by Paula McMahon
Blake Bailey’s biography of John Cheever, Cheever: A Life, won the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award, the Francis Parkman Prize, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, among many other accolades. His biography of Richard Yates, A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates, was a finalist for the 2003 National Book Critics Circle Award. In addition, Bailey received an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2010, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2005. For the Library of America, he edited two volumes of Cheever’s work: John Cheever: Collected Stories and Other Writings, and John Cheever: Complete Novels. Bailey currently is the Mina Hohenberg Darden Professor of Creative Writing at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. This interview was conducted earlier this year, shortly after the release of Cheever: A Life.
In the acknowledgments of Cheever: A Life, you talk about the book as developing from your earlier biography of Richard Yates. How did you develop an interest in writing about Yates?
Bailey: In the late 1980s, Vintage Contemporaries reprinted three of Yates’ books, Revolutionary Road, and The Easter Parade, and Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. I had never heard of Richard Yates. I read those books, and immediately I thought this is the greatest neglected canonical postwar American author. Why isn’t he better known? And sure enough, those Vintage Contemporary editions went out of print, and Yates lapsed back into obscurity and died in conditions of terrible squalor in Alabama, totally forgotten.
So, I had written my third or fourth unpublishable novel. But the last one was good enough to attract the interest of a good literary agent. And she said, “Blake, you write well, and all the success you’ve had as a writer, such as it is, has been nonfiction. So why do you persist in writing fiction?” She said, “Write me a book proposal about whatever interests you right now, and I’ll try to sell it.” And what interested me at that moment in time was Richard Yates.
Had you just read those books?
Bailey: No, I had read them about ten years before. But more recently, one of those Twayne’s United States Author monographs had finally been done on Yates, and about ten pages of the second chapter were biographical. And what that established was that his fiction was indeed extremely autobiographical. He really did have this nutty, alcoholic, promiscuous sculptor mother who dragged them from place to place. And it was just amazing. I mean, his life. And so I got in touch with the daughters. And it turned out those aspects of his life he wrote about in his fiction wasn’t even half of it. He was Robert F. Kennedy’s sole speechwriter at the height of the civil rights movement. He was the subject of a Seinfeld episode, like Cheever was. He was a pioneering test patient for the use of psychotropic drugs because he was bipolar. It was just fascinating. And that’s what I wrote my proposal on, and by God, she sold it.
How long did it take you to create that book?
Bailey: I hope I never have to work that hard again because at this age, it would kill me. What happened was I really worked hard on the initial 50-page proposal because it was a hard sell. You know, Yates was out of print. But some other things happened around that time regarding Yates’ reputation that made it more saleable. I did a lot of research just for the proposal, and so I had a lot of momentum going when my agent finally sold it. The contract gave me fourteen months to research and write a long literary biography. [Richard] Ellman took about twenty years to write his literary biography of James Joyce. And James Atlas in the introduction to his [Saul] Bellow biography says it takes ten years to do credible research and to write a literary biography. I had about two years, all told, including research and writing. And the published book, not including acknowledgments, notes, and a subject index, was 613 pages.
It’s a wonderful book.
Bailey: Thank you. But the work was insane. I was getting up early, seven days a week, not leaving my desk except to eat and sleep. I think it was Goethe who said, “Approach the task at hand with great enthusiasm and you will accomplish great things.” I had tremendous enthusiasm for that project.
Bailey: Because I thought it was a magnificent story about a magnificent writer. And that it had an important lesson about the human predicament to relate.
And you were very happy with the final product?
It was as a result of that book that your book on Cheever came about?
Bailey: Yes. Very much so. I mean, I was floundering for another subject, and what happened was Janet Maslin reviewed the Yates book for the New York Times and gave me the best review I will ever get. It was huge. The front page of the Arts section. She is John Cheever’s daughter-in-law. She is married to Ben Cheever.
Bailey: Yeah. So she pressed the Yates book on her husband Ben. And he liked it. And he got in touch and said, “I have this book show in Westchester – cable TV – and would you be interested in being on it?” And I said, “Sure.” And it coincided with a reading I was doing in New York. So afterward we had dinner with Janet, and he said something like, “If only my father had a biographer like that.” Now, I had had this fixed idea at the time that I had to be the first biographer of whatever subject I chose to do, like I was with Yates.
Bailey: And there had been a previous biography of Cheever by Scott Donaldson. But that night I learned that he – Donaldson – had fallen out with the family. He had no access to Cheever’s forty-three-hundred-page, single-space typed journal. He was not allowed to quote from letters and other writings.
Was he allowed to look at them?
Bailey: He could look at letters, but he wasn’t allowed to look at the journal. And Cheever’s journal is a famous document. Anyway, when Ben suggested that I would have unfettered access to absolutely all materials – and we had a written agreement to that effect – I decided to go ahead. So yes, Yates had very much to do with it. And they’re similar writers.
I see similarities, yes.
Bailey: They’re both chroniclers of postwar American suburban malaise.
In creating the book, were the family members as helpful as you anticipated them being?
Bailey: Yes. And I was surprised because Mary, the widow, well, it’s just obviously uncomfortable to discuss how you were deceived for many years by a bisexual husband.
Bailey: But she has a very good sense of humor about all that. The other thing is that Mary has been rather litigious in the past. In fact, the most wildly expensive literary lawsuit of the past 30 or 40 years was when the Cheever family sued this small press in Chicago for publishing the uncollected stories of John Cheever. And, once they soured on Donaldson, they gave him very short shrift. And I like Scott Donaldson.
Why did they sour on him? Had he annoyed them in some way?
Bailey: There were a lot of factors. One was that, at the same time that Donaldson was doing his book, Susan [Cheever] was writing her memoir. Ben was editing the Selected Letters, and they just felt a sort of proprietary interest in their father’s material. They didn’t want to share it with Donaldson. But just in general, they didn’t think that he was the right person for the job.
Before you wrote the Yates book, what were you writing?
Bailey: I had published one previous book. A kind of a coffee table book on the sixties. It was titled, The Sixties. It was nicely produced. Also, I had done a certain amount of freelancing, particularly book reviews, for various publications. And what I worked hardest at was this terrible fiction.
Do you regret that?
Bailey: No. Because working on my narrative chops made me a better writer. I taught for seven years, right up to the time I got the contract for the Yates book. I taught eighth-grade gifted kids at a magnet school in New Orleans.
You liked that?
Bailey: I did. They were terrific. I loved it.
And after seven years of teaching, you got the Yates contract?
Bailey: Right at the end of that period, I was getting to the point where my writing had evolved enough that it was time to get published again. Not just coffee table books, and not just freelancing. I was ready to do something that was good and somewhat important.
In a talk you gave, you discussed your next biography, one about Charles Jackson. Could you talk more about that, or maybe something else you’re working on?
Bailey: I was going to do small profiles about literary failures: writers who are totally forgotten, but who I had encountered in my research on Yates and Cheever. And Charles Jackson was going to be one of those profiles, because I’d always admired The Lost Weekend. It’s a terrific book. But the more I learned about Charles Jackson, the more I realized that this was a story with very universal themes.
Such as . . . ?
Bailey: Such as what is an addict? Far more than Cheever’s, for reasons that are difficult to explain, Charles Jackson’s story is the story of what it was to be an closeted gay man in mid-century America. And what it was to be an alcoholic before alcoholism was properly understood. Charles Jackson had a lot to do with getting alcoholism better understood in this country. That in itself is an interesting story, and there are so many others. Plus, even though Jackson himself is totally forgotten, The Lost Weekend is well known as a movie. There was that cultural reference. And so the editors at my present publisher, Knopf, bought it.
When is it supposed to be finished?
Bailey: I hope that I finish it in a couple of years.
I can’t wait to read it.
Bailey: I can’t wait to write it.
Paula McMahon is a fiction graduate from the MFA Creative Writing program at Old Dominion University. She has a Bachelor of Journalism Degree from the University of Missouri – Columbia, and has had short stories published in Dogwood: A Journal of Poetry and Prose and the Sequoia Review. Her story, “The One That Got Away,” received an Honorable Mention in the 2009 AWP Intro Journals Project. She and her husband manage a small advertising agency and have four children.