in the Sky
May 1978, Michener and I began the plotting of The Covenant
sitting down for two four-day sessions with an intervening
weekend during which I typed a draft outline. A year later on April
15, 1979, Jim wrote the first of two memos about those meetings
suggesting that what I brought to the table was "an exciting adventure
story about diamonds," while he'd already outlined a South African
novel based on a "Dutch family, a Zulu component and a conflict
with the British."
before he met me, Errol Uys devised what could have been an
exciting adventure story about diamonds, Arabian emirs, prospectors
and some rattling good South African and American characters.
He outlined his proposed novel in extensive detail, featuring
intricate plot relationships among a considerable collection
of characters, but did no writing.
before I met Uys I had outlined a South African novel based
on a Dutch family, a Zulu component and a conflict with the
British. I stressed a Cape Town-to-Zimbabwe axis and ruthlessly
excluded Natal, Southwest Africa and Kimberley, as I did not
want to get involved in British settlements, Namibia or diamonds.
But because of other pressures, and my inability as I saw
it to get back to South Africa, I put this novel on the back
burner and let it stay there for about eight years.
Tony Oursler of the Reader's Digest called one day
to see if he could talk with me about his idea for a novel,
and he told me of Uys's work, but more important, of Uys's
presence in the United States and his eagerness to work with
me on some South African materials. He outlined Uys's diamond
novel briefly, and I said I'd not be interested in that line
of development at all, but that I had long had my own thoughts
on the matter and that if Uys and the South African arm of
the Digest wanted to help with research material,
I'd be interested. Especially, it was Oursler and Uys who
proposed the diamond as the continuing factor in the story,
and this appealed to me, but again, not as they supposed.
In my version the diamond would never surface.
Uys and I met, most congenially, and I outlined my concept
of the novel that I thought would make a contribution, and
I rarely said one word but Uys immediately envisioned what
I had in mind, and he rarely made a suggestion but what I
could instantly see its applicability. (sic) We spent some
four days with my outlining what was necessary, and he returned
home to draft this document, using my ideas as a base line,
adding his own inventive suggestions. We then met for another
four days, after which he revised our outline along the lines
my thoughts had been going. I then laid the whole aside and
started to write from a fresh start, as it were, keeping basic
structures in mind but allowing the story to develop itself.
I write this memorandum as I finish Chapter VII, aware of
how far I've strayed from our a priori ideas, but
also aware of how valuable the preplanning has been. Until
a story gets a life of its own, one never know where it is
going to lead, and that's always the best way.
memo of April 15, 1979 is typed on a frontispiece of the outline
I drafted and titled "Covenant." The following day Jim returned
to the same subject of plotting the book in a new and more polished
statement that again references my "diamond" novel in more graceful
and generous terms.
is the beautifully worked-out plot that Errol Uys had in his
possession when we first met to discuss whether or not he
could find it congenial to work with me, and I with him. It
should be studied carefully to see the points at which he
had anticipated some of my own ideas, where he paralleled
some, and where he introduced lines that I found quite extraneous.
of the latter are the Iranians in whom I could show no interest
whatever, (Green); the American line (Black) although after
having composed my last chapter with an Australian I diverted
to an American as more fruitful; most of the English line
(Green also) which seemed too melodramatic for me; and much
of the Bantu (Blue and Brown) which again seemed too dramatic.
There were, of course, elements in all the lines which had
of the first, in which Uys anticipated me beautifully, were
the background materials on the creation of the diamond (that
is the geology, which has always been a preoccupation with
me and not specifically the diamond itself); the man-apes;
Australopithecus, although I could express no interest in
Pithecanthropus for the good reason that I know nothing whatever
about him; the Bushmen; the fleeting allusion to Zimbabwe,
which had always been of major importance to me. Indeed, it
was Uys's interest in these pre-historical materials which
attracted me to him, for without an understanding of how my
mind works on such themes he would have been unable to keep
to read more
first saw these memos in 2000 when Dr.
Barbara Helly brought them to my attention. A post-graduate
student at the University of Rennes, France, Helly was in the U.S.
researching The Covenant as basis for her English doctoral
thesis. Something about the two memos nagged at me: Why after we
worked together for a year did Michener suddenly feel compelled
to offer this explanation of the genesis of The Covenant?
Why did he go to the trouble of analyzing a schema I'd drawn up
following my initial talks with Oursler, a plan that was thrown
out of the door the moment Michener and I sat down to serious discussion
the penny dropped and I saw what may have triggered Michener's concern.
In my files, I have a letter written on March 30, 1979, two weeks
before Jim made his comments on our plotting sessions.
well-intentioned people have written to me recommending that
I read the books of Wilbur Smith, especially The Sun Bird
that reason it's important that I not read his books.
As you know I've tried to steer completely clear of any novels,
not wanting to run even the slightest risk of borrowing from
them. The only novel I've read, so far as I can recall, is
Prinsloo (Prinsloo of Prinsloo's Dorp),
and I think it is out of copyright. (I've also read, years
ago, Jock of the Bushveld, and I suppose
it's out of copyright too.)
do not in any of your work, cite material from novels or short
stories, as I have always tried to avoid such work. I adopted
this policy long ago and I believe I spoke to Philip about
my attitude, but the recent court cases involving Alex Haley's
Roots, in which he borrowed bluntly and without good
judgment, have alerted us anew to this problem.
memos of April 15 and April 16, 1979 would not be Jim's last word
on my role in the plotting of his novel. For example, Michener's
archival notes for The Covenant materials report:
This novel had an unusual genesis. I planned it first in 1970
or thereabouts, prior to my first visit to South Africa. At
that time I knew the surrounding countries well, having made
several extended trips into the area. But I needed to see
the land at first hand, so during that first trip I plotted
a series of major short stories, connected into novel form,
and some of these exists in the finished novel. But I felt
I didn't know enough, so that idea perished and I would certainly
not have gone ahead had not Tony Oursler of the Reader's
Digest called me on the phone to tell me that his organization
had two highly skilled editors* free
at the moment, and they had been thinking about a book on
South Africa and were free to work with me if I ever planned
to do such a book. Item #2 shows the planning that Errol Uys,
the principal editor, had completed long before he ever heard
of me. My note pasted to the front indicates the relationship
of Uys and his material to the plan that I had devised much
This represents Uys' reporting and summary of the heavy planning
we did over several extended meetings covering many days.
There was little of Uys' super-dramatic outline I could use
- his original, that is - and his excellent concept of the
diamond as a continuing thread, while it worked well for me,
was ultimately discarded by the editors, to my deep regret,
I must say. But the book was over-long and something had to
go. The four families were my idea, from far in the past,
and the book would be built around that, but Uys's clever
extensions and interlockings mark every chapter.
Note: I was the only editor involved at this stage. I subsequently
engaged Philip Bateman as an assistant in South Africa. See Research.)
final commentary on The Covenant's genesis appears in a 1980
message to members of The Literary Guild for the book club edition.
Jim describes his five-week visit to South Africa in 1971 and writes:
came home all steamed up about writing a novel on the South
African experience. I framed it around four basic themes: (1)
The Bushman moving south across the desert. (2) The coming of
the Huguenots. (3) The Great Trek north of the Dutch. (4) The
Mfecane, that amazing eruption of the Zulu in the 1820s. These
stepping stones would bring me down to the present, where I
would deal with several incidents in contemporary life which
had stunned me. In no way would I be able to write about South
Africa without speaking of apartheid, the system whereby the
races are kept completely separated.
when I came to draft my novel - which dealt with all these matters
from the outside, as seen by a visitor - I realized this was
not a satisfactory approach. The novel had to be written from
the inside, and I did not at that time know enough to write
in that fashion.
I dropped the subject and wrote instead Centennial,
which dealt with a land I knew well, the sugar-beet fields along
the South Platte River in Colorado, and then Chesapeake,
which dealt with waters I knew well. I supposed I would never
know enough to go back to the South African subject.
a pair of wonderful accidents revived the topic. The Reader's
Digest had two editors with spare time on their hands,
one working in the United States, one in South Africa. Each
was a citizen of South Africa. Each was a fine writer. Each
knew a lot about editing and researching. And they were eager
to help on exactly the kind of project I had visualized. Within
four days an arrangement was concluded, and I was off to South
Africa to resume my education.
is, of course, a promotional piece for the Literary Guild prepared with
benefit of hindsight. The statement about four basic themes going back
to 1971 is interesting, if compared with what Michener says in his letter
of April 22, 1978 with his initial response to my outline and notes
sent to Maryland after the meeting with Oursler at the University Club,
especially his disinterest in the Bushmen (San) and intention to bypass
Shaka and the Mfecane. At that time, he wrote...
Basically, the only difference between Uys's outline and mine
is that as always I want to take things slowly, avoid the big
central occurrences, avoid the big cities that others can write
about better than I, avoid the super-dramatic confrontations,
lay emphasis upon the physical settings which enclose all of
us wherever we might be, and allow the story to unfold with
its symbolism implied rather than stated, and its high moral
instinct in the yarn rather than spelled out in chapter headings.
These are devices and principles which I have worked out over
several decades, and they fit my personality and skills, and
to abandon them now would be perilous. (Also, they work!)
I am impressed by Uys's belief that there out to be two
interpositions between Australopithecus and Zimbabwe; the Bushmen
and the putative Phoenicians, Arabians and Ophirites. I have
done no work on the Bushmen and had planned to play them down
in comparison with the Hottentots, whom I want to make a strong
feature as those present when the Dutch arrived.
Naturally I would not want to attempt this important and difficult
book if I did not do ample justice to the great black tribes,
and I have always had this in mind from the time years ago when
I studied the Zulus intensely, visiting their new lands, their
old battlefields, their university and their present-day homes.
But I'm damned if I see clearly how best to handle this. I had
thought I would focus on the Xhosa as the people who were forced
south and west by Shaka, and this still appeals. But I belatedly
see that the story is only half told if full emphasis is not
given to Shaka, his antecedents and his followers in addition
to Dingaan. But every instinct tells me to wait on this till
after the Dutch have been established. It makes for a better
book, I am convinced. I am, however, open for suggestions as
how best to introduce the material.
. . Like Uys I want to stress
the Huguenot strain, but as of now I have no clear plan for
accomplishing this. I deem the French influence to be rather
stronger than the average writer indicates; many of the profound
strains of the Dutch-Boer-Afrikaans character show a clear Huguenot
component. But this can be easily worked out as the characters
move across the pages.
My Chapter V, assuming that the French do not merit a chapter
to themselves but an ancillary treatment, would leap directly
to the Xhosa Wars and the coming of the English as a kind of
afterthought. This could be a very solid and focal chapter,
stressing the confrontation of Xhosa-Dutch and Dutch-English.
But I have never done much work on the Xhosa, except as they
were caught in Zulu history, and would need a lot of specific
work to make myself competent. I much prefer the Zulus and the
Matabele, but the more I think about Afrikaner history, the
more significant the Xhosa become, a fact I did not appreciate
some years ago.
the trek, on which I am fairly well informed. I have always
thought it ought to be done as the South African version of
the American trek to the west, and the Russian trek to the east,
and I want to place it in its proper physical setting, comparing
it with those other great treks which were so much more significant
in terms of numbers of people involved and miles covered, and
so much less important psychologically.
I had always intended, as you know from what I told you, to
bypass Natal, which meant also bypassing Dingaan, because I
have always been much more interested in the trekkers who did
just that. I felt that I could get all the values I wanted from
the Xhosa, but what Uys said at our meeting made a deep impression
on me and I have restudied this issue. Blood River is too important
to be ignored, even though all my antecedents as a writer warn
me to do so, and I am beginning to see how I can digress
to that tragic scene and then get back on what is for me my
main line. In fact, this can be done with certain advantages
and should be, primarily for two reasons: Blood River is too
deeply ingrained in Afrikaner memory to be ignored and is too
good a phrase to be wasted; and I now think that the blacks
I want to follow in the powerful later chapters ought to be
there my specific planning comes to a halt. (In my earlier notes
I leapfrogged almost directly to the workings of the pass laws,
which is too enormous a leap for a book of the kind I now visualize.)
I want of course to establish the diamond theme, but not too
heavily. I do not want to make much if anything of the Rhodes-Kruger
confrontation, for others have done this commendably. Nor am
I concerned about the Uitlanders or the fracases between the
I decide upon this lacuna must lead to the Boer War, which I
have fairly well structured. But I am not making any firm decisions
because I want to see what happens to our characters in the
preceding episodes: Boer heroes; English actors: Black majority.
they move into the Twentieth Century their obligations become
clearer, and I have always had this fairly well in mind: much
emphasis on 1938-1945; great stress on the intellectual conflicts
of the 1948-1960 period; and in the final chapter a focus on
perhaps only three central figures, each of which grows out
of the preceding periods.
have already given some thought to Oursler's idea that an American
enter the final scenes, and now I see that Uys had the same
idea. There may be some value in this: a fresh figure, a new
view, a premonition of the 1990s. I don't want to use the diamond
melodramatically, but if it is well handled in the opening chapter,
and then again prior to the Boer War, there could be a way of
utilizing it within the limitations I set myself. At any rate,
I'm think about this and have so far come up with nothing. But
the idea does persist, so maybe it's a good one.
you know all I know and the next move is yours.
to read the
Plotting (Contd.) 1
Errol Lincoln Uys All materials are from my personal
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