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Arts & Entertainment
02/13/05, G-0?

An Interview with Susan Cheever

It was January 2000 when Susan Cheever's agent was asked to find a writer for an introduction to a new edition of the classic nineteenth century book Little Women. "By accident I happened to call my agent with a question only a few minutes after, and she asked if I'd do it," said Cheever in a recent phone interview from her home in New York City.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott was one of Cheever's favorite books as a child so she decided to write the introduction. "But first I wanted to re-read it," said Cheever, "and when I did I was amazed at how well written it was."

She did some research and soon discovered that Laurie, the boy next door in Little Women, was probably based on Henry David Thoreau or it might have been Ralph Waldo Emerson, who actually lived next door to the Alcott family in Concord, Massachusetts.

"Soon I was reading everything I could find about these Transcendental writers who all lived in Concord in the 1840's," said Cheever. "I wrote that introduction and then just kept on writing." Her research about these writers was the basis of her latest nonfiction book "American Bloomsbury" (200 pages, $26, Simon and Schuster).

On Thursday she will read from the book at 8 pm at the Recital Hall in the Performing Arts Center at the University at Albany's uptown campus. Earlier that day she will present an informal seminar at 4:15 at Assembly Hall. Both talks are free, open to the public, and presented by the New York State Writers Institute.

This is Cheever's fifth work of nonfiction. It follows her 2001 bestselling biography of Bill Wilson, who created Alcoholics Anonymous, and her four recent memoirs most notably her 1999 book "Note Found in a Bottle: My Life as a Drinker," about her near-fatal battle with alcoholism, and "Home Before Dark" (1984), a loving but unsparing portrait of her father, John Cheever, the Pulitzer Prize winning author known for his stories of American suburbia.

"My first five books were all fiction," she said, "but since my second child was born I've found it impossible to write fiction."

Cheever said that when she's writing fiction she lives in a parallel universe. "I spend many hours daydreaming about my characters and the world I've created. I can't afford that luxury with my children around. I have to deal with my kids and their homework and the plumber, and I just can't write fiction."

This most recent book seemed like a type of destiny for her. "Ten years ago I would have never been interested in writing about these authors and this time period," said Cheever, "but I can now look back and see that it was all fate for me to call my agent at that time and then re-read Little Women." The book re-kindled some childhood memories. "I remembered the first trip my dad ever took me on when I was eleven and we went to Concord," said Cheever. "We visited Old Manse and the Orchard House, and after that trip I read 'The Scarlet Letter' and 'Walden.'"

In college at Brown University she wrote her thesis on Henry James and Edgar Allan Poe. "And as I began to read about these writers I remembered a trip with my family to Italy when I was thirteen where I became obsessed with Nathaniel Hawthorne. So it seemed that since childhood I was destined to write this book."

Cheever titled the book American Bloomsbury in homage of the London neighborhood which was home to a group of writers including Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster in the early 1900's.

"There's been a lot of research lately about genius clusters," said Cheever," and I think Concord clearly was one at that time. Genius often attracts genius, and for Concord Emerson was the guiding genius who brought everyone together."

Henry James referred to Concord as "...the biggest little place in America," and at one time some of our nation's greatest writers and intellectuals such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller, all lived in the same community.

"The late 1830's and 1840's was a time like the 1960's when individual adventure was prized," said Cheever. "These writers were intoxicated with freedom, a love of the outdoors, and the possibility of a life devoted to thought and pleasure."

Cheever would have loved to live in Concord at that time. "I'd love to sit on the grass in the shade of an oak tree and have a conversation with Hawthorne and Fuller," she said, "but it was also a time when living conditions were still very primitive. Most people didn't even live to what we consider middle age, but Concord was also a community that cared about each other."

As she was writing the book it occurred to her that Concord was very much like her many experiences at Yaddo, the artist's retreat in Saratoga Springs. "Yaddo is a magical place that brings together writers, painters, composers, and it creates a community that can have an explosion of creativity. My father went there quite a lot, and most of this last book was written there."

It still amazes Cheever that she ever became a writer. "At sixteen I was adamant that I was not going to be a writer," she said, "and after I graduated from college I worked as an English teacher for many years, and then I got married and became a housewife."

Her husband at the time was a writer. "He was having a difficult time supporting the family so I decided to go back to work."

Cheever took a job as a reporter at the Tarrytown Daily News. "And I fell completely in love with journalism," she said. She loved going to work every day and covering school board and town board meetings. "I used to tell people I'm not a writer. I'm a journalist, and I've never been read with such intensity as I was then. I once saw a man reading one of my columns and he was so involved he actually fell off a curb reading it."

She has never shied away from writing about some painful and embarrassing personal moments. "I have an obligation to my reader to tell the truth," said Cheever, "and in the process if I write something embarrassing about me I'll do it because that's what a good writer must do."

Cheever has always been able to look at herself honestly. "I never became what my parents wanted me to be," she said. "I was never popular, slender, beautiful or athletic. I can write about who I am, but I will definitely protect my two children. I show them everything I'm writing, and if it's too embarrassing to them I'll take it out."

This last book was a difficult book to write because she had trouble finding the right structure. "I basically had five short biographies to write, and I wanted to do it chronologically," said Cheever. "I fell in love with the people, and I enjoyed my research trips to Concord."

She believes all the writers would be horrified to see what's become of Concord. "But they'd love to know that their homes are shrines," she said. "They'd be delighted to know they were still being read especially Thoreau and Louisa May Alcott, who'd love to know that 35,000 children a year visit her house."

Cheever hopes her book will inspire contemporary readers to seek out these authors and read some of their incredible books.

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Susan Cheever
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