The L Mag Questionnaire for Writer Types: Alexander Chee

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10/05/2011 3:54 PM |


Alexander Chee teaches at the Columbia MFA program and is the author of the novels The Queen of Night and Edinburgh. He’s at the Franklin Park series on Monday, along with Blake Butler and others.

For our readers who may not be familiar with your work, what’s the most accurate thing someone else has said about it?
So far no one has said of my work “I can tell you got rid of a lot of commas,” which would feel completely accurate.

People use the world “lyrical” a lot, which I understand and accept, but I don’t like the word. I think it’s like the word “erotic,” and has come to mean something sadder and lesser than what it meant to mean. Fans write to tell me they read my first novel in two days and couldn’t stop and had to read it again or didn’t want it to end, and I think “That is exactly what I wanted to happen.” But not “yes, that is exactly my book” or “you get me!” I don’t have those reactions to reading that but it does feel good.

One favorite comment: “I appreciate how everyone has a job and it affects how they can do things and what they can do or where they live, just like in the world. I’m so tired of reading about characters who don’t seem bound by their economics.” Of course, everyone does not have a job these days, so there’s that. But I understood what he meant. I’d worked really hard to make my characters like people from the world, and he’d noticed.

What have you read/watched/listened to/looked at/ate recently that will permanently change our readers’ lives for the better?
Anders Nilsen’s Big Questions will surely heal us all. Also his blog The Monologuist. Lust, Caution was one of the most incredible movies I’ve seen in years. I loved it for being a story about a woman who discovers herself while impersonating someone she invented. And she decides to be true to that person instead of the one she began as by the film’s end.

I’ll close with three great novels I read this year: Ngugi Wa Thiongo’s Wizard of the Crow, Tayari Jones’s Silver Sparrow, and Chris Adrian’s The Great Night.

Whose ghostwritten celebrity tell-all (or novel) would you sprint to the store to buy (along with a copy of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius so that the checkout clerk doesn’t look at you screwy)?
Probably one that I had written, after I hit rock bottom and am so desperate to survive the rigged death machine economy of the United States that I do that, and then because it’s me, I’d go buy it and check it for mistakes. And complain.

But I think most of the celebrities I love would write a great book. That’s obviously a projection but Tina Fey’s book made me think it was true. Kristen Wiig, if you ever want a ghost writer, come check me out. We will just sit around and make up a life for you.

Also, it wouldn’t be Marcus Aurelius. Booksellers would know something was up. I’d probably hide a copy of something like Butt under it, so they think that’s what I’m hiding.

To keep this from happening, look for my new novel, The Queen of the Night, next year from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and please buy it when you see it.

Have you ever been a Starving Artist, and did it make you brilliant, or just hungry?
I have been. I even remember spending the last money I had back in 1994 to take a subway home one night after a night out, and being hungry on the platform. I looked down and saw a little baby rat eating a pizza crust and I thought “You, a baby rat, right now, are luckier than me.”

And then had to wait 20 minutes watching it eat for the train to come.

I don’t think it made me brilliant. It may even be why I like food so much now. But I do think it made me really appreciate the whole getting paid for writing thing, and the job thing, all of that stuff. It’s why when people try to get me to write for free to “get my name out there,” I just think of that baby rat, and then I go to and check their site’s rank to see if they actually do get any traffic.

What would you characterize as an ideal interaction with a reader?
I think of the kid I was when I was in the library, hating the racists and homophobes around me growing up in Maine and finding these amazing books that were like maps saying This is the way out. I hope for my work to be there for someone like that.

Side note: Maine is a much better place now.

Have you ever written anything that you’d like to take back?
Absolutely. But the thing about that is, sometimes that’s your best work. You’re just not ready to be the guy who did that. And so you’re often better off letting it be. Having said that, few things show you your mistakes like seeing it in print that you can’t change.

Yes. Irony.

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