How Snoopy, Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang charmed newspaper readers, what Irving Berlin, the writer of “God Bless America,” had to do to overcome extreme poverty and become a successful composer, the story of the carnival showman who invented the incubator, saving thousands of premature babies, and a fictional, emotionally scarred psychiatrist who struggles to heal herself comprise a small selection of the book discussions Ben Cheever has featured on his talk show, “About Writing” on Pleasantville Community Television.
The problem with the show is that when you watch the episodes, available on the PCTV76.org web site, you will want to read the books Cheever talks about.
Among the authors Cheever has had on the show are Molly Jong-Fast, Debra Borden, Frank McCourt, and James Kaplan, as well as actors Debra Winger and Rob Lowe, who have also written books. He’s hosted his sister Susan too, who has published memoirs about their family, and biographies of Little Women author Louisa May Alcott, and the poet E.E. Cummings, among other books.
“Authors would do PCTV when their books came out,” Cheever explained. “My pitch to them is that the show will go on the web, so people all over the world can see it.”
When Cheever interviewed Andrew Blauner, editor of The Peanuts Papers – Writers and Cartoonists on Charlie Brown, Snoopy & The Gang and the Meaning of Life, Blauner revealed that he managed to meet Schultz and described the cartoonist as “gentle and generous.” With a boyish sparkle in his eyes, Cheever called comic strips “a clandestine joy.”
Cheever, a Pleasantville resident, author of seven books, and editor of a book of his father’s letters, conceived of the show with Herbert Hadad, a well-known essayist and contributing writer for The New York Times, who lived in Pocantico Hills, because he wanted to help people “whose writing I really admired. I was excited to be able to talk to writers about their books,” he said. Hadad and Cheever co-hosted “About Writing” for about a year. When Hadad got a job with the U.S. Department of Justice, Cheever kept on doing the show.
“The world does not take notice when you write a book,” Cheever explained. “I wanted to help people in a way that I didn’t get. It was a long road to be a writer.”
After college, Cheever worked for the Rockland Journal News in Nyack for six years, covering church news, the Orangeburg town government, and the county legislature, then writing feature articles. He moved on to Reader’s Digest, where he worked for more than a decade in multiple roles, including copy editing and editing the condensed book section and the “Life in These United States” and “Laughter is the Best Medicine” sections.
When his father, John, died, Cheever edited his letters for a book. Then he started writing his own books.
“It took me three years to write The Plagiarist,” his first novel, Cheever said. The book was well received, but his third book was rejected by publishers. “It really hurts to get a novel turned down,” he said.
“There are easier ways to make money (than writing). After I couldn’t sell my third novel, I sold cars, and worked at CompUSA, and Borders (the defunct bookstore chain). I was making sandwiches at Cosi. I worked at Nobody Beats the Wiz (an electronics store, now out of business), a Franklin Quest store,” a business management and motivational products company, and even as a security guard for a perfume factory for one nerve-wracking night.
Cheever worked in the service industry for five years and wrote about his experiences in the book, Selling Ben Cheever – Back to Square One in a Service Economy.
He regained his footing as a writer and went on to author two more novels, as well as Strides – Running Through History with An Unlikely Athlete, about his passion for running. Cheever estimated that he has run 70 to 80 marathons. His two sons had a quilt made for him with tee-shirts from several of the marathons he’s run, from Athens and Bordeaux to Philadelphia, New York City and Yonkers.
He also ran a 10K race with almost 800 American soldiers in Iraq during the second Gulf War, on the grounds of Saddam Hussein’s 60-acre vacation estate, converted into a camp for the U.S. Army, enduring temperatures above 100 degrees.
“I love running. I run almost every day,” Cheever said. He runs in Rockefeller State Park, near where he bought his first house.
“The trails are 17 feet across. The park has views of the Palisades.”
As a lover of dogs, Cheever wrote a children’s book, The First Dog, about Adam and Eve and their dog, the first canine to ever live, of course. He devoted one show to service dogs, interviewing a Pace University professor on a pilot program in Pleasantville teaching health professionals about the benefits of these animals.
Cheever’s advice for young writers and readers is this – “The idea that a book is not a success if it doesn’t sell a lot of copies” is wrong, he said. He suggests that writers “make an intimate connection between people who don’t know each other. The magic moments are when you read something that is transportive. Read a really good book and you know you’re not alone.”
His ultimate advice is something he learned from DeWitt Wallace, founder, and editor of Readers’ Digest and a generous philanthropist – the things you will be known for are “the things you have given away.”
To access “About Writing” shows on the web, go to PCTV76.org, click on the “Watch Now” drop down menu, then the “Media Library” tab. Scroll down to “View Content By” on the right-hand side of the screen. Click on “Most Watched – All Time,” which will bring you to Cheever’s show with Rafael Yglesias, discussing his book, A Happy Marriage. Click on “Watch Now” and you will see on the right-hand section of the screen, “More in this Series.”