Hello and welcome to the latest in Other People’s Bookshelves, a series of posts set to feed into the book lust we all feel and give you a fix through other people’s books and shelves. This week is a very special week as we are joined by Mary Doria Russell who you will all probably know as the writer of the cult novel The Sparrow. I had the pleasure of reading The Sparrow for part of a special panel at Books On The Nightstand (I miss it so) Booktopia in Petoskey last year (which I also miss terribly) where myself and Thomas (of the Readers) joined Ann and Michael to talk about all our favourite books Ann’s being The Sparrow. You can here that conversation here. Anyway this week we are joining Mary, who I owe a small apology as she sent me this last year but I wanted her to have a special post, like this 80th, but the volunteers trickled so it has taken some time. Better late than never huh? So let us all join Mary and have a chat with her about the books she loves, has read and then have a nose through her shelves…
I grew up near Chicago. Dad: ex-Marine, Mom: ex-Navy nurse. Me: a shocking vocabulary. Didn’t know it was bad language until Kindergarten. BA in cultural anthro, MA in social anthro, Ph.D. In biological anthro; post-doc in craniofacial biomechanics, all of which prepared me for high-class unemployment in the mid-1980s. Fortunately, I’d married Don Russell in 1970. His income as a software engineer allowed me to stay home, raise our kid, and write stories about Jesuits in Space, all while living under a roof and eating regularly. Full-time novelist since 1991: The Sparrow, Children of God, A Thread of Grace, Dreamers of the Day, Doc, and Epitaph.
Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc?
I’ve become pretty ruthless about culling. Each of my novels has required an extensive library of research material, but not all the background books actually contribute anything memorable to their novel. I keep the ones that provided something factual that a reader might inquire about. The others get donated or sold.
Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?
I don’t color-code books – I arrange them categorically – but I do pay a lot of attention to the aesthetics of the bookcases: mixing in photos, art, vases, small mementos, etc. I’ll fuss for hours to make things look pretty on the shelves, but the initial organization is rational. The research libraries for published novels go into bookcases in a guestroom; the sheer mass of books makes that room feel hushed and comforting. They’re grouped by the novel they contributed to.
The working library is in my office. Those are books that have a direct bearing on the novel in progress.
The office also has a sort of trophy bookcase that holds all my published work, including translations, audio books, etc. When I despair of making the current story work, I gaze at the earlier books and think, “Don’t panic. You’ve done this before.”
We recently commissioned new cabinetry to flank my husband’s ginromous TV with shelves for books that have a personal significance for me: those by authors who are friends of mine; books I’ve blurbed or reviewed in the Washington Post; inscribed copies of books sent to me by their authors.
What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now?
There were the usual children’s stories – I was partial to tales about horses. None of those remain. The first significant book I bought for myself was acquired with my babysitting money in 1963: a used copy of T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. That is now surrounded by a collection of TEL biographies that became part of the research library for Dreamers of the Day, in which Lawrence is a character along with Winston Churchill and Gertrude Bell.
Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?
Nope! Not ashamed of anything I read!
Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick memorised and retold me on long walks and then gave me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?
I don’t have any precious books. I’d grab our elderly dachshund and run! If we had time to evacuate before a natural disaster (not that there are many of those in Ohio), I’d fill the car with artwork that can’t be replaced. Books are more like tools to me: I am more pragmatic than sentimental about them.
What is the first ‘grown up’, and I don’t mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, that you remember on your parent’s shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and is it on your shelves now?
I read Mom’s copy of Gone with the Wind when I was a young teenager. And I did reread that while writing Doc, which is about the frontier gambler Doc Holliday. He and Margaret Mitchell were cousins and many of the episodes in GWTW are echoes of his childhood in Georgia. GWTW is a really brave book – Mitchell was willing to hang the whole novel on a thoroughly dislikeable central character and didn’t redeem Scarlett O’Hara or make her more likeable 833 pages later. [I just went to the Doc library in the guestroom to check on the page count!] There’s a lot I admire in the book, though it’s not fashionable today.
If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?
I mostly borrow recreational reading from the public library. I buy books for the working library – a tax-deductible expense!
What was the last book that you added to your bookshelves?
Rachel Holmes’ biography of Karl Marx’s daughter: Rachel Marx. My next novel is about the early days of the American labor movement, so I’m boning up on Marx; his daughter is WAY more interesting than Das Kapital.
Are there any books that you wish you had on your bookshelves that you don’t currently?
YES! I want Karen Joy Fowler’s next book! Karen is a friend and she has been talking about doing a novel about Edwin Booth, the brother of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth. I nagged her for years to finish what she called “my chimp book,” and I was right about that one! We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was short-listed for the Booker Prize and won the Pen/Faulkner Award.So this interview is just one more way to nag her to write the Booth book!
What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste, or what would you like them to think?
“My God, is there anything this woman isn’t interested in?!” Mathematics. Not mathematics. But pretty much everything else.
And a huge thanks to Mary for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves, apologies again for the delay but it was so worth the wait. If you would like to catch up with the other posts in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves have a gander here. Don’t forget if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint as without you volunteering it doesn’t happen) in the series then drop me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance, I am catching up with all the latest volunteers. In the meantime… what do you think of Mary’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?