A Novel Idea: Two Writers Talk about Their Interfaith Characters

By Marlena Thompson


Mark London Williams is the author of the Danger Boy series for young adults published by Candlewick Press. The central character of the series is 12-year-old Eli Sands, the son of a Jewish mother and an Episcopalian father. The first book, Ancient Fire, is set in the not-so-distant future, 2019. In that book, Eli’s physicist parents are in the midst of conducting time travel experiments when Eli’s mother is blasted back in time. Eli discovers his own time-traveling abilities and soon finds himself at the Library of Alexandria in ancient Egypt. Dragon Sword takes place during World War II; Trail of Bones is set in Colonial America; and City of Ruins is set in ancient Jerusalem.

Mark: Marlena, is the plot of A Rare & Deadly Issue dependent on Jenny being of interfaith lineage? Was it critical before sitting down to write, or something you discovered along the way?
Marlena: Although Jenny’s interfaith lineage was not critical to the plot, it was very much a part of her character. She is an antiquarian bookseller, so her life’s work involves books and the stories they tell. If the Jewish people are often referred to as the people of the book, then the Irish should be called the people of the word, or rather, words, because the Irish are known for their gifts as both writers and storytellers.

Since Ireland (my favorite place to visit) and the Jewish people are both important to me, it seemed most fitting that Jenny should be a product of these two cultures. By having a character with an Irish heritage, I was also able to include a fair bit of indirect but interesting information about Irish literature–one of my favorite subjects.

Marlena: Mark, how important was it that Eli Sands, the hero of your Young Adult time travel series, be a product of an interfaith union?
Mark: I always assumed Eli was a bit of a mutt, just like me–Jewish mother, Episcopalian father, with traditions stretching back in both directions. I never considered what that might mean until the second book, which revisits aspects of the Holocaust. Even then, though, religion was never as central a theme as it is in the fourth book, City of Ruins, due to be released this winter. In that book, the time travelers find themselves in the ruins of ancient Jerusalem, after another invasion and harrowing war.

Mark: Marlena, what, if anything, would have changed in your book if Jenny had been either completely Jewish or completely Catholic?
Marlena: It’s difficult to answer how a character may have been different if he or she had been conceived otherwise. Jenny is who she is. I created a person with whom I felt comfortable–and who would have, as I do, both a visceral appreciation for books and a well-honed sense of history. Although A Rare & Deadly Issue is set in contemporary Los Angeles, it includes many historical references, as one might expect of a book set in an antiquarian bookshop. Jenny herself ascribes her affinity for history to her Judeo-Irish heritage. Her Irish family members still lament the Great Famine in Ireland that took place in 1848, and the Jewish members of the family still bemoan the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. I don’t think Jenny would have been as complete a character had she been just one or the other.

Marlena: What if Eli had been all Protestant, or all Jewish–would that have made a difference?
Mark: Well, the fact he wasn’t means he was capable of the kind of tolerance and “deep ecumenism” that marked my family when I was growing up (well, it still does). It also means he’s able to ask questions that come from “outside” particular religious institutions or systems, as do his companions, the sentient dinosaur, Clyne, who is trying to make sense of mammal culture, and his friend Thea, who was rescued from the library at Alexandria in Book #1.

Marlena: What reaction are you expecting to City of Ruins, since in it, you delve into the Bible and even “feminize” it a bit with the expansion of the Huldah character, the relatively unknown female prophet?
Mark: I don’t know. Is it a good sign if your books are well-known enough to get banned? That hasn’t happened yet in the series, though the books have always been a mix of adventure, whimsy, and politics, too. Especially as Eli is growing into his own world view, and seeing how plainly crazy the so-called grown-ups have always been throughout history. I don’t suppose fundamentalists of any stripe will cotton to it. I wonder if they’ll even read it to begin with.

Marlena: Can you say something about what role religion has played in your life and has that changed over time?
Mark: Hmm… well, inasmuch as I’m a Sunday school teacher at Leo Baeck Temple (my 12th year there), and it’s an implicit theme in the first three Danger Boy books, and explicit in the fourth, I’d say a rather large role, just in my day to day life.

But on the interfaith angle, I probably grew up more with secular Protestant traditions (Christmas, Easter), and we’d go to Unitarian church. I didn’t start to explore my Jewish side until my teens, though those traditions resonated deeply with me (and there was, quite honestly, something about the fact the world had expended so much energy trying to snuff those traditions, that culture, out, that appealed to me then). My mom enrolled in Unitarian ministerial school (Starr King), and it was there I went to my first seder! (I have, in the years since, helped conduct them!)

Meanwhile, we continue to blend paths/observances in my family of origin: My parents now go to a liberal Episcopal congregation (my mom got my father to go back), I’m a Jewish Sunday school teacher in L.A., my youngest sister trends Episcopal herself, and my middle sister tends to go to Jewish holiday observances where she lives, in Oregon.

My own style of Judaism tends to be Jewish Renewal-y, though the temple where I teach is Reform. My ex-wife is Jewish, too, though not so observant now, though we’re both preparing for our oldest son (the inspiration for the Danger Boy books!) to go through his Bar Mitzvah year–which just commenced with his 12th birthday!

And everybody in the extended family tends to celebrate everyone else’s holidays with them, at least, on those occasions when we’re all together!

Mark: Marlena, how would you answer that question?
Marlena: While organized religion has never played a significant role in my life, I’ve always been a believer. I’ve had a lifelong fascination with the belief systems of different religions, and taught courses in comparative religion and the Hebrew Bible (from a historical perspective) in a number of churches over the years. More recently, I find I am less interested in organized religions in general, even academically, and more interested in spiritual beliefs that transcend many religions, such as the possibility of an afterlife and reincarnation.


About Marlena Thompson

Marlena Thompson was part of an interfaith marriage that lasted almost 25 years before her husband died in 2003. She is a writer and singer/storyteller living in the Washington DC suburbs and visits Ireland whenever possible. Her mystery novel, A Rare & Deadly Issue (2004), has an interfaith heroine and can be ordered at www.pearlstreetpublishing.com.