“Both the Musician and the Instrument”: An Interview With Alexander Chee


Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night is a singular and powerful novel, following an acclaimed opera singer, Lilliet Berne, through 19th-century Paris. Its plot is gripping in its own right, with secrets, plots, luxury, and intrigue all in abundance–but it’s also a fascinating look at art, isolation, and acclaim. It’s also a very different work than his debut novel, Edinburgh–a demonstration of the breadth of Chee’s work. (To say nothing of the excellent essays he’s penned in the last few years.) After reading the novel, I met with Chee for lunch, where we discussed everything from the origins of The Queen of the Night to the process of writing on trains to the role that music plays in his work.

Both of your novels deal in part with characters who are involved with music and the human voice. Is that something that been a lifelong interest of yours? Is part of it the challenge of writing about something that can’t necessarily translate into words on paper?

It’s funny. After Edinburgh came out, someone said to me, “You know, it’s so difficult to write about music and singing.” I remember thinking, “Is it?” (laughs) Only in the sense that if someone had told me that it was difficult, I don’t know how I would have approached it. I know, also, that I was told not to write a novel in the present tense, which is what I did with that first novel.

I was trained as a singer as a child. I sang in operas, also as a child, in the chorus. I don’t know if it’s a lifelong interest, exactly, but it’s a very old interest, in the sense that when I lost my voice as a boy soprano, it was a really profound loss for me. In some ways, it’s one of those thing that I keep thinking about. So perhaps that is true.

One of the ideas for the next novel, in terms of what my next novels will be–one of the characters is in a band, it’s true. (laughs) But I don’t know how much singing is in it yet. I guess we’ll see.

When I read Edinburgh, I was impressed that it had choral music as an element, but also, the characters would go to punk shows, and both felt very authentic to me. I’ve read a lot of fiction where the music didn’t ring true, so that sense of authenticity impressed me.

One of the most significant lessons I ever had happened in a West African dance class. The rehearsal was going really badly, and the teacher was this elderly Ghanaian man who had recently had throat cancer, so he couldn’t speak easily. He would do a lot of his teaching without saying anything. He would have to hold the hole in his throat to speak. We had had the door to the room open for air, to cool things down. He just walked over and closed it, and suddenly, all of the sound in the room changed. The silence was present, and it hadn’t been. There had been some sort of ambient noise that was fucking everything up.

I think about it in terms of, when you’re creating a piece of fiction, you’re creating something that does have an inherent relationship to music and singing. The writing on the page is like musical notation on the page. It asks the reader to be both the musician and the instrument at the same time, and also the audience. Maybe it’s more a way of saying that, given where my training started as an artist, which was as a singer, it makes sense then that that would be connected.

You alluded earlier to the process of losing your singing voice, and that seems to resonate throughout The Queen of the Night, in terms of Lilliet’s anxiety over losing hers.

The whole time that I was singing in the choir, I was aware that there would be a moment when I would lose the voice. That my voice would change, as a part of aging. I loved singing soprano. I loved it. I was incredibly proud of my voice. The part of the character where she only goes to church to sing–that’s something that I gave Lilliet from my own childhood. I faced the loss of my voice with a real grimness. I was watching the other boys, as they got older, the ones who were older than me–sometimes, they would try to pass off a falsetto for a while. The director was very keen on not letting that happen. Which, to put another way–he was determined to prevent it. It was sensible, but it still felt cruel, because that choir, for us, was so much more than the singing. It was a refuge from the other parts of our lives, for those of us who were in it.

Looking at the acknowledgments in The Queen of the Night, there’s a copious amount of research listed. A few months ago, when I interviewed Rupert Thomson, he said that he doesn’t do research until the seventh or eighth draft, because he doesn’t want certain things to get in the way of his writing. For you, did you have to do x amount of research, or was it more a matter of starting it and then researching it to fill in the blanks?

I think I tried to use research in an ambient mode, as it were. I got some advice from my friend Sabina Murray–she won the PEN/Faulkner for The Caprices. She’s written historical fiction, and she’s writing historical fiction now. I was talking to her about the research problem, as it were. Her recommendation was to read the research the night before, sleep on it, wake up, and then begin the writing, so that it had a way to wash into your unconsciousness, in a sense. And then it would become part of your intuition. Because that’s what you’re after–you’re after those hunches, where you say, “I bet this is true.” And then you research and discover if it is, in a sense. If it’s possible.

I had this regular channel of things that I was reading from and thinking about, and then I had the things that I was writing. Some things, it was possible to do later. Stuff like the interior of the Empress’s household, you can’t just make that shit up. You have to know it–and then you make things up. I could have waited for a seventh or eighth draft for that, but then I would have been screwed. (laughs)

In the acknowledgments, you describe the novel as a “reinvention of The Magic Flute.” To begin–where did you first encounter The Magic Flute?

I first encountered The Magic Flute in the film version by Ingmar Bergman. At the time, I was reading a lot of Guy Davenport, and he was very inspired by that Bergman film. That was the reason I saw the Bergman film, and then I became fascinated by the Bergman film, and by the opera. When I was thinking of how to structure the plot of The Queen of the Night, how to rationalize having it as a title–I knew that I loved the title, but the connection wasn’t clear to me.

I remember thinking, “Well, I’ll just do a reinvention of The Magic Flute as a novel.” So I got the libretto and read the libretto, and thought, “This is a really terrible idea.” (laughs) And I put it away. I kept writing, and I thought, “I’m not going to worry about it. This title will just be a title that I’ll use. If it ever comes around again, great, if I can ever find a way to make it make sense.” I do usually get the idea for titles early in the project. Then, when I checked in with myself a few years later into the writing of it, I remember I looked back at the libretto, because I was chuckling at how that idea was so terrible, and how great it was that I’d moved on from that idea. And then I went….oh. The Comtesse is the Queen of the Night, the Emperor is the wizard, the Prussian tenor is the demon, and my narrator was Pamina. There were the tests of silence, fire, and water. And then I really laughed.

The defining idea of the opera, and what I am most playing with in this story, is–when you watch The Magic Flute, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, in terms of the kind of the story that it is. The hero is kind of ridiculous. His magic flute is never really utilized to any purpose in the plot. He almost instantly betrays the Queen of the Night on his purpose. Pamina is about to rescue herself, and she’s told to wait for the one who is going to rescue her–told that he’s really in love with her, and she should just hang in there. I realized that, in a way, as a kind of romantic opera, the story that’s a roman, it’s true, by the rules of a roman it doesn’t make any sense. But as a realist opera, as a story about powerful women who are always undermining themselves so that the men can be like heroes, that was what the opera was really about. And I think that’s what the novel was about, also.

Do you think that the opera had had a similar effect on you to your ambient research?

That’s precisely what I think I’m getting at. It’s like a long dream you have after The Magic Flute, perhaps. Or The Magic Flute in the hands of some crazed Berlin art director–like those productions that you see of MacBeth set in a sanatarium.

The Marat/Sade production of The Magic Flute.

(laughs) That’s perfect. That’s exactly right.

Was there ever a point where you edited the novel to follow that structure more closely, or was it more of knowing that the basic structure was in place?

I think it was more knowing that it was there.

I know, from the writing you’ve done on politics and class, that these are things that interest you. In the novel, you’re writing about this opulent, wealthy, upper-class milieu. As a writer who is conscious of these things, how do you write something with this as a setting without it becoming–

–wealth porn? (laughs) For me, it was very much about trying to accurately represent the scale of the luxury of the time. I remember, at one point in my research, I came across these letters by this American soprano, Lillie Moulton. She had married a British lord, Charles Moulton, who had several estates in France, and then a mansion in Paris. She trained with Manuel Garcia, the father of Pauline, which was fantastic. And she wrote letters home constantly, to her mother and her aunt back in America. She fell in with the Emperor and the Empress. One day, when she was skating, and they asked her to teach them how to skate, and she agreed, and then proceeded to get invited to all of those parties. When I read her letters, I quickly realized that I had been vastly underimagining the scale of things. They had parties that they prepared for for months sometimes, in terms of the planning in their heads. What they would wear, and what the themes were, and who would participate and what the entertainments would be. And I thought, okay–I need to scale up, completely.

In particular, it could seem frivolous to write so much about dresses in a novel. I saw one review where the writer seemed critical of it. But I feel like she missed the point, which is that, in the Second Empire, fashion was an economic tool. It was a diplomatic tool. It was an emotional tool. These dresses were not frivolous. (laughs) They were serious as a heart attack. It was stagecraft as statecraft, is what the Empress Eugénie was doing, and that’s where I had to go with it. In a sense, it was a secondary option. Was I writing wealth porn? Not exactly. I was writing about what these people thought they were doing with all of those luxury items, and what it did to them.

You’re writing a novel in English that’s set in France, where most of the characters are speaking French, but your narrator, it transpires, is someone for whom French is not her first language. What were some of the challenges for you as a writer to allow for that panoply of languages?

I tried to write it the way these women were writing letters to their friends. In her mind, she would have translated all of the meanings, and would have issued them this way and that way. Sometimes she remarks on what language people were speaking around her and whatnot. I really was trying to take the reader inside of her mind, as it were. Her impressionistic landscape of these things. It’s also not technically a realist novel. It has a certain relationship to the 19th century tall tale autobiography, and I also wanted to have some of the feeling of a fairy tale. A fairy tale about history.

At what point in the course of writing it did the narrator’s voice come to you?

Right away. Before I was writing the novel, I had the feeling of trying to cast a spell on myself. Gathering all of these different objects, like a crow–“Oh, that’s pretty; that’s fascinating.” And then one morning I woke up, and the voice was in my head, and was speaking. It was almost like dictation. I thought, “Okay! We are doing this.”

When I write poems, they’ll come that way. I’ll get a line in my head, and another line, and it just starts to come down, as it were. It felt very immediate. It wasn’t always as easy as that, but that first moment was a powerful announcement–the character just saying, “Okay; this is where we go.”

Was there anything that you’d found in your research that you wanted to include in the novel but weren’t able to, either because of space or because of where the plot went?

In terms of my regrets, there was a scene between Lilliet and the Comtesse’s driver that I particularly loved that could not be made to work. The relationship between the Empress and the Emperor is really fascinating to me; I was really fascinated by it. There were a lot of those details that I came across in the research, but there was no way to reasonably include them. On the whole, I feel like I got most of what I wanted in there one way or the other.

There was no way to do it, but I could have done a lot more with George Sand, and would have loved to, but it made no sense. She really was just there for one memorable walk-on.

Turgenev also appears in there; for all that there are literary cameos, they’re not the focal point of the book.

His cameo is one of my very favorites.

You’ve been working on this book for a while, and you’ve also been working on a lot of essays during that time. Did that have any effect on structural or stylistic elements of the novel, or were they in two very different compartments?

They’re pretty different parts of my brain, yeah. I learned a lot from doing the one that I take to doing the other. But at a certain point, it’s a different thing. The essays were helpful to write when I was really stuck in the novel, so at least I didn’t feel like I was lying around doing nothing. There was a recent article about the essay novel in the LA Review of Books that I found really fascinating to read, and it made me wonder if what I had written was something of an essay novel, in a sense. Even though I tried really hard not to essay in the novel, as it were. But there are passages where you can hear her thinking about things, and that seemed really important to include, for part of the novel to be her thinking about, more strongly, what has happened to her.

At the end of the novel, you talk about how the original story that sparked the novel for you was told to you in 1999. How long did that spark sit before it came the novel?

It’s hard to remember, exactly. If I still had access to my old AOL account, I could tell you precisely. In 2000, I won the Michener-Copernicus Prize from the Iowa Writers Workshop, and I heard about it in March. When I ran into David Rakoff, it was raining–I remember that. We were under umbrellas. It was one of these funny conversations that you would have with him where it would just go on for way too long for being a casual conversation. (laughs) But also, you weren’t ever going to say anything like, “Well, would you like to step in and get…” You just sort of stood there in the rain talking to one another. What happened was, the novel [Edinburgh] went out to publishers, and my agent said to me, “Do you know what’s next? They’re all going to ask.” I had all these ambient encounters-slash-feelings, like I was saying, but about four days afterwards–it was a Saturday, I remember that–that was when I woke up and had the voice in my head. I remember that I was happy, because I thought, “Well, now I know what the next novel is, really.” It was no longer just a hunch that it could be a novel. This was a real novel. It was probably November or December. It began in winter, I would guess.

Earlier, you talked a little about what your next novel might be. Do you foresee that as being different, structurally and stylistically, from The Queen of the Night as it was from Edinburgh?

Yes. I have pages for it. Over the years, there were things that would come up, so I’ve sort of got this giant backlog. I have ideas and pages for four different novels, and they’re all very different from each other. At this point, there’s music in only one of them that I can think of. The one that I’m thinking will be the third–it’s a different kind of music, and it’s a contemporary novel. I’ve started to jokingly call it “the Korean-American Magicians,” but I don’t know if that’s quite accurate. That’s the sort of easy shorthand, without telling anyone what it’s about. You could call it the elevator pitch.

I know that this book has been in the works for a while; I remember seeing you read a section of it at Franklin Park a couple of years ago. When was the point where, after all of the editing and revision, you knew that it was ready?

Probably the summer of 2014. I had tried really hard to finish up in Austin. I did a lot of the last revisions in Austin, Texas. That’s when I was there as their visiting writer. I didn’t quite make it, though. I had a lot to do–places to go. Summer teaching, I remember, arrived at a nightmarish clip. When you’re teaching, and the teaching comes, it’s an experience of a storm. During the breaks, you have to push all of the work that you’re doing as hard as you can, to get it done. In this case, it was also about moving. I was leaving Texas; I had to go from Texas to Grub Street, and from Grub Street, I was doing the Amtrak Residency. My little test residency ride. I brought the pages on that, too.

I have this little Muji rolling case that the novel would be in. I’d have several drafts of it, plus the computer and my power cords. It was everywhere with me. I remember one of my students called me a big man with a little case, and that was the novel.

How was the Amtrak Residency? Was the experience of writing and editing on trains in motion a significantly different space to work in?

It’s interesting. I remember, at the time, there was one category of critic who suggested that it was an insane bourgeois fantasy, and there was another category of critic who said, “Blech; I can’t imagine being on that train.” It was the opposite of a bourgeois fantasy to them, which is kind of hilarious. Really, it’s neither. The trains are so old, because of the way America is, the contentious relationships that conservatives have with the train has really hobbled our ability to have a modern train system. Which is sad, because I love trains, obviously.

It’s a residency that takes you deeply inside of the way people are living now, if that makes any sense. It’s less to do with escaping from the world and more with actually being deeply within it. I remember there was a group of British retirees, for example, who would refuse to eat dinner within the 45-minute slot. There were oilcatters, who were drunk and profane and talking loudly about sex. There was a kid who supported his restaurant by working in the oil fields. He had a restaurant in Oregon that he supported by working in the oil fields in South Dakota.

That’s fascinating.

And he wouldn’t buy himself a cabin. He slept in coach. I thought, “You are living a really interesting life.” That’s what I mean. There’s a way in which writers do need that intense engagement with the lived reality of a wide variety of people. I think that’s something that the Amtrak Residency can offer, and I’m proud of that.

Photo: M. Sharkey

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