Famous Author Alexander Chee Never Promised You A Rose Garden
Bowen Yang: You wrote a book of memoir-ish essays and called it How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. Was that a way to prank the Library of Congress’s catalog system?
Alexander Chee: [Laugh] It was a prank, that’s true. It was a bit of a joke on the question of, like, “How autobiographical is this?” which is the question that gets asked so often at readings. I mean, I was expecting a certain number of people to think that it really was an instruction book. And I did, actually, just get my first review that was sort of complaining about that aspect of it, which made me laugh. It was in a small-town Canadian paper...
BY: Isn’t it always? It’s always the small-town Canadian papers.
AC: Well I mean, I love the small-town Canadian papers. But it was a very earnest reviewer who was just sort of like, “There’s not a lot of instruction in here.” And I was just like, ugh, that’s true.
BY: I feel like all the press surrounding this book has been overwhelmingly positive. I would like to use this as an opportunity to maybe stir up some controversy around it. So, what do you make of someone potentially accusing you of egregiously name-dropping throughout the book—that you worked for the Buckley’s, or that you were in an elevator with Chloë Sevigny, or that Lorrie Moore is a good friend of yours, and that Annie Dillard was your teacher and mentor?
AC: [Laughing] Literally no one has brought that up.
BY: Ok, well, I’m accusing you of that. My theory is that you’re name-dropping all these people as a ploy to get back into Gramercy Park.
AC: But, I mean, I don’t know how to write about my life while hiding all of that. You know? And in the case of the Chloë Sevigny essay, like, it really is at that moment me thinking about New York City and fame and proximity to glamour and proximity to celebrity and, you know, What does it take to “make it” as a writer? Also, at certain points thinking about, like, Should I even try to become famous? Is that even a worthy goal as a writer? So, that’s definitely in there. I mean, The Queen of the Night is about celebrity. It’s been on my mind these last couple of decades, like everyone in America. We’re in this economy where everyone is trying to run some sort of scam that makes them famous so that they can sell whatever they need to sell to survive capitalism.
BY: Survive capitalism? Great.
AC: I remember being a waiter at a People Magazine luncheon in the nineties, and they were talking about how they were running out of celebrities. Too many celebrities had died and they needed more celebrities.
BY: You talk in the book about queering spaces and practices, or gardening, even. As just a very open-ended question: what are you excited about queering next? When will you be happy? Will you not stop until everything is queered?
AC: [Laugh] I will not stop until everything is queered, it’s true. I think that, you know, as a practice, the thing that’s great about it is that it opens up more freedom for people. Like, even if they’re not queer, it gives them more freedom to experiment with their identities. I was a kid who had a Mary Poppins lunch box in grade school, for example. That was a little radical back then. It’s not so radical now. That’s what’s great about it. You can have these sensitive boys or girls or gender fluid children or what have you, and maybe they want one hand with every fingernail a different color, or maybe they want to wear butterfly wings to school, you know? And more and more they can. And that’s about imagination. That’s about, like, just opening up pathways to new stories and new ways of being.
BY: I think butterfly wings have not reached their full queer potential. Like, we can go further than the butterfly wings. I really love the titular piece in the book [in which] you bring up this idea that the act of writing a novel is like waking up in a forest with an axe, having a clear idea of what a house is, and then deciding to build a house. Are you coming out as a lumbersexual in that moment?
AC: An autobiographical lumbersexual, yes.
AC: [Laughter] So, when you’re named Mentor of the Year by One Story, they do this beautiful thing. They reach out to your former students and they collect stories about you from them. And then they compile them into a book that they give you as a prize. And it's this beautiful sort of portrait of who I've been as a teacher all these years, to all these different students. And that advice about axes and houses showed up at least twice. I was like, oh, I really have been saying that since, like, 2002.
BY: It’s a beautiful image. And this is like, a very well-trod, sort of Anne Lamott thing of, like, first drafts are shit and starting with that sort of blank canvas is the first big hurdle. This is probably something that you talk about in your classes but now, as you write, how do you pass that first hurdle? Just getting past that first page and starting to write?
AC: I try to turn away from the page, in a way, by thinking about the images in my mind that I associate with the story that’s building itself. That’s how I teach my students to do it, also. One of the exercises that I assign to all of my beginning students is, what is a story that your family tells about you when you bring home someone for the first time? [To Bowen] Are you thinking of one right now?
BY: I am thinking of one right now.
AC: What is it?
BY: Uh, one time my family and I went to the beach when I was about seven, six years old. And my parents lost track of where I was going. They thought I had drowned. They were like “Bowen’s dead! Bowen’s dead!” And the whole time I was just, like, in the inland park building some sand castle. And it’s just a story of me sort of wandering off and doing my own thing. I mean, that’s not the best example, but…
AC: No, it’s a good example. We can work with it.
BY: We’re gonna workshop it.
AC: So, then, the next thing I ask my students is, do you have images associated with it in your mind? Do you remember what you were doing [at the beach]?
BY: Not totally lucidly. I was just in this park, like, sliding down the slides, swinging on the swings.
AC: So when they tell this story you probably have images in your mind from, like, photos of you that they took when you were that age, right?
BY: Surely, yes.
AC: So that process of applying those images to that story is making your first fiction. And then the next thing I ask them to do is to, sort of, try to strip it down to one sentence, which I think you already did. “They’re freaking out while their child is doing their own thing.” And you could build a story around it, if you wanted to. Like, someone who’s quietly enjoying themselves as everything falls apart around the imagined idea of what has happened to them. I try to introduce students to this idea that the story you’re telling is about giving the reader the whole picture. Like, an autobiographical story that focused just on you would just be about, like, what you were doing while everyone was freaking out. And that would be funny, but it wouldn’t be as interesting as that whole picture of everybody in relationship to all these false impressions and what-if scenarios. And that’s what I’m trying to get across with that exercise—like, can you see all the way around the story? And how? How do you do that? And then you turn to the page. And then you start trying to build there. But you don’t just sort of open a notebook and stare at it. That’s not helpful.
BY: That’s not a process. For sure.
AC: So I try to teach them to see ideas in their own minds first, to build images around them and emotions and scenarios, and then to start writing.
BY: And when you’re writing about, let’s say San Francisco—about your time there and all that you did there and all the people that you met there—are you applying certain fictions to that? Like with your Peter Kelloran piece, a lot of the gaps were filled in by his family and friends.
AC: I did reporting on that. I spoke to all of them. It was kind of like a reported memoir.
BY: Right. So, what’s the fundamental difference in terms of process, and the way it all comes together?
AC: I think…[with that piece in particular] I was trying to create a memorial for a person who I felt so deeply about, but also had not really known. To try to find a way to think about what he meant in a way that was larger than what he meant to me. That’s why, in a sense, it ends up being about the loss of an imagination, not just about the loss of a person. I could have written about a number of people, but I thought, in a way, writing about [Kelloran] meant a lot to me because he hadn’t really had the career that he could have had. He gave up a lot for activism. He gave up a lot just to get by. And then he was gone. No chance of any of that maturing. And when you look at how artists affect the culture, it’s not just one particular work. The truly great artists are the ones whose work changes you such that—whether you have listened to it or not, whether you have read the book or not—there are ideas in the culture that everyone is operating on. It’s hard to discount that. Even Republicans who love to say that art doesn’t matter—well, name a street after Ayn Rand.
BY: My god. Has that been quoted before? Have you said that before in an interview? That’s really good. There’s another great essay in the book from your time in San Francisco about your first time in drag—Halloween, 1989?
AC: Yeah. [Pulls up an image of himself in drag on his phone.]
BY: Oh my god! See, ‘cause, I’m reading that essay and the entire time I’m just wondering, like, “How good did you look?” Because the reactions that you were writing about in that essay were just…
AC: I know. Some people were like, “You sure think a lot of yourself.” And I was like, “Girl.”
BY: I think it was interesting because of the way you talked about seeing yourself—and you talk about seeing yourself through other people’s eyes a lot in the book—but about seeing yourself with sort of new parameters. What did you feel like you tapped into?
AC: I think, as I say in the essay, that it was partly just about that intense familiarity that was present in this space that I had just made up. Literally, just made up. And so it really threw me, you know? Like a lot of these essays are about misidentifications that then become identifications. So, like, I’m in Mexico and I’m mistaken for Mexican and then suddenly it feels comfortable, you know? I do drag in San Francisco and I pass as a woman and suddenly I have this new sense of what would even be possible. I remember questioning how much of what I wanted for myself was power. And how much I associated feminine allure with power, simply because it was power over these men that I desired who desired that.
BY: Who desired anything else besides you.
AC: Right. Me as I was. If I looked like this then they would desire me. Like that’s that sort of awful, self-abnegating trap. Like, can I be something that they want? Can I become an object that they desire? And so at first it felt like power and then it didn’t. It felt like the opposite. And yeah, there was a huge lesson to be learned.
BY: That turn—I mean, of thinking that you have power in this thing, but then it turns out that you don’t—sort of goes back to your essay about Tarot. It is this sort of recurring theme. But the passage that I found myself going back to—and this is in “After Peter”—was about how Jason, and then your old ex Faustino, started to date each other and you had this line about how you would fear for the rest of your life that you would lose in love to some other blonde boy. I screenshotted that passage and texted it to a handful of friends and everyone was like, “Whoooa!” I don’t know, I mean, like, how—is that a hurdle that you’ve been able to get over? Is that a wall that you’ve been able to work around, or break all the way through? No? [Laugh]
AC: It’s sort of like… my husband doesn’t like blondes. So, never gonna be afraid of that there. For me at the time it did feel like, “Wow, it’s just...always gonna be like that.” I think one of the things that was definitely alluded to in that essay, which I didn’t go into enough, was at the time this struggle of like… I talked about this in another essay I wrote for OUT Magazine about "quote-unquote interracial dating." When I arrived in San Francisco there were bars for, like, white people and Asian people who wanted to meet, and blacks and whites, Latinos and whites, and I was just kind of like, why is everything about the whites? Like, why are we always getting a new bar for white people to get a different kind of person? Like, what the fuck is that? And so I would bring that up and people would just get really uncomfortable with me. And I was like, “Guys, this is some kind of sexual apartheid shit. Like, you have to think about this.” [Laugh]—