A fantasy off Route 17
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A fantasy off Route 17

Andrew Mayer brings memories of New Jersey and his Jewish father to his novels

New Jersey native Andrew Mayer doesn’t “follow the herd.”
New Jersey native Andrew Mayer doesn’t “follow the herd.”

Betsey Weisz is just a typical young half-Jewish, half-Korean woman in northern New Jersey, working in a diner off Route 17, with a feeling that her life has hit a dead end.

Then a bright light appears over the parking lot and people start transforming. One eats the soul of her boyfriend.

Yes, Betsey Weisz is fictional. She’s the central character in a fantasy series by Andrew Mayer, a San Francisco writer who grew up in Upper Saddle River. The second volume in the series, “The Lost Dragon,” was just published.

“The point of the series is to keep her off balance as she tries to figure out what’s going on,” he said. “By the end of the adventure, she’s pulled through to an alternate reality.”

It is a reality with different dimensions, with alternate versions of New Jersey (and New York) that features fantastic inhabitants, a reality that has its share of vampires and changelings and dragons.

A perfect setting for an adventure for those who like that sort of thing.

Betsey Weisz’s background is partially a reflection of her creator’s.

His father was Jewish; he grew up in Frankfurt until his family was chased from Germany by the Nazis. His mother was British, not Jewish.

14-3-V-TheBrokenSky_HighRes-1800 × 2700“My dad had an interesting background,” Mr. Mayer said. “When he got to the U.S. he did a lot of alternative religion stuff.”

And by alternative, Mr. Mayer means really alternative, including taking part in UFO religions focusing on teachings from and contact with aliens.

“We would do different religious ceremonies, go to synagogue, go to church,” Mr. Mayer remembered. “My dad was a man of adventure.” As was his grandfather, who had been a World War I battle doctor and war hero.

“When the Nazis came in, at first he was protected, then he was hunted, because they didn’t want any Jewish heroes. He was literally sneaking back and forth over the border into Holland to get out of Germany. They ended up in British Honduras,” he said.

His father was 12 or 13 at the time.

“My grandfather was a real character,” Mr. Mayer said. “At one point he was the only dentist in Belize. My father pedaled a bicycle to drive the dental drill. He told me he had to be very careful about how fast he would pedal, because if he went too fast it would cause the enamel to crack.”

Mr. Mayer said his father didn’t really harbor harsh feelings toward Germany.

“My father just saw it as something people did. He saw that cultural racism in so many ways. He was fairly forgiving actually. I remember some arguments as a kid between the family members about that.

“Near the end of his life, he went back to the school he went to and spoke to the kids there about what happened. He said that grandfather was sure the Nazis weren’t against them, but only against the eastern Jews; that the German Jews somehow had safety and superiority.”

So how is Andrew Mayer’s Jewish background reflected in Rachel Weisz’s personality?

“My experience that I bring to her is the questioning. When stuff is put in front of her” — and given the literary context in which she lives, the stuff can be rather fantastic — “she doesn’t either accept it or reject it whole cloth. She wants to take some time, and have some compassion and understanding of what is that in front of her.

“That’s my experience of the Jewish side of my family. Even if it’s something you disagree with, there’s a curiosity and an attempt to understand it, rather than to run away and say that you’re not going to talk about it.

“When you come from different backgrounds, you get to pick and choose a little. It’s a bit of a buffet. What are you keeping? What are you rejecting? That’s forced on you because people see you a certain way.

14-4-V-TheLostDragon_HighRes-1800 × 2700“It’s not an epic conflict. It’s an interesting one and it informs the character. It’s fun for me to play with.”

He feels comfortable with his character’s Jewish side. For her Korean side, he talks to a friend whose father is Jewish and mother is Chinese to find out the Jewish-Asian experience.

He has been a fulltime writer for only a couple of years. Before that, Mr. Mayer, 49, spent 20 years as a video game designer and director.

He has published a trilogy of superhero novels set in New York City in the 1880s.

“New York in that period is very exciting,” he said, explaining why he didn’t follow the conventions of the steampunk genre, which generally features adventures in a high tech variation of 19th-century London. “I wanted to do something that didn’t follow the herd.”

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