Have pen, will travel: NPR's Cheuse journeys through writing

"All writing is travel writing– you pack a noun, and you pack a verb and take the reader somewhere," says writer Alan Cheuse.

He should know. Although Cheuse prides himself on his fiction and is widely known as the "Voice of Books" on NPR, his trip to the Virginia Festival of the Book is merely another stop in over 15 years of professional traveling.

His latest collection, A Trance After Breakfast, combines pieces from his travels at home and abroad– from a trip to Bali for the now-defunct Gourmet magazine to an essay detailing a week observing the late-night shift at a California border crossing. And while Cheuse admits there certainly is glitz and glamour involved with travel writing– "certainly when you did it for Gourmet assignments," he quips– it is essentially intensely personal.

"I see travel writing as an offshoot of the personal essay," he says. "You go somewhere, you say what you saw, thought, felt, and how the place changed you– by a tiny increment or in a major way."

As a traveler, Cheuse has had his fair share of life-changing experiences. He's seen beauty– from spending every summer for over three decades in Northern California to being "in the middle" of James Cameron's Avatar in New Zealand.

From his week spent as a nighttime Border Patrol guard, he's seen pain and travail. "It's hard work staying up seven nights in a row, dealing with the misery of people trying to smuggle themselves or drugs across the border looking for better lives," he remembers.

Travel for Cheuse began abstractly, as the boy from New Jersey looked for direction in his twenties. After "kicking around Europe and working jobs in New York," he took a position teaching at Bennington College in Vermont– mainly, he claims, to educate himself.

"I really believe that you need to read as much as you possibly can before you can write well," Cheuse says. "I'm much more proud of the books I've read than the book's I've written."

After immersing himself in reading fiction, he finally took the plunge into writing a few years later, publishing his first story at the age of 40 in the New Yorker. He's since published a slew of novels, essays, and short fiction– before landing the gig as book critic with NPR.

"By accident," he says, he was assigned by a small publication in Tennessee to cover "this new thing called National Public Radio." He spent a week sitting in on the shows, but when he returned to write his piece, the small paper had folded. The producer of NPR called him to review books for the radio program, and 27 years later he hasn't slowed down.

"I love to read aloud," he says. "The short radio piece is very close to the lyric poem– you're not so much conveying information as you are conveying how you feel about a subject."

While he's enjoyed his life of travel writing– and, from his initial inspiration with the genre in middle school reading D.H. Lawrence's Mornings in Mexico, it's been a long journey– he admits his first love will always be fiction. Aspiring authors might heed Cheuse's own process: writing every morning, anywhere from three to six hours, keeping a notebook– "not a journal, I despise journals," he says– and rarely taking days off.

"It's a habit developed the same way athletes develop certain habits," he says. "You know it's not always pleasant, but it's always the first thing you want to do."
Alan Cheuse talks about his collection of travel writing, A Trance After Breakfast,  at 2pm Friday, March 19, at New Dominion Bookshop.

What do you like best about Charlottesville? The grace, the architecture, the energy at the center of the university.
Least? Latent segregation, but that's endemic in the U.S.
Favorite hangout? Bizou
Most overrated virtue? Faux-Jeffersonianism
People would be surprised to know: I enjoy horror movies and thrillers.
What would you change about yourself? Mortality
Proudest accomplishment? Connecting my students to the great tradition.
People find most annoying about you: Away from a microphone, I mumble.
Whom do you admire? Some of my writer friends.
Favorite book? Many, many candidates... Homeric epic, Greek tragedy, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Tolstoy's novels, Chekhov's short stories, Dubliners, Ulysses, Moby Dick, Under the Volcano
Subject that causes you to rant? Brainless conservatism
Biggest 21st-century thrill? Obama's election
Biggest 21st-century creep-out? Republican response to Obama
What do you drive? A '95 Toyota Camry
In your car CD player right now: Don't have one.
Next journey? Odgen, Utah, to read at the National Undergraduate Literature Conference
Most trouble you've ever gotten in? Arrested for stealing peaches from the Rutgers Ag Farm in 1958...
Regret: Mortality
Favorite comfort food: Pasta & olive oil
Always in your refrigerator: Yogurt
Must-see TV: Sopranos, Battlestar Galactica, sports
Describe a perfect day: Meditation, yoga, writing, dinner, movie
Walter Mitty fantasy: Hosting SNL
Who'd play you in the movie? Me
Most embarrassing moment? Kidnapping a Muhlenberg student before a football game in 1958.
Best advice you ever got? Go west, young man.