Interview with SFWP author, Alan Cheuse

From acclaimed author Alan Cheuse, Santa Fe Writers Project presents two novellas of compelling intensity. In “The Fires,” Gina Morgan makes a pilgrimage to Uzbekistan to carry out her husband’s final wish only to discover that in this former Soviet republic things are not as they used to be. And in “The Exorcism,” Tom Swanson retrieves his angry daughter from her exclusive New England college after her expulsion for setting fire to a grand piano.

Alan Cheuse is the author of three novels, three collections of short fiction, and the memoir Fall Out of Heaven. As a book commentator, Cheuse is a regular contributor to National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” His short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, The Antioch Review, Prairie Schooner, New Letters, The Idaho Review, and The Southern Review, among other places. He teaches in the Writing Program at George Mason University and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.

How long did it take you to complete either story in The Fires? Did either one come really quickly, or did it take a while to weave the narratives and work the characters onto the page? /or/ Did the idea for the stories go through various incarnations? Or did you ever think, “EUREKA!” and plow straight ahead once the seed was planted?

I wrote both of these by working every day for about two months each, doing draft after draft until I got them to a point I would call finished. This was during a period when I was writing long stories—or novellas—one after another. I wrote six of them at around the same length, because I wanted to write them, and I had no illusions about the difficulty of placing long fiction in little magazines. An editor will usually choose to do two or three stories in the space that one long story will take up. Fortunately, all of the pieces I wrote during this period found magazine homes. The two collected in The Fires originally appeared in The Idaho Review.

What is your writing process? Do you revise and revise as you go, or do you get it all down, then go back?

Stories—I do draft after draft after draft. Novels— I do draft after draft after draft. The computer has made revising less strenuous, but no less difficult. If at least when you first start out you think things are going along nicely that probably means they are not. What does Prospero say in “The Tempest”? Light winning makes the prize seem light.

You write in third person in “The Fires” and first for “The Exorcism.” Did you ever play around with this and maybe start in one POV and switch to another. Or were the voices strong in your head as soon as you put pen to paper?

I never wavered in the POVs of these stories.

As a book critic, is it difficult for you to turn off your self-editor when you are writing your own fiction?

The qualities I look for when I read are those that I hope to produce when I write, though it’s easier to describe them when writing a review or an essay about someone else’s work. The only difficulty of working as a reviewer when you are writing your own fiction is that you now and then make an enemy with a negative review. Criticism is too important for fiction writers to leave in the hands of the critics only. Although if you look around at our time you find no great literary critics, no Alfred Kazins or Edmund Wilsons, who wrote so eloquently, both as reviewers and as essayists, about modern fiction. So writers are left to write about fiction themselves.

Do you find writing sex scenes difficult? Or do they just happen in your stories as a natural extension of the narrative and characters’ lives?

You write about the sort of sex your characters have, and if it is difficult for them you try to portray it that way. If it is not, then not. All writing is difficult, and writing about sex is no less or no more difficult than writing about walking or eating or swimming or dancing or writing.

Jazz plays a role in “The Exorcism.” Is music a big part of your life? Do you listen to music while you write? What kind?

I couldn’t write while listening to music. I hear some lucky poets can, as many painters do. I love good music. For the past six years I have been trying to learn how to play the piano. Mailer once said that writing is at least as difficult as learning how to play the piano. I’m here to testify to that.

Do you ever know or feel that a story or novel is “finished”?

Yes, when plot, character, language all fit together, like chords and melody in a song.

You approach death of a loved in both stories. Here comes a sensitive question…How strongly does this echo your own life or demons?

Everyone has a loved one who has died, but in the case of these stories the incidents, insofar as they have any basis in reality, belong to people I know, not me. The only time I have used material of this sort from my own life was in a long story called “Days Given Over to Travel” which came out a few years back in “Prairie Schooner.” It’s the story of my mother’s death, told in her own voice.

You give us a female protagonist (Gina Morgan) in “The Fires” who is going through menopause. Did you have to do any research? And the third person narrator—was it easier to deal with this in third person?

I have never gone through menopause, but I know many people who have. I don’t believe that Joyce Carol Oates ever had a male orgasm, but she writes about it quite convincingly in her terrific novel “What I Lived For.”

Dreams and/or symbols (for example, there’s the obvious, fire, in “The Fires” and dogs in “The Exorcism”) figure heavily in both works. Any interest in mysticism or spiritual matters?

I couldn’t have written these pieces without having some knowledge of what you call mysticism, but it’s the characters connection to it that matters, not mine. As for symbols-making, that’s the essence of modern language.

I love how “The Exorcism” starts out, reading like a conversation or even a litany with the line “I forgive (insert name of character)” repeated almost anaphorically. This gives a drive to the narrative—and some mystery, too. It is not until quite a few pages into the story that we understand that the main character is speaking to his healer, Erna. And that all of this might be occurring as he is in a trance. Did playing with this way of presenting the story/time complicate the writing for you? Or did this idea just come to you?

Using this narrative line simplified, rather than complicated, the composition of the story. All writing is complicated, until some part of it becomes simple.

Your books have been published by big presses and small presses. How do the experiences compare?

Big presses pay you big money and give small attention, small presses reverse that.

Is there any particular author you truly admire?

From Homer to Joan Didion and all the great ones in between, and many of those among us now as well as Didion. James Salter, Ursula Le Guin, Richard Ford, John Edgar Wideman, Doris Lessing and Haruki Murakami, and those who one day may be great, such as Junot Diaz and Yiyun Li and Matt Klam and Kiran Desai and Madeleine Thien, among dozens of others….

What do you learn from writing book reviews?

How to read and write fiction.

How’d you get the gig on NPR?

[—A long story, too long to write out here. I put it all in to the introductory essay of my essay collection “Listening to the Page”…Sorry…]

What is your least favorite book of all time? And of course, if you want to talk about your favorite, that’s OK, too.

Least favorite book of all time? I didn’t write it fortunately, and I won’t say the name. Least favorite of my own books are the ones I didn’t get right enough—at least not yet—to publish.

Most favorite? That’s like saying which of your children is your favorite. Or parents. Without Homer and Shakespeare and Ulysses and To the Lighthouse and The Sound and the Fury and Chekhov, I’d be an orphan.

Welty or O’Connor? Williams or Capote? Shakespeare or Marlowe? Southern Gothic or New England WASPs?

Yes.

Is there an era that you would like to write about?

Prehistoric “times”….I really admire Doris Lessing’s new novel “The Cleft”, for trying that, and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s “Reindeer Moon” and the late Swedish paleontologist Bjorn Kurten’s novel “The Dance of the Tiger”….And William Golding’s “The Inheritors”…But maybe it’s been done, with all these good books out there already.

Have you ever enjoyed pulp fiction?

I read across the menu, Stephen King to Kelly Link to Howard Norman to Virginia Woolf…but can’t stand BAD genre fiction, because I know how good the best of it can be…

What was the best advice you ever received as a writer?

Work every day that you’re at home. I gave that advice to myself.

Any new work on the horizon?

I have a new novel coming out in November, and a collection of short stories the following spring.

Best advice you can give a budding writer.

Write as much as you can, read as much as you can, live as much as you can.

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Pick up The Fires today at your local bookstore, or online at the SFWP Shop.

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