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Alexander Chee On Writing, Forced Solitude And The Power Of Cheese Sandwich Crusts

Chee standing by door in natural light
Robert Gill, Courtesy
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Bradford author Alexander Chee, who has written two novels and a collection of essays, is a recent winner of a $50,000 grant from United States Artists.

Writer and Dartmouth professor Alexander Chee is the author of two novels — Edinburgh and Queen of the Night — and a collection of essays: How To Write an Autobiographical Novel. The self-described Korean American queer author has lived in Bradford, Vermont for four years, and this month, he was awarded a $50,000 fellowship from the organization United States Artists.

Chee says in his time in Vermont, he’s been struck by the popularity of his local library. And it was at the Bradford library that he found a sign a few years ago involving bigfoot and a local bridge closure. He posted a photo of the sign on Twitter, and it got a bit of press.

He says Vermont has made him into, “the sort of professor one meets in a science fiction novel or film. I just can't tell if I'm the one who's the main character or the one who helps the hero on his quest by accidentally offering a clue while talking about something else entirely.”

And that’s appropriate as Chee — like many writers — is juggling the demands of both teaching students, and looking to pursue his own projects, something he says this new grant might help alleviate.

VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with author Alexander Chee about his work, writing and the pandemic. They began their conversation talking about how Chee envisions using the new grant. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Alexander Chee: You know, sometimes people wonder why it took me 15 years between my first and second novels, and part of the reason for that was that I was teaching and writing at a time of extraordinary income destruction in the industry.

The ways that we made a living as teachers of writing and as writers were both dramatically altered by the internet and various attacks on education budgets. So, this is, I see it as a chance to help me make up for some lost time.

Henry Epp: You write in one of the essays in your recent collection, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, about the process of writing and publishing your first novel, Edinburgh, which came out about 20 years ago.

And you write in this essay that took you a number of years, both the writing side and also the work of getting it published as a new writer. I wonder, as you're looking towards these new projects, does the prospect of working on a new novel at this point in your career feel any easier than it did when you were writing Edinburgh?

[LAUGHTER]

No.

[LAUGHTER CONTINUES]

I'm sorry I'm laughing, I'm not laughing at you, exactly. It's just thinking about the various struggles of the year. No, it does not.

I mean, some things feel certainly easier in the sense that there's ways that I know myself as a writer now that I did not know myself back then. There’s a kind of professionalization of the process, I guess. You go from being someone who maybe hacks around, sort of half-believing that you might eventually, someday be a writer, to becoming someone who has to do it in order to keep up the career.

But at the same time, within that, you also don't want to phone it in. For me, the two books that I am working on next are very old ideas, and I typically do tend to write a bit like a gardener, where I have different projects that I'm working on and that I move between. And at some point, one of them becomes more urgent than the others, or is more obviously close to completion, and then that's what it is, it's time.

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So, in preparing to talk to you I read Edinburgh, and it occurred to me as I was reading it, I wondered whether you go back and reread your past work?

Hmm. I have not read Edinburgh in a while. The process by which I probably encountered my old work the most was creating the essay collection, which meant going through 25 years of essays that I'd written, and selecting the ones that I did for that collection.

Yeah, well, I mean, I was curious because so much of that novel and then also many of the essays in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel deal with memory. I just wondered … whether you recognize the writer that you were when you go back to a novel like Edinburgh or some of the essays that you wrote for this recent collection?

I do recognize that writer. I learn a lot from that writer, both in terms of what I did back then that I might have gotten away from. Also, what I was able to do then, that I wasn't able to articulate. Something that I've been thinking about a lot recently, for example, is the way gesture operates in fiction. The way what a character's actions do, communicate something to the reader, apart from what a character is thinking or saying on the page.

"I typically do tend to write a bit like a gardener where I have different projects that I'm working on and that I move between." — Author Alexander Chee

And that's something that I think was very present in Edinburgh, for example, and is part of why I think the novel has stood up over the years, why people are still reading it.

Can you define that more? How would you define gesture in a character?

Sure. In particular, you know, there was a note that I found to myself in my wallet a couple of years ago. I was going through an old wallet, and the note said, "Make sure he drops the crusts of his cheese sandwich over the side of the boat."

And so, thinking about even a seemingly minor decision like that, it was interesting to go back and see, like, did I, did I do that? And I did.

It was very funny to read the passage where my main character is on a boat with his dad, eating a cheese sandwich, and then he takes the crusts off and he throws them over the side of the boat.

In that moment, though, what I could see that was happening was, the narrator's father had just asked him how he was doing, and he didn't want to answer the question. And he knew that if he didn't say anything, his father wouldn't ask him again. So instead of answering, he pulls the crusts off his sandwich and drops them over the side of the boat.

And that's a very subtle moment in the novel, but it's a place, you know, where you take in what's going on for the character, what's going on for him inside of his family. You know, the novel is about sexual abuse, and he's ashamed to talk to his father about what he thinks is happening to him and to his friends. And so, all that is around that particular moment.

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I was interested in Edinburgh, there felt like there were a lot of themes of solitude, and writing, it seems, is often a process that's pretty solitary. And I was wondering if the solitude that's been necessitated by this past year of the pandemic, how that's affected your writing process, whether that's been good or bad or neither?

Hmmm, you know, I enjoy solitude when I choose it.

[LAUGHTER]

But I'm actually a fairly social person. I enjoy going out with friends. I enjoy going to readings. I enjoy the part after the reading where people hang out.

I miss reading quietly in a group, say in a library. That is its own kind of social act, you know. Or reading at a bar, that's another one of my favorite things to do. So, losing all that was difficult. And also, it's the case that when you are a writing teacher, you are a shepherd of other people's dreams.

And so, it was agonizing to see what's happening to students, to former students, to other writers. So, it's been a difficult year for sure.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp.

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