By Tyler Schneider
Among Emanuel Cleaver II’s many talents, his propensity to connect with others through storytelling has always been central to his life.
His peers in congress had long taken notice of this skill, as Cleaver, 77, would often offer meditations, stories, and illustrations that caught the eye of his fellow legislators. For years, they’d suggested he write a book.
In June of 2018, Cleaver was taking a train ride—“one of his favorite ways to travel”—when he began imagining a world not very much unlike our own, a political thriller set in 2030.
Three years later, in 2021, Cleaver’s first novel, American Coup, was released under The Story Plant label. At 390 pages with shorter, digestible chapters, the story centers around journalist Jay Patterson and the manipulative President Herbet Chase Hastings, who, as Patterson will come to gather, is looking at starting a new religion—one which would assemble his followers under one cult like banner and erode the precious barrier between church and state.
The futuristic setting of 2030 provides just enough for Cleaver’s imagination to expand past contemporary realities, while also not being too far into the unknown to cease being relevant. One such example comes through the chip implants each character has in the novel.
Cleaver says he got the idea when his family had a chip implanted in their dog—a common practice that would allow them to track the family pet if it had ever gone missing. That everyday occurrence made its way into the story, allowing Cleaver to address contemporary issues such as cybersecurity, digital surveillance of citizens, hacking, and the dangers of social media if it is allowed to continue to operate with minimal oversight.
Another key issue he addresses in the book is Right Wing extremism, and the increasing habit of politicians to use religion as a means of securing votes and amassing power. Cleaver, a former Methodist pastor, finds this trend in American politics to be particularly concerning, and uses the plot of the book to explore what could happen if exploitation of faith is allowed to remain unchecked.
“It’d probably be difficult for me to not to write a book and have some religious components to it, because one of my biggest concerns has always been the radicalization of religion. Religion is almost indomitable in its power. Some people have realized and they use it,” Cleaver said.
Cleaver hopes his story will be a warning of sorts for readers.
“Here’s a president who goes out to start his own denomination, his own faith tradition. It obviously goes much further than that but hopefully the story is instructive to people who keep up with politics. In some ways, it’s a cautionary tale. Religion has inspired all kinds of things. Millions of people have died as a result of religion,” Cleaver said.
Another aspect Cleaver wanted to tackle was climate change, and how the course of just ten years could bring about a dire state of climate decline.
“I have to deal with climate change [in the novel]. I mean, it would have been irresponsible not to deal with climate change,” Cleaver said.
Over the course of the novel, Patterson, the journalist, gets crucial help from mysterious sources in tracking down and bringing the fictional president’s misdeeds to light. Without giving too much away, there is certainly room for a sequel.
“I’ll write notes down on pieces of paper whenever something comes to mind. I’ll come across it and use it, and when I’m ready to write, that’ll be my reference pile,” Cleaver said.
As he wrote his first novel, and as he undertakes the process of writing his sequel, Cleaver said that his former literature teacher, the late Alma Holland, “was all over my mind as I’m writing.”
“She did pick on me but she was trying to make me a better speaker, a better writer. And so, she was harder. on me than she was on everybody else,” Cleaver said. “She was the kind of person who would certainly appreciate this one day.
The most uncanny part of Cleaver’s writing process was the fact that he’d finished it before the events of January 6, 2021, and quite obviously before the current war in Ukraine. Despite this, some of the events of the book come remarkably close to resembling real world events that have occurred since he put his pen down.
In fact, as he was writing this one, Cleaver randomly remembered the term “Roman a clef,” which indicates a novel where certain real people and events are included with fictional names. It was a term Holland had taught him, and one that he happened to still remember after all these years.
“I wanted to tell her that this was not a Roman a clef,” Cleaver said with a laugh, “You just say it’s fictional but it’s just it gets very, very close to the actual account with some things that happened.”