Monday, September 15, 2014

Q&A with author Alan Cheuse

Alan Cheuse is the author most recently of An Authentic Captain Marvel Ring & Other Stories. He has written many other books, including novels, short stories, and an introduction to literary study. He reviews books for NPR, and teaches writing at George Mason University and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.

Q: You've reviewed books for many years on NPR. How do you select the books to review, and what do you try to convey to listeners in a limited amount of time?

A: I select books according to my taste, which means I read across the spectrum, from serious, possibly even important new fiction by major writers to the newest of writers who may be worth the public’s serious attention, and across the genres, so I’m always looking for the superior new thriller or science-fiction novel or story collection…

The challenge for me is to make each two-minute review as fresh and interesting as possible while focusing on the essence of the book itself.

Q: What is the significance of the Captain Marvel ring in you newest story collection?

A: It's something that somehow changed the way I saw things in childhood, a ring with a peep-hole that when you looked in gave you the illusion that you were star-and-comet gazing.... That's the way I see what happens when you apply your gaze to a page of fiction.

Q: One of your recent books, Paradise, Or, Eat Your Face: A Trio of Novellas, included characters who are writers. Are there special complications that come with writing fiction about writers, or are they just like any other characters?

A: I have avoided writing about writers in my fiction, focusing instead, when I write novels about artists, on painters, photographers.

My conventional wisdom was that it’s better to look just to the side of the star to see the full light rather than directly at it, so writing about these other inventive characters might also reveal something about writers (though that certainly was not my intention). My intention was not to write about writers.

That being said, it’s true, I noticed that this grouping of…novellas in book form gives the reader three writers, one a young travel writer with some emotional problems, the others a successful writer who has suffered a stroke and lives in  the limbo of aphasia (or maybe it’s hell, aphasia for a writer) and a writer at the top of his powers who finds himself looking back at a part of his life he never wanted to write about.

But since no character is like any other character except in the broadest way I don’t think the artistic bent of each of these characters draws anything back, and in fact may reveal things that I never wanted to write about before myself. 

Q: Your work includes novels, novellas, short stories, and essay collections, and you've co-edited a multi-volume introduction to literary study. Is there one type of writing that you prefer to do?

A: Writing stories and novels. The former, a very satisfying variety of composition because you can complete something within a few weeks or months and receive some satisfaction from it. But then you have to immediately plunge into another project to keep feeling like yourself.

The latter—writing novels—gives you a year or two or three or more in which to stay undercover and write and revise and write and revise, almost, I want to say, to live years of one’s life in a wonderfully satisfying way. It’s like raising a child to a certain age, and then beginning over again with another child—in comparison writing stories is like taking your kid to the zoo or the circus. Short term pleasure.  

Q: You also teach writing at George Mason University and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. What elements of writing do you focus on with your students, and are there particular pieces of advice you offer them based on your own prolific writing career?

A: I always try to focus on training young writers to learn how to write scenes, which to my mind stand as the building blocks of most good fiction. And to emphasize the importance of reading the masters. And—this is our Squaw Valley rubric—to isolate their flaws and efface them and identify their strengths and build on them. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: In March, I have a novel coming out called Prayers for the Living. It's a new revised version of a novel I published nearly 30 years ago called then The Grandmothers' Club.

It's about a New Jersey rabbi who gives up his pulpit for a career in international corporate commerce, and destroys himself and his family in the process--as told by his mother. I want to cheer that it's endured this long. See what you think.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Alan Cheuse will be participating in the Hyman S. and Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival, which runs from October 19-29, 2014, at the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center. For a previous version of this Q&A, please click here.

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