An Interview with Alexander Chee

20 May
Alexander Chee has been called "incomparable" by Junot Diaz and is the author of the much-anticipated novel, The Queen of the Night.

Alexander Chee has been called “incomparable” by Junot Diaz and is the author of the much-anticipated novel, The Queen of the Night.

Alexander Chee is the author of the novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night. He is a contributing editor at The New Republic and an editor at large at VQR. His essays and stories have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, Slate, Guernica, NPR and Out, among others. He has received a 2003 Whiting Award, a 2004 NEA Fellowship in prose and a 2010 MCCA Fellowship, and residency fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the VCCA, Civitella Ranieri and Amtrak. 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 lives in New York City, where he curates the Dear Reader series at Ace Hotel New York.

To read an exercise on creating character with plot based on The Queen of the Night, click here.

In this interview, Chee discusses growing as a writer to meet the needs of your novel, building character in order to develop plot, and the process of writing a novel with a complex plot and many characters.

Michael Noll

I think a lot of people who read your first novel Edinburgh may have been surprised by this book. The Queen of the Night is big and sweeping, with plot twists galore. As an opening line states, “When it began, it began as an opera would begin…” You and I talked on a panel at Austin’s New Fiction Confab, and I compared this novel to Victor Hugo’s work. But Hugo probably isn’t a writer that many contemporary writers strive to emulate (despite the success of the musical Les Misérables). What drew you to the novel’s operatic style? Is there something that it allowed you to do that a so-called “quieter” style wouldn’t? Or is the novel simply the result of your maturation as a writer? Did your craft advance to the point that you could attempt something big, with a complex plot, without it falling apart?

Alexander Chee

When I began thinking about the things that resulted in the writing of the novel, I was fascinated by opera plots and how seemingly ridiculous they were but also how pleasing. And so I began looking into why opera even existed as an art form and found the poems Orlando Furioso and Orlando Innamorato, poems which are commonly believed to have been the inspiration for most of the classic Italian opera plots. The idea that there was some common source for seemingly disparate works of art fascinated me and then made me wonder, what would it be like to try to make something that could mirror that on the far side? A life composed of opera plots? Or what if, after believing opera plots were inherently unbelievable, your life came to resemble one? Would you believe they were real then? And of course I was fascinated by the idea of people living out a lesson from the Gods, dictated by them, which of course resembles or prefigures authorship.

And then the idea of doing anything like this seemed implausible. But of course that made it all very tantalizing. As did working with the tools of melodrama and the old romans: coincidence, mistaken identity, cliffhanger plot twists, and adventure.

Once I knew I would be writing a novel based on all of this, I decided it had to be very bold. I set out wanting to do something utterly different from both anything I had ever done much less anything anyone would expect me to do. I decided it would be a picaresque, with a woman as the main character and narrator, and initially believed it would be a very small novel, maybe 250 pages. I would work with the tools of escapism but to give the reader a deeper relationship to this question of why we do what we do when we are confronted with a coincidence. What is it in us that makes us believe it is the work of a higher power? What do we do to our lives when we believe that? And: what if it really is a higher power, what then?

I don’t know that the novel was the result of my maturation—I think it’s more that it caused it. I had to grow in order to do this. What you see here, these are all gambles. Finalizing the novel’s plot structure nearly drove me insane. And at every point before it worked, I believed I was closer to failure than success.

Michael Noll

When we talk about plot (and plot-driven novels) as writers, it’s perhaps tempting to think of it as separate from character. This is why we so often quote Chandler’s line about novels that are stuck: the solution is to have a guy with a gun walk in the door. Or we quote Chekhov and his advice that if a gun’s present in the first act, then it had better go off in the third. It’s possible to read both as arguments for deus ex machina plot devices in which characters are tossed about without much control over events. But this isn’t how your novel works. For example, early on, the main character—who will later become a famous opera singer—offends her mother, and so her mother punishes her by covering the girl’s mouth so that she can’t sing in church. It’s a moment that drives the plot forward (readers wonder, what will happen?), but it’s also a moment that reveals character. Something good has been taken from the girl; how will she respond? This is all to ask this: Was it difficult to balance building character with driving the story forward? Or are those challenges one and the same?

Alexander Chee

Alexander Chee's novel THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT is a national bestseller a review in Vogue called "brilliantly extravagant in its twists and turns and its wide-ranging cast of characters."

Alexander Chee’s novel The Queen of the Night is a national bestseller a review in Vogue called “brilliantly extravagant in its twists and turns and its wide-ranging cast of characters.”

Thank you. Yes. This is a common mistake, I think, a fatal separation. Plots have to grow out of your character for them to really succeed. If a gun is present in the first act, I wouldn’t think about how it has to go off in the third. I would think about how the character is the reason the gun is there to begin with. And from there: under what circumstances would that character pick up the gun and fire it?

Building character is building plot, to me. If you don’t know where your story is going, you don’t know your character well enough yet and need to do more to know them.

At each moment you’re asking, as you draft, what is the most likely action for this person with these limitations and these desires in this place at this time, and you just keep asking that, at each moment going forward.

Michael Noll

In the course of the novel, the main character moves from a destitute servant girl to famous opera singer who runs in the most elite circles of Parisian society. As a result, we get to see many different worlds: the American frontier, hippodromes, brothels, secret passages in castles, salons featuring the most famous artists of the time, the opera stage, the French royal court, and scenes of war. On one hand, this variety means that every few chapters or so, the readers gets the thrill of being transported to a new setting. On the other hand, it also means that you had to create not just one world but many. How did you approach the challenge of getting the reader to buy into each new world? Was it difficult to maintain a consistent voice and sensibility throughout the novel?

Alexander Chee

They are one world and they are many, both. Part of my approach was inspired by a Sherlock Holmes story, “A Study in Scarlet”, which begins as a mystery in London and then becomes a Western (I won’t otherwise spoil it). I loved this sense of the two worlds connected by a single fugitive.

But also: I wrote this because I was fascinated by these kinds of women, the orphan who becomes a prostitute who becomes a courtesan who becomes a singer, women who existed in a sort of special social class that was slippier than the others. If you were a courtesan back then, you knew the powerful and the powerless. And you had your own power because of that. You moved between those worlds. So I simply read and researched and followed my imagination. I don’t know that I did anything more special than that. But yes, it meant so many research books. It was a little like preparing to write several novels rather than one. But it was often quite fun, to be honest.

As for her voice, well, I kept favorite sections of the draft printed out to read from before working, so her voice was in my head. Sections where I thought, “Yes, that is her, that is how she sounds.” And I used them to grow more.

Michael Noll

The novel contains so many reversals that I’ve wondered how you were able to keep track of them and hold a single narrative line in your head while writing. Perhaps part of the answer is in the way you tell the reader that certain plot points are bound to happen. For example, the singer learns that her voice is particularly gifted but that it will also inevitably fail her one day–and so we know that moment is coming, but I can also see how it gave you a destination to aim for. How did you keep track of where the novel was going?

Alexander Chee

In some ways, I wrote it without quite knowing where it was going. Or even that the story was building the way it was. It was as if I had to write each of the sections without knowing I was doing that.

I kept a journal devoted to the novel. I wrote in it at the end of every work session, included any questions I had, any frustrations. I read that at the beginning of work the next day. This diary idea came from keeping a blog. I decided to keep one but just for myself—which may sound funny, but which is to say that instead of keeping the diary in a traditional format, I wrote it so the newest entry was always at the top, and the oldest all the way at the end. This way whenever I opened the document the newest entry was the first thing I saw.

I also kept a list of characters and places for the novel where I could see it, and I looked at it whenever I had a question or was stuck. I would say to myself, “What next, what people in what places?” And that helped a great deal. I got the idea for the lists from Janet Frame, who describes it in her autobiography, along with many of her writing habits.

Lastly I kept a file of rejected pages, pages I cut from the novel. I noticed one day that the thing I was calling the novel was about 70 pages and the rejected file had about 300 pages. I had discarded what I thought of as false starts, yet this file was so big, it was like I’d thrown the whole novel away. So I went through it and understood the seemingly random different pieces were all one novel. That all of it was her life. And the twists and turns, I had to invent those as credible connections between the sections.

I always knew the novel was going to be something with false names and secrets and sudden reversals—that it would be a picaresque composed of opera plots, the life of someone overtaken by a curse that was turning her life into a series of operas she had once sung in. And the resulting twists did fit the conventions of the picaresque and of opera. The whole point of the novel was always, “What if opera plots were realism?” What if your life, when described, sounded like an opera? And yet I had to sneak up on myself to write it.

May 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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