Saturday, August 1, 2015

THERE HAS PASSED A GLORY FROM THIS EARTH: A TRIBUTE TO ALAN CHEUSE

I read recently an article in The New York Times about writers who should be loosed from the Literary Canon.  James Parker suggests that Wordsworth must make his exit.

And yet it is a line (paraphrased in this blog title) from Wordsworth's Intimations to Immortality  which comes to me now, as I learn of the death of Alan Cheuse,  my teacher, mentor, editor, friend and world class lover of books and life.

I first encountered Alan listening to NPR.  He was the voice of book reviews - short sweet and engaging. His commentaries came from the mind of a deep and serious reader.   So when I returned from Brussels to Northern Virginia, looking for ways to reignite my writing career, I knew Alan's name as connected to the MFA Program at George Mason University- and that's where I went.

I began my studies there in 2001, and instantly connected with Alan.  I remember chatting with him in his book lined office, and leaving him a short story I'd written while living in Brussels.  When I arrived at his class later that evening he took me aside. "I want to publish that story," he said.  "And I will pay you for it."
the cover of Rattapallax 7 in which my story appears

Of course, I agreed.  He subsequently included that story in Rattapallax 7. You can imagine my joy when he told me he thought it the best use of 2nd person he had ever read.

I learned so much from Alan over my four years at Mason.  It was under his guidance that I  completed my MFA project - a novel entitled THE DOVE PURSUES THE GRIFFIN. Alan told me  the reading was a pleasure and that the most difficult part was re-affixing the clasp I'd used to hold the pages together. His endorsement of my work meant that I submitted it to agents - and landed a London agent.

That agent subsequently got me a book deal for my second novel I KNOW WHERE I AM WHEN I'M FALLING. While the first novel remains unpublished, it is currently under consideration at various independent presses, substantially reworked  - and renamed NO ENEMY BUT WINTER. I owe that book to Alan's guidance. If it finds a home - I will dedicate it to him.

I could tell many stories about Alan here.  About his wise counsel on writing, or my family visit to San Francisco - where my sister lives.  It turns out my sister was the housekeeper for Alan's great friend - Oakley Hall, who also taught with Alan at the Squaw Valley Writers Community.    My sister had arranged for my family and me to stay at the Halls' beautiful home on Macondray Lane - the summer we visited Alan in Santa Cruz.

What an amazing coincidence!  We could hardly believe it  - and yet it seemed to solidify the tribe of writers I had joined.  It suggested  I was woven into a communal tapestry - that my contribution was another thread of the writing life which extended across the North American continent.

It was also because of Alan that my daughter Rozzie was treated for emotional difficulties, during her teens, by Alan's good friend Jim Gordon.  Without Jim's intervention and wise counsel, I don't know where we might have turned or what might have happened to us.  Because of his counsel, our daughter weathered the crisis and - surprise surprise - she is also a writer today.

I am now thinking of Alan's daughter Emma, holding her young baby after a reading at the home of Alan and his lovely wife Kris.  I think of a choreographed performance by Kris to which Alan invited us, years ago - involving a piano and a solitary dancer.  I think of the bond that united Alan and Kris - a love match, pure and simple. Anyone who saw them together could see it.  I think of the many readings I attended at Politics and Prose where Alan read from his latest publication.  Now I work as a bookseller at Politics and Prose. Is this just another coincidence?  Or is it because Alan put this incredible independent bookstore on the map for me.

There is an enormous hole in the literary community of Washington DC with the death of Alan Cheuse. Alan was the deepest of readers.  He had digested more work and had more interesting things to say about books and putting them in perspective than almost anyone else I know.   Now his perspective has gone.

But to read is to enter other worlds.  When Alan went into a coma a few short weeks ago, he entered yet another world - one into which we could no longer follow.   We don't know where that world has led him.  He took a detour and left us.

But he is somewhere.  At the very least, he exists in the hearts and minds, in the literary consciousness of our entire community. He used to say that even if you didn't write to publish, following the MFA at George Mason made you a better READER.  I for one am a better reader  because of Alan Cheuse.  I also believe I am a better writer.

Godspeed, my friend.  You will be profoundly missed.

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