I’ve loved Alexander Chee’s writing for some time, from the powerful essays that served as my introduction to his work to his debut novel, Edinburgh. Chee won a Whiting Award for Edinburgh, and is a recipient of the NEA fellowship in fiction and residencies from the MacDowell Colony, Ledig House, and Civitella Ranieri. His writing has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, Slate, and on NPR. The Toast asked Alexander to talk with us about writing, teaching, changes in publishing, his recent “Future Queer” cover story for The New Republic, and his forthcoming second novel, The Queen of the Night (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Feb. 2016).
The Toast: New York is home for you, but you grew up in Korea, Hawaii, Guam, and Maine, and in some of your essays you’ve mentioned moving a lot as an adult, too. Can you talk a little bit about growing up in so many different places? How has that, and moving around so much, influenced your writing?
Alexander Chee: I suspect I don’t have quite the same relationship to place.
I remember when we moved to Maine and I realized that we wouldn’t keep moving — in a way, staying in place was harder. And the kids I met, this was age 6 — they couldn’t imagine or even pronounce “Guam”. It felt like meeting evangelical Christians and knowing there are other gods.
So for a long time after that, I felt as if my real home was someplace I had yet to find. Part of that was about being biracial in that historical moment — my parents’ marriage was illegal just a few years before they married. People would say, for decades, “Someday everyone will look like you,” which made me feel as if the place I belonged was the future, not the present — and which also made it feel as if it would never arrive. It was like being born into exile, an immigrant at birth from a country that didn’t exist yet — a country I’d have to build or, maybe, find.
A therapist once accurately described me as someone with many identities I keep in reserve for those who can understand them — and that I needed to experience myself as whole, not as a series of aliases created in order to have connections to others. I suspect that may be why I write fiction. That’s something I do explore in my new novel — a feeling of being permanently outside, always pretending to belong to the landscape, of changing one’s identity regularly and starting over, again and again. I gave that to Lilliet, my narrator in The Queen of the Night, though I didn’t realize it until near the end of writing it.
I was and am still very moved by the very personal responses I’ve received. Stories of the emotional cost. A friend whose godmother wanted her whole life to marry her partner and now at 93, her partner’s Alzheimer’s would make it an empty gesture, or a one-sided one.
There was a certain amount of people who believed I was saying whatever they needed me to say — that I was for or against marriage, for or against assimilation, despite my trying to describe my very real ambivalence and my fears about the future. But mostly I think that what I was trying to say was heard.
In the Twitter chat what was immediately apparent, though, was the way the problems in America are the problems in the LGBTQI community — in our case, an exhaustion with looking at two white men in suits carrying bouquets and not seeing any other faces or getting the stories of other lives. Behind the word “intersectionality” is so much potential strength — and it’s exhausting to see that unmet still as much as it is.
In that story for TNR, you wrote: “My hope is that marriage equality queers marriage rather than straightening queers — that we reinvent it and keep reinventing it” — I really appreciated this, and also wanted to know if you could explain a bit more about what you mean by “queering marriage.” What would that look like for you? And I know you already wrote eloquently about what you think could be next after marriage equality, but I’d love to hear your thoughts after the Supreme Court ruling, which occurred after your story ran.
In college when I came out, my four best friends, all men, immediately questioned their own sexuality. It was as if my own openness allowed them theirs. I think I mean that sort of thing, on a larger scale. It’s already happening, but I want it to happen more. A way of looking at marriage that is more about making it what you want rather than blindly participating in traditions and institutions. Words like “husband” and “wife” are really loaded artifacts. I’ve seen friends make their marriages entirely their own and who have found great happiness, openness and pleasure in being married and in reinventing all of the traditions of it. And I’ve seen many friends just completely unable to take the language on — or who do, and whose relationships fail after they marry, relationships that worked well beforehand. It’s as if the labels come with invasive programs, viruses that take over people’s minds if they don’t really think about it. There’s just so much historic inequality in those words. Among my straight women friends, especially, the word “wife” itself can be like this blight on their whole life. That’s the sort of thing I’d love to see change.
We are going to have another interview, closer to your book release, about The Queen of the Night, but for now could you talk a bit about the process of writing it compared to your process for Edinburgh, and anything else you would like our readers to know about your new novel?
I began writing my first novel, Edinburgh, after a really ambitious earlier novel had been rejected for being potentially too long, and so I decided: “Well, I’ll just write a shitty autobiographical novel like every other asshole and call it a day.” But I dropped that bitterness soon enough and began in earnest to write a novel that described what I felt I never seen described — the way sexual abuse could feel, afterward, as if something had replaced you.
That novel took 5 years to write and 2 to sell, and was rejected 24 times.
This was a real education. My agent and I got questions back like “Is it a gay novel? Is it an Asian American novel?” — as if I had to choose. Marketing departments were rejecting it claiming they didn’t know how to sell it. I would say in response, “It’s a novel.” I think it’s interesting how much MFA culture gets blamed for what gets published, given that as far as I know, programs don’t decide what gets published. Publishers do.
The Queen of the Night, at that time, was just a short paragraph and a few pages, and that almost eclipsed Edinburgh entirely. Publishers wanted me to write Queen first and I didn’t know how to trust that. What if I then went and wrote Queen and it wasn’t what they thought it would be? I just felt like I couldn’t spend any more of my life trying to be whatever they wanted me to be without losing my mind. As far as I was concerned, the publisher I wanted would take this novel first. I eventually found an independent publisher, Welcome Rain, and an editor there, Chuck Kim, a real champion who took it on, and based on the reviews they were able to sell the paperback rights to Picador, who I can’t say enough good about. Now I’m at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and they’ve been tremendous.
As for what to say about Queen, it’s a novel about an opera singer in 19th-century Paris. She’s approached by a writer about creating a role in a new opera, one based on a novel of his, and when she asks about the story, he learns that it could only be a story about her — about a part of her life she didn’t think was known to more than a very few people. This suggests to her that either it’s a complete coincidence, or a trap of some kind. And that a very old deal she made — one that allowed her to transcend her origins and become a singer — has come undone, and that this person hopes to make her pay one last price. So she sets out to discover just what happened and why.
I started the novel wanting to get as far away from myself as possible. I had an image of a woman singer on a train with a circus, walking the train in the dark, sitting in the elephant car and writing about her life. The plot came from how I was interested in the ways people wrote about each other then, among other things — and in part, what it would be like to have someone write a novel about you. I was also interested in trying to write about that woman I would see in the edges of biographies and novels from the 19th century — hippodrome riders who could walk on their hands and were the favorite lovers of kings, and yet mysteriously didn’t rate more than a few sentences, much less a novel. I was fascinated also by how much of our world comes from 19th-century Paris in ways we don’t seem to examine — ideas about fashion, celebrity, luxury, class.
I first came to your writing through your wonderful essays. Can you work on both fiction and non at once, or do you find it easiest to focus on one at a time? What is most important to you about each form?
Thank you. Sometimes it is quite easy to write them side by side. Sometimes not. Novels tend to be greedy, and a writer’s career can go blank while they work on one.
They’re very different ways of thinking about ideas, to my mind, and I think this is often lost in discussions about their distinctions, or discussions that insist there are no distinctions, in part because Americans tend to be suspicious of even the idea of fiction with ideas. It’s as if all we want from our fictions is for them to be trustworthy guarantees of a good time — and from our nonfiction, we want trustworthy guarantees of “wisdom”.
Both fiction and nonfiction are, to me, investigations happening inside of limits. I do think they have different limits and that the limits matter, formally, in the way limits matter to a sestina or a sonnet. This is very reductive, but for me the difference is, in fiction, the limits are set by a character. In nonfiction, the limits are set by your character.
Can you share some of your views on the current state of publishing, and also how Amazon might be changing the game?
Well, we know publishing profits have improved while writer pay has declined. So that is terrible. I’m greatly encouraged by some recent developments in publishing in terms of what is getting published and reviewed.
What worries me most is that we are still in a weird place where, 20 years in, we’re being told we still don’t know how the Internet affects book sales or readership, and so writers can’t be paid as much for writing written online — even as every major media outlet is now online and increasingly abandons print editions. Yet so far, you still get paid more for print even though it is often read less — and you get paid less for digital, and yet everyone reads that. That has to change. Because it’s a scam.
It’s time to admit the Internet is here.
I was going through old files and found pay stubs from digital writing I did in 1999 that are roughly what is still getting paid for something that you also have to fact check yourself and in some cases copyedit — but that is also given a title you don’t choose. And because of content grabs in contracts, it may not even belong to you.
And so I don’t have any comment about Amazon except to say that over time I am less and less interested on any seasonal focus on Amazon’s most recent moves, whatever they are — like many American companies they are a mix of good and bad, what I agree and disagree with — and I’m more and more interested in the larger context for this, the Internet and America, income inequality and the destruction of the creative class. We’re in this horrible world where everyone wants everything for free now or almost free because to pay for it reminds them of how little they are paid and that reminds them of their powerlessness in the face of that. Or at least how powerless they feel. And there’s so much blocked anger there.
Historically, despots kill the artists, writers, journalists and professors when they seize power, as what they teach is critical thinking, and what comes with that is the ability to resist tyrannies of various kinds. What America is doing, purposefully or not, is historically distinct: delegitimizing the work of that class, and acting as if an education is the tyranny, all while insisting writers and professors make work on starvation wages, while also paying exorbitant fees for everything from healthcare to housing to taxes even on what grants remain. In order for an artist to have any respect they have to have amazing sales — or be dead after a life of poverty. So I’d prefer a bigger conversation about all of that instead.
All of which is to say, Amazon isn’t changing publishing — everyone involved in publishing is, from the writers to the editors to the readers. If we want to improve publishing we have to talk about the whole thing related to how writers are valued and compensated, and what we want our literature to contain.
As a writer, how do you feel about social media? How useful is it? Do you think it has any drawbacks for writers?
It really is a social thing for me at its core — I’ve made so many good friends there or deepened older friendships with those at a distance, and I do use it to stay connected to family, or to take a short break from work. As far as it also being a work thing, if you teach at all at the college or university level, you’re used to living with the people you work with and being judged by them more or less constantly. I’ve gotten a great deal of work from it, whether it’s readings or jobs or relationships to editors, so I couldn’t ever act like it’s a time waster.
Social media for writers, well, that means you can take someone’s moment of interest in your career and turn it into a relationship to that reader. Someone reads something you wrote and they search for you on Twitter, and it becomes a way to watch your career, find your work. So in some ways you should treat it a little like any piece of writing you prepare for a reader.
The drawbacks vary according to the form, I think. With Facebook, people overwhelmingly prefer connecting to your personal page rather than your Author page, which can get awkward at times — they know you in one context, and you and your friends know yourself in another. I also always think twice before I connect to someone I know professionally there. An editor interested in you might get really fed up with your Facebook, for example, thanks to the algorithm, which can turn someone you might otherwise enjoy a normal relationship with into the Internet equivalent of a roommate. You don’t want that editor to feel like you’re the guy leaving the milk out on the counter.
Twitter’s biggest drawback is the rough draft of history quality — it can act like a frozen sea of thoughts, half-finished ideas that feel written because you Tweeted them. But instead of bemoaning that, it can be a resource also. Which is to say, if you haven’t, you really should go through your feeds and re-read them periodically, just to see what you’re thinking about. I have students do this. I also have them re-read their favorites this way. Anything you’re not telling yourself is potentially in there — and is potentially a topic for an essay or for fiction.
I recently found your essay “Korean Enough” from a June 2008 issue of Guernica; at the time you mentioned you were concerned for students who might feel they have to work and write within a certain “brand” of “Asian American Fiction” or “Korean American Fiction.” Are we working, hoping for the day when terms like “diverse literature” and “Asian American literature” don’t seem necessary — when our stories and our writers just find an audience without that kind of branding? If so, what do you view as the main obstacles in the way?
Concerned, sure. I guess you could say I want the world to be different for them. As I discovered when I was trying to get Edinburgh published, publishers have set ideas of what they believe to be true about novels and the public and that’s how they make decisions, no matter what you wrote. Whatever their unconscious idea of a novel is or of a novelist or of the world, that’s what they publish and publish toward — they’re often called gatekeepers, but I would call them world builders in a different sense than we use that phrase — they’re building the culture we all live in, or with.
To the extent that publishing isn’t as diverse as it could be, that is really about how much we who are not white or straight don’t exist to them. When they were asking me “Is it an Asian novel or a gay novel?” that meant they couldn’t imagine me, a gay Asian American man, writing a novel about a gay Asian American man that was neither about being gay nor about being Asian American. The novel was right in front of them and they didn’t seem to understand it. My main character wasn’t trying to come out, nor did the novel describe his struggle with being an immigrant. He was dealing with sexual abuse.
After Edinburgh came out, it was reviewed strongly, and the paperback rights were offered. And something like 11 of the 24 houses that rejected it became interested in acquiring the paperback rights. This was incredible to me. I remember I saw Heidi Julavits when I found this out and she shouted, “It’s the same book, right?” I was glad she was appalled because I was thinking, “Is it just me?” One of those houses had no memory of rejecting it; another said “We don’t know why we turned it down.” I tried really hard not to take it personally, but it made me wonder if I was wasting my life trying to be seen by people who just couldn’t see me.
We know there are so many stories that haven’t been told — but who knows how much of it was written? For all of my misfortune, I was lucky all the same: Edinburgh had won a prize from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop while in manuscript, The Michener, and that gave me the tenacity to hang on and some money to do that also. How many writers didn’t get something like that and didn’t hang on? I’d bet more than a few. How many novels in which so many of us would feel the life we recognize around us, how many of them don’t get through to print because of the way publishing is so white when the world isn’t?
I feel like that’s what we’re talking about with diversity. If someone’s ignoring you, that’s one thing — at least you exist to them enough for them to ignore you. When you’re not real to them, you’re not even a ghost. You’re not even there.
Who are some of your personal literary obsessions?
Lately, I’ve returned to some old loves: Angela Carter, James Baldwin, George Sand, and Ethan Mordden. A new one is Iris Murdoch. I’m also obsessed with Queequeg from Moby Dick. And then lately travel writing that is actually about something, not just retail — reading it and writing it. I’m reading Jan Morris currently, Last Letters from Hav.
You just returned from teaching a fiction workshop at Disquiet International in Lisbon. I’m curious about the unique challenges and rewards of teaching with a compressed schedule, like a summer program, as opposed to a class that stretches over an entire semester. Does the short length of time require you to be very organized — stick to a schedule and a plan for what you want to communicate? How much do you map out in advance and how much is based on the response of the students you meet? What emerged as the focus of this particular workshop, for you and your students?
The Lisbon class was organized with a focus on the basics of writing the novel, beginning with character, moving into ways of thinking about plot, structure, subplot, point of view, revision. I offered a mix of writing prompts and short lectures before workshop.
You do have to be a mix of organized and then also give room for what emerges in conversation in class — the students will feel ignored if you’re not responsive to what their concerns are and you just plug on with what you planned. As for what emerged? I was lucky enough to have Mary Gaitskill come to class for a Q&A. And she answered questions about how she wrote “The Other Place”, one of my favorite of her stories. She described essentially bringing one of her fears to life as we all do, imagining something that terrifies us again and again, until she found she had the narrator, and a story. I turned that into a writing exercise: what scares you so much you imagine it again and again? And is it possible there’s a narrator, and a story, there?
I had planned to address the way it is important to write close to your fears, among other things. So often people speak of writing into their passions, but what does that really mean? It sounds like something disgusting to do, but you’re after the things you feel most urgently about. Fear, anger, jealousy, lust, disgust. I was surprised to find it all came together that way. It was more or less spontaneous, a mix of her thinking — which I did not know in advance — and mine, but I couldn’t have planned it better.
As a teacher, what do you think is the most important advice or encouragement you can offer your students? What is the toughest criticism to give?
The most important advice changes. It’s always career advice about whatever nightmare waits for them. Right now I tell them not to write for free, and to safeguard their time. I also warn them to read their contracts — these days contracts with major outlets often sign away rights in perpetuity with the first piece the writer writes. These new contracts effectively lock writers into terms they could fight if they had a lawyer or an agent, but they are offered on pieces they write hoping to find their way to that lawyer or agent. It’s an appalling cruelty, to kneecap writers as they rise. So, read your contracts, insist on payment. Push back. Don’t be rude, just firm. You’d be surprised what you can get by just saying plainly, “I’m sorry, I just can’t sign away all reprint rights to anything I might write for your company for $600.”
The hardest critique to give? I try to remember a student who wrote me after our class years ago and thanked me for telling him what was wrong with his work. Amazingly, no one ever had. “Everyone was always only nice to me and would never tell me what I was doing wrong,” he said. “You were different. I was able to improve with you.” The loneliness of that — of no one telling you what you were doing wrong — stayed with me. However hard a critique is to give, I try to remember that instead — how hard it is to never get it, suffocating instead in niceties.
Let’s say you’re not teaching or traveling; it’s just a day at home and you’ve got writing to do. Do you have a usual routine on days like this?
Yes. I get up and make coffee and breakfast. I have a fondness for elaborate breakfasts I make myself — kimchi fried rice with eggs, or breakfast tacos, or breakfast sandwiches. Also, I like to read in the morning for an hour before writing. I get to my writing studio — I work in one of those shared spaces — no later than 11. I write until 4 or 5. Then I try to get to the rest of my life. But with deadlines that can bleed over, or the day can start earlier. I do think it’s important to commit to a schedule, though, as you can, and as a part of a process whose integrity matters no matter the goal you’re after that day. That protects you, no matter how well the writing itself is going.
Nicole Chung is the Managing Editor of The Toast.