THE Q&A: BLAKE BAILEY, LITERARY BIOGRAPHER

Blake BaileyWith "Cheever: A Life", Blake Bailey has written the definitive biography of John Cheever--"an insightful, clear-eyed life of the man"--reviving a writer who has been cast aside by time. With "A Tragic Honesty", he did more or less the same for Richard Yates. He has also written elegantly on the subject of "losing everything" in New Orleans, where he lived when Hurricane Katrina hit.

Here he describes what brought him to the project, why he included so much "sordid material", and just why he believes Cheever's best work is better than just about anything else written in the postwar era.

More Intelligent Life: What first drew you to Cheever's work, and then this project? 

Blake Bailey: My mother gave me "The Oxford Book of the American Short Story", edited by V. S. Pritchett, for (I think) either my high-school graduation or maybe the Christmas before--anyway, a while ago. One of the stories was "Goodbye, My Brother" by Cheever, and I was pretty much hooked after that.

Cheever is one of my two or three favourite writers, and a logical successor to Richard Yates, my previous subject. But for a while I held off because I wanted to be the first biographer of whatever subject I chose, and a biography of Cheever (by Scott Donaldson) had already been published in 1988. Long story short: Janet Maslin wrote a terrific review of my Yates bio for the New York Times, and Janet happens to be John Cheever's daughter in law. Her husband, Ben Cheever, also read my Yates book, also liked it a lot, and invited me to appear on a cable-TV book show he does in Pleasantville, New York. We hit it off, and during dinner afterward he let me know, in so many words, that he would welcome another biography of his father--also, that I would be the first biographer to be given access to Cheever's complete, unpublished, 4300+ -page, single-space-typed journal. Within a month or so of that meeting, I decided to go ahead.   

MIL: How familiar were you already with the dark inner-workings of Cheever's mind? I can't help but wonder how insidious it might have been to wade through so many private pages about his demons and self-loathing. How did your feelings about your subject evolve? 

BB: A selection from Cheever's journal (about 5% of the total) was published in 1991, whereupon the talk got started in earnest about what a sad, sad man Cheever was. Okay, sure, he was sad a lot of the time, but it was Cheever's gift to make sad things funny and often beautiful. Sometimes I found myself giggling like a schoolgirl at the bits about his ghastly marriage, many of which I quote in my book--random example: after six months of not speaking to him, Cheever's wife sits beside him on the sofa "for a minute or two": "She does not actually sit beside me but she does sit near me in order to say that a book, given to me, is in her bedroom and that I am free to read this during the daylight hours. I thank her and we part. This is my union."

My feelings evolved mostly in Cheever's favour. Early in my research I interviewed Max Zimmer, the protégé of later years, and that was a pretty grim story, to be sure. But it was easier to take--as were others like it--the more I learned about Cheever's own self-torment vis-à-vis Max (et al). To know all really is to forgive all. 

MIL: How have your discoveries influenced the way you read Cheever now? 

BB: Well, certainly I know a lot more about the background of the stories. Unlike Yates, who wrote almost directly from life--even to the point of only slightly changing real names--Cheever was a very intricate synthesizer of his raw materials. Take one of his greatest stories, "The Swimmer": He started with the donnée about a middle-aged suburban male, Neddy Merrill, swimming home from pool to pool (as Cheever himself liked to do), and learning a lot of terrible things about himself along the way; he thought this might be an interesting way to treat the myth of Narcissus. Too, there were all these other ingredients from Cheever's life: his brother Fred's alcoholic self-deceptions, for example, whereby he'd fooled himself into believing that he hadn't really wrecked his life and his family's life, and everything was simply wonderful. Circa 1963, when the story was written, John Cheever (rightly) feared the same fate for himself. 

So anyway he starts writing the story, and suddenly--and this is the kind of magic that makes Cheever's best work better, and more innovative, than just about anything written in the postwar era--the seasons begin to change, Neddy himself becomes old and tired, and by the end of the story ... but I won't spoil it. The point is, all this happens without any conscious planning on Cheever's part, and it's perfect. He had this extra chamber in his mind. 

MIL: Weighing in at 770 pages and created with the support of Cheever's family, "Cheever: A Life" is certainly the definitive biography. But some critics have complained that it's quite a lot of pages for a man best known for his short stories, and others say that it sensationalises his preoccupations with sex and drink. Did you ever wonder whether your portrait was too personal or too grim? And how has his family reacted?  

BB: First of all--naturally--I'd like to establish that the critical response to my book was overwhelmingly positive: Geoffrey Wolff wrote a long, lucid rave for the front-page of the New York Times Book Review, the daily NYT review was also a rave, I got a rare "A+" from Entertainment Weekly--and so on. My main detractor was Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post, whose review encapsulates the points you list above, to wit: that the book is too long ("an inert pudding," I think he said), that I couldn't "let go of my research," that I interviewed "a zillion people," and that I included an inordinate amount of sordid material.   

Well. Admittedly, Yardley's own foray into literary biography--"Misfit", about Frederick Exley--suffers from none of the ills he attributes to my book: it's very short, he interviewed a relative handful of people and most of his sordid details come directly out of Exley's own autobiographical fiction. I leave it to your readers, and posterity, to decide who did the better job.   

As for the Cheever family's sentiments toward my book--that, happily, is a matter of very public record. In the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post (sorry, Mr Yardley), the Daily Beast (for which Susan Cheever wrote her own rave of my book) and elsewhere, the family has unequivocally praised it as balanced, funny, generous, spot-on--all those good things. The opposite of an inert pudding, in short. 

But wait: about all that research I allegedly couldn't let go of ... it included a 4300+ -page journal, hundreds (if not "zillions") of interviews, thousands of letters, and God only knows how much secondary material--all of which I boiled down to a lean, sprightly (though I say it myself) 679 pages, sans index, acknowledgments, etc. I think the book's so tight it squeaks. And I think Cheever's a canonical author who led a fascinating life: He was on the covers of Time and Newsweek, he won the National Medal for Literature, the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and just about everything else except the Nobel Prize--so yes, absolutely, he deserves at least that many pages. 

MIL: I understand you've tried your hand at fiction, only to be steered gently towards writing non-fiction. What have your biographies of Yates and Cheever taught you about the creative process (that nebulous thing)? And do you still have aspirations for becoming a novelist? 

BB: After I graduated from college, I shared an apartment in New York with my old friend Michael Ruhlman, who went on to become quite famous as a food writer ("The Making of a Chef", et al).  In those days, we were both writing ghastly apprentice fiction, and one day Michael quipped that I'd probably end up as a literary biographer. So look what happened (and it was purely by accident, too, but that's another story).   

Michael recently plugged my Cheever bio on his blog, adding, however, that to start out aspiring to be a fiction writer and end up as a biographer is like the actor who hopes to be the next Olivier and ends up as Wayne Rogers playing Trapper John on "M*A*S*H". 

What I've learned, above all, about the creative process via my work on Yates and Cheever is (a) that it's a lot of damn hard work and (b) that it's dismally underpaid.  Will I write more fiction?  Absolutely, but I need to sell one of these biographies to the movies first.
 

Picture credit: Donna Turner Ruhlman