New School MFA Creative Writing faculty member Susan Cheever's latest book, Drinking in America: Our Secret History, just out from Hachette Book Group, examines our nation's tumultuous relationship with alcohol. In times of celebration, grievance, or just to take the edge off, drinking has always been a cherished part of American life. From the Pilgrims' landing at Cape Cod "because they were running out of beer," to the the creation of Alcoholics Anonymous, Cheever illustrates the role of liquor in our culture, highlighting important figures in the history of drinking, such as John Adams, Ethan Allen, and her own father, John Cheever.
Cheever, who has been sober for over 20 years, says that during that time she has "obsessively studied both alcoholism and temperance and their effects on individuals and cultures." As her student, I was eager to interview the distinguished biographer, historian, and memoirist about her process, and what advice she has for aspiring writers.
Sara-Kate Astrove: I was looking through the bibliography and acknowledgements in the back of the book and was amazed how many sources you drew from. How much time did you spend reading and researching before you began to write?
Susan Cheever: It feels like a lifetime! I have been working on the book for five years, but of course I did a lot of reading on the subjects of drinking and history before I knew this was a book.
Astrove: Which was your favorite chapter to write?
Cheever: My favorite chapter is the chapter about writers. I had always more or less accepted the common idea that writing and drinking go together in America. It turns out not to be true. When I looked more closely I realized that 19th century writers didn’t drink—Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, the Alcotts, Dickinson. I also realized that contemporary writers don’t drink much—Irving, Tartt, Chabon, Franzen, Oates. All the drinking, all the writers who drank, were between prohibition in 1920 and about 1980. I think the drinking writers did in those two generations may well have been abetted by prohibition which, by making liquor illegal, made it desirable.
Astrove: What was the biggest challenge in writing this book compared to your others?
Cheever: Researching this book was difficult because I had to find the historians who dealt with drinking first and then read their work. I read a lot of indexes.
Astrove: Why did you have a squash ball in your bag the other day during class?
Cheever: I play a lot of squash! Sometimes the balls end up in strange places.
Astrove: That's wonderful! You mentioned in your memoir Note Found in a Bottle that for awhile you didn't admit to yourself you wanted to be a writer. When did you finally feel you could call yourself a writer?
Cheever: I didn’t really call myself a writer until I had published a few novels.
Astrove: What is a typical daily schedule for you while working on a book?
Cheever: I don’t really have a set schedule. For years I did—get up at 9:00am, drink coffee, four hours at the desk, lunch and afternoons I wrote letters and kept a journal. Then I got married. Then I had children. Now I just write whenever I can.
Astrove: What is your advice for someone writing her first book?
Cheever: Just write 1,000 words a day until you have 400 pages, then rewrite them 10-20 times and you will have the draft of a book!
Astrove: Wow, that's extremely helpful! Any plans for your next project?
Cheever: Not at the moment!
Drinking in America has received praise from Kirkus Reviews for its "fascinating look at the place and function of alcohol throughout American history." According to Publishers Weekly, "Cheever's central observation is fascinating...The melting pot, it seems, was also a mixing bowl." Singer/songwriter Judy Collins called the book "both enlightening and frightening."
Susan Cheever is the author of the biographies E.E. Cummings, American Bloomsbury, and My Name Is Bill, as well as five novels and four memoirs. Her work has appeared in many publications including The New Yorker, New York Times, Washington Post, and Newsday. She has taught at Yale, Hunter College, and The New School.
Sara-Kate Astrove, also known as SK, is an MFA Creative Writing student at The New School. She lives in Gramercy and enjoys rompers, jumpsuits and lurking. She is currently writing a memoir.