Mary Doria Russell talks about her extraordinary novel, The Thread of Grace
I am a big fan of your novels. What took so long for a new one?
I've become a dues-paying member of the sandwich generation while writing this book. Like many Baby Boomers, I'm helping elderly and infirm relatives through illnesses and bereavement, just as my teenage son is learning to drive, starting to date, getting his heart broken, applying for summer jobs and college. My own health did a power-dive, and that episode took a two-year chunk out of my life. Thank God, my husband has been healthy all this time, so the household has run fairly smoothly!
Even without all that, A Thread of Grace would have been a bear. None of the characters are American, and the story is set in World War II Italy, so I am not drawing on my own language, culture or personal experiences at all. A dear friend advised me to finesse the issue: "Just have everyone say Ciao a lot and eat pasta!" But WWII is living memory and a topic of lively scholarly interest. There will be plenty of reviewers and readers who'll notice mistakes. And I feel a great responsibility to the people who entrusted their memories and personal stories to me. So I've tried to get every miserable little detail right, but I'm sure errors have slipped through.
Why World War II? Why Italy?
I am a Jew by choice and Italian by heritage. Shortly after I converted to Judaism, I came across a book by Alexander Stille called Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families Under Fascism. My first reaction was, "Italian Jews? I thought I was the only one! What do they eat? Lox parmesan?" There was a section called "The Priest, the Rabbi and the Aviator," which sounds like the set up for a joke, right? But it was all real, and riveting, and I thought, "This has got to be my next story."
Everything in that book fascinated me. The oldest continuously existing Jewish community in Europe is in Rome. Fascism was invented by Mussolini, and Italy was Germany's ally, but Nazis occupied Italy for 20 months after the Italian government made a separate peace with the Allies in 1943. And the highest Jewish survival rate in Nazi-occupied Europe was in Italy! We've spent 60 years trying to understand what went wrong during the Holocaust. I wanted to know what went right in Italy.
Many of the characters in A Thread of Grace have faith and believe in the religious foundations laid when they were young. What does war do to their faith?
Yes, each character is endowed with an ethical framework that's challenged at every moment and, in my books, no good intention ever goes unpunished. Sometimes the character fails to live up to his faith's ethics. Sometimes the character does everything right, only to be confronted with impossible choices. They all judge themselves, and hold themselves accountable. In Italy, you don't hear the Nuremberg refrain, "I am not responsible." There's an Italian saying that counters that: "If you can help, you must help." Italians did, and they paid the price.
How did you decide on which characters in A Thread of Grace lived and which died?
So many survivors tell us it was blind, dumb luck, not heroism or decision that got them through the war. I wanted that element of chance in the story, so I had my son flip a coin. Heads, the character lived. Tails, the character died. How and why and whenthat was up to me as the storyteller.
How historically accurate is the novel?
Trust me: the most unbelievable things I write about are directly from interviews I did with rescuers and survivors and veterans, here and in Italy. Hannah Arendt wrote that evil was banal in the Third Reich, but in Italy goodness was banal. In six years of research, I've yet to find a single instance where an Italian ratted out a Jew in hiding. Making that goodness believable to cynical modern Americans was the challenge! Early readers kept telling me, "Oh, the Italian peasants are too nice to the refugees. The soldiers are too decent." So the fiction was that I toned down the decency or provided a motive for what was actually an unquestioning hospitality extended to strangers.
How did you integrate the history with your imagination?
I thought of it as constructing a fictional building with real bricks. Anyone who's familiar with Genoa and Cuneo and Borgo San Dalmazzo during the 1940s will recognize events I describe, but I wanted the freedom to imagine the emotions and conversations of my characters, so I mixed elements of various real people's stories and assigned them to characters of different gender or age or nationality. I used memoirs and historical accounts of skirmishes and battles, and placed them in a fictional geography embedded in the real timeline of the war. That kind of thing.
I noticed that the characters in A Thread of Grace are of all ages, genders, religions, and ethnicities. Was this intentional?
Well, it's about Europe during a period in which millions of people were displaced and in which there was no longer any distinction made between combatants and civilians. War stopped being a young man's experience. Beginning with Guernica, civilian populations were targeted on purpose. It was shocking then, and remains contemptible and tragic, but it's standard operating procedure in modern conflict. We don't have battles between armies anymore.
Like your previous novels, A Thread of Grace exists in a very morally ambiguous universe. Is war the cause of ambiguity? Or is that just human nature?
I could probably make a theological case that God is the cause of moral ambiguitygive a species free will, and look what happens! The thing about novels is that they're a good tool for showing how point of view changes what's good and what's bad.
What was your favorite piece of research you uncovered while writing the book?
Finding out that Renzo Leoni would have flown a Caproni 133 triple-engine high-wing fighter-bomber during the Abyssinan War of 1935-36. Took weeks to track that detail down, but it was important.
Your first two novels were literary science fiction. What made you choose to write historical fiction for your new novel?
Actually while I was writing The Sparrow, I thought of it as a historical novel that takes place in the future. Whether I was going 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 can't tell you the number of times I've asked myself, "Jeez, Mary, would it kill you to write a story with a middle-aged Ohio housewife as the narrator?" But 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.
Would you call A Thread of Grace an anti-war novel?
I wrote it to understand why war is perennial. What's the payoff? Why are some men attracted to it, generation after generation? I wanted to make it comprehensible. Wars always seem to start for two reasons: to redress a past injustice and to restore lost honor. Inevitably, wars create new injustices and a different honor is lost. Each war is begun in hope and ends in despair, and each one carries the seeds of its successor. Understanding that depresses the hell out of me.
On the other hand, when the whole world appears to permit and reward the basest and most awful of human impulses, acts of decency and goodness are like gems in a dung pile. When else would the simple act of sharing a meal rise to the level of magnificence and courage?
Copyright Doubleday Broadway. Reproduced by permission of the publisher.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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