After Blood Brothers was published, I’d often get comments like “I enjoyed the book but I didn’t get why your main character is a Muslim.”
It’s a good question, the answer to which is both simple and complex. Here’s the simple part, which has mostly to do with how I write fiction. My characters take on their own lives in my subconscious. After a while, they act as if it’s their story, not mine. If that makes no sense to you, it didn’t to me either, but that’s what happens, so I just work with it. When I’m deep into a novel, as I am now with the sequel to Blood Brothers, I go to bed at night while my characters are busy getting into mischief — or worse. I wake up, and there they are, all excited to tell me what they’ve experienced while I was asleep.
I first became aware of my main character Henry Doyle when he was a 10 year old boy, sitting high up in a huge oak tree, looking at the British officers and Iroquois chiefs in front of Johnson Hall in the Mohawk Valley in 1770, wondering who his father might be.
The bastard son of a white woman and Sir William Johnson, the British superintendent for Indian Affairs in New York, Henry was raised by the Mohawks as a warrior fighting against the American “Rebels” in an unsuccessful attempt to keep white settlers from stealing the rich Mohawk homeland in New York during the Revolution.
Having both terrified and pissed off the Americans, Henry left America when Britain lost the war to become a highly-successful British spy against Napoleon’s interests in North Africa, the Middle East, and India. Then, when he grew just as disgusted by British colonialism, he became a mercenary for hire. So I guess I shouldn’t have expected him to be better behaved.
Anyway, I woke up one morning, and before I even got a chance to enjoy my first cup of coffee, there was Henry. “I have some news for you. I’ve converted to Islam and am now a Sufi.” “Great,” I said. “What the hell is a Sufi?”
“I guess you’d better find out,” said Henry.
That launched me on what’s now been an eight year exploration. Sufis aren’t a “sect of Islam.” Better to say they’re an expression of Islam. Even better to say they are an expression of God. A Sufi might say “We are the wine that existed before the grape began to grow.” By way of grossly exaggerated distortion, you could think of them as the Taoists or Zen Buddhists of Islam. Which explains why extremists, like the homicidal madmen who now claim to speak for all of Islam, include Sufis on their hit list.
That’s the simple explanation. (Whew.) Here’s the more complex version: God is, one might say, an inescapable, timelessly present presence whose reality is unknowable (unless you’re one of the many frightened people of all faiths who claim “God is just like me.”) Faith is the journey of trying to discover the unknowable. That’s Henry’s journey. I’m writing the books to try to see the world through his eyes. The fact that those eyes now appear from behind the blue veil of the Tuaregs of North Africa just makes the journey more interesting.
And the more complex explanation for why he became a Sufi Muslim has also to do with the very troubling world we live in today — a time of terrified tribalism, in which we define others who are “different” from us in terms of what scares us about them. We reduce their identity to the stereotypes of fear. You know what I’m talking about. Think of the friends with whom you no longer can discuss religion, politics, race relations, human sexual preferences, women’s role in society, environmental concerns, the economy… and we’re not even talking about “Mexicans” and “Muslims.”
So I created Henry (or he created himself) to challenge some of those stereotypes. He’s not necessarily someone you’d like to show up at your home saying, “Hi. I’m here to take your daughter out on a date; my camel’s parked right out front.” On the other hand, if you or the people you love were in real trouble, you’d very much want him as a friend.
Without spoiling the plot of The Most Bold and Daring Act of the Age, I can say that when Henry comes out of retirement at the age of 55 to re-enter the spy game, not everything goes well. So while his wife Dihya and half-brother Peter try to figure out how to save him, he has lots of time in a dungeon to think about what his journey means. I can’t wait for him to tell me.