Mary Doria Russell- Traveler of Conceptual Realms

Becca Anderson, author of The Book of Awesome Women, has written a new blog post on the life and career of Mary Doria Russell, check it out!

Photo: © Dina Rossi

Mary Doria Russell is an author of works of speculative fiction and historical novels who incorporates elements drawn from other genres as well as from an academic background in anthropology into her stories. She made a splash with her first novel, The Sparrow (1996); not only did it win the Arthur C. Clarke Prize, the British Science Fiction Award, and the James Tiptree, Jr. Award for SF works that “explore and expand our understanding of gender,” it was selected as one of Entertainment Weekly’s ten best books of the year. 1998’s Children of God, the sequel to The Sparrow, won the Friends of the Library USA Reader’s Choice Award, and she has twice been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for her stand-alone novels A Thread of Grace (2005) and Doc (2011).

Mary was born in the suburbs of Chicago in 1950 to parents who were both serving in the military. Her family raised her as a Catholic, but she left the church at age fifteen; her later efforts to sort out what parts of her family of origin’s culture to pass along to her own children influenced the focus on questions of spirituality that is found in her fiction. She has said that she was in a way an outsider in her family of birth, as literally “the only Democrat among a hundred or more Republicans!” She earned a BA in cultural anthropology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; halfway through her undergraduate studies, she married Don Russell in 1970. She continued on to obtain an MA in social anthropology at Boston’s Northeastern University and eventually a doctorate in biological anthropology from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1983. The areas of focus for her thesis research were in bone biology and paleoanthropology, and she went on to teach graduate courses in osteology at the University of Michigan as well as human anatomy at the Case Western School of Dentistry in Cleveland.

Russell did fieldwork in Australia and in Croatia, where her son Daniel was born in 1985. She also worked for a few years as a technical writer creating computer manuals before she turned to creating literature. She has stated that while in the process of writing her breakthrough first novel, she thought of it as “a historical novel that takes place in the future.” After many rejections, her first-contact novel The Sparrow at last saw print; in its fictional 2019, the SETI program at Arecibo Observatory detects radio broadcasts of music emanating from near Alpha Centauri. An expedition is launched in secret to the planet Rakhat, the origin point of the signals—a ship full of Jesuits. Holy starfarers, Batman! The novel brought Russell the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 1998, and its even more philosophical sequel, Children of God, was published that year.

A few years later, she published the stand-alone historical novel A Thread of Grace (2005), a World War II thriller involving both the plight of Jewish refugees and the Italian resistance to fascism, followed by Dreamers of the Day (2008), a historical romance of the early decades of the last century set in both the American Midwest and the Middle East. Russell shifted gears to the nineteenth century with a fictional biography of Doc Holliday and his friendship with Wyatt Earp; Doc was named one of the three best novels of 2011 by the Washington Post. In its sequel Epitaph, she took a look at the way the legendary gunfight at the O.K. Corral became a focal point of mythology about the Old West. She returned to the early 1900s with The Women of the Copper Country, the tale of Annie Clements, the young union organizer who was once known as America’s Joan of Arc. Russell is recognized for her eloquence, her meticulous research, and the driving flow of her narrative works. She and her husband, retired software engineer Don Russell, live in Cleveland, Ohio, with their two dachshunds.

[F]irst contact is constant: it’s all around you. Watch children! They haven’t been on this planet for long, and it’s all new to them. Get out of your own culture. Travel. Be confused. Be out of your depth. Be dependent on the kindness of others. Read widely, and read autobiographies of people you loathe. Listen to NPR and AM talk radio. Be revolted. Be thrilled. Be delighted. Pay attention to your own reactions to novel situations, and to the reactions of strangers. It’s all grist.

Mary Doria Russell, in Lightspeed Magazine, interviewed 2011


Why We Love Pirates

The Hunt for Captain Kidd and How He Changed Piracy Forever

Crime and punishment. During his life and even after his death, Captain William Kidd’s name was well known in England and the American colonies. He was infamous for the very crime for which he was hanged, piracy. Rebecca Simon dives into the details of the two-year manhunt for Captain Kidd and the events that ensued. Captain Kidd was hanged in 1701, followed by a massive British-led hunt for all pirates during a period known as the Golden Age of Piracy. Ironically, public executions only increased the popularity of pirates. And, because the American colonies relied on pirates for smuggled goods such as spices, wines, and silks; pirates tended to be protected from capture.