one another as son and daughter, brother and sister, uncle and aunt, grandparent and grandchild. It seems to me that this kind of spiritual kinship is tremendously important to all the people in this book. And the fact that they don’t have close genetic kin—­they have no children to leave on Earth—­gives them a kind of wistful freedom. Anne and George would have made terrific parents but they’re childless. Emilio, Jimmy, and Sofia become their surrogate kids. Those ties—­that spiritual tension—­was every bit as strong and resilient as genetic ties—­perhaps even stronger.

RHRC: Why did The Sparrow have to end the way it did?

MDR: Because I needed to ask questions in their starkest terms. What happens to Emilio Sandoz is a holocaust writ small. He survives, but loses everyone. Now he has to live in its aftermath.

RHRC: What’s the moral of this story?

MDR: Maybe it’s “Even if you do the best you can, you still get screwed.” We seem to believe that if we act in accordance with our understanding of God’s will, we ought to be rewarded. But in doing so we’re making a deal that God didn’t sign on to. Emilio has kept his end of a bargain that he made with God, and he feels betrayed. He believes he has been seduced and raped by God, that he’s been used against his will for God’s own purpose. And I guess that’s partly what I’m doing with this book. I wanted to look at that aspect of theology. In our world, if people believe at all, they believe that God is love, God is hearts and flowers, and that God will send you theological candy all the time. But if you read Torah, you realize that God has a lot to answer for. God is a complex personality. I wanted to explore that complexity and that moral ambiguity. God gives us rules but those are rules for us, not for God.

RHRC: What’s your next project?

MDR: I’m working on a sequel to The Sparrow titled Children of God. Emilio Sandoz goes back to Rakhat, but only because he has no choice. God is not done with him yet.

RHRC: What has been the toughest thing about writing the sequel?

MDR: The fact that there are so many people who are passionate about the original characters and care so much about the issues. Writing a sequel has been a real high-­wire act. I’ve got to be able to reproduce those elements of the first book that people responded to strongly but I don’t want to repeat myself. I have to break new ground. I hope that I have done that but it has not been an easy trick to pull off. What the second book does is reverse the story’s emphasis—­two thirds of the action takes place on Rakhat, and one third on Earth. Children of God explores what happens to the people on Rakhat because Emilio Sandoz was there. There are children born because of him, and children are always revolutionary. Things that we would put up with ourselves can become intolerable when we see our children forced to face the same circumstances.

RHRC: What do you want readers to get out of this book?

MDR: That you can’t know the answer to questions of faith but that the questions are worth asking and worth thinking about deeply.

Introduction

"Compelling–Suspenseful."–Seattle Times

"Provocative, challenging–Recalls both Arthur C. Clarke and H. G. Wells, with a dash of Ray Bradbury for good measure."–The Dallas Morning News

"It is rare to find a book about interplanetary exploration that has this much insight into human nature and foresight into a possible future. With wit and intelligence, Mary Doria Russell’s novel The Sparrow creates a whole new world that is shocking in its alien and human qualities…Vivid and wild."
San Antonio Express

"[A] strikingly original debut–At once thought-provoking and exciting, offering proof of its author’s singular talents–and of the continued vitality of science fiction as a genre of ideas."–Baltimore City Paper

"Brilliant–A startling portrait of an alien culture and of the nature of God–Shades of Wells, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Arthur C. Clarke with just a dash of Edgar Rice Burroughs–and yet strikingly original."
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"A smart, sad, and engrossing novel."–The Cleveland Plain Dealer

"Riveting."–Booklist (starred review)

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. How do faith, love, and the role of God in the world drive the plot of this story? One reviewer characterized this book as “a parable about faith–the search for God, in others as well as Out There.” Do you agree? If so, why?

2. This story takes place from the years 2019 to 2060. The United States is no longer the predominant world power, having lost two trade wars with Japan, which is now supreme in both space and on Earth. Poverty is rampant. Indentured servitude is once more a common practice, and “future brokers” mine ghettos for promising children to educate in return for a large chunk of their lifetime income. What kinds of changes do you think will occur during the twenty-first century–with governments, technology, society, and so on? Do you think America will lose its predominant status in the world?

3. Do you think it likely that we will make contact with extraterrestrials at some time in the future? What will the implications of such an event be? We’ve always viewed Earth, and human beings, as the center of the universe. Will that still be the case if we discover alien life forms? How will such a discovery change theology? Does God love us best? Will such a discovery confirm the existence of God or cause us to question his existence at all?

4. If, sometime within the next century, we hear radio signals from a solar system less than a dozen light years away from our own, do you think humankind would mount an expedition to visit that place? Who do you think might lead such an expedition? If you had to send a group of people to a newly discovered planet to contact a totally unknown species, whom would you choose? Is the trip to Rakhat a scientific mission or a religious one?

5. The Sparrow tells a story by interweaving two time periods–after the mission to Rakhat and before. Do you think this makes the story more interesting and easier to follow or more difficult to follow? How does this story differ from other stories you have read?

6. Why do you think Sandoz resists telling the story of what happened on Rakhat?

7. A basic premise of this story is an evaluation of the harm that results from the explorer’s inability to assess a culture from the threshold of exploration. Do you see any parallels between the voyage of the eight explorers on the Rakhat mission and the voyages of other explorers from past history–Columbus, Magellan, Cortez, and others–who inaccurately assessed the cultures they discovered?

8. Despite currently popular revisionism, many historians view the early discoverers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries not as imperialists or colonists but as intellectual idealists burning to know what God’s plan had hidden from them. Do you agree? Does this story make you reconsider the motives of those early explorers?

9. One of the mainstays of the Star Trek universe is the “prime directive” which mandates the avoidance of interference in alien cultures at all costs. Would the “prime directive” have changed the outcome of events on Rakhat?

10. In an interview, the author said, “I wanted readers to look philosophically at the idea that you can be seduced by the notion that God is leading you and that your actions have his approval.” What do you think she means by that? In what way was Emilio Sandoz seduced by this notion

11. How is Emilio Sandoz’s faith tested on Rakhat? One reviewer suggests that in his utter humiliation and in the annihilation of his spirit, Sandoz is reborn in faith. Do you agree? Consider Sandoz’s dilemma on page 394. Did God lead the explorers to Rakhat–step by step–or was Sandoz responsible for what happened? If God was responsible for bringing the explorers to Rakhat, does that mean that God is vicious?

12. The discoverers of Rakhat seem to be connected by circumstances too odd to be explained by anything but a manifestation of God’s will. Do you think it was God’s will that led to the discovery of and mission to Rakhat, as Sandoz initially believes? If that’ s the case, how could God let the terrible aftermath happen?

13. One reviewer wrote, “It is neither celibacy, faith, exotic goods, nor (as Sandoz bitterly asserts) the introduction of one of humanity’s oldest inventions that leads to the crisis between humans and aliens. The humans get into trouble because they fail to understand how Rakhat society controls reproduction. In short, they fail because they fail to put themselves into the aliens’ shoes.” Do you agree? If so, why? If not, why not?

3. One reviewer wrote, “It is neither celibacy, faith, exotics goods, nor (as Sandoz bitterly asserts) the introduction of one of humanity’s oldest inventions that leads to the crisis between humans and aliens. The humans get into trouble because they fail to understand how Rakhat society controls reproduction. In short, they fail because they fail to put themselves into the aliens’ shoes.” Do you agree? If so, why? If not, why not?

14. Is confession good for the soul? Do you think Emilio Sandoz will ultimately recover–both as a man and as a priest–from his ordeal?

15. Why do you think it’s so important to Emilio to stand by his vow of celibacy when he so obviously loves Sofia Mendez?

16. The Jesuits saw so many of their fellows martyred all over the world throughout history. Why aren’t they more sympathetic in dealing with Sandoz–a man victimized by his faith?

17. What is this story about? Is it a story about coming face-to-face with a sentient race that is so alien as to be incomprehensible, or about putting up a mirror to our own inner selves?

14. Is confession good for the soul? Do you think Emilio Sandoz will ultimately recover– both as a man and as a priest–from his ordeal?

15. Why do you think it’s so important to Emilio to stand by his vow of celibacy when he so obviously loves Sofia Mendez?

16. The Jesuits saw so many of their fellows martyred all over the world throughout history. Why aren’t they more sympathetic in dealing with Sandoz–a man victimized by his faith?

17. What is this story about? Is it a story about coming face-to-face with a sentient race that is so alien as to be incomprehensible, or about putting up a mirror to our own inner selves?

About this Author

Mary Doria Russell received her B.A. in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Illinois-Urbana, her M.A. in Social Anthropology from Northeastern University, and her Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology from the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor. In the process of earning her degrees, Russell studied linguistics, genetics, anatomy, archaeology, and geology–all of which have found their way into her critically acclaimed debut novel. Prior to The Sparrow, Russell had only written scientific articles–on subjects ranging from bone biology to cannibalism–and technical manuals for medical equipment as complex as nuclear magnetic resonance scanners. In her own words, she admits, "I had a great time, published a lot of stuff, won a bunch of awards and grants, but eventually got fed up with academia and quit." Making the transition from scientific and technical writing to fiction wasn’t easy. Russell estimates, however, that "only about twenty-two anthropologists, world-wide, read my academic publications and nobody reads computer manuals, so I figured that if even just my friends read my novel, I’d be way ahead in terms of readership because I have a lot of friends." A recent convert to Judaism, Russell has nevertheless maintained a strong connection with the Catholic education of her childhood. Asked why she created such a detailed look at faith in a higher power and religion in her debut novel, Russell explains, "I wanted to evaluate, as an adult, issues that had lain dormant for me since adolescence, to study the religion of my youth, to revisit the source of my values and ethics. That’s why I chose to write about men who are collectively among the most admirable and best educated of Catholic priests, the Jesuits. Writing The Sparrow allowed me to weigh the risks and the benefits of a belief in God, to examine the role of religion in the lives of many people." Mary Doria Russell lives in Cleveland, Ohio, ("and likes it very much, thank you") with her husband, Don, and their son, Daniel. She is currently working on the sequel to The Sparrow, titled Children of God.
 
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