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Expensive Gowns and Cheap Flights
Alexander Chee has created a novel worthy of high fashion and high praise
Book of the Month, Alexander Chee
A famous opera singer with a curse, French royalty embroiled in dramatic affairs, and extravagant and ornate gowns. After 15 years, last-minute flights to Paris, and endless hours researching France in the Second Empire and Belle Epoque Paris, Alexander Chee's 'Queen of the Night' has made its grand debut. We talked to Alexander over the phone on fashion, fiction, and more. Listen to the full interview or read on below.
It's been pretty well documented that it took you a while to complete this novel - can you tell us about that process, what the past 13 years has been like working on this novel?
Sure, I think that the drama of completing a novel, of writing a novel, is a sort of low-level thing for everyone except the writer. For the most part. There were some very exciting trips that I took to research the novel. I think probably one of most exciting was a last minute trip to Paris, to see the gowns of the Empress Eugenie, that were being displayed at the Fashion Museum of Paris, as well as out at Compiegne which is now a museum dedicated to the Empress Eugenie.
So I found a $215 round trip ticket on Air India and dashed off to Paris to take advantage of this opportunity because it wasn't the sort of show that was going to be around for a very long time and that was a wonderful and fantastic opportunity. I'm really always so pleased when I look back that I took advantage of it. A lot of the research was things like going into the special collections at the University of Rochester and discovering the autobiography of a British Governess who had worked in the Tuileries Palace during the Second Empire, taking care of the Duke and Duchess de Tascher and who just dished, a lot of dish, on the Empress [laughs]. Or the letters of the Soprano Lily [Multan], she was an American soprano living in Paris, married to a British lord, and who had the affection of the Emperor and Empress. They had seen her skating in the Bois de Boulogne and they were so impressed - they were trying to skate themselves, trying to learn to skate. They asked her if she would teach them, which I think is a completely adorable story [laughs]. So these kinds of things were also as thrilling to me but they didn't involve glamorous travel and looking at beautiful gowns in quite the same way.
I was going to ask you, about the focus on the costumes and the gowns, there's so much attention to detail there. I wanted to ask you - if the 'Queen of the Night' were to be turned into a movie, is there a designer who you would trust to bring those costumes to life?
There's a number of designers who would be fantastic to do it. But the one I hope is interested is Prabal Gurung. A friend of mine gave him and a member of his design team signed copies of the novel, and they invited me to his show in New York during Fashion Week. It was a thrill to be able to shake his hand and tell him I'm a fan. So I'm hoping the novel inspires him. Thinking in the biggest possible terms... [laughs] My fantasy would be if the novel was chosen as the theme for the Met Gala by Anna Wintour, that would be the supreme situation. Many designers working on the vision, as a grand ball, well, that would be incredible.
Maybe we'll plant the seeds here.
Our Guest Judge for March is Craig Ferguson and he chose a historical fiction book, 'The Moor's Account,' and so he talked a lot to us about historical fiction and this idea, is it really fiction though? We don't know? It could have happened, it was very well-researched. So you've talked about this before, is 'Queen of the Night' historical fiction?
Yes. Most definitely it is. But with a twist.
I loved 'The Moor's Account." That's my friend Laila Lalami's novel, it's fantastic. I would say she and I did different but similar projects. We both wove our stories into the existing history as a way to illuminate and argue with that history. I think in my case the big difference is that mine is also posing this question: what if someone who was alive at that time had this kind of extraordinary uncanny existence but in secret? It's a novel about an opera singer who believes she may be one of those people chosen by the gods to be made an example out of, in order to be known forever for her hubris--cursed to repeat the fates of the characters she performs, and so the plots of the operas that she is performing in are taking over her life. And that was really fun to play with, to try to take opera plots, which are so over-the-top, and to imagine, "What if that plot was your real life? What would that be like?" That was what I was trying to do.
Did you have those pre-plotted out the different roles that she would take - that she would be a circus performer, and in the opera, or how did those roles take their shape?
I did not have the story pre-plotted, not at all. Lilliet as she is at the end was the first vision I had of her: An opera singer traveling with the circus, on a train at night, sneaking off to hang out with the elephants in the elephant car, and full of secrets. She has just retired from performing in Europe and is beginning a new life in America, and isn't really explaining herself to anyone. From there I kept asking questions like, where did you come from? Where did you go to school? Where did you learn to be a singer? The questions led to answers and the answers led to this plot and to the twists and turns.
What intrigues you about singers and choirs, that's something you've written about before?
As a human experience, being touched by music, being able to touch other people through your music, through your voice in particular, there's really not anything like it. There's no analogous relationship. And that's what's so potent about it, to me. The way in which a song can instantly transform your mood, the way in which it can take you, transport you...those are incredible things to think about. And then also when you are singing, the way in which you are in a communion with something bigger than yourself, that is also something that comes from yourself, at the same time--that also is entirely unique and I think, spiritual and beautiful.
You said in an article that you ask your fiction writing students, 'what are the implications of what you've invented?' So what are the implications for Queen of the Night and for this character that you've invented?
When I tell my writing students this it's usually because they have come to me with a scene but no plot. Much in the way that I describe that scene that I began my own novel with. And that's what I mean by the implications. For example: I had a student who was writing a vampire novel, and the vampire was a real clothes horse, and I said to her, 'Well, if she's been alive for 800 years and she loves clothes, she has an incredible closet.' [Laughs] That would be such an incredible invention to pursue, you know and that was a missed opportunity for her as a young writer. She saw this and went back to it.
For myself, with this book, I kept thinking about all the ways in which someone like Lilliet would have had to struggle and the incredible challenges she had to face. I think it's very hard for people to imagine how bad things were for women back then. I know that I've dramatized it in this very stylized way for the novel--this is not realism--but I was trying to include those very real challenges in a way that honored them. And I hope that was successful. So when I say, what are the implications of what you've invented, I'm really talking about that drafting process.
In terms of the implications of what I've invented now that it is done and out in the world, I suppose I'm still finding out, but I think what I have learned is how much readers really, really want to just be completely absorbed in a story--a story that takes this world away and replaces it with another one. That all these things that I feared might be off-putting, the foreignness of it, the levels of detail and description, the curse, that that is all actually exactly what they want. That's a tremendous lesson for me as a writer. I don't know what I'll do with it, but I'm paying attention.
Switching gears a little bit here, can I ask your reaction to being selected as a Book of the Month author? And is there anything you want our readers to get from Queen of the Night?
I'm thrilled, it's an honor, it's an august institution Book of the Month Club, and I couldn't be happier about it. And I think in terms of what I would want readers to get from it, I just hope they experience it as just a ripping, good yarn. [Laughs] Just an adventure, you know just to go into the fun of it and see what else they find in the process, because there was a way in which I just wanted it to be, at one level, an adventure novel, within the world of opera at that time.
What are your plans now? What are you working on?
I'm currently at work on a collection of essays, and thinking about what's going to be my next novel. I have four different ideas for what the next book could be. And I have different pages for all of them, and I'm just kind of pushing them around and looking to see which one's going to be the one I'm most interested in.
Then I have a question from Liberty Hardy who chose your book. She wants you to talk about the Scarlet Professor project.
The Scarlet Professor is a screen adaptation of a biography by Barry Werth that I'm writing with my partner Dustin Schell. It's a biography of a professor by the name of Newton Arvin who was a literary critic in the early 20th Century, one of a group of literary critics who were creating our sense of what American literature is now. He was a gay man, the first important lover of Truman Capote and also something of a mentor to him. He wrote important, early books on Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, and Longfellow. So we owe him a great debt and an even greater one in a sense because of what happened to him in 1960 when he was the subject of a sting, coordinated by the FBI, the police and Postmaster General. His mail was being opened, without his knowledge, a common practice at the time, and they were looking for what they considered to be obscene materials. He was arrested as a pornography trafficker. Simply for owning a few pieces of erotica, and a few pieces of pornography, and then some classical Greek images. He was internationally humiliated by the police at the time as a part of their attempt to root out "perverts." His life and the lives of 17 other men were destroyed. We're writing a film that dramatizes the arrest and the fallout of the arrest as well, a story about privacy, obscenity, and sexuality all at once. And I suppose it's a little like The Queen of the Night in that it is also about sex and power, and someone who has lost control of the story around them--and risks being destroyed by that.
This interview has been edited.