Moving Into Films: Part 2


PART 2


Mary Doria Russell


If you have seen the film logo for Columbia Pictures (as I'm sure you have) or if you have seen actress Annette Bening in the picture Valmont, you have seen Mary Doria Russell. The first time I saw Mary I was blown away by the resemblance. This happened at the Athletics Building of Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland during fencing practice. I was an old fencer by then, but my brother Ricky wanted to enter the sport and was taking lessons. So one evening I went with him to see the club and do a work out. That's how I got to meet Mary.


Mary Doria Russell Annette Bening
Mary Doria Russell Annette Bening
-Sisters? Hmmmm.

Mary laughs a lot. In fact, she laughs at everything. As laughing goes, she is an Olympian. I'm the complete opposite. Normally, I am rather laconic. And in fencing gear, I am wicked. I look at puny mortals with contempt (lady fencers in particular). No smiles, no laughs, no compassion, I am there to kill (have I mentioned my terrorist looks?). Psychological warfare bested opponents long before we crossed swords (foils in our case -mine with a Russian grip). Crushing them on the fencing strip was just the icing on the cake. But as time went by, and I continued attending regular sessions, we all got along like one big deadly family. I was lovely (wicked smile).

Now back to Mary. To begin with, Mary is a very smart cookie. "Doctor Russell" is a paleo-anthropologist (or is it "pale anthropologist") with specialties in bone biology and biomechanics. At the time (somewhere in the 1980's) she was teaching gross anatomy at Case Western Reserve University, a very prestigious school in the United States that makes your wallet a pauper by just driving by. But if you didn't know it (hell, I still can't picture it) you would never have guessed that about Mary.

She was this upbeat and cheerful person who regaled us with stories of her son Danny, her wonderful husband Don, and her dog (whose name I can't recalled because it is not a 'dog' name). Mind you, she could tell a joke and spar with the best of us. My brother Ricky loved to tease her on the fencing strip -a 'let's intimidate the female fencers' habit that persists to this day. All of us in the fencing group seem to be over-the-top characters having a lot of fun -with Mary laughing the loudest. But Mary could also be thoughtful and sincere when someone needed cheering up.

Fast forward a decade or so to the late 1990's. Ricky is now a kick-ass fencer and I only fence on stage because everything hurts. I was doing my artist thing around town after completing my Washington internship when I received a call from a friend who administered the Hispanic Senior Centre (Cleveland has a sizable Puerto Rican community). He wanted me to attend a special function where some writer was coming to talk about her book, the latest New York Times List best-selling science fiction title, The Sparrow. He was excited because the author had requested my attendance. You can imagine my surprised when the 'laughing author' turned out to be Mary Doria Russell.

We had lost contact in the years since the fencing club - the Bladerunners, had broken up, with everyone moving on (and away) to their respective careers. But there she was, a disillusioned college professor who had given up teaching for semi-retirement --and a hobby of maybe writing a short story, now the hottest new author around with a bunch of international awards pined on her chest (enter "Mary Doria Russell" in your search engine and read all about it). The huge success of The Sparrow, followed by her second book, Children of God, had not changed her one bit (except for the fact that she does not have to continue pretending to know gardening; now she can hire a gardener).

As these types of things tend to go, we caught up fast and the empty years were soon filled with anecdotes and "what ever happen to who and so". Since that reunion we have exchanged very amusing e-mails on a regular basis and continued the friendship. But back then -after I had finished reading my autographed copy of The Sparrow, I was floored. It was (it is!) brilliant. Powerful. And what's more, the protagonist in the novel was a Puerto Rican Jesuit priest who, to my visual mind, looked suspiciously like me. Mary told me later that my entrance that first day at the fencing club had left an impression. But that day at the Hispanic Senior Centre, the one that left impressed was I.

Obviously, when I finished my first draft for Death of a Mercenary, I turned to Mary for advice and assistance with the dialogue. I had written a story based on memories that were in Spanish. I lacked the exposure to American culture that was needed to master the American slang on some of the characters. Moreover, a lot of the slang had to do with colorful words. To my surprise and delight I discovered that Mary's sense of humour was very close to my own. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that her father had been a Master Sergeant in the Army and that I have had my best laughs around military buddies. If you read Death of Mercenary (the manuscript is included in this website), you'll see what I mean.

Both Mary and I, the novelist and the playwright, follow a similar writing procedure. That is, we overwrite and then we trim off the fat in editing. It is in the editing stage that writers chip away from their raw emotions words they have worked so hard and diligently to conceive, so that what's left behind can be an entity that lives a life of its own (wow, that was deep!). Naturally, being so engaged, this action can be such an emotional drain that, after getting things as lean as one dares, it is best for the writer to turn his conflicts to others for a more objective view. And so, with borrowed eyes and tender thoughts the writer cuts away what's good to leave behind what's great.

Mary is a superb editor. It was extraordinary to see how well she understood characters, which in my thoughts I knew as real people. I felt as if she had been there with them, all along serving as physical witness and confidant, cracking some jokes of her own. As we progressed in our discussions, I think that we began to know and trust each other best as artists. And, in many ways, Mary was, and continues to be, an artistic influence at this stage of my life in the same manner that professor Thomson's letter was a turning point in my destiny.




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