Visiting Writer’s Series: Alexander Chee
Alexander Chee is the author of two novels, the critically acclaimed Edinburgh, which received the Whiting Award and was described by the by the Washington Post as a “lovely, nuanced, never predictable portrait of a creative soul in the throes of becoming,” and his highly anticipated new novel, Queen of the Night, which immerses us the life of a Lilliet, a courtesan turned opera singer in lush nineteenth-century Paris. Café recently conducted an interview with Alexander via email to pick his brain on the nature of voice, how to incorporate research into writing historical fiction, and more.
CA: In both Edinburgh and Queen of the Night, the protagonists are singers who have incredible command over their voices to enrapture and enthrall. Fee, in Edinburgh, loses his ability. What compelled you to create two vocally-inclined characters? What about the nature of one’s voice do you think compels your characters to use theirs as a vehicle of expression?
AC: Well, as a boy I was in a professional boys choir as a 1st soprano for 5 years, until my voice changed. The loss of my own soprano singing voice as a boy was not the first profound loss in my life but it had a sort of catastrophic finality to it–it took a whole world away.
We had moved a great deal when I was younger, mostly around the South Pacific, and most recently, from Guam to Maine when I was six, in November. So for the child I was, I went from a warm Pacific childhood with children of many ethnicities to a land full of snow and white children who called me chink and who locked me in the boy’s room, insisting I use “kung fu” to get out.
When I discovered I could sing, powerfully, that this was valuable, that it could provide me with friends who were also intelligent and my age and who liked me, it was a rescue. When the voice changed and I had to leave, the only thing that could rescue me was reading and writing. It says a lot to me that I wrote my first poems when I lost my voice.
So you could say I know what it is like to have a voice that saves you and one that deserts you.
As for what compels them? They’re pretty different characters–they mostly have in common me, and being sopranos. Fee’s voice matters only to the first half of the novel, a ticket into and then out of a world full of love and danger. Lilliet’s voice is central to the entirety of The Queen of the Night. Like a weird mirror of her.
CA: In Queen of the Night and to a certain extent, Edinburgh, there’s a fair amount of historical research involved in the crafting of the novels. Edinburgh explores Greek and Korean mythology and the Black Plague, while Queen of the Night virtually places the reader in nineteenth century Europe. Do you have any recommendations for a budding writer looking to incorporate a lot of historical research into their pieces? Any tips on the writing/research process and how to segue from one mode to the other?
AC: My top research tips:
Google searches are trash for writers. Despite the company’s best efforts, you really need to go to the library. Go to museums. You’re after the details no one has put on Google yet. Google isn’t everything–it’s just what people have put online.
If you’re a student or faculty, a university library’s internet has already got built in access for you to use to some of the most powerful research tools available.
Most of what I looked for was what biographers and historians didn’t want to use but would refer to in footnotes or in their bibliographies. So going through those provided me with a path to other texts that could be useful to me.
Special collections are a fantastic place to go looking. When I was writing about the writer Gordon Merrick, for example, at Princeton’s special collections I found a box of all of his old passports, including a French one from when he was a spy during WWII. Also an unpublished last novel manuscript.
Read your research and wait for the click when you get a hunch about what you’re reading–that’s where the fiction you need is. A sort of “If X is this, and Y is this, then Z must be this” moment.
Read research the night before you write so it filters into your unconscious and then write in the morning first thing.
CA: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that Edinburgh is autobiographical fiction. I often had to pause while reading it because many of the moments you’ve captured were unbearably, exquisitely painful. I’m curious as to what stance you wrote it from? Were you, for instance, looking to take control of a certain narrative by writing the novel?
AC: I was entirely unable to describe what had happened to me at the time I wrote it–a weight like someone sitting on my chest would come over me. But when I read from the novel, I could speak freely. The novel was then a prosthetic voice, something that could function when I could not, describing not the events of my life but what I had learned from them.
CA: In Queen, there are a few character who are historically notable, like the Russian writer Turgenev. I’ve always been curious as to how writers of historical fiction turn well-known figures into character of their own conception. How did you come to inhabit the psyche of these characters? How did you avoid the pitfalls of portraying them incorrectly or not staying true to their legacy?
AC: Well, I read their letters, their diaries, such as they were available. I read their work. I read biographies that let me see them from several angles. Turgenev’s letters are some of my favorites, wonderfully dishy.
And you have to be playful, really–a little disrespectful, because your inclination is to be too respectful. So you cut to the shape of what you think is there and then the rest is for the reader. With Queen, I knew my character was a celebrity–she would know famous people. So I had to do it. But I feel like George Sand, who wrote a novel about Pauline Viardot-Garcia, both of whom are in this novel, would approve.
Jewel Edwards is the features editor at Café Américain and a third-year candidate in the American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.