|Jan/Feb 2009 Spotlight|
Literature has been the salvation of the damned, literature has inspired and guided lovers, routed despair and can perhaps in this case save the world. —John Cheever
I grew up in Westchester County, New York, in a town called Ossining. We lived in the rural part of the village, on a winding, idyllic country lane called Spring Valley Road. (Other roads in the area were Hawks Lane, Apple Bee Farms Road, Cedar Lane... you get the idea.)
While it was isolated in a sense from things like supermarkets, shops (and people!), it did afford a unique experience through this dichotomy: while it was very much "country living" with lakes, woods, waterfalls, ponds, frogs, lizards, fishing, deer, nature trails (not to mention skating, sleigh riding and shoveling icy steps in the winter while tossing rock salt), it was still just a scant 45 minutes or so from New York City. So while you might have been lazily fishing for sunnies and blue gills at three o'clock on a summer afternoon, that evening you could be at a Broadway Show. Or a Mets game. A bright winter day spent clearing the lake to skate and play could end up that night at Madison Square Garden watching the New York Rangers hockey team. All in all, an interesting environment to grow up in.
It was because of this "best of both worlds" situation that certain notable people became attracted to the area. Jackie Gleason, for one. Other actors. Writers. Thinkers. Even Peter Frampton (on the heels of the blockbuster album Frampton Comes Alive) all escaped to the these woods for solace, privacy, and the knowledge that New York City was still within reach.
But it was one neighbor in particular who made the biggest impression on me. His name was John Cheever, and though I didn't fully realize it at the time, he was one America's great short story writers and novelists.
I had decided early on in life that I wanted to be a writer, I think because of one pivotal experience. In the fourth grade, I had written a short story that my teacher, Miss Tina Rinaldi, really seemed to like. To a point in fact where she actually notified my parents that they should encourage me in this arena—and even mentioned it to a couple of other teachers (Miss Duff, I remember, got very excited.) For me, seeing a teacher become that interested in something was significant—and its effect lasts to this day. So, from that moment on, I was set. Come hell or high water, I wanted to be a writer. (A fallback I'd use many times when things like math grades suffered: "Hey... who needs math... I'm gonna be a writer.")
So in 1975 (I was about 13), my mom suggested (after having heard me squawk about writing for a few years) that I drop a note to a man who lived down the road apiece, a writer named John Cheever, to see if he could offer me any advice. So I did. I wrote a few simple sentences to this man I'd never heard of, asking for some guidance. And then, just a few days later, I got a neatly typed note that read (this has been committed to memory since I opened the envelope):
Dear Chris Epting:
It is nice to know that there is another writer living in the neighborhood. I will call you one day soon and then maybe we can take a walk and talk about writing.
I could tell from my parent's reaction that this was a big deal. (I think there's something about seeing adults get genuinely excited, acting almost like kids, that impresses a young person. It feels incongruous, but in a good way.)
Just several days later the phone in our house rang. My mom said it was for me, but she looked different. Clearly, this was not one of my pals, John Mungo or Tommy Monahan, calling, She watched closely as I took the receiver...
"Yes, Chris..." a rich, weathered, New England-accented voice began, "this is John Cheever."
With that, I was introduced to one of the greatest fiction writers in American literary history.
He asked me a few questions about what I liked to write (short stories, I said—he said, "So do I.") and then asked if I might be able to come over to his home for a visit. (I remember thinking that, because Little League All Stars was just under way, that it would be tough to get a visit in during practices.) But he spoke to my mom for a minute or so, and when she hung up, we had a plan. In just a couple of days, I was to be dropped off at his house after school for a visit. And I was to bring some writing samples.
John Cheever lived in a beautiful colonial-type home off of Cedar Lane in Ossining, New York. You drove back a long, wooded, cul de sac driveway, and a big golden retriever (or maybe it was an Irish setter) ran up to greet visitors as they arrived. My mom dropped me off, watching as Mr. Cheever met me at the door and invited me in.
He was a very distinctive looking man. His long, drawn face had lots of lines and crevices in it. Mr. Cheever seemed a bit tired, aloof, but also relaxed as he ambled into a very well oiled den sort-of room. He motioned for me to sit down (after getting me a Coke) and didn't say much of anything at first. He had gone across the room and started looking through record albums until finally he found what he had been looking for. He held it up and said, "This is a remarkable album. Have you ever heard it?"
It was Rubber Soul by the Beatles. I told him that yes, I was quite familiar with it, and seconds later, "I've Just Seen A Face" was coming out of his small stereo speakers. Later, when "Michelle" came on, he said he thought that it was "absolutely incredible" or something to that effect. "In My Life" he liked, too.
Then finally, he sat down. Before paying me too much attention, he lit up a filterless cigarette. But before doing that, he lined up a bunch of other filterless cigarettes on the antique table next to him. For the next hour or so, as he finished one cigarette, he'd light another one off of it. Literally, one match made it through the entire pack of smokes.
Cheever started with basic teacher/student questions. He asked me why I liked writing, what else I liked in life, how I liked school, etc. I showed him some stories I'd brought along, and he said he'd hold on to them, read them, and then offer his critique when he was finished.
During the course of the meeting, Cheever's wife had also come in for a moment to say hello. She reminded him that he was going to be on the Dick Cavett Show in a couple of days and that Cavett wanted to speak to him before the appearance. He groaned at that and rolled his eyes.
Cheever listened thoughtfully to me and took deep hits on his cigarettes, releasing ungodly amounts of blue smoke. After hearing about how much I liked playing baseball and that we were in our post-season as all stars, he got very interested, and I remember thinking, "Good, he's a baseball fan. We have a bit in common."
As we neared what seemed like the end of our discussion, he said he had a bit of advice. He said he didn't think people could be taught to write or led to write. He said real writers write, period. If it's in you, you do it. So go home he told me, and begin keeping a journal. Cheever said that journals force you to write, and that's what separates writers from people "who simply say they want to write." He said journals are where you develop your own style and point of view. How you start creating a discipline for yourself. So I said I'd start soon. He said, "Start today. There's no point in waiting. Go home and start a journal. If you really want to write, then go home and write. And then when you write something you think is important, I will look at it for you. We can meet like this from time to time... but you have to really want to write. It's a great deal of work, and you must be serious."
(I remember this incident well because I did in fact start a journal that day, and the first entry was a description of my first meeting with John Cheever.)
Mr. Cheever, as I always addressed him from that point on, drove me home then in his red Volkswagen Rabbit. As he pulled up our long driveway, I noticed my mom looking out the door off the breakfast room. Getting out of the car, I asked, "Would you please get out and say hi to my mom? My folks are both huge fans of yours."
He smiled, I think for the first time that day, even laughed a bit, and said, "My pleasure." I left the two of them chatting in the driveway and went to find a blank pad of paper so I could start my journal.
A few weeks later, Mr. Cheever called to invite me back to his home to review some of my work, thus starting a friendship that would last until his death in 1981. The years getting to know him were very special, and I'm busy writing about those in a separate series of pieces. From walks down Spring Valley Road to author readings in the local library, even calling an English professor I had in college to suggest I be allowed to take his much-worshipped course, John Cheever was very generous when it came to helping me with my writing.
I was in a bookstore the other day, and I saw a copy of The Short Stories of John Cheever, my all-time favorite collection of short fiction. On the table near it, just several titles away, was a book that I wrote called James Dean Died Here. Now, I have yet to write fiction, as I originally intended back when I got to know John Cheever. But I love what I write about, history and travel, and who knows? Perhaps some day the muse will pay a call and bless me with the precious ability required to tackle what I consider to be the most elusive of challenges. Still, seeing the two books near each other gave me pause and even a bit of a lump in my throat. We were kind of connected, albeit loosely, the teacher and student, all those years later. I thought to myself, how lucky I was to have known someone so great, someone who took the time to share some stories and advice—someone who gave some critique and company to, as he put it, "another writer living in the neighborhood."