It’s been almost 15 years since Chee’s acclaimed first novel, Edinburgh, was published in 2001. It’s clear why this one took him so long: The Queen of the Night is a multi-stranded, thoroughly researched epic about the world of 19th-century French opera. The main character, a soprano with a harrowing past she is ashamed of, is offered a starring role in an production written specifically for her by an anonymous composer; to her horror, she discovers that the work contains details about her secret life. In our discussion, Chee explained how Villette helped him become more comfortable writing about 19th-century mores, and imbue performance scenes with dramatic force.
Chee’s essays and stories have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, Slate, Guernica, NPR, and Out, among others. The winner of a 2003 Whiting Award, he inspired the idea for the much-discussed “Amtrak residency” and curates the Dear Reader reading series in New York City, where he lives.
Alexander Chee: I had a writing teacher once who told us writers should never describe parties. If possible, she said, we should avoid it. It might have been her own disinclination for parties, even though she seemed to be a very social person. Or it may have been that she was simply tired of the way undergraduates wrote about parties. But her advice made the description of parties incredibly taboo to me, and gradually, I knew, I would have to write about them.
The qualities that make parties such a nightmare for people—and also so pleasurable—make them incredibly important inside of fiction. There’s a chaos agent quality to them: You just don’t know who’s going to be there, or why. You could run into an old enemy, an old friend, an old friend who’s become an enemy. You could run into an ex-lover, or your next lover. The stakes are all there, and that’s why they’re so fascinating.
In my first novel, there’s a party scene that I’m incredibly proud of, which I would hold up as a model to anyone. But that was the kind of party I was very used to—kids in college, someone’s family isn’t home—which made it easy to write. My new novel presented a very different challenge. I had zero experience with the parties of the 19th century. (Most of us alive, I guess you could say, really don’t.) When you’re writing historical fiction you have to think a little farther into the situation: what the average social interactions were, what was acceptable behavior. What did people think was fun, what did they find unhappy, and why?
I knew I wanted the parties in The Queen of the Night to be convincing, beautiful, and also dramatic, situations where significant things happened on a scale that was both grand and intimate.
There were several texts that helped me think about how to do this and one of the most important ones was Charlotte Bronte’s novel Villette. The heroine, Lucy Snowe, is not particularly beautiful, but is incredibly intelligent, and was born into unfortunate circumstances. She has ruthless standards of behavior for herself and others that she believes protects her, and so parties are almost like battles for her, over her identity, even her soul.