April 11 2006 12:00 AM
Photo by Dina Rossi

Russell will be in the Lansing area as a guest of the Capital Area District Library during April.

(Note: This interview was conducted via e-mail. Russell said parts of her responses to frequently asked questions have been published in other media. )

What made this tale  remarkable to you?

The counter-intuitiveness of it. Italy was a fascist country with its own anti-Semitic race laws, an ally of Nazi Germany for three years. And yet, Italy had the highest survivorship in all of Nazi-occupied Europe. I had no idea, and when I first read about this I thought, 'Hell, we've spent 60 years trying to figure out what went wrong in Germany. Maybe it's time to look at what went right in Italy.'

Was there some anguish in choosing who lived and who died?

No. They're just characters. I didn't actually mark anyone for death. In fact, I was concerned about leaving too many characters alive. This was, after all, a book about survivorship, but I didn't want to write a feelgood Holocaust novel. So my son and I talked the problem over, and Danny came up with the idea of flipping a coin. He was 15 at the time, which is a bloody-minded age.

But what I liked about it is the element of sheer chance that it brought to the story. So many people who live through a war will tell you — it was blind dumb luck that I lived. Not bravery. Not cleverness. Just dumb luck. I let my readers fall in love with the characters, I worked hard to make you feel invested in their decisions, to get a sense of the jeopardy they live in, and then — we made a list of all the characters, and Danny flipped. Heads, they lived. Tails, they died. I reversed the decision only once.

{mosimage}Is this an anti-war novel?

God, yes. In Jewish thought, we are not born with the stain of original sin, but rather we are born with a propensity for good and a propensity for evil. The ethical imperative is to build a society that rewards and encourages the propensity for good, while also curbing and discouraging the propensity for evil. War is the opposite of that world. War rewards and encourages the worst in greatest number of people.

And the effects go on for generations. I tried to reflect that at the very end of “A Thread of Grace,” when the children of the last surviving character sit by her bedside, bitter or sad or confused by the silences that warped their own childhoods. So many parents of that generation refused to talk about the war, and that twists the parent-child relationship into strange shapes.

I hear from a lot of children of veterans and of survivors, and even of ordinary housewives raising kids during the war. The end of the book gives them permission to recognize how badly they were affected by a war that was over 60 years ago.

Do you feel there are any similarities between the Italian insurgency against the fascists to today's war in Iraq?

When I started writing this book, I thought it was firmly set in the past. Halfway through it, I was reading the newspaper, and bringing the front page up to my office, transcribing dialog from Defense Department spokesmen directly into the conversations in my book, without having to change a word.

I've learned that there is a predictable natural history to anti-occupation insurgencies. In fact, I've been asked to teach at the Virginia Military Academy — they want to make “Thread” the basis of a course on insurgencies. Sad, but true.

As an award winning science fiction writer, what motivated you to move into historical fiction?

Shortly after my conversion to Judaism I came across Alexander Stille's book, “Benevolence and Betrayal.” The section called “The Priest, the Rabbi and the Aviator” was so dramatic I knew that I had to write about that era of Italian history somehow.

How hard was the transition to writing historical fiction?

Both science fiction and historical fiction require a writer to imagine a time and place that's not your own, so really there wasn't any difference from that standpoint. On the other hand, World War II is living memory, so I did a great deal of interviewing in addition to the book research.

{mosimage}With popular books and movies such as “Schindler's List,” how was this incredible experience overlooked until now?

There's a lot of nonfiction about Italy during the war, but it's rarely written with the kind of drive and emotion that a novel can bring to a story. And, Italy is just generally overlooked. Rome was liberated just two days before the Normandy Invasion and it simply dropped off the radar. Nobody paid any attention to the Italian campaign after that. Sort of the way Afghanistan was just dropped after we invaded Iraq. We've got troops there, but when's the last time you read anything about Afghanistan? When's the last time you saw anything on the news about it?

Have you sold film rights?

We've just signed with an excellent agency in Los Angeles. At first, there was no interest, because “World War II's done. Stick a fork in it.” Now that there's a good chance that my first book will be made into a movie by Warner Brothers, there's a buzz. We'll see.

Since the book is historical fiction, what is true and what is not?

Everything you think is absolutely impossible to believe, everything that makes you think, “That's literally incredible” — that's real. That's the stuff that came right out of people's memoirs or the stories they told me. All the completely plausible stuff is what I made up. So in general — the book is about 95 percent dead accurate history.

Is the book about personal honor and dignity in time of war?

No. I wouldn't put it that way. What I was portraying was the utter lack of planning, the elements of chance, the need to make decisions on the fly, without knowing what the stakes were, or what might happen.

You just had to decide: run or hide, turn left or turn right, take a chance or play it safe — and the hell of it was, you really couldn't know what was the riskiest, taking the chance or trying to play safe.

You have an interesting background. How did you get interested in cannibalism?

I was in the National Museum of Natural History in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, working on the largest Neandertal collection in Europe — something like 88 individuals from a single cave, Krapina. And they're all covered with cutmarks.

 The old story was, Ah, savage subhuman cave men, eating one another and tossing the bones into the cave as a kind of garbage pit.

Cannibalism is actually very rare. It's mainly something people call other people. “Oh, we would never do anything like that, but the guys over in the next valley, they're cannibals!” But the other possibility was that the cutmarks were associated with a really widespread cultural trait: secondary burial. That's hugely common, all around the world, and it also leaves cutmarks on the bones.

Long story short: I compared the Neandertal cutmarks to butchery marks and to secondary burial marks, and the Neandertals fell right in with the burials.

Next week, neo-Nazis will march in Lansing. Why do you think there is still this attraction to Nazism?

There will always be insecure, often sexually confused, men who were beaten as children and desperately crave the approval of the kind of men who are weak enough to consider beating a child to be a sign of manhood.

They need to ally themselves with big groups of similarly afflicted men who aren't strong enough as individuals. They like getting an identity from a group, and they like cool uniforms, and marching around.

You were raised Catholic. What led you to convert to Judaism?

I was looking for a way to bring up a child who would want to be good, without bribing him with heaven or threatening him with hell. Judaism's central focus is exactly that task, and I must say — 20 years on — it delivered on the promise. My kid is a mensch.

How do you write — outline or free flow?

No outlines, ever. I usually start with a line of dialogue, some remark or observation of the situation from one of the character's point of view. And I'm ruthless about characters. They've got three chapters, max, to say something interesting, or funny. If they fail to amuse me, I off them.

Did your skills in writing science fiction help or hinder in writing some of the scenes?

Writing fiction means making imaginary events and people seem real. Doesn't matter if it's the past or the future you're writing about. Genre is a tool, not a technique.