“Stakes for women artists of the time were stakes on a much different scale. You had to be a genius just for people to accept that you might be human.”
Alexander Chee’s first novel, the well-received Edinburgh (2001), was a slim, introspective, semi-autobiographical novel about a boys’ choir in Maine, and the echoes of the abuse that some of the boys suffer at the hands of the choir director. His second novel, on the surface, couldn’t be more different. The Queen of the Night is the sprawling and dramatic story of famous opera singer Lilliet Berne, following her as she survives brothels, prisons, and imperial palaces in Second Empire and Third Republic France. The book, which took 13 years to complete, is painstakingly researched and plotted with baroque intricacy.
I first heard Alex read from this novel when I was his undergraduate student in 2009, on the cusp, he had said at the time, of the novel’s publication. I sat down with Chee to discuss the story of the novel, and the novel’s story, in his apartment in Hell’s Kitchen.
Nick Mancusi How do you feel about historical fiction as a descriptor, would you describe this novel as historical fiction, and what is the value of historical fiction?
Alexander Chee (laughter) I'm only laughing because I just finished a long essay for the New Republic about this very question. You know, I remember when I first had the idea for the novel I was surprised that when I described it to people they would then say, “Oh you're writing historical fiction,” as if I were no longer writing fiction. And I didn't know why that surprised me so much at first until I realized that the novels that I had loved, that I had thought of as historical fiction, I had simply thought of as novels. I had simply thought that one of the things you did when you wrote a novel was, sometimes, you went into the past. It never once occurred to me that there was some sort of separate genre.
NM Do you think that having something cast in “historical fiction”—in quotes—adds anything to its character as fiction?
AC Well I mean, I feel like it's something that writers have struggled with since the nineteenth century. When Tolstoy published War and Peace, Turgenev was appalled that it was a historical novel. (laughter) He called it a puppet show. He accused it of being a product of Tolstoy’s monomania. He had some hilariously rough words for it in the letters he wrote to his friends. But he later became the novel’s greatest supporter. One thing that isn’t as well known now to us is that, at the time that Tolstoy published War and Peace, Russians were not widely read abroad. And so Turgenev's championing of Tolstoy's War and Peace in translation, which he began doing once it was a full volume—because it was published serially—in some ways became part of the sort of… it helped create the readership that Russian literature now has internationally. And so this historical novel that was translated and disseminated widely pretty soon became considered a masterpiece of realism. And you know that's a very interesting place for things to end up for that novel. That’s part of what I’m thinking about in the essay.
NM It's that journey from historical fiction to realism that can happen outside of the text.
AC Right. So one of the things that Historical Fiction—capital H capital F—seems bound to is some sort of uncanny verisimilitude. And so for example there is a very big difference between the presidential novels of Gore Vidal and Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower.
They're technically both historical fiction. But the presence of novels such as the Vidal series is part of why literary readers tend to sniff at the thought of historical fiction. I’m not sure if I’m saying that clearly enough. Henry James has this famous quote about it where he accuses historical fiction of being almost impossible, as he says, to reproduce the old consciousness… the way that people used to think then. And I would say notice the word “almost.” (laughter)
And actually, all fiction is a way of thinking about things. It’s a distinct aesthetic mode, a literary critical mode that is often dismissed. I wonder about it and lately I'm thinking it’s related to the dominance of realism—realism became an expectation for writers to simply represent life in our fiction but not express opinions, not be political, critical, radical. There is as a result a tendency to dismiss anything that isn't literary realism as unserious, though only when it is by Americans. We allow this sort of work from Brits, the Japanese, South Americans, Canadians—but when American writers act outside of realism they still act radically.
And so for example I've had a few reviewers who act as if there are too many coincidences for a realist novel without engaging with how I'm writing about a woman who believes she is under an enchantment—and who may very well be. She may be lying or insane or telling the truth and the novel pushes those expectations around deliberately. Coincidences then are the topic—the ones that make something feel fated or “meant to be”—and are acting as engines of the uncanny to power the whole thing. It is an imposter of a novel, then, posing as something of a realist novel that then leads you far away into a discussion about how you think about fate and history—both considered to be unarguable forces.
NM That silly term “novel of ideas”—that doesn’t real mean much beyond novel.
AC Right. And yet it’s the only thing that you could say about a novel that would be worse than calling it historical fiction. (laughter) But I think that historical fiction is a way of… it's a way of engaging with history, it’s a way of arguing with history, it’s a way of arguing with a culture’s idea of itself. It is a novel of ideas about history.
NM The book has a large amount of what I would call factual content. Was a lot of that already known to you, or did it ever feel as if you were writing an academic work?
AC There were times when it felt like I had neither the pleasures of biography or fiction, in terms of the writing. That it was something that required the rigor of biography in a way that felt incredibly punishing. But at the same time, I wanted her to be woven into the lives of that period very tightly. I wanted it to have the feeling of something that was both a fairy tale and also the singer’s own very, potentially real autobiography.
NM The longer, the bigger, and more impressive a novel, and the more sprawling it becomes, the more fascinated I am with the spark that launched the project. I’m wondering what that is in this case. Like the very first thing, be it a word…
AC There was an opera singer character in Edinburgh. She's a minor character, but when I was writing the novel she sort of took over the draft. And I remember jokingly sort of saying to the character: You'll get drawn on later.
(grabs postcard) This is also, you know an artifact—it’s a postcard my friend Shauna Seliy sent to me. She's a wonderful novelist herself, her debut novel was called When We Get There. So she sent me this postcard in May of 1999, with this Macedonian proverb written on the back, which I think is fantastic: “Once you catch your bear it will dance for you.”
NM And it was the proverb on that postcard that launched your conception of the book?
AC No, it was the postcard itself [which featured Karl Friedrich Thiele's Design for The Magic Flute, see above]. I put it above my desk in Brooklyn. Right above my laptop. It had an atmosphere. What happened next was finding the character, which happened when I ran into my friend, the late David Rakoff, in the East Village. He told me a long story about Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, and how she had quit the opera, telling the world she believed it was immoral, and then went on a farewell tour of America promoted by P.T. Barnum, for two years. I left him that day, went home, my head full of a kind of day dream about an opera singer who called herself the Swedish Nightingale but was really American, touring with a circus, having retired the stage with secrets she didn't want the world to know about. When I finally found her story, I saw I had it wrong—Jenny Lind really was from Sweden, and there was no circus—P. T. Barnum had sent her on a concert tour. "Oh, I like my idea better," I thought. And then, "That's where the novel would start." That is when I looked up to the postcard again, and understood I had found my character, the woman sitting on that moon. A sort of shadow Jenny Lind.
NM Sticking on craft here for a moment: Would you describe the book as structured in any particular way, and how did the structure change while you were writing to inform the content of the story?
AC I began writing the novel and wrote about 90 pages of it, then I thought: Well, I don't know that this is where I should be with this. So I set it aside. I wrote another 80 or 90 pages, and I thought: Well, I don't know about these. I set those aside, then wrote another 80 or 100 or so. And I realized: Oh, all of them are the novel—together.
So, in a way, with each section I was writing I had to act as if all of the other sections didn't exist, in order to write them. And that was very unusual for me. I think the structure plagued me for almost the entire writing of the novel. It was overhauled a few times. And it just was… driving me insane, and I thought: I've really lost my mind here.
Deborah Eisenberg, when I was studying with her, described how there's a certain part of the writing process where you feel as if you have injured yourself in the writing of the thing. That you have actually made yourself more stupid. And that was definitely how I felt. But this, and again, I’m paraphrasing, is because you’re almost finished. And it's all because you're trying to do something that you've never done before. You're trying to reconcile something that is irreconcilable, make connections that didn't exist prior to that. But this feeling went on a long time.
NM Your books are filled with characters who wish to be no longer human, imagining themselves transfigured into animals, angels, or even elements like fire. Is the purpose of fiction in your view to allow us, or help us, escape our frame of reference? On page 136: “It was better in this life if you weren't altogether human, it was easier to bear.” Why do you think this a recurring theme for you?
AC I was always really drawn to myths as a kid. So that's part of it. I was trying to understand myself at a time when my particular ethnic background wasn't so very common to people, and so I felt, oftentimes, most like characters that were considered inhuman. I just spent so much of my time as a kid answering the question: What Are You? So for example, watching Blade Runner I felt most like a replicant. I empathized with the mutants in the X-Men, or elves in Lord of the Rings.
I suppose it's been a way of thinking about not being white. Not being entirely white and not being entirely Asian. And to the extent that it's an influence in both novels.
NM It seems to me like there's something about being merely human that stands in the way of fully expressing, fully understanding what the fuck is going on here, in life. Another point of view is required.
AC Yes. An extrahuman view allows a fuller view of the human. This is not a realist novel, which I can say with some assurance. (laughter) Neither for that matter is Edinburgh. For both Lilliet and Fee, thinking of themselves as outside the human is a way of thinking about how what they want doesn't seem to be humanly possible. And so for wanting it, it feels to them as if they must not be quite human. It’s sort of like a what I say about Jean Rhys novels—that every Jean Rhys novel is about how the characters are women who expect to be treated as human and instead they're treated as women. (laughter)
NM (laughter) That makes lot of sense.
AC And that idea—which came from reading Jean Rhys—was a big part of the thinking that went into this novel.
NM I’d like to read the line that I think was the key to my reading, and you can respond. “In some way I had never known how to express. I'd feared I would have to become the first of my kind, whatever my kind was, should I be allowed to survive.”
AC Yes. I think that's right. That’s what I mean about the role of the extrahuman in both novels, but particularly Queen. That line comes from a particular autobiographical moment where, I guess it was around 2008, 2009, I went to the MLA conference and met with a bunch of my friends who were Asian American literary scholars. And they informed me that I was the first Korean American gay author, and I was horrified. First and the only… until the arrival of Samuel Park.
For Lilliet, then, I was thinking more of the struggle of women like George Sand, the first woman in France to sue for divorce. And she did it so she could go off and be a writer. Which she did, and then she supported herself for the rest of her life that way. So there was a way in which I wanted to describe that, but I also wanted to describe something that I saw, and it came from a story by Deborah Eisenberg, from her, from Under the 82nd Airborne. I think I have it here.
NM I’ve been meaning to buy that book.
AC It's the story “Someone to Talk To,” and it's the story of a pianist who… he's not quite talented enough to do everything he wants to do. “Though not quite a prodigy Shapiro had been received with enthusiasm at the youthful start of his career… qualities he greatly admired and envied in other pianists, varieties of a profound musicianship which focused the attention on the ear—hearing, rather than on the hand, executing, were ones he lacked… He, like most humans, was an experiment that was never expected to succeed.” This idea—what if you're talented enough to receive attention but you're not quite talented enough to be the genius you'd hoped you would be?—I ended up thinking about that a lot, so I think you're right to single that out. That's something that is on her mind—not just if she has to be, but can she be. The reason being that what she so admires and aspires to in Pauline’s life is a product of her genius, and not any legislation. Pauline’s liberties are extralegal, that is to say. She is living a life bigger than that usually allowed for women of the time, and it is allowed her because of her genius, not the law. And so without a genius, not only will she not be as celebrated, she won’t even be as free. And so we see the way stakes for women artists of the time were stakes on a much different scale. You had to be a genius just for people to accept that you might be human.
NM It seems to me that, especially for a book this size, one of the biggest obstacles to completion must have been maintaining morale and initiative. And I'm wondering how you did that over the 13 years it took to write this book, how many times you thought you were almost done, and how you knew when you finally were?
AC (laughter) I certainly learned to never say I'm almost done. In 2008 I was still thinking that it should be structured chronologically. And that was a disaster. That was really heartbreaking. That reorganizing of the entire novel so that it was chronologically structured, then reading it and realizing that, by the time you got to the middle, you didn't know where you were, or why. It really is the difference between a novel and a life. A life is not a novel. It just isn't.
NM Right. And it's so seductive to—
AC To think so.
NM To imagine that it is.
AC Exactly. It needs a shape. And in terms of morale, morale was hardest by the time I got to like, 2011, 'til now. There were times when I was… I can remember in Germany I was walking around at night—when I was there on a fellowship—I would mutter: Kill Me Kill Me Kill Me Kill Me Kill Me. (laughter) It was so, so hard at that point to feel like I was almost there, and yet not there—and if you're not there, you're not there.
NM Well you certainly got there, I think.
AC I guess I got through on bourbon.
NM (laughter) It’s there for a reason!
AC There's a reason why cowboys drink it when they’re getting surgery, in those old Western movies where they're biting the belt. It was something like that.
Nicholas Mancusi's writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Washington Post, Daily Beast, Miami Herald, and many other publications. He is working on his first novel.