Interview with Alexander Chee

by Marian Kaufman

cheecroppedAlexander Chee is the author of the award-winning debut novel Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night. His stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, Slate, Guernica, and NPR, among others. Along with serving as a contributing editor at The New Republic and an editor at large at VQR, he has been awarded a NEA Fellowship, MCCA Fellowship and a Whiting Award. He has taught writing at Wesleyan University, Amherst College, the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence College and the University of Texas-Austin. He currently lives in New York City, where he curates the Dear Reader series at Ace Hotel New York.

We had the opportunity to speak with Chee about his research of and writing process for The Queen of the Night, which was released in paperback in November of 2016.

There is so much opera in The Queen of the Night. Was it difficult to write about singing and music? Were you constantly listening to opera as you wrote?

I was listening to opera more or less throughout, though also adding in soundtracks to movies—the soundtracks to Lust, Caution, and A Single Man. But mostly, La Sonnambula, Il Trovatore, and then, Faust.

I don’t know if I know how to distinguish the difficulty of writing it from among the other difficulties. It’s funny; this is the second time I’ve written about music, and I have heard it is difficult to write about music. But I write about what moves me.

The third novel will also have music in it, but contemporary. Punk, speed metal, electronic pop.

The Queen of the Night is set in nineteenth century Paris where the performance of various operas are intertwined with real historical events and figures. How did research factor into the writing?

At first I wasn’t sure how much I would need. I thought I could write it as a kind of fairy tale, an uncanny gloss on the history of the time. And then I realized it was so much more essential than that, that the novel needed to be  a kind of changeling of history, an uncanny counterfeit of a 19th century celebrity autobiography, full of gossipy, showy, even unbelievable stories meant to show how important a person was. Within that, I tell another story.

The earliest experience of the research mattering was with the story of Bizet writing Carmen. Here was a brilliant young composer who died young, having worked so hard to create this brilliant opera. The first production was daring, and the whole thing together was an attempt at a kind of realism that is commonplace now in opera. Realism isn’t so daring in fiction, per se, but in opera, and with an operatic plot—over-sized action rendered with a realist surface—it was. This mix of realism and opera was something I hoped to bring to the novel, to create a speculative fiction: what if your life resembled an opera’s plot?

So I suppose you could say the writing of it kept being a revelation as to how much research was needed.

Having worked on this novel for over a decade, what was the rhythm and structure of your writing process?

It was a mix of the methodical and the obsessional. Working like this becomes like archeology, but an archeology of that which has yet to be imagined. A long-buried history that has never existed and will never exist until you invent it, one that needs to have the authority of an artifact.

Balance came later. I’ve needed to make schedules, though, not for writing as much as for the rest of life. Left to my own I’d never buy groceries, cook, take walks, exercise, spend time with people. The writing can be a thug, keeping me pressed up against the keyboard all day and night.

You have joked about The Queen of the Night and your first novel Edinburgh both being autobiographical. Will you talk a little about what that means?

It’s a joke about how you can spend over a decade writing a novel about a woman soprano singer in the 19th century who believes her voice might be cursed, dooming her to repeat fates of the roles she performs. You can research it intensively at archives around the country and abroad, take trips to the sites, write grant applications to support this work, carefully fact check it with historians who work with the period, fill it with a critique of an economy dependent on the sexual servitude of women and the resulting culture in which we unthinkingly repeat many of the traditions to this day. And yet when you get to a Q&A, all too often, the question is about how much of you is in the novel, when you were never the point.

The most striking thing about this six-hundred-page epic is the complex and nonlinear narrative structure. How did you first conceive of it, and how did it evolve as you were writing it?

Thank you. It evolved rather than being something I set out to complete. I always knew it would be a retrospective novel. I kept writing my way into her past and then discarding what I found until I understood all of those attempts collectively were the novel and needed a structure to accommodate them.

That structure of stories radiating in spokes back to the past came when I was reading The Last Samurai, by Helen De Witt, a structure that I’ve seen in Japanese manga comics also, where the main character has adventures that move the story forward and into the past at the same time. Each adventure has its own story and connects to the larger story. The plot then is derived from Italian operas and books like The Count of Monte Cristo, but I found the structure this way.