Susan Cheever is the author of five novels, four memoirs, and four additional works of nonfiction, including her most recent, Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography, which puts the iconic girls’ novel Little Women into vivid context. Cheever’s loving account of her famous father, Home Before Dark: A Biographical Memoir of John Cheever by His Daughter, was published in 1984.
Cheever is the author of countless book reviews, essays, and articles for The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Daily Beast, among many other publications. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an Associated Press award, and she was nominated for a National Book Critic’s Circle Award. She teaches writing in the MFA programs at Bennington College and The New School.
Cheever insists she came to journalism and creative writing by accident. She’s fond of saying she learned to write by marrying three writers. For this interview, we spoke by phone as she is on tight deadline to finish a biography of E. E. Cummings, a friend of her father’s whom she says saved her life. She is chatty, upbeat, and at times blunt. She sounds a lot like the way she writes, which made for a lively conversation.
You began your life in New York City with a soon-to-be-famous writer for a father. Do you remember realizing that he was a writer?
I remember realizing he was a writer, but he wasn’t famous for most of my childhood. He didn’t really get famous in any sense of the word until the mid-’60s, which is when I was in college. Some of my playmates’ parents felt that his writing was shocking and dirty, and they would say, “Ugh, the things he writes are so dreadful,” meaning that they had sex in them—even though, of course, they didn’t; in those days you couldn’t write about sex at all.
I thought of him as special and talented but somehow beyond the pale. That was fairly confusing for a small child.
I guess what I’m getting at is that it would have been a different lifestyle than, say, your schoolmates’ fathers who went off to be dentists or ad executives or whatever they were doing.
Well, it was different because he didn’t go to work. And there’s that famous story, which other people take credit for but which is mine, about him putting on his good suit and hat and going down the elevator to the lobby in the morning at 400 East 59th Street. And then while the other fathers went to their offices, my father went down to the basement where he worked in our storage cubicle, taking off his suit and hat and working in his boxers, and then putting his suit and hat back on in the afternoon and coming upstairs with the other fathers.
So there was a lot of longing on his part and, I think, on all of our parts for something more normal and stable than what we had.
Was there a lot of writerly discussion at the dinner table?
No. I’m not sure I know what writerly discussion is.
Well, were you challenged to read and talk about reading?
There was a great deal of readerly discussion. I certainly was introduced to books and reading as early as that was possible, and I was encouraged to read all the way along. My father would find a book and get very excited about it, and we’d all read it. My mother would find a book and get very excited about it. As a family we did a lot of reading and a lot of talking about books.
Can you remember any?
Sure. I remember when I was about 12—we were living in Italy at the time—a little English bookstore, which had all of [19th century English novelist and playwright] Wilkie Collins. So we all read all of Wilkie Collins and talked about Wilkie Collins for about a month. We never talked about writing, but we did a lot of talking about books.
Did you meet many writers as you were growing up?
Sure. I knew some people when I was growing up who turned out to be famous writers, but I didn’t know they were famous writers at the time. All I cared about was, were they nice to children? E. E. Cummings loved children. Ralph Ellison loved children. Robert Penn Warren loved children. So those guys were great.
Anyone not love children?
Yes, [war correspondent] Martha Gellhorn. Children had to get locked in the back when she came over.
You moved from Manhattan to Westchester as a child, and for a year you lived in Italy. What do you remember about that time?
I remember a million things. The place where we lived, the food, the school. I was 12 and 13.
Was it scary?
It was very, very difficult for all of us, but it was very much in the gallant tradition of the great adventure. It’s amazing to me that the minute my parents got their hands on any money at all, they took an entire family, two little children [Susan’s brother Ben was 8] and my mother pregnant, to live in a city where they knew no one and they didn’t know the language. My mother had her baby in Italy. That, it seems to me, took a lot of brass. At the time, of course, I just thought, “Yippee!” I don’t think I realized what a huge endeavor that was.
Do you call on the feelings you had then, during that upheaval, in your writing at all?
I don’t think so. I do think that my father had an idea that my mother shared about how a writer could live. And as Phyllis Rose says so brilliantly in her introduction to [Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages], a good marriage is one in which both people are telling the same story. And I think they both believed that being a serious writer meant you would sometimes be very poor and that it sometimes meant you would be able to live in a very wealthy way—that your life would be a series of adventures and crises narrowly averted. They both believed in the drama of it. And I think that picking up and moving to Italy with money that might have been used for, say, my braces or a house, was very much part of the idea they shared of what it was like to be adventurous and creative, and so I grew up with that idea as well. I think in that way [the upheaval affected me]. It was a glorious adventure. It was very difficult for a while, and then it turned out to be sort of triumphant.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
Anything but a writer.
So, no writing courses?
No-no-no, really. I knew that writing was a very difficult and unreliable and painful way to make a living. And pretty early on, I also realized that I wasn’t very good at it. I was good enough, but I wasn’t really good. And I decided that I would never ever be a writer, no matter what.
You’re talking high school?
Yes, I had decided long before I got to college. I had a terrible time in high school, but thanks to [E. E.] Cummings’ intervention, I was allowed my last year of high school to go to an alternative school, the Woodstock Country School in Vermont.
And E. E. Cummings was involved how?
E. E. Cummings, who was a friend of my father’s, came out to read at my prep school, the Masters School, and the school was very excited. My father came to hear him read, and then we drove him home to New York City. Cummings hated the Masters School. And he said to my father, “No wonder she’s not happy there. She’s a spirited, beautiful young woman, and that’s nothing but a factory for churning out the obedient wives of bankers. Of course she’s miserable there. Who wouldn’t be miserable there?” And so I was allowed, because of Cummings, to leave the Masters School. I had been saying I wanted to leave for three years. But when Cummings said it, my parents heard him. I transferred to the Woodstock Country School and discovered a completely different kind of education, which was a revelation for me. I loved it there. I decided to devote my life to alternative education, to teaching people in the way I was taught at Woodstock.
I’m a believer in alternative education. And I do think that one of my missions in life—not to be pompous about it—is to teach in a way that allows people to learn not by rote and not by rules and regulations but by discovery.
Is it safe to assume you didn’t write for the student paper or literary journal?
At the Masters School, I did write for the school paper. It was called The Tower, and it was also a club, but they wouldn’t let me in the club. They didn’t like me.
You went to Brown. What did you major in?
I majored in American Studies, but we didn’t call it that. We called it American Civilization.
Did you write a lot for your major?
I think I did. I had to write a thesis, I remember. It was on the ghost stories of Henry James and Edgar Allen Poe. Most people don’t think of Henry James as a writer of ghost stories. I believe I threw Hawthorne in there, as well. It was interesting to think about, what is a ghost story?
So what is a ghost story?
That’s the part I forget. I guess it’s a story with a non-corporeal character.
You had a summer job working at Time Magazine.
That was in 1963, while I was in college. And I did that not because I wanted to be a writer but because that was the job my parents got me. Those were the days. I was on something called the clip desk. We would read newspapers and clip articles from them [for the research department].
No Google back then.
No, but I was with a couple of really cool people. It was fun.
So what was your first job after college?
I wanted to be an alternative education teacher, so I applied to the ten schools I thought were doing that kind of education, and I got a job at the one I liked the best, which was in Carbondale, Colorado, right near Aspen. I went there, and that was going to be my career. That’s what I was going to do.
And what happened?
You mean, how did I become a writer?
Well, could you fill in the blanks between teaching in Colorado in the mid-’60s and working for Newsweek, which you were doing by the mid-’70s?
I wanted to be a teacher and help students learn in this new way, which I thought was amazing and effective. So I went and taught English at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School. And then, because things were the way they were in those days, a guy in New York proposed to me. That was 1966. I was 23, which was getting late. I had to get married because that’s what you did. You couldn’t really do anything unless you were married. You couldn’t travel. You couldn’t live alone. It was a very different world, and that was how I felt. I went back to New York in 1967 and got married. I took classes for a little while because I didn’t know what else to do with myself.
And then with my first husband, Rob Cowley, I went to live in England for a year. We had a friend who edited a magazine in London. He could see that I was hanging around our tiny apartment while Rob was trying to write his book, so he said to me, “You know, you’re driving Rob crazy. Come to the magazine, and I’ll give you a job. So I went to the magazine, Queen, and pretty soon he gave me a little profile to do about an Italian writer. I thought I’d done a good job on it, but when the editor read what I wrote—it was about 400 words—he said, “Uh, let’s talk about this tomorrow.” I knew that meant it wasn’t so good. I went home to my writer-husband and said, “What’s the matter with this? Why doesn’t he like it?” And I’ll never forget it: Rob pulled out a chair from our dining room table, and he said, “Sit down and I’ll tell you how we do this.” And that was really my first writing lesson. Of course, I’d sworn never to be a writer, so I didn’t see it that way. But Rob taught me a lot.
The next September, we went back to New York, but it was too late in the year to get a teaching job. We were living in the suburbs, and I needed to work. I applied for everything I could find. For a while, I made macramé belts for Hickory & Tweed, a store in Armonk [NY]. And, again, another accident happened. I answered an ad with a Westchester employment agency and ended up at a little newspaper called The Tarrytown Daily News, circulation 9000, run by this guy, Harry Donsky, who was a genius. He hired me to do the weddings and funerals page. Journalism is like a drug, and within a week, I was hooked. Pretty soon I was doing education, covering the police—and Harry was teaching me how to write. People would say, “Isn’t that nice, you’re doing what your father does,” and I would say, “No! No! No! No! No! I’m a journalist. I am not a writer. No!” I did not write fiction, so I was not a writer.
There is nothing like a small town paper. Nobody will ever read your work with the intensity that it’s read when you’re writing for a small town paper. I loved it. I was so lucky because, in addition to being a genius, Harry Donsky was a man of incredible generosity. At one point I started secretly stringing for the Times, and Harry found out. I promised him: “They will never scoop us; I will never give them anything we haven’t already run.” And Harry said, “Go for it!” He was amazing. I started winning prizes and was promoted to White Plains. Thus began my career in journalism.
Well, the second year I was at the Tarrytown paper, I did a series on Cuban immigrants, many of whom had landed in the area. I won an AP award for that. But the prizes were beside the point. I knew I was good at it. And I was intoxicated.
And then what?
And then my husband moved to San Francisco, so I went with him. I pounded the pavement for a year, stringing for whomever would let me string for them and not being very happy.
We came back east, we got divorced, and I spent two years in New York pounding the pavement again, trying to sell stories. Finally, in 1974, I got a tryout at Newsweek, where I became the religion editor. That, too, was an accident. Newsweek had just settled the [landmark gender-discrimination] lawsuit brought by the women on staff in 1970. The women had won, and Newsweek needed to hire more women when I happened to walk in. Of course, I didn’t know that then. All these accidents, me deciding not to be a writer, and fate saying something else.
I loved Newsweek. I was there till 1978. I began to feel that I really did want to try writing something more significant.
And so I wrote a lot of book proposals that nobody ever even saw. I thought I would write a history of the Associated Press. I thought I would write a biography of [Christian Science founder] Mary Baker Eddy. I had what I thought were a lot of great ideas for books that I would write book proposals for and then drop.
By the way, all this time I wasn’t Susan Cheever. The minute I got married I dropped my name. I was Susan Cowley. I went to Newsweek as Susan Cowley. But after I had been at Newsweek about three years, I changed to Susan Cheever Cowley. By this time I had been divorced from Cowley for quite a while, so it got to be a little silly.
In 1978, my best friend and the man who became my second husband (who was then married to someone else) both said to me, “You’ve got to get out of there. You’re much more interesting than anything you’re writing.”
Eventually they talked me into taking a leave of absence, and Calvin [Tompkins, II] and I ran off to the South of France. He had a book to write, and I maybe had a book to write.
We lived in this scrappy little house in a little village. Calvin worked on his book, and I sat down and wrote, too. To my delight and amazement, bang, I had written 25 pages I really liked. And then bang I had written another 25 pages. Some books want to get written and some don’t. This one did. I was 35. I’d been fighting it for twenty years. The funny thing is, I didn’t know if I’d actually done it. There were a few books in the house, and I kept counting the words to see if I’d really written a book. I was so clueless. In a couple of months I had the manuscript for a novel, Looking for Work. I sent it to an agent I knew who wasn’t very enthusiastic. And then I wrote to a friend who was also an agent to ask whether he’d be interested.
We didn’t have a phone. We lived on a sort of plain, and one day I could see way off in the distance a bicycle messenger. I watched him as he rode across the plain toward our house. It took him about an hour. He brought a cable from my friend the agent saying he wanted to represent me and sell my book. I sent off the manuscript, which took a month to get to New York, and by the time he got back to me we had a phone. He called and said, “Well, we have three people who want to buy your novel.” I couldn’t believe it. The person who bought it was Nan Talese at Simon & Schuster. I knew Nan Talese, and I worshipped her.
And that’s how I became a writer. I never went back to Newsweek.
The book came out in 1980. I was so scared. I didn’t know if I could do it again. By the time we got back to New York, I had finished a second novel, A Handsome Man, which didn’t want to get written. I fought with it for a couple of years. But by then I was a writer, so the days of yore were over. I got a publisher, and that was it.
And, again, Calvin Tompkins, who ended up being my second husband, taught me so much about writing.
Not your father?
No, my father certainly didn’t teach me how to write, and he certainly didn’t want me to be a writer. He wouldn’t tell me squat about writing. Finally, when I was at Newsweek, very late in the game, I said, “Look, you teach writing. Tell me something about writing.” And he said, “Okay, no dialog tags.” That’s the only thing he ever told me.
After three novels, you wrote Home Before Dark. After that, history and biography and nonfiction in general seemed to become the main focus of your writing. Is there any fiction in the mix right now?
Well, I’m writing a novel, but who knows if it’ll ever be finished. I like to do both. But I found that it was very difficult to do fiction while I was raising two children. My children mean the world to me. I was unable to get to that place, whatever it is, that I have to be in to write fiction.
Is that a different place than nonfiction?
Can you describe the difference?
No. I wish I could.
What if any effect did your father’s illness and death have on your work as a writer? You wrote Home Before Dark not long after he died.
I started writing Home Before Dark when he got sick, not as a book but as a journal. I just wanted to write down all of his funny stories. I was under contract to write a big novel, and so every morning I would get up and tell myself I should work on the novel. It was called The Bean Spiller. And then I would say to myself, okay, just one more day. You can write about your father for one more day. That went on and on and on. And then he died, and it continued. I just could not get myself to go back to the novel. By a few months later, I had a couple of hundred pages, and I thought maybe this was a book. But no one had ever done that personal a biography before. There were no memoirs of parents by their children with the exception of J. R. Ackerley [whose memoir My Father and Myself was published posthumously in 1968].
It was sort of breaking new ground, wasn’t it?
Right. I was very nervous. Was this really a book? Then I thought it would be interesting to read his journals. They were in a storage place in Manhattan, and four months after he died, I went and got them. That’s how I found out he was gay. I gave up then on doing the book. I said, “Oooh, no, I’m not writing that book,” and I went back to The Bean Spiller. Eventually, the biographer Scott Donaldson took me out to lunch and told me he was going to do a book about my father and that he would write about my father being gay. And then another writer called me very drunk, very late one night and said that he was going to write about my father. That’s when I decided I was going to write this book. I’m going to write about his being gay. And I’m going to do it in a very loving and gentle way. And I’m going to beat these guys.
My daughter was born two months before my father died. And I felt very torn between them. I adored my baby. I had no idea that was what love was. But at the same time, I couldn’t stop writing about my father. I think of Home Before Dark as a sort of eulogy. I wrote it to keep him alive for another year. It worked. I think you do keep people alive by writing about them.
Your grandfather on your mother’s side was Thomas Augustus Watson, Alexander Graham Bell’s friend and assistant. Do you think that having famous figures on your family tree feeds your curiosity about the past?
I come from a distinguished and eccentric family, and I’m thrilled by that. I just could not be more interested in my own family, but when people say to me, “Oh, it must be easy to write about your family because it’s so interesting,” I actually think the interest comes from me. I’m reading Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild, about the death of her mother. Now, she’s in love with her mother, and that’s what makes it so moving to the reader. It doesn’t matter that her mother’s not Martha Graham. I’m not sure that the distinctions and eccentricities of my family (on both sides) are actually what make them interesting in my books. I just think they might be interesting in my books because I’m so interested in them.
You’ve described writing as being like DNA. What do you mean by that?
It’s like DNA in that it reveals everything about who you are. If you write a paragraph, I can tell everything about you from that paragraph. A sentence even. It’s not that wild. In a sentence, you make a million choices. Every word, how you punctuate it, whether you invert it or not. There are a million choices that go into writing one sentence. Therefore, each sentence is hugely revealing. I don’t think people are aware of that. At Bennington, students write their evaluations of us, and they’re anonymous. What a joke. Who can’t tell who’s writing what? I teach them, for heaven’s sakes. It’s a riot.
Have you always thought of yourself as a New Yorker?
Oh, yes. I’m a New Yorker.
Where do you do most of your work? You’ve written about your father that he was “scornful of other people’s well-appointed studies.” Are you the same way?
I write in bed. I wake up and reach for the laptop. I write best closest to sleep. I’ll often take a nap with a laptop. I’ve had offices, none of them very well appointed. I share his suspicion of appointments, so to speak.
I’m imagining a lot of books around you.
Oh, yeah. Way too many.
Your dad was a regular at Yaddo. Do you attend writers’ colonies?
I go to Yaddo. I’m a director at Yaddo. Yaddo is an astonishing place. My father didn’t teach me how to write. But he showed me how to lead a writer’s life. He couldn’t help it. I was watching.
Before we end, I took a master class from you—which I loved—and one day you suggested we each have formal note cards printed with our names in order to send compliments to writers and editors about pieces we enjoyed reading. I love that, although it strikes me as a little old-fashioned.
I think when you read something you like, you should tell a person if you can. I have printed stationery, and I’ve sent letters on them. I wrote to John Irving this year. I’ve written Philip Roth. I think people always want to be told. We’re all part of a community. It’s important to say, “Your writing gave me tremendous pleasure. Thank you.”
Interview by Patricia Berry
Photo by Michael Falco