Cheever Biographer Turns His Eye On His Own Troubled Family

Mar 1, 2014
Originally published on March 1, 2014 8:03 am

Blake Bailey is best known for his prize-winning biographies of great writers who were also destructive — and not just self-destructive — people. His books on John Cheever, Richard Yates, and Charles Jackson have been sympathetic, but unsparing.

And his new book makes you wonder if in telling their stories, he was also sharing his own. It's called The Splendid Things We Planned — a memoir of his own family growing up in Vinita, Oklahoma: eccentric, charismatic, and in the case of his brother Scott, a kind of human time bomb. Bailey tells NPR's Scott Simon that his father had been a kind of "golden boy," and his mother a recent German immigrant and "wistfully intellectual ... I don't think they were meant to be married. But unfortunately, as sometimes happened, my mother got pregnant, and that was Scott, and then the fun began."


Interview Highlights

On writing about his brother Scott

It took me 11 years to write this book, and part of the reason again is that I'm primarily a biographer. And to be a good biographer, you have to be an empiricist — you have to gather the evidence, you have to keep an open mind, and you have to be objective. You know, a memoirist goes in with all the baggage of a bad biographer.

When I first tried to write this book, it was almost entirely about my brother, and basically, I brainstormed a list of all the biggest catastrophes of his life, and so I wrote that book. And who cares? Because you know from page one that Scott's going down the tubes. A person doesn't destroy himself in a vacuum, so I started over. And over, and over, and I thought more about the good Scott, and I thought about about the ways I failed him, rather than vice versa, and the way our parents had failed both of us. And I think it's a much, much better book.

On Scott's inner life

That was something I really wanted to convey — that people who are addicts, people who are alcoholics, they have a florid inner life, you know. Because they hide themselves from the outside world, and they entertain themselves with all these romantic ideas of what their life might be. Scott wanted to be a rock star, you know, he wanted to have all these girls screaming for him and so forth. So I think Scott had a lot of fun by himself, as addicts often do.

On one black-comically terrible Christmas

It's painful, but it's not lacking in its humorous elements. Scott had just gotten out of a three-year stint in prison for various drug offenses, and my mother — though I had warned her repeatedly — took him into her house, and I went home for Christmas. And, well, I was about to say that everything that could have gone wrong did, but it was pretty predictable: He wrecked his car ... on the way back from the liquor store, so he had a pretty healthy cache of liquor. The police obligingly drove him back to us. He got drunk, he terrorized my mother, the next day I took my mother to the police station, and we arranged to have Scott removed as a trespasser.

But what people may not know if they don't have a, you know, psychotic drunken brother, is it's very hard to get a restraining order. So all we could do was have the police remove him. He could come back. So as soon as the police removed him — and that was an interesting scene — we went and bought a gun, and stopped to have a martini at a Chinese restaurant, and I coached my mother: Tell him to sit down, and if he doesn't sit down, you're going to have to shoot him.

So we come back, we expect Scott of course to be laying in wait and to kill us or maim us ... but happily he did not. But he called us, stone drunk, the rest of the Christmas holiday, and would sing German Christmas carols over the phone to us. Because Scott's German was very good, much better than mine.

On telling his own story through those of the writers he's profiled

When I first was finished with this memoir, and I knew people were going to ask, you know, all three of your biographical subjects were colossal alcoholics, did that have anything to do with your own personal experience ... and I was going to kind of take the high road and say, you know, what attracted me to those writers was the excellence of their work. Well, the fact that their work has to do with outwardly prosperous, happy suburban families who are actually blighted by alcohol and mental illness and so forth, might have had something to do with why I was attracted to their work.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Blake Bailey is best known for his prize-winning biographies of great writers who were also destructive, and not just self-destructive, people. His biographies of John Cheever, Richard Yates, and Charles Jackson have been sympathetic but unsparing.

His new book makes you wonder if in telling their stories, he was also sharing his own. His book is called "The Splendid Things We Planned," and it's a memoir of his own family while he grew up in Oklahoma eccentric, charismatic, and in the case of his brother Scott, a kind of human time bomb. Blake Bailey joins us from the studios of WHRO in Norfolk Virginia. Thanks very much for being with us.

BLAKE BAILEY: Hi Scott. It's great to be here.

SIMON: How do you tell people about your family?

BAILEY: You know, my father was a golden boy from a very small town. He won a very prestigious law scholarship to NYU Law School, and there in Greenwich Village, he met my mother, who was very young, fresh off the boat from Germany. And she was kind of wistfully intellectual and into existentialism and stuff like that, and my father was very bright, so they connected.

I don't think they were meant to be married, but unfortunately as sometimes happened, my mother got pregnant, and that was Scott. And then the fun began.

SIMON: And how do you explain your brother Scott? I mean look, what you went through with your brother Scott was the kind of thing Amnesty International would be interested in.

BAILEY: You know, it took me 11 years to write this book, and part of the reason is that, again, I'm primarily a biographer. And to be a good biographer, you have to be an empiricist. You know, you have to gather the evidence, you have to keep an open mind, and you have to be objective. A memoirist goes in with all the baggage of a bad biographer.

Well, when I first tried to write this book, it was almost entirely about my brother, and basically I brainstormed a list of all the biggest catastrophes of his life, and so I wrote that book. And who cares? Because you know from page one that Scott's going down the tubes. A person doesn't destroy himself in a vacuum. So I started over.

And I thought more about the good Scott, and I thought about the ways I'd failed him, rather than vice versa, and the way our parents had failed both of us.

SIMON: Your brother Scott was - made himself hard to love, and I'm talking about from a relatively early age.

BAILEY: Yes, that's true. He started in mid-adolescence. He started getting into drugs pretty bad. He became very bullying at home, very erratic. But he could be very charming, and he was very loyal to me, especially later in life. As an adult when his - you know, he looked up to me.

SIMON: He had a very active alternative universe in his mind, didn't he?

BAILEY: He did, he did, and that was something I really wanted to convey, that people who are addicts, people who are alcoholics, they have a florid inner life, you know, because they hide themselves from the outside world, and they entertain themselves with all these romantic ideas of what their life might be.

Scott wanted to be a rock star, you know, he wanted to have all these girls screaming for him and so forth. So I think Scott had a lot of fun by himself, as addicts often do.

SIMON: I think it's safe to say your family had just about the worst Christmas of all time.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Your combination of family stress and gunplay, if I could get you - and it must be painful. I'm trying to keep it as light as you can, but if I could get you to take us back to that Christmas.

BAILEY: Yeah, it's painful, but it's not lacking in its humorous elements. Scott had just gotten out of a three-year stint in prison for various drug offenses, and my mother, though I had warned her repeatedly, took him into her house. And I went home for Christmas. And, well, I was about to say that everything that could have gone wrong did, but it was pretty predictable.

He wrecked his car on the way to the liquor store, actually on the way back from the liquor store, so he had a pretty healthy cache of liquor. The police obligingly drove him back to us. He got drunk, he terrorized my mother. The next day I took my mother to the police station, and we arranged to have Scott removed as a trespasser.

But what people may not know if they don't have a, you know, psychotic drunken brother, is it's very hard to get a restraining order. So all we could do was have the police remove him. He could come back. So as soon as the police removed him, and that was an interesting scene. So they removed him, and we went and bought a gun and stopped to have a martini at a Chinese restaurant. And I coached my mother, tell him to sit down and if he doesn't sit down you're going to have to shoot him. You know, what else are you going to do?

SIMON: (Singing) Tra-la-la-la-la, la-la, la-la.

BAILEY: Right. So, we come back. We expect Scott, of course, to be laying in wait and to kill us or maim us or, you know, to have a shoot-out. He was an expert marksman. He was on the Marine pistol team. But happily he did not. But he called us stone-drunk the rest of the Christmas holiday and would sing German Christmas carols over the phone to us. Because Scott's German was very good - much better than mine.

SIMON: Wow. To what degree, when you were telling us about John Cheever or Charles Jackson were you telling your own story? Do you think it linked you to the material in a certain way that other biographers might not know about?

BAILEY: Yeah. I guess I do, Scott. You know, when I first was finished with this memoir and I knew people were to ask, you know, all three of your biographical subjects are colossal alcoholics, did that have anything to do with your own personal experience? And I was just kind of take the high road and say, you know, what attracted me to those writers was the excellence of their work. Well, the fact that their work has to do with outwardly prosperous happy, suburban families who are actually blighted by alcohol and mental illness and so forth might have had something to do with why I was attracted to their work.

SIMON: Was this a book you had to write at some point to get on with whatever else you'd do?

BAILEY: I don't know that I had to write it to get on with what I - because it's apples and oranges. I think that's why it took me so long to write this book. But I'm glad I wrote it, mostly because I view my family more charitably now.

SIMON: Hard to write about?

BAILEY: Very hard to right about. I think of that epigraph - I have an epigraph to the book from Joseph Mitchell's "Joe Gould's Secret." And it goes that's one of the damndest thing I ever found out about human emotions and how treacherous they can be - the fact that you can hate a place with all your heart and soul and still be homesick for it, not to speak of the fact that you can hate a person with all your heart and soul and still long for that person.

SIMON: Blake Bailey. His new memoir, "The Splendid Things We Planned." Thanks so much for being with us.

BAILEY: It was fun, Scott. Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.