How Alexander Chee became a novelist

Alexander Chee.
Alexander Chee.
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Two years ago, when Alexander Chee started doing press for his sophomore novel, “The Queen of the Night,” he was surprised that a particular question continued to plague him. Even though the novel tells the painstakingly researched story of a 19th century woman who is a star of the Paris Opera in Second Empire France — a life, an identity, a set of experiences entirely unlike his own — he was still asked that same question he had to answer all too often about his debut novel, “Edinburgh”: “How autobiographical is this?”

Chee is now in the midst of doing press for his first collection of essays, titled— tongue firmly in cheek — “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.” Though the title is meant as “a light joke,” according to Chee, there’s no denying that the book — a meditation on the nexus of literature, identity, craft and activism — does indeed survey that at-times porous border between art and autobiography.

Chee's biography is, indeed, interesting. Born in Rhode Island to a Korean father and an American mother, he is, as he mentioned to me, the first out gay Korean American male author. He was an AIDS activist; he attended the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop; he is now a professor at Dartmouth and is one of The Times' critics at large.

I spoke with Chee by phone. Our conversation has been edited.

In the essay “Girl,” you write, “Sometimes you don’t know who you are until you put on a mask.” One of the book’s through-lines is a wrestling with identity as imposed from within and without. Could you talk about that in relation to the concept of the mask?

That particular essay is about how the first time that I felt comfortable with my face was when I covered it in makeup to do drag. It felt like a weird glimpse, like the opposite of a ghost. Some part of me that mattered was finally visible to myself.

Later, when I was teaching a graphic novel class, I found a lucha libre mask for the Blue Demon. I did some research into his character. The idea of putting on a mask to go fight crime became really interesting to me — it’s the conceit of so many superhero stories. I put the mask on, went outside, and I tried to imagine running down the street and stopping a crime. It felt absolutely crazy, yet I could imagine how there could be different identities possible if you were free from other people’s ideas of who you’re supposed to be. That’s the power of the mask, which is also the power of the pen name, the screen name, the drag name, the porn name. Stormy Daniels is a powerful name, it turns out. We are in the middle of experiencing the truth of her that’s revealed through that name. We think that our truth is located in just one identity or just one name, but I think there are a lot of answers to the question of “Who are you?”

Another of the book’s through-lines is the relationship between the artist and the activist. Can you talk about that?

I did an event for Guernica recently. That magazine openly talks about itself as a magazine for literature and politics. I was thinking about how funny it is that only in America do we think of the two as possibly having a separate identity, and that separation mattering somehow. I’m not really sure when that division or that idea that you would respect some sort of division between these things occurred.

When I was trying to include the political lives of my characters in what I was writing in writers’ workshops, especially when I was writing about activists, there would be people quoting Noël Coward: “If you want to send a message, send a telegram.” And I thought, “Well, how lucky for Noël Coward for it to be as easy as that!” (Everyone quoting this gave Noël Coward credit, but it was Samuel Goldwyn.)

It really seemed like people in my class, and even the teachers, thought that this was a right division. But I was an activist starting very young because of my mom. At ACT UP, we were thinking a lot at the time about how you could affect change without getting arrested, because getting arrested could be very dangerous for people depending on their circumstances. What is civil disobedience for, say, a white man becomes a career-ending decision for a woman or a person of color. If you have HIV, and you’re dependent on your medications, and those medications are taken away from you when you’re arrested, then that situation can even become life-threatening. There’s that Laurie Anderson idea of language as a virus, so we were thinking a lot about how we get ideas into the culture, how we change the culture.

I studied with James Alan McPherson, who taught a class on reinventing myth. He said to us that it’s the artist’s responsibility to rewrite the myths of a culture for the next generation. It was a very intense thing to tell a class of writers at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It felt almost religious, but with some time and some thought, I realized that what he was really talking about was that myths contain the information of a culture. Controlling the myth, then, rewrites the culture — or it has the power to.

How has your approach to writing and teaching writing evolved over the years?

My teaching has always been born out of the best of what I’ve learned from my own teachers, what I learned on my own and what I’m reading. But I would say it has changed to be focused more on character and world building, with the intention of focusing on what the writer Grace Paley calls the imperative to imagine the real — to write in a way that makes room for the world as it is, that makes room for the power of the writer’s own subjectivity to tell us stories we both know are around us and have yet to see on the page. Student writers often write what they think a story is instead of a story they want to tell. I am always teaching them to bridge that gap, always trying to be better at it.

The final essay, “On Becoming an American Writer,” feels like the perfect culmination of the book.

That essay is an homage to Jim McPherson. It shares a title with his essay about the 14th Amendment. As I was writing that essay, at first I thought of it as being about writing or about despair, but then I realized that it is about figuring out how to keep writing. I find that I spend a lot of time teaching students how to keep going, even as I am also teaching that to myself.

Malone is a writer and editor of the Scofield.

Alexander Chee will appear at the Festival of Books at 3 p.m. April 21 on the panel “Becoming a Writer” with David Biespiel (“The Education of a Young Poet”) and Nell Scovell (“Just the Funny Parts… And a Few Hard Truths about Sneaking into the Hollywood Boys’ Club”), moderated by Michelle Franke, and at 11 a.m. April 22 in a one-on-one conversation with Viet Thanh Nguyen (“The Sympathizer”).

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