Frequently Asked Questions

In the writer’s room with author Andrew Hubsch:

The title of the series — MERION MERCIES — what does it mean, and what importance is it intended to convey?

Elementally, in just those two words, MERION MERCIES both fixes the setting and evokes the artistic theme of the series.

How so?

In journalism, baseline answers are found at an article’s outset, beneath the banner headline, the essential “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” sometimes “why.”  Ideally, the series’ title satisfies at least some of those questions, while triggering a further level of intellectual curiosity, of desire, of inquisitiveness.  Since the MERION MERCIES stories — across the many centuries and the multiple volumes — all occur within an authentic, defined terrain, choosing a title to reflect and to encompass that geography was crucial for me.  Of the recorded indigenous Lenni Lenape place names, precious few survive, uncorrupted or even recognizable.

Making “Merion” a Native American word?

Actually, “Merion” is Welsh, shortened from Merionethshire, a county in northern Wales.  Which is noteworthy because the novels proper in MERION MERCIES unfold entirely within a territory once known as the Welsh Tract.  The Lenape — or Delaware, as they came to be called — are the area’s native inhabitants, and their seasonal encampments dot the region.  And while Karakung is a Lenape term, it denotes a specific fast-flowing tributary and verdant vale where volume I’s New World story begins in earnest, circa the 1640s, with pioneering Swedes and Finns.  By comparison, the slightly-later “Merion” includes a far broader swath.

If history is written by the victors, would the same hold true for place names, selectively weighting and effecting which ones persist?

Somewhere, Amerigo Vespucci’s ghost is smiling, having nominally appropriated the whole of the Western hemisphere with his cartographic sleight of hand.  (laughs)  Sorry.

To name it is to claim it?

Unequivocally, yes.  For MERION MERCIES, continuity was my key, irrespective of source, following the linguistic evidence.  Some holdover Lenape and Swedish appellations endure, too, though orphaned, buried, and otherwise long-forgotten beneath Anglicized variants.  But “Merion” is an abiding, foundational label for an initially-settled portion of the Welsh Tract, a place name brought from Wales by Friends — Quakers, unlikely “victors,” given their root pacifism — in 1682, a through-line that carries to the 21st-century.  So, of the geographical choices relevant to the Welsh Tract, “Merion” was the strongest titular candidate in a narrow field.

And “Mercies,” what is that significance?

As awaits the readers’ discovery in each volume, history is not a foregone conclusion.  In the moment, the present is forever a risky highwire act, a vulnerable, often unpredictable enterprise for those living it.  Crises test and temper every generation, and every immigrant crest, with contending forces fervently grappling to assert a narrative role, to grasp for the proverbial brass ring, actively competing to manifest a “destiny” in their own image.  In whatever time period you might call “here and now,” the future will always be unwritten.  What may appear obvious, even pre-ordained, in the rearview mirror — the perfectly linear events of yesteryear, dot to connected dot, inexorably progressing forward to today — is far more precarious than our cultural memory admits.  At recurrent moments, that pathway ahead is endangered.  And if not for regular instances of mercy, our history would be immeasurably different.

So more than alliteration is behind the series’ title?

Yes, yes, yes.  (nods)  Far more.  Just as “Merion” expressly identifies the focal setting, “Mercies” knowingly foretells the central theme, tethering the series, presaging and illuminating what will follow.  For a project of this profuse scope, ideas often percolate from a wealth of sources.  If the maxim about reading a thousand words for every word you would write is true, which it decidedly is, then the just-as-bankable corollary is to digest a small library for every book you would dare to write.  But “Mercies” — as core concept, content, and series moniker — candidly holds fast to a disparate quartet of early inspirations, each a cherished creative lodestar:  Horton Foote’s elegantly lean screenplay for Tender Mercies, and Anne Lamott’s aching, funny, searingly-honest spiritual rumination Traveling Mercies.

You said “quartet.”  That’s two.

And, from John Steinbeck, a meditative matched pair:  East of Eden, equally a memoir of an American landscape as an autobiographical, familial history, replete with rumbling susurrations of Cain and Abel; and the posthumous Journal of a Novel:  The East of Eden Letters, his forthright, parallel account of the writing process, done as daily entries to his editor.  Come the coda, Steinbeck’s expansive, multi-generational epic pivots on but a single word — the Hebrew word “timshel,” central to God’s instructions to mankind in the fourth chapter of Genesis — and on a scholarly, if warmly consoling, translation of that key biblical directive.  “Timshel”:  not “Thou shalt” nor “Do thou,” but “Thou mayest.”  Mercy, divinely revealed.

Heady company.

Quite.  (laughs)  Reality and humility, though, dictate that I’ve a long way to go to earn my own literary stripes in the marketplace of ideas.  Fortunately, I have a bedrock faith, a stubborn conviction in the historical treasures on tap, and in my capabilities to execute the breadth and depth of the narrative vision.  May MERION MERCIES resonate in turn for others as Foote, Lamott, and Steinbeck have for me, as a continual blessing, a mercy imbued, conferred upon the reader, from earliest experience on through the ensuing decades.

“The quality of mercy is not strained”?

You, me, skeptic, believer, manor-born sinner, manger-born saint, we are twice-blessed candidates, each and every last one of us, both deserving of mercy and capable of giving it.  But the Bard drove the message deeper, declaiming “mercy is above this sceptred sway,” boldly speaking artistic truth to King James’ regal authority.  Can you imagine?  Talk about prophetic courage.  Inherently, mercy requires a power inequality, and for that stronger party to release their leverage, to temper their advantage, to unshackle their subordinates’ irons in return for nothing.  Taken poetically, Magee’s High Flight springs to mind, the freedom, the weightless delirium:  “Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth, And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.”  To alight from gravity’s terrestrial constraint, to pierce the heavenly firmament and contemplate the cosmos, to reckon the existential grace embedded in “Thou mayest.”  Mercy extended — courtesy a stranger, an adversary, a potentate, a Nazarene lamb — is, therefore, the transformative constant in humankind’s ascension, an oh-so-mighty-yet-unseen current that can absolve our failings, bind our pains, requite our hopes, and inspire our finest incarnation of tomorrow.

Intriguing.  Care to explain?

In every volume of MERION MERCIES will come a defining scene, where history, as we know it, is suspended in the balance, teeter-tottering.  Only by an unexpected act of mercy will the aspirational future unfold.  History becomes quite personal in these stories.  Larger destinies can hinge on intimate decisions.

For example?

Well, as recounted in the series-opening Karakung, the resolute Swedish colonists of Nya Sverige — Stockholm’s fledgling New Sweden settlement in the New World — hold a tenuous grasp, year to year, fretful harvest to fretful harvest, shorn from their homeland, severed from kin, comfort, and kind, marginally clinging to an alien continent’s edge.  If not for several providential moments, a dismal fate awaits.

Disappeared, you mean, like the Roanoke Colony?

Dead-on — no tragic pun intended — gone with nary a trace.  And Jamestown nearly, too.  Look, in the grand sweep of American history, eventualities are unknown.  The Pilgrims of Plymouth nearly expire, saved from starvation by beneficent natives.  During the Revolution, a sober Franklin frets about hanging together, as in Continental cohesion producing military victory, or assuredly hanging separately, as in treason verdicts and the British gallows.  A penitent Lincoln worries daily about the staggering blood tribute of the Civil War.  A pragmatic Eisenhower addresses two letters to FDR on the eve of D-Day, one should Operation Overlord — the all-or-nothing Normandy invasion — succeed, the other in case of failure.  Our towering icons of American history were once flesh and blood, men and women who privately harbored doubts among their dreams, who achieved their greatness despite challenges and setbacks and human frailties.  Returning to the Welsh Tract of MERION MERCIES, each generation contains an historical inflection point, where a volitional choice is made, where “the better angels of our nature” will hopefully prevail.

How did the Welsh Tract become the chosen focus?

Much research.  Much trial, and even more error.  (laughs)  When the premise first coalesced — “America’s saga, as revealed in a single locale,” a preposterous flight of fancy that I could not shake — the Welsh Tract was not on my mental radar.

Where else was considered?

Chiefly the Massachusetts coast and the James River, in Virginia.  Briefly Fort Caroline and St. Augustine, in Florida.  Santa Fe was vetted.  Finding someplace that could sustain the historical narrative through the generations, that was the objective, from the debut of European settlers, then to now.  A representative parcel that connected our earliest history all the way to the present.  As well, trying to identify a distinct, boundaried geography was important.  New York, specifically Manhattan or Staten Island, also were in the running.

However, none were your ultimate choice?

All had genuine merit.  Manhattan, perhaps, too much merit; the prospect of parsing and winnowing so much multi-layered history was a bit daunting.  What to retain?  To omit?  Also, for all its manifestations and polyglot story lines, Manhattan felt static, too centered in the frame.  Areas of Massachusetts and tidewater Virginia held fantastic allure — beachhead settlements, colonial era, rebellion against the British Empire — but relative blank spots surfaced, later.  But even in the 1770s, for instance, of the southern Founding Fathers, almost none, save Washington, ever traveled to the Boston area.  Conversely, few if any seminal New Englanders reached the Old Dominion during that age.  The physical distances were just too sizable.  But, from north and south, many of those proto-patriots journeyed to Manhattan, at one time or another, and all of them were to Philadelphia.

Enter Philadelphia.

But, as Manhattan, Philadelphia’s historical riches were potentially overwhelming, for the literary purposes at hand, the geological core sample — metaphorically speaking — too compacted, too dense.  More to the point, what new could be said?  And Philadelphia is inconveniently not an island, so what conceivable parameters logically could be utilized?  Again, the variables seemed too great, leaving me feeling stymied.  After months of research, the project was about to be permanently shelved.

What happened to revive interest?

While diligently exploring Philadelphia as a possibility, I’d encountered a detailed version of Thomas Holme’s map of the nascent Pennsylvania province, prepared for proprietor William Penn in about 1687.  In part, it’s really an ancient real estate tool, a 17th-century marketing broadsheet, where the geography is exquisitely rendered and the virgin landowners are represented:  straight-line surveys; wending creeks; minute, cribbed surnames.  And arcing across a bordered section is the text, “THE WELCH TRACT,” Welsh with a “C.”  Astonishingly, a dashed boundary demarcates a separate portion of Penn’s vast holdings, and that barely-populated section is specially designated.  Yet no other equivalent labeling elsewhere appears.  That caught my attention.

Was the “Welch Tract” new to you?

No, the Welsh Tract was a known term, at least generally, since I’d grown up in the region, but I’d never seen a map, showing exactly where the Welsh Tract was, and where it wasn’t, a key awareness.  Realizing that the original tract encompassed lands extending from present-day West Philadelphia and Fairmount Park to around Valley Forge, all along the Schuylkill River’s western bank, I became invigorated:  “Hallelujah, this could work.”  Here could be that long-sought finite place, with a strong historical continuum, ripe with promise.  So months more scutwork followed, intensive research to beta-test whether enough interesting people and notable events could be showcased in the Welsh Tract, to credibly earn taglines like “The New World Saga” or “America Happens Here.”

And did the Welsh Tract clear that bar?

(nods)  The audience will be the supreme arbiters, but I believe so.

What, if anything, differentiated this territory?

In short, Penn pitched an idea — and a roughly 62-square mile parcel straddling the future Philadelphia’s western-most limits — to a group of Welsh Friends, fellow Quakers, proposing a self-regulating “barony,” where their own Cymry language and courts and religion would prevail, for a quitrent, a type of annual tax or tribute to the proprietor.  Of course, by 1682, when this land was being sold to the Welsh, Swedes and a few stray Finns had been homesteading there, in various pockets, for a generation or more.  And by the mid-1690s, the quasi-independent barony was subsumed, over Welsh protestations, politically divied up by three counties.

When were you convinced that the Welsh Tract was the right locale?

The slave-labor tobacco plantation, owned and operated by a Quaker in good standing, for most of the 18th century, that was my jarring confirmation.  (pause)  Barely five miles from where I was raised, enslaved Africans spent three generations under the master’s whip, tending tobacco, and I’d had no idea.  A bull’s-eye squarely targeted my benign complacency, the shameful stain of that “peculiar institution” — slavery, coupled with European colonists’ near-eradication of the continent’s indigenous nations, America’s original sin — hitting uncomfortably close to home, practically on my doorstep.  Slaves?  Harvesting tobacco?  In southeastern Pennsylvania, of all places.  Wait, weren’t Quakers the leading abolitionists?  How, then, could a Quaker in good standing own 99 slaves, and brag about it?  The inhumanity and unrepentant effrontery.  What else did I not know about the region of my upbringing?  Enough to fill a book, or several, that’s for sure.

And the MERION MERCIES stories are populated by actual people and real events of the Welsh Tract, including this Quaker slaveowner?

And his human property, yes.  The saccharine, whitewashing days of Parson Weems are long gone, and good riddance.  We’re hardy enough to wrestle with thorny realities, mature enough to handle self-reflection, compassionate enough to bury with dignity a few long-hidden skeletons in the closet.  Our nation’s history is diverse, often surprising and contentious, sometimes uncomfortable and contradictory.  So, too, are the cast and the action of MERION MERCIES.  Diverse and surprising, anyway.

But is much known about these slaves, or even the early settlers?

Granted (nods), the distant paper-trail can be scant, at times, requiring much more diligence and lateral research, and allowing room for a tad more “writerly” license.  Minimizing factual blind spots, though, that’s essential, before uncorking the frisson of creativity.  My cardinal rule of cardinal rules:  verify.  Dimension and validate prospects.  Chase down tangents.  Prepare with journalistic care.  Akin to a master carpenter, “Measure thrice, cut once.”  The historical novelist’s challenge — in addition to crafting a top-flight story worthy of wide readership — is to maintain fidelity to what is known.

Where do you begin?

For early colonists, most legal or judicial records and ship manifests mention only male names, often along with their occupation and maybe a hometown or birth region.  Little is noted for women and children, if anything, beyond a headcount.  But helpful granular details can be gleaned from probates, bills of lading, correspondence, and summaries sent to various crowns or stockholders in Stockholm, Amsterdam, or London, in the decades pre-dating the Welsh Quakers’ arrival and well after.

What about the native tribes?

As for Lenape history, First Nations’ contemporary scholarship, the ethnohistory, is improving, but theirs was an oral tradition, and most 17th– and  18th-century European accounts are rife with biases and inaccuracies, so sifting through what survives, that necessitates discernment and empathy.  And while their relations with successive Swedes, Dutch, English, and Welsh are infinitely more harmonious than what is experienced between settlers and natives in New England or Virginia, the Delawares’ fate is one of serial loss and encroaching displacement, ultimately betrayed by their Iroquois cousins, exiled, forced to be strangers in their own lands.  (pause)  Of Harriton’s slaves — correction, of Harriton’s Africans, cruelly captive, bred and bound as human chattel — less is recorded.  Yet, even for these enslaved, exploited, and hitherto-anonymous souls, there will come a matchless affirmation, a mercy of such startling, triumphal resound — simultaneously first-person and idealistically American — that many readers will unabashedly weep.  Or at least well-up.  In all cases, grounding those speculative characters in their respective era and milieu is vital.

A cast of unsung heroes?

And heroines.  And household names, A-listers aplenty, rest assured, but in fresh, revelatory, animating roles.  As an historian, I honor the past, delighting in its resonances, finding sublime worth, ageless poignancy, and vibrant humanity in the lives led, in their still-reverberating, individuated echoes.  Consummate responsibility comes with such privileged knowledge; I feel entrusted to bear honest witness.  Too often, our collective yesterdays are presented as starched and taxidermied, codified and ossified, denuded of all soul and spark, a by-the-numbers recitation of bullet-pointed blandness.  But their present tense — however ancient or near, whether 1642 or 1942 — their context was to them every bit as pridefully dynamic and as fluid and, dare I say, even as modern as our own era feels to us.  Remember, too, that hallowed need not equal sacrosanct nor banal, nor reverence equal stasis.  History, well told, should feel palpable, tactile, essentially alive.

To borrow from Faulkner, “The past is never dead.”

“It’s not even past.”  Rings true, for me, though more due to cultural drivers than Faulkner’s familial or psychological ones.

But each of you prospect a single ancestral turf, albeit lightly fictionalized.

In an oblique fashion, a qualified “sort of,” since MERION MERCIES recurrently plows the Welsh Tract, which exists, while Yokna-, Yokna-…


Thank you.  (smiles)  I submit, though attractively and selectively framed in MERION MERCIES, the Welsh Tract and its history are not only the real deal but arguably foundational to the American identity, while Faulkner’s locale is more a dream-state composite.

Mythologizing comes in many guises.

Indeed.  Mine is 21st-century literature, if light on ‘meta’ self-awareness — richly imagined, classically allusive, meticulously handcrafted, and equipped with twofold long views, one cast back, and one cast forward.  Ultimately, posterity will judge whether the results are worthy of canonical consideration.  And, well before, the readership will assess whether my full-bore commitment has truly distilled the essence of America into a singular locality.  To be fair, many writers find a promising sandbox to call their own, thereafter contentedly, fruitfully digging away.  More apt — valid for me, Oxford’s sage, Jane Smiley, Günter Grass, Richard Ford, John McPhee, or tomorrow’s budding talents — might simply be fulfilling the revised adage, or admonition, to “write where you know.”  Therein lies my strength and, fingers crossed, the Welsh Tract’s just renown.

The intent, though, is for this tiny parcel to serve as a stand-in for the country?  “Small” versus “enormous”?

Pretty nifty trick, huh?  (laughs)  To varying degrees, all art is symbolic, representative of a larger whole.  That said, I do tread cautiously, cognizant that the mundane and even the momentous cannot always transfer, in full, to the grander canvas.  But pinpoint portrayals can equally highlight circumstances well beyond the Welsh Tract’s acreage, as with indigenous peoples being supplanted, a process that continued across the continent, if far less conscientiously later.  Slavery’s cancerous brutality, for example, its barbarous human cost, that cannot be readily absorbed in the abstract.  And while neither slavery nor tobacco cultivation were endemic to the region, an unsparing close-up of one plantation’s caustic practices delivers a kidney-punch, intensified by readers’ background knowledge, that such evils were perpetrated elsewhere for another hundred years, on an industrial scale.  More than “versus,” small can equal enormous.  Like an archaeologist on a dig, I carefully excavate bygone days, wielding a dramatist’s lens instead of a sieve, but equally searching for those nuggets that capture veracity, whether fleeting or eternal.  And by adhering to the Welsh Tract’s environs, I strive to keep MERION MERCIES rooted in the characters’ experiential truth, bounded by their physical and temporal horizons, forever alive then.

For you, what does Faulkner’s “not even past” mean?

The legacy of the 1682 wilderness death of a four-year-old child, barely weeks after the family’s arrival from Wales, writ in the stone of a 17th-century Friends meeting house, still used today, erected on land donated by her bereaved parents, adjacent to her embowered burial plot, that she might rest eternally in consecrated soil.  Catharine ap Rees:  her brief life may long be gone, but a testament of her parents’ love endures.

That kind of loss, I cannot fathom.

Catharine’s family — her pregnant mother now due any day — had arrived intact to this New World, together surviving a treacherous three-month Atlantic crossing, only for the child to take abruptly ill and die.  As an empath, I felt gut-punched learning this.  But, miraculously, that bitter karmic injustice does not prevail.  Instead, their acute parental heartache — burnished and buoyed by a resilient, redemptive faith — begets the landmark Merion Meeting, which, in turn, shapes the arterial roadways carved through virgin woodland, an early Welsh Tract destination as critical to those vanguard settlers as flour mill or river ford, and latterly deciding the course of both the King’s Highway and the first American turnpike.  “Mercy” revealed, transforming all who know.

From tragedy emerges something of beauty and lasting worth?

Such is my elective task, this faithful remembrance, constructing feature-length story arcs from the filaments of our forebears’ most eloquent and singular offering, their lives.  Private words.  Public deeds.  We — their heirs, their posterity — have been bequeathed riches beyond compare, although few appreciate the sacrificial price of that birthright, nor its tensile strength.  Thus, volume upon volume, vignette upon vignette, MERION MERCIES celebrates this lavish abundance, and the effort by each generation to repay and secure that inheritance, so that future Americans may themselves enjoy freedom’s fullest fruits.  And — should I succeed with both halves of my professional charge, historian and novelist — come one glorious tomorrow, the national consciousness will embrace the likes of Catharine and her parents, Hans Månsson, Charles Thomson, Samuel Zook, Albert Bender, Theresa Hayes, Wrong-Way Wooten, and scores of others as compelling, rightful, radiant contributors to America’s yet-unfolding heritage.

Did you say “Wrong-Way Wooten”?

Yep.  Tom Wooten:  a true-blue American eccentric, and Welsh Tract native son.  In the late-1970s and ’80s, he pedaled coast-to-coast, backwards, numerous times, on his tricked-out 21-speed, complete with a T.V. bungee-corded in place, to watch while riding.  Sat on the handlebars, rear-facing, a constellation of mirrors his guide.

All highly optimistic, but are these protagonists, is this setting, universal?

That’s my operative belief, and avowed artistic goal, that “This is us.  This is our memory.”  Somehow, a gallery of American heroes has visited, oft times inhabited, this wholly unexpected crossroads.  What’s more recognizably “American” than Mt. Rushmore or the Statue of Liberty?  In pulsating life, and one watershed death, those now-granite visages — Washington, Jefferson, TR, Lincoln — all grace this demure landscape, as does Lady Liberty’s lofted torch, a decade before enlightening New York Harbor.

Wait, the Statue of Liberty physically appeared in the Welsh Tract?

Yep, the Statue’s barely-oxidized right arm was a late-arriving tourist attraction to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, disembodied and contextually devoid.  For a few coin, the curious could ascend inside, to circle the torch’s base, almost four stories above the Promenade, high above a nervously pacing sculptor, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, hoping to garner Yankee support for the project-in-full.  Sepia tones aside, the 1876 stereographs are downright arresting, this flame-tipped limb thrust up, this copper giantess bursting forth from the earth.

How wonderfully improbable.

As outsized cameos go, hers is stellar.  But, more than a gee-whiz parade of Americana, MERION MERCIES finds poignant stories that humanize our history, uniting past with present.  Thus, Sitting Bull observes a niece perform in a tableau of Longfellow’s Hiawatha — the compounded ironies inescapable, the elder Lakota tribal chief visiting a boarding school whose native pupils were forcibly removed from reservations, to receive the benefits of Western civilization, is himself then appearing in Bill Cody’s Wild West Show — barely a mile from where, a century later, Patricia and Richard Nixon adoringly watch their own grand-daughter in school plays.  The essence of my ongoing, ever-renewing joy is proffering the Welsh Tract as a tangible, real-world, communal territory — a territory both emotional and spatial — for all Americans.  To explore.  To embosom.  To internalize.  Whatever our multi-hyphenated ethnic origins or self-identifying U.S. Census box, whenever our incipient ancestor’s arrival date, we ought share an affirming, rousing connection to our past and to each other.

Sounds like “E Pluribus Unum” happens here?

Quite possibly.  (laughs)  For nigh on 400 years, layers of uniquely American history have overlapped and blended together in this place, helping to refine our national identity and character.  Mosaic, melting pot, patchwork quilt — America’s radical, ambitious triumph is one of idealism incarnate, first implemented on these shores, of a surpassing universality that is not the domain of a single constituency.  Inclusion, that is our abiding draw, our very lifeblood.  Pluralism — “Out of many, one” — that is precisely what makes the American nationhood experiment exceptional.

Could it be said that MERION MERCIES is a literary “mirror”?

Reflecting a full-length, deep-focus image, in essence, yes.

And what do you suppose Americans wish to see in that looking-glass?

Alex Haley presciently sought and found Roots, not only his own, but that of a prismatic we-the-people hungry for belonging.  From the outset, our nation has been mobile, geographically and socially:  westward, upward, onward, racing to the frontier, to the cities, to the suburbs, forever reinventing itself, forever in headlong motion.  Static, we assuredly ain’t:  our Yankee-doodle-dandy DNA cannot stay still.  And, come the technological modern-era, American society has fractured and fragmented even faster, accelerating those disconnects, from the land, from community.  Think of Terence Mann’s summation in Field of Dreams, richly intoned by James Earl Jones, of how “America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers…erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again.”  Paradoxically, we yearn all the more for rootedness, for a sense of place, a common psychic need that will only grow in the countdown to 2026 and the nation’s 250th birthday celebration.  But, as discovered in MERION MERCIES, the Welsh Tract is that very cultural anchor, a place of shared patriotic “ownership” to which readers of all stars-and-stripes can lay claim.

If America’s 200th was the Bicentennial, what’s the preferred term for a 250th?

Don’t ask.  Respectfully, I petition hashtag “#americas250th” ought to be trending.

No, all kidding aside, what’ll it be called?

Those crack wordslingers and latter-day Peggy Olsons and Don Drapers out there — amateur linguists, seasoned copywriters, and professional lexicographers alike — had best find another gear soon, because shortlisted options all appear a bit unwieldy or, diplomatically, opaque.  When “semi-quincentennial” is the least tongue-tripping or tone-deaf, a bumpy ride awaits.  (laughs)  I’ll confess to a magnetic affinity for the “poly” in polysyllabic, but “semi-quincentennial”?  Seriously?  Forget warm fuzzies or songful rhapsodies, that’s a Himalayan mouthful to expect a 3rd grader to conquer.  Latin, apparently, does not align with our notion of round-number anniversaries.  Probably sticking with “250th” will prove easier.  Or Roman numerals, aping the Super Bowl, craving gravitas.  On second thought, I’ll concentrate on America’s story in the Welsh Tract, and leave those planetary marketing decisions to some presidential blue-ribbon panel.

Would this story-telling template — one emblematic geography, generation by generation, over time — work if set elsewhere?

Absolutely.  (nods)  See James Michener’s entire catalog, which holds as a personal inspiration, even if the epochal formula frayed a bit from repetition by the end.  As an homage, my affectionate literary tip-of-the-hat to the genre’s forerunner, Michener will actually be a principal prologue character in a 20th-century volume, Mohawk Four.  Seemingly forever, even back in elementary school, I hoovered whatever hardcovers the adults in the house had just finished, doorstop novels being among my favorites:  Gore Vidal, Irving Wallace, Frederick Forsyth, Herman Wouk, Colleen McCullough.  An Encyclopedia Brown, Hardy Boys, or Scholastic Book Club selection one afternoon; Leon Uris, James Clavell, or the late E.L. Doctorow the next.  Every night, reading alternately from The Children’s Bible or The Civil War, early-’60s illustrated Golden Press titles that bracketed my world view and stoked my now-I-lay-me-down-to-sleep dreams.


Omnivorous, anyway.  Ecumenical.  Then as now, passports to another time and place.

What stands out in memory?

Not wishing to bury the lede, but Margaret Mitchell is probably the greatest, most profound, most formative influence for MERION MERCIES.  My great-grandmother had a slip-cased, two-volume anniversary edition of Gone With the Wind.  I marveled that a single story might warrant two entire books to tell it.  All told, approaching 1,100 pages.  The packaging entranced me, too, for only a priceless heirloom would justify such exquisite treatment, or so I surmised.  As an eight-year-old, homebound and convalescing from some summer bug, I recuperated by inhaling GWTW, start to finish.  This was ages before home video, before the film had ever been broadcast on television, so the kinetic images and characters unspooling in my mind’s eye, they were solely the product of Mitchell’s words.  Literally, and I do mean literally, she inspired me to write.  James Agee, Shakespeare, Wallace Stegner, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Loren Eiseley, Seamus Heaney, and Bruce Catton, they came later, each opening new vistas, but Mitchell, she kickstarted my imagination.

Any takeaway lessons in style or tradecraft from those venerable writers?

In magazine and print-ad layout, deft graphic design — white space, image-cropping, full-bleed, half-tones, etc. — can subliminally engage readers, the partial or fragmentary visual information enticing quick-firing brains to fill in the blanks.  In linguistically telling a story, especially one the audience thinks they may know, or populated with characters they think they know, an author can deploy kindred selective tools, permitting foreground action to play against familiar scenery.  Gently subverting the audience’s own preconceptions can pay off handsomely.

In what way?

Burr was my introduction to Vidal, though I was too green to realize his slyly contrarian, revisionist slant, his teasing and deflating our mythologized past.  The risqué passages, compared to the major set pieces, were less captivating back then, given my pint-sized perspective.  (laughs)  To me, his historical novels were simply longer, grown-up versions of Johnny Tremain, deeply engrossing stories about real people participating in the era’s signature moments.  Going back, I have been enraptured by his taut staging, riveted by the drama taking place on the periphery of large-scale events.  Later, mining the epic vein, Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth proved an immediate revelation, a grand, hugely satisfying, full-course-meal.  Re-reading it recently, I was entranced afresh, more so, in fact, cognizant now of the mechanics, the skillful hidden labor to appear so effortless.  And, at the opposite end of the prose spectrum, I unreservedly emulate Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.

You mean double-crossing dames, the “black bird,” guys in Fedoras?

Check out Hammett’s 1929 novel, and you will be spellbound — I am — by his annealed, terse objectivity.  Scalding noir dialogue and action uncoil, backdropped by tidy stage directions, and that is it.  Streamlined, like a Richard Avedon portrait sprung to life.  No internal voiceover, no omniscient narrator, nonetheless all the “scales-falling” dawnings and momentary re-calibrations and bitter self-recriminations are there, gorgeously self-contained between quotation marks.  That liberates me, with MERION MERCIES, to apply that minimalist acuity to my chosen genre.  Lastly, the peerless Patrick O’Brian — over, what is it, 20 or 21 Aubrey-Maturin novels? — provides a deep wellspring that I gladly revisit, for guidance and comfort.

Non-fiction, any favorites?

Absolutely.  The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes’ majestic recasting of Australia’s origins, and Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie — which manages to explore and explain the American experience in Vietnam through the biography of one quicksilver individual — they were game-changers.

What about analogous predecessors, beyond books?

The suspects are varied, if each catalytic and contributory in their own right.  Paul Philippoteaux is foremost, the 19th-century French genius behind The Battle of Gettysburg, the mammoth 360-degree painting known today as the Gettysburg Cyclorama.  That exultant masterpiece is my über-inspiration, providing surgical insertion into the chaotic swirl of, arguably, the linchpin American moment:  July 3rd, 1863, at the apex of Pickett’s charge, the Confederacy’s high-water mark.

On a Scout trip, we visited the battlefield, and that painting is what I remember most vividly, more than the monuments or the rocks.

His brilliance invites the viewer, all but physically, to step into the scene.  (nods)  It is a staggering, daring achievement, with a scope that redefines heroic.  To conceive and execute so generously, to implement so minutely — more realistic than a panoramic IMAX — Philippoteaux is my prime meridian, indelibly refuting that the past is impenetrable or a hopelessly foreign country.  Blessedly, exploding caissons and fratricidal, face-to-face carnage are alien to contemporary audiences.  Yet this foreshortened, circumscribed worldview, so nobly fleshed out by Philippoteaux’s brushstrokes, instantly hushes both school kids and their parents, orienting them with a vernacular that, while initially unfamiliar, explains the surrounding whirlwind.

A big, enveloping work of art.

Bet your life.  In theater, August Wilson’s The Pittsburgh Cycle remains an artistic touchstone, each play a different 20th-century decade, a dramatic model that MERION MERCIES mindfully employs and expands.  Six Feet Under, for the ingrained prologue leitmotif, thank you, Alan Ball.  And Anna Deavere Smith’s capacity to burrow into her slice-of-life characters — and give them voice via their own words, verbatim — she’s a sensation, a starburst, nimbly transcending the guise of a documentarian.

And any current literary crushes?

Hands down, Hilary Mantel.  Her absorbing, thoroughly immersive novels about Thomas Cromwell, and the court intrigue of Henry VIII, have deservedly made global commercial waves.  What robust language, etched yet fecund and organic.  To my mind, she delivers a master-class, page upon page.  Rarely do I gasp aloud when reading, but Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are both breath-taking.  Her clarity and exactitude are stunning; she’s playing four-dimensional chess while most everyone else muddles by with checkers.  When the precision and cadence of dialogue all but obviate any typical textual identifiers — you know, standard filler phrasing like “Penn said” or “said the king” when characters are conversing, gone, because those words are superfluous — the author is nailing it.  Equally, I marvel at Zora Neale Hurston, whose ear for syntax, patois, and idiom occupies a higher plane.

Is that a trend, female story-tellers?

Consciously, no, but I gratefully acknowledge my debt to such risk-taking, bardic chanteuses.  Anne, Margaret, Anna, Hilary, Zora, they are my matron saints, as it were, among the many mentors and spirit guides that illumine my path.  Add to that personal pantheon Esther Forbes, author of Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, from 1942.  I chanced upon a first-edition in a grab-bag of thrift-store castoffs, only learning after finishing that it had snagged the Pulitzer Prize for History, and that, in ’43, she published Johnny Tremain for the juvenile market, winning the Newbery.  Imagine, read decades apart, two books that had independently resonated for me turned out to be from the selfsame author, back-to-back.  Vulnerability, fierce honesty, earned integrity, unique vantages, the human condition in conflict — their visceral story-telling energizes me.

Let’s see:  medieval cathedrals, Napoleonic naval history, Sam Spade, a French painter, a Boston silversmith, the Steel City —

Don’t forget a television series set in a funeral home.  (laughs)

L.A. morticians, Australia, Vietnam, an Off-Broadway monologuist, and a Cromwell not named Oliver — all would seem rather far afield from the Welsh Tract?

Sustaining intricate ideas and developing faceted, nuanced characters, over time and various iterations, that requires discipline and vitality, so their successes hearten my own resolve and sharpen my own instincts.  Listen, I’ve been lightning-struck, this admittedly audacious notion to condense the rip-roaring, skyward-soaring, continent-spanning American epic into 62 square miles, the 40,000 contiguous acres of Penn’s maiden Welsh Tract sale:  “America Happens Here.”  That’s the Promethean challenge, the revolutionary conceit, the historical lens, the narrative purity of MERION MERCIES.  And with assiduous care, I have staked out this geographic and literary quadrant, and planted my flag.  But I will leave for other industrious authors to discern and decide where else to engage, since the Welsh Tract will joyously occupy me for a good, long while.

How long?

As planned, plotted, and programmatically researched, MERION MERCIES covers the better part of four centuries, beginning in 1642.  While each volume is a stand-alone story, families span multiple volumes, as do certain key characters.  In the spirit of a latter-day Dickens and Conan Doyle, or less pulpy John Jakes, MERION MERCIES is designed as steadfast serial installments, arriving perennially to the marketplace.

That’s quite a clockwork commitment.

Maintaining the quality of the story-telling is preeminent.  Thankfully, given the years of groundwork already invested, the copious research — an annotated, daily timeline with entries stretching across the centuries; logging significant local occurrences, cultural milestones, even astrological and weather events; tracking fascinating luminaries and bit players; a veritable dictionary of arcana — and the reams already written, the editorial calendar will be a pleasure.  As well, chronologically advancing the series’ macro-narrative ever closer to the present, volume by volume, that lightens my creative load, however modestly.  Coming from old-school magazines, then online retail, I value fixed production deadlines:  “Wrap this issue, now onto the next.”  Audiences reward that consistency.  Marquee authors are those that deliver fresh content at least yearly.  In this instance, MERION MERCIES is the brand, less me.  And more than some of its peers, the annual new volume of MERION MERCIES will offer an enticing blend of brain candy and substance, of popcorn and protein.

At first blush, that would ask a lot from you, from readers, from your publisher?

I would argue the opposite.  From my vantage as creator, the individual volumes feel more like chapters in the whole, grander narrative.  When Sue Grafton debuted Kinsey Millhone in “A” is for Alibi, neither she nor her publisher had an expectation to navigate the character through the entire alphabet.  If only.  But from that initial unanticipated success, a plan was soon developed, and has been rigorously followed ever since.  From an economic perspective, reaching “Z” is for Zero will be climactic, unless new letters can clandestinely be imported, perhaps from Cyrillic, to keep Kinsey going.  [Grafton died in December 2017, her last book, “Y” is for Yesterday.]  Better still, cadge some traditional Chinese characters, which number in the thousands.

So you envision a shelf in Fiction for MERION MERCIES?

In the words of the incomparable Ms. Lamott, “Bird by bird.”  Title by title.  A sensible three-book contract, in due time followed by another, then another.  Inexorably, this year’s hardcover becomes next year’s trade paperback, and that incoming tide elevates all.  Trade houses excel at this:  spring-boarding each new arrival, platforming the performance, drafting backlist to surf the marketing wave.  Remember, these are complete stories, flexibly granting readers entrée at any historical juncture, but with over-arching themes and carry-over protagonists, enriching the experience for those who groove on serials.  For my glad endeavor, domestic and international audiences will grow with each MERION MERCIES volume, as I’m actively touring, researching, speaking in the U.S., Europe, elsewhere, and pump-priming social media upon every pending, near-horizon pub date.

World domination, is that the agenda?

Why do tens of thousands of Japanese visit Prince Edward Island in Canada, year in, year out?  Because Anne of Green Gables — Akage no An, translated as Red-Haired Anne, about an orphan determinedly building a new life — struck a cultural chord in post-war Japan.  Meanwhile, Salzburg, Austria, welcomes nearly a quarter-million tourists annually who luxuriate in the ambiance and nostalgia of The Sound of Music, 50 years on.  And Stieg Larsson doubtfully dreamed that antihero Lisbeth Salander would inspire Millennium tours, drawing enthusiasts from the four corners to explore Stockholm’s nocturnal, more louche diversions.  Wolf Hall, now lavishly produced for television and stage, makes 16th-century Tudor England feel both real and proximate.  Characters that illuminate and crackle, a fully-realized sense of time and place:  well-told stories can breach barriers, bridge eras, unite minds and hearts, particularly when readers can identify with the principal’s struggle, or quest, or hopes.  MERION MERCIES — replete with an international cast and narratives that inclusively, incisively knit world history and heritage into America’s universal, self-actualizing dream — is just such a commercial vehicle.

“The marketplace of ideas,” gone retail, on a global scale?

Put plainly, yes.  My career selves, from adman to editor, bookseller to scribe, all focus on the centrality of ideas, of understanding and valuing both one’s subject and one’s audience, and of tailoring messages accordingly.  “Telling the story” and “Selling the story” — the literary and the mercantile — they are entwined for me, symbiotically conjoined.  Achieving an annual, evergreen brand reputation with consumers, that’s my purposeful, cross-demographic aim.  Quality.  Reliability.  Discovery.  But delivering manuscripts, even prayerfully superlative ones, that is only a fraction of the job.

No self-sequestration in an ivory tower then?

Liberating these timeless stories from musty oblivion, unifying and commending these lives — meritorious to rapscallion, archetype to everywoman — that’s my primal motivation:  to gift-wrap them invitingly for a waiting world.  In bookstores, “handselling” is the art of recommending a title, of placing it into a customer’s hand.  That forms a powerful interaction.  Having nurtured the Harlem Book Fair from inception, I delight at the chance to revisit the Schomburg, now as a panelist, and to invite varied constituencies to discover themselves in the Welsh Tract.  To handsell.  Not just BookExpo America, but also hitting the hustings and supporting regional partners:  the L.A. Times Festival of Books, Virginia Festival of the Book, Savannah Book Festival, the alphabet soup of independent booksellers’ associations, etc.  Plus treks to Bentonville and Seattle to liaise with their national merchandisers.  And not only Frankfurt and London:  I will be an eager brand-ambassador abroad, to Göteborg, Turin, Tokyo, Montreal, et al.

And how do you expect will MERION MERCIES play in its hometown?

Within a few short years — when sufficient BookScan data points and seasonal cycles and same-store sales figures have been duly collected and leveled — I am confident that the numbers will reinforce that metro-Philly, America’s fourth-largest market, leads all.  To that end, as more MERION MERCIES titles release, many Welsh Tract communities will naturally adopt a “One Book” selection from the series, always with a well-placed hope that yours truly will appear at the kickoff reading or wrap-party celebrations.  And I shall, often, with pleasure.  Secondary schools and universities will easily integrate various titles into their English or History curricula and summer reading lists.  Book clubs, too.  For me, giddily topping this anticipatory joy will be discovering the new places and demographics, especially from farther afield, that flat out overperform, for whom MERION MERCIES becomes a cultural clarion, despite distances or initial incongruities.

Could you tease those last strands apart?  My ears are feeling tangled.

Who will surprise, by their unexpected devotion?  Remember all those cultural pilgrims for Anne of Green Gables, The Sound of Music, etc.?  Who will find delight in the Trapp family’s next chapter, their post-Austria refuge?  Or in Holden Caulfield’s prep-school birthplace?  Or in the New World legacies of the short-lived Nya Sverige or Cymry settlements?  Or Harriton’s catharsis?  These appeals, among many, transcend the Middle Atlantic states, and will soon draw heritage tourists and literature fans to Philadelphia’s western fringe, expressly to bike trails along the Schuylkill, to sup at the Wayne Hotel, to worship in reverent silence at Radnor Meeting.  Refreshingly, the narrative spine of MERION MERCIES is not a solitary fictional character or a CGI-rendered wonderland, but the real-world Welsh Tract.  And this physical, fieldstone-and-mortar setting — called home by hundreds of thousands, and stretching from gap-toothed West Philadelphia blocks to leafy equestrian social clubs — opens up unequaled marketing and cross-promotional avenues. “Come and see for yourself:  America happens here, past, present, future.”  But — much like the estimable J.K. Rowling — I embark on this effort with a cohesive, strategic blueprint, well-conditioned for a creative marathon already under way.

You sound pretty confident.

“It ain’t braggin’ if you can do it,” to paraphrase Walt Whitman.  Or was it Muhammad Ali, back when he was Cassius Clay? (laughs)  Am I confident?  Yes, while also humbled by the myriad responsibilities entailed.  But I’m a veteran journalist, one nourished by Welsh Tract soil — my family genealogy there extending back more than three centuries, and my entire academic career strung along the Paoli Local commuter line — and I’ve been applying my considerable energies to MERION MERCIES for years.

And the elements have all come together?

Thanks to a lot of sweat equity, sure, and countless hours haunting libraries and historical society archives.  The source material is superb, if heretofore siloed and largely untapped, and uniquely interwoven by me.  My topical command is first-rate.  And I write with ease and flair.  I have the horses, demonstrably.  As a longtime bookseller and national merchandise buyer, I delivered many titles to the New York Times bestseller list, and then, more importantly, sustained their sales.  In the publishing industry, that was my refined skill-set, maximizing commercial impact.  Now, I’m applying that same resolve to MERION MERCIES.  I love these characters, these true-life wonders, whose imprint is so durable.  Whether ancient lore or modern happenings, I inhabit the Welsh Tract’s history, seeing its overlays, its intersections with the broader world, forever connecting today’s news cycle to the region.

A Welsh Tract riff on “six degrees of separation”?

Crazily, less, often only one or two degrees.  Whatever your media fancy or occupation or field of endeavor — broadcast to cable, Netflix to Pandora, WSJ to WWD, pick a card, any card — chances are a Welsh Tract link is right before you, if unrecognized.

For instance?

How’s this for a dinner-party guest list, randomly off the cuff:  Tory Burch, Jake Tapper, Jill Biden, Kelly Corrigan, Stacey Snider, John Yoo, Will Smith, Lisa Scottoline, Juan Williams, Jennifer Finney Boylan, and [the late] Kobe Bryant?

An accomplished crowd.  One more, and you’d have a jury.

In that case, better invite Mark Geragos.  Why not make it a full-on celebrity banquet, with Lee Daniels, Senator Kelly Ayotte, Mitch Albom, David Boreanaz, Kasie Hunt, Mike Mayock, Sarah Jones, and Tony Campolo?  Or M. Night Shyamalan, Kate Flannery, Daniel Dae Kim, Dave Barry, Maria Bello, Marshall Herskovitz, Seth Green, and David Brooks?  What about Howard Lutnick, at Cantor Fitzgerald?  Ronald Perelman, MacAndrews & Forbes?  Or Colorado U.S. Senator John Hickenlooper?  Maybe Stanford University president John Hennessy?  Or Harvard University president Drew Gilpin Faust?  Her predecessor, for that matter, economist Lawrence Summers?  And his, before that, Derek Bok?  Or [former] Secret Service director Joe Clancy?  Or James Billington, retired Librarian of Congress?  Most are fellow Welsh Tract natives; all are alums of area schools.  Kat Dennings, too, though technically she was home-schooled.  Former RNC chair Michael Steele, during his three years of seminary, even taught locally.  As an amateur, skater Scott Hamilton trained in Haverford for years, through his four world titles.  And that’s merely a recent sampling from the region’s lengthy, remarkable, and ongoing contribution to our nation’s broader story.  No matter what the era, the roster is similarly stacked.

In balancing the actual, recorded history with the narrative needs, how much is fact versus fiction?

Percentage-wise, there are slight variances scene to scene, but, overall, exceedingly high, always weighted toward “fact,” truth besting mere plausibility when truth can be divined.  That’s one of the series’ goals, even with any necessarily-composited characters.  These are novels, of course.  Still, I’m doing my level best to hew as close to reality as possible.  In a pinch, verisimilitude might suffice, but authenticity is my watchword.  So if a headstrong young co-ed named Kath Hepburn, circa 1925, is posing au naturel for a scion’s photographic portfolio, that racy scenario is not fabricated whole-cloth, pun intended, by me, but is gleaned from eyewitness reports.  No “Print the legend” hyperbole needed.  As the story-teller, I must immediately establish — and then regularly re-affirm — the bona fides of MERION MERCIES, such that the readers, the audiences implicitly trust as genuine the dramatic projection that I have prepared for them.  And with Welsh Tract history this concentrated and irresistible, the needs to embellish or telescope are modest, almost rare, and done as judiciously as possible.

Really, that much is verifiably true?

Yes, sirree.  For instance, in The Radnor Hunt, when former President Ulysses Grant toasts his fellow Union officer colleagues and Confederate officer foes at the 1881 Aztec Club at the just-opened Hotel Bellevue in Wayne, his words are drawn from contemporaneous newspaper accounts, and his own autobiography.  The confirmed guest list, too, with William Tecumseh Sherman, J. Pierpont Morgan, Winfield S. Hancock, and other serendipities, like the unscripted presence of Englishman John Walter, member of Parliament and publisher of The Times of London.  Likewise, their biographies and memoirs yield pertinent anecdotes, dialogue morsels, references to current events.  Then comes the novelist’s alchemy:  accurately dress the set and introduce the characters, and then allowing them breathing room.

Wow.  We’ve covered quite a lot.  Thank you for offering a peek behind the artistic curtain of MERION MERCIES.

You are most welcome.  Anytime.  Thanks for the opportunity to meander.  Sharing this much has been a hoot.