Maybe It Was Worth It: The Millions Interviews Alexander Chee

February 1, 2016 | 3 books mentioned 4 10 min read


Alexander Chee’s debut novel, Edinburgh, was called, “spectacular, gripping, and gut-wrenching,” by critics and widely lauded for his careful handling of the tough subject of sexual abuse. As The New Yorker put it, “by balancing its anguish with fantasy and Korean folk tales, he keeps a sad story from becoming maudlin.”

coverI’ve been feeling the buzz about Chee’s second novel, The Queen of the Night (Feb 2) since the summer. It tells the story of Lilliet Berne, a legendary soprano who is offered the last big accolade she has yet to gain in her singing career, a libretto written just for her. When she realizes that the libretto is based on her life, she knows that someone is trying to reveal the secrets of her past, but who? An early review says that the novel, “feels in many ways like Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.”

The Queen of the Night is Chee’s first novel hardcover release since Edinburgh in 2001 and its reissue in 2003. While he has hardly been idle, I wondered how that felt. As novelists often talk of the pressure to publish, were the intervening 13 to 15 years productive or full of angst?

What I found was a story filled with all the twists and turns of the greatest writing careers, a publisher bankruptcy, bouts of teaching yoga, the consequences of missing a deadline by 10 years, the advance money running out, an Amtrak residency, surviving through four changes of editor, and whether it’s all worth it in the end. I interviewed Chee by email.

The Millions: Since Edinburgh was published, you have done a few things, like been named one of Out Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, been published in GrantaTin House, and Guernica, written for The New York Times, won fellowships, awards, and taught for Wesleyan, University of Leipzig, and Princeton, to name just a few. But, you have not published a second novel. Why did you keep us waiting?

Alexander Chee: Well, when you say it like that, it does seem like a lot. But I feel much as I did the last time, with Edinburgh — I remember telling a friend it felt like digging a tunnel to freedom and arriving at a party.

I had worked several jobs in order to write the first novel — teaching writing, writing freelance, waiting tables, cater-waitering, working as a yoga instructor. I had hoped to earn a break from that, but instead, during the entire paperback re-launch of Edinburgh by Picador, I had to deal with how my hardcover publisher, an indie publisher who sold the paperback rights to Picador, went bankrupt owing me the equivalent of a year’s salary at the time.

And so as I went on tour, I felt celebrated and also robbed simultaneously. I switched agents then, and my agent was able to get me half of the remaining paperback money owed to me. But I’ve never recouped that loss. And while this may seem small, perhaps — what is a year among 13? — well, it was the first one, it set the tone. It said, you could work all this time and at the end have everything taken from you.

There’s something else, an essay I’ve tried to write for a while, in my next, next book — a book of essays I’m collecting now — about a recovered memory I had in that first year the novel was out. I remember a guy at book club asking me why I hadn’t written a memoir. I said, “I don’t remember all of it.” This was how I learned to articulate something about fiction writing: that you write to describe something you learn from your life but that is not described by describing your life.

So I wrote Edinburgh. I wrote to fit the shape of what I knew to be true, but what I found was, I hadn’t dealt with what it described. And then once the book was out, the missing pieces came back. It was as if I’d cornered myself to force the truth out of me.

For example, the night before Edinburgh’s official pub day, I understood I hadn’t ever told my mother I’d been through something like what the novel describes. And the novel just couldn’t be the way she found out. So I called her and told her.

TM: Was the time in between your two novels a frustrating period, or was it fruitful?

AC: Both. Fruitful work periods are full of frustration, I think.

Marilynne Robinson once observed to me something like, “Great works of art are never created out of self esteem.” I think that may be true.

There was a brief moment when I remember feeling so excited about showing the world what I could do with a novel now that I’d published Edinburgh. But, in addition to the aforementioned psychic crisis, I was also just burnt out. And so as much as part of me was so excited by the idea of writing more novels, that soon became, “You want me to do all this again?”

What happened next is, I won two prizes that fall — the Whiting Writers’ Award and the National Endowment for the Arts fellowship — prizes that on their own would have meant for an amazing year. At the level of magical thinking, it felt like the universe making up some for what bankruptcy court had taken away from me. And as I had won the N.E.A. for an excerpt of The Queen of the Night, the prize seemed like a finger pointing at me and saying, “Go and do this.”

So, I did…sort of.

It was like wandering blind into a storm. I moved to Los Angeles, where I really just sort of rested for a few months, read things, and went to parties and libraries and tried to put my head together again. When I ran out of money, I moved to my Mom’s in Maine, Charles D’Ambrosio-style, writing in her basement every morning starting at 5 a.m., taking a break for Buffy the Vampire Slayer reruns at 11 a.m. and making an early lunch before working more. It was like the weirdest saddest colony stay, about three months.

And then I showed my agent what I had and she sold The Queen of the Night as a partial in 9 days. This shocked me. It had taken two years to find a publisher for Edinburgh.

I moved out, spent the summer researching in Paris, spent a year in Rochester as a disgruntled faculty spouse to a man I was trying to love, and when that fell apart, got a job at Amherst College, where I had the honor of being their Visiting Writer for four years. I wrote much of the novel there. When that ended, I moved to New York again, where it seemed as if all that had troubled me about the city before had bleached away in the weather.

But the writing schools in New York all pay terribly — they can have anyone they want for adjunct money — we should all go on strike actually and force them to give raises. Anyway, you have to constantly leave town to make enough money to live. Thus my stints at Iowa, Leipzig, and Austin. These were productive, but the moves slow the writing down.

I wrote many other things besides the novel to make a living — nonfiction is one of my day jobs. I did a lot of research, maybe too much. I was haunted by that review you get from a historian who claims your novel is stupid because of one minor historical mistake.

TM: Did you hit a low while writing The Queen of the Night?

AC: The hardest part came when I decided to pull the novel in 2013, and revise it around new research I’d found regarding the relationship between the singer Pauline Viardot-Garcia and Ivan Turgenev — both characters in the novel. In particular, it was information on how she was composing operas as her voice faded, and he was writing the libretti — he loved her, believed in her talent, and was urging her to do this.

I knew if I didn’t find a way to include this, I was in danger of returning to the material to write an entire novel just about the two of them. That piece then, and The Last Sorcerer, perhaps the most successful of their opera collaborations, is now a part of the novel that I may love the most.

TM: Did you experience any pressure from your agent or publisher?

AC: Yes. And they were well within their rights. My original contract was for a book due in 2006. Everyone involved has been remarkably patient and supportive, though there was a period when my agent would punch me in the arm whenever I saw her out. Other writers in this situation have been cancelled, so I would never complain about the pressure. While it often made me feel guilty, I tried to understand it as a way of being loved.

TM: Did you feel commercial pressure, or worry about your own livelihood?

AC: This is a constant under capitalism though, right? But nothing in the book is there to make it more commercial or I would have used quotation marks around the dialogue. Other people may be able to write cynically, but when I do I want to die. Which was never the point of writing.

The biggest pressure was when I had run out of the money. I was paid for this book, everything else was essentially unpaid work during which time I also had to work to pay bills. And the longer the novel wasn’t published, the more it seemed to endanger everything in my life — my ability to get teaching work, to successfully apply for grants, my relationship, future projects. Each small delay, each mistake, each wrong turn in the writing became enormous as a result and it was unendurable in the last two years.

The novel also ruined every family holiday vacation for a decade, too — typically the down time between semesters when you can get writing done.

Right near the end, I had a student write a story about the workshop, in which she was unkind to everyone in the class except herself, who she portrayed as a talented writer and a great beauty. This is something that happens at least once in every writing teacher’s life — the student who thinks it is brilliant to write about the class and make everyone talk about what she thinks of them. Me? She portrayed me as a failed writer who couldn’t sell his new book.

All I can say is, I look forward to when this happens to her.

TM: Edinburgh came out with Picador, while The Queen of the Night is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, why did you change publishers? Did it have anything to do with the gap between them?

AC: This was pretty ordinary. Picador was nothing but supportive of Edinburgh and kept it in print well after anyone else would have. I can say nothing but good things about them. The publisher at the time declined to bid on The Queen of the Night. I think they knew I was likely to follow my editor at the time, who had left Picador for Houghton.

The Queen of the Night took so long to write that I was orphaned three times. My current editor, Naomi Gibbs, is my fourth, the former assistant to the third, promoted now to associate. And she really did much of the trench work on the novel at the end, assisting me with the insertions I made. A painstaking task I will owe her for forever.

TM: Were you concerned that you might be “forgotten” as a novelist?

AC: Definitely. I would sometimes come across blog posts praising the first novel and saying things like, “It seems like he’s stopped writing.” That was hard to read. But, I understand. Eventually, I accepted that I was known more for personal essays and social media than for my first novel, especially after my idea for the Amtrak Residency became a real thing thanks to Twitter. But, this all makes the reception of this novel thus far really gratifying.

My friend Maud Newton and I were talking about our history with blogs recently, and we agreed to think of them respectively as the sort of minor books that you publish in between the books that matter, an experiment done in a way that eventually helps the sale of the next book — people read it, treat it like a blog and not a book — and which allows to sustain a readership without suffering the damage of a tragic sales track record.

TM: Facebook didn’t exist, let alone Twitter or anything like that when Edinburgh came out. Does it feel like a very different world to publish a novel into?

AC: Sure, like different planets. I laughed recently to remember those post cards I was asked to make. How I would leave them at the yoga studio I worked at, and then would feel guilty if they blew onto the floor, guilty again when I had to recycle them for having gotten dirty on the floor, etc. Such a mess.

But in addition to the postcards, back in 2001, I also had a website, made for me by a friend who is an early adopter — which I remember people treated it as a bit of a curiosity. I remember the moment my webmaster said, “You should have a blog, something to keep your readers coming back for,” something I couldn’t imagine at first. It wasn’t until I moved to L.A. and everyone there seemed to have a blog that I began blogging as a way to work out of burnout.

I never found out why everyone in L.A. was blogging, but I remember people sometimes mocked me for having a blog, saying it was something serious literary writers didn’t do.

Sarah Manguso and Susan Steinberg, one night at MacDowell, the writers colony, kept chanting at me “delete your blog delete your blog.” But by 2006, hiring committees told me it helped them hire me — that it showed I was a thinker in a bigger way than the books and submitted essays did — and by 2008 I found I had a reputation as a literary writer who used the Internet like a blogger, with a blog that had a reputation for literary quality. I began consulting with writers and literary organizations, teaching them how to use Twitter and Facebook, blog strategies for publication that supported their launches and tours.

It’s become popular to mock writers’ use of social media again, but everyone is using it. If we disdain it, how will we know what people’s lives are like? Almost no one lives in the way these critics are asking writers to live, offline and shuttered away. Anything you write from that position will be literally blinkered.

Social media makes it much easier to get attention as a writer and to be relevant between books — in my case, a very long time. It has also leveled the playing field for LGBTQ writers and writers of color. Yes, I too hate the weird sort of wedding toast atmosphere that can come over Facebook. But, at least when I write about it in fiction, I won’t be guessing what it is like.

TM: What is the biggest difference for you this time around?

coverAC: I don’t know how to describe it yet. Mostly, I’m trying to focus on what’s next. I have my essay collection, plus ideas and pages for a nonfiction book as well as four novels. And a screenplay I’ve adapted with my partner, Dustin Schell. We’ve adapted Barry Werth’s biography of Newton Arvin, The Scarlet Professor, and we have high hopes for it. Dustin has never known me until now without me working on this novel and feeling like I would be killed by writing it. So I’m introducing him to that guy. The one who finished and survived it.

TM: There is huge buzz about The Queen of the Night. How did it start?

AC: Well, thanks. This answer is just an educated guess but Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has some serious game, I have to say. Their strategy was to begin with galleys early, to give people time to read it, and to make the cover into something physically beautiful — a galley that was also an object of desire. Anyone who says a cover doesn’t matter isn’t paying attention. Michelle Triant there and Hannah Harlow were the galley masters. But I have to give a lot of credit to Liberty Hardy first of all, and her partner in crime, Rebecca Schinsky over at Book Riot, who were early champions of the novel. Liberty even made a countdown clock. Rachel Fershleiser, of Tumblr, Lisa Lucas, of Guernica, Maris Kreizman over at Kickstarter, Michele Filgate, Stephanie Anderson (aka Bookavore), and Sarah McCarry — what we call the Bookternet, basically. Women in cool glasses who read crates of books.

Plus Jason Diamond and Tobias Carroll, of Vol. 1 Brooklyn and Saeed Jones and Jarry Lee at Buzzfeed. And of course, The Millions. It has to have helped to have the novel on your most anticipated list for several years. I’m just glad it is really finally coming out.

And then the writer Maud Newton, who will be in conversation with me at my launch at McNally Jackson on February 2. She has consistently written about me and the novel over the years, even read an early draft — she’s a great friend and when I thought of who to do this first event with, she was my first choice. I’m really looking forward to talking to her about it.

TM: The Queen of the Night comes out on February 2. How do you feel right now?

AC: I feel great. For a while I was telling people, “It could never be worth it,” in terms of the time and sacrifices. Now it feels like maybe it was. We’ll see.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Her novel The Last Neanderthal is published by Little, Brown and Co., was recently featured in The New York Times, and is a national bestseller in Canada. Her writing has appeared in the Lenny Letter, The New York Times, Salon, and The Globe and Mail. Follow her @clairecameron or read more at