Introduction to the Interview
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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 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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