MAY 5, 2016
IN ALEXANDER CHEE’s new novel, The Queen of the Night, Lilliet Berne is the reigning diva of the 1870s Parisian opera world. Only one thing holds her back: “Of all the accolades heaped at my feet, the one I lacked for was the honor of originating a role, a part written precisely for my voice. […] For a singer, this was your only immortality.” When a novelist invites her to star in an opera he’s writing with a mysterious composer, Lilliet is shocked: the novel-opera is not just for her, but also about her, dramatizing her secret past lives as an American farm girl, circus rider, prisoner, fille en carte (prostitute), and working grisette in the imperial palace. Lilliet’s investigation of the betrayal of her secrets is a detective story, Künstlerroman, and historical fantasy, with all the ludicrous, heartbreaking turns of grand opera. As both Umberto Eco and Henry Louis Gates Jr. have written, books talk to each other, and Chee’s novel talks to the writings — autobiographies, letters, vocal manuals, libretti — by and about other historical “reines de la nuit.” Chee’s book follows singers, courtesans, and spies, as well as an empress and a woman composer.
When I met Chee, he seemed tickled and bemused by his own brush with operatic immortality — composer Stefan Weisman is writing an opera based on Chee’s acclaimed first novel Edinburgh (Picador, 2002), in which the semiautobiographical character of Fee will be sung by a countertenor. He said, “It’s a little bit like the novel coming true, because I’m not starring in it, but here’s this autobiographical novel being turned into an opera! It’s the kind of thing you don’t even think to dream about.” Like the forthcoming opera, The Queen of the Night promises to simultaneously defamiliarize and draw us further into Chee’s own oeuvre — back into his first novel as well as his essays on genre, identity, style, and memory.
ALISON KINNEY: You told The Toast, “I started [The Queen of the Night] wanting to get as far away from myself as possible.” What does it mean to get away from yourself in your fiction — when writing a half-Korean, half-white gay male character from Maine is also getting away from yourself?
ALEXANDER CHEE: For a while, I used to joke that The Queen of the Night was yet another autobiographical novel from Alexander Chee about a woman soprano in the 19th century. I think there’s more of me in [the book] than I could have imagined. I gave a reading from [Queen] at Iowa, and one of my colleagues at the workshop came up to me afterward and said — it was a very funny compliment — “You really made this up!” I was like, “Oh. Are we all doing loosely veiled autobiography, just forever now? I didn’t get that memo!” Promoting a novel that’s loosely autobiographical meant talking about myself so much. By the time I’d turned my attention to a new book, I didn’t even want to think about my life.
I gave Lilliet my own sense of always searching for a place that feels more like home than any place you’d been. Also, being someone that your parents never imagined, and whom, in some ways, no one did. People sometimes think I’m bragging when I say that I’m the first Korean-American gay male author. This was something told to me at an MLA conference by a group of Asian-American literary scholars — they turned to me and said, “You’re the first” — so it’s not something that I came up with! And now there’s two of us. As far as I can tell, there aren’t any Korean gay authors — being gay in Korea is still so stigmatized — and if there are, I definitely want to read them. That sense of being the first of your kind, or the fear that you have to be, in order to exist, was also something that I gave to Lilliet. It’s part of the way she feels about trying to experience a kind of freedom that wasn’t given to women back then, that she wants to try to make for herself.
That reminds me of how, early in the novel, Lilliet says, “Why was there never an opera that ended with a soprano who was free?”
Opera functions in the novel as a way that Lilliet argues with fate. Part of the inspiration for the novel was coming across both Oscar Wilde and Joan Didion saying that the stories you write become true. It was also interesting to me the way in which your dramatic role in opera is decided by your voice, and you’re always confined to those types because of those sounds. The relationship between those sounds and what we believe is true about people: all of that seemed like rich material to me.
The fear of losing one’s voice runs throughout the novel; can you talk about that?
With my own background as a boy singer, you knew that there was a date when you would be expelled from the choir, your voice would change, and that was that. It was incredibly traumatic for me. I remember watching the other boys ahead of me, as they would get older, and they would try to pretend that their voice hadn’t changed, singing in falsetto.
I was wondering if you’d been a boy soprano, or if that material in Edinburgh was entirely fiction.
The fear that I had, as a child, of losing my voice and what it would cost me, that is definitely in The Queen of the Night. It was on my mind, as I read about opera singers’ decisions to leave the stage, when and why — to the extent that they were able to decide. The training is so incredibly rigorous, and then, as soon as the voice is done, the voice is done. Then all the training — what do you do with it? Some of them teach, so that was interesting — this idea of the teacher as a kind of a broken vessel. The novel was originally inspired by a story about how [the 19th century “Swedish Nightingale”] Jenny Lind decided to retire, and about the incredible two-year retirement tour that she went on. Obviously, her retirement decision wasn’t based on losing her voice. It’s part of what made the stories I found about Pauline Viardot-García [the historic soprano, composer, and teacher who trains Lilliet in the novel] so interesting. Pauline was able to use her considerable knowledge of technique to continue singing after her voice had started to fail, so that she could still perform in some version of the impressive way that she had before. The novel was partly inspired by the story of Jenny Lind’s talent — the idea of talent that’s bigger than an artist’s ability to choose whether to practice the art or not. It ended with an inspiration from another singer who, through talent — through training — was able to outlive her gift, as a singer, performer, and composer. In some ways, the novel is the story of a young woman who’s going around searching for a woman mentor, teacher, or example, someone who can show her how to be the kind of person that she has to be.
My interest in women singers from this period is that they had freedoms that regular women did not have, but they had that freedom only so long as they were celebrities. To have your value as an artist determine so much of your value as a person — right down to your ability to go out alone to a restaurant or to travel by yourself — that was incredibly interesting to me. One of the tasks of the novel was really imagining how difficult it was to live as a woman. There were always free-spirited women who would push boundaries, break laws, and do the things that they wanted to do, but there was still this vast category of behavior that was regulated intensely.
Did you feel any external pressure in writing about opera?
I think there was no pressure really. A lot of the book is about Lilliet’s life before she sings, so it’s both about opera and about other things. I was interested in the idea of a woman to whom tragic things had actually happened in singing inside of scripted tragedies, and the difference between her life and the life of the characters that she was portraying. Because opera plots are, as we all know, often implausible, even ridiculous, and that’s part of the fun of them.
In opera, people’s attachments are so passionate, their disagreements are very high-pitched, and they’re fought like wars. So it was incredibly nerve-wracking to try to write about opera, in that sense.
Can you talk a little about turning real people into characters in your fiction? Like the Comtesse de Castiglione, for example, who also appears in this book?
I imagined [the comtesse] before I knew she was real, if that makes any sense; it felt almost clairvoyant. Writing historical fiction can be as constraining as biography, and so I began to invent things first and then see if they might be real. I got a book called Women of the Second Empire: Chronicles of the Court of Napoleon III, and as soon as I saw the picture of the comtesse, she was exactly the image I had in my mind — some uncanny, clairvoyant act. I had to know about her, and as soon as I Googled her, I said, “Holy Mother of God, I’ve hit the dramatic jackpot.” The photo on the cover is a photo of her. I knew that my imagination had somehow made the exact right choice.
I’m interested in the parallels you draw between artists, courtesans, and filles en carte in the novel. In this book, opera singing is a job, just like sex work is a job.
It was always assumed that courtesans did what they did just for the money, and for some of them that was certainly very true, but it was also the social power. There was a mix of social power and money that was part of why they chose to be a courtesan instead of somebody’s wife. I was very interested in the kind of celebrity that courtesans attracted back in the Second Empire, the stories of how, when they died, all of these respectable people who had otherwise disdained their company would try to get tours of their apartments. That’s such ghoulish entertainment. Or they would attend the auctions of courtesans’ items — possibly even buy them. It was fascinating to learn, and also kind of heartbreaking, how the Empress Eugénie would copy the clothes of the emperor’s mistresses.
I want to ask you about the fantasy of becoming a singer or the fantasy of becoming a writer. How do these fantasies play out in the conventions of depicting the labor of making art: the tediousness of practicing scales over and over, or writing a sentence for five hours? What are the ways in which it’s aesthetically and ethically satisfying to you to work through issues of capital and labor in your fiction?
I tried very much to make the stuff that’s about singing in the book really about singing, and, to the extent that it becomes metaphorical or figurative or what have you, for that to be secondary. One of the best compliments I ever got for Edinburgh was from someone who wrote, “I like how everyone in the novel has a job, and it decides what they can do, just like in real life.” This person was complaining about fiction where no one seemed to have to work at all and it was never explained. I do think that I conceive characters, in part, as a series of limitations, a mix of what they can and can’t change about themselves, what they can and can’t change about their place in the culture, and I work with that in the same way that you work with the restraints in writing, say, a sonnet, the way a sonnet has to be. The job a character has, the money that they have … well, I don’t know how you can write about life and not write about work.
Bringing that to the labor of making fiction: I’ve read that when you were trying to sell Edinburgh, and you’d written a short proposal for The Queen of the Night, and Queen was what all the editors got excited about. I wondered if this affected your writing practice for Queen.
I was given some pretty remarkable authorial freedom, in a way that few people are now. The novel was due in 2006 — the draft was eight years late — so a lot of people, [their contracts] would’ve been cancelled. I would say I resented the novel for a long time, to be honest. I think it’s why it took me a couple of years after the publication of Edinburgh to find my way back to it. After all the touring and everything had stopped, I questioned whether or not I’d write another book. It’s one thing to be in the lead-up to your debut, imagining what it could be like to finally publish a book. It’s another thing to experience it and ask yourself, “Is this what I want my life to be?” A lot of times you see people publish one book and go away, and the reasons for that departure are pretty varied. At least a few people decide it’s not for them; they don’t want to live that way.
It’s a very strange thing to be a writer in the United States and maybe never so strange as it is right now. There are all these weird projections that people put on you. All you have to do is watch The Affair on Showtime to see all the crazy, wrong stuff about writers in there, that grab bag of things that people imagine is true about being a novelist. Watching The Affair for me is a lot like watching every dumb question anyone’s ever asked me at a cocktail party, turned into a TV show.
I’d love to hear more party questions!
The idea of being a good writer is that you are financially successful, and even the industry is organized to support that, to a certain extent. It’s why, when you’re at parties, every now and then someone asks you about your sales. “Well, how did that book sell?” It’s such a shockingly rude question, and the people who ask think it’s a totally normal question because it’s all happening inside this capitalist climate, where your value as a writer is that a lot of people buy your book.
I’m also really interested in how we accommodate the rich, now. The way the rich are treated in a given era says a great deal about that era, and the values in that time and country as well. For example, all of these millionaire political candidates that we have, these are men and women who aren’t used to being interrupted. They’re not even used to people disagreeing with them. That’s the kind of climate they’re emerging from, so a lot of the agonies they’re having on the campaign trail are that they didn’t realize that running for office would mean leaving that bubble. A lot of what they’re trying to enforce is that bubble: the Republican candidates trying to determine the terms of the next debate, what questions they can be asked — that’s the behavior of the millionaire class.
The thing that surprised me most about writing about the past was how much I was writing about the present. I was researching the Second Empire, when Paris was afloat on real estate junk bond money. Napoleon III had “voting helpers” during the elections, people who would “help” you vote. The senate had not taken him seriously as a politician — partly because he was a terrible public speaker, so they thought he wasn’t very smart — so they forgot to make it illegal for him to declare himself emperor. The press reported the sex lives of women celebrities intensely because there was no freedom of the press, so that was the story they could easily run with. And the Franco-Prussian War was, in part, an effort by the French government to improve the country’s morale; its idea of itself was under threat.
I thought, “Well, this all sounds really familiar.” I was surprised by how much the novel was also about me, but I was also surprised by how much it’s about all of us right now in America.
Alison Kinney is the author of Hood (Bloomsbury, 2016). Her writing has appeared online at Paris Review Daily, Avidly, The Atlantic, Hyperallergic, The New Republic, The New York Times, The New Inquiry, and other publications.