Alexander Chee's Voice Shines Through In 'Queen Of The Night'

Jan 30, 2016
Originally published on January 30, 2016 10:29 am

Readers have waited almost 15 years for a second novel from the acclaimed Alexander Chee, following the highly-praised Edinburgh. The wait is over.

The Queen Of The Night is sprawling, soaring, bawdy and plotted like a fine embroidery. Lilliet Berne is the most famous soprano in the French opera. She is offered the role of a lifetime: an original part written for her. But then she sees that the opera must be based on a part of her life she's kept under wraps.

Who would so precisely, exquisitely and cruelly use her past against her? Lilliet Berne's journey to discover that, and herself, propels a story of the Second French Empire featuring a number of characters also drawn from history.

In an interview with Scott Simon, Chee discusses the inspiration for his protagonist, opera singer Jenny Lind, and his connections to a character who, on the surface, comes from a very different background and place in history.


Interview Highlights

Scott Simon: Did this story begin for you with a photo of a woman in a cape?

Alexander Chee: In a way it did. That was one of the elements that was the most powerful draw, I suppose — there were a number of things. Back when I began this novel I had a writing exercise I would give my students where I would ask them to take photos that they found particularly compelling, a group of them, and kind of arrange them in an order and make a story out of them. And I suppose I did something of the same. I found this one from the Minneapolis Ice Festival in 1882: a picture of a woman wearing a fur cloak inside of a castle made entirely of ice, holding a torch, and I couldn't quite see her face in the picture and I just, I just kept looking at it.

SS: You spent your childhood in South Korea, Kauai, Truk, Guam and Maine. Does that variety in your background give you some sense of identity with your character?

AC: I think in writing her, I was writing about a certain sense of placeless-ness, of feeling like I was not from any particular place.

SS: A lot of people believe that [Edinburgh] had to have autobiographical themes. This novel doesn't have such obvious similarities — or am I missing something?

AC: I have joked that it is yet another autobiographical novel from Alexander Chee. But I think the autobiography in this — to the extent that there is any in this — is in things like: When you are a professionally-trained singer in a boys choir, you are very aware that there is a time limit on your voice. And I think it was then that I began to become fascinated with women sopranos who seemed to have less of a limit because I loved my voice so much as a child and I couldn't imagine myself, once I could sing with it, I couldn't imagine who I would be without it and so that is very much in this book.

SS: We encounter Lilliet in so many different incarnations. Is there something about her that is always true or does she shape shift within our imaginations?

AC: That's a very good question. I think one of the things that I always loved about her was her fierce will to live and to have a destiny that she could believe in, in a sense. And so through all of her reversals of fortune, all of her adventures, all of the disguises — that remains. But all of it, in a sense, is done to protect that will that remains. Even, in a sense, when she at one point seems to give up on it. That she has some urge to survive that's larger than herself.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Readers have waited almost 15 years for a second novel from the acclaimed Alexander Chee. The wait is over.

"The Queen Of The Night" is sprawling, soaring, bawdy and plotted like a fine embroidery. Lilliet Berne is the most famous soprano of the French opera. She's offered the role of a lifetime, an original part written for her. But then she sees that the opera must be based on a part of her life that she's kept under wraps.

Who would so precisely, exquisitely and cruelly use her past against her? Lilliet Berne's journey to discover that and herself propels this story of the Second French Empire. Alexander Chee, whose first novel was the highly praised "Edinburgh," joins us from New York.

Thanks so much for being with us.

ALEXANDER CHEE: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: Did this story begin for you with a photo of a woman in a cape?

CHEE: (Laughter) In a way, it did. That was one of the elements that was the most powerful, a picture of a woman wearing a fur cloak inside of a castle made entirely of ice, holding a torch. And I couldn't quite see her face in the picture, and I just kept looking at it, and there's just something about it all that ended up pulling me into all this material. It's very strange.

SIMON: Let me get you to use the extraordinary words you've written in this book to describe the Lilliet Berne that the public knows.

CHEE: (Reading) In the Paris press, they wrote stories of me constantly. I was re­ceiving and rejecting gifts of incomprehensible splendor. Men were leaving their wives to follow me. Princes were arriving bearing an­cient family jewels, keys to secret apartments, secret estates. I was unbearably kind or unbelievably cruel, more beautiful than a woman could be or secretly hideous, supernaturally pale or secretly mulatto or both, the truth hidden under a plaster of powder. I was inno­cent, or I was the devil unleashed. I had nearly caused wars. I had kept them from happening. I was never in love. I had never loved. I was always in love. Each performance could be my last. Each perfor­mance had been my last. The voice was true. The voice was a fraud. The voice, at least, was true.

SIMON: The voice, at least, was true. Does that have to be the case for a novelist too?

CHEE: (Laughter) Well, I suppose you could say it better be. But fiction is a complicated game, right...

SIMON: Yeah.

CHEE: ...Of telling a lie that tells the truth.

SIMON: You spent your childhood, I've read, in South Korea, Kauai, Truk, Guam and Maine. Does that variety in your background give you some sense of identity with your character?

CHEE: I think I sort of was - in writing her, I was writing about a certain sense of placeless-ness (ph), a feeling like I was not from any particular place, as it were.

SIMON: I have to ask. Your first novel, "Edinburgh," was about young boy called Fee who's Korean-American. He's determined that he's gay. You, of course, are named Chee, also of Korean-American background and gay. A lot of people believe that book had to have autobiographical themes. This novel doesn't have such obvious similarities.

CHEE: (Laughter).

SIMON: Or am I missing something?

CHEE: (Laughter) I have joked that it is yet another autobiographical novel from Alexander Chee. But I think, you know, the autobiography in this - to the extent that there is any in this - is in things like, you know, when you are a professionally-trained singer in boys choir, you're very aware that there is a time limit on your voice. And I think it was then that I began to be fascinated with women sopranos who seemed to have less of a limit because I loved my voice so much as a child. And I couldn't imagine myself - once I could sing with it, I couldn't imagine who I would be without it.

SIMON: Yeah.

CHEE: And so that is very much in this book, I think.

SIMON: Do you see something of Lilliet reflected in women celebrities of today who become instantly wildly famous just long enough for people to begin to find something wrong with them?

CHEE: (Laughter) Oh, yes. I mean, I think - in writing this novel, I think I was writing about many of the things that we still live with today. You know, I think that, for example, Corporal (ph), who makes a brief appearance in the novel in a sort of bejeweled, nude bodysuit with dyed blonde hair, I'm pretty sure she was the first pop star, as it were, to get up on stage in a nude jeweled bodysuit and perform that way. Now, it's - we don't even blink, it happen so much.

SIMON: Yeah.

CHEE: But I think she was the first.

SIMON: I guess one of the questions that your novel keeps peeling back is is you say the voice, at least, is true. We encounter Lilliet through so many different incarnations. Is there something about her that is always true? Or is she - does she shapeshift within our imaginations?

CHEE: That's a very good question. I think - you know, one of things that I always loved about her was her fierce will to live and to have a destiny that she could believe in, in a sense. And so through all of her reversals of fortune, all of her adventures, I think that is one of the - all the disguises, that remains; that all of it is, in a sense, done to protect that will that remains. Even, in a sense, when she, at one point, seems to give up on it, that she has some urge to survive that's larger than herself.

SIMON: Alexander Chee, his novel, "The Queen Of The Night."

Thank you so much for being with us.

CHEE: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.