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Reviewed by:
  • Conversations with John Cheever
  • Lynne M. Waldeland
Scott Donaldson, ed. Conversations with John Cheever. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1987. 259 pp. $24.95 cloth; pb. $14.95.

This volume, part of the Literary Conversations Series published by the University Press of Mississippi, contains twenty-eight interviews with John Cheever, arranged in chronological order, plus a chronology and an introduction by the editor. The number allows the reader to see what was consistent in Cheever's statements about his life and work over a forty-year time span, and the order reveals certain changes and developments in his manner of response to interviewers.

Some of the interviewers are well-known, such as Wilfred Sheed, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, and John Hersey. Some of the interviews were carried out in major settings in which contemporary authors are able to discuss their work, including Robert Cromie's Book Beat on PBS, an interview on John Callaway's Chicago television show, and a Paris Review interview conducted by Annette Grant. The Cavett Show interviews are not included, but a well-known interview by Cheever's daughter, Susan, which appeared in Newsweek, is. A number of the interviews are by local journalists, sent to interview the author when he returned to Boston or Quincy. The interest of the latter set of interviews is the revelation of the unfailing courtesy with which Cheever responded to the little-known as well as the famous and the relative consistency of his answers and his evasions.

Since Susan Cheever's memoir, Home Before Dark, and Scott Donaldson's new biography of Cheever have filled in many details of the author's life about which he was indirect, there will be few revelations in this volume. Mostly the reader will be reminded of the troubled relationships Cheever had with his parents, the complexity of his relationship with his brother, and the tensions as well as the durability of his marriage. His statements about his children are the least ambivalent, and he reveals great satisfaction with them and with the role of fatherhood.

His responses to questions about fiction and his writing career contain few surprises. He repeatedly says that fiction writing is not a competitive sport and indicates considerable admiration for a number of his contemporaries, especially John Updike and Saul Bellow. He has few theories about fiction, consistently echoing James's dictum that its primary requirement is that it be interesting. As might be expected, the Paris Review interview, part of the "Art of Fiction" series, provides the most insight into his views on his technical achievement. He resists questions that would link a given work to some aspect of his personal life, repeating in interview after interview that "fiction is not crypto-autobiography." The later interviews are quite revealing on his problems with alcohol and drugs, and they are the first in which he identifies his recurrent theme as "freedom and confinement."

Readers will learn little that is new about Cheever from these interviews, nor will they gain great insight into the nature of fiction or of Cheever's own artistic achievement. They will rather have the pleasant experience of listening to a thoughtful author discuss his life and work. They will find a sort of key to the career of John Cheever in his answer to a question on why he chose writing [End Page 648] as a vocation. He says, "It's really the most acute and intimate means of communication we have. It's a way in which we express to one another loneliness, the need for love, courage, all sorts of imponderables that we have no other way to communicate to each other."

Lynne M. Waldeland
Northern Illinois University


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pp. 648-649
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