From the author of The Queen of the Night, Alexander Chee’s “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is a collection of essays exploring his exploring his education as a man, writer, and activist and how we form our identities in life and in art. It was named best book by a variety of publications, including TIME, Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, NPR, Wired, Esquire, Buzzfeed, New York Public Library, Boston Globe, The Paris Review, Mother Jones, The A.V. Club and Out Magazine (just to name a few).
While I could spend a long time diving into how he explores his identities within this book as a son, a gay man, a Korean American, an artist, and an activist, in such an honest and raw manner, I asked Chee some questions about writing and how he weaves his advice throughout the narrative.
I loved this book for so many reasons, but mostly because we got to know the writer while also learning about how he writes at the same time.
In this interview, Chee talks about talent, advice for those fearing judgment and what drew him to the essay genre.
Thank you so much, Alexander, for answering some of my questions and contributing to our tribe!
What drew you to the personal essay? What are some of the challenges this genre creates that fiction does not?
What draws me to the form still is the intensely plastic nature of it formally—the way I can make it into whatever I need it to be. And that is also the challenge of it. If something can be anything, is it anything at all? What is intrinsic? Presently we’re in a time when essays are popular but experiments in the essay are not. But I hope that’s next.
Your acclaimed fiction novel “The Queen of the Night” was published in 2016 and “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel” shortly after in 21018. Were you writing them at the same time? What does your writing process look like? Does it change when writing fiction and when writing non-fiction?
This collection was yes, largely written during the writing of Queen. Though some of these essays are older than that novel. I write a bit like a gardner, moving from plant to plant, if a gardner was someone who gave their plants away. I once tried being like Updike, who I understood had different desks for every project, but then I needed too many desks. I was living in Amherst in an apartment for faculty, with more rooms than I needed and inexpensive vintage teacher desks you could buy at the colleges, but I drew the line at 3.
Much of the process is the same but I can edit an essay in a public place, and I cannot edit fiction the same way.
Let's talk about “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel." It's part memoir and part writing advice, which I absolutely love. What inspired you to merge the two?
I don’t know that I knew how to do it so differently. I teach out of my own experiences and so it felt natural to take it further.
I feel like I learned so much about writing just from reading your essay on working with Annie Dillard. I can only imagine what it was like to have the opportunity to spend so much time learning from her.
I’m particularly interested in her suggestion to find where your book would lay on the shelf in a library or bookstore and placing your fingers there. You mention that you did this and that now you tell your students to as well.
Can you speak about how this assertive action made you feel the first time you did it? Did it make the idea of being a successful writer more real to you?
It did. It was over time like the way a dancer in a repeating spin turn seeks a place on the wall to measure when it is time to turn around, the head staying pointed there while their body moves through the turn. It keeps the dancer from getting dizzy. Any bookstore I was in became a place I could do this. I experienced the first one as something like a shock of recognition. Like, “oh, that’s my place.”
In your essay “100 Things About Writing a Novel, “ numbers 14 and 15 address the fears that come along with writing about your own family, or your family thinking you are always writing about them. “The family of a novelist often fears they are in the novel, which is, in fact, the novel they have each written on their own, projected over it.”
Why do you think writers can be so misunderstood by their families? What advice do you have for young writers who are hesitant to tell their story for fear of their families judgment?
When you’re a writer you essentially are often—not always—something no one in your families has ever seen. I use plural because it involves extended and chosen families. And so you’re alone in a way no one else in the family is. That’s good and hard both. The only writers I had in my family history were an aunt on my father’s side and and a great aunt on my mom’s, each considered black sheep. One was considered a bit loose and the other was resented by her children. I had to look for models elsewhere of how to be a happy writer with a family—one I found in my mentor, the late Kit Reed. But no one in the family celebrated when I eventually said I wanted to be a writer.
As for fearing judgement, as it were, I address this in the last essay in the collection. I would add, ask yourself if what you want to describe belongs to you or them. If it’s you, then ask yourself why you fear them, what you fear. Write it down. Don’t let it be nameless. Then it’s less mystifying to deal with, and becomes a checklist of concerns.
You talk about the difference between talent and work when it comes to writing. Talent can only go so far; it's the work what creates the product. Talent brought on feelings of resentment for you, but the idea of working hard was something you could honor. Can you elaborate on this point? Do you think talent and work often get misconstrued?
Talent usually just means you can do something easily that others take years to master. I don’t think they get misconstrued but I think they can be mistaken for each other.
Who or what should we be reading right now?
T Kira Madden’s Long Live The Tribe of Fatherless Girls.
Are you currently working on a new project right now?
Yes. A novel, a collection of stories, a new collection of essays, and a book on writing fiction. I write like a gardener. We’ll see what’s next.
He is a contributing editor at The New Republic, and an editor at large at VQR. His essays and stories have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, T Magazine, Tin House, Slate, and Guernica, among others.
He is winner of a 2003 Whiting Award, a 2004 NEA Fellowship in prose and a 2010 MCCA Fellowship, and residency fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the VCCA, Civitella Ranieri and Amtrak.
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