National Jesuit News interview
Insight from Afar
An Interview with novelist Mary Doria Russell
From the National Jesuit News
Though the thought of Jesuits exploring space may raise a few eyebrows in the provincial’s office, the idea seems quite natural to anthropologist – turned-novelist Mary Doria Russell. Her 1996 novel The Sparrow tells the story of a Jesuit-led expedition to make contact with the population of a world circling the three suns of Alpha Centauri. The story begins with the expedition in ruins and gradually untangles the complex series of events leading up to the disaster. In a recently published sequel entitled Children of God, Russell explores the aftermath of first contact both on Earth and on the other world, Rakhat.
Russell converted to Judaism from agnosticism during the time she was writing the two books. Her faith transition is evident not only in the Jewish characters in the book but also in her treatment of religion as a whole.
The two books offer an intimate view of both the interior life of the Jesuit characters and their interaction with others. The characters experience joy and hope, anguish and desperation, and then attempt quite explicitly to make their experiences fit into their faith-inspired world view.
The success of that intimate view belies the fact that Russell’s only contact with the Society prior to finishing the first book was “driving through the campus of John Carroll university on the way to synagogue every week.” A draft of the novel was read in the final weeks before publication by Father Ray Bucko, a Jesuit anthropologist who teaches at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York. Russell met Fr. Bucko via e-mail after finding his Jesuit Resources page on the internet.
Widely read by Jesuits, both The Sparrow and Children of God offer an interesting view from the outside of life on the inside of a Jesuit community. Russell discussed the writing of the two books in a recent interview with Matthew Paschke, NSJ, a Jesuit novice from the New England Province who was working at NJN this spring.
What follows is the full interview, part of which was published in the June 1998 issue of NJN.
How did you choose to write about priests, and why the Jesuits in particular?
This all got started in 1992, which was the 500th anniversary Columbus’ landing in the New World. The first thing that came to me was the notion of trying to update the experience of the explorers and the early missionaries and the settlers. At the same time it was announced that down at the Arecebo telescope and around the world they were beginning a concerted effort to monitor the sky for radio communication in hopes of picking up evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence.
I began to think about what we would do if we actually heard something. If we really got evidence that was not iffy, that was definite. What would we do? What would it be like? Then I asked the next question, which was, if it were possible to get there within a single human life span, who would go? So, I was looking around for an international organization with scientific expertise and a motive to go, and it occurred to me that the Jesuits have a 500-year history of having done this kind of thing for a living.
So, it’s more important that he’s a Jesuit than a priest?
Yes. It just seems to me that this is something that is in the tradition. The other thing I thought was interesting, is that from everything I have read about modern Jesuits, there is not a lot of proselytization, but there is a lot of missionary work. You go out and you do the work, and if anyone asks you, “Why do you do what you do? Why are you here? Why have you spent your life this way?” you’re very happy to explain it to them. But there’s not the idea that you should go out and see how many people you can baptize this year.
I also think the opportunity to do first contact right would be interesting, and it would be something that would motivate Jesuits. The notion that you have seen how things can be damaged and how dangerous it can be would lead Jesuits to want to analyze that, and then try to do it right the second time. It just seemed like, to me, an interesting idea.
Is there a particular incident in Jesuit history that caught your attention?
I used Ricci. I loved his book. One of the reasons that I know about the Jesuits is that as an anthropologist I come across Jesuit ethnography in my work. The ethnography tends to be very thorough and very sympathetic. There is a real respect for the belief systems in situ, and I think an admirable hope to share what these men really believed about eternal estrangement from God and eternal closeness to God. I think they showed a very good balance between respect for what they found and an eagerness to share what they had.
What’s your experience of the Jesuits, and the Society as a whole?
My only connection with the Jesuits prior to writing this book was that I drove through the John Carroll University campus on my way to synagogue.
You have said that you had very little contact with the Jesuits before writing the books. How did you come to know the Society?
Autobiographies. In the last thirty years, the Catholic Church has lost 100,000 priests, and many individual priests have found it helpful to write autobiographies that explain what drew them to the priesthood, what the satisfactions were, what the frustrations were, and why they either stayed or left. I also read the sociology works that had been done.
The other aspects of this project were that I know academic politics, I know corporate politics, because I worked in business, and I know family politics. For Jesuits, all that happens in the same building. I just figured that I had enough understanding of what it’s like to have to work in those three areas, and then collapse it into a single area. For Jesuits, it’s all happening in one room, sometimes.
Along the same lines, you captured the interaction among Jesuits very well. What did you use as the source for that interaction?
It’s guys. You guys are not that hard to figure out. You want someone who’s hard to figure out, I’ll introduce you to my mother sometime. I just got this from a reporter in Florida who was reading the book and said that I just get male interaction so well, and I’m delighted to hear that. I just have a lot of guys in my life whom I really love. I have a wonderful father, and a terrific husband and a great son, and I am just very comfortable with men. I just figured it was guys who were also academics and scientists and have jobs and stuff. And yet, underneath all of that, there’s a central core of spirituality that from what I have read and from what I have learned from just being friends with Jesuits, doesn’t often surface.
How large a role did people like Ray Bucko have in your research of the book?
None in the research. I had finished the book, and it took 18 months to find an agent. I was turned down 31 times. Within eight weeks of finding an agent, I had a publisher. I realized that it’s not just between me and my computer anymore. I had to get someone inside to take a look at this. I had had physicists read it, I had had astronomers read it, I had had anthropologists read it, I had had engineers read it, I had had just folks read it. I didn’t know any Jesuits. So, I opened up the paper the Sunday morning after I had a publisher. There was an article in the religion section of the Cleveland Plain Dealer on the Vatican Web site. Religion on the Internet. It gave the address for the site. We got on to see what was there, and there was a hot button to the Jesuit home page. I clicked on that, and there’s Ray Bucko’s name at the top. The guy is an anthropologist. He is running a newsletter with a Lakota co-editor. I’m already 15 chapters into the sequel. I have a Lakota Jesuit character. So, I sent him an e-mail message saying “I have written this book, and it’s about — don’t stop reading — Jesuits in space. And it’s going to be published. Would you read it first?” And he wrote back that it sounded terrific, that he’d love to.
We only had to change a few things. I used the word seminary. I knew that it was really formation, but I thought, lay people, they’re not going to get it. But his attitude was that I taught them about Rakhat, I taught them about the aliens. I was introducing a lot of words they don’t know. “Get this one right,” he said, “explain it, work it in.” So, people now know it’s formation.
The other thing I had wrong, and I fixed this one by taking a paragraph out, was that I had a sense of tension between the Society and Islamic countries. But he said, “No, we have a long history of very good relations with Islamic countries. That’s just not on.” So, I took that out.
Your description of men finding peace with the challenge of celibacy is exceptional. Where does that insight come from?
I wanted that to be part of the book for a pragmatic reason and an artistic reason. The pragmatic reason was that I wanted more than science fiction readers to read the book, and I figured that for most readers, the truly alien society would be the Society of Jesus. It would be the most different, and people would really want to learn about it.
The other thing is that I’ve been married for 27 years. I was a virgin bride, and I am a one man woman. I married in 1970. The atmosphere was “Love the one you’re with,” and I was doing field work 12,000 miles from home for four months at a time. So I have had the experience personally of taking a vow and keeping it. I have had the experience of governing my own sexuality. I have had the experience of being attracted to someone with whom it was not appropriate to act on the attraction. And to take that and turn it into friendship, and then years later to be very glad that I didn’t screw up that relationship. I just felt it was a natural expression of my own experience. And I think that one of the reasons that you have novelists who cannot understand that is because they don’t understand it in their own lives. If you haven’t had the experience of really getting the hots for somebody and then working it through without acting on it, maybe you just can’t imagine it.
How did you come upon rape as the major source of suffering?
I knew something had broken that man’s heart. And something had enraged him. I knew it wasn’t the hands. Like I said, I wrote this book from beginning to end. I started with him in this state of devastation. The hands were the outward and visible sign. That was what people were focusing on. I think that, in order to get a believable male character to the point where is vulnerable enough to reveal himself emotionally, or to need help, to connect in that manner, you have to have something that breaks down the walls.
So, the hands were the outward and visible sign of something that was much deeper. There was an anger in him, a real rage, and at the same time, this kind of global sadness. So, I had to explain that to myself. The novel was about two-thirds done. It was on Rakhat. I had already written the Reshtar. I knew that he was a poet, I knew that he was really nuts himself, that there were some real things wrong with him. But I also understood him in a way that didn’t come out until the second book. There were things acting on that man’s life that twisted him. I woke up at about three o’clock in the morning with that scene in my head. And I went downstairs and fired up the computer, and wrote it, just as it appears in the book today. And then I shook for half an hour. And I thought to myself, “Well, that’s it then. I can’t even hope to publish this.”
I was so shaken by this that I just couldn’t handle it. I literally put the manuscript in my briefcase, I drove to Chicago, I sat down with my stepmother, and said, “OK I think I know what happened, but I really don’t know if I can do this.” If she had reacted to it with the same kind of shuddering horror, I probably would never have finished the book. Instead, she said, “That’s it. That’s what happened. That poor man, that’s what happened.”
I had the drama of this Latino male. There’s a lot going on that has nothing to do with being a priest. What was interesting to me was that Emilio did not react to the rape with despair. He became murderous. He wanted to kill somebody, or die. He wanted it to end. He was helpless any other way than to become so dangerous that they wouldn’t come anywhere near him. What broke him apart was Askama. In the Talmud it says that the reason that sacrifices done for inadvertent guilt are more elaborate and more difficult to carry out than for sin offerings is that is so much more difficult to forgive yourself for something that was unintentional. He had caused irreversible harm. He went there wanting to do everything right, all he wanted to do was help the people that he met, and to be responsible for this catastrophe, for the death of this child that he loved so dearly, that’s what breaks his heart.
The question of the suffering of innocents is very important in the books. But it’s never easy to tell who’s innocent. In your mind, are any of the three species actually innocent?
No. If you’re sentient, you can’t be innocent. Babies are innocent. And that’s why every single generation, you try to do it right. That’s why I have babies born at the end of this book. There are a lot of children at the end.
That is one of the enduring images from Christianity for me, even though I am now a Jew. It’s a combination of things. The Jewish messiah has not yet been born, but every baby has a chance. Each child has to be nurtured with this hope that this will be the one that brings peace, who makes things right. We are all involved with that.
In Reform Jewish though, the messiah will not be born until we have made a world ourselves where it is easier to choose good than evil . Then, then the messiah comes. So, you have to prepare the world. There is that notion that every time you hold a baby in your arms, maybe this time we can get it right. This child will see the right society. It has never happened, but there is always that sense of renewal. So, that’s why I ended this way. In some ways the second book is a family saga. It takes you through three generations. And you end with this hope that he will be better.
Another way of looking at your books is that they explore the relationship between the power of sexuality and the power of spirituality. Emilio is destroyed on both of those planes. How are his needs for healing in both of these realms met, and how did you choose the agents of that healing?
In some ways the second book was about the aftermath of an irreversible tragedy. It’s happened and he lived through it. Survivors have a lot of work to do. And there are a lot of ways you can approach that, and he tries most of them. One of the things he tries, in a typical male reaction: “What is behind me is not important. It’s over, I’m done with it, I don’t want to think about it anymore.” He buries himself in work, he tries to deal with it physically by making himself so tired he won’t dream. He doesn’t want to talk to anybody about it. His feeling is that if he brings it out, it’s going to be worse. That doesn’t work for people. You know, you pay a price for that. I admire it in some ways. There’s a lot of strength that goes into it, but you are using so much of your energy and your strength to hold it at bay, that you don’t have energy for anything else. You can’t do anything. You’re stuck, right there, holding that wall up.
Then the next thing that comes up is to begin to have a relationship with people who are not a part of his past. With Gina and Celestina I’m going to live in the future now. I’m not going to be a priest anymore, I’m not going to have anything to do with God anymore, I’m going to renounce all of it, it’s all the past, I’m going to move forward, I’m going to have this family, I’m going to focus on the future. And that might have worked, but like he says at the end of the book, he was still having the dreams.
But then I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Ray Bucko hated that. From the very beginning he said “Don’t do the kidnaping. Find some other way to do it, don’t do the kidnaping.” I couldn’t think of any other way for him to go. I kept throwing things in front of him, and Emilio would think, “Oh, not if you were down on your knees and begged me.” So, then he’s on the ship, and he’s doped to the gills, and that’s fine with him. He’s completely content to the extent that he advises John Candotti, who is terribly upset by the situation he finds himself in, “Hey, John try this stuff. Chemical Zen. You’ll love it.”
And again, that takes a toll; you cannot keep these things inside you, either chemically, or emotionally, forever. You’ve got to deal with it. And so, ultimately, the way he has to deal with it is that he has to face his fears. I was drawing on the experience of Vietnam veterans.
He’s not happy about returning. He doesn’t really have a choice, but he chooses to learn from it. His choice at this point is to take the situation as it exists and make something good happen out of it. Ultimately, that is the way that you redeem an irreversible tragedy. You force meaning on it, you find a way to make good out of bad. If your child is hit by a drunk driver, you can be bitter and angry all your life, or you can start Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, and change America’s attitude about having a drink behind the wheel.
One criticism which has been made of your books is that the faith of main character, Emilio Sandoz, seems to lack a personal relationship with Jesus. What is the core of Emilio’s faith?
First of all, you have to understand, you’re working with a Jewish author. For me, the incarnation is a real problem. And yet, I am writing about people who are Christian. In the second book I tried more directly to deal with that. It comes out in the confrontation between Emilio and Sean Fein, who pushes his face into it. “What did Jesus add to the Canon?” That was the question I had to answer.
For the most part, what I see in Christianity is Judaism, and then the Incarnation tacked on. So, what does that add? Why is it so much more popular? It’s like my husband asked, Was it just marketing that made Christianity go so far? Why does it appeal to so many people? I hit upon the notion that Jesus offers a reaction to suffering, a way of understanding suffering. I didn’t get to the point of being able to write that until you see it in the second book. I can justify it but it’s post hoc reasoning: I think it has always been difficult for the character Emilio to identify with Jesus because that feels to him like arrogance–to identify with the deity. And so, he is more comfortable, emotionally, with his relationship with God because it isn’t so personal. That’s the way it works for him.
I tried in the first book to show that people have different theologies. You know, Mark Robicheaux, with his almost Islamic theology. And for DW, that was a more personal relationship, and his humor was a great part of hit for him. For Emilio, that was difficult.
The role of women for Emilio moves from that of a temptress in The Sparrow to a healer in Children of God. How is that important for Emilio, that transition?
There’s a Jesuit I had a lot of e-mail contact with after the first book, and he pointed out that he was not surprised that Emilio left the Society. He said, “You know, he’s never been able to open up to men. If you’re going to stick with this life, you have to be able to be friends with guys.”
And Emilio is not open. This priest told me that he thought it made so much sense, given Emilio’s background. He is a Latino male who comes from a culture and from a family where anything you reveal about yourself can and will be used against you. Men are dangerous to him. He has been beaten up all his life. His father used to kick the shit out of him. Women are weak. Women in some ways share his fear. And so in some ways, he is able to identify with women, because he is small, because he knows that in the same way that they can be overpowered, he can be overpowered. There is that kind of fundamental danger that he understands, and now has experienced.
What did you use for the model of the theology on your world, and is it different for the Runa and the Jana’ata?
I don’t know that the Runa have a theology in particular. They are in many ways coming to the point where they can see themselves as souls. The great gift of Jewish theology is that individual souls have meaning, that it’s not part of a cycle of life and death where the only important things happen in the sky where things are forever. The idea that you are a reflection of God and you have value because of that ?it comes from the theology of that relationship. The Runa don’t have that yet.
They were impossible to write about as individuals until they began to use the English word, I. And then the personalities popped out. I suddenly had individuals I could write about. They don’t really have a theology but they are on the cusp of being ready for a theology.
For the Jana’ata, the religious life is very similar to what you find in Egypt or Rome, or Greece or China. You have principles which are exemplified ?fortune, fertility. It’s not very gratifying. Again, because if you have any sort of sense that your own life is important, it’s much more satisfying to believe that it’s important for a reason. And that’s that God loves you. It think that’s why Christianity has such a global reach. It does things as a world view that other world views do not do for human beings. It satisfies a very deep and abiding need which goes unsatisfied in a lot of other religious systems.
What do you see as the future of the two worlds, and to do the Jesuits have a part in it?
I am not going to write a trilogy. It’s done. I’m finished with these people. But, there’s a little Jesuit wave at the end of the second book. The alien poet who goes to Earth, Rukuei, is named after the first convert made by Ricci in China. And that was my little wave to the Society, saying, yeah, I think something is going to happen here, and I think the Jesuits will remain part of it.
Science fiction writers often attack religion in favor of science. How do you relate the two?
I don’t find there to be any conflict between religion and science. My theology has to encompass everything I know, and that includes paleontology, geology, cosmology, astronomy ?and I didn’t get stupider when I became a Jew, and I didn’t get less sophisticated when I became a Jew. The key line for me is in Deuteronomy: You have seen with your own eyes what the Lord your God has done.”
Did writing the books tell you anything about God?
When you’re writing a book, you’re God. I made a world. I peopled it, I gave it a history and a geology and a paleontology and weather and an economy and species and an origin. And I made things happen. I did, in fact have a larger plan than any of my characters could understand. I made terrible things happen, and I made the worst things happen to the ones I loved the most. So, yeah, it has occurred to me that if God is an author, as devout readers of the Bible believe, then I have solved the problem of evil. It makes a better story.
Where were you in your transition to Judaism when your wrote the two books?
When I began writing The Sparrow, I had not yet converted. So, I wasn’t comfortable writing a Jewish character who was knowledgeable. And that’s why Sophia is cut off at the roots. In the second book, I allowed her to develop. I was ready to write a more Jewish character.