I came to know Alexander Chee through the Internet, reading his essays (one on Chloë Sevigny in Catapult, another on MFA programs in BuzzFeed), laughing at his Twitter jokes, watching with wonder the social media magic wrought by a interview quote of his gone viral. “I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers,” he told PEN America. And voila, Amtrak announced a residency program. I learned, through this and that bio, of his critically acclaimed first novel, published in 2002. I learned too about his second, the roughly decade-in-the-making The Queen of the Night. The novel, which comes out this month, follows a young woman as she journeys across oceans, professions, social classes, worlds. Born on the American frontier, Lilliet Berne (that is just one of her names), eventually becomes the greatest opera singer of her time, the Third Republic’s beloved La Générale. I spoke to Chee while he was en route to Vermont—where he is a faculty member at Bennington College’s low-residency MFA program—about the book and the work of writing it.
You’ve spoken openly about your decade-long journey bringing this book to publication. Can you tell me a little bit about that work?
When I began writing this, I didn’t entirely understand the challenges of writing historical fiction. I knew that there would need to be research, there would need to be a kind of attention paid to all of these details, but I don’t think I understood that it was going to be as intense as it turned out to be. It was an education in scale, really. I was challenging myself to do something very far away from my life experiences. Most of us also imagine that the lives of people in another time maybe aren’t so different from ours, and in fact they often are quite different. I had to learn what those constraints were, as to what my narrator’s intuitions would be, her ways of imagining, how she would describe things, the metaphors that she would use. I had to take these questions quite seriously in order to do this. Part of the challenge was also, you know, I was teaching a great deal. To teach seriously, it takes a great deal of time. I was also writing other things. At the time I was doing it, I thought of myself as someone who was focused on writing the novel, but when I looked back I saw I had written so many other pieces. I also just didn’t know where I was going with it all, and that’s a difficult place to write from. But that was also part of the challenge I set for myself.
You’ve talked a little bit about the initial inspiration for this book—Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale—but you also admit your own creation, Lilliet Berne, ended up being quite different. How did you find Lilliet?
The earliest parts of writing the novel felt like I was trying to cast a spell on myself, collecting old photographs, collecting librettos, listening to music, trying to feel my way through the ideas I had. It’s very funny when the actual writing began, it was as if she herself just appeared in my life. I woke up to a sentence in my head that is still in the novel. “When the earth opens up under your feet, drop down, be like a seed.” The fortune teller scene at the end of the book, that turned out to be the first scene I wrote. I remember thinking: “Oh, we’re starting. This is the beginning.” I proceeded to keep following those sentences. I wrote seven or eight pages really quickly that day in that state, and about 30-35 pages just hashing around after that. Then I took a pause and asked myself, “What are you doing, where could this possibly go?” There was this feeling of the novel not quite coming from my own ideas or my own experience, as I would with a poem. With poems I write, a line will come and another line will come. It will feel more like a download in the initial drafting of a poem. This kind of came that way. After that, I created her out of questions I would ask that voice. Where were you born? I sort of imagined her at the beginning. The last pages at the novel were some of the first pages I wrote. So it’s a retrospective novel. I asked this character, “Who educated you? How did you learn to be a singer?” And the answers gradually would come. But I would often have to do a great deal of research and reading to figure that out.
What kind of a person is Lilliet?
One of the things I admire about her most is that she has this ferocious desire to live. She doesn’t often fight directly; it’s more of a quicksilver feeling. She’s very able to read context, her environment. She makes choices about who she will be based on where she is. She has a basic lack of faith that what she wants is possible, or that people will provide what she needs. It’s a kind of mix of that will to survive and the will to be herself, as well as the willingness to camouflage herself entirely in order to accomplish her ends. I read a lot of Jean Rhys, and in Voyage in the Dark, there’s a moment where the main character is reading Nana, and her friends says “I know; it’s about a tart. I think it’s disgusting.” Nana is a classic novel—I love it. What I was struck by was the way in which every Jean Rhys novel is about a woman who expects to be treated as a person and is treated as a woman instead, and who has to survive that. It affected the way I understood Lilliet.
What drew you to Paris?
I didn’t know for a long time. That’s part of what blocked me. I had an unwillingness to even put faith into my own inspiration. “Why are you doing this? This is crazy. You don’t need this. You don’t need a historical novel. You have plenty to write about in the modern age. You don’t need to go to another era’s problems.” It turns out that 19th century Paris was a lot like contemporary America. This incredible wealth was coming out of real estate junk bonds because of the way Napoleon III and Haussmann were remaking Paris. Lots of people were making money on real estate speculation surrounding where Haussmann would or would not be tearing things down and building things up. The more I looked at this, the more I saw the sources of the things that we accept pretty easily now. When Lilliet goes to see Cora Pearl at the opera and she appears in that nude body suit covered in pearls. I think Cora Pearl is the first blonde performer to show up in a nude body suit covered in pearls. Whatever pop star goes up that way—Madonna, Lady Gaga—we don’t think anything of it. That kind of stuff became fascinating to deal with once I was hooked in that way.
I did also want it to be something of a swashbuckling adventure novel. One blogger compared it Alexandre Dumas. That was the kind of feeling I wanted.
Lilliet finds herself moving through literal corridors of power (okay, palace hallways) in the novel. How does power operate in this story? Who do you think are its most powerful characters?
It’s definitely a meditation on power, whether the power is sexual power or cultural power or financial power. The Comtesse certainly was a greater player than anyone every guessed. Writing about her was one of my favorite parts of the novel, learning about her life, figuring out that she had these projects hidden under this decorous exterior, this intense political power that she wielded from behind that. Even still she lived within incredibly specific limits. The power of her beauty was such that she, she really lost when it began to leave her. Pauline I think of as the most powerful though–she stands out in the novel as the city on the hill for Lilliet. Lilliet has a fantasy of perhaps being her someday. To me in some ways perhaps the most poignant part of the novel was having Lilliet realize that as much as she could try to emulate Pauline in various ways, that without having all of the talents Pauline had, she would have to find some other way to have what she wanted. The challenge of a singer trying to find a career again after they lose their voice–it’s as old as song.”
Sex is an extremely important theme in this book. How it’s used as a tool, or a means of expression. What did you think about when you were writing about Lilliet’s relationship to sex?
It is both central in some ways and also in the same way not really the topic. I remember I was having a conversation with a friend of mine about transactional sex. After it happens, she said, you know it won’t kill you. It’s actually one of the most sexually powerful moments. Which is to say, the message, especially to women, is that this kind of sex will destroy you. But in learning that it wouldn’t, it actually made her feel incredibly powerful. For Lilliet, her eventual realization that she would have to relearn to take pleasure in sex, or learn for the first time to take pleasure in sex, was an important part of the character. We tend to think of sex as being a bit of a monolith when it’s an incredibly varied and textured landscape with lots of different experiences happening inside of it. Figuring out those distinctions was part of what I was trying to do with this book—thinking through some of these things that we don’t really talk about. It’s traditional to assume that transactional sex is bad, and that we, in a sad way, have to learn to feel we have a right to sex for pleasure. Definitely in America.
Lilliet is ultimately an artist. What about opera is so important to her?
I think of those first scenes of her singing for pleasure as a child, feeling proud of her voice, wanting people to hear it. It always comes back to that. The voice is a little bit of a metaphor for sexuality, sure, but it is also very plainly itself: the power of the voice, the power of the talent. She quickly realized that it would be the one thing that could transform the landscape of her existence. And the best thing. Once she understood that it could vanish, that it could be lost, it becomes something she isn’t sure she can trust. Her voice is a gift. It’s not something that she will have forever, but for as long as she has it she intends to have the pleasure of it. ♦