Blake Bailey spends his days mucking around in the lives of atrabilious, sexually conflicted alcoholics, poster children for the adage that one must suffer for one’s art, and yet he himself is one of the most cheerful of men as he jumps off his bike – today is a bike ride day, not a jogging day – and strides down the sidewalk between the ODU bookstore and Borjo’s in Norfolk wearing a pale yellow baseball cap from the Williams School, where his daughter is in second grade. He is very nearly late, yet he spends long minutes listening to an ODU student as she talks about singing at a local restaurant. His attention is full-on, his interest sincere and his laugh huge.
Bailey is that most oxymoronic of things, a famous literary biographer, which means that for a literary biographer he is famous, although, as he says, “there’s not a huge crowd of people clamoring to be literary biographers.” Bailey is the author of what he calls “cinder block” books on Richard Yates and John Cheever, two colossal alcoholics who happen to have been brilliant writers (although reading Yates, he says, is akin to having your teeth drilled without anesthetic). Next up, Charles Jackson, author of The Lost Weekend and other novels, a writer whose addictive tendencies, Bailey says, make the others look like pikers.
He is at the top of his field, says Jane Ciabattari, a former National Book Critics Circle president. His first biography, A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates, was a finalist for the NBCC award. His second, Cheever: A Life, written with help from a Guggenheim Fellowship, won the NBCC award in 2009 and was a finalist that year for a Pulitzer. In 2010 he received an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
His books are classics of American literary biography, says Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Book Review. He’s also is “the most charming man in the world,” says the author Susan Cheever, daughter of John Cheever, about whom Bailey was not delicate. And he’s the Mina Hohenberg Darden Professor of Creative Writing at Old Dominion University, to which he brings the great prestige of his name as one of the country’s foremost biographers, says writer and creative writing professor Janet Peery.
“Blake’s a genius. Lively, funny, smart. The success of his work is due to his fierce intellect, his love of the fit word, and an irrepressible curiosity balanced with a wide compassion. And he’s patient. He works hard. He has a name and reputation that Harvard, Yale and Princeton would fight over, and we’re lucky to have him here.” Plus he sings mean karaoke and has such a vast vocabulary that even the most erudite among his peers have to flip through mental flashcards to keep up.
The thing that makes all of it possible – except for the karaoke – is his ability to focus, whether on his research, his writing or the people around him. “Sit down to talk with him and pretty soon you begin to feel what it must be like being stalked by a lion on the veldt,” Peery says. “At every turn there’s a new question and the grass is getting thinner and there’s no place to hide. Suddenly he’ll nick a nerve and before you know it you’re blurting all manner of things you never meant to tell.”
“That was part of how he swept me off my feet,” says his wife, Mary Brinkmeyer, a psychologist at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center. “It is immensely flattering to have someone show such focused, genuine interest in everything you say.” Indeed, it is that focus, that curiosity, that inspired one of John Cheever’s former aramours to tearfully blurt out everything, chain smoking as he talked.
It’s what persuaded Cheever’s family to turn over copies of all 4,300-plus pages of his personal journals, what Bailey has called “a breathtakingly candid document,” a rich mine of salacious detail about Cheever’s sex life, his sometimes venomous thoughts on John Updike and J.D. Salinger, and his drolly chilly relationship with his own wife.
Still, 4,300 pages is 4,300 pages, each of which had to be sifted through and each detail chosen or rejected and meshed with hundreds of interviews, thousands of letters, and hours and years spent in libraries, all of which Bailey distilled to a mere 679 pages. To do it he imposed an ironclad structure on both the material and himself. Thus he makes sure that every day is exactly like the one that came before it and exactly like the one that will follow, with the single exception of Tuesdays, when he teaches. As his wife says with notable understatement, “Maintaining his routine is important to him.”
He gets up at 7 as Mary is leaving for work, makes breakfast for their 7-yearold and takes her to school. He comes home, he walks the dog, he cleans the kitchen if he cooked the night before — which he does exactly 50 percent of the time — and makes the bed and tidies the house if he didn’t. Even on weekends. Then he sits down and that’s it. No Facebook. No Twitter. No interruptions.
“I read 15 pages back in whatever book I’m working on, which ensures continuity, lack of repetition and stylistic consistency,” he says. “I write until 1 o’clock, but if I have not written the requisite amount I punish myself by eating at my desk or not eating at all.” After lunch he works for another two or 2½ hours, then goes for a jog or bike ride – four days a week for the one, three for the other – then he has a drink and settles in to read before either cooking dinner or reading to his daughter. He says all this with precision but also with glee.
“Biography writing is congenial to me,” he says. He loves the chase, the finding of facts. He has what he calls a hopscotch curiosity that is reinvigorated with each detail, whether juicy or quotidian. Each tidbit, each factoid, is placed like a shard of stained glass into his notes. Interview transcripts are sliced into the tiniest of details, a line like “My father’s mustache was stupid” is lifted from a long ramble and positioned just so.
“Finally what was a very bulky continuous transcript is broken into fifty or a hundred or two hundred bits that I’m going to move around in a highly specific way,” he says. “Of everything I do this is the process I am most proud of – how exhaustive I am toward organization. There are people who can write with far greater virtuosity than I can but they’re not big cinder block-sized book writers because they can’t do the organizational stuff.”
“Exhaustive” may be the key word. For the Yates book Bailey had 650 pages of single-spaced notes, for Cheever 710, and for the one on Jackson he’s at 632, every finished paragraph already where it needs to be. “It’s like taking a little ball peen hammer and tapping it just so, until everything is exactly the way I want it, in exactly the order I intend to use it, so I spend much more time getting my notes exactly right before I write a word, but it makes the writing process much easier.”
He does this for years – four for Yates, six for Cheever and three so far with Jackson. During the Yates years he and Mary – then a graduate student in psychology – learned together about bipolar disorder and the effects of alcoholism on treatment. As he worked on Cheever he asked Mary for articles on the effects of alcoholism on the brain, on narcissistic personality disorder and on the internal conflicts that came with Cheever’s homosexuality.
“It’s fun to hear him talk about his day’s work at the dinner table,” says Mary, who, like Bailey, is deeply interested in people’s contradictions and internal motivations. That comprehensive knowledge helps Bailey to write with bemused acceptance, as with this opening line from the book on Yates: If the prerequisite of any great writer’s life is an unhappy childhood, then Richard Yates was especially blessed.
Bailey was blessed, too, if not in his own suffering then in bearing witness to that of his brother, Scott, three years older and a tortured addict, whose life and eventual suicide were so unrelentingly tragic that when Bailey wrote about him in a memoir even his own beloved editor said it couldn’t be published.
“It’s grindingly depressing and never at any point in that story do you expect a redemption,” Bailey says. “It is a pure, ineluctable downward trajectory.” “Thus I am not shocked by Cheever’s hidden sexuality,” he says. “I am not shocked by his ruinous alcoholism. I feel that I understand it and sympathize with it. I think to know all is to forgive all, and I think that comes across in my books.”
Scott died in 2003 and within a week Bailey took another hit. His second big book idea – a true crime story about a suburban drug dealer – was rejected by publishers. “Suddenly I was SOL. I had no book project, I had no money, my wife was in graduate school, so I got the world’s worst teaching position as fast as I could,” at an over-crowded inner-city middle school in Gainesville, Florida, a little slice of hell on earth, the students’ problems overwhelming their ability to learn. Finding a publisher for Cheever saved Bailey from staying a second year. In 2005 Mary got an internship at Tulane University in New Orleans, where Bailey had gone to college and where he’d taught gifted eighth graders during the ’90s. They considered renting a place but they bought a house instead; Mary’s mother lived nearby and she’d be a great help with their 1-year-old. They settled in, put their furniture in place, their new rug on the fl oor, their books on the shelves. Ten weeks later Hurricane Katrina roared in and took everything: their home, their photos, their clothes – gone. When they returned to pick through the fl otsam they found the pages of Cheever’s journals, all 4 linear feet of them, intact because Mary had thought to have Bailey move them to a high shelf, but covered in toxic mold. Bailey was past order and he had intended to give them back to the librarians at Harvard who had so painstakingly photocopied the originals.
Back to Florida the family went, where Bailey wrote, “Thinking and writing about Cheever – that most ecstatic and miserable of men – is a fine antidote to the evacuee blues.”
After Mary graduated the family moved to Norfolk for the job at the naval hospital. Cheever was published soon after and it was at a reading of that book that Bailey met Michael Pearson, a professor in the creative writing program, who offered him the chance to serve as writer-in-residence at ODU, a temporary gig that had him working one-on-one with some of the program’s best graduate students. Among them was Jesse Scaccia, editor of AltDaily.com and a 2010 graduate of the MFA program.
“Blake gave me the single best critique I’ve ever received,” Scaccia wrote in an email. “It was direct to the point of being intense, but the harshness was mellowed by how specific his notes were and how much he seemed to actually care about seeing the work improve.”
Again, the lion on the veldt, doing everything – Sinatra, Elvis – with driving intensity interspersed with self-deprecating humor and always that infectious laugh. He is a man enjoying the juicy bite of a sandwich. He was once a mediocre student, his only work of promise a senior thesis in college on the author Walker Percy that made him realize he actually could write. His prodigious reading took place in his 20s and 30s, while he was teaching and working what he calls “crap jobs.” Now he’s 48 – a consummate late bloomer, he says – and spends his days writing and jogging and riding his bike to Borjo’s. He writes for The New York Times and takes calls from The Wall Street Journal. He has actual fans, close friends and a great family, and he’s just famous enough.
“What is gratifying is that among writers my work is known and appreciated,” he says, “and that works quite well for me. It’s exactly the right amount.”
Originally published in DISTINCTION, November 10, 2011