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Holding Court: Alexander Chee

Photo of Alexander CheeHolding Court is an interview series that features the authors of the new books on display in the King Arthur Flour café in Baker-Berry Library.

In this week's edition, we hear from Alexander Chee, author of the collection of essays How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018).  Chee has received critical acclaim for this and his recently published The Queen of the Night (2016).  About How To [...], J.W. McCormack, for the New York Times, writes "Chee has written a moving and personal tribute to impermanence, a wise and transgressive meditation on a life lived both because of and in spite of America."  On Wednesday, October 24, at 4 PM, Chee will give a talk, "Your Life in Fiction," in which he will present his book and join in conversation with fellow writer, Peter Orner.  Please join us.

What is your book about?

The essays in this book span 25 years and are about everything from rose gardens, to money and social class, to protesting government inaction during the start of the AIDS epidemic, to writing novels.

Where did you get your ideas for this book?

I think of the ideas here as ideas that wouldn't leave me alone.

What does research look like for you? What element of research could you not live without?

Fiction writers, contrary to popular belief, do research. I begin typically by asking myself what I don't know that I should know to write, and then I go to the library and begin usually by speaking to a librarian with expertise in that field. I follow the bibliographies and footnotes of the works I read and use that as a map to further reading. Translated novels, for example, typically contain the context clues you won't get by reading the novel in the writer's own language, and this is important if you're setting a novel, say, in 19th Century France and you weren't alive then, or in France.

I like to visit the places I'm writing about. I take pictures because I won't notice everything on the visit right away, and sometimes even video on my phone. If I can't get away to visit for financial reasons or time constraints, social media helps--an Instagram or Flickr tag is super helpful. And visits to special collections are always fun when researching anything in the past. I still remember the box brought to me containing a subject's passports from over his entire lifetime, including the French ones he had while an agent of the OSS during World War II.

Even when writing about yourself in a personal essay, research yourself. Treat yourself like a subject when you write about yourself. In writing these essays about my own experiences, I went back to my own diaries, letters, emails, notebooks--I re-read the books I was reading sometimes, referred to photos, asked questions of those I remembered being there. Most of what I found needed checking was what I was most confident about. This is because you have to outwit both your ego and the ego's child--the too-confident memory. As for what I could not do without, well, I already have mourned the loss of the card catalogue, for the way it allowed me to find the essential things I hadn't meant to search for. I hope there will always be stacks. I love wandering stacks and finding things I never imagined possible. This is a kind of research, and if I have a personal motto, it is probably "Wandering finds it."

What do you think the library of the future will look like?

A university I once taught at early in my career froze its acquisitions because of budget cuts, and the librarians I knew there described how fatal that could be to a library. I came to fear a library made out of an accountant's imagination then. I hope that's not the library of the future.

I think thriving libraries are the sign of a healthy community--they are part of a community's immune system. My hope is that the library of the future works to retain commitments to the communities it serves while also keeping its own integrity as a series of spaces, and a series of contexts. I think libraries are at their best when they introduce communities to each other, in particular, and facilitate not just knowledge but new interactions that lead to new knowledge and new connections. I don't know what that looks like but I hope to find out.

What advice would you give to an aspiring scholar or writer?

It is very important to do the work that feels most connected to your sense of yourself--and to begin by choosing the field or fields that have the ability to make your ideas articulate to yourself and others. Your career won't be something you can sustain if it doesn't connect to your imagination directly. This may seem like obvious advice but I see so many young people determined to prepare for a future that feels unimaginable to them, that they feel they should pursue, to fulfill someone else's idea of their right future. Work for a future that has room for you to live in it.

And finally, what do you read for fun?

For a few years I read Iris Murdoch novels for fun--it was something of a hobby, with no critical mission except my own pleasure--and I hope to get back to it soon (there's about 16 left on my list). I also love Japanese Manga, and comics like Saga, and I still read my oldest love, the X-Men.

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