A writer’s life: Alexander Chee examines his past in new collection of personal essays

  • Alexander Chee Submited photo

  • Alexander Chee’s “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel,” a collection of personal essays.

For the Gazette
Thursday, June 14, 2018

Alexander Chee is a man of many talents. While he’s best known today as an author and an associate professor at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, his résumé also includes reading tarot cards, teaching yoga, and catering parties for William F. Buckley. It wasn’t until Chee was in his mid-30s that he published his first novel, “Edinburgh,” in 2001. Its successor, the epic and operatic “The Queen of the Night,” took another 15 years to complete, but that in-between time was very productive, leading to a long list of published essays, short stories, poems and articles. Now 50, Chee has written his third book, a collection of personal essays called “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.” (For the record, Chee succinctly describes himself on Twitter as “Half Korean, all queer.”)  

Among other places, Chee’s own life has brought him from Maine to South Korea to the Pioneer Valley: He was a visiting writer at Amherst College from 2006 to 2010. He recently returned to the area for a reading at Amherst Books. Before the event, he talked to us about his new book, his soft spot for the Amherst writing community, and his advice to young writers.

Q: What are you excited about with this new book?

A: For one thing, it’s exciting to have a book out so quickly after the last one took 15 years. It almost feels ridiculously fast, actually, but these essays were also written at the same time that I was working on “The Queen of the Night,” so in a way it’s sort of like two books were growing side by side.

Q: What was your process like for putting the collection together? Were you doing a lot of new writing or did you already have all of them at your  disposal?

A: The essay that’s entirely new is the one called “Inheritance” about money and my father. Other than that, there are five other previously unpublished essays, but I wouldn’t call them exactly new — they were in various ways unfinished or sitting in a drawer for, in some cases, like 20 years. “Girl,” for example, which after it was published was included in “Best American Essays,” was something that was in a drawer — I literally had a dot matrix printout of it from when I was a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop when I had first written the draft. So, that was what I was typing off of when I revised it.

Q: Are there any essays that didn’t end up making it into the book?

 A: Oh, yeah. I was doing my tenure case around the same time that I was putting the collection together, and so I realized I had about 70 essays over the years. I could have another collection out very quickly if my ego wanted it. We’ll see. I mean this one has been ... I have been shocked at the audience reaction, in a pleased way. It makes me very happy to know that this work is finally being read and thought about and talked about.

Q: Do you have a favorite of the essays in the collection?

A: That’s a tough one. Probably the last one [“On Becoming an American Writer”]. It’s sort of a tribute to my late teacher James Alan McPherson, who taught at University of Iowa. He has an essay by the same title, which is where I took the title from. It’s a really powerful and smart essay about his relationship to the 14th Amendment. I treated it a little bit like a prompt, like what does that title mean to me.

Q: What is it that sticks out to you about that essay?

A: I feel like I was pursuing one of those things that you can only see out of the corner of your eye. And then I actually managed to pull it off, so I suppose that’s what I like. I feel a feeling of triumph for having finally finished it. In some ways, it’s an essay about the sin of despair, the sin of believing that things won’t ever change, and the ways that you act in the face of that, so it’s ironic to me to think about it in that way and to feel a victory over having finished it. That doesn’t really make it the best essay — that just makes it the one that I’m so satisfied with having finally finished. But if I had to say like what I think is the best one, it’s probably “The Autobiography of My Novel.” And my favorite one to read right now is “The Querent.”

Q: Were there any challenges that you encountered while putting this collection together that you didn’t encounter with your novels?

A: Oh, sure. Many. I initially thought that it would be so easy to put this together — like it was almost done, so how could there be anything left to do with it? And then once I got into the editing of it, I was really shocked at how much I wanted to do to it. I also realized that I had not really prepared for the way in which the essays were about some of the most difficult things that I had ever gone up against, and so there was a way in which the extent to which those essays were unfinished, they were unfinished because of certain emotional blocks or psychological blocks that I had to face down in order to finish the essays. So I was like, “Wow, you have really done yourself in.”

Q: What was it that attracted you to Amherst College, where you were a visiting writer?

A: It was a great job. Also there’s a wonderful community of writers there. At the time that I arrived, Daniel Hall was in charge of Creative Writing at Amherst College. He had really built up a warm and welcoming community of writers there.

Q: What did you do while you were in this role at Amherst College?

A: I was working on “The Queen of the Night” pretty intensely and writing some of these essays. I wrote the tarot essay actually — I wrote that there. Amherst College has incredible special collections, and then there’s also the library resources of the Five Colleges, so for the purpose of researching the novel, it was fantastic. Also, I had really terrific colleagues who had a lot of the same obsessions as me, so it felt like a huge gift to be able to do that work there.

Q: You told the Gazette’s arts editor over Twitter that “Amherst College’s creative writing program and community remains the standard against which I’ve judged all others since.” What about Amherst in particular really stuck with you? 

A: Too often I think that people are made to feel like maybe they don’t belong in this or that conversation, and that was really not something that I felt when I was in Amherst. You could be at a reception for a particular writer, and maybe you’d be standing next to a junior who had just started getting into fiction writing classes, and some hot new novelist who just happened to be in town that night, and somebody who had retired from teaching maybe like two years ago and was around for the dinner and hanging out — and they would all be talking together, and it would be a really great conversation. That kind of thing. It’s a certain quality of openness that’s hard to explain, but when you experience it, you experience all of these possibilities inside of it, and that’s the value of it.

Q: Do you have a favorite memory from while you were here?

A: I had a lot of nights at Amherst [Coffee] just kind of sitting there, having a drink, talking to the bartenders, talking to colleagues, friends … those were always really lovely nights. But a specific memory, there’s one in particular that I’d like to share. There was a professor, his name was William Pritchard. I’d just arrived to the campus, and it was summer, and I was walking across the lawn, and he has these little corgi dogs that he walks. We were chit-chatting about how quiet it was — it was summer and so of course the students weren’t around — and he said, “Do you miss them?” and I was like, “Oh, I wonder if I do,” and I was trying to think of the answer to the question, and before I could answer he was like, “I do.” And then he moved on. And it was just such a lovely little … it seemed like a very Amherst College sort of moment.

Q: So what’s next for you?

A: I am working on a couple of things. I’m working on a TV series idea. It’s a project that began on “The Scarlet Professor,” which is a biography written by Barry Werth, and it’s on the life of Newton Arvin, a professor at Smith College who was arrested on gay pornography charges in the 1960s, and it was a big scandal. So that, and then also working on a collection of interconnected short stories. We’ll see what happens, but that’s what’s next right now.

Q: What’s your advice to  young writers?

A: Let the story be the editor and not your ego.