Reading Group Guide
READING GROUP GUIDE
ABOUT THIS GUIDE
The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for discussion for Susan Cheever's Home Before Dark. We hope that these ideas will enrich your discussion and increase your enjoyment of the book.
- In a letter John Cheever wrote to his wife from boot camp, he says of his fellow inductees and their wives: "But they were not people like us." How does that strike you?
- Create a "demographic profile" of the Cheevers -- where they lived, what their ethnic background was, what socio-economic class they fell in, etc. How important is this information to understanding John Cheever?
- This is a book not only about a famous man, but also about a family. Choose five adjectives to describe this family, and discuss what incidents support your choices.
- What are some of John Cheever's personality traits? Decide on the three that best fit him and point to examples in the book to support your ideas.
- How does John Cheever's ability to tell stories relate to the rest of his behavior? Is his storytelling ability a positive or negative attribute? How does his talent affect his personal life?
- What are Susan Cheever's feelings about her father? How do you know? How does she view her mother? Which parent seems to be her favorite, if in fact she has a favorite?
- Since we realize that much of this book is based on memory, both Susan Cheever's and other people's, how "true" is it? How different might it be if one of her brothers had written it? What if her mother were the author?
- How does Susan Cheever put the book together -- how does she structure the material? Why do you think she does it this way?
- When Susan Cheever recalls interviewing her father for Newsweek, she includes two questions word-for-word. Why does she choose to quote these two questions specifically? What do they reveal about her?
- Many writers have problems with drugs and alcohol. Do you think there's a connection between the artistic temperament and addiction? Do you think this is true of John Cheever? Why or why not?
- Ultimately, do you think this book is about the power of love or the failure of love -- or neither? Why or why not?
Q: You wrote this book not long after your father's death. As time has passed, what has changed in your memories of him?
It's my experience that when someone we love dies, our relationship with them continues. Love doesn't stop short when the body gives out, and in fact many of my most interesting conversations with my father have occurred since his death. He has changed a great deal. I have also changed. My father died when my first child was two months old. He loved the idea that I was having children, but he never got to see me as a mother. In other words, he never got to see me at my best, doing what turns out to be my life's work.
Mark Twain said that if there is no discovery for the writer during the writing of a book, there will be no discovery for the reader. In writing Home Before Dark, I discovered that my father was bisexual. I also began to discover his connection to alcohol. In the fourteen years since his death I have come to understand alcoholism in a way that I only had a glimmer of at the time. I have also broadened my understanding of sexuality and the different ways it can be expressed.
Q: Do you think your father's works can be understood in a deeper or shallower way when the reader knows more about his life?
This is an ancient and unanswerable question. Many great minds -- I.A. Richards, T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis to name a few -- have written about this, the relationship of art to life. My father fervently believed that his work -- anyone's work -- should be read absolutely apart from the writer's life. This protected him from the charges sometimes leveled that he had used real life in his stories. It was also a deep belief. These days readers expect to know a great deal about the lives of the writers they read. Sometimes I think this is helpful. I like knowing that it took Stendhal only six weeks to write The Charterhouse of Parma, or that Melville died unhonored for his great work, Moby Dick. Sometimes I think it hurts to know too much about a writer's life. In reading F. Scott Fitzgerald, for instance, I sometimes wish I didn't know how it ended for him and Zelda. The answer to this question is -- it depends.
Q: Did any writers influence the way you approached the writing of this memoir? What writers had an impact on your development as a writer, in general?
When I wrote this memoir in 1982 there were few others like it -- in the intervening years there have been dozens. I read Haywire by Brooke Hayward and Father and Son by J. R. Ackerley. I couldn't find anything else like what I was doing, and this frightened and worried me. I wasn't sure that it was possible for a daughter to write her father's story. I began by writing down all the stories he told because I didn't want to forget them. Slowly this expanded into a book. By the time I was able to admit that I was actually writing about my father, the book was almost finished.
Almost every writer I have read has had an impact on me. I love Fitzgerald's stories, Hemingway's novels, Homer's The Odyssey, the first two books of the Old Testament in the King James edition, and the Gospel according to Matthew in the New Testament. These are things I read over and over again. I think Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and Brontë's Jane Eyre are two of the best novels ever written. I revere Truman Capote and Norman Mailer for beginning the invention of the genre we now call nonfiction. I read all the time. My current great enthusiasms are Andrea Barrett's The Voyage of the Narwhal and Ian Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost. By next month I will have new enthusiasms.
Q: In your opinion, what is the value of frank self-disclosure and the telling of family secrets in print -- for the author and for the readers?
I'm not sure about "the value of frank self-disclosure and the telling of family secrets in print." These seem to be two questions. If a writer of nonfiction is not willing to disclose his or herself, I wonder why on earth they are writing nonfiction. If I were afraid to write the truth about myself and my experience, I trust that I would find another way to pass the time. I write to bear witness. I write in the hope that my experience in all its specificity may help another person -- either because they recognize it and feel less alone, or for some other reason. If I were to lie in print, if I were to be less than frank, I would be betraying my readers and myself.
As for the "telling of family secrets," I can only speak for myself. I try not to tell anyone's secrets; in fact there are many, many secrets avoided in Home Before Dark. If in telling the truth about my own experience I tell someone else's secrets, I agonize about it until I make myself crazy. If possible, I ask everyone in every book I write to read it in galley or manuscript, and I try to change anything that might be offensive to them. In Treetops I cut out a central chapter because my mother asked me to. In Home Before Dark I made many, many changes at the request of my family.