“Readers are willing to follow writers into risky territory”: Alexander Chee on Writing and The Queen of the Night -The Toast

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Last summer The Toast published a wide-ranging interview with Alexander Chee, contributing editor at The New Republic and Lit Hub, editor at large at VQR, and winner of the Whiting Award for his first novel, Edinburgh. We’re thrilled to share this follow-up interview on Alexander’s second novel, The Queen of the Night, which tells the story of a nineteenth-century opera singer whose talent and ambition take her from a homestead in Minnesota to the heights of stardom in Paris. As of this writing, The Queen of the Night is in its fifth printing just two weeks after publication, and has entered the Los Angeles Times Bestseller List at #6. You can read the first chapter here at Longreads or listen to an audiobook excerpt read by soprano Lisa Flanagan.

Nicole Chung: You’ve talked about the fact that some publishers wanted you to write The Queen of the Night first. Why was it important to you to publish Edinburgh first? Was it difficult to have to say thank you, but no thank you to the early interest in Queen

Alexander Chee: It was not so difficult at the time. I was naive, angry, exhausted. I felt I had to publish Edinburgh in order to prove I could exist — that I could make a space for myself in this life. To this day, that novel is still the only extant novelistic treatment of the life of a Korean American gay man. That’s not okay. There should be so many more. The fact that it remains alone is awful. There’s a matrix of issues there, ranging from the homophobic Korean culture to the Asianphobic American culture to the pressures on the children of immigrants to make anything except art. But I wanted to plant that flag in the culture, to insist on my own existence.

I remember my agent back then said, “I feel like this is a mission for you, and one that is not in your best interest to succeed with.” I didn’t know how to explain it to her. She later said to me, “You were right,” once it was published, but there is a way we were both right, in hindsight. Certainly Queen‘s current success feels like a last “I told you so” from the publishers urging me to write it first at that time. But the truth is, I could never have written the novel Queen is without first publishing Edinburgh. There’s no way I would have gotten the sort of institutional support I needed to do it as a debut author. And also, I really needed to feel like I could exist.

I felt I had to publish Edinburgh in order to prove I could exist — that I could make a space for myself in this life.

In our interview last year, you mentioned that you started writing The Queen of the Night “wanting to get as far away from [yourself] as possible.” Why did you feel that way?

I had just finished almost a decade of work with Edinburgh — writing it, seeking a publisher, editing it, touring with it. And while I had worked very hard to make something with the situations more than the events of my life, to invent a plot and the other characters, it seemed as if all anyone wanted was to talk about what was “true,” what had come from my life, as if it were some sort of sad unsexy strip tease, almost a game of gotcha.

So I was tired of thinking of myself. These questions seemed like a way of talking about my novel that was a way of not talking about my novel. As a reader, I never want to know what came from the writer’s life. I just want the story. That’s it. So I don’t get that impulse at all. Sometimes I wanted to ask, “Would you believe it more if I told you it was all true?” I’m not special — this happens to all fiction writers, maybe most of all in America. I need to ask my international writer friends if they get asked this. Here we get treated like fraudulent mediums — like it’s the nineteenth century and we’ve claimed that we speak to the dead instead of writing fiction.

We see Lilliet at all of these different points over the course of her career, wonderfully rich historical set pieces coalescing and building a character, a life. How much did you already know about nineteenth-century Paris and New York when you got the idea for this story, and what were some of your go-to sources as you wrote?

Thank you. I knew basic outlines. What I’d picked up in school. I used a fairly straightforward method. I had written a scene which ended in her at dinner with Giuseppe and Giuseppina Verdi. So I then read a biography of Verdi and examined the times he would have known my character, looking for what was going on — he was putting on Un Ballo en Maschera, hoping to bring I Masnadieri back. I included that. I then asked myself whether those parts were right for her — they were not out of the question — and then looked for ways forward from there.

I wanted it to have some of the feeling of a fairy tale, but also some of the feeling of the autobiography of a celebrity from that time. Like the autobiographies of Sarah Bernhardt or Cora Pearl or Celeste Mogador, but if they were a little bewitched. Like a story from Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber if it ran off to hide in the autobiography section. So I used all of those autobiographies. I also used the footnotes in French novels from the period in translation, which together provided context and facts you wouldn’t get in just reading the novel in French, ironically — especially the Lydia Davis translations of Proust’s and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, which are fantastically thorough. This was especially true also for the Met catalogue for the show on the Comtesse de Castiglione.

I took several trips to Paris in 2005, several more in 2007, 2008, 2009. I used, in the end, a mix of museums, novels, biographies, letters, histories. I wrote about one of the adventures I undertook here over at Travel + Leisure — in the background of that is me going to the little museums of Paris, which have very detailed exhibits. As for depicting New York, there are several excellent small museums here; the Museum of the City of New York, for example. It’s very easy to go there and leave with a sense for just about any period in the city’s life. And then I worked quite often at the New York Performing Arts Library, which has a fantastic special collections library and very comfortable Aeron chairs. 

Many of the characters who flit in and out of the story are real people, historical figures you’ve placed in Lilliet’s life — that, along with her vitality as a character, made it even easier for me to almost forget that Lilliet isn’t “real.” Were you at all nervous about incorporating real figures from history, Verdi and Bizet and Pauline Viardot and P.T. Barnum, into her story? What were some of the challenges there, and what were some things you liked about working real people into your fiction?

I was very nervous. I realized I had to get less nervous. I had to feel free with them. So I just read until I felt hunches, and took notes of the kind from the above. This was how I figured out George Sand and Pauline had birthdays close to each other and would likely have tried to celebrate them together that year — they had a few times as possible in the past and Pauline loved seeing Sand at Nohant. Or when I discovered Turgenev had a listening tube installed so he could be on the fourth floor in their Paris house and still hear Pauline singing in the salon. I guessed that of course he would have snuck downstairs all the same to see her. He worshipped her, he was near death. He would have resisted settling for the four story ear trumpet. I would have.

Lilliet is one of the most compelling narrators I’ve read in a long time. Her voice is so alive; she is determined to fight and survive. As I read her story I kept thinking of some of today’s larger-than-life public figures, presenting these carefully tailored lives and histories for their fans and followers even though they might have as many secrets as Lilliet and just as much to lose. Lilliet is your creation — only partly inspired by the singer Jenny Lind — but did you have any other people, past or present, in mind as you wrote her? 

Thank you — that means the world to me. I hesitate now to even say Jenny Lind inspired her as it seems to confuse things. But I do call Lilliet my shadow Jenny — like a shadow of Jenny Lind that ran away to have a life of her own.

I did think of other celebs. I sometimes wrote with Beyoncé videos streaming in a corner of my screen. The nude jeweled bodysuit had a series of celebrity dreams, even, during the writing. A dream of Martha Stewart introducing me around her country house, where I was her guest. A dream of helping Madonna shop for clothes. A dream of dancing on a table with Paris Hilton. A dream of driving Britney Spears around New York in a Volkswagen Bug with a swing welded on top, and listening to her talk to me through the window as I drove her up and down the avenues, her swinging back and forth.

Alexander Chee | Photo by M. Sharkey Alexander Chee | Photo by M. Sharkey

I loved your essay in TNR on writing a “historical novel” — you say you didn’t set out to write one, but you clearly reveled in the experience and how much it challenged and fed you as a writer. Do you think you might write another historical novel one day? And what other periods of history strike you as especially rich, intriguing settings for stories?

Thanks — that essay was fun to write. Especially the Tolstoy and Turgenev letters!

I’m currently working on a historical fiction film project — adapting Barry Werth’s The Scarlet Professor into a film. That focuses the life of Newton Arvin, an early twentieth-century literary critic who wrote early and important books on the works of Melville, Whitman, Hawthorne and Longfellow, and who was an early important lover to Truman Capote — Truman used to call him “my Harvard,” for the education he got from him on literature. The script focuses primarily on his 1960 arrest on “pornography trafficking” charges — he was gay, closeted, a Smith professor, had little parties at his home where he might share pictures or show a film. And he was targeted by the police, internationally humiliated in the press, and the lives and careers of many men were destroyed as well.

And I do in fact have ideas and pages for at least two other historical novels, and another novel that uses, well, dreams about history/from history, written as prose poems. Those periods/settings are, respectively, the seas around China, Korea, the Philippines, and Japan (and the pirates there); the life of Li Shiu Tong, the Chinese lover of Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, which takes us to Germany in the era before World War II; and then the novel with the poems would provide scenes about Korean history from the Shilla Dynasty probably up to the present.

I could also see playing with historical fantasy. I wrote a Kung Fu epic short story, imagining fifteenth-century Chinese explorers in America, for the anthology A Fictional History of the United States With Chunks Missing, edited by T. Cooper and Adam Mansbach. It’s about a student and his teacher trying to learn to run on the winds back to China from America after their mission fails. I’ve sometimes thought of turning that into a novel also but…we’ll see. I love those characters, but also really like it as it is.

I appreciate how frank you’ve been about the challenges you met while working on this novel, and what a long and sometimes maddening process it was. I feel there’s a lesson there for other writers who might be sparring with their own work, or publishers’ expectations, or the enormous pressure to not only tell brilliant stories, but move units. What would you tell aspiring novelists after the experiences of writing both your novels? 

I suppose I would tell them to learn as much as they can about how to survive themselves. I had to learn how the person I am can best live with the writer I am — the human part of me had needs for companionship, ego satisfaction, the protections of health insurance and dental insurance. Some of the best advice on being a writer I can think of is to take good care of your teeth. (The emergency funds for writers are typically inundated with emergency dental requests.)

For writing — the biggest lesson of the season for me at this point is that readers really are willing, even militating, to follow writers into risky territory. Risky new novels like Sunil Yapa’s The Heart Is A Muscle The Size Of Your Fist, Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs To You, Idra Novey’s Ways To Disappear, Charlie Jane Anders’ All The Birds In The Sky — these are all in multiple printings. Or look at the recent success of Sarah Manguso or Claudia Rankine or Saeed Jones or Maggie Nelson.

I speak to so many young writers who still have various cynical ideas about how one gets ahead. Really, just do your best work, stand up for yourself, stay close to your excitement. Yes, the asymmetry between effort and reward in writing is the hardest part of it in many ways — the things you work on forever that receive little or no acknowledgement or pay, the things written quickly that pay enormously or that fly around the Internet, viral — but just keep writing.

Even before I heard what Queen was about, I knew you were a great lover of opera. What about it first drew you in? 

It’s a very very personal path, I guess you could say. My late father and my mother gave it to me. My father loved opera, Italian opera especially. My parents’ favorite opera was La Traviata and my father would sing from it as he ran around the yard mowing the lawn. He took so much pleasure in that. He was a Korean engineer who believed you weren’t educated if you didn’t listen to Italian opera and read Russian novels. It seemed really normal to love opera to me.

When, at the age of 11, I entered a professional boys choir, we sang in two operas, in the chorus — Tosca and Carmen — and those experiences were some of the most fun I have ever had in my life. Many years later, when a high school friend became an opera singer, the mezzosoprano Jennifer Dudley, and I saw her sing in Partenope at the Met, my adult love of it shook loose and here we are.

Really, just do your best work, stand up for yourself, stay close to your excitement. Yes, the asymmetry between effort and reward in writing is the hardest part of it in many ways…but just keep writing.

In November you announced that composer Stefan Wiesman and librettist David Cote are working on an opera of Edinburgh. This is so exciting; please tell me everything you can about it! How involved are you going to be? [I would be so tempted to ask for a spear-carrier type role if I were you, just for one night.] 

Perhaps if they dramatize Fee’s kidnapped great-aunts we can have you onstage as one of those? I’ll see. And by the end you’d get to have hair made of sparks — actually, that sounds really fun. Maybe I’ll be onstage for that also; I could do it in drag. We’d need a third!

And thank you. I won’t be too involved I think — just with a very light touch. I’ll meet with them some, but right now I just know that Stefan is hard at work on the music, and that David is working on the libretto. But it’s really the sort of thing you don’t even think to hope for. I’m so excited.

Thank you so much for your time, again, and congratulations on the success Queen has already found. Before we end, can you tell us what you’re working on next?

Thank you. I’m working on a novel — I don’t want to say which one yet– and a collection of my personal essays, most published, some as yet unpublished, covering the period of 1989 to 2002. The working title for now is How To Write An Autobiographical Novel. Collectively, you could say the essays are something of the “behind the scenes” to the writing of my first novel, Edinburgh.

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