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The City and the Writer: In New York City with Susan Cheever

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of New York City as you feel/see it?

New York City is fast-moving, garish, noisy, sharp, funny, and all about excellence. Every street is a stage. Every interaction has weight.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

In 1981 when my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I drove into New York from his home in Westchester with his X-rays. (X-rays, it was a long time ago!) I needed to show them to a doctor, Dr. William Kahan at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Dr. Kahan had told me to hurry. There was nowhere to park. I circled the block—nothing. I parked illegally and while Dr. Kahan was looking at the X-rays my car was towed away. I went down to the impound lot and got the car and paid the fine. Fifty dollars. Six months later my father was dead.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

There are so many: the way the snow makes lace out of the trees in the park, the tankers that steam up and down the East River—so close you could almost jump aboard—the rescue pit bulls and the clipped poodles and the family golden retrievers—the extraordinary light slicing across Manhattan at different times of the day and the year.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

So many!

Is there a place here you return to often?

My apartment? Like most New Yorkers I am in love with my bed partly because I never get to spend enough time in it.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

So many from the astonishing New York Society Library to Tiffany’s to the Corner Bookstore and all the lovely, lovely independent bookstores to the Plaza Fountain to the place where the ducks go in the winter in Central Park.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

New York is a city of neighborhoods—there are dozens. Each one seems as articulated, as weird, as much itself as a different country.

Where does passion live here?


What is the title of one of your works about New York City and what inspired it exactly?

Two of my novels have important scenes in the city—one was inspired by the inspiring Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, the other by Louis Auchincloss’s many rich novels about our hometown.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside New York City does an outside exist?”

Much has been made of New Yorkers’ inability to acknowledge the rest of the world. When you are here, it does feel like the center of everything. On the other hand, New Yorkers are sophisticated and they are open to adventures—that’s why they are here. So in a way there is more outside existing in New York than there is in other cities. New York doesn’t have to defend itself or puff itself up or compare itself to anywhere else. It’s New York!

Susan Cheever was born in New York City and graduated from Brown University. A Guggenheim fellow and a director of the board of the Yaddo Corporation, Cheever currently teaches in the MFA programs at Bennington College and The New School. She lives in New York City.

Her new book E.E. Cummings: A Life (2014) has just been released.

Published May 21, 2014   Copyright 2014 Nathalie Handal

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