An Interview with Alexander Chee
It’s the evening of Alexander Chee’s performance at the Ace Hotel (an event organized with the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival), and I’m a good bit early for the scheduled interview with the said performer of the night. That’s a poor allusion on my part to the title of Alexander Chee’s long-awaited novel The Queen of the Night. Anyway, I waited outside the Ace Hotel for a bit, smoking one, two, okay three cigarettes, after which I wandered into the hotel’s lobby bar and order an eight dollar Jameson on the rocks (if you’re wondering, it tastes the same as a Jameson from any dive bar in Mid-City).
10 or 20 minutes and another cigarette later, the time for the interview came. I entered the adjoining gallery, that was a smidge more quiet than the bar. I set down across from Alexander who had just received a latte (or cappuccino, who can really tell?) from the waitress tending the Stumptown, a cafe connected to the front of the gallery. After a few moments of small talk, I got to my first question.
In the past 15 years since your debut, Edinburgh, what experience did you have that most influenced The Queen of the Night?
In some ways teaching writing. There’s a part in the novel where Lilliet (the protagonist of Queen of the Night) is studying singing herself with a famous singer. And, I was remembering my own past, and what it was like to study with my heroes when I was a writing student. And, then also, what it was like to teach a very talented student who seems to be a little strange, and you don’t know everything that you might need to know about her, and you what to help her.
What inspired you to write about Opera, given it’s such a big departure from Edinburgh?
It was a couple of different things that came together at the same time. I was having a lot of experiences that were leading people to say to me things like, “wow, that’s just like in your novel” and “it seems like your novel is coming true”. Then I actually came across quotes from both Joan Didion and Oscar Wilde where they said “what you write, comes true” Talking about how the fiction you write, can become true in your own life. And, Opera is full of all these insane plots. I was seeing a lot of opera at the time, and I was thinking of all these things, about coincidences and how strange it would be if an opera plot were to come true, if your life was to suddenly become like that. And, that was the inspiration for the plot of the novel. In terms of inspiring me to write about opera itself, that was just a happenstance. I was wandering around New York City as I do, and I ran into a friend, the late writer David Rakoff, who told me a long story about the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind. It was a story about how she went on a farewell tour arranged by P.T. Barnum that lasted two years. She was this singer who was greatly beloved but retired early, and no one really ever understood why. She told the press she thought opera was immoral, and that was the reason she was leaving. And, I became interested in what the real story was. Also, because of P.T. Barnum, I imagined that there would be a circus. I imagine this opera singer traveling around the country with a circus, who had all these secrets that she didn't want to talk about, her reasons for leaving the stage. Once, I learned that there was no circus, it really was a concert tour. I just thought, oh, I like my idea better. So, I guess you could say the novel was inspired by the opposite of Jenny Lind.
What did you admire about Jenny Lind?
She was discovered as a child by The Royal Swedish Academy of Music, and she was a singer whose talent was so great she almost had no choice but to become a singer. So deciding to rebel early in her career, and just be like “what am I doing, I don’t want to do this.” Because, It’s an astonishingly demanding career, you know.
Did any of the pop-singers out there today have any further impact on the modeling of Lilliet?
Back then the opera singers were like our pop-singers of today. I think Lilliet’s contemporary counterpart of today is an earlier Beyonce. Maybe, Beyonce’s alter ego, Sasha Fierce.
Were there any operatic moments in your past that leaked consciously or subconsciously into your writing of this story?
I sang in operas as a boy. I’ve always loved the opera comique since I was a kid When you’re a boy soprano, you know your voice has a limit. You’ll age at some point, and have to leave. That’s when I became interested in the lives of women singers, because to my mind they have a limitless career. Where as my time was so short.
But, Lilliet retired early, so there’s kind of a connection there.
Yes, exactly. Yes.
You've mentioned in the past that part of your writing process is implications. Essentially, creating an answer or reasoning for any possible situation. As a result, did you find yourself upon finishing The Queen of the Night, at times lost in the world you created?
I would say, I was lost during the writing, and the novel was a way of finding my way out.
What did you learn, what has stayed with you since finishing the novel?
A lot of the lessons from writing the novel were that the past is not this thing that is over, it’s this thing that we are all still living with. The way Napoleon III, created an unrivaled level of surveillance inside of his regime. Spying on the people who worked for him, his wife. Also, this idea of luxury that comes from the period. Luxury as a kind of theater, a kind of show.
So you feel that era is relatable to today, instead of opera, it’s reality tv, and instead of Napoleon’s regime, it’s the NSA and Congress?
That’s the world we live in now, yeah,
Have you had any luck on selling the French Rights to The Queen of the Night?
Let’s just say, I’m hopeful.
Switching topics a bit, you wrote a screenplay about Newton Arvin, how's that process coming along?
Pretty well, thanks. We’re done, we have a full draft. We started talking to agents and directors. So, fingers crossed.
Do you have an actor in mind, who best personifies Newton Arvin?
We’ve tossed a couple of ideas around, there’s a long shot idea that I think would be really interesting, Woody Harrelson. There’s a resemblance, it would be fascinating. He’s a character actor. He would do an amazing job.
And, with the success of Trumbo, there’s a climate for those topics. Especially with today’s politics, there’s a need to learn from history, and what can happen when someone tries to suppress individuals.
Right. Yeah, I think so. Thanks.
As for what’s next, do you have a pool of prospect ideas for a new novel, and if so is there one that you are specifically high on?
I do have a pool. One’s a historical novel, one’s contemporary, one’s a mystery and one is science-fiction. I’m probably leaning towards the contemporary one right now. I first had the idea in the 90s, and put it on the backburner. For awhile, I was choosing between writing this one and The Queen of the Night. So, we’ll see. I can say, it’s a contemporary fictional saint’s tale.
Shortly thereafter, it was time for mic check, and eventually Alexander Chee’s remarkably New Orleans style live reading. The exhibition was alive, from the set design by Nathan Arthur to the interpretive dance by renowned burlesque artist Bella Blue; followed with a performance of “Jewel Song” by opera singer Maria Thomas who was accompanied by pianist Tom Petterson. Afterwards, Alexander graciously signed copies of his novel for the fans who gathered to celebrate his latest work. Do yourself a favor, and pick up a copy of Queen of the Night; signed copies (while supplies last) can be found at uptown’s indie Octavia Books.