Q&A

 

How did you develop the idea of the covenant in “United by Covenant”?

Some people talk about compacts, or social contracts. Covenant is the idea that there is something not completely separated from God. There are lots of places in our history where we have accorded a presence to something greater than just the people who are taking part in something at a given time. This idea will come back at the end of the fourth book, to show that things like the civil rights movement are closely related to ideas of a greater presence, a God. Jessie recognizes that when we achieve things like Brown v. Board of Education, that wasn’t the end of the story. Spiritual liberation is a necessary final step.

 

Why is the covenant idea so important?

The covenant means the whole is greater than the parts, because God is included somewhere. The other aspect is: From generation to generation there is a kind of overarching sense of what it is to be American. That is in the covenant as well. The American experience is not just in one generation. It’s cross-generational and reaches out to the heavenly domain, too.

Woven all through the fabric of our national experience, I see an address to God. At the core is a concept that from the beginning of our experience, we have included a place for God in our lives. It would have been easier to shy away from that, but I didn’t in this book.

 

The women in “Ben’s America” are very bold, sexually adventurous, and assertive. What we read about most women of that time period isn’t quite like that. Why did you choose to create them in such a different mold?

I decided I was willing to suggest that people did fool around in those days, but they were more discreet. I know there are people who will say “no way” to the way I’ve written them, but their sexuality is not flaunted. Ben’s not a wild character, and it adds some realism and richness to him, to have the sexual experiences and the consequences.

 

The main character, Ben La Barre, also has gay experiences, and you have included several gay characters who live fairly openly. Why did you do that?

The book can’t have real weight at the level I’ve pitched it if it’s not reflective of all the constituent elements in America that I can fit into it. And it’s not possible to sidestep the issues of the gay experience. I think it’s only right to include gay people in the discussion of those times. They existed, but they were much more shrouded in secrecy than in today’s world.

There is the potential for an incendiary reaction for some people by having Ben have a gay lover, and then having his lover’s sister marry him. These are choices that are fraught. Even (Ralph Waldo) Emerson questions that in the book. He tells Ben, you’re farther out there than (Walt) Whitman.

Ben is so nearly heroic, so perfect in his public self — but his private life is a mess. I have to make his personal life complicated. None of the things I describe seem to be impossible or even unlikely — we just don’t hear about them.

 

Ben is biracial, and in fact is kidnapped by a slave owner early in the book before regaining his freedom. Why tell the story from this perspective?

The decision was made in the second book, where Ben’s father falls in love with a biracial woman. She makes the pitch to him that she wants to be accepted like a white woman, and he marries her. That gives his enemies a lot of fire. If a person was a free person of color, their children were also people of color. Interracial marriage was against the law. Ben is reflective of America, and he existed when I sat down to write this story. I accepted him as interracial. I knew I’d continue to add interracial men and women to the story.

 

Why did you choose to write a historical book?

I want to point out American exceptionalism. Especially in book number four, we’ll see that America has created some sui generis responses to problems that happened to other countries. We have come up with some fairly unique and enduring solutions — pragmatism, covenants, the way we are inclusive — there’s a whole number of ways that America has done things that has led to its success and pre-eminence in the world.

 

What makes “United by Covenant” stand out among historical novels?

I think I’m doing something different. Storytelling with history is inevitably unique because these are characters that haven’t been seen before. I think fictional storytelling is a valid way to link a progression of events together through personal lives, so history isn’t an accumulation of dry facts and little episodes. There’s a through line to their lives. The characters bring the story along and give it life.

I wanted to tell a story that really does celebrate the outstanding virtues America has brought to the world stage. It’s a celebration of a success story.