Alexander Chee on Art and Commerce
Author: Santiago Sanchez
June 21, 2018
Alexander Chee’s new essay collection, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, the first nonfiction collection from the novelist of Queen of the Night and Edinburgh, is one of the most celebrated LGBTQ books of the year. Lambda Literary’s Santiago Jose Sanchez spoke with Chee about how the new book came together, the relationship between fiction and nonfiction, and the pressures faced by queer writers of color.
The following interview was edited for clarity.
First, I must confess, I love this collection. I’ve read many of its essays over the years and it was a moment when we got not one but two advanced reader copies of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel at my house. I took one of the copies with me on a trip to Mexico City, the only book I brought with me for the week. It was an almost magical coincidence then, one that I completely read into, when I started the first essay and found fifteen-year-old you in Chiapas doing an exchange program.
Well, thank you. And that’s an amazing coincidence.
Reading these essays, it was difficult not to treat them as if they were a Tarot deck, the focus of your essay “The Querent.” The querent—the person receiving a reading—brings their own anxieties and fears into their interpretation of the reading. How do you think of the relationship between your writing and your reader? Do you write with a specific audience in mind?
I like that observation about the effect of the collection. I don’t know what I imagine in a reader, to be honest. I guess I imagine one who is as interested in my subject as me. Who is hoping for something more than what they know. I suppose a little like someone who is hoping to have their cards read. I remember Blanche McCrary Boyd saying, “Imagine you’re writing to the smartest person you know,” and I still do that.
Through the years of publishing these essays, have you found surprising readings of your work? Have you noticed a difference in how younger or older people approach your writing?
If anything surprised me about how it’s read or who’s reading it, no, not any more. I remember with Edinburgh how often I met people who looked nothing like me who loved that book. My publicist back then said to me, “Your demo is so random.” I think the only real literary provincialism is in thinking you know who will connect to what you’re writing and why.
I will say, older readers often see me as a throwback, someone upholding traditional standards. Younger ones see me as breaking them down. And they’re reading the same books.
Your essays works on several registers, at once a memoir, a history, a manual on craft, and so much more. It’s hard to say, these particular essays are doing this, while those essays are doing that—they’re all doing so many things at once, which seems to me to be the core of what this collection is about, how as queer artists of color we live constantly in different forms, all at once. Your form captures that. It feels like magic. In putting these pieces together, did you have an overarching line or narrative in mind?
Thank you, this is a really wonderful compliment.
I didn’t have a narrative in mind, at all. I started out collecting the essays after Lis Harris at Columbia asked me to read at their nonfiction reading series, in the MFA program. I told her I didn’t have a book, and she asked me to just send her my favorite essays. So that was really how it began, trying to think through what were my best essays. I was also doing my tenure case, and discovered I had 70 to choose from. My agent and editor both gave me ideas about what belonged in the collection.
Did you intend for it to read like a singular thing? How did you decide on these pieces and their order?
I didn’t. Essay collections are read two ways—in order, and out of order. I as the essayist, introducing himself again and again, essay after essay, is required for those reading the essays out of order. And for those reading it start to finish, I had to come up with an order that would allow the book to be read from start to finish and not feel redundant.
Choosing the order then was really like trying to pick a lock. The resulting order has an unwitting narrative to it. There are gaps in time but when you pick up with each new version of me again—these essays were written over 20 years—there’s space to catch up and there’s a dramatic irony to what’s happened in the interim. The result is more like interconnected short stories.
Are there any essays in this collection that you knew for sure you wanted to include? Or any that almost made it, but didn’t?
I knew that most of those in here–“The Autobiography of My Novel,” “The Guardians,” “The Rosary,” “On Becoming an American Writer”—would be in it. But “The Curse,” for example, I wasn’t sure about. I had to really work on it to make it what it needed to be. “1989” was a last minute inclusion.
As for those not in here, there were many. But of the excluded, “I, Reader,” “The Books,” “Everything In This City Must,” “Future Queer” and its epilogue, “Where Do We Go From Here,” and “On Buying Books From The Dead,” all together have a kind of narrative and could join others like “The Poisoning” to eventually be another collection like this one. At some point you learn when to just make another book, I guess. I guess maybe I almost have.
As I was reading your collection, I was also thinking about Hilton Als’ White Girls. I think this was the last time a writer’s collection of nonfiction caused such excitement and was so highly anticipated. Are there models you studied or thought about as you put together the idea of this book?
I have such respect for Als’ genius in that book, I would never compare. I found it inspiring, his intensely singular genius in full expression, and so it is fair to say I did think of White Girls, but only in that the existence of that book pushed me as I wrote this one. If it was a model, I would say I wanted to feel as free as he did. For structure, I did turn to Elif Batuman’s The Possessed. Also Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, From My Life, I Write To You In Your Life. I spoke to Bernard Cooper for advice. Mary McCarthy’s Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood also.
Anticipating your collection, I became curious about what it was like collecting these essays as you’ve become a public figure looked up to by a generation of young writers. How has your status as a public figure affected your writing and the stories you tell of yourself?
“Public figure” these days has me thinking of all of those beautiful men on Instagram with Public Figure in their bio—a bit of a joke on how they show their body in public.
I’ve had a wonderful year or two of younger writers telling me what my work means to them. I think once you think of yourself as a public figure telling a story, you start to believe you don’t owe the reader what you owe them. You lose some of your humanity, and possibly the part that makes you a writer. What makes me happiest in this is that so many people have found their way to writing after reading my work. So for me it is about that only. I made some good people feel possible to be themselves, and that’s the best thing there is.
In a way, the title of this collection refers to how you went about writing Edinburgh. You write in beautiful detail about your relationship to the material of your life and how you went about making a story out of it by reading the classics and studying plot. How is the process of writing about yourself different between your fiction and nonfiction?
I almost titled the collection Everything Bad That Happened To Me.
The difference is hard to know, but it is something to listen for. I wrote Edinburgh because I couldn’t remember all of what I might have needed to remember, but also because a memoir would have told a smaller story, about me and what happened to me, and I wanted to tell a bigger story about the sexual abuse, queerness, rage—the rage that abuse can leave with you for a lifetime. My story alone wouldn’t have allowed the fuller conversation I wanted about the issues I was describing.
Right now, for example, I’m thinking of an essay I want to write, and it really is not a story. It needs me to illustrate my own experiences. And I’m also thinking of a story collection I’m finishing, one in which the issues I want to describe just wouldn’t be described by my experiences. With fiction, I think you begin feeling “I am not enough.” And nonfiction begins, I think, with “Only I can do this.”
In one of my favorite essays in this collection, “The Guardians,” you write about stereoscopic narratives, stories told from multiple point of views, details from one piece reintroduced in another, and usually from a different angle. This left me thinking about distance, how distance is necessary to see and understand our place in our lives in order to write something meaningful about our past. How things look different once you’ve reached the other side. Has your relationship to stories in this collection changed since you wrote them? What was it like revising essays that you wrote many years ago?
I was reading Natalia Ginzburg’s The Little Virtues as I was revising this, a truly wonderful essay collection by a very important—especially to me—mid-20th century Italian writer, and it begins with an introduction in which she firsts says she didn’t revise any of the essays because she couldn’t go back in time to the person she was when she wrote it, so she left them as is. And she thanks the person to whom the essays are written, someone unnamed—a very simple spell to cast on us as we begin, because of course we then read them wondering… who was it? I considered not revising, but it wasn’t possible. I was too much in mind of the lessons I took from Mary McCarthy’s Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood, where the essays are followed by sections in which she discusses what she forgot, what she left out, what she made up. And so I revised them pretty intensely. It’s not that I am the same person exactly, but let’s just say I found I could summon them or their advice. And that was happening alongside my finally finishing some of the oldest unfinished essays—”The Guardians,” “The Autobiography of My Novel,” “Girl,” “1989,” “On Becoming An American Writer.”
Among the things I really loved about this book was how openly you wrote about money. In “On Becoming an American Writer,” you pointedly ask: “Will you able to write and also eat, or even eat well? Will you have to work another job? Will you be able to pay for health care, a house, dental work, retirement?” Could you talk about your relationship to money, how that relationship has evolved, and what advice you would give to a young writer struggling to balance making money and writing?
Well, “Inheritance” in the collection is about my old relationship to money, and my new one is that getting paid for my work makes me feel powerful. Like a magician, like I’m building the world I can live in spell by spell. But I think in the essay you speak of, what I’m really talking about there, to my mind, is social class, and the writer’s real obligation to themselves. The first thing to do is to let go of the sense that we must be good members of the social class we were born into, and to instead ask ourselves: How do we want to live? Who do we want to work with and how? How do we make a sustainable literary culture that supports us and others, makes room for more stories, more art? More freedom?
I’ve seen so many young queer writers feel they have to choose between making money and making the art they love, and it’s based on this underlying assumption in America that a successful artist is a financially successful one. And yet defying that assumption too often has meant people act like it doesn’t matter to get paid for their work, and so on, and these are like old false roles, I think, that we don’t need to listen to. We live in an age with Edmund White, Eileen Myles, Sarah Schulman, Kate Bornstein, but also… Saeed Jones has a morning show on Twitter, and co-founded a literary BuzzFeed vertical all while writing a memoir. Tommy Pico has a career writing for film, writing poetry, has a podcast. These aren’t elder statesmen, these are artists in their prime. There’s still some old reflex—queer art won’t make it!—but we’re in a world that wants it more than it has. We haven’t solved all the problems, but we can take risks in major publications, we can fight for what we want. We can be heard and live our lives and live our fight. We can get paid if we want to, build new worlds now.
Like you mentioned, the world now wants queer art more than it ever has. In my own experience and in conversations with peers, this has come with a pressure to perform our identities—to make ourselves representatives—and to put our traumas on the page. I can think of so many queer books in the last ten years where trauma is the central focus. Growing up in this moment has been by turns limiting, foreshortening my imagination, consuming my time and mental health, and at times, incredibly helpful, allowing me to create a world in writing where I can remember and talk about what has happened to me. How has this pressure influenced your writing? How can we preserve the complexity of our lives and art?
I don’t think I’d say I’ve felt the pressure to write about myself, ever. I always felt the opposite. Maybe this is a generational difference. I would also say, not all pressures on PoC writers are the same. I think there’s more pressure on black writers to do this, say, than Asian American ones. All I have to do is ask why there aren’t more Korean American queer authors of fiction and I know the answer, which is that no one is asking us for our stories, much less requiring them or requiring they be about trauma. And as someone who has written about trauma, and found tremendous uphill struggles at getting it published, I was bluntly told no one would publish my novel about sexual abuse by my former agent and by publishers.
I have never felt as if people wanted my trauma on the page. Even now, I can see and feel how hard it is in reviews for people to address the writing about sexual abuse in the collection—not only is it unwanted, no one wants to acknowledge it. And the many readers I have for the collection write in telling me how hard it has been for them to admit, much less speak or write about what has happened to them.
Meanwhile, I’m deeply sympathetic to calls for writers to do better at writing about people they are not, but we see that quickly turn into something I’ve always rebelled against, the idea that I can only write about experiences I’ve had myself. This is a sort of rule that runs into itself almost immediately, and avoids the issue of what stories are being told, by whom, and why.
I get that you can both feel like you don’t want the obligation of representing the community but also feel that it is all you can do. It’s one of those early fights I think writers like us have to face down. I recall one of the most diverse classes I ever taught, so many queer students of color, turning in stories, every one about straight white people. And having to ask them what they were writing about and why. But they were writing what they imagined a class would want in college, and not the stories they wanted to tell. And I was sympathetic because I have been that writer.
I often teach Daniel Jose Older’s “12 Fundamentals of Writing the Other (and the Self),” for example, as a way to get my students writing about the world and not just their biographies. I don’t know how we can preserve our complexity in life and in art by not being willing to write about the world around us. I am not against people who are not me writing a character like me—I just want them to do it well, and for it to exist alongside my own work. And not to replace me, or speak for me.
The book exists in part because I have always felt the question “How autobiographical is this?” has been a way of not talking about what a book is about. A way of focusing on the writer that is a way of not focusing on the writer, that neglects what the writer has done in favor of a narrow psychological interpretation. I was approached by so many young writers of color for interviews and I kept saying to them, “please write about me instead.” To review me, not just interview me. And many have as a result. So that’s another way to preserve our complexity—to ask our communities to not just see us but to give us witness on the page, to write criticism, to be the queer critics of color we need. I was inspired by Diana Oh, the queer Korean American playwright and performer, who asked for her last play, The Lingerie Play, to be reviewed by nonbinary and queer writers of color—she threw down, said, “See me, talk about me, write about me.” And I’ve been gratified by the response.
I’d like to finish by asking you about “After Peter.” There’s this moment where you write:
When an artist dies young there is always talk of the paintings unpainted, the books unwritten, which points to some imaginary storehouse of undone things and not to the imagination itself, the far richer treasure, lost.
This part destroyed me. My response was visceral, physically unsettling. It’s an incomprehensible loss that I’m at once attached to and distanced from as a young queer person. I frequently face moments where I don’t know what the relevance of my own work is in the context of this loss and what responsibilities I have as an artist that I might not be aware of. How have you dealt with loss in your writing? What would you say to a young writer struggling with the problem of remembering, while also moving forward towards imagining a world with more possibilities?
I’m still dealing. That essay, for context for the readers who haven’t read it, was written in response to a prompt from Edmund White, asking us to write about artists lost to AIDS, and to think about what the culture lost, for Loss Within Loss, an anthology he edited. And what I was trying to address was the way a great artist’s imagination can be a force in the culture that affects you, whether you’ve seen the art they’ve made or not. I had lost the artists who’d made me feel like I wanted to live, and I was struggling to live without them. To live for myself.
How do I deal? I’m not done. I hope to be at least mostly there by the time I die. What I would say to a young writer struggling with this now is, “Start now.” You only have so much time. Begin. And remember: We all need you. Don’t act like you’re not wanted.