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Alan Cheuse Discusses “A Trance After Breakfast,” His New Collection of Travel Essays

June 1, 2009

Throughout the course of his distinguished career, Alan Cheuse has proven himself adept at a variety of forms: the novel, of course, including his latest To Catch the Lightning: A Novel of American Dreaming; the novella, as his collection The Fires attests; short fiction (three collections!); and memoir as well, with the book Fall Out of Heaven. And that’s not to mention his extensive work as both a reviewer for National Public Radio or as an editor with several anthologies of fiction and nonfiction under his belt. With his latest book, A Trance After Breakfast and Other Passages, Cheuse shows himself to be a fine travel writer as well — though pointedly not the kind of travel writer who simply offers a guidebook about select locales; as he argues in the introduction to the new collection, “the best travel writing carries us along on a soul-journey, the sort of trip that may or may not tell you about the best hotels and the good places to eat, but certainly… dramatizes how the heart learns about itself in relation to the world, making the foreign familiar and the familiar slightly foreign.”

The collection’s essay span a variety of styles, structures, and approaches. An article on Georgia O’Keeffe’s home and studio in Abiquiu, New Mexico seems, for example, a more straightforward essay about a popular tourist attract, while a piece on the San Ysidro Port of Entry follows “one of the busiest border crossings in the world” over the course of a long evening, with the narrator taking the role of “the pilgrim” and taking us behind-the-scenes and then offering alternate perspectives on larger issues through small interludes that discuss drug trafficking or immigration policy, for example. The essay “Thirty-Five Passages Over Water” works backward in time, beginning with a series of Cheuse’s own boat trips and working back as far as his parents’ journeys before his own birth and then even beyond, giving a portrait not just of a family but of a larger history and perhaps of all humankind in the process. And in “Coda: Two Oceans,” Cheuse muses from a very personal perspective on the differences between the Atlantic and the Pacific and the roles that each ocean has played in his own life.

Cheuse will be reading from and discussing the new collection on Saturday, June 13, at Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., and then elsewhere over the next two months; for more information, visit www.alancheuse.com. In the meantime, Cheuse answered some questions about the book during a back-and-forth email exchange over the last week — offering insight on his process here and on reading and writing in general.

Art Taylor: What can you tell us about how you made these essays? 

Alan Cheuse

Alan Cheuse

Alan Cheuse: First came the impulse, the desire, to travel as widely as I could, given my duties and responsibilities to fiction work at hand and teaching my courses. My wife had been telling me about Bali for years, and so had piqued my curiousity about this extraordinary place, a Hindu island in the middle of an Indonesian Islamic nation (the largest Islamic nation in the world, in fact). I had been reading about Hinduism for some time, a complex and complicated religion, compared to the rather straight-forward and, gods forgive me, somewhat simplistic western varieties of worship. (It’s a religion as complicated as life, unlike, as I see them, those other worship paths). So when the opportunity came along for an assignment to that special island, I leaped — or flew for twenty-three hours — to the task.

Same thing with New Zealand, an off-the-beaten path destination that turned out to be as magical as the way it is depicted in movies. The geography keeps on giving — mountain ranges, fjords, Montana like plains, Kansas-like farmland in the South Island, New Englandish inland on the North Island, only a few hours drive from the most magnificent beaches on earth. If Bali moved my spirit, New Zealand took my eyes. Everywhere we turned lay an even more astonishingly beautiful land or sea-scape.

But I found magic too in more mundane subjects, too. In my writing about my old home-town. In this regard maybe I can say that all writing is travel writing, whether you venture out for a mile or ten thousand miles. Every step you — or your characters — take carries you along a road toward some horizon. The idea is to discover the proper perspective for depicting each journey, short or long.

The introduction to your new collection is rich with literary references, and literature continues to be important throughout the collection. Are you more likely to travel to places that you’ve previously read about or to read about places to which you’ve traveled or soon plan to travel?

I don’t have a proper answer, except to say both situations have been true in the past, and both will probably occur in the future. I’ve read about Dublin, say, and would like to travel there. I haven’t read much about the Turkish coast but I would were I to travel there.

Speaking of Dublin, you talk about Ulysses in your introduction and it’s clear that you know something about that city through Joyce, despite having never been there: What other novels have captured their “places” so completely that you’ve felt like you know them without laid eyes on them in person?

I’m trying to think — what interesting places do I know only from reading about them?

Australia. I’ve read a number of Australian novels, never been there, though got relatively close when roaming around New Zealand. Iceland—I love the novels of Haldor Laxness, one of the greatest writers of the late twentieth century, and, alas, still greatly unknown to American readers, and he gives you Iceland Iceland Iceland in his wonderful books. And China, yes! I’ve only skirted the border of China when traveling by train on the Russian side of the border down from Khaborosk to Vladivostok. The entire border was marked by barbed wire. I kept thinking to myself, China’s on the other side, China’s on the other side.

Any other novel that has impacted you to the point that you’ve said, “I must go here myself someday”? 

The last novels of my dear late friend James D.Houston invited me to Hawaii. And now that I’ve visited I hope to return soon, and write about it myself.

And then there are the cities of the future that one can visit only in the work of Italo Calvino, or the cities on other planets that you spend time in in the work of, say, Ursula Le Guin. I can only revisit by rereading. Reading is the cheapest, and sometimes the most rewarding, variety of travel.

The essay “Point of Entry” about the border crossing at San Ysidro wears its reportage on its sleeve, with you — as “the pilgrim” — explicitly interviewing people and documenting events within the story we’re reading. Elsewhere, it seems that a place may simply have inspired you to take up a pen later. How many of the places here were visited “on assignment,” so to speak?

Every essay in the book grew out of a magazine assignment. I introduced  “the pilgrim” in the border crossing piece because it seemed appropriate. Though I think every fiction writer is always “on assignment”, whether at home in a room or on the road or at some distant point on the map.

There’s a great stylistic and structural variety among these essays. To what degree do you try to match an essay’s style/structure to the place itself?

I wasn’t trying to do more than find the appropriate voice for each piece. I know they seem varied, but I hope that the intensity of the act of observation remains constant throughout the book, and that looking and being remain closely intertwined.

Speaking of perspectives, I was struck by a line from the opening section of “Thirty-Five Passages Over Water” in which you talk about “The kind of love that comes in youth, when you know nothing and feel that you have an eternity, or later in life when you have almost everything and know that you will lose it.” How do you think the passage of time, the lapse of time, has impacted your perspective on the places you explore here?

Each place, I suppose, fits in to some innate sense I have of events over time — my life’s “narrative” — and my response to each place changes that narrative, one hopes, for the better.

But beyond your own “life’s narrative,” do you think that you see these places themselves more clearly with the perspective of time passed? In other words, does time provide for clearer focus or does it blur perspectives on place, whether because of nostalgia, say, or through some potential mischief of memory? 

Well, let’s take Paris as an example. I lived in Paris when I was in my mid-twenties.It was a certain kind of city, heavenly in its own way, with its own deep roots going back to the age of kings and my connection to it going back, in a very young romantic writerly way to the Paris of the 20s, with Stein and Hemingway and Pound and company. I remember that well, and could, if I tried hard enough, properly recreate the experience for myself and possibly others. If I went back tomorrow, the city would be a different place, changed by decades of progress and such, and I am changed by time, also, it would be quite different.  New branches, new leaves, old roots. But this perspective that time yields us is the way we see everything in our experience, non? We are time-travelers, going two steps forward, one step back, all the time. Or maybe one step forward, two steps back.

And the earth moves and quakes, and revolves about the sun, and the galaxy moves ever so distinctly toward what destination we will never know. All life is traveling, at various paces and speeds.

Another related question: As much as these pieces explore various worlds — whether on foreign lands or closer to home — they also explore your own past and your inner life. In his essay “Toward a Definition of Creative Nonfiction,” Brett Lott talks about “the self as continent, you its first explorer.” What has travel writing — writing about that world “out there” — helped you to learn about yourself?

 I didn’t have any such sense in the foreground of my minds as I traveled and wrote these pieces. All I wanted to do was write good essays, which is to say, fresh, appealing, perhaps even upon occasion moving narratives that grew out of actual experience. It’s refreshing for a fiction writer to be able to do this from time to time. Fiction is trebly — at least — more difficult. To paraphrase a remark of my dear old late friend John Gardner, the nonfiction writer just writes the piece, the fiction writer first has to cough up a country.

So would you call these essays easy to write? 

When I sat down to write the pieces they came mostly easily, in a few drafts. (I can hardly ever say that about my fiction.) I had only to recognize the need to make other people see and feel what I saw and felt. And thought. And put it in a forward-moving narrative, in language that was expansive without seeming overblown. And as I write these last lines I realize how different nonfiction narrative is from fiction. And how much the same. It’s just that you can be a little more self-conscious when you compose nonfiction without destroying the tension in the piece.

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