The basic plot of "Pearl" could have been told without infusing so much religion into it. What was behind your choice to give the three major characters such complicated religious backgrounds?

I guess the plot of it could have been told without the religious infusion, but the characters that came to me at the same time as the plot did simply couldn't have existed without the religious dimension. One of the things that I was interested in with the characters is: what happens to certain categories of thought that were very ordinary to religious people--did they just drop off the mental radar screen [when someone is no longer religious]? The whole notion of atonement, for example, which is really a religious idea--what do people who don't have a religious framework do with that concept? The whole idea of martyrdom, which until very recently had an exclusively religious notion, does that drop out of the imagination as a religious framework drops away? I think we've seen it really doesn't.


So I was really interested in how categories that are called religious and that were framed in religious terms transmute themselves in somebody who is brought up without those terms and framework. I was also interested in what happens to those terms and framework in people who think they've given up a religious way of being.


For Pearl, a student of linguistics, those categories were words. What is the difference between thinking of these categories like martyrdom and atonement in linguistic terms and thinking of them as articles of faith? 

Well, if they are linguistic terms, they are replaceable by other linguistic terms without much fuss. If they're religious, they're considered irreplaceable and necessary. They're not just one choice among many. They're not even a choice -- they're an eternal truth that is imposed.


Maria, Pearl's mother, keeps returning to those categories, even though she gave up Catholicism. How much does her story parallel your own?

Not a whole lot. The main parallel is that I had a father who was a Jew who converted to Catholicism. The other parallel is that I am somebody whose ruling passion is the maternal passion. But I wasn't as politically active as she was in the 60s, I didn't take the kind of risks that she did. I was obviously involved in anti-war protests but I didn't really put myself on the line the way she did. I never went to Central America and worked in a clinic, I never worked in day care centers. I'm not a single mother. I'm married and brought up my two children with my husband, their father. Maria is kind of like me in certain preoccupations but unlike me in the biographical trajectory.


It made sense to me that Maria would not want to raise Pearl in Catholicism, based on her experience with the faith and her father. But you also point out that she made a real effort not to give Pearl any knowledge of Judaism as well. Why did she feel so strongly about that as well?