Interview: Alexander Chee, novelist

Alexander Chee, whose latest novel “The Queen of the Night,” has received high praise, will be bringing together a range of writers paired to explore provocative subjects. Sponsored by MailChimp, “Alexander Chee Selects,” is an important component in this year’s Decatur Book Festival. Chee has curated writing series before including the Dear Reader series at Ace Hotel in Manhattan. Joining Chee at the Decatur Book Festival are Rebecca Traister, Garrard Conley, Idra Novey, Rumaan Alam, Samantha Hunt, Alex Mar, Kiese Layman, Sunil Yappa and Tyhimba Jess. Chee will be joined by Kaitlyn Greenrige in a discussion on alternative history on Saturday from 1:45 to 2:30 p.m. in the First Baptist Decatur Sanctuary.

“The Queen of the Night” is the story of opera singer Lilliet Berne whose celebrity is not unlike Jenny Lind. Chee says the story is not about Jenny Lind, “she has her own legend,” but about another woman whose fame brought independence in a time when women rarely had it. He says that for his heroine (or anti-heroine depending on perspective) fame came with a “viscous price” and “a keen sense that it is all going to go away.” He explores opera plots as part of his narrative. Chee places Lilliet inside a plot that is both “hilariously bizarre” and real for her. She lives in a time of the Franco-Prussian War, the Paris Commune and the oppressive government of an emperor who is on his way out. Her Paris is full of spies and real estate speculation. The press is muzzled and the sex lives of female celebrities are front page news.

1453787257096Chee spent 10 years writing the novel which he describes as “an old fashioned picaresque novel.” He says he could tell it was done “when the character stops visiting you.” He describes his relationship with Lilliet as a long conversation that had an element of the Mermaid’s Kiss. Like the enraptured sailor who is lost to the depths of the ocean, it was difficult for Chee to stop pursuing Lilliet. He’s also working on a book of essays, “How To Write An Autobiographical Novel.”

Inspiration comes to Chee from various sources. He reads widely, follows the news, studies mythology and music and says, “the ideas find you.” He says he used to write all the time but now that he has a partner he writes one to three hours a day. The Jungian notion that “we are all who we agree to be with each other” gives energy to his writing process. He says, “fiction is a way of using all of yourself, including the rejected parts. Literature is a catalog of rejected thought.” His next writing project is what he calls “speculative fiction” which is contemporary with lots of historical references. He says his topic once scared him and he kept pushing it away. Chee says “you grow the brain you need” to write the story that compels you.

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