"One of the People on Whom Nothing is Lost"

An Interview with Michelle Blake by Mickey Pearlman

Michelle Blake doesn't wear hand-tooled cowboy boots when she teaches writing classes at Tufts University. But she has plenty of other things in common with the intensely ethical character she has created for her Lily Connor mysteries. Like the Reverend Connor, an ordained Episcopal priest who runs anti-bias workshops, Blake is a deeply intelligent and moral ex-Texan whose sleuth is, in fact, the product of her "thwarted vocation."

Blake studied at Harvard Divinity School from l987 to l99l, after struggling earlier in the l970's with issues of vocation and with her desire to be "a woman with a sustaining call to serve God as a priest." Instead she moved to Vermont, received her Master of Fine Arts, became the director of two graduate writing programs, married the writer Dennis McFarland, relocated to San Francisco, and gave birth to a daughter.

But the desire to "be part of something peaceful and whole" pulled her back to seminary. She entered the Master of Theological Studies program (graduating in l992) because she "had to confront the question of vocation head-on." Although Blake was clear about what she wanted from ordination--"that sense of goodness I had found in religion classes and evening services,"--she needed to decide what she "had to bring to the deal." Fate intervened when a woman rector of a small Episcopal church in Massachusetts told her that "if the number of Episcopalians seeking ordination held steady, by the year 2000 there would be more priests than lay people "; she encouraged Blake to write. That's why the Rev. Lily Connor, "raised by her father on a ranch in the hill country between Houston and San Antonio ," made her debut in Blake's first mystery. The Tent Maker. (A tentmaker is an ordained priest who makes a living outside the church; the term derives from the life of St. Paul, whose "day job" was making tents.) In The Tent MakerLily investigates the suspicious death of the priest she is replacing. With the help of her best friend Charlie, an Anglo-Catholic monastic, she discovers the truth..

Blake says that at Harvard she discovered another truth, that "studying the history of Christianity is no picnic." She "had begun to focus my research on the tradition of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism in the church, particularly as it evolved during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries throughout Europe." While enrolled in a year-long course, a history of the Church during the Middle Ages, she was "struck by a parallel between the popularization of theology during this period in the form of miracle plays and Mary worship, for instance, and the rise in anti-Semitism" and her realization that "a lot of anti-Semitic stereotypes finds their roots in Church language, legend, and imagery." It became clear to Blake that, "during these formative years of the church, Christians used Jews as their image of The Other, the bad opposite of the good Christian, the screen on which to project their own fears about themselves." While "the stories from the past were harrowing, what was even more dispiriting were the strains of triumphalism and arrogance alive in some of the hymns and readings and sermons in the Church today."

She decided to "study Hebrew, and the Hebrew Bible, including midrashic texts" and enrolled in a year-long course on the holidays of the Jewish year, their historical roots, and forms of observance. "I had always wanted to know as much as I could about Judaism and had always been drawn to the religion and the culture. I thought that the more I knew, the better I could understand the lies that are told to feed anti-Semitism ." These explorations led to the themes that dominate Earth Has No Sorrow, Blake's second mystery. This time Lily, still in Boston, is involved with "an Ecumenical council whose purpose is to study anti-Semitism in the Church." A pivotal council-sponsored event is disrupted when Lily and Charlie open the usually locked main doors to a nearby Episcopal Cathedral. As Lily "walked into the huge empty space, something heavy dropped nearby. Where are the lights, she wondered. And then...she saw the brilliant red swath of color draped over the main altar, the black and white swastika centered across the front, and finally, the body of a child, dressed in the striped uniform of the camps, swinging by a rope from a crossbeam above the nave."

Earth Has No Sorrow also reflects Blake's childhood preoccupations with "race hatred and discrimination," a residue of "being raised in the l950's and l960's in the Southwest, in a wealthy community where all the residents were white and ninety-nine percent of the people who worked in the homes were people of color. A child notices these things, as I did." In addition, her stepfather, "with whom I lived from the time I was two years old, was Jewish. He adopted me when I was eighteen, and I took his last name, Simons. But it wasn't until after he died, when I was in my early twenties, that my mother's uncle told me that my stepfather and his entire family were Jewish. It was that odd moment when you realize that you both have known and haven't known the truth for a long time. He was a very successful man, but he was plagued by insecurity, as if he had a secret--which, as it turns out, he did.

I had thought at first that the secret was that he grew up poor and didn't go to college" although he became "very wealthy, supporting his entire extended family, all of whom, by the way, celebrated Christmas and Easter with us; none of whom, as far as I know, ever acknowledged being Jewish. But as I've gotten older and understood more about biases and their effects on everyone involved, I see how my father internalized anti-Semitism, how he almost hated himself for being Jewish, and lived in fear of being found out. What I don't know...is what effect the knowing, and not knowing, about my stepfather being Jewish, had on me as a child. Does this account for my long interest in, and innate respect for, Judaism? Do the roots of my own interest in prejudice lie in childhood experiences of seeing him excluded, and miserable? I'm not sure, but it's hard to imagine these things aren't somehow connected."

Henry James admonished every writer to "try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost." In Michelle Blake's case, he needn't have worried.

For more information about Mickey Pearlman