Remembering Alan Cheuse, Novelist, Critic, and Lifelong Literary Advocate

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Alan Cheuse, beloved teacher, novelist, and longtime book reviewer for NPR’s All Things Considered, passed away at the age of 75 on July 31, 2015, from complications sustained from a car accident two weeks prior. Alan was surrounded by his family and treated with excellent care at the Santa Clara Medical Center.

Alan was driving from Squaw Valley, where he taught for several years, to Santa Cruz when he was in his car accident. He had been spending the past 30 summers at Santa Cruz writing; his daughter Sonya says that the Pacific Ocean was his muse.

He had published more than a dozen books, including fiction, nonfiction, and memoir, and his most recent novel, Prayers for the Living, was published by Fig Tree Books in March 2015. His short fiction appears in publications such as The New Yorker, The Antioch Review, Ploughshares, and The Southern Review.

In much of his fiction, Alan Cheuse incorporated real-life American historical figures. Talking about the process of writing fiction about figures out of history, Alan explained in a 2009 interview with Fiction Writers Review:

It’s a tricky business…You don’t want to betray any of the known truth about them, but at the same time you know, from living your own life, that so much of the deepest truths about life stay hidden from the eyes of researchers and historians…It’s that part of the life of the actual figure that you can build fiction upon, based on what you know about what they have written, or painted, or photographed, and what they said on the record about such matters. And in the blank spaces that make up the majority of the space even in the most public of lives — call it life’s dark matter — you can, given what you learn about them, imagine what should have or what, as the first critic, Aristotle said about the difference between history and poetry, what should have happened.

Alan was very close to his family, including his wife Kris O’Shee, son Josh Cheuse, and daughters Emma Cheuse and Sonya Cheuse, a dear friend of mine who spoke many times over the years about her father’s love of teaching. In addition to his teaching at Squaw Valley, Alan taught writing and literature at George Mason in Fairfax, VA since 1987.

The Cheuse family has been receiving an enormous number of emails and notes from former and current students, a testament to the number of lives he touched and the essence of who he was as a person. Teaching was one of the things Alan loved to do the most, and he never planned to retire. Recent Squaw Valley student Shelly King explained, “With his challenging questions, he helped me bring to the surface thoughts and feelings about the story I couldn’t get to on my own. He ended our workshop on a joyful note, asking all of us about the writers we loved, which reminded us why we go through what we go through to be better writers.”

Alan was a teacher outside of the classroom as well. In addition to sharing his love of books since the 1980s on All Things Considered, where he reviewed an estimated 1,600 books, Alan brought books to share everywhere he went, giving them away to friends, at dinner parties, and especially to his grandchildren, who received books from their grandfather every time he visited them.

Writing and reading is known in the Cheuse household as the “family business,” and Sonya’s earliest childhood memories are of waking up to the sound of her father typing on the typewriter. “My dad is the reason I love reading,” she says. “I can’t imagine the literary world without him.”

His family will hold a memorial in Washington, D.C. this fall and will share details with the public when they are available. For now, they have placed a statement on Alan Cheuse’s website that asks you to remember Alan Cheuse by raising a glass, telling a joke, and hugging someone that you love, continuing his legacy by living your life the way you want to, being good to your family, and reading a lot.

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