GUY RAZ, host:
Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
Alan Cheuse is best known as the book reviewer for ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, but he's also a novelist in his own right. And his new book takes place in the last decade before the Civil War.
The main character is Nathaniel Pereira. He's a young Jewish bachelor living the high life in New York City. And at the beginning of the story, he makes his way to Charleston, South Carolina where he records his first impressions.
ALAN CHEUSE (Author, "Song of Slaves in the Desert"): (Reading) And if in New York there had been a black face or two in the larger crowd, here, it was all reversed with the majority of faces black. From the longshoreman who caught the ropes cast to them from the bow of the Godbolt(ph) crew to the children who skidded about underfoot, almost as if in a dare to the larger human creatures to step on them if they could, all were black.
RAZ: And that, of course, is Alan Cheuse. His familiar voice you just heard reading a passage from his new book. It's called "Song of Slaves in the Desert."
And it follows Nathaniel Pereira as he travels south to examine a plantation belonging to his slave-owning cousins. Alan Cheuse is with me in the studio. It's great to see you here, Alan.
CHEUSE: Good to see you, Guy.
RAZ: First of all, how did you come up with this story?
CHEUSE: Well, it began for me in the early 1990s. I went to Lafayette College for a year.
RAZ: Where is that?
CHEUSE: That's in the Eastern Pennsylvania. And I joined a Jewish fraternity, the president of which was a black guy named Len Jeffries - Leonard Jeffries. He was the only black kid in the fraternity, and he was the president.
RAZ: He was the president.
CHEUSE: And, you know, he was a scholar and a gentleman and a friendly guy. In the '90s, he was the chair of the black studies program at the City University of New York, and he began to deliver a series of rants and declarations about white people in general and the Jews in particular.
He declared that black people were sun people and white people were ice people, and sun people were better than ice people. And he asserted that the Jews bankrolled the American slave trade.
RAZ: The slave trade.
RAZ: And this is somebody you knew as a fraternity brother in a Jewish fraternity back in the day.
CHEUSE: Yes. Yeah.
RAZ: So you - from this story, you decided to explore this idea of Jewish slave owners, which, presumably, there were.
CHEUSE: Yes, there were. I read a number of histories on the subject. And there was a higher percentage of Jewish slaveholders in relation to Jews in the US population at the time than there were Christian slaveholders in relation to the Christian population.
RAZ: But overall, we're talking about insignificant...
CHEUSE: A miniscule number of people.
RAZ: Yeah. Let's talk about the story of this book. It's about - effectively, it's about a young man, Nathaniel Pereira, a Jewish man from New York. He goes down to Charleston, South Carolina, and why?
CHEUSE: His father has a brother who owns a plantation, a rice plantation just outside of Charleston. They own hundreds of slaves. And his father wants to investigate the possibility of buying into this business enterprise. And so he sent his son, Nathaniel, to investigate. Nathaniel has finished his studies, and he wants to go on a grand tour to Europe.
RAZ: To Europe.
CHEUSE: But his father says, before you do that, you have to go south.
RAZ: Nathaniel reflects on the irony, a grim sort of irony in the story. The idea of him being Jewish...
RAZ: Jews who, of course, celebrate Passover each year commemorating their freedom gif from bondage.
RAZ: He says, We were slaves. And now, we are slave owners in the new world.
CHEUSE: Yes. Slavery was a great temptation for everybody. And the sad, pathetic truth of the situation is that some of these Jews; the descendants of the people who Moses led out of the land of bondage, bought into the system. For me, it's the great existential temptation, not just of American history, but of human life to have the possibility of holding this great power over someone and taking it rather than refusing it.
RAZ: I'm speaking with Alan Cheuse, familiar to everyone listening as the book reviewer for ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. He's talking about his new novel. It's called "Song of Slaves in the Desert."
Alan, I wanna ask you a question about Alan Cheuse the reviewer, rather then Allan Cheuse the novelist, because you're best-known, of course, to our listeners as the ALL THINGS CONSIDERED book critic.
When you sit down to write a novel, do you sometimes sort of struggle with the pros - I guess, in a sense, thinking or wondering whether people might think it's derivative because you've read so much. You've read every, you know, almost every novel that comes out.
CHEUSE: Let me tell you about something I heard Robert Penn Warren tell an audience at Vanderbilt. Somebody said: Well, Mr. Warren, you know more about English and American poetries and just about anyone alive, and what does that do to your work when you sit down to write? And he said in that sort of gravely middle Tennessee voice - though he lived just over the Kentucky border - he said: Well, son - he said, I guess I know a lot about English and American poetry. And - but when I sit down to write, I have to forget it all.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CHEUSE: But of course, it affects you.
CHEUSE: But in the same way, you know, reading Shakespeare and Milton and the Bible affects any serious writer, it's there. The language is given to us by all these great writers, and we write in that tradition, whether we know it or not. And I think it's better to know where your language is coming from than not know.
RAZ: Alan, I know you've been working on this book, which I have here. It's a big book. You've been working on this for decades.
RAZ: What does it - I mean, you've - finally, it's been typeset, printed, it is in hardback, it's a beautiful cover. It's right here in front of you. What does it feel like to have finally finished this?
CHEUSE: I think it's as close as any man can know to what it feels like to give birth and raise the child and send it to school on its own.
CHEUSE: You know, that moment when your kid's going to school, she's crossing the road, and you have to hang back and let her do it by herself.
RAZ: And in a sense, you were telling me this earlier, this is a full circle.
CHEUSE: Yeah. When I began it - almost two decades ago, I started the research for it, I had no idea that it would have such a serendipitous conclusion for me because working with the African material, working with the American material, you know, it spoke to me, and I hope to speak back to it. But I had no expectation, let alone, you know, that I could imagine that I would dedicate this novel when it was finished to my African grandchild, my first grandchild born in Ethiopia.
RAZ: That's Alan Cheuse, best known as the ALL THINGS CONSIDERED book critic. His new novel is called "Song of Slaves in the Desert." It's out now.
Alan, thanks so much.
CHEUSE: Great pleasure, Guy. Thank you.