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Reynald’s Rap: Lance Reynald chats with Alexander Chee

by Susan Henderson on January 20, 2007

…but I’m sick and tired of reading novels, I want something that startles me. Something far away yet deep inside, hard to reason with and hard to hide. One day all of this will surface”¦ – “Until We Get There,” Coho

Ya’ll still with me? Crazy habit I have of adding a soundtrack to just about everything I come across. Stick around though, those lyrics didn’t get stuck in my head as an indictment of craft; more a rally cry. You’ll see what I mean by the time we’re out of here.

I like my gig here at LitPark. Susan lets me drop in once a month to chat about books and such with writers I like. No real rules and great freedom to do whatever I want (such as opening a column with possibly incendiary lyrics). It’s a good gig. I’ve already managed to chat with a poignant memoirist (Decker), a dynamic acclaimed novelist (Vernon) and the writer of a brilliant debut novel (Westfield). All open, generous and patient with my not so typical interview style. After those three, I found myself totally blank on where to go next.

Then I got a nudge in the form of an e-mail from a darling friend. Links to a MySpace profile, a blog, a brief bio and two sentences”¦ “I keep hearing about him from authors I admire. He’s a writer’s writer.”

Good enough for me!

I had a month off from LitPark for the holidays and had somehow reached a stall in my own novel. A great time for a writer’s writer.

I started snooping. Made a new friend on MySpace. Added a new blog to my daily reading. After some fun correspondence with my new friend I picked up a copy of his book. (Just for the record, the cover blurb by Edmund White sealed the deal for me.)

The book moved me, as a writer and as a reader. Painfully beautiful; the best kind of storytelling. Writing that reminds you that you’re a writer. Reminds you how great it can feel to read.

I could go on and on with my praise about this book, but my feelings about it are most accurately summed up in a few lines from page ten of this amazing first novel:

What do you want of him, I ask myself. I tell myself, to walk inside him and never leave. For him to be the house of me.

The whole book gave me goosebumps with language like that. Those few lines were the literary equivalent of, “You had me at Hello” for me. I love when that happens. Don’t you?

…LitPark friends, let me introduce you to Alexander Chee, author of EDINBURGH and a writer’s writer.

Alexander, welcome to LitPark!

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LR: The characters in Edinburgh mature into their lives carrying secrets, heartache and the associate pain of those experiences. When touring the book did you find yourself meeting readers that felt a connection to the story; as though they had known or been your characters?

AC: I did.

I found there was a moment before the reading where someone would say, “Oh. So there’s this guy who”…and it would be someone who had some uncanny connection to the material. It happened so often that I soon stopped being scared of it, about what it meant. They were a pretty disparate bunch. There was a young gay white man from Texas who’d had an affair with an Asian American teacher of his, for example, a woman whose brother took his life after giving up on trying to get over incest – something she was also trying to survive. A straight Korean American man who’d grown up in Maine. A photocopy of a letter from a convicted pedophile telling someone that my book was the first thing that made him understand what he did was wrong. He described being completely silent for four days while he read the book.

With that last one I understood how there was something I’d wanted in writing and publishing the book that had been fulfilled, without knowing it was what I’d wanted.

EDINBURGH

LR: Your writing seems to express a great love for your characters. They face some troubling demons. In the writing of the story did you find it difficult not stepping in to protect them?

AC: Sort of. But I do feel you’ve grown up as a writer when you let your characters do things you yourself would never do. At one point I decided I didn’t want this one character to kill this other character, for example. It seemed like too much. So I decided I’d try something else. But then I couldn’t write more for almost four months. Finally I decided yes, he has to die. And I say ‘I decided’ but I mean, I agreed. I agreed with the story.

You don’t write to show off what a good person you are, how upright and perfect. You write to show the world something you understand about people and life. And that can take you into some weird places. You have to go there, though. You think you get to decide and that’s about half right.

LR: There are incredible emotions in the reading of Edinburgh, I’d imagine it was difficult to write on that level. Any tricks you used to get away from that intensity and relax while working with it?

AC: Jack Daniels and yoga.

Not at the same time, of course.

The thing is, the actual writing of that novel wasn’t so very protected, though it might read that way. Parts of it were written in Maine, parts of it written in the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, parts of it at The Writers Room in NYC. But much of it was written on the subway going back and forth between my apartment in Brooklyn and the steakhouse where I worked in Midtown Manhattan. I would bring a legal pad. The trip was about 45 minutes each way. Subways are like these moving libraries, loud and public and random. So, a lot of it was written with me surrounded by people, gears screeching, someone talking about God or their breakup or their job. I have a waiter foodcheck with a sketch of the novel’s structure that came to me in the half hour between when my shift that night started and when my station was first sat.

It’s sort of like how my mom remembers standing in front of the chair I’m reading in as a kid, talking to me and me not hearing her. It used to scare her. I get like that when I’m writing also. Peace and quiet are nice but not necessary for me for writing, exactly.

LR: The voice of your work reads pure and true. Was that something you found right away or did it come through as you built the story?

AC: Thanks. I found it very slowly. For a few years I didn’t know I was writing a novel. Every so often I’d write something in between more organized writing events and think, Hunh. What is that? And it kept happening. Eventually I took all the fragments that seemed related and put them together. I was moving at the time. I put them all in a binder and I said, Here you go, decide what you are and then tell me.

When I arrived in my new apartment, I took them out and read through them and could start to feel what was missing in the gaps. And so I started writing to that.

I discarded almost as many pages as there are there in the book. I threw out at least 195 pages and the book is 224. I just kept throwing out everything that didn’t tell the story, no matter how beautiful it was. If it doesn’t somehow tell the story that part of the novel goes dead, and you can’t have that. But I had to wait until I knew the story, and that was a long time coming.

LOSS WITHIN LOSS

LR: You’re teaching creative writing this term, any advice you give budding writers to help them find their true voice?

AC: There’s the voice of the story or novel, and then there’s intuition, the voice in you that speaks to you as you make the things people read. I feel like a lot of what I do in teaching writing is getting people to communicate with themselves, to learn to work intuitively and take chances on what they suspect to be true but don’t yet know to be true. One of the most important things I ever learned about epiphanies, the oft-maligned, is that they come out of your whole intelligence. You’re taking in information all the time, and you don’t know it. An epiphany is when all of that information from what you’ve heard, remembered, seen, felt, imagined, when it all connects into something that tears itself out of the undifferentiated dark of your mind.

Sometimes students come to my office to tell me what they think they might do with their story, and all I can say is, Sounds good. Go try. Praxis. There’s a powerful illusion-projection that the teacher secretly knows how it should be done and just isn’t telling you. It’s just not true. We don’t know what will happen until it’s been tried in front of us.

My advice to aspiring writers is to make their work to their own satisfaction. Listen to the voice that makes all the other voices. It’s the only thing that really protects you in the world, your connection to that. You do need to listen to critiques and so on, but in the end, it’s your name on it. And if you’ve made it as well as you can, and you feel like you’ve been true to your intuitions and your vision of the book, then you’re protected for when people love it or when they hate it. Which is to say, if they love it, you know enough to know your intuitions matter and you can make work that will risk their not loving it, for being true to you. Which, is the only way to make something anyone really loves.

And if they hate it, well, you can say, This is what I saw.

A FICTIONAL HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

LR: What do we get to see next from you?

AC: I’m finishing the second novel, The Queen of the Night, forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin in 2008. I can say there’s opera, that it’s set in large part in Paris in the late 19th Century, and that it’s about art, politics, rivalries and love. I’ve been fascinated by the ways in which the US resembles Second Empire France of late – George W. Bush basically is Louis Napoleon – but this wasn’t clear to me when I began the book in 2000. Back then I was just fascinated by the idea of an opera singer with a gift that was larger than her ability to choose to use it.

I still am.

For more details of what’s ahead, please check out my author blog.

LC: Alexander, thank you for joining us in the park!

I really should thank my darling friend for helping me find a new friend that has re-energized me as a writer.

Thank you, Susan!

Oh yeah, those lyrics up there”¦ you can hear the song here. It’s rough and moody, with some fast and loud bits; pretty much perfect. I dig the lyrics. You can find Coho on Myspace.

And thanks to everyone out there for making LitPark such a great place to play.

xo-LR

*

Bios:

Alexander Chee’s writing has appeared in Interview, Big, Out, and the anthologies Boys Like Us, Loss Within Loss, and Men on Men 2000. You can read his essay, “you write what you read” at Booksense.com. He is a winner of the James Michener/Copernicus Society Award, Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He is the recipient of the Whiting Award, an NEA Fellowship in fiction, a fellowship from the MacDowell Colony, an Asian American Writers Workshop Lit Award and currently is the Visiting Writer at Amherst College. Edinburgh is his first novel. MySpacers can make friends with him here.

When not locked in the pantry evading anxiety attacks and sacrificing large quantities of peanut butter cups and Stewart’s Root Beer to the most recent copy of Writer’s Market, Lance Reynald can be found doing what most un-agented writers do all day; practicing signing his name with a Sharpie on 5X7 cards in hope that creative visualization will pay off in a book deal. Once the Sharpie huffing wears off he settles in to finishing up a shopable draft of POP SALVATION, the story of a boy who wanted to be Andy Warhol. He also distracts himself plenty with his blog at Myspace.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Jim January 20, 2007 at 1:21 pm

Marvelous interview, Lance. I’ve been a fan of Alexander Chee since meeting him at Wesleyan Writers Conference last summer. He was as inspiring and articulate about the art and craft (and drudgery) of writing fiction then as he is interviewed today on LitPark.

And Alex’s blog plays in heavy rotation here on my computer. Which is to say, I’m there each morning, coffee mug warm in my hand.

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Susan Henderson January 20, 2007 at 1:52 pm

Lance and Alex – This interview endears me so much to both of you.

Jim – Hi!

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Myfanwy Collins January 20, 2007 at 1:57 pm

Great, moving interview. Thank you both. I love this bit very much: You don’t write to show off what a good person you are, how upright and perfect. You write to show the world something you understand about people and life.

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Juliet January 20, 2007 at 3:07 pm

An incredibly powerful interview, and book. I have to process my thoughts a bit before posting.

Shall return,
J

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Kaytie January 20, 2007 at 4:21 pm

I was going to pull the same quote that Ms. Collins pulled as particularly interesting.

I also appreciate the part about pulling out anything that doesn’t tell the story. That’s the kind of thing I understand in theory but is hard to do in practice, sometimes.

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Heather McElhatton January 22, 2007 at 4:14 am

Great interview. Chee is fabulous – and so was Lance and his questions…Obviously a writer interviewing a writer.

I mean, when I read, “In the writing of the story did you find it difficult not stepping in to protect them?” I had to go make myself a drink and stare out the window a while.

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Pamela Erens January 22, 2007 at 5:29 pm

I also really love this:

“…if you’ve made it [the book] as well as you can, and you feel like you’ve been true to your intuitions and your vision of the book, then you’re protected for when people love it or when they hate it. Which is to say, if they love it, you know enough to know your intuitions matter and you can make work that will risk their not loving it…. And if they hate it, well, you can say, This is what I saw.”

Great interview!

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Juliet January 23, 2007 at 3:34 pm

I’ve been thinking of this since Saturday. Wondering how to put into words the intensity of emotion evoked in not only the article, but in the book itself.

Coming back today to seven comments (including my original) made me think again at how very unable we are as a people to know what to speak in response to the baring of one’s soul.
We’re quite good at the congratulations.
Good, even at the condolence.

But watch someone uncloak the rawness of the deepest regions of humanity and pain, and suddenly even we, the wordsmiths, are mute.

It’s a rare gift—daring to touch what no one will speak of. Daring to write the words, the pain, the hope.

Thank you, Alexander, and Lance, for stepping into the words, and in that, to touching our hearts.
I, for one, am touched.

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Alexander Chee January 23, 2007 at 5:16 pm

Thanks, Juliet and thanks to the other commenters for the compliments and the comments. Thank you to Lance for asking me to do the interview—and for the excellent questions. And thanks to Susan, for your work here at Litpark. I’ll be checking in throughout the week if there’s any follow-up questions that people have.

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Pia January 24, 2007 at 12:41 am

This is a fine interview, Lance. You did good! What Alexander says about epiphanies coming out of your “whole intelligence” is brilliant. Exactly. They’re not about being right or hitting some nail on the head. That the writer has to “tear them out of the undifferentiated dark of your mind” (I could go to school on that idea) is what makes the good ones not-obvious, and why they complicate and deepen what we think we already know.

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Lance Reynald January 24, 2007 at 2:55 am

thanks to everyone for chipping in a few comments here.

and countless thanks to Alexander Chee for everything he brought to the chat.

and Juliet, everything you said up there is what keeps me reading. If a writer brings That, I’m hooked, otherwise….well, I find it somewhere…

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Susan Henderson January 26, 2007 at 11:49 am

This is one of those interviews that’s been crawling deeper and deeper inside since I first read it. The conversation is wise and full of heartaches and truths and poetry. Thanks again to both of you. And to Jim, Myf, Juliet, Kaytie, Heather, Pamela and Pia for where you’ve taken the conversation.

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sheryl monks May 8, 2007 at 7:06 am

Great interview, Lance. I love the kind of faith Chee shows when he talks about how the novel formed itself between other projects. “I put them all in a binder and I said, Here you go, decide what you are and then tell me.” When the writer trusts that way, the reader does, too. Fabulous. Thanks.

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Lois Sandusky May 20, 2007 at 4:36 am

Lance, thank you for getting me going on AC, whom I now greatly admire. You were right about him. I’m touting him now all over the place (in my tiny but dense circle of influence). You have brought me joy in a new author. Fine, enjoyable, to-the-point interview, too, btw.

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