As a book reviewer for National Public Radio for more than a quarter-century, Alan Cheuse has been called “The Voice of Books on National Public Radio.” Cheuse is also the author of several novels, a memoir, two short story collections, and a collection of essays on reading and writing. He last joined the Literary Seminar in 2003, and will return this January as a panelist and writers’ workshop instructor when we explore Historical Fiction and The Search for Truth. Cheuse’s forthcoming book, To Catch the Lightning, is a historical novel about photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis (1868-1952) and his struggle to complete “The North American Indian,” his epic project of photographing all of the native tribes of the western United States. I had a chance to talk with Cheuse recently, about NPR, Curtis, and the role novelists have in the writing of history.
Littoral: Why did you choose to write about Curtis? And why did you write it as a novel?
Alan Cheuse: I first encountered Curtis’s photographs of the American Indian while I was in college. In fact I remember the first time I saw them. The Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a great old rerun house, mounted an exhibition of them in the lobby in the late nineteen fifties. That was the first time I saw Curtis’s work. I have long forgotten what movie I saw that evening in Cambridge, but I never forgot the faces and tones and settings of those portraits.
My research led me to Curtis the historical figure– photographer, self-made ethnographer, naive entrepreneur, difficult husband, and, through it all, devoted father. My novel, I hope, knits this all together in an inventive, forward-moving, uniquely presented way, giving especially the feel of his life, which narrative by historians doesn’t usually do. Which is to say, historians usually work from the outside in, and novelists move in the other direction. I don’t mean to pick a fight with historians here, but this is the way I see it. I suppose some of them might see a novelist waltzing through the field, picking up forget-me-nots and knotting them into a necklace and calling it history. But I’m not calling my novel history. I’m calling it a novel. I’ve written a novel about American journalist John Reed, and about an American woman painter based mostly on the life of Georgia O’Keeffe. The Curtis novel forms, at least in my own mind, the third in a kind of triptych about American artists, larger than life, but, I hope, still alive in our imaginations.
L: As I understand it, Curtis’ photographic negatives were awarded to his ex-wife Clara in the divorce settlement. Rather than see this transaction through, he destroyed them. Was the relationship between Curtis’ professional and personal lives always so fraught?
AC: There’s a scene in the novel in which Curtis and his daughter Beth (she took Curtis’s side in the quarrel) and a few friends have a destroy the negatives party. Like most artists he found it difficult to draw a line between his professional life and personal life. He gave thirty years of his adult life to the project, but he was in spite of everything devoted to his family. Early on it was easier than later, when he became the Curtis history knows (who was the Curtis who knew history and its effects). He tried heartily to keep his family intact, but he couldn’t. He tried to be a good man– as his oldest child and only son said toward the end of the photographer’s life, “he was the best man I knew.”