Traverse City National Writers Series: Alan Cheuse

Traverse City Events: National Public Radio’s acclaimed “Voice of Books” Alan Cheuse is a master of words, both his own and others. As a book critic, Cheuse appears regularly on NPR’s All Things Considered and has served as a fiction judge for the National Book Award. As an author, Cheuse has published four novels, three collections of short fiction and the memoir Fall Out of Heaven. His short fiction has appeared in publications including The New Yorker, Ploughshares and The Antioch Review. Cheuse’s latest novel, Song of Slaves in the Desert, traces the thread of slavery from 1500s Timbuktu up to the Civil War, exploring one man's struggle with the legacy of slavery and the loyalty of family.

On Thursday, April 5, Cheuse will appear at the National Writers Series with fellow guest Geraldine Brooks, an Australian journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author (March, People of the Book). Cheuse and Brooks will talk about their diverse careers in journalism, writing, reviewing and teaching on stage at the City Opera House in downtown Traverse City. MyNorth spoke to Cheuse in a recent phone interview about how he became the “Voice of Books” for NPR, his connection with Brooks, and the unique challenges—and rewards—of writing historical fiction.

MyNorth: You’ve been reviewing books for NPR since the 1980s. How did you first come into that gig?

Alan Cheuse: In the ‘80s, I was just starting out as a writer and was doing a lot of freelance work. This FM magazine asked me to do a story on NPR, which was a relatively new enterprise at that time. I flew up to D.C. and spent a week going to all the shows and meeting all the producers and hosts. I went back to Knoxville, and there was a letter waiting for me from the editor of the magazine saying they were folding. I thought I had wasted an entire week. But then I got a phone call from one of the NPR producers—she must have liked my voice—asking if I’d want to try doing a book review for the station. She said for me to choose a novel, write about it and record it. I did and sent it to her, and she said, “Not good. Try another one.” So I did another one, sent it to her and she said, “Not good. Try another one.” This happened several more times, and then on my fifth review, she liked it and put it on the air. And I’ve been doing it ever since. I love it. The people who work at NPR are so smart and love reading and literature. They’re great to work with.  

MyNorth: You’ve said in interviews that you review between 40 and 50 books a year. How do you manage that workload along with your teaching and writing responsibilities?  

Alan Cheuse: I teach two afternoons a week, three hours a day at George Mason University. Writers there are expected to actually write, so most of my time I’m at home writing. I work on my fiction in the morning, read in the afternoon and then work on my reviews in the evening.

MyNorth: How do you select which books you’re going to read and review? And how does reading with a critical eye differ from reading for pleasure?

Alan Cheuse: I go after what I love, what I hope will be a wonderful book to read. I’m reading not so much for technique as the effect the technique creates. Ultimately, it still is for pleasure. Horace, the Roman poet, said: “Poetry should delight and instruct.” I think that’s true of writing today. But I read across the menu. You know, sometimes you want a Big Mac and other times you want a filet. I don’t read the same kind of book every day. Fortunately, I still remain deeply enthusiastic about what I do, because if I weren’t, you would hear it. And because of the time constraints with the reviews, only having two minutes or so a week, I don’t want to take up that time saying something negative. Unless, of course, something is really horrible, and then I want to help people avoid reading it. (laughs)

MyNorth: Have you seen any major trends or shifts in reading habits in the country between when you started out and now?

Alan Cheuse: That’s difficult to answer. Certainly, reading still seems to be a tremendous force in the lives of at least a small percentage of Americans. You wouldn’t have all these e-book readers selling if people weren’t using them. That has some negative side effects for the publishing industry, but I hope it’s a trade-off—that it means more people will read more widely, and writers will get a bigger audience. Experts in the industry predict that 10 years from now, around 25% of the major publishing houses’ sales will be actual books and the rest e-books. So the actual book will still be around. I’m about to release my first electronic-only book, which is three novellas, and I’m extremely interested to see how that plays out. It may not be a huge moneymaker, but the potential is there for it to find a wider audience.

MyNorth: When you’re in Traverse City this week, you’ll be sharing the stage with Geraldine Brooks. Talk about your connection with Geraldine and your thoughts on her as an author.

Alan Cheuse: I met Geraldine at a dinner here in D.C; it must have been about 15 years ago. We were seated at the same table. She then came to George Mason to read from March, and we struck up an acquaintanceship. I love everything she’s done—she’s a wonderful writer. She was also a terrific journalist for a long time, right before she started writing fiction. I’m looking forward to having this conversation with her.

MyNorth: You and Geraldine are both known for your historical novels. As a writer, what’s the appeal of the historical fiction genre for you?

Alan Cheuse: Most people don’t think of it as a difficult genre. They love to read it, but they don’t know how difficult it is to write it. It’s as difficult as writing a contemporary novel, and more. It raises the question not only of, what is history, but what is real? Is history just the past, or something more? We can do research and read the work of historians, but is that the whole picture of what was happening at the time? It’s a difficult enterprise, but I also think it’s an important one. If it’s done well, it can guide us through important and difficult periods that we can only know by reading these books. Historical fiction looks at how the past impinges on the present. Beyond that, it helps us recognize that our present day is going to be the next generation’s historical past. In that way, all novels are both contemporary and historical at the same time. And as a historical novelist, you have to keep in mind that you’re not just writing about the past—you’re writing about how the past affects the present reader. When done well, it’s a wonderful exercise.

An Evening with Alan Cheuse and Geraldine Brooks, a National Writers Series event, will take place on Thursday, April 5 at the City Opera House in Traverse City. Doors open at 6 p.m.; the event begins at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance or $20 at the door ($5 for students and $10 for educators) and are available at the City Opera House box office or online at cityoperahouse.org. The evening will include a pre-event live performance by Ron Getz, dessert courtesy of Morsels, a cash bar, an audience Q&A and a book signing with the authors. For more information, visit nationalwritersseries.org.

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