by Jane Hu
Almost fifteen years after his remarkable debut novel Edinburgh, Alexander Chee is back with The Queen of the Night, a sprawling and operatic narrative following the life of famed soprano Lilliet Berne. Chee’s second novel, which he describes as an “alternate history novel,” is set in 1882 Paris and reimagines Second Empire Paris in startling detail. I interviewed Chee, who is currently on tour for the novel, over the last couple of weeks. If you’re lucky, you can catch him at your local bookstore.
Alex! There are lots of intelligent things I want to ask you about The Queen of the Night, but first can we take a moment to admire its spine?
— Alexander Chee (@alexanderchee) January 7, 2016
Please let’s do.
It’s been almost fifteen years since the debut of your astonishing novel Edinburgh. The pace of researching and writing must be very different from what you’re going through now in anticipation of the release of your second novel. How do you feel? Are you getting enough sleep?
Thank you. I feel ok. I’m not getting enough sleep though. It’s like internet PTSD mixed with “every day is or isn’t Christmas.” Or it was. But now I’m so far past the place I thought I would get to, I feel like I can sleep maybe. I’ll check back in.
Several days go by.
Ok I’m still not really sleeping.
One week later.
I slept. It was exciting. I need more.
Also, you teach! Was as there interplay between the process of writing The Queen of the Night and teaching?
At first teaching was more or less a straightforward way of making a living and having access to institutional resources while writing — aka libraries. And that was not inconsiderable. But it didn’t in any way touch the writing. Maybe it would push the writing aside sometimes but mostly it was fine.
And then I taught at two of my alma maters — Iowa and Wesleyan — and that is a stereoscopic narrative. You see yourself as the student you must have been, with new insights as you are now a professor. So I re-experienced both major and minor interactions from my time as a student at both places as I was writing this.
How would you define a historical novel? Is The Queen of the Night a historical novel?
I think of it as an alternate-history novel — it invents a plausible interior to the collapse of the Second Empire alongside a fable. It was not, strictly speaking, a realist enterprise. I set out to make a nineteenth-century tall tale autobiography that tells the story of someone unsure if they are or are not the victim of an enchantment. But it is a picaresque also — I wanted it to be, at one level, just a big, ripping yarn.
Said another way, I had always wanted a novel-length version of Anne Sexton’s “The Letting Down of the Hair.” Having said that, I think the historical novels I admire most argue with history and the culture. And this was a way of doing that also. So by that definition, yes. It is a historical novel.
One of things I’m most interested in when it comes to The Novel is the idea of character as well as protagonicity. Lilliet Berne is ostensibly very much your novel’s heroine — its main character — but she also goes through so many permutations and disguises that it does something interesting to the idea of character as such. In ways, this seems really cool and queer to me! How did you track Lilliet through all her many iterations, while always giving her some semblance of a core identity. Or is that even how you conceptualized it?
I love that. Thank you. I don’t know that I conceptualized this quality, per se, as much as the idea of her being this way arrived as it was — I didn’t decide it as much as she did.
But this also was never very strange to me. Around the time I started the novel I sent someone a disc of photos for me for an essay we were illustrating online (that sentence should date it to about 1999), and he wrote back to say, “All of these are you?” But that doesn’t mean there weren’t challenges.
The novel began out of questions I would ask of her and the answers that came. It felt more like interviewing a presence, questions for a ghost, than an invention. But then once the writing began I wrote about three different starts for the novel, scrapping two, until with the third start I realized that all of them were the novel together. It was as if each of the sections of her life — her past in America, her life with the Majeures Plaisirs, the escape into the convent orphanage and her service at the Tuileries — each required me to believe entirely that the others hadn’t happened, much I suppose the way she would at each time.
The core of her is her incredible will to survive and escape even from God. An inner ruthlessness that is about her will to be in control of her own destiny, which is really an argument she is having with the world about the structure of the world — and the place that structure insists on for her.
The novel is all about character fate and destiny, not to mention all the wordplay between Lilliet’s Fach (a singer’s range — and a term I didn’t even know about until your novel!) and her fate. In opera, a singer’s Fach determines what characters she gets to play, but because of the narrative conventions in opera, Fach also often determines a singer’s/character’s ending. Lilliet is constantly worried that the roles she performs, as dictated by her Fach, will start influencing her fate in life. It’s a persistent concern in the novel that I sometimes forget that, well, it’s a novel. All of it is fiction. How did it feel writing about a character who is basically always trying to escape the fate she’s already in: that of being a character?
It was uncanny.
But at this distance Fach to me resembles what I think of as early aughts/late nineties thinking around identity and art that has come back to us now in new ways. As a young writer, I questioned the idea that I had to write fiction in a world where I could write my own ethnicity only and nothing else. Fach to me was a little like that. As a biracial person, that’s an inherently unstable identity.
American publishing for a long time has treated POC writers as the equivalent of minor regionalists, reporting from their immigrant experiences, as if we’re not fully a part of the world. So you can see that the idea of a voice that determines your fate forever within the dramas you’ll perform on stage — that you must only be the minor character and not the heroine with this voice, only the abandoned one with that — was fascinating to me. This however is something of a backward glance realization, as I said. At the time, I was thinking mostly of the way friends of mine raged, particularly women friends, about things like men who wouldn’t date women more successful than them, or how friends would undermine themselves professionally so as not to be threatening to their husbands. I was watching as women I knew were forced to make impossible choices even now in our supposedly enlightened time. And I was curious about that.
The Queen of the Night is available now. You can buy it wherever capitalism allows you to obtain books:
The Queen of the Night is kind of structured as a series of flashbacks, which makes its plotting and temporality really interesting. What’s more, Lilliet has all these metafictional moments where she signals to the reader something she’s about to reveal, a story she’s about to start telling or one she will explain later. How does this change the reading process?
I thought of those moments as steering, really, like when you put your oar in the water to change direction.
I don’t know how it affects the reading for readers, but I know what I wanted: A retrospective novel that is a sort of memoir for her in which she is also trying to understand herself — the kind of celebrity memoir we almost never see. Most celebrity memoirs, then and now, are really just book-length PR and always were, and so there is a way in which this does take aim at that form even as it betrays it by including her actual confidences.
One of the best, that inspired this approach, was the incredible Sarah Bernhardt’s autobiography, My Double Life. Also George Sand’s Story of My Life, and her diaries, and Liane de Pougy’s My Blue Notebooks. One reviewer accused me in an otherwise positive review of inserting historical asides about various personages to make it reader-friendly, but I was after the way these famous women would do a kind of nineteenth century humblebrag: telling you about the famous people they knew was a way to tell you they were important.
The whole thing did feel like steering a massive ship, but I also wanted the individual dramatic moments of recollection to feel full of some lightness and immediacy. These interventions are meant to arrive as a way to explain what might otherwise feel like a long dramatic scene without a point. To say “here we are, here is where we’re going.”
And so part of those metafictional moments are her providing a fabulistic touch. More like Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, than, say, Villette.
I love the detail that Lilliet is American — one detail you changed from her historical prototype, the mid-nineteenth-century Swedish opera star Jenny Lind. The novel doesn’t quite start and end in America, due to its semi-Russian doll narrative structure, but Lilliet does. She’s born there and she leaves for Europe when she joins a travelling circus and, as it turns out, finally returns there at the end of her opera career with P. T. Barnum’s circus. Since I love that kind of denigrated genre of the American Broadway musical, I really like that one of the implications here is that there are resonances between the low and the high, the circus and the opera.
It’s an idea of her character that goes back to that mistake I made while listening to that story of Jenny Lind. Her name — the Swedish Nightingale — that just seemed like the sort of name an American would dream up for herself. I was sure she had that kind of swag, and when she didn’t, I knew I had a character that was all my own.
As for the mix of the high and low, one of the earliest influences on my thinking on this novel was my friend, the Broadway producer David Binder, something of a high-culture/low-culture master himself. He introduced me to a book back in 2003 called Highbrow Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, by Lawrence Levine. I did not set out to think of the novel as a deliberate mix of these things — I just knew it felt right — but once I had come up with the mix, this book, my conversations with David, these helped me see how to work with these elements. High-low is a rich mix. It was certainly the key to understanding both Barnum and the Parisian demimonde.
You go through lovingly meticulous ends to detail and describe Lilliet’s costumes and gowns. In fact, the novel basically opens with a scene about a couture dress. Throughout the novel too we learn how clothing and, in particular, women’s clothing becomes a crucial tool in political and even world historical events. I love that lingering and obsessing over gowns becomes a potential distraction for both reader and characters in The Queen of the Night — and the assumption that they might just be frivolous descriptive “filler” actually makes them more effective. But at the same time: these gowns. I want to wear them all and you describe them so gorgeously. Aaaah, say more! Did you have a favorite outfit?
In my research I became very aware of how much everyone was paying attention to what everyone else was wearing. The Empress watching her ladies in waiting who watched her; the Empress copying her husband’s mistresses (except one), perhaps as a way of getting his attention, or of telling him she knew; the need for the Empress to wear an ermine cloak but her need to sometimes just wear her flannels underneath. It was when I understood that the cloak indicated an Imperial audience that I understood that whoever took out the cloak knew her state schedule — whether they knew it or not.
The Empress Eugénie’s attention to clothes was also her way of promoting French industry. There’s a famous anecdote of when Marie Antoinette gave up silk for muslin and decimated the silk industry by setting a no-silk trend. Eugénie copied her a great deal but not like that. Fortunes for a country could rise or fall on these issues. These are not frivolous choices, even when they are.
As for a favorite outfit? I love Lilliet’s best friend Euphrosyne’s dresses maybe the most — in particular her gown when she appears at the door to her house as she leaves, and Lilliet is watching her in the dark.
Are you a very architectural, spatial, or visual writer? I’m a little obsessed with the novel’s various forms, and one is its attention to interiors. There are so many rooms in the novel, and hidden rooms, secret rooms, carriage “rooms,” prison rooms, rooms within rooms, boxes within rooms. What was your conceptualization of all of these spaces?
I took a learning test once that told me I was a visual mathematician, so you may be onto something. But rooms in this novel are specifically about class and gender as they were for the French then — this room for women, this for the servant, this for the lover, and so on. Things were so codified then that of course you would take an apartment just for an affair. Or, build a secret room for it. Or both.
For myself, I thought of the novel as something of a Merlin’s castle — -the magical castle where for those inside, each window or door opens out on another view. And now you know what a fantasy nerd I am. But that was the idea — a vast place that opened up onto many places. That was my idea of Lilliet’s mind.
You write in the acknowledgments that The Queen of the Night — a nearly six-hundred-page semi-historical novel — was inspired by a conversation you had with the late David Rakoff. The first time I met you was actually in a room where Rakoff, among other writers, was speaking, so the idea that we later became friends (full disclosure!), leading to this conversation just feels like another coincidence in the context of a novel full of coincidences. The Queen of the Night is a sprawling novel and so in ways it’s difficult to summarize, but its coincidences also allow it to come full circle in a way that’s actually formally very exact and precise. I guess I have no good way of ending this interview, so I’ll just ask: was the novel hard to conclude? How did you manage to give Lilliet an ending without necessarily foreclosing her fate?
The coincidences are engines of the uncanny. I was trying to write about that feeling we get when they happen — the feeling of a message, a “this is meant to be” feeling. She’s following their call or running from them — the story is about someone who is vulnerable to them, you could even say, even when she defied what she thinks they mean. But it was hard for me to trust this in the doing of it and the structure in the end was something I had thought of and rejected as too corny. But that was actually the point — what was it like to have something as corny as an opera plot take over your existence?
I worked with fate as I worked with history — working to discover what could be amid what was “decreed” or set down as the record. Fate and history have a similar feeling. They are weird mirrors to each other. That was why I liked working with them. It was incredibly hard to bring to an end. That I somehow saw her to her freedom, well, that feels like the result of a kiln process — something emerging from a fire you can’t watch and you hope for what it could be. And then you pull it out and it’s better than what you hoped. That was at least how it felt to me.