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Introduction to the Interview
by Alexis E. Santí and Kendra Tuthill

Alan Cheuse –author, professor and well-known book reviewer for NPR’s All Things Considered is not the easiest person to interview. Seduced by his reputation around George Mason University, every semester we hastily registered for his courses with our fingers crossed. You must understand— you only have to see this man holding a door for Susan Shreve or standing around the English Department chatting with Richard Bausch and Bill Miller to share an instant love and subtle intimidation for him. We (Alexis and Kendra) had the chance to take his course The Story in English. He stepped around the small classroom, taking pause with his hand to chin, rubbing his English-professor beard while we anxiously awaited his approval –and if not his approval, then his wisdom, which was always relevant and succinct. Together we held our breath and when he spoke, as you must imagine, not a word was lost on us. As with any excellent professor, we not only learned the craft of writing, but learned what it is to be a writer. So, now we could not be more appreciative having been given the pleasure to interview him years later.

THE FIRST TIME I MET ALAN WAS AS A STUDENT in this course. As a professor, Alan was tough, naturally critical, personally bristly, but he filled my heart with a joy that I hadn’t felt since childhood.
      With Alan, the line between instructor and friend was not hazy; you learned from him and admired him. He'd read every fiction and non-fiction book we could name, his GMU mailbox, over-flowing to the floor with manila-enveloped books up for review. At one point in his career he read a book a day for two years. He guffawed at our comments, expressed shock at our opinions–and sometimes, when literary surgery was necessary, leave blood on the floor as he tore apart our scenes. Overtime we learned from our mistakes, and draft after draft, were encouraged by what we’d learned from him, but we did not only learn to write in Alan’s class. We learned to read.

One memory sticks out in my mind. It was the highest praise I ever received in his class. It did not come from my acumen for reading short stories, nor from my writing ability. The most distinct praise came while Alan was reading out a bit from a Hemingway Nick Adam’s story. He stopped, looked up and said, “Now, why is this beautiful?”

The class sat in silence. I raised my hand. He nodded towards me.

"It's in iambic pentameter?" I said.

"And what else, Alexis?” he said. Puzzled, I closed my eyes and tried to hear his melodic voice in my head.

"With a spondee at the end."

"Yes!" He clapped his hands together and smiled. My heart leapt like a fawn, I beamed with pride and he went on reading to us.

You took knocks with Alan but you earned every nod, smile and bit of praise.
      Alan is much more than a professor. Much more than the NPR contributor cooing over your car stereo urging you to buy the new Richard Matheson or Ursula K. Le Guin. No. Alan is an amazing writer as well. He has quietly published several novels, short stories and essays that deserve the kind of review only Alan has the credentials to give. I have sometimes wondered whether being a critic has served him as well as it should have in his writerly life--as if--this man has needed his own Alan Cheuse to know how to read his work. In his most recent novel, To Catch the Lightning Alan captures the life of Edward Curtis, the famous turnoff-the-century American photographer. In the book, Cheuse pays homage to the man, while not leaving out the more controversial aspects of the his career, including the photographer’s staging of Native American peoples for the good of the picture. This fiction-non-fiction fusion could not be any more relevant a subject then than it is today as Americans pose themselves to “look natural” on every other television channel.

      Published to great reviews and most recently awarded the 2009 National Book Prize by the Boston based Grub Street Writers To Catch the Lightning is a novel we all agree is worth reading and passing around.

      For a taste of this fantastic novel, take a listen as Alan reads from To Catch the Lightning at the 2009 Florida Literary Seminar, recorded by C-Span. You'll be struck by the melodic nature of his prose and be wrapped in another world by this literary master. At OurStories, we know not everyone will be as lucky as we were to sign up for his class and to learn the craft from this nationally famous critic and novelist. To be this close, you must listen to his show, read his books and, of course, read the following interview.

Interview conducted by Alexis E. Santí via email

 

Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview, Alan. I have been keeping tabs on you for the past six months and I know how very busy you’ve been. Could you start off by telling us what you’ve been up to and where you’re headed next?

Teaching, and on the road. I gave a talk at the Texas Two-Year College Association meeting in Austin, then on to Florida and Northern California, to work with the sales representatives of McGraw-Hill publishers, the folks who are publishing the text book this spring which my novelist friend Nick Delbanco and I have been writing for the past five and a half years. Oh, and I read from my new novel at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, and sat on a reviewers’ panel there too.

Your most recent novel, To Catch the Lightning has been published to warm reviews and recently given the 2009 National Book Prize by the Boston based Grub Street Writers. Tell us how this novel began and your fascination with Edward Curtis.

I first saw Curtis’s photographs of American Indians in the lobby of an art movie house in Cambridge, Massachusetts when I was eighteen years old and visiting a friend at Harvard. I’ve long forgotten that fellow’s name, but the images on the walls of that impromptu gallery stayed with me.

In TCtL, I was struck by the theme of impermanence—as Curtis captures long gone, (but now unforgettable) moments in our nation’s history. But this theme for me, didn’t stop with Curtis’s (often posed) documentation of Native Americans. It seemed to me, that you—Alan Cheuse—to your own devices have now captured the posed image of Edward Curtis. It is as if, in this book you succeeded in photographing your own fictions. Were you aware of the mirrored room you created with this novel?

No, never thought about this aspect of the novel. But you make it sound interesting.
As I think of it now, it does make sense, if you have in mind the way the writer tries to capture the impermanence of things by paradoxically trying to make something (even vaguely) permanent.

How did you feel pushing into this work? Did you find it more emotionally difficult than other books you’ve written?

I had my emotions under control, except when I became troubled by the serious problems of how to order the time.

In your novella The Fires, you weave together the story of a man’s last days as he dies in Uzbekistan trying to carry out his wife’s last wishes. How did this story begin?

This began, as stories or novels sometimes do, with an anecdote/news report. I learned that a man I had once worked with had died in an automobile crash in a distant foreign country.

Through the novella (The Fires) you seem to be holding many of your best cards tight to your chest, like a deft poker player. First, the scene of Paul’s death is not revealed until later in the text and second, the nature of his burial wishes are withheld throughout. Could you talk to us about giving and holding back on information and how that creates tension?

To use your poker analogy, you got to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em…In this case I was hoping that the wife’s fluctuating awareness and desire to put things out of her mind might find some corresponding element in the narrative.

I see a recurring theme in some of your writing. Your novels seem to take non-fictional worlds, account for countless details and transcend the lives of historical figures: To Catch the Lightning (Edward Curtis), The Bohemians (John Reed and Co.), The Light Possessed (Georgia O’Keefe) all weave fiction and biography together. And in your book, Fall Out of Heaven, you used the journals of your father to illustrate his life, adding in your own memories and adding fiction when necessary – all the switching back and forth between your father’s worldwide travels and those you had with your son. It seems you are always bending fiction, melding it with non-fiction like a master metallurgist, forging along to create something powerful and demanding of not only the reader’s imagination but their historical acumen. What are your thoughts on this aesthetic?

Your description makes sense to me. Not that I know much about mettalurgy. Well, maybe enough to say, ok, yes, an amalgam of fiction and nonfiction. Which is perhaps something akin to our own experience of life.
_____Though living as we do now in a period—maybe ten, fifteen years long now?—in which nonfiction seems to have trumped fiction with respect to the public attention it’s good to point out that most good nonfiction has a fictional component, and vice versa. The only truth about life with a capital T is an empty one, and comical, even, as T.S. Eliot put it in his satirical poem “Fragment of an Agon”—“birth, copulation, and death/ birth copulation and death/ That’s all the facts, when you get to brass tacks/ Birth, copulation, and death”. Narrative speaks of everything in between, and good, not to mention great, narrative makes—to use that metallurgical metaphor—an amalgam of such distinct elements. (And now I’m going to be arrested by the chemistry and geology police, for making what is probably a mal-formed metaphor.)

Your writing career spans a number of decades and includes publications such as the novel The Bohemians (1982), The Grandmothers' Club: A Novel (1986), The Fall Out of Heaven (1987), Light Possessed (1990), Lost and Old Rivers: short stories (1998), and a series of essays on the craft titled Listening to the Page (2001). I noticed in this list a quiet period of publishing from 2001 to 2006 until The Fires came out in 2007. Care to go into the dry spells with us?

I was working on To Catch the Lightning, which demanded a lot of research and travel—and revision after revision.

The Fires (2007) was then followed by To Catch the Lightning (2008). I hear there’s a book of travel writing coming out in June of this year, entitled A Trance After Breakfast (2009) and as if this isn’t enough on your Facebook page, I see advertised a new textbook, co-written with author Nicholas Delbanco is coming out in May (Literature: Craft and Voice). What is it like to be on this great ride of creativity? And what’s next on the ride?

A Trance After Breakfast appears in late June. The text-book, Literature: Craft & Voice, which Delbanco and I have been working on for the past five and a half years, comes out in June. I hope to begin work on a new story in June.

  Speaking of Facebook, how has your foray gone in the world of social networking?

My younger daughter ordered me to go on Facebook, and I enjoy viewing thephotographs she posts. As a waggish former student of mine recently put, on the subject of Facebook, “I don’t think this is what E.M. Forster had in mind when he wrote “Only Connect…”

You are the evenhanded, thoughtful book reviewer at NPR but this was not your first gig reviewing books. I remember you relating that, as a young man, you used to review books for the Village Voice was it?

No, it was the Kirkus Service. I reviewed one book a day every day for about two years. If I recall correctly the only thing I ever wrote for the Village Voice were a few restaurant reviews that Michael Pollan (then my student) and I co-authored, as a way of getting some good free meals at certain posh Vermont inns.

You earned your PhD in literature from Rutgers and spent a great deal of time teaching at Bennington College. On staff was Nicholas Delbanco, Bernard Malamud and John Gardner and your creative writing career began to become fully realized. Am I fictionalizing your life a bit here? Did these powerhouse writers have an influence on the Literary Critic, morphing into the creative writer?

I enjoyed their company, but I kept my new writing life secret, until I published my first story, which came after the nearly ten years I spent a Bennington.

You wrote an essay that I remember reading when I was admitted to George Mason. It appeared on the GMU website but is no longer available. That essay had a profound impact me, and it talked about some of the hard days you had as a writer. I remember the imagery of Alan Cheuse sitting in the basement at a desk, writing away while sitting in a lawn chair. Can you revisit it for us?

This essay came out in the NY Times Writers on Writing series.

 

STARTING LATE

by Alan Cheuse


IN MEMORY OF THE STUPENDOUSLY BEST-SELLING LATE BLOOMER JAMES A. MICHENER, THE CENTER FOR WRITERS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS GIVES A $10,000 PRIIZE, ENDOWED BY RANDOM HOUSE, TO A WRITER LIKE THE PENNSYLVANIA BORN WORLD TRAVELING HIMSELF, PUBLISHED HIS OR HER FIRST BOOK AFTER THE AGE OF FORTY. I recently received a letter soliciting me for a nomination for that prize, which got me thinking about the work and lives of some of my own favorite writers who happen to have been late starters.

_____There’s Sherwood Anderson who in his early forties managed a paint factory near Cleveland. One day after work he suffered a nervous breakdown and left the house and began walking up the railroad tracks toward the big city where he would eventually take a rented room. There, in a week of furious labor, he wrote the masterly story “Hands” which served as the opening tale in his great story cycle about small town Midwestern life, “Winesburg, Ohio”. And there’s Henry Miller, who in the fourth decade of his life, quit Brooklyn for Paris, where he would write his way into literary infamy. And Harriet Doerr, who, in her mid-sixties and recently widowed, applied to the Stanford writing program and eventually wrote the beautiful, prize-winning novel Stones for Ibarra. And Michener himself, in his late thirties, ending his career as a military journalist when the war ended, putting together a story collection, and moving to New York City where he served as an editorial assistant by day and a YMCA volley ball spotter by night—until the afternoon that he won the Pulitzer Prize for Tales of the South Pacific.
_____That letter about the prize bearing Michener’s name really set me to meditating on the benefits and liabilities of starting a writing career, as I did myself, relatively late in life.
_____Like millions of our fellow citizens, I had always thought I wanted to be a fiction writer. But I didn’t do much of anything serious to make that happen. In college I dabbled at stories. Traveling in Europe after college, I kept a notebook, I went to bull fights, I drank the same Spanish brandy as Hemingway and gazed on the same Mediterranean waves as Byron. After returning home, I spent a couple of years working at various jobs such as case-worker in a Manhattan social services unit, and assistant fur page editor at Womens’ Wear Daily. But I produced nothing resembling serious fiction.
_____“Keats had done his best work and died before he was the age that you are now,” my first wife chided me.
_____She’s got a point, I thought. My chance for becoming a prodigy had passed, and I was still doing nothing about what I once thought of as my greatest passion. I was in my late twenties, surely an adult, I thought to myself, and so I ought to find myself an adult profession. Three years of graduate work later, and a Ph.D. in comparative literature nearly in hand, I took a job at Bennington College, the tiny--and then famously expensive--liberal arts school in southwestern Vermont.
_____“You’ll like teaching there,” my old graduate literature professor Francis Fergusson told me—he had founded the drama division at the same school some decades before coming to Rutgers to teach the likes of me—“it’s not a real college.”
_____He was right, and mostly in good ways. At Bennington, I was free to create my own courses and after a few years I noticed that I was teaching a cycle of courses in the history of narrative, beginning with the Gilgamesh epic and continuing on through Homer and Virgil and Chaucer and Dante and Boccaccio and Cervantes and the English novelists and the French and the Russians right on up to the work of the moderns. My pals were the writers on the faculty—Bernard Malamud, Nicholas Delbanco, John Gardner---rather than the critics. But myself, I wasn’t a fiction writer yet, just someone still dreaming about it. So it really stung when one night while at dinner at the Gardner house with a room full of novelists Joan Gardner went around the table asking about everyone’s work in progress and when she got to me said, “That’s all right, Alan. Everybody doesn’t have to be a writer.”
_____In my eighth year, the college that had nurtured me fired me. But that’s another story. The main thing is that, after some grieving, I found myself elated, prepared to let go of teaching and take a dare I handed myself.
_____I vowed that I would publish a short story before I turned forty.
_____I moved to Tennessee, where my second wife took a teaching post at the state university. We made a pact. She would serve as our small family’s main bread-winner for five years and I would have that time to begin writing seriously.
_____In the half-finished basement room of a starter house on the outskirts of Knoxville, I set my manual Kmart portable typewriter on a Kmart picnic bench and set that bench under the basement’s only window, with a view out under the house’s rear deck toward a small ditch and some young red-bud trees that marked the rear line of our property. I sat down and found myself ready to begin.
_____Time alone hadn’t made the difference in me. An actor prepares. A writer prepares. With hindsight, I could see that living was not enough. The current spate of memoirs about abuse and divorce and other sorts of misery to the contrary, having bad things happen to you doesn’t necessarily make you into a writer. Long life, short life, who hasn’t lived through enough awful events to make for potential material? So it wasn’t misery, though I had suffered my share of it by then. It was all the reading that I had done that had prepared me.
_____Which is not to say that all serious readers automatically become writers, or that studying art appreciation can make you a painter or listening to Beethoven turn you into a great composer. But you can’t tap your own greatest potential as a composer without knowing his music, and you can’t write seriously without reading the greats in that peculiar way that writers read, attentive to the particularities of the language, to the technical turns and twists of scene-making and plot, soaking up numerous narrative strategies and studying various approaches to that cave in the deep woods where the human heart hibernates.
_____This gift and talent for reading like a writer comes early to many people in the field, so early in some that they don’t even know they possess this special awareness. Keats had of course done his best work and died at an age far short of mine the day I first sat down at that Tennessee picnic table. But then, for whatever reason, there are us slow learners. Nearly two decades had passed since I had graduated from college and it had taken me that long to prepare myself. But apparently now I was ready.
_____So I started typing. When I looked up from my work those red-bud trees had burst into blossom and I had written a novella too long to publish in any magazine anywhere and a short story that after a couple of revisions I sold to the New Yorker. Which published the story less than a month before my fortieth birthday. In quick succession of years I produced three novels, a memoir, and two story collections, writing without stumbling because, as I thought of myself then, I had done plenty of stumbling before I started writing, and perhaps I had gotten all of that out of the way.
_____Not strictly true, as the next decade would show me. I’ve made a few false starts since then, and, unlike a much younger writer, I know that I had better not make too many more or else I’ll find myself in deep trouble. But possessing that kind of insight is one of the advantages of starting late. As is one’s understanding of Henry James’ remark that it’s better to have success as a writer in mid-age rather than in youth because at least then when you’re dropped by a fickle public you have a life to go back to.

What is the role critical analysis plays in your work? How do you feel it helps your creative process?

It helps me to understand the work of other writers, but if it helps me in my own work I’d say that happens in a subconscious way mostly.

Here is a quote from Listening to the Page:“Theater and film are the imagination externalized, the created images of the mind of other parties performed objectively for us.” I've heard you say that you enjoy watching a movie a night as it assists your creative process, why is that?

Yes, film directs us in a way that great art never does. So rather than assist me it helps me to shut down my imagination for the night, or at least until dream time.
Peter Taylor once famously said, “Movies are not an art form, they are LIKE an art form…”

Tell us about the three P’s and why they are a good litmus test for fiction.

That is an entire course I do and can’t really sum up here, or else I wouldn’t have to give that course. Purpose, Passion, Perception are the three major beats in the dramatic action all narrative (plays, stories, novels) projects. Aristotle shows us that they comprise the essence of the complete narrative rhythm….No critic has shown writers anything more useful since…

What do you see as the value of the MFA degree and what have you learned during your years at Mason teaching hungry creative writers?

Feed them.
          The MFA is like an old fashioned medieval apprenticeship, as my friend Nick Delbanco is wont to say. Apprentices study with masters, and learn the technique of their art in that fashion. It’s difficult but necessary work, and might take a few years off the difficult decades of apprenticeship we all have gone through or must go through.

What do you see as the most common misperceptions of beginning writers?

That while art may be long, life is also long enough to learn everything.

Thank you, Alan. Congratulations on everything. Anything else you’d like to share with us?

Good luck to us all!

 

 

 

     

 

Alan Cheuse

Alan Cheuse is an American writer and critic. After traveling abroad and working for several years at various writing and editing jobs, he returned to Rutgers to study for a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, which he was awarded in 1974 (having written a thesis on the life and work of the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier). He then taught literature at Bennington College for nearly a decade and then took various posts at The University of the South, the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan before joining the faculty at George Mason University.

It was in the late 1970s that he began publishing short fiction, beginning with a story in The New Yorker and going on to write for magazines such as Ploughshares, The Antioch Review, Prairie Schooner, and New Letters. He brought out his first novel, a biographical historical work about John Reed and Louise Bryant, in 1982, and a number of other works of fiction and nonfiction followed.

He is a regular book reviewer for the NPR radio program All Things Considered.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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