Fall 1990, Volume 7.2
NEILA C. SESHACHARI
THE LIGHT ON ALAN CHEUSE: A DIALOGUE
An Interview with Alan Cheuse by Neila C. Seshachari
Alan Cheuse has described himself as "a novelist who once lived cleverly disguised to himself as a critic." He was born on January 23, 1940, in Perth Amboy, NJ, the son of a Russian immigrant father and a mother of both Russian and Rumanian descent. He turned late to writing after trying his hand at various trades, from "toll-taker on the New Jersey turnpike through speech writer, a journalist for the 'Bible' of the garment industry, high school teacher in Mexico, and professor of comparative literature." Currently, he is on the writing faculty for the MFA Program at George Mason University and has taught creative writing at The University of the South, the University of Virginia and has been Writer-in-Residence at the University of Michigan. He was a recipient of a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1979-80 and went to Columbia, Uruguay, and Chile in September 1980 on a United States Information Agency grant. Since beginning to write at the age of 38, he has published extensively both fiction (short stories and novels) and non-fiction. His published books in the last decade are Candace and Other Stories (Cambridge, MA: Apple-Wood Books, 1980), The Bohemians (Apple-Wood Books, 1982), Fall Out of Heaven (Peregrine Smith, 1987; Atlantic Monthly, 1989), The Grandmothers' Club (Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith, 1986; Penguin, 1988), The Tennessee Waltz and Other Stories (Peregrine Smith, 1990), and The Light Possessed (Peregrine Smith, 1990). Additionally, Cheuse has written hundreds of book reviews, scores of "magazine journalism" articles, and has hosted programs for National Public Radio.
The following interview was taped on 29 December 1989 at the Sheraton-Washington hotel in Washington, DC, when both he and I were attending the MLA Conference. I had sent him, in advance, a set of thirty-six questions, but the interview took spontaneous turns as expected. At the start of the interview, Alan was very particular that we test the tape recorder—certainly his National Public Radio habit—but ironically, his interview tape ended up with inexplicable buzzing noises that made transcribing very difficult. Sometime during the interview, Alan relaxed in his comfortable chair away from the microphone and I was enjoying the conversation too much to notice it. So I want to express my special appreciation to Arlene D. Wilson and Joni Wooley for their dedicated effort in transcribing the tape.
Seshachari: "Dreamland" is a wonderful world of enticing images, places, characters, and diverse, energetic actions. Did you intend the title to be symbolic of Quinn's state of mind?
Cheuse: Well, the title refers to that barbecue place, and whatever else the readers want to make of it is up to them. If you want to talk about Quinn's state of mind as a reflection of the barbecue pit, you'd have trouble. But if someone wanted to think it was characteristic of a way of thinking, of a way of life, I suppose one could do that.
Seshachari: How did you get the impulse for the story?
Cheuse: I ate at Dreamland, that barbecue place. Dara Wier, a very good poet and friend of mine, wrote a poem set in Dreamland, and so I first knew the place as a poem. I went to give a reading in Tuscaloosa and ate there. They take the writers to Dreamland. My use of it in the story was as much to respond to Wier's poem as to the place itself.
Seshachari: As for the ending of the story—in light of the first sentence, what is the reader supposed to surmise about what happens to Quinn? Does he stay there? Does he come back?
Cheuse: He seems to be falling apart. It's hard to imagine he could hold on very long at the end to whatever he's trying to hold on to. I think he's in a lot more trouble at the end than he had originally been.
Seshachari: Many of your stories, like "Sources of Country Music" and "Accident," to name two randomly, portray problems between wives and husbands. "Fishing for Coyotes" may be one of the few where April and William leave each other alone.
Cheuse: Isn't that a problem, leaving each other alone? I think that's as much of a problem as jumping all over each other.
Cheuse: You're saying that the subject of a lot of the stories is to turn the light on the woe that is in marriage. I guess so, but I didn't invent that. I just happen to have thought a lot about it.
Seshachari: In "The Tennessee Waltz," for example, Martin, Sue Beth, and Andy are all having adulterous relationships for no reason other than just diversion. Perhaps not even diversion, just anomie.
Cheuse: Don't you think anomie is the reason? I mean, look, why did Madame Bovary do what she did? It was absolute boredom. That's at the center of the emotion. Remember that scene at the dinner table early in the marriage with her and Charles sitting there? They had much better relations with their food than they did with each other. I don't mean to sound like a marriage counselor, but it seems to me that if you don't pay very close attention to the object of your affections, in existential terms, the physics of anomie will soon set in. I think we've all been raised in America to think that marriage is only a machine that you set in motion and everything goes along smoothly.
Seshachari: It's the fairy tale we are all taught to believe in—that once you get married, everything is going to be fine thereafter.
Cheuse: Not just a fairy tale. It's also a great biblical paradigm that a man and woman shall cleave to one another and not be cleaved from. Margaret Mead's notion of a life with four or five marriages and a different spouse for each stage of life is a much better idea. At least it might work better in principle and practice than one spouse for life.
Seshachari: I find though that in your writing, the relationship between mothers and sons is close while the relationship between husbands and wives is not—take the case of The Grandmothers' Club, for instance.
Cheuse: That is a side I have never thought of before, but I suppose if you have that kind of attachment to the mother, then the woman would have a difficult time attaining that place. I should say, for the record, that I do love my mother but in what I think is a normal way. But you're right.
Seshachari: Your writing styles vary too. Your stories often tend toward the minimalistic. Your novels are so different. There is often an unimpeded Whitmanesque flow in them.
Cheuse: So you could say this writer is hard to pin down—hard to define. I started writing just a little over ten years ago, so I don't see why I should have to know everything about what I do at this point. I think this new novel The Light Possessed is quite different in certain ways from all my other works.
Seshachari: In what ways do you think of it as different?
Cheuse: The Bohemians is my historical biographical fiction. The Grandmothers' Club is what you would call "myth-charged" fiction. Fall Out of Heaven is non-fiction narrative in which I couldn't invent the details of events but could work the form and imaginatively reconstruct the inner realities of emotional life. My stories—I do agree with you for the time being at least—are naturalistic. Even though there are elements of each of these in The Light Possessed, they're subsumed into a different design. The design, as well as the subject of the design, is what sets the book apart from the others I've written.
Seshachari: Is the title part of that design?
Cheuse: Yes. It's from a Whitman poem called "A Prairie Sunset." In the poem, it's the light that's possessed by colors—"The light, the general air, possessed by them. . . ." What I am trying to suggest here is that it's difficult to tell the possessor from the possessed.
Seshachari: That novel went through so many title changes! I am aware of at least three more—Rose in the Skull, Bones of Light, and The Color of Light. What made you change the catchy original title, Rose in the Skull?
Cheuse: Doesn't it sound too much like a romance or murder mystery? It's also the sign of The Grateful Dead, you know. A lot of rock and roll fans may have bought the book but I doubt they would have read it.
Seshachari: How did you come to base your novel on Georgia O'Keeffe?
Cheuse: It was inspired by her, rather than based on her life. I liked the subjects of the paintings and the kinds of things—not so much what actually happened in her life but what I imagined about her—that described her life. I tried to imagine her interior life and those particular kinds of inner relationships with other people that no biographer can ever really catalogue as well as a novelist. She's a very powerful woman.
Seshachari: She is hypnotic.
Cheuse: She certainly hypnotized me. That novel began for me with the image of an old woman standing straight and staring off into the western sky, a stick or paint brush in hand, a barn behind her, a figure of fortitude and mystery, an ancient mother.
Seshachari: Is the reader supposed to know it is based on Georgia O'Keeffe's life?
Cheuse: I think we have to say that, otherwise we're just playing a strange little game. But for obvious [legal] reasons, I don't know that we can say that on the book jacket.
Seshachari: The Light Possessed has the stamp of your best work. It even has those tell-tale polyphonic voices. If the book had come to me without the author's name on it, I would have said, Could this be Alan Cheuse?
Cheuse: You're kind. Yes, there are a number of narrators in the book. Ava Boldin herself narrates part of her life. Her geologist brother narrates part of it, and there's her friend Harriet, who does too. There's the section by Cissy, who bears a child by Stigmar, Ava's photographer husband. Then there are those inter-chapters of events that take place over the course of about a year in the immediate past. And those are the voice of Amy, a recently graduated art student, a painter, who becomes the medium for telling the whole story.
Seshachari: And then there is the ubiquitous non-human voice—the voice of Ava's twin, Eve, who died at childbirth and who is like a supernatural guide or alter ego for Ava. I think that's a fascinating concept.
Cheuse: Don't you think that it happens all the time?
Seshachari: Oh sure, but you're not aware of it; you think it's a memory.
Cheuse: Well the problem of thinking of it in that way has that same 1940s and 50s cultural consciousness that gives you the idea of eternal marriage. It's also the same one that tells you that such things as people speaking from beyond do not occur. There's still something in our philosophy that couldn't be explained by any other means. It's not supernatural—maybe it is supra-natural. That's an element of life that took me a long time to admit was real.
Seshachari: Now that you are, in essence, talking about Fall Out of Heaven, tell me about the genesis of the book. Some of it is in the book, of course.
Cheuse: I think I pretty much describe clearly how I came to write that book. But the funny thing about it is—you'd think that someone having written that book would be really involved in ghosts, particularly my father's ghost, but in fact I was unaware of his presence and I realize now—although at the time I might have thought the idea was to put that part of my life behind me—I see now that it was something that was never possible to do.
Seshachari: Are you closer to your father now after writing Fall out of Heaven than you were when he was alive?
Cheuse: Yes. I think in many ways I've become him. It's always a clichZ to say that one becomes one's parents but, by writing that book, I've managed to get to know him in a way that I never did when he was alive, and so I really feel his presence.
Seshachari: The narrative technique in Fall Out of Heaven is so experimental and in itself attractive.
Cheuse: Well, it didn't seem to be experimental when I did it at the time. You mean things like writing my father's voice at the funeral scene—it just seemed to be a way of getting things done.
Seshachari: Manny in The Grandmothers' Club hears voices too.
Cheuse: That's true. I'd forgotten about that. (laughter)
Seshachari: Those voices are mystical, even mythic. I suppose they are the voices of one's subconscious.
Cheuse: That is one way of describing it [the phenomenon]. If you are walking down the street and a pigeon speaks to you in your father's voice, I suppose you don't want to say, This is probably an inner voice speaking to me. But a major turning point in my life came about when I was in my mid-twenties. I went to graduate school to study to be a classicist. Those classical writers may have been crazy to put in all those heavenly voices. I suppose psychologists would say, Yes, these were inner voices projected outward because the writers of antiquity had no idea of interior psychology, but on the other hand there are other interpreters of the classics or pre-classical Greek antiquity who say, Yes, that is possible, but there's also the possibility there were gods and they spoke to these people and then the gods went away; so who knows what's right? My education began to be serious when I said to myself, We really have to say—we have to pose the question—who knows, there may have been gods. I don't know the answer but at least I knew that question, so that really opened up a whole aspect of reality to me that helped me to write those kinds of scenes. Now do I sound like the National Enquirer?
Seshachari: No, no . . . life is nothing if not mysterious.
Cheuse: Well it comes back to that same line from Hamlet, "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy." And who are we to say that's not the case? On the other hand, it's one thing to put a ghost in a novel and it's another thing to try and ask a ghost to write it. (laughter)
Seshachari: You have been a ghost writer; haven't you?
Cheuse: I've been a ghost writer.
Seshachari: Under whose name? For whom?
Cheuse: Well, I shouldn't say the names of the people I've written for. When I first started out as a fiction writer, I did get some work from Harry Abrams and Co. in New York. This was in Knoxville in l978 and I had zero income as a writer. My wife at the time was teaching at the University of Tennessee but I had no income, and that's when I started this ghost work. I wrote a book on the French painter, Maurice Utrillo, and I wrote another book on Robert Indiana, the sculptor and painter, based on notes that the publisher supplied— notes by some writers who were, to be polite, we should say were "indisposed" and couldn't do what was necessary.
Seshachari: Did your work on Utrillo and Indiana influence your choice of O'Keeffe for your novel?
Cheuse: No. O'Keeffe is one of a number of women painters whose lives I studied in order to conjure up the character of Ava Boldin, but O'Keeffe was the most interesting for reasons that transcended her painting. Her gift for seeing beyond mere objects, for example, is a very American talent, one that Emerson talks about in his essay on "Nature," and her geographical itinerary is basically a westward passage. My interest in these could be interpreted as the impulse to become as thoroughly "American" as might be possible within one generation—I am making fun of myself here, of course, but really not that much fun. And again, even though writers don't deal with light in quite the same way as painters, part of the quest for making a quintessential American fiction, I think, is to search for the best way to reveal the particular quality of light that shines on this country—the peculiar geographical essence of American light, its distinctiveness from European or Peruvian or African light, say, but light also serving as a metaphor for other essences. All that ghost writing got me interested in the technical aspects of painting. Also, I learned something new about making narrative. Some of the most difficult writing I had to do were the captions for the paintings that were used as illustrations in the book on Indiana.
Seshachari: That's an added dimension to your writing. You really are very prolific.
Cheuse: Well, I had to do it because I had to bring some money into the household. My second wife and I made this agreement—I had left a teaching job in Vermont in order to write full time and she had taken this full time teaching job in Tennessee—we agreed to take five years and see whether or not I could become a writer.
Seshachari: You told me when you were visiting Weber State [as a featured writer for the National Undergraduate Literature Conference] that anyone who wants to be a writer must give oneself five serious years and see.
Cheuse: At least five if not ten. I call it playing "You Bet Your Life."
Seshachari: What made you play the game?
Cheuse: Circumstances. At the time I thought these were circumstances beyond my control, but the farther I get away from them the more I see that it was my character that forced those circumstances. I was teaching at a small liberal arts college. I didn't get the long contract that I went up for, and I actually left teaching rather than accept a shorter contract. That's when I knew what I wanted to do. I was 38 years old.
Seshachari: You had your Ph.D. then.
Cheuse: I had my Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, but I didn't want to teach any more. My dissertation on Alejo Carpentier, the Cuban novelist, was written in 1974. Then in 1975, I was thinking to myself, Well I've got some time now to do something else other than a long writing project. I thought to myself, Why not a biographical book about John Reed? Here again my father comes into play. I knew about Reed because my father gave me a copy of Ten Days that Shook the World when I was about 14 years old and he said, "Read this. It will tell you some things of where I came from." I always carried the book around with me. It wasn't until I got to the university that I read it. And years later, out of the blue came this idea to write a biographical essay on Reed. So I went to the Houghton Library's rare book collection at Harvard and started to read my way through the papers, but when you go to read a collection of papers there, you sign a sign-up sheet, and on the sign-up sheet you see who has been there recently. I discovered there were two names on that list. One was Warren Beatty . . .
Seshachari: Oh, it was during the filming of Reds!
Cheuse: Right—about two years or so before—and the other was historian Robert Rosenstone.
Seshachari: Working on Reed's biography, Romantic Revolutionary!
Cheuse: And so I said to myself, There are two very interesting things going on here. One is that I must be on a very hot subject here —John Reed. Warren Beatty has been here, so he must be going to make a movie on Reed.
Seshachari: And your impulse to write on Reed was just out of the blue? You had no inkling of anything else going on at the time?
Cheuse: Absolutely no.
Seshachari: Were you anxious?
Cheuse: I was as elated when I saw Beatty's name as I was dejected when I saw Rosenstone's. I thought, This man is a serious historian; if Rosenstone is doing a book on Reed, I can't do anything like a historical essay. And the light bulb went on in my head and I said, Well, then I'll write a novel about Reed. That's what I'll do. And that's how I stumbled into the fiction business.
Seshachari: I would like to link this impulse to Fall Out of Heaven, your autobiographical memoir. In both books you're trying to reconstruct fact and memory into fiction, if I may use the word vis--vis your memoir as well. It was a creative process of reconstruction of memory and retrieval of history.
Cheuse: But you could easily reverse that statement and say that memory is the fiction and what we reconstruct is the fact.
Seshachari: Please comment on your creative process of retrieving memory and writing the biographical and the autobiographical.
Cheuse: I don't know that I can. I think in images, which shape themselves into a fluid scene, very much as the twenty-four frames per second of film give the illusion of action on the screen. What we call memory is all of the images we have stored in our brains as we recollect them in the present. Thus the past is never the past, it is always the present, as Faulkner says. If life is a series of present moments, then narrative fiction seems to be connected to lyric poetry in a much more intimate way than the theorists of narrative would have it. Fiction, like poetry, works at its best when it brings together emotion as well as idea, passion as well as characters in the illusory unfolding we call time—when it works close to the timing of the human pulse, to the flow of our blood, to the beat of our heart.
Seshachari: Are you saying the creative process is always poetic?
Cheuse: I've never really thought about what you're calling a creative process. Say a person who owns a fishing boat goes out every day to some place where he believes the fish are running and drops his net there. I don't see that a writer is much different except you go to the desk every day and you get into that state I call the "work trance" and you're dropping your net down and memory is the ocean into which you drop your net. Sometimes you come up with—well, I don't want to go on with the metaphor too far, but it's something like that. That's as close as I can think of what you're calling the creative process.
Seshachari: The fusion of fact and fiction and imagination too.
Cheuse: Yes, but I think it's more elemental than that. It's sort of like—I'm always amazed when I watch people play the flute and they never touch their lips to the armature. There's always a small column of air between the armature and their lips, so I don't know that one can get any closer than that to the imagination or the interior life. It certainly is a process and that river, I guess, is always flowing, but you can only tap into it. The important thing is to train yourself to do it every day. The thing in my life that helped me to do that was meditation.
Seshachari: You have time to meditate?
Cheuse: I couldn't live without it. I couldn't have other time without putting time into meditating. I haven't missed a morning meditation since l973. I associate meditation with my creative imagination.
Seshachari: So meditation is a kind of conduit through which you tap your creative imagination. Of course you don't think writing when you meditate?
Cheuse: Oh no. I don't think anything. Meditation also trained me to understand the value of regular work habits.
Seshachari: Is that about the time you started writing your first novel?
Cheuse: Not really. I wrote what I thought was a novel in the early 1960s in New York. I thought to myself, Why don't you send this to Malcolm Cowley? And I got a wonderful letter from Cowley saying something like, Little boy, this is very cute, you have a way with words, but you don't know anything about life or art! So, I put everything away and went to Europe. I worked on the Jersey turnpike to save money to go to Europe. I was like one of those people, those intense souls, who don't want to write but they want to be writers.
Seshachari: What did you do in Europe?
Cheuse: I wore my Hemingway costumes. I went to all the right bull fights and drank all the right cognac thinking that's all you needed to do to be a writer. After a while, I came back to the States, flunked my physical for the Army, and realized I had to work for a living. I worked at various jobs; I was a speech writer, high school teacher in Mexico, social worker, a couple of other things, and then I went to Rutgers University thinking, Well, I'm an adult and I should probably have a serious profession like all the other people around me who are real adults. So I thought, Well, I'll be a college teacher—and I was a teacher for almost ten years until this old desire resurfaced.
Seshachari: Let's talk about your work habits since we're on the subject. How do you structure your day so that you do have time to write?
Cheuse: I write every day except when I'm on the road or my kids are visiting, like on a Sunday. I write at least for several hours every morning and then in the afternoon I write reviews.
Seshachari: How about your teaching? When do you teach?
Cheuse: I teach two nights a week.
Seshachari: Oh, you don't go to campus during the daytime.
Cheuse: I often go three days a week when things get thick and fast at the university, but I've always made it a cardinal rule never to take school work home. It's like mixing church and state. I do my university work at the university, so I put in long hours away from home. Sometimes I go in after lunch, then stay till 10:00 at night.
Seshachari: That is a good tip for most academics.
Cheuse: It's worked for me. Toward the end of a book, I put in much longer days. This past summer , when I was coming to the end of The Light, there were about nine or ten weeks when I worked all day, and that happens twice a year on my fourth or fifth draft.
Seshachari: In one of your letters to me you mentioned that your typist was putting the novel into the word processor. Don't you sit straight at the word processor?
Cheuse: No. I don't like the screen. It makes me feel as though I'm watching a TV sitcom and I don't get my own words. I've edited my books on the printout—it's efficient and economical. I've written reviews here and there on terminals when I've had to, but I can't ever imagine myself writing novels on them. When it comes to my own writing, I prick my finger and I write in blood.
Seshachari: Your typewriter must be weather beaten up and bloody!
Cheuse: I'd still be writing on this old Adler electric typewriter that my second wife gave me as a gift. Between the two of us, we'd made seven books on it. Everytime it stopped working, I took it to a repair place to fix it; after four or five visits to the repair shop, I realized I had a bionic typewriter made up of used parts. Now I have an electronic typewriter.
Seshachari: Don't you find electronic typewriters slow?
Cheuse: I'm slow.
Seshachari: And yet you have published so much. Let's talk about your nonfiction work. You have published essays on Alejo Carpentier, Nicholas Delbanco, Mario Vargas Llosa, and others. How did you get initiated into these Chicano, Cuban, and Mexican writers?
Cheuse: Well, on paper it seems very fashionable that I've worked with all these writers, but I was wandering down Eighth Street in New York in the mid-sixties, and I knew the old Marboro Bookstore where they had a remainder bin. I found an old copy of Explosion in a Cathedral by Carpentier "remaindered" for 19 cents. I picked it up and fell into the book as in a dream and I thought, This is so good. It must be better in original Spanish. So I had to learn to read Spanish. Eventually I ended up writing a doctoral dissertation on Carpentier titled "Memories of the Future"—a critical biography, which I've never tried to publish. He was one of those unknown writers on the fringe then, and I read Explosion in a Cathedral because I love to read wonderful novels and now, more than twenty years later, his novels have all been reissued and everybody is reading him. In the late sixties, when I went from Spanish writers to Mexican and Cuban, I read everybody who was working on these writers. I immersed myself in Latin American history and culture .
Seshachari: Is that what led you to be a comparatist?
Cheuse: It was an accident. If I hadn't been walking down that street that day, I don't know what I would have done.
Seshachari: What took you into Mexico?
Cheuse: A Greyhound (laughter) . . . . Well, I had just gotten married. I was Managing Editor of Studies on the Left, this left-wing quarterly. My first wife and I were just about to become parents and a friend wrote from a little school in Guadalajara, Mexico, saying he was leaving his teaching job and were we interested in going down there? So we said, Sure, we'll go to Mexico as soon as our baby is born. When our son Josh reached a week old, we went to Mexico.
Seshachari: Did your editorial work on Studies on the Left lead you to know these underground writers or was it your stay in Mexico?
Cheuse: Perhaps neither. It was what I needed to read and what I liked to read—I think if you're a serious writer, you're a serious reader and you look around at things on the edge, on the fringe, so you have a complete picture of what's going on. Some writers don't like to read their contemporaries because they're afraid the reading will affect their own work, but I'm just the opposite. I want to read everybody. I want to read as much as I can because if they do these things wonderfully well, then I won't have to do them. I can go on to something else. I'll tell you a funny story. After "The Quest for Ambrose Bierce" came out in my first book, Candace and Other Stories, I sent a copy to Carlos Fuentes in care of his publisher because I liked his work, thinking I enjoyed his work and he might enjoy mine. I just signed, To the Maestro, Thanks for all your stories. Then there was a Paris Review interview that came out in 1981 or '82 that said that his next work was a novel about Ambrose Bierce [which became The Old Gringo]. My wife said to me, Now see, you never did what you were going to do which was to write a novel about Ambrose Bierce. He has already done it; now you won't have to do it. I like that attitude. I think I might have gone off into the other room and shot myself if he'd "stolen my idea" from me, but I felt strangely relieved. He'd done it and now I could go on to something else. Then about a month later, I got a copy of his novel Distant Relations that he signed for me, thanking me for my inspiring short stories.
Seshachari: Then what happened?
Cheuse: We've since spent some time together and we've talked about that [incident] and laughed. I think that you can't be afraid of good writing. Your own writing gets better by reading good writers. It's just as Virgil explains to Dante in the Purgatory about the nature of love by using the image of the orchestra. One instrument picks up and plays a theme, and then another instrument picks it up, and another and another and then a whole section and pretty soon the whole orchestra is playing this theme. Virgil uses that to describe love but I think it describes the way you build your talent too. Many things you know and must know if you're going to be a serious writer you garner from the works of other writers.
Seshachari: Could I apply that analogy to different genres as well? For example, if you want to be a good fiction writer, would you benefit from writing book reviews, journal articles, and critical essays?
Cheuse: I think you mustn't be afraid to try those things. However, I don't know that one would categorically set out to say, I'm going to write in this genre or that genre.
Seshachari: You say you write fiction in the morning and do reviews in the afternoon. Have the books you review ever influenced the way your novels have gone?
Cheuse: No, not in any way except in a very general sense. If I read a particularly wonderful novel I think, Oh to be that excellent. It spurs me on, but not in any literal way whatsoever. I'm too busy wrestling with Shakespeare and Faulkner and Melville to worry about any of my contemporaries overshadowing me. I don't think one is influenced by one's contemporaries at all. As Joyce Carol Oates was saying this afternoon [at an MLA session which also featured Cheuse], if I can really be influenced by my reading, that means I can be as good as Shakespeare just by reading Shakespeare.
Seshachari: So you are saying there's not one writer who has really influenced your style of writing.
Cheuse: Well, I think what Shakespeare teaches you is that your language must be poetry and then there are the great French and Russian novelists who teach you that novels have to be good as well as long.
Seshachari: Flaubert and Tolstoy, especially.
Cheuse: I guess among the Americans, Sherwood Anderson and Faulkner teach you how good writing can be and how good it must be, and that it's possible for Americans to write in American English, to make art in America. And I read Norman Mailer a lot, for the daring, the derring-do, and derring-don'ts. And Saul Bellow, and my dear late friend Bern Malamud.
Seshachari: You think from a woman's point of view very acceptably . . .
Cheuse: Well, thank you.
Seshachari: . . . which I can't say about Norman Mailer.
Cheuse: I'd say he's a great example of a man of letters. That enormous energy. He shows that enormous energy is not just possible but can be sustained over a whole career.
Seshachari: Which women writers have you admired? Can you think of any who have influenced you?
Cheuse: Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather certainly. Sappho.
Seshachari: All excellent examples of feminist consciousness.
Cheuse: Well, I don't know. You're talking about contemporaries though, when you're talking about feminists, unless you think of Woolf as one.
Seshachari: Well, Woolf is a feminist.
Cheuse: If she is a feminist, then I'm influenced by feminists. I think about her language and the cycles of her sentence rhythms, that's what I think about. Whatever it was that got her to write that way—whether it was feminism or vegetarianism—that's great!
Seshachari: But writing a well-turned phrase is different from writing appropriately from the point of view of the character. For instance, the narrator in The Grandmother's Club thinks like a woman. When Minnie Bloch tells how Sarah likes to call herself Sadie so she must call her Sadie too, or when she refers to God as "he or she," or even as I was reading the "Virgin's Prayer"—I had to admire the author's art.
Cheuse: I'm glad to hear you say it. I guess that's a matter of sympathy. Why shouldn't one be able to be sympathetic to the other gender? I find women fascinating subjects.
Seshachari: Tell me about your mother. Is she of Russian origin too?
Cheuse: Well her father was Russian and her mother was from New Jersey. Her mother's mother, my great-grandmother, was born in Rumania and emigrated to the U.S. as a young bride. Her husband had some political trouble at home and they had to flee. There are some very strong women in my family. My great grandmother and my grandmother were always very protective of me and caring towards me when I was a small child. They were like tribal matriarchs. So when I read Faust and encountered the lines about the Mothers in the cave, I thought, I know them. I know who they are. They used to make me hot dog sandwiches on my way home from the public school when I was in the fifth grade. So, I guess that comes out in my book.
Seshachari: Jewish mothers and Jewish families are known to be particularly tribal.
Cheuse: So are Mediterranean women. I always thought it was just the Jewish mothers [who are tribal] until I started becoming friends with some Sicilians. You should meet some Sicilian moms. They are doubly the image of what you are describing. There just haven't been enough Sicilian writers to honor them.
Seshachari: How did you get into the National Public Radio contract?
Cheuse: I had an assignment from a small communications trade publication to write an article about NPR. This was in the early 1980s, the same time I was doing all that ghost writing and earning a living as a freelance writer. I went to NPR to interview a number of NPR commentators and technical people, and I wrote my article. The magazine died before my article came out, but what came out of the time I spent at NPR was that I got a call from Susan Stamberg's producer asking if I did book reviews. Would I tape some reviews for NPR?
Seshachari: You have a good voice.
Cheuse; Well, that's what they said. But I first told NPR that I wasn't interested. They kept calling and finally in desperation, really just to get this woman from calling me, I made a tape or two and sent them in. She called back and said, Those aren't very good, and I sighed a sigh of relief. But she said, We want you to make a few others; do a few more. So around the fifth or sixth tape that I made, I got a call saying, Well we liked that one; listen to the show today. And it was on the air. After that I was hooked.
Seshachari: Did you remake five different tapes for the same books?
Cheuse: No, these were different books.
Seshachari: How many books do you review on an average per year?
Cheuse: It depends upon the year. In a quiet year, when there aren't too many epic-making historical events, I do as many as fifty. This year I was rolling along close to that average until peace broke out in Eastern Europe and a number of smaller pieces got canceled.
Seshachari: How much lead time do they give you?
Cheuse: That's all up to me. I make my own schedule, so right now [29 December 1989] I'm reading for February and March.
Seshachari: Don't you write the reviews right away?
Cheuse: No, I make notes in the back. I write them all at once—four or five at a time.
Seshachari: How do you go about writing a longer work? Do you think of an idea and go from there? Now that you have The Light Possessed ready, if you were to embark on a new, longer work, how would you go about it?
Cheuse: Actually this is the first time since I began writing seriously over ten years ago, that I don't have a specific, long work in mind. I've got a couple of vague notions about what I want to try . . .
Seshachari: Let's talk about the vague notions.
Cheuse: Well, there is a line in a Bruce Springsteen song that says "Jersey in the morning like a lunar landscape," and that's been on my mind, accruing images. I suppose at some point I'll write a novel about New Jersey. You know I have a few seeds, a few images, and that's about all.
Seshachari: How did you get the idea for The Grandmothers' Club?
Cheuse: That I can tell you quite specifically. It reminds me a lot of what AndrZ Gide did when he wrote The Counterfeiters. I read a little news item in The New York Times about an assistant rabbi on Long Island who jumped out of the PanAm building and committed suicide.
Seshachari: And the news item triggered your imagination?
Cheuse: Yes. It started with that rabbi, but Manny in my novel is not like that man, except that the assistant rabbi was also head of a corporation and had large holdings.
Seshachari: You called it General Banana in the book. How did you come to choose a female consciousness to narrate the story? It's a wonderful technique, using a reminiscing grandmother.
Cheuse: I don't think you choose those things. I think they choose you.
Seshachari: How did Grandma Minnie Bloch choose you?
Cheuse: My editor and I were having breakfast in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and he said, What if you wrote the whole thing from the point of view of . . . and I don't know what he was going to say because I said, His mother. And he said, That's right! I had written the novel four times by then and hadn't got it right.
Seshachari: When you say you wrote it four times, how many pages are we talking about?
Cheuse: Thousands . . .
Seshachari: All of the 350 pages four times?
Cheuse: No. It [original novel] was much longer than that. It was about 800 pages—it gets a lot longer before it gets smaller. I mean you have to take a novel and put it through the machine exactly as if it were a sixteen-line metered poem. That's why I abhor the word processor—I might be tempted not to rewrite the whole but just sections of it. It's not just touching up the front porch; you've got to repaint the whole house. In fact you've got to build the whole house again from scratch, and then paint it again. Get the color right on the paint job on the roof.
Seshachari: Grandma Bloch's largesse passeth all understanding. I thought of her as Mother Earth. Here is a grandmother, who is not only forgiving of everybody—not just her son Manny—but is avant garde as well. She can even conceptualize God as she or he! So, tell me more about how she came to be.
Cheuse: Well, again that's an interesting image. When I was a child, I watched my great grandmother sitting up in the women's section in the balcony in this orthodox synagogue, one of those things that only a child thinks is perfectly natural. Every child gets dragged to places like that a certain number of times a year, has to sit among a lot of old men who are ranting in a foreign language and are spraying you with bad breath, while your great grandmother looks down on you completely separated from the rest of those men. What seems to me looking back on it is that it gave her her special view of how the world works. I guess if you are going to have to live in a harem, you've got to triumph over your circumstances in special ways or you have to kill yourself.
Seshachari: Interesting way of looking at women's oppression.
Cheuse: It seems the triumph of the harem, whether it's Saudi Arabian or Orthodox Jewish. It seems the two practices are very closely related—finally understanding the world more perfectly than those men who consider themselves great philosophers and who put you there in prison.
Seshachari: Perhaps because one had no way of doing anything, one developed a way of understanding.
Cheuse: Yes, and so completely free to think for the world.
Seshachari: Most Jewish writers are fascinated with the Holocaust. Is this your Holocaust story?
Cheuse: I don't know. There is that character, the Rabbi's mistress, who is a Holocaust survivor. I spent my childhood listening to all that stuff and feeling very distant from it. As a Jewish American kid, I didn't pay very much attention to it except as a kind of bizarre image. In a way, it's the Charlie Chaplin image of the great dictator that sticks in my mind as much as anything else. We used to play a game in our backyard called Gestapo! where we lined each other up against the wall and slapped each other around saying, Where is the information? Give us the information. We were completely removed from the horrors of war.
Seshachari: Whatever little you say about those numbers etched on Florette's wrist and the marks on her back comes through very eloquently.
Cheuse: Well, I read. I was introduced to that material by reading Eric Maria Remarque. It seems to me the Holocaust was one particular occasion of excruciating horror, but not the only one. I don't think it's in any way fair for people to hold the Holocaust up above the genocide practiced by our early settlers and by the Turks on Armenian communities. Growing up with a friend who's an Armenian, I learned about the decimation of Armenian people at the turn of the century. Again, who speaks for the Gypsies who were slaughtered? It seems to me many communities were slaughtered, not just one. It happens all the time.
Seshachari: Very true. . . . I think of The Grandmothers' Club as a process. As Grandmother Bloch reminds us, some things are told to her and others she imagines or intuits. They're all true nevertheless. The story evolves in her mind and takes shape through her stories.
Cheuse: Well, the world has a strange breathing rhythm that makes up reality between life and the physical world and I think many things come about because people imagine them first.
Seshachari: When did you realize you were going to make it as a professional writer, by which I mean, that you wouldn't starve, that you could have some security?
Cheuse: When I read those art books and wrote articles!
Seshachari: . . . as a ghost writer?
Cheuse: Yes, when I discovered I could learn something about a subject very fast and write a whole book based on that knowledge. There must be something there. There will always be something I can do.
Seshachari: But under your own signature—was it the first time you sold a story, "Fishing for Coyotes," to The New Yorker?
Cheuse: Oh certainly. I was living in a subdivision on the outskirts of Knoxville then. When the mail came at three in the afternoon, I was the only one home and my [then] wife was at work, so I ran next door. The man next door was mowing his lawn and he had earmuffs on so he wouldn't be deafened by the noise and he couldn't hear a word I was saying and I was shouting at him, I sold a story. I sold a story to The New Yorker. He kept on mowing his lawn, so I ran across the street to the pharmaceutical salesman's house, and I pounded on the door and I said, Billy! Billy! and he came stumbling out into the light. I don't know what he was doing home at 3:15 in the afternoon, but there he was and I said, Billy, Billy I've sold a story to The New Yorker. This is what he did. He stepped out of the doorway and he looked to the left and he looked to the right and he said, Sold a story to the New Yorker. Where is he? (laughter)
Seshachari: You remind me of F. Scott Fitzgerald after he had sold This Side of Paradise.
Cheuse: That's right. He ran out into the street and stopped cars.
Seshachari: How do you categorize yourself or define yourself in terms of your writing? How would you label your own writing?
Cheuse: I don't even know how to begin. Somebody who tries to work language in such a way as to tell best the story he knows. That's as close to categorizing as I can come. I don't know what you have in mind.
Seshachari: Well, some of your short stories make me think of you as a minimalist with naturalistic tendencies . . .
Cheuse: If I put on my reader's hat I can probably look at somebody else's work, but I really can't . . .
Seshachari: You critique other writers.
Cheuse: Yes, but I think it would be terribly self-destructive to try to see myself that way. I don't feel as though I'm finished with my work by a long shot. Even if I were to try to describe myself from a critical point of view, I think two or three or four years from now those terms will be outmoded anyway. I've got a lot of other things I want to do right, new forms. So, the jury is still out. I haven't finished the crime yet. I'm still committing the crime.
Seshachari: What parts of The Bohemians are total fictive creation? Is the run on the Willamette river imaginary?
Cheuse: No, that's described in a four-sentence entry in one of Reed's journals.
Seshachari: It became a whole opening chapter. It hooked me onto the book. What about Reed's Ten Days that Shook the World? How did that help you if at all?
Cheuse: It made me think of John Reed as a kindred spirit of sorts, I guess, to describe myself—loose, reckless, gifted, but perfectly willing to throw away everything for a stupid ideological reason. I mean I lived that way too. I really felt very close to the guy.
Seshachari: Ideologically too?
Cheuse: I did for a long time, but that's dead. I think the last Communists in the Western World may turn out to be Nicaraguans and university professors, but my dear friend John Gardner used to say that you can't begin a novel with any creeds or cautions whatsoever. His idea of a good novel would be one in which you begin a Communist and end up a Catholic or vice versa.
Seshachari: But you would have to be moral in either case.
Cheuse: That's true, whatever that means. John was great—like a great flame burning in the woods, leading us on, sometimes into the swamp but usually along the right road.
Seshachari: Let's talk about your narrative technique. All of The Bohemians is narrated in the first person but some chapters or some parts of it are in the present tense while others are in the past tense. What made you choose one or the other? All the parts are, in a sense, history. John Reed is writing.
Cheuse: He's writing his own autobiography. The narrative belongs to Reed, sitting in his jail cell in Finland, reconstructing his life. You can say there are as many changes in tenses as you will find in his own attempt to write about his past, not paying too much attention to the rules. He was one who never paid much attention to the rules.
Seshachari: Do you find writing in one tense easier than in the other? The past tense easier than the present, for instance?
Cheuse: No, actually I guess I've written only one or two stories in the present tense. Gardner used to call it the "luxurious present tense" because the writer doesn't have to feel responsible in any way. When writing in the present tense, the writer says, This is just happening now and I don't have to evaluate anything, just tell you about it, not really assess it and feel responsible in any way. But I like the concluded story, the classical story, the story that's told from the immediate past about things that have already occurred. So most of the stories I write are in the past tense and in the third person, whereas I've noticed most of the novels I write are in the first person.
Seshachari: Let's go back to "The Quest for Ambrose Bierce," which, incidentally, uses the third person as you point out. I liked the way the child finally ends up with the journalist and how he gives it a name. I see in it the theme that fixes your attention in Fall Out of Heaven—the bonding between a son and father.
Cheuse: I wonder about that. My stories seem to have a different feeling about them. They seem to be as close to lyric poems as I'll ever get to. The novels are completely different creations.
Seshachari: When a writer writes in the minimalistic style everything gets condensed and sizzling and becomes poetic. Something that rambles on seems different. Of course you can't think of Whitman and say that anything effusive is not poetry. And think of the waves of pure poetry that Minnie Bloch pours out in The Grandmothers' Club. How can you explain that?
Cheuse: You keep trying to get me to describe myself—you are going to be left with that job! (laughter)
Seshachari: Okay, I won't insist any more. Give me your insights and experiences as a creative writing teacher.
Cheuse: Well, teaching helps me now and then to clarify some problems I've had in my writing but, by and large, I look upon it as the service that writers perform in exchange for patronage by a university that allows them to keep writing. I guess if we were in court in the Middle Ages, we'd have been asked to perform other onerous duties.
Seshachari: I look upon Guggenheim, MacArthur, NEH and NEA Fellowships, and creative writing positions as state patronage.
Cheuse: I agree, and it's not to say we're ripping them off, because I think we're working really hard, and I think we help the literature programs. Whatever else happens, at least in the undergraduate level, we help train a number of readers. We don't make any claims to be able to make anyone into writers. I think the best graduate course is one in which we help some talented people to advance more quickly and get a little bit further along than they might have if they hadn't taken the course. The worst we can do is to introduce literature to people from a different angle and show them how to read. So I think we earn our keep.
Seshachari: You have produced prodigious amounts of writing in your beginning decade and made a winning start in the 1990s with The Light Possessed. What can we expect of you in your second decade?
Cheuse: Well, there are a couple of stories that I want to work on immediately, and I guess I have some vague ideas for some novels, that New Jersey novel and a couple of others. Maybe another nonfiction book, "Son of" Fall Out of Heaven.
Seshachari: That should be interesting! Somewhat like a movie serial. Are you more comfortable writing short stories or novels?
Cheuse: I think it is physically easier to write short stories, but I'm much more confident writing novels than stories.
Seshachari: I think your readers have a lot to look forward to, if we go on the record of what you've achieved so far.
Cheuse: You forgot to ask me about my contemporaries.
Seshachari: I did miss a question, didn't I?
Cheuse: I mean there are some really wonderful writers today, Richard Ford, Mary Lee Settle, George Garrett, and my colleagues at George Mason, Susan Shreve and Richard Bausch. And you know George Garrett recently won the T. S. Eliot award of $20,000 for his fiction. I think that might possibly reimburse him for some of the meals, the heating bills, the room and board bills, the dental bills and everything else that he's spent from his pocket to support other writers. There are a lot of good writers out there. I've been buying stories from these people. . .
Seshachari: You have?
Cheuse: . . . for the short-story magazine for radio called the Sound of Writing on NPR, which I produce and host.
Seshachari: Oh yes. Have you done any of the readings yourself?
Cheuse: No, only the commentary. I introduce the program, I talk a little about the writing of the story, and an actor reads. You know it's a magazine to find new work. We've featured stories by Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, Wright Morris, William Kittredge, Ursula K. Le Guin, and many others—some unknown, in fact, new writers.
Seshachari: What advice do you give to those who want to be writers?
Cheuse: There are three things: live as much as you can, read as much as you can, and write as much as you can. Try to do all those things at the same time. Notice I didn't say sleep as much as you can.
Seshachari: What do you do during your sleep time?
Cheuse: Ah, dream! Dreaming is an important activity. It provides a wealth of odd juxtapositions of familiar figures and settings, just the way good fiction does. And as the dreamer, you don't have to do any of the work, consciously, any way—a perfect sort of relief from a day's work, or a perfect overture.
Seshachari: How did you go about writing the sequence of chapters? Did you write a complete narrative composed of a number of chapters from each of the characters ' point of view and then mix the voices as necessary?
Cheuse: That is a complicated question. I write in utmost solitude, which is the best condition for becoming the conduit for many, many voices—voices out of the future, past, and present; voices out of underworlds and alternate worlds; voices of the living and the dead;
Cheuse: I think in images, which shape themselves into a fluid scene, very much as the twenty-four frames per second of film give the illusion of action on the screen. What we call memory is all of the images we have stored in our brains as we recollect them in the present. Thus the past is never the past, it is always the present, as Faulkner says. If life is a series of present moments, then narrative fiction seems to be connected to lyric poetry in a much more intimate way than the theorists of narrative would have it. Fiction, like poetry, works at its best when it brings together emotion as well as idea, passion as well as characters in the illusory unfolding we call time—when it works close to the timing of the human pulse, to the flow of our blood, to the beat of our heart.