"When I was a little girl, one of the things I noticed about my father was that he wasn't like other fathers," novelist Susan Cheever said yesterday about her father, the late novelist, John Cheever. "He was home all the time. He had time to walk me to the school bus. Sometimes, he was the only father at the bus stop. But it didn't bother him." Contrary to other fathers, Cheever observed, her father enjoyed chatting with the mothers at the bus stop and nursemaids at the playground. "This gave me the impression," she said, "that writers talk a lot and they don't care who they talk to."
Cheever, whose new novel is called "The Cage," is writing a memoir of her father. She was one of four authors who offered their insights about writing and tried to sell their books at the Hadassah Book and Author Luncheon yesterday at the Washington Hilton. Hadassah is a national Jewish women's service and education organization.
The other speakers were Paul Cowan, author of "Orphan in History," Russell Baker, author of "Growing Up," and Louis Auchincloss, author of "Watchfires," set in the mid-1800s.
"I actually began my journalism career in 1933," said Baker, the New York Times columnist. "I was 8 years old." That was the year that his mother arranged for Baker to become a Saturday Evening Post distributor, a job requiring him to sell the magazine on street corners and door-to-door. He did this adequately at best, he recalled. "Actually, my mother wished that I had been like her kid sister, Doris," Baker said. "Doris was the kind of woman who at the age of 7 could return a piece of short-weighted cheese to the A & P, threaten the manager with legal action, and come home with the full one-quarter pound plus a few ounces more thrown in by the manager for forgiveness."
What led him to put all this in a book was his own mother's illness, which left her disoriented and confused about time and people. "I think one day I'll be like my mother," he said, "and my kids will say, 'Who is this old guy?' So I'd like to be able to tell them before I'm too old to do it right."
Cowan's book, "Orphan in History," recounts his family's history and his own search for Judaism. He came from "as assimilated a Jewish house as you can have," said Cowan. "We celebrated Christmas . . . we had ham on Easter." His mother, however, was "obsessed with the Holocaust. She wanted me to learn a trade, not a profession, in case the Holocaust ever came to America -- this in a Park Avenue apartment with celebrities walking through. So there was no day I didn't think about being Jewish."
Cowan eventually became religious -- "I see the whole Jewish world as a large extended family," he said. "And as a Jew, who keeps kosher and observes Shabbat, I feel much more American."
Louis Auchincloss, author of "Watchfires," a Civil War novel, said he came to historical fiction with some trepidation. "I've always distrusted it," he said. "It seemed like whenever someone starts writing about history, everyone turns out a king or a queen."