Riding up the elevator at KQED one morning, I strike up a conversation with a charming man whose voice sounds very familiar. Why? Turns out he's Alan Cheuse, who's been reviewing books on All Things Considered since the 1980s.
Cheuse wears a number of professional hats. Trained as a literary scholar, he splits his time between the coasts, spending nine months of the year in Washington, D.C., where he teaches writing at George Mason University, and writing during the summers in Santa Cruz. He graciously offered himself up as an interview subject.
Tell me the story of how you became a reviewer for All Things
I actually resisted for quite a while. I was living in Tennessee and got an assignment from a radio trade magazine to write about NPR. This was in the early '80s, when NPR was a fairly young organization. I flew to D.C. and met a bunch of people, including Susan Stamberg. It was the only time I've ever been to Morning Edition — you have to get up at like 2am.
Then, before I could even start writing the piece, I got a letter (that dates this story, doesn't it?) saying the magazine was folding. Soon after, I got a call from Susan Stamberg's producer asking if I had any interest in doing book reviews for ATC. I considered myself a print guy. I did college radio, but —. I gave a list of other people, but she called back, insisting. "Oh, okay," I said. So I made a tape. I reviewed a novel by a Southern writer, I don't remember who. I got a call back: "This is terrible, make another." After the fifth or sixth one, they said they were going to use it.
That was 1982. Now I do 40 to 50 reviews each year. I go down to the main NPR studio to record when I'm on the East Coast. During the summers, when I'm in Santa Cruz, I tape at KQED.
Are you originally from the West Coast?
No. When I met my second wife in the late 1970s, she was the number two — as in only the second one — grad student in the history of consciousness program at U.C. Santa Cruz. I followed her to California. I spent a month or more there in winter of 1975 and fell in love with the Pacific Ocean. I've been going now for more than 30 years.
The fog in the morning makes you stay home and work, and then you can take a beach walk in the afternoon.
Who chooses the books you review?
I choose the books. It's rare that someone at NPR suggests something. I can remember some of those. For instance, I was asked to review The Iran-Contra Report as a thriller. And every now and then I'm asked to review a campaign biography. The rest are up to me.
I try to read across the menu, from the deeply serious to thrillers to science fiction. I remain pretty much within the U.S. borders, although it's difficult not to stray when there's something like a new Murakami.
Has your writing been influenced by being a reviewer?
Well, I once wrote a review of a Carlos Fuentes novel and then out of blue got a signed copy from him. He asked me to send him some of my work. I sent him a story I'd written about Ambrose Bierce. Two years later, he says in an interview that his new novel will be about Ambrose Bierce and Mexico. My wife said to me, "Now you don't have to write it." Now I could do something else.
Does being a writer impact how you approach a book? Are most reviewers
I think most people who review poetry tend to be poets, but I believe only half of people who review fiction are writers themselves. I think it's favorable to have working artists reviewing other artists' work. We can speak to the technique.
Are you working on a novel now?
Yes. Also, my novel Song of Slaves in the Desert comes out in paperback in July, and I have a new short story in the next issue of The Michigan Quarterly Review.
Also on KQED.org this week ...
Drought Watch 2015: Record-Low Sierra Snowpack
The Sierra Nevada snowpack, which typically supplies nearly a third of California's water, is showing the lowest water content on record: 6 percent of the long-term average for April 1. That shatters last year's low-water mark of 25 percent (tied with 1977).
"Boomtown" History of the San Francisco Bay Area
KQED's "Boomtown" series will seek to identify what is happening in real time in the current boom, and also draw out the causes and possible solutions to the conflicts and pressures between the old and the new.