An Interview with Colorado Review’s Prose Book Review Editor, Susan Donnelly Cheever
Jun 17, 2020
Susan Donnelly Cheever is a writing teacher and tutor. She currently teaches at Beacon Academy, a small independent school working to close the educational achievement gap in Boston, and she runs her own online tutoring business, Writing Lighthouse. In addition to teaching, she has also worked as a writing workshop facilitator for Writers without Margins, a nonprofit organization providing access to the literary arts for unheard and under-resourced communities in Greater Boston. She lives outside of Boston but hails from Chicago, and as such, her loyalties lie with the White Sox, not the Red. Managing editor Jess Turner and assistant managing editor Jonnie Genova reached out to learn more about Cheever’s interest in book reviews, her writing life, and the work she does with her community.
Jess Turner & Jonnie Genova: What do you most enjoy about being the prose book review editor for Colorado Review? Along these lines, what do you look for in a book review?
Susan Donnelly Cheever: When I first took on this position, I had far more experience as a reader than as an editor. I was excited to learn about wonderful works of fiction and nonfiction from smaller publishers that I might not have heard of. As I became more acquainted with these publishers, I found that I thoroughly enjoyed combing through catalogs to find new titles for review. There is some great writing out there that may not hit the big markets but is powerfully and beautifully written. What I didn’t expect in this role is how much I would enjoy working with the reviewers themselves. They are a wonderful and thoughtful group, and I delight in our email exchanges and conversations about their writing and the books for review. I was looking forward to finally meeting some of them at AWP, but sadly this was not the year for that.
As the editor, I look for reviews that I enjoy as a reader, reviews that make me excited to want to read a book. I want reviews that reflect on craft elements, on how the author pulls the reader in and satisfies that curiosity to know more about a character or an experience. I also like reviews to be honest—not every published piece will be perfect, so I appreciate a review that can identify some shortcomings of a work, while still identifying its strengths that make it worth reading. Finally, while I want reviews to be thoughtful and intellectual in their discussion of a work, I also want them to be accessible and not written exclusively for academia.
JT & JG: You run Writing Lighthouse, an online tutoring platform for local and international students. Could you speak to this experience? Are the rewards of tutoring in conversation with being a book review editor?
SDC: I currently run Writing Lighthouse and teach writing at Beacon Academy in Boston, a small school that works to close the achievement gap in education. In both capacities I work with students from 7th through 12th grade. The beauty of my unique role as a tutor and teacher in these settings is the opportunity to work one-on-one with students. I’m convinced that the best way to learn to write is to receive individualized feedback on early drafts and then to revise and rewrite. In that way, the experiences of a teacher/tutor/editor are very much aligned. Regardless of the age and expertise of a writer, a fundamental aim of good writing is clear communication of ideas, and that can only be accomplished through revising and editing. That said, probably the biggest difference is that my students tend to be reluctant writers, so the challenges in helping them produce solid work are greater. In that way, working with book reviewers is fun and rewarding because we share the love of writing at the outset.
JT & JG: You also are a writing workshop facilitator for Writers without Margins—a nonprofit providing workshops for people struggling with the challenges of homelessness and addiction in the Boston area. What led you to this work? Can you share more about this experience?
SDC: I had taken some time off of work as a teacher when my mother became sick, but I wanted to stay involved with teaching and writing in some capacity. I discovered Writers without Margins online and volunteered as a workshop facilitator. WWM workshops are designed to help people use literature and expressive writing to examine their own experiences and to give unheard voices an audience. We publish a journal of participant writing annually and host public readings. I’ve met so many amazing people through these workshops—people who have struggled for years with addiction, people who have spent decades in prison, people for whom English is not their native language, and people who have experienced more hardship than most of us could ever imagine. Yet, in spite of these experiences, these individuals feel an impulse to write, to share their ideas, to be heard. I have been struck by those who—even as they endure so many challenges—write with love, tenderness, and even humor. While there is much that divides us, these writers express a desire to find that which brings us together. They leave me both inspired and humbled.
JT & JG: Can you tell us more about your work as a writer? What are your interests? Do you have a preferred genre?
SDC: For now, I tend to write primarily for myself. Occasionally, I’ll submit work—admittedly with little success—but the impulse to write has always been there and remains to this day. I’m drawn to poetry in my own writing, generally producing a hybrid of the lyric and narrative. I love storytelling, but also enjoy playing with the various components of language, line, sound, and space. I have worked with the poet Joan Houlihan for many years in a weekly workshop, where I’ve had the privilege of meeting and learning from many terrific poets who live in Massachusetts. Over the years, I have also attended Bread Loaf and other writing conferences. I enjoy meeting with writers of all types, as I always learn something new.
JT & JG: What do you believe is the role of book reviews in the literary community? What can they offer us?
SDC: At their best, book reviews create community for what would otherwise be an isolated endeavor. Most of us no longer have the luxury of being back in a classroom where we read with a group of peers and carefully examine a work. The closest experience we have might be a local book group, and if you’ve ever participated in those, you know how hit or miss they can be. But book reviews offer a means of engaging with other readers rather than simply reading in the privacy of our own existence. Sometimes, when I finish a book I want to talk about it. I want to test my understanding, examine the book’s details and ideas. Reading reviews of books that I’ve already read gives me some semblance of that discussion, that exchange of ideas. While it’s important to not see a reviewer’s take on a work of fiction or nonfiction as gospel, reviews can expand the way we experience what we read, thus making it more gratifying.
In addition, as I mentioned earlier, book reviews also give readers a chance to learn about new writers and new publications. Particularly in this unique state of our existence, in which browsing through a bookstore is either not allowed or is less appealing, book reviews give us the opportunity to explore some of what is out there. In short, book reviews are a means of connection between readers and writers, and as such, are fundamental to the literary community.