The first time we see Lilliet Berne, the soprano-cum-circus performer-cum-empress’s maid protagonist of Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night, she is in a palace wearing an elaborate dress: a Worth creation of pink taffeta she’d thought was beautiful when she tried it on at home, but which she now finds hideous in the different light of the grand party she’s attending. She knows that a dress can change a woman’s fate, and after an encounter with a stranger who brings her alarming news, she begins to fear that it might. As she strolls through the garden, fretting, she comes upon two dukes known for having a particular fetish for destroying women’s gowns. So she has them—right there in the garden—cut off her dress at the skirt until what is left is an entirely new creation: the formal gown turned in to a ballerina’s tutu.
Lilliet Berne, it turns out, is adept at these sudden reversals and transformations—she wears and discards identities, turning them into the costumes she needs to change her fate until they become, like the pink taffeta dress, the thing she needs to escape. Even her voice, an instrument of dazzling power, is simultaneously so fragile that a single note sung wrong could destroy it. Epic in scope, The Queen of the Night is a true high wire act that somehow still rings with the same desperate intimacy of Chee’s first novel, Edinburgh. It is an exhilarating journey, in no small part because of its rarity and reach: the story of a woman living a life much larger than the one the world allows her, ducking and weaving through everyone and everything that tries to possess her, toward greatness, and a shot at freedom.
I met with Alexander Chee one afternoon in a crowded Korean restaurant where we ate food served to us on sizzling hot plates, and then ambled over to my office to chat about The Queen of The Night. He shared his thoughts on writing about historical figures and extraordinary women, and on risk-taking and breaking free from expectations. We also talked about singing, curses, and transformations, as well as my dream of a fashion spread inspired by the ecstatically described clothes from The Queen of the Night.
Tomorrow, Thursday, March 3, come hear Alexander Chee read from The Queen of the Night at AAWW alongside memoirist Paula Lee, novelist Ann Mah, and chef Bo Kyung O’Connor and stay for a conversation about the Korean and East Asian love affair with all things French.
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Catherine Chung: I was reading your interview from 2008 with Ursula LeGuin where you asked her about a comment she’d made about having to learn how to write as a woman. You said that described “an amazing gap between what one is and what one must be to live.”
Alexander Chee: Right.
So I want to ask what your own experience was like of crossing that gap, of learning to write as a woman, as Lilliet Berne, in your novel The Queen of the Night. It seems to me that that gap is one of the things that this book is about.
That is what this book is about, I think. The way that it started was that she just started speaking in my head. It was like a dictation from a ghost, even though she’s a woman who never lived.
It sounds like you were possessed.
I was. My editor called it “The Mermaid’s Kiss”—speaking specifically of the myth of the mermaid that lures the sailor to the bottom of the sea where he dies. –laughs–
No wonder you were afraid of curses and of stories coming true!
–laughs– True enough. I have always read women, always listened to them, always had them in my life as friends and intimates. My mother and sister both confide in me. And my mom in particular was a storyteller, too. So there was a way in which I really didn’t have too much fear about getting their voices right. I think I was more concerned with getting the patterns of thought right, like purely in the writing. Not so much about anything essential to gender, but more in terms of the roles that women back then were required to play socially and how that affected what they could and could not speak directly to, and then how that affected the rest of their observations and their thinking.
But also, my editors were women. And my agent is also. So really, a number of women presided over this.
One of the things that I loved most was that sense of confinement or restriction which I felt was always at play, not only in terms of what’s possible for Lilliet, but also in terms of what’s possible for all the other women in this novel. The scope of her ambition is greater than what she’s allowed. And I was especially interested in this terror that I think comes from that tension between what she’s allowed and what she wants. You write, “She had never thought that she could be this person and the world not fall apart around her.” I found it so poignant, her fear that being herself could destroy the whole world.
Thanks. That’s something that’s very much a part of the book and it comes out of the commonality that I encountered between the experience of a woman who simply wanted to be treated as a human being and my own experience as a biracial kid who just wanted to be treated as a human being. I have a joke about Jean Rhys novels, which is that every Jean Rhys novel is about a woman expecting to be treated as a human and then instead is treated as a woman.
–laughs– That’s a terrible joke.
–laughs– I know it’s terrible. But only because so much depends on her not being treated as a human. A culture organized, even braced—economically, morally—around denying the humanity of women.
I feel like, in your book, she doesn’t expect to be treated as a human.
Yes. And she’s teaching herself to expect it without quite knowing that is what she is doing.
In the novel, there were so many times that I felt Lilliet was more free than she knew, or at least that there was a possibility of freedom that she didn’t even know she could take. Was this true? Or was the possibility of freedom always an illusion?
When she escapes and decides to return to Paris, it is a horrible moment. She believes she can do it. It was very important to me to have her believing things and the reader also believing them, maybe not as much, but believing them, and then have her knocking into the truth. Like, once she escaped from Compiègne, she probably would have been better off if she had gone to the cirque. She’s come all this way from America to Europe and she wants to make a life for herself and she has these fears about what that’ll mean. She has an idea of Paris as this vast place into which she can disappear and I think most cities are smaller than we think they are.
Many of the comparisons that have been made between The Queen of the Night and your first novel, Edinburgh, have to do with scale. Edinburgh is such an intimate, insular portrait and Queen is so enormous and sweeping—it covers so much history, and multiple continents and empires and governments and famous historical figures. I wondered what that move was like, to go from this small intimate scale to this epic or operatic scale.
It was very frightening. My first impulse was to simply do it, and my second impulse was to question my first impulse.
Why do you think you questioned it?
I don’t know, I think it was a feeling I had, a sort of “Who do you think you are to do this” kind of thing. I was having a conversation with Heidi Julavits, who grew up near me in Maine, about this way that you are brought up in Maine, where people are like “Who the fuck do you think you are to try to do this”—this kind of really scalding, intense, debasing regard. “Why would you dare to do something?”
Oh, but it’s so exhilarating to read someone dare such things! It’s like a high-wire act, and I couldn’t help but think here you were pulling off this amazing feat writing about a heroine who is likewise pulling off these breathtaking, impossible acts, like learning to breathe fire. Did you find her to be an inspiration? I mean, maybe this is why she had to possess you and take you down this road.
That’s a fascinating idea. For a long time there was a quote that I used as an epigraph in the novel that kept me focused on the spirit of this kind of woman. It’s from The Goncourt Journals. They were an important part of this book. I read them and used a lot of the gossip in them in the novel so that it felt sincere. It’s somewhere in my drafts. –pauses to search drafts–
“24 February, 1868
Exactly twenty years ago today, about one o’clock, from the balcony of the flat where we lived in the Rue des Capucines, I saw the ironmonger across the street run up a ladder and, with hurried hammer strokes, knock down the words to the King which followed the word Ironmonger on the sign over his shop. After that we went to the Tuileries Gardens and saw a roebuck’s head which had been cut off, lying on the ground, and an equestrienne from the Hippodrome caracoling on her horse. The statue of Spartacus had a red bonnet on its head and a bunch of flowers in its hand. The palace clock had been stopped, and on the great balcony one of the victorious revolutionaries, wearing Louis-Phillippe’s dressing-gown and looking like a Daumier caricature, was mimicking the King’s pet phrase: ‘It is always with renewed pleasure. . . .’
Nowadays when I go along the Rue des Capucines, I see the words to the Emperor on the ironmonger’s sign, where it once read to the King.
—from The Goncourt Journals“
So, this idea, of the Hippodrome equestrienne at the Tuileries, just sort riding around the gardens while this roebuck’s head is lying there and all of this chaos is happening—it’s a very simple image. She almost seems innocuous. But then you remember she isn’t where she’s supposed to be—the Hippodrome—but instead, somewhere on the palace grounds, on a horse. And did she cut the head off the roebuck? In my mind, she had. But it’s not clear.
She was so interesting to me but she just gets that one flash, that one flicker of not quite a scene in a paragraph. This was an example of when I wanted to say to the writer, “Can we go over there, over by her?”
There were these incredible women back then who had these incredible lives as, variously, Hippodrome writers and novelists and courtesans—lives full of reinventions. So it’s interesting to me how so much of the literature in the period minimizes these women in character, in style. For example, George Sand, who was probably writing more than any of the men around her at that time, is almost entirely ignored by the contemporary literary establishment.
She’s one of my literary heroes! I grew up admiring the idea of her, and how all the way back then she dressed like a man and did and wrote whatever she wanted.
Yeah. She was the first woman to sue for divorce in France and she did it all to become a writer. Her work was so popular in Russia that they called it “George Sandism,” but they sort of Russianized it into a single word with z’s, like “Georgezandizm,” and she was hugely influential on writers like Dostoyevsky who was considered one of the early Russian realists who went on to change Western literature with their books.
We all read those men, we don’t read her. She’s become a caricature—the woman in the pants with the saber. Everyone knows that, no one knows the books. She’s become a jester of the freedom that her work represented. Well before Knausgaard, she published a 1,200-page autobiography called Story of My Life. But she’s been reduced to a gesture just a little larger than that Hippodrome equestrienne on the Tuileries grounds.
I was trying to communicate with the spirit of those women that I knew existed who were a part of the historical record. The culture had sort of turned the lights down on everyone except for the men and I was like, “Well, isn’t that interesting, that what these women were fighting for then is still something they have to fight for now, simply to be seen.”
And the fight isn’t even visible for them now.
Right. I did research for something I wanted to write, about whether George Sand had been censored. I had found a few allusions to it—to a posthumous censoring of her work. She had often been censored during her life for obvious reasons, but was there a gigantic censorship of her after her death? I couldn’t find the proof I needed from sources, and it seems apocryphal, but it was a very interesting conversation to have with people: why does no one read her anymore? Some people acted as if it was because she was just terrible, or as if none of her work had any particular long-lasting literary merit. But that’s just not true.
I love her journals perhaps the most. They are hilarious and they have dialogue between her and herself and made-up characters that she uses to interrogate herself. They’re very funny and I may like them the best of all.
So she’s a character in your novel as are Pauline Viardot and Ivan Turgenev and the Empress Eugenie. What was the thought process behind including them as real characters?
Pauline and George Sand’s friendship was very interesting to me and became an important part of the novel as a result of a particular way that they were urging each other on to become a new kind of woman. I mean, each of them were the centers of their households artistically, each of them had their lovers who more or less did what they said. It seemed really important that Lilliet find them.
As for Turgenev, his love for Pauline was so fascinating to me. For him, this led to a hilarious kind of scandal: the Russian people were horrified that he was living in this foreign country with this woman, Pauline, and they essentially saw her as this enslaving harlot who had captured their great Russian writer. So on the one-hand when Pauline was in Paris she was treated as too ugly to be a singer and on the other hand as if she were an enslaving sex maniac, a bewitching creature. And that’s when I thought, as a woman you are whatever they need you to be even when you don’t want to be—they just rearrange the elements of the world to make you fit the narrative that they insist is happening. Like, no one thought for a minute that Turgenev had chosen this life even though he relentlessly chose it again and again and again. He followed Pauline and George everywhere. He built that house next to theirs in Germany. And then he lived in their apartment upstairs in Paris, and he’s also with them in London during the Franco-Prussian war. He was fully participating in his “enslavement.” Turgenev was very moved by Pauline and in his letters you see him write to friends and he says things like, “Why are all of Tolstoy’s women cows and harlots?” He criticizes the way Tolstoy treats women in his novels. There’s a way in which we’re told constantly that this kind of feminism didn’t exist, but if you look at these letters, they were thinking about this all of the time—it was very important to Turgenev and I think it came in no small part from his love of Pauline.
Pauline Viardot and Ivan Turgenev were so wonderfully rendered. There’s this warmth between them that spilled into everything. At one point Lilliet says that until she met Pauline, she had thought that no such woman as herself existed, and that she would have to be the first one. Reading that, I felt this immense relief because it mattered to me that Viardot and Turgenev were real-life people, an example of people who did things their own way and made it work. It also reminded me of something you have said before about being the first kind of writer that you were when you wrote Edinburgh, you were the first gay Korean American writer.
There’s now one more.
That’s what’s so sad to me right now about the death of Justin Chin, who died of a heart attack in December, because when I met him we were both like, “Hey! There’s another one!” We just meant “Asian gay male writers.” And now he’s gone. And that is a huge loss to me.
As you know, Korean culture is extremely homophobic and concerned with money, especially the immigrant culture in the US. I see it all the time with my students. They fear pursuing the arts within the context of an education that is so expensive to their parents. They see it as a kind of betrayal to their parents and so it’s a huge gift for you and I to be able to say that we have parents who didn’t forbid us from pursuing the arts.
But yes, I remember going to the MLA convention and hearing that I was the first—the first Korean American gay author—and it felt as if, suddenly, I was transformed into the first fish to ever walk out of the sea. –laughs–
In writing about Pauline Viardot or Lilliet Berne I wondered if you were actively trying to write about these other firsts of their kind, you know, these extraordinary people.
I was. And I got so lost in the story of Pauline and Turgenev and Lilliet and I loved it so much that I wanted to live there. It would have been so amazing to have incredible people like them hanging out and performing. For me there was a level of pure pleasure, there was no allegorical what have you, I mean, I can guess as to certain psychological reasons why things were compelling to me at the end. But at the time, like when I found out Turgenev was encouraging Pauline to compose because she was losing her voice and he believed in her musical talents, I just thought that was the most beautiful story to be told.
Especially when so many of the other stories are about women who lose their power when they lose the one thing that is beautiful about them. For Turgenev to say, “No, there’s this other part of yourself that you can develop. You still have value as a whole person.” It’s amazing. When I was reading about Viardot and Turgenev I thought, “Oh, this is so powerful, this happiness, what a relief!” It seemed like the counter story to the one about the curse. Have you ever thought that your stories might come true?
It’s funny, while I was working on this book I had an idea for another novel, about the colonization of Mars. I wrote some notes about it, and as I set it aside I started to find news items about people setting up the project, like the kind that I had imagined, the Mars 1 project. –laughs–
Was that weird?
It was weird! I feel like it’s a way of acknowledging that so much of what we do is about the implications of the things that already exist, following them to their natural conclusions. It’s that third thing we imagine somewhere between the two things that are real. And in a sense, it’s not like it comes true—it’s more like we understand the situation quite clearly.
For Lilliet, these predictions exact a terrible cost from her. Do you think it is a powerful thing to be able to predict the future? Or is it a terrible thing?
I don’t know if it’s terrible. Part of the inspiration for the novel is finding both Joan Didion and Oscar Wilde quotes that said something to the effect of, “The fiction that you write does come true.” And it seems like such an interesting thing for two writers so different in time to believe that. What was funny to me was to come up with this curse for singers and then to hear singers say to me, “Oh, yeah, that happens.”
I tell my students that fiction writing is about taking the indications of what you invented, but it’s also about taking the implications of what already exists. About bringing to life the thing that you see that nobody else can see. I try to lead my students in that direction when they’re looking for original material. What is no one describing that you can see? And I suppose that’s where things can get strange.
And dangerous, right?
Sometimes. You know, there’s reasons people keep secrets, right? They don’t want you to know things. I think it’s more dangerous to tell secrets for journalists than for fiction writers, though.
Well, there’s a guy, Gérard de Villiers, I think he’s French, he’s an ex-intelligence officer and he writes these spy mysteries and a lot of the things he describes come true. People ask him, “Where did you get this information from?” and he’ll never tell them, but it’s widely assumed that he has access to all this intel and uses it to write his novels. So far, no one’s stopping him, nobody’s killed him, but the question is, is there a way to tell the truth and it won’t matter? And is there a way to tell the truth and it will?
So I have a dream for the publicity around your book. I would like a high fashion magazine to do a photoshoot of you dressed in a general’s coat.
With a bear mask?
Yes, with the bear mask under your arm surrounded by models dressed in all the totally drool-worthy dresses described in your book.
–laughs– I feel like that’s perfectly acceptable. I accept that wish and put that out there.
You would be willing?
Oh yeah. What I really want, of course, is for The Queen of the Night to be the next theme for the Met Gala. That would be incredible.
Yes, please. That would be magnificent. Is anyone interested in making The Queen of the Night into an opera?
Actually, yes, there’s a composer who just reached out, so we’ll see. My agent thinks it would actually be better as a Phantom of the Opera-esque sound musical with musical numbers and maybe some opera in it, but we’ll see.
Is it right that your introduction to opera was through your father?
Sort of, yes, in the sense that I grew up with it. He would run around the house singing Ataviada.
Do you sing opera?
No, no. I only started singing karaoke in the last decade.
You’re embracing your Korean roots.
Yeah, totally. But I really did not have any interest in my male singing voice.
And yet both of your books have singers in them.
I think for me writing is the closest I come to the memory of what it was when I sang.
It’s as if I would disappear when I sang and I’d feel like the person I was would be replaced by this presence that had all this force and beauty and range. This sort of awkward kid that I was was replaced by all this energy.
You’ve said that when you started writing this book you were trying to get as far away from yourself as you could. How did that go? What was that like?
I think I realized that I can’t get that far away from myself. There’s a thing in alcoholism called “pulling a geographical,” when you just get up and move to another place and hope that solves all your problems.
I’ve heard that can sometimes work.
Every once in a while it works out okay. When I moved to college I joined the crew team and lost 60 pounds and I went back to my hometown and no one recognized me and I thought, “Oh I could just never come back and no one would know.” It was so exhilarating. At first I wanted to get a reaction from people, like, “Oh my God, you’ve lost so much weight,” and then I realized “I don’t give a shit about these people at all. These people used to criticize me as the fat kid.”
You and I met because of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and Guernica magazine. You also run the “Dear Readers” series for Ace Hotel, you started this Amtrak residency about a year or two ago, and are involved in so many other things I’m not mentioning here. I’ve run into other writers who’ve told me how you opened doors for them. I feel like there’s a city of people taught by Alexander Chee all running around.
I definitely refer to the Alexander Chee Talent Family, which is made of the former students I have. I suppose it starts with the teaching, and of the things you do while you’re teaching the thing I prefer the most is the mentoring part. But in terms of what I get out of it, I guess most of the time I’m just trying to have fun. It’s been totally fun, the work has been incredibly moving, the Amtrak residency is something I’m really proud of.
Is this stuff something you think about doing or does it just kind of fall in your lap?
I think for me, that’s very simple. If you meet someone and you like their work, why wouldn’t you read more of it? I know a lot of people who don’t want to share contacts because there are certain asks that are major “asks” that you wouldn’t want to give away to someone you don’t know very well. But in a general way, in terms of connecting people, like telling so-and-so that so-and-so might like their work, that doesn’t strike me as an “ask.” That’s like a “Hey, what’s up”. That’s what I feel is normal that a lot of people don’t do.
You also give the best advice.
Thank you. But you know, I think since I’m a first born, being a big brother is kind of a normal thing to me, so I have to watch out for that. Not everyone wants advice, you know? So you have to watch for what you’re assuming is true between you and the other person. But in general, I just see it as a way of existing, I don’t really think about it. But the extent that it actually helps people, I’m incredibly pleased.
I know that you’re working on an essay collection and I wondered if you could tell us anything about it.
I think it’s going to focus primarily on the essays that I’ve written describing the period from 1989 through 2001, so it’s going to span about 12 years.
Where were you then?
The end of college, San Francisco, New York City, Iowa, and then New York again. Primarily New York. Probably mostly, there’s a narrative to them, it’s not an overarching narrative and so it collects essays that I’ve written about everything from the Buckleys to tarot card reading to gay marriage.
In the novel, Lilliet says she wants to smash the cage she had built for herself. And I wondered about the idea of cages that are built for us as opposed to the cages we build for ourselves, and how they’re so linked. How one of the things that can smash those cages is art. Was there anything you were trying to smash while you were writing this book?
I remember being frustrated with the idea that I would only have to write Korean American characters or gay characters but I couldn’t just write whatever the fuck I wanted to write about and in some ways doing this was kind of like a manifesto, you know, there’s nothing wrong with only writing Korean American characters, but, I don’t live like that. I live in a storm of other people. And restricting my ideas to that one piece doesn’t strike me as fiction writing at all. I got an email from Lynn Sharon Shwartz asking, “Why do your interviews always ask about the autobiographical question?” and I tole her, “I feel like it’s because there’s an implicit lack of belief that we can do what we do and so when we do do it, people treat it like we’re sorcerers, like we might be frauds, like we’re crazy.”
Right. And it makes sense then, that as you were doing it you wondered, “who the fuck am I to write a story like this?” But that was part of the joy of reading the book for me. And also that who you chose to write about was a woman who’s also reaching for a story or life larger than one she’d typically be allowed.
Thank you, yeah a reviewer over at Book Riot said it read to her like The Count of Monte Cristo which I thought was really awesome. I think so many novels of that time are about the one thing that happened to this particular woman, like her whole life. But there’s so many other women who also lived much bigger lives than that.
The book definitely captures that scope, and the breathtaking imagination and sort of nerve that’s necessary to live or tell a story like that.
–laughs– Okay. Thank you. I’ll take that.
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