By Zack Ruskin
Author Mary Doria Russell is best known for her novel The Sparrow, winner of the Arthur C. Clarke award. This interview focuses on her newest novel, Doc, which explores the relationship between Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp.
ZACK RUSKIN : What was your approach to researching Doc? Did you binge on episodes of Deadwood, or were you eager to avoid past portrayals of your characters?
MARY DORIA RUSSELL : We don’t get HBO so I’ve never watchedDeadwood, though a lot of people have recommended it. In any case, Doc is set in Dodge City, Kansas. Midwestern towns are not interchangeable!
In general, I’m pretty strict about avoiding fiction that overlaps my own. I might read one or two of the best novels in the genre I’m entering, to get a feel for what top quality is, but after that – it’s all non-fiction for me.
I always ground my novels in fact – even speculative fiction like The Sparrowand Children of God required careful research. Typically, I collect 20-30 linear feet of reference works for each novel. For Doc, the books ranged from economic studies of the Kansas cow towns and the Texas cattle trade to a memoir by a 19th century prostitute to the history of a Jesuit mission school in Wichita.
And of course – dozens of biographies! Adults either build on or react against the first 15 years of their lives. Understanding the childhood of characters – fictional or real – is crucial. What was happening historically when each character was young? What were their parents like? I need a clear idea of what characters were dealing with at 14 in order to imagine a realistic response to their circumstances when they’re 24 or 44 or 64.
ZR: Which probably explains why your portrayal of Doc Holliday is such a surprise to many readers!
MDR: John Henry Holliday had beaten some terrible odds just by surviving infancy – he was born with a cleft palate in 1851, when such children commonly died within weeks of starvation or pneumonia. His uncle was a surgeon who repaired the defect. His mother invented a form of speech therapy to improve his diction. He was enfolded by a vast extended family that sheltered him in childhood and supported him in his youth. He was quiet, bookish. Intensely close to his mother. An accomplished pianist, and a serious student who earned the degree of Doctor or Dental Surgery from the best dental school in the country when he was only 20.
So I didn’t start with “the infamous gambler and gunman Doc Holliday.” I started with Alice Holliday’s fragile infant son, and and worked forward from there. John Henry Holliday did not spring to life in Tombstone, Arizona, spoiling for a fight. His life was more than that.
ZR: So you don’t find the expectation of accuracy confining when you write historical fiction?
MDR: Oh, no! I like the touch stone of reality. But how you handle facts is important.
Doc is set in 1878, so in my novel, the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral is still years in the future for the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday. I wanted to strip all the accumulated nonsense and slander away. I wanted to find them before they were anybody – before the lies and legends began to accumulate.
I also felt that no novelist or biographer had really taken the full clinical reality of John Henry Holliday’s tuberculosis into account. So I did a lot of research into the effects of untreated TB and respiratory disease. TB is not just an annoying cough. It’s a vicious, painful, debilitating disease that progressively destroys the lungs until there’s simply not enough oxygen uptake to keep you alive. It’s a slow and terrible form of suffocation, and John Henry had had watched it kill his beloved mother by inches.
So he knew exactly what he was facing when he was diagnosed with advanced pulmonary tuberculosis at the age of 22. Think about that: he spent his entire adult life dying. He was almost always in significant pain. He was sicker every year until he died at 36.
Now, the usual interpretation of that fact is that Doc was a nihilist or a fatalist, but it’s also a fact that he spent his entire adult life trying to find something that would retard the progress of the illness or mitigate its effects. To the very end, he was searching for a cure. He wanted to live.
Tuberculosis – not the gunfight at the O.K. Corral – was the central reality of Doc Holliday’s life. Absent tuberculosis, he would have lived and died as his cousin Robert did: as a successful Atlanta dentist, respected in his community and his profession, with a wife and children. A forgotten man, but a happier one.
ZR: You’ve crossed a lot of genres throughout your novels. Do you find you have to alter your prose to fit the narratives?
MDR: I alter my prose to fit each book and for each character whose point of view I’m conveying. That’s the fun of it – finding the voice of each character, hearing their dialog. That’s when I know I’ve got a story going – when I can hear the voices.
In writing Doc, the narrator’s voice was an echo of Shelby Foote, the Southern historian who was featured in the Ken Burns film “The Civil War.” The narrator in Doc is similarly relaxed, discursive, informative – a storyteller who speaks now and then, when commentary is called for or when the action needs explanation. He is compassionate, understanding, wry.
The bulk of the story is conveyed through the voices of the characters, however, and their frames of reference differ widely.
John Henry Holliday was an educated man of the 19th century, familiar with Greek and Latin classics, with French literature, and history and mathematics. He studied chemistry, metallurgy, physiology, and anatomy in dental school. He played classical piano and read widely. So he thinks and speaks in paragraph form, in sentences with clauses, quoting Homer or Shakespeare or Flaubert.
By contrast, Wyatt Earp was probably dyslexic and certainly not over-burdened by education. His sentences are short. His grammar’s poor. His thinking is concrete, linked to the world of horses and weather.
So even in narration, their voices are distinctive.
ZR: I’m curious about how you’d categorize your first novel, The Sparrow. I’ve seen it shelved in various sections at bookstores, and in some ways it fits in all the places it’s kept.
MDR: Yes… It’s usually shelved in Science Fiction, and it certainly does fit that category. They don’t give the Arthur C. Clarke Award to mysteries! On the other hand, the commonest thing I hear about that book is, “I hate science fiction but I loved this book.” So it works for people who are sophisticated readers of the genre and also for those who are actively hostile to it.
Personally, I thought of The Sparrow as a historical novel that takes place in the future. As in Doc, there is a strong narrative voice – that of a Jesuit historian, looking back at the events from a distance of a century or more. For the reader, the story is in the future, but for the narrator, it’s all far enough in the past that he has some perspective on the decisions and mistakes of the characters. He unsparingly recognizes damage caused by the characters, but he is compassionate in conveying their story. His first remark about them is, “They meant no harm.”
That’s the perspective I try for when writing historical novels. I have some distance from the events. I can feel some compassion for real people who made real mistakes in the real world, but I also recognize the harm they’ve done, even inadvertently. There are consequences, and there is judgment, but there is also a recognition that they thought the were doing the right thing at the time.
ZR: Why does historical fiction have such an appeal for you?
MDR: I just love research. I love digging into histories and biographies and economics and psychology. If I’m not working on some great big chewy research problem, I get cranky and nervous and start redecorating. My husband always knows when it’s time for me to tackle a new book: he bumps into furniture that didn’t used to be there.
My inclination toward historical fiction also has something to do with the fact that I had severely crossed eyes as a child.
I was born into a time and place when that defect could be surgically repaired. Even as a kid, I was aware of how important that was. Imagine how different my life would have turned out if I’d been born earlier or in a different country! In the 1400s, I might have ended up in a convent – too homely to be considered marriage material. In the 1600s, I might have been shunned as a witch. If I’d been born into my own family two generations earlier, my life might have been like that of Agnes Shanklin in Dreamers of the Day.
A Thread of Grace is a World War II thriller, and in any book about the Holocaust, the underlying questions are, How could this have happened? What would I have done? Each of the characters in Thread is one of my potential answers to that latter question.
The Sparrow and Children of God were set in the future. Nevertheless, the task was to create a believable time and place that were not my own. Within that context, the characters Anne and George Edwards let me think about the kind of wistful freedom that childless couples have: they can pack up and go to Puerto Rico, or Rakhat, without worrying about never seeing their grandchildren! My husband and I became parents at the age of 36, and we were suddenly rooted in a way we hadn’t been before Dan came into our lives. What might we have done and become if we’d remained childless?
Which is not to say that my novels are about me! But a writer’s life is a toolbox, and you use what comes to hand. You bring empathy to bear on the historical research.
ZR: Going back to Doc: one of the most interesting things about Doc Holliday is that he was a dentist–
MDR: Not if you go by the movies!
Most screenwriters have failed to find much drama in dental work. They usually ignore the fact that John Henry Holliday held the degree of Doctor of Dental Surgery from the best school in the country in his day. Or they make him into a physician. Or there’s just a throw-away line, like when he urges someone to “Take care of your teeth.”
ZR: But he really was serious about his profession!
MDR : Absolutely. John Henry Holliday was a dedicated professional and inDoc, I try to make it clear why. When his companion Kate demands to know why he wastes his time trying to be a dentist when he could make so much more money just playing poker, Doc’s answer is stark and stunning: “Because I can relieve sufferin’.”
Remember, until quite recently people lived with the chronic pain of decay and the acute misery of abscesses. Take Lawrence of Arabia, just as an example. He was 32 when he enlisted in the R.A.F. after the Great War. His records show that he was missing 8 teeth and had significant decay in 12 others. And his dental health status was actually considered good! Try to imagine chewing with that mouth! But that was typical for middle class Brits in 1923. Things were even worse on the American frontier in the 1800s.
So dentistry wasn’t just a dull day job that Doc Holliday ditched when he got a chance to go West and gamble! That’s why I didn’t write about Tombstone. I wrote about Dodge City in 1878 is because that was the last time when he was well enough to re-establish a dental practice. He’d have stayed in Dodge if Kansas winter hadn’t turned out to be so hard on him. He lived quietly there – the only time his name was in the papers was when he announced the opening of his dental office.
ZR: How did you learn about dentistry practices in the American Old West?
MDR: From Dental Cosmos, the premier 19th century dentistry journal. I read all the issues between 1870 and 1878 – from when John Henry matriculated at the Philadelphia College of Dental Surgery until he arrived in Dodge City.
ZR: Is it true that you managed to work some horse riding into your research process?
MDR: Yes! As a girl, I’d save up my babysitting money to pay for an hour at a stable on an elderly saddle horse – you’re more a passenger than a rider under those circumstances.
But horses the backbone of the economy in the 19th century and a constant part of everyday life, as cars are today. Wyatt Earp was a serious horseman, and I needed to get a feel for his life.
So I spent time on the KD Guest Ranch in Adamsville, Ohio, where Kari and Dave Burkey taught me to ride with authority. And I had the time of my life!
I also watch RFD-TV, a network that has a lot of shows about riding and horses. And I read books about equine veterinary issues, horse breeding and racing. Not nearly as fun as penning calves at the KD Ranch, but very interesting.
ZR: Did you ever go to Dodge City while you were writing Doc?
MDR: No. The town has changed during the past 133 years! I worked from plat maps and photos from the 1870s. I grew up in Illinois and was familiar with prairie ecology, so I know what the landscape looks like at dawn, for example.
On the other hand, I visited Griffin and Fayetteville, Georgia, where John Henry Holliday spent much of his childhood because that landscape was his frame of reference when he went west. Personally, I find the flat lands subtle and serene and beautiful, but if you grow up with rolling hills and pines forests, the prairie can seem empty and boring, and intimidatingly lonely.
I’m writing about Tombstone next, and I will visit that area. I’ve never lived in or near a desert, so I’ll be spending five days on horseback in the country around Tombstone, and will visit in both spring and fall, to get a feel for seasonal changes.
ZR: Westerns have been out of fashion in Hollywood for some time, but there seems to be a resurgence in them lately.
MDR: Yes! True Grit was a big hit, and there seems to be an appetite for them again.
ZR: Why do you think the time is right for the genre now?
MDR: For adults in the 50s, I think perhaps early TV Westerns were partly nostalgia for the time when they’d had close contact with horses and the land. Back then there were still horse-drawn wagons on the streets of Chicago, where I grew up, but horses and mules were quickly disappearing from people’s daily life, just as television was gaining ground and as suburbia was encroaching on farmland.
For kids like me, they provided settings for imagining freedom that was unmonitored by the parents and neighbors and teachers who controlled so much of our lives.
Then in the 1960s and 70s, the Civil Rights movement and the American Indian Movement made simplistic, racist “Cowboys and Indians” tropes unacceptable. For a while, there was a revisionist reaction: Indians became noble and kind, cowboys became ugly and vicious, but the Western was still about good guys and bad guys.
Finally the genre was replaced by Star Wars and Star Trek, where you could make aliens the bad guys and not worry about being picketed by protesters.
I think we’re beginning to get enough distance from all that to start thinking in terms of real human beings, not categories and groups. Also, Westerns as a written genre tended to be pulp, with a few exceptions like Shane and The Oxbow Incident. Perhaps starting with Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove,there’s been an effort to write to a higher standard, to present realistic characters in historically accurate situations and to think past the easy solutions and handy cliches of the genre’s first century.
I’m not sure I could defend this analysis in an academic debate, but those are my first thoughts about it anyway…
ZR: Back on the subject of historical fiction, can you offer up some books you think readers of your work should be sure to check out?
MDR: I enjoyed Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and Iain Pear’s The Dream of Scipio. And I really admire Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra. That’s a brilliant biography, but it’s so wonderfully written, it reads like a good novel.
And it’s unfashionable to say this, but Gone With The Wind is a better book than it’s given credit for, today. Margaret Mitchell and John Henry Holliday were cousins – their family histories overlap, so I reread the book as background for Doc, but came away from it with a lot of respect for the novel and its author.
Mitchell was really brave – it takes real guts to put a ruthlessly, relentlessly self-absorbed character like Scarlett O’Hara in the center of a 1000-page story. And yet, the narrative drive never flags, and Scarlett’s blinkered selfishness is used to make other characters’ nuances stand out in high relief. Not an easy trick to pull off…
ZR: Before I let you get back to writing, would you talk about the role of music in your books?
MDR: You know, I’ve only recently become aware of what a strong element music is in my writing. Not so much in Dreamers of the Day, but in all the other books there are characters who are musicians or who sing, or who are so moved by unearthly music that they are willing to cross the heavens to hear more of it.
Until recently, I had never studied music formally – it was all listening: just emotion and reaction for me. But John Henry Holliday and his mother were accomplished pianists. To write for them, I needed to become familiar with the 19th century piano repertoire by Chopin and Beethoven, and Schumann.
When I started this novel, my tastes ran to 1980s bands like Def Leppard and Van Halen, but I just fell in love with Chopin. I cannot get enough of Chopin! And I ended up structuring the entire novel around Beethoven’s Emperor concerto.
The first thing I did after sending the manuscript for Doc to the publisher was go shopping for a piano. I couldn’t find middle C when I started lessons a year ago, but since then, I’ve mastered Traumerei, with training wheels; a very simplified Chopin prelude, and the grown-up version of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C from The Well-Tempered Clavier!
Six-year-olds are usually pushed at lessons; at 60, you’re pulled by the music. I’ll work for months on one piece until there comes a day when that music isliving right there in my own hands. That is pure magic. ________________________________________________________________
Zack Ruskin graduated in 2010 with a BA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He writes short stories, reports for Patch.com, and works for Book Passage bookstore in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is currently becoming certified as a copy editor at University of California, Berkeley and interning at McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern. He is infatuated with his Norfolk terrier Scout, hiking in the fog and arguing baseball with his friends. All his words can be found at http://www.zackruskin.com/ .