At the start of the book, Adam’s life is at a standstill. He has little to show for his research of the cult of the dead in ancient Israel, until he discovers a tablet that sheds light on shadowy underworld figures known as the Healers in Canaanite myth and the Bible. While the Healers are mentioned frequently in the ancient texts, their theological role and origin have never really been fleshed out, said Morris.
On the day Adam finds the tablet, he loses his grandfather, the man who raised him. As Adam mourns, he labors to interpret the text. Are the Healers ancestors of the ancient Jews? Are they the original inhabitants of the land? Are they gods? Or all three? As Adam examines the tablet for answers, he unwittingly unearths family secrets that test his loyalties and entangle him in the police investigation of Danny, an old family friend.
Morris said his grief over the death of his grandfather—with whom he was very close—was an inspiration for the book. In Jewish tradition, Morris said, burying the dead is seen as the last act of kindness one can do for a loved one. He recalled his grandfather’s funeral:
“I remember taking the shovel and not wanting to give it up, that I felt like this was my last opportunity to have this deep, personal, physical connection, to be able to do something for my grandfather, and I was very reluctant to share that,” said Morris. “Of course, I did, because it’s a community of mourners who all need to be able to participate, but it was a wrenching thing to give the shovel away.”
The characters developed quite apart from Morris’ own story. However, that the character Adam can only permit himself to explore his grief through texts and study, is not too far from Morris’ analytic approach to life. Elsewhere, Adam’s best friend is a “disaffected gay Catholic biologist” and his love interest is a liturgical composer “struggling to hold on to her belief.” As for the Healers, Morris said he first learned of them in a college course.
“They merited only a short discussion in the class, but they loomed very large in my imagination and I read as many books as I could over the years that addressed the relationship between Judaism and Canaanite culture,” he said.
As a scientist, Morris didn’t take writing fiction lightly. He is very involved with several faculty groups around the University and counts several English professors among his friends. He said he looked at the novel, which he self-published, as something to be “built,” and the scientist in him wondered, “What makes this work?” His process was very practical.
“When I first started working on the book, I wouldn’t call it my novel, I called it ‘my folly,’ because it felt hubristic. What’s a geneticist doing writing a piece of fiction?” he said. “How could I presume to do something like that?”
As the novel developed he showed it to colleagues who were “incredibly supportive” and offered constructive feedback. Several Fordham professors are thanked in the acknowledgments. Karina Martin Hogan, Ph.D., assistant professor of theology, helped Morris with his Hebrew grammar “because she knows this stuff inside and out,” he said. But the archeological research was his own.
“The philology, where Adam is actually trying to interpret the tablet, understanding what’s happening, and the Bible studies, these have been passions of mine for a very long time,” he said.
He said ultimately, the idea of a scientist writing fiction isn’t that big a deal at a place like Fordham.
“One of the things people say about a Jesuit university, particularly about Fordham, is that you can bring your whole self to work,” he said. “If you have passions outside of your particular field, that still informs who you are and you have the opportunity to bring those passions to your relationships with your colleagues or to your students or to your scholarship.”