2016-06-30

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?

I think she felt that since it wasn't natural to her, and she hadn't absorbed it naturally in her own childhood, it would be a kind of affectation or an imposition, rather than something natural. She didn’t' want to do anything that seemed like an affectation. She very much didn't want to identify with Judaism not having earned the identification.

 

Is that why she has that moment of panic in the synagogue?

No, I think she has that moment in the synagogue because she feels a shame over her father's rejection of Judaism that she can't acknowledge. She also feels a kind of anxiety, a kind of post-Holocaust consciousness, of suddenly realizing that she is one of the people who would have been destroyed. It's a kind of horror of that suffering and a history of suffering that frightens and overwhelms her. But she wouldn't have wanted to admit that she was frightened and overwhelmed, because she doesn't like to think of herself as that kind of person.

 

You spoke of Maria's post-Holocaust consciousness. It was interesting that Holocaust themes kept recurring in the novel, especially Joseph's guilt over his unknown father's potential role. It seemed to really have an effect on him, but all of a sudden he got over it. What happened to make him suddenly stop thinking about his guilt?

Joseph isn't someone who processes things thoroughly. One of the things I wanted to explore in him was somebody who represses a lot, but then it all comes out and sort of explodes under pressure.

 

Does that repression have anything to do with his Catholicism?

I don't think it has as much to do with his Catholicism as it has to do with his social position, being the son of a servant. He has a kind of class anxiety of always worrying that he doesn't really deserve anything and he can't ask for anything.

 

Why did you pick Ireland to set this story in?

I started this book in 1998, when it is set. My grandmother was born in Ireland, and even though I'm very ethnically mixed, the culture I was brought up in was predominately Irish Catholic. So I feel like I have a lot of Irish culture very deep in my bones. I have many Irish friends, and I feel very comfortable in Ireland.

 

In 1998, Ireland seemed like the success story of the world. It was a peace movement that seemed to be working. I was fascinated by people who didn't want that peace movement to work. I was fascinated by something I perceive as a largely male--though not exclusively--romance for violence. People who would really rather have violence than peace, whose lives have no more meaning if there's peace. So it was a moment, particularly at the <a href="http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_depth/northern_ireland/2000/the_omagh_bomb/default.stm" target="_new">Omagh bombing</a>, which was when I started writing the book, when it seemed as if a miracle of peace was possible, and yet there were people who really didn't want that miracle. That interested me very much. Also the terms of Irish political thought are so heroic and romantic--I felt I could plug into that pretty easily.

 

Is that why someone like Pearl was able to get so involved?

Yes. It's almost as if politics becomes literature.

 

Have your other books had so much about religion in them?

"Final Payments" did, and "The Company of Women" certainly did. A novella of mine called "Immaculate Man" is about a woman who gets involved with a priest. And "Spending" is about somebody who uses the iconography of the deposed Christ in sexual terms. So that's sort of religious, too.

 

I feel like my imagination is a religious imagination.

 

What do you mean?

I think it means that the most important terms for me are religious terms. Terms like grace, mystery, atonement, forgiveness. I want moments of grace and moments of mystery, and moments of inexplicable transformation to always occur in my work.

 

Did Pearl go through an inexplicable transformation?

Yes. I think as a result of Breda's act of grace [an Irish woman who forgave Pearl for any role she had in her son's death], she was transformed.

 

You spoke of forgiveness. It seemed like all the characters in this novel were very quick to forgive each other.

I'm not sure that Joseph forgives Maria. Maria didn't essentially think there was much to forgive--what was important was Pearl's forgiveness, and being forgiven.

 

I was struck by the difference between the characters of Joseph, Maria, and Pearl and then in contrast, the character of Dr. Morrissey. The three main characters all seemed like spiritual characters, and that faith was important to them. But Dr. Morrissey is obviously a woman of science. Was that a conscious decision?

Yes. And yet, what I liked about her is that she didn't feel like she could easily fix everything with a pill. A lot of psychiatry now is just about pills, and the notion that you can fix everything if you just get the right pill.

 

Like you say, in the end it was really Breda who saved Pearl in the end, and not the doctor, although she did keep her alive.

Yes.

 

The main characters in the book are all fatherless, which seemed to have echoes of your own background, especially what you wrote about in your memoir about your father, "The Shadow Man". What is the connection?

My father died when I was seven. I guess I am interested in fatherlessness as a metaphor for vulnerability and unprotectedness. Being on your own in the world in a way you're not quite ready for, ever.

 

Would you consider your own search for your own father's search a spiritual search, just as Pearl seems to consider her search for her father?

Yes, because it was about forgiving the unforgivable, which I think is always a spiritual search. My father's politics and ideas were, to me, unforgivable. He was a Jewish convert who became very anti-Semitic, and I didn't find the anti-Semitism forgivable. And yet I still loved him, so I had to try to forgive that although I didn't really think it was forgivable. So in that it was a spiritual journey. My mind would never have been able to bring me to a place of forgiveness.

 

What is it in Pearl's story that is unforgivable?

She feels that she can't forgive herself. Without giving the plot away, she feels that she can't forgive herself for a moment of hatefulness that resulted in a death.

 

Most people wouldn't think twice about the thing she said that she can't forgive herself for. She was such a compassionate character.

Yes, and I want that in her, to feel so intensely and so hyper-responsibly, her failure of compassion.

 

One review of the book I read suggested that the narrator that keeps coming in and out of the novel was like the voice of God. Is that what you intended?

Maybe? The voice of God, the voice of a psychoanalyst, the voice of the writer. It could be many things, but I like the idea of it being God, especially in his moments of giving up control. 

 

 



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