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In Conversation with Alexander Chee

In March, shortly after sharing a brief review on Instagram of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, I got an alert that Alexander Chee has shared my post to his story. I thanked him profusely and asked if he’d be interested in answering the questions that became the following interview.

Chee is prolific on social media as an activist, writer, and cultural critic. His previous books include two novels, The Queen of the Night and Edinburgh. Currently he’s an associate creative writing professor at Dartmouth. He formerly taught at his undergraduate alma mater Wesleyan University, and received an MFA from the University of Iowa. Follow him on Twitter or on his website to get caught up on his latest publications.

Author Alexander Chee in black & white photograph with a flower in mouth
Photo of Alexander Chee by John Midgley

Mel Rosenthal: Thank you again for agreeing to an interview! I’ve been a fan of yours for some time and I’m ecstatic to have this opportunity to discuss your work. I was actually at your book launch event at Books Are Magic in 2018 and I’ve been waiting for the perfect opportunity to read How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, which happened to be almost exactly two years later. As a writer somewhat overwhelmed with current events, reading about your experience growing into an author was comforting.

Did you find any comfort in writing it down?

Alexander Chee: Thank you so much for this. Thank you for reading me all this time.

I don’t know if any of the writing comforted me exactly—if anything, in the months before the book appeared, I thought, “This is a terrible mistake.” I felt vulnerable seeing them together in a way the individual essays had never made me feel. But the response from readers has been incredibly gratifying. And I have a new sense even of what the collection describes.

MR: We, your readers, were responding to the vulnerability you put on the page!

Sometimes, especially now, I feel like I have to bargain with myself in order to get myself to write. Either because I’m struggling with self-confidence because “writer” isn’t my full-time job, or because my voice doesn’t feel important enough, etc. How do you get yourself to commit to your practice in the face of personal struggle? Does pushing yourself to write count as self-care for you?

AC: When I don’t write, I get profoundly depressed.

But sometimes I do when I write, also. I remember learning that depression and intelligence are linked, that we are often trying to reconcile what was previously irreconcilable, when we write. So of course it is depressing, or can be, until we get it right. I learned a few strategies: to commit to set amounts of time to write, as opposed to specific writing goals; and to make writing feel like I’m not writing, too, which has also helped me to get it done when I feel paralyzed by self-scrutiny or deadlines. So I’ll take notes—the old practice of keeping a commonplace book—or draft something on my phone, or dictate it into my phone, or I’ll print up a draft, mark it up and revise it by retyping it into a new document. “I’m just going to take a few notes,” or “I’m just going to type this up,” often minimizes that awful pressure.

People who feel blocked writing may not feel the same when posting on social media. A few of these essays even began as Facebook memes. Doing the old 20 Things You Don’t Know About Me is a great way to generate 20 first lines to different essays and stories. Or those quizzes that went around tumblr in the early aughts—last time I cried, first kiss, etc. One of my favorite prompts from Lynda Barry is to just write about the cars and dogs you remember from your childhood, and there’s just so much prismatic possibility once you start those.

MR: Is there a specific place or state of mind you need to get into before you can get words on the page? Does it change depending on if you’re writing fiction or nonfiction? I find that venturing to literature meccas like the Center for Fiction in Brooklyn, or settling into a semi-quiet, not-too-dark bar with a strong cocktail and a notebook can help me get started.

AC: I did write much of The Queen of the Night in the old Center for Fiction space, the former Mercantile Library building, because it was so often unused, and had floors that were empty except for boxes of old books. Where else in New York could you effectively be alone in an old seven story townhouse in Midtown? Other people did use the building but the nights or afternoons when I was alone were like heaven.

I love a place that makes me feel anonymous or hidden. In my first days in New York I liked writing in cafes but once I became too known in a place I had to find a new place, and then I ran out of them. Over time I gave up on special places and rituals, as they became ways of holding me back. After Trump was elected I’d find myself in the car after my drive home or drive to work, just sitting there staring, unable to go upstairs or go into my office. So I started writing on my phone or dictating to myself and then I could go inside.

I am also known for talking about writing on trains and I have to say nothing beats that. Subways were always good for me, the long rides from Brooklyn to the Upper West Side, or Midtown East, when I worked there. My original idea for the Amtrak residency was to just get a pass for the Northeast corridor run, and then getting on a commuter train, writing for a few hours from NYC to DC and back, or up to Boston and back. That seemed like bliss. The Hudson line and back too. None of that is now possible, of course, with COVID, or, at least, currently. It would be nice to do that again.

MR: I miss train travel. I’ve gotten some of my best scenes out of writing while on Metro North.

I was actually a photography major in college. While studying I became obsessed with the idea of the archive, especially that which all families naturally accrued (or at least they were more likely to before the advent of the digital camera) and in my research I got to be a huge fan of Annette Kuhn and her book Family Secrets. I loved how she so brilliantly broke down how flimsy the truth is as it applies to what photographs do or don’t convey not simply for how we change in front of a camera, but also because of how memories affect our interpretations. One quote I’ve hung onto for years: “To the extent that memory provides their raw material, such narratives of identity are shaped as much by what is left out of the account—whether forgotten or repressed—as by what is actually told.” It seems like this idea is very often applied to memoirs.

When writing personal essays do you ever consider how the story you write wouldn’t be the same one that someone else would come up with about the same event? Do you think this makes memoirs as a genre more or less accurate? Can any writer ever tell a universal truth when rehashing their memories?

AC: Something I do regularly is to make any problems in the writing a part of the structure of the writing. So, if two or more people have perspectives on the event, that’s an opportunity, not an obstacle, even if, or especially if, it contradicts your memories. This is why I love the structure of a stereoscopic narrative, where two or more points of view are given on a particular story, and the full story becomes something only the reader can see.

I wrote these essays over 25 years, and over those years, I learned to reach out to anyone I was writing about, as the cost was too high if you didn’t. Also, the memories you are most sure of are most certainly the ones you must fact check first. You must treat yourself like your own biographical subject. Go through the papers, the emails, the social media archives, the unfinished blog posts, the password protected things a scholar won’t be able to perhaps get through after you’re dead. Dare to truly expose yourself. I read my old diaries, for example, for the essay I wrote about writing my first novel. But I also reached out to people I was in undergraduate and graduate writing classes with, I checked quotes against what my teachers said, I re-read the books I was reading at the time, and looked for comments I received from friends who’d read the book. Trusting your memory, that’s a fool’s game. Also less interesting. That’s too often PR for your ego. Most of my writing process involves looking at my thoughts and memories and saying, “Ok, you old hustler, where is this really from?”

MR: Did you have any reservations when it came to writing about yourself in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel?

AC: I didn’t think of it that way. I had written so many essays over the years, it was simply time to collect some of them. When I sat down to put together the collection, I had over 70 to choose from. Each of them were about different subjects—roses, Tarot, AIDS activism, recovering from sexual abuse, the MFA. It’s a very ordinary thing to do, to create an essay collection at some point in a writer’s career. Especially as they won’t live past their magazine appearances, usually. I have at least three more planned over the years ahead and am working on the next one now. It’s called Rich Children.

MR: Somewhat related, I wondered while reading if you had been keeping careful notes or working on drafts of any of the final essays included in the book. Do you find it easier to write closer to the time the essay took place or with more distance between you and the topic/event?

AC: There’s something called the Three Year Rule, which is a pretty good rule: If you’re living through something you want to write about, you should take notes, and then in three years time, the idea goes, you may find yourself able to write about it with a measure of calm and reflection. But of course the internet came and pulled that tablecloth right off the table.

But of course, we saw the limits of some of the immediacy the web favors in the way many people seemed to step on a rake this spring when they wrote COVID journals. Though I think it is also true that introducing yourself to a reader is something people increasingly forget to do, in the age of social media, where people imagine—pretty wrongly, I think—that everyone who follows them knows who they are.

I do take notes, but I take them in ways I don’t always acknowledge—I write emails I don’t send, and used to write letters I don’t send. I take photos of clouds or flowers. I am not much for journals, though I try at times. I write long emails. And I save my drafts, even of tweets. My Twitter drafts are like an elliptical record of what I didn’t just write there.

It is more accurate to say that some of these essays were in my files for ten years, sometimes 20. “Girl,” for example, was written in draft form for the first time back in 1993, and stayed in my files until 2015. I don’t know that I could have written it that way based on notes and memories. If you do write nonfiction about your life and experiences you should keep a journal of some kind, or have some daily practice of recording your life, even if it’s just taking photos on your phone. A neglected way of following your thinking also is your web history, the diary you don’t know you’re keeping. I noticed Evan James—a favorite new writer—is teaching a writer’s notebook class this fall, and I recommend people get into the practice. So much of what you might tweet more properly belongs in one of those.

MR: Have you ever felt like there was an essay you were inspired to write but ultimately decided you wouldn’t/couldn’t? If yes, can you elaborate? What reasons, if any, would lead you to not write an essay?

I ask because I know that some of our families provide endless inspiration that could more safely end up in novels rather than memoirs in order to protect relationships. How would you advise writers dealing with that kind of situation?

AC: We should also be clear that essays and fiction do different things. Maybe a good question to ask yourself if you feel this constraint is, can I write something better than I might have if I have to write this as fiction? How can I move past the way I center myself in the story and believe in my right to tell it, thwarted because someone might be hurt? And this is addressed at length in my essay, “Autobiography of My Novel,” in my collection, as well as in the last essay, “On Becoming an American Writer.”

I remember a therapist of mine back in the early 90s saying to me, “You always think people want to be ripped out of denial, but in fact, most people love denial. They love the blanket. They won’t thank you for taking that away.” She was talking about the people in my life. It’s one thing for any of us to decide our mother or father has intergenerational trauma they haven’t dealt with. It’s another for us to write about it without talking to them about it and publish that for the world to see and weigh in on. Kiese Laymon’s been writing about this for some time in different ways—look at the essay he wrote about his uncle, where he takes apart the idea of writing about someone instead of writing to them.

Can you ask yourself what you think telling the story does? Is it enough to say that a traumatic thing happened? Are you seeking revenge instead of justice? Is what you call “the endless inspiration our families provide” real inspiration, or should we just be better at minding our own business? I’m not about to write stories about my siblings’ romantic histories, for example.

MR: I have been to many events and I’ve watched as many authors give advice to that oft-asked question seeking advice to aspiring writers. The authors, debut or otherwise, almost always give a simple answer: Read a lot and write a lot. I couldn’t agree more. Though I often find myself reading as a means of procrastinating writing! What would you like to say to aspiring writers?

AC: People do give that answer a lot. There is more to say. Believe in your own value. Believe in your bad taste. Believe in your pretentiousness—it wants to grow up into something you should pay attention to. And look for what moves you to write something down with the urgency of something you’d send to someone to save their life. And learn to revise. I didn’t have the stamina for revision for some time and it undermined me.

MR: Can you speak to the pros and cons of the MFA? How can young writers, whether or not they’re in urban centers like NYC, otherwise gain the peers they need to be early readers? What’s the most important factor to consider when working on an early draft of a book length project?

AC: Everything I have to say about the MFA is truly still in the “My Parade” essay I put in the collection, also online at BuzzFeed. I wrote the essay as a way to basically tell students this so that I wouldn’t have to write a whole new email each time a former wrote to ask me, but also, my least favorite part of social media is the way people have turned talking about the MFA into eliminationist partisan warfare on the level of the GOP vs the Democratic Party. The approach becomes people trying to overstate the harm or the benefit so as to reach some final answer that doesn’t exist.

What I would add at this late date is that you shouldn’t apply if getting in will be the best thing that has happened to your writing career, because then you will give the program—the faculty and your peers—too much power in your mind. After college, I began perusing the listings at Poets and Writers and PEN for contests, grants, and calls for anthologies, and I used those submission deadlines to create deadlines and discipline for myself. By the time I applied, I’d been freelance writing for a year and a half, had worked at two magazines, and had published poetry, fiction and nonfiction. I had a good idea that I knew what I was doing and no disapproving literary god faculty member was going to take me out of the game. Even if I loved them desperately. That protected me, because it did happen. And I kept going.

If you are not going to get an MFA, you will need to find community somehow. Fellow readers, sure, but also, just people you can stay up late with talking—or texting, or DMing—about writing. People you go to readings with, people who tell you about what they’re reading. I found my people at reading series, open mics, and experimental magazines. Working at bookstores helps, at indies especially. They’re one of the real alternate MFAs. My bookstore jobs brought me so much community, opportunity and friendship.

The most important factor of working on an early manuscript is to find a way to keep track of your thoughts that isn’t the manuscript itself. I created a method of working, creating a novel journal, or what amounted to a private internal blog, with every hare brained idea, complaint, random thought, question--also page numbers of any docs I opened, and links to anything online I read. It also had a list of characters and places, and I printed those up to put on my desk where I could see them, so that when I got stuck, I could look at them and figure out what characters in what places were doing what next. I say blog because I kept it with the most recent entry as the first thing I saw, putting each new entry in on page 1 and sending the others further back. I made entries at the end of work and read them as I started work again.

MR: Many readers I know, myself included, have had a hard time keeping focused for long enough to finish books, though I’ve found some solace in bingeing several YA novels when I can turn off Netflix. What have you been reading, watching, or listening to lately? What medium has held your attention the most?

AC: It’s hard to read when someone is burning your world down. You feel you need to stop them, or to run and get away. So I think it helps if you read things that can teach you how to live and change your world, or that are about people who did change their world when someone was burning it down, and what it took them to do it, and maybe there’s lessons there. Or you read about people who put their world back together after someone burned it down.

I was guided in many ways by having re-read Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower the fall previous, in order to teach it. It’s easy to get caught up in how dead-on she nailed the times we live in from 1986, but this time as I read it I loved how her heroine, Lauren, approached the apocalypse methodically, reading in order to prepare to survive. I loved how much she wanted to live, in spite of all the horror, and how making her preparations left her, well, prepared. I guess you could say I started doing that.

As quarantine seemed imminent I began looking into how to get my food locally—food safety has been an issue in the US since Trump took office, and I knew he wouldn’t protect that—he only knows how to steal and break things. So I set that up, with a local CSA five miles from my home. We planted a garden also. We haven’t had so many disruptions here in Vermont, but for example, as we experience a massive national onion recall, our local onions are safe. I had also begun rereading Black lesbian feminist writers I read back in the 80s and 90s, like Cheryl Clarke, Kate Rushin, and Barbara Smith, in February and March, so when quarantine hit, they were my first companions and that turned out to be good planning.

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of books related to the Japanese Occupation of Korea, discovering early 20th century Korean mutual aid societies, and in general have just been watching a lot of Korean cinema or TV—the earlier Bong Joon Ho films, for example, as well as the early films of Yeon Sang-ho, and the Korean zombie historical drama Kingdom. I also watched and read a lot of novels and films set in Naples for some reason—Curzio Malaparte’s novel The Skin, and the film made of it, as well as the new Ferrante. Also read two Natalia Ginzburg novels—Happiness As Such and The Dry Heart—as I’m a huge fan of hers. My husband and I went on a Pedro Almodóvar kick also as his COVID journals were like one of the best things out there. Now we’re watching Ramy, and I May Destroy You. I’m also reading Cameron Awkward-Rich’s poems. They reset me somehow.

When I really need to just go blank because of the horror, I read yaoi or bara manga, as they just exist in this whole other world but it is still more or less queer and Asian.

MR: And finally, to wrap up, can you share any details about anything you’ve been writing? Even if it’s just that your next project is fiction or nonfiction?

AC: I’m working on a new essay collection, and a new novel, possibly two new novels. The essay collection is another mix of old and new or unwritten essays, and one of the novels is set over 40 years-1985-2025. The other is a sort of social realist satire about space exploration. I also wrote a spec script outline for Westworld, which was just really fun to do—I really wanted to give Clementine a story of her own. It’s been unbelievably hard to do, writing right now, like my head is the tip of a needle someone is pushing through leather—and yes, I’m the one pushing of course—but it’s all getting there somehow. Fingers crossed, right?


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