Alexander Chee’s second novel, The Queen of the Night, has topped nearly every “2016 must-read” list that flooded the Internet in January, and the response to each was ecstatic. Chee is not only a writer’s writer, but a great friend to writers. After a particularly vicious New York Times review of Alix Ohlin’s novels, Inside and Signs and Wonders, Chee’s online defense went viral. More recently, his own NYT review of Everything I Never Told You by GrubStreet friend Celeste Ng helped propel her debut to the top. In 2003, Out Magazine honored him as one of their 100 Most Influential People of the Year. Check out his extensive vitae of criticism, essays on craft, and blogs — as well as an impressive social media following — and you’ll see why. The fact that he still had time to complete a research-intensive historical novel of nearly 600 pages is hard to fathom.
I got to know Alex at the Wesleyan Writers Conference, where he led short fiction classes as one of three lead instructors. He seemed to function as a kind of writing guru there. If you’ve never experienced Chee in action as a teacher, you’re in for a treat. His silent pauses between drops of wisdom — even within them — are gargantuan, and yet in a room of a hundred or more, you won’t hear a breath, not even a blink. To this day, I’m still not sure how he gets away with it. And yet he does, to dizzying effect.
Chee’s first novel, Edinburgh (Picador 2002), burst on the scene with a Whiting Award, the Michener Copernicus Prize, the AAWW Lit Award, and the Lambda Editor’s Choice Prize. It was a Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of the Year. His pause of fourteen years between novels seems fitting, though this time the pause was anything but silent. The Queen of the Night has been blurbed by writers as diverse and prominent as Helen Oyeyemi, Karen Russell, Hanya Yanagihara, and Kelly Link. It tells the story of Lilliet Berne, an up-and-coming opera singer from an unusual (some might say dubious) background. When she is offered the role of her life, coincidentally based on a novel about a young opera singer with a similarly dubious background, Berne launches on a search to find the writer who can expose her secrets. The Queen of the Night reads very much like an opera itself, full of side-plots and betrayals and desperate loves. TIME Magazine writes: “It’s the ball gowns, and roses, magic tricks and ruses, hubris and punishment that will keep the reader absorbed until the final aria, waiting to see whom fate will curse and whom it will avenge.”
In keeping with Alex’s defense of the big novel (see below), this interview runs a tad longer than most. But I thought his answers worth it.
Your first novel, Edinburgh, was also a tribute to music and the power of the voice, but it may have been more familiar territory to you: a Korean-American male protagonist living in the Northeast and dealing with issues of his sexuality in a contemporary world. In that light, The Queen of the Night, with its young female protagonist trying to survive and thrive in 19th-century Paris, seems a tremendous leap. I couldn’t help but think of Lilliet’s nervousness about singing outside her Fach and how she was warned that doing so could destroy her “falcon” voice. Writers can’t lose their voices in the same way, but are there other dangers (or benefits) of writing outside of what’s expected of you?
The biggest danger to me is writing what is expected of me — what freedom is there in that? Before the acclaim I received for my first novel came an enormous amount of rejection — two years, 24 rejections — and another novel rejected before that. I’d attempted to write about ACT UP, AIDS activists in SF and NYC, and the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. You could say they — publishers — hadn’t really let me write inside my lane, as it were — so there was no point in staying in it.
Storytellers definitely belong to their communities — are of them. But fiction writers, while keeping rooted in that tradition, are meant to belong to our ideas more. I love my communities deeply, I fight very hard for them. I make art for anyone who wants it. I go wherever my imagination leads me.
How did your imagination lead you to Lilliet Berne?
I know novelists get a lot of crap for even suggesting it isn’t all logical and orderly, but basically the novel began like the summoning for a spell, really. Because, here’s the thing: She came to me.
My Shauna Seliy sent me a card on May 21st, 1999. It was Kasper Friedrich Thiele’s illustration for the entrance of the Queen of the Night in the Magic Flute: a woman riding down the night sky on a crescent moon like a swing. I liked it, so I put it over my desk. And everything else seemed to collect around it—an encounter with a friend that fall, the late David Rakoff, who told me a story about Jenny Lind; old photos of a palace made of ice at the Minneapolis Ice Festival, with fish frozen into the blocks, and a woman hidden by a hood, with a torch.
I had an exercise for students back then. I’d ask them to take a series of postcard images that attracted them and lay them out in a row — three to five — and make a story out of them. To act like each image was a piece of the story. I guess that’s what I did. In any case, one morning I woke up and the line in my head was When the earth opens up under your feet, be like a seed. Fall down, wait for the rain. The fortuneteller scene near the novel’s end. And I thought Well, I guess we’re starting, and so I woke up and went for the coffee and my laptop, and wrote the pages that now form the last pages of the novel.
But after that, you put this novel away in a drawer. What allowed you to believe in it again enough to finish it?
I had put it aside in 2001 out of disgust. It had essentially overpowered Edinburgh — acting as a spoiler for the novel’s chances, or so I felt. Publishers, faced with a challenging novel about sexual abuse or a novel about an opera singer in a circus — what would they want? That’s not hard.
Sometime in late 2003 Dave Daley of Salon wrote to me — back then he was just a kid editor on the rise and I was a kid writer he’d just met, and he was editing a fiction supplement for the Hartford Courant. Drawer fiction. “Do you have anything in a drawer?” he asked. He mentioned David Gates was in it, some other people I respected. I decided to look in my ‘drawer,’ as it were, and found the fragments for Queen.
I sent a section in and he loved it. And I realized as I waited how much I was hoping he would love it—how much I needed it to feel real. How much I wanted to go back and believe in it.
And you did it, while creating such a believable female voice in Berne. How did you manage it? More importantly, what advice do you give to writers who are attempting to write from the perspective of “the other”? Do you believe writers should give themselves absolute freedom in such attempts? What are the pitfalls?
Thank you. Writing fiction is not like proving telepathy exists, but lately it’s treated like it is.
We’ve reached this point culturally where we implicitly don’t believe in the power of the imagination, the pure art idea that we’re trying to imagine the lives of others. And so when people do it, everyone seems shocked and skeptical. I remember when Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead came out. I was in a bookstore and heard a woman approach the counter with the book. When the bookseller praised it, she asked, “Can she write a man?”
There’s not really a scientific approach, but begin with an ethical approach: go in sincerely and not sensationalistically, understand what the stereotypes are, ask yourself are you using those stereotypes instead of research to rely on characterization. Don’t just do a Google search for research — go and talk to people, go to libraries. For myself, for example, I went to special collections to read out of print memoirs and letters from women of the period — I wanted to create a voice that had the feeling of those private documents more than any of the literature of the time. But I also read George Sand’s letters and her autobiography, and the letters of Pauline Viardot-Garcia, and just kept a kind of ongoing research happening with the writing so that it was always near. And then I had readers also who were women who could help me with where I went wrong — women friends but also my agent and editor, all women.
I remember when I was her student that Annie Dillard told us to get right up against our fears and write from there. That was where all of the important material was for us as writers. She was speaking about nonfiction, but I think it’s good advice for fiction writers too. So begin there. What are you curious about and why? Can you get close to your obsessions? What are your blind spots in relationship to those obsessions? How can you ethically research what you yourself don’t know?
I love that advice. You’ve obviously been surrounded by some powerful women. And I couldn’t help but raise my fist and cheer at some of the feminist passages in the novel — both those in which Lilliet rebelled against her limitations and those which made those limitations frightening clear to the reader. About virginity, she tells us: “Ever since I’d been old enough to know about virtue in a woman, it had seemed like a bull’s-eye painted on my head in rouge. I was sure… I would be better off without it.” (99). She later puts this certainty into question when she is entered into the registry as a prostitute and attains a scarlet-letter kind of existence: “In this life, I was forbidden to be on certain streets altogether, forbidden to be on any street during daylight, and my head was always to be covered if I was outside…. The door to my apartment, if I was to live away from the brothel, was to have oversized numerals on it, announcing to all who passed the nature of the woman who lived there.” (132). Finally, she bemoans her fate as a woman: “In this world, some time long ago, far past anyone’s remembering, women as a kind had done something so terrible, so awful, so fantastically cruel that they and their daughters and their daughters’ daughters were forever beyond forgiveness until the end of time…. We were to be docile, beautiful, uncomplaining, pure, and failing that, at the least useful. In return we might be allowed something like a long life.” (538). These passages felt so natural to Lilliet’s voice and time period. I sense they also felt powerful for you to write.
What moved me back about the women I found back then was the way they could find these pockets of freedom, create little worlds for themselves the way Sand and Viardot-Garcia did. But I couldn’t ignore the ruthless suppression of women’s rights back then or what it would have meant on a daily basis.
The novel is about what I see as the central theme of The Magic Flute — hidden until you really look at the plot: why do powerful women rely on and prop up weak and unpredictable men? I don’t know that Lilliet has any answers by the end, except that she cannot do it anymore.
I know some people will accuse me of inventing these sentiments anachronistically, and well, they should read George Sand, who was the first woman in France to sue for divorce so she could go off and be a writer. Which is what she did — supporting herself at it for the rest of her life and inspiring, along with Germaine de Staël, what became “The New Woman” ideals of the 1890s.
The structure of The Queen of the Night seemed both winding and straight as a dagger. The past story circles through multiple settings and exploits, cleverly threading together the storylines and themes of one opera after another. But what I consider the surface of the novel — the heroine’s present-day — felt more direct and plotted, following as it does Lilliet’s search for the writer who has known her well enough to expose her secrets. How did you go about accomplishing the novel’s shape?
I love you for saying that. I nearly lost my mind riddling out the structure. But that is exactly what I was hoping for.
So at first I had the sense it would be a retrospective novel: a woman soprano, famous and celebrated, looking back on her life and remembering everything she had tried never to remember again. I wrote 90 pages and set them aside, thinking I had gone wrong; wrote 90 more, did it again; wrote another 100 or so and then realized, all of the rejected sections, when included with the new material, made the novel.
Sometimes you want to cut or abandon something because you aren’t ready for it yet. But the realization I had was connected to how she had compartmentalized her life. But then the question of how to put the pieces together plagued me.
Meanwhile, the whole time I was writing this, I was obsessed with these Japanese historical comics by Kazuo Koike. Lone Wolf and Cub, Path of the Assassin. They’re set in Medieval Japan, are intensely researched, fantastic fun to read, and go on for 20-some volumes. And soon I became interested in their episodic structure. A long story like in Lone Wolf and Cub — a man on the path to exact revenge for the murder of his wife and the dishonoring of his name — marked off with the shorter episodes — the jobs he takes as a ronin, a blade for hire, in order to pay his way on that path. Gradually the unrelated and related episodes weave together into the bigger story.
This was also present in Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, which I love and which helped hugely. It has one of the most arresting prologues, by the way. A woman has a son by herself and refuses to tell him who the father is until he’s old enough to resist becoming like the father — who she believes is a worthless egotist. She raises him watching the film The Seven Samurai, which eventually inspires the son to find out who his father is by staging a series of confrontations with the men he believes are his dad.
And by the end of that I thought, Oh. I know how to do this for my own novel. And so I must acknowledge the debt I (and Helen DeWitt?) owe to Japanese narrative structures.
I guess the lesson is: It’s not all rising action and climax and denouement. There’s another world of structure to look at. Don’t be afraid to look anywhere you need.
Spoken like a true teacher. You’re well known as a teacher and reviewer, both. How do these feed your writing—or do they do the opposite?
Thank you. Teaching is very hard. So is reviewing. You always have to remember you have someone’s life in your hands. It’s more like being a lifeguard at a pool, the whole thing. Because you also have to remember that when you write fiction, you’re making something for someone to live with like it’s their own memories for a while. You’re asking to be important in their lives. Same as teaching — the teacher becomes a figure in the metafictional metacritical mind of the student — and same as reviewing, really.
As long as I teach, write, and review along that line, remembering that the people I write about or work with have real lives with consequences, I think I’m fine. Are they hard? Yes, very hard. All of them are hard. But that does not mean there aren’t pleasures.
And of course, they feed each other. I teach and review out of what my own thoughts are at any given time. The things I teach and review feed into my own thinking about my own work, and so on.
You’re friends with Hanya Yanagihara, author of one of my favorites last year — A Little Life — which topped 700 pages. I think the popularity of such a long book surprised many in the publishing industry. Your own is making all of the big 2016 to-read lists, and it nears 600 pages. Despite the usual warnings to writers from agents and editors to keep books short, it seems like the long novel is making a come-back. Why do you think this might be happening now?
Also let’s not forget Garth Risk Hallberg at nearly 1000. Or the Ferrante books, or Knausgard.
I think it’s amusing that at the same time we’re told the internet has destroyed our attention span, the long novel is back on bestseller lists, and longform journalism has made a comeback. Also the novella. If I have a theory, it would be that Twitter is like reading the longest, weirdest serialized novel ever in installments — perhaps our attention spans have mutated from shorter to longer in the process? Maybe that’s why Twitter wants to expand to 10,000 characters. Or, by contrast, we long for the deep engagement, find it necessary, after so much lightning-fast and fragmented material.
But maybe nothing has changed. I was told back in the late 90s that the long novel was a risk and then came Leslie Marmon Silko’s The Almanac of the Dead, Alllan Gurganus’s The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. So don’t listen to publishers when they speak about trends. Listen to them when they talk about you. Listen to yourself. Novels take too long to write on spec. Especially if no one specifically asked for them that way.
In September, you wrote an article for LitHub about Ferrante’s refusal to publicize her books. You quote from a letter she sent her publisher before her first novel’s release: “I do not intend to do anything for Troubling Love, anything that might involve the public engagement of me personally…. If the book is worth anything, that should be sufficient…. True miracles are the ones whose makers will never be known.” I remember how much that final line grabbed me, how true it felt. You wrote: “All of this is on my mind as my own second novel heads into the world next year and I prepare. What will I share, what will I not?” Now, four month later, how have you surprised yourself? Have you been able to keep yourself both known and unknown?
A miracle is not a marketing plan to depend on, though. It’s a thrilling story, Ferrante’s story. It has the feeling of a myth.
What I have to own since writing that — and am even writing about now — is that social media is part of my writing process. And a useful one, for me.
As for the known and unknown: Share your fascinations, not your secrets. Right? Social media takes a momentary interest in a writer and turns it into a relationship. Care for it by being interesting. You are already present in your interests. There’s no need to speak about more than that. Sometimes I feel like I’m watching people disintegrate online, their posts increasingly like the asides you’d offer to a lover or like the long drunken wedding toast at the end of the night.
It’s so easy, on social media, to get approval for things you write, in this very small way that feels very large at the time. But this passive approval is really what’s most distracting, more than anything you see from other people. And that is what is more dangerous to you as a writer: not the activity of others—who is doing what—but your waiting to be “liked.” That’s where you lose your nerve. So don’t do that. Keep your nerve. Do anything you like—share, don’t share, be online, don’t be online, be secret, be public—but keep that nerve, the will to be yourself at all costs.