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Eclectic author visits Edwards

Stephen Bedford
Vail CO, Colorado
Special to the DailyAuthor Mary Doria Russell is known for her diverse body of work. She visits the Bookworm of Edwards on Wednesday to promote her newest book, "Dreamers of the Day."
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EDWARDS, Colorado ” Good luck trying to classify Mary Doria Russell’s books, and if you can, please let your local bookseller know.

Perhaps no current author has produced such a diverse body of work in such a short period of time. This distinction has led Russell to reflexively refer to herself as, ahem, a “literary genre slut.” Though a gruff, tongue-in-cheek description, it’s certainly apt when considering her four novels.

Russell will discuss her novels, and her inspiration for each unique title, Wednesday evening at 6 at The Bookworm in Edwards. In the midst of a 26-city tour (most author tours average in the low teens), Russell further establishes herself as a hardworking literary hussy.

Russell’s most recent release, “Dreamers of the Day,” follows a 40ish Ohio schoolteacher on a trip of self-discovery through Egypt during the Cairo Peace Conference of 1921, an event even the most ardent history buff may not have been fully aware of.

“Dreamers of the Day,” of course, fits nicely with her three other novels that include “The Sparrow” and “Children of God,” companion novels that follow a Jesuit priest to another planet and encounters with a third kind; and “A Thread of Grace,” Russell’s 2005 Pulitzer-nominated, fact-based story of a small Italian town and the citizens who helped save 43,000 Jews during the Holocaust.

The rights to “The Sparrow” were recently purchased by Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers. Pitt has been rumored to star as the Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz, with a release tentatively set for 2010.

“While I was writing ‘The Sparrow,’ I thought of it as a historical novel that takes place in the future,” Russell said on an interview featured on her Web site, http://www.marydoriarussell.info. “Whether you go forward 60 years or back in time 60 years, there was still a need to imagine a place and time that aren’t my own.

“I don’t seem to be interested in writing what I know. I write what I don’t know, and what I want to learn about.”

And how Russell learns is through hardcore research. “A Thread of Grace” took roughly seven years of extensive research, interviews and travel throughout Italy to uncover the obscure Italian town that was a safe haven for thousands.

“Dreamers of the Day” was more library-based research, Russell said in an interview with Lesley Scher on the book blog http://www.estellabooks.blogspot.com, though this wasn’t by choice.

“I considered traveling but it turned out there’s not much in Cairo that dates to 1921,” Russell said. “Cairo is like Chicago with earthquakes — lots of fires and it’s constantly rebuilding itself. I relied on a shelf full of period memoirs for the incidents and detail that make the novel feel real.”

Russell certainly takes liberty with the story, imaging a night of carousing with Winston Churchill as he feeds Agnes, the protagonist, a steady stream of gin and tonics, leaving diplomat T.E. Lawrence (the Lawrence in “Lawrence of a Arabia”)to pick up the pieces. Desert queen Gertrude Bell also makes a few cameos throughout.

Along the way Russell also charts the course of Arabic history as set by the landmark 1921 conference that offers something for the reader who enjoys history, politics, oil, intrigue and romance.

When asked by Scher to name her writing influences, Russell chose two authors with absolutely nothing in common.

“Dorothy Dunnett and Robert Ludlum, how bizarre is that combo?” Russell said. “Dunnett was a superb Scottish historical writer whose ‘Lymond’ chronicles were like a graduate degree in writing fiction.

“Robert Ludlum’s thrillers written back in the 1980s taught me that trick of having two or three braided storylines that keep readers turning the pages.”

Naturally, Russell’s next planned project is yet another 180-degree turn from her previous works. She is currently researching for an Old West novel that was inspired by a screening of the Kurt Russell/Val Kilmer cult classic “Tombstone.”

“The movie ‘Tombstone’ got me thinking about how contemporary the issues of the Old West still are — Illegal immigration, conflicting commercial and legal interests, gun control, vice laws, etc.,” Russell said.

Science fiction, Holocaust, arcane world-shaping peace conference, western, and who knows just what she’ll dream up next.

Stephen Bedford is the general manager of The Bookworm.


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