Q&A with English professor and PEN finalist Alexander Chee
English and creative writing professor and writer Alexander Chee grew up wanting to be a fashion designer and visual artist. Taking writing classes at Wesleyan College, however, changed Chee’s mind and prompted him to think of writing as a professional career. As the author of two award-winning novels — “Edinburgh” and “The Queen of the Night” — Chee recently became a finalist for PEN America’s PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay for his essay collection “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.” For three years at Dartmouth, Chee has taught fiction writing, first-year writing and English 87, “Imaginary Countries,” a course on speculative fictions. This term, he is teaching Creative Writing 20, “Intermediate Fiction I” and the first-year seminar English 7.46, “Belonging, Migration, Exile.”
Did you grow up thinking of becoming a writer?
AC: I didn’t grow up thinking about it, no. I didn’t start thinking about being a writer until I was in college. As a kid, I remember at one point I wanted to be a fashion designer. And then the king of my own island. And then I remember I took a test for possible occupations in high school and that suggested that I should be an actor, which I thought was funny and interesting. I did like acting, but I was also good at music and drawing, so I think, for a while, as I said in the essay collection, I mentioned that I would even become a visual artist. So no, I didn’t grow up thinking of becoming a writer.
What led you onto the path of becoming a professional writer?
AC: I have always been good at writing, but I was never very impressed by it. People would often tell me that I should go be a writer, but I was not impressed with myself and what I had done — not until college. Once I started to take writing classes in college, I started to see that there was something that was interesting to me about what I did when I was writing — something that would satisfy my own sense of art and meaning. Then I began to think about it more seriously.
Tell us about your latest project, “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel,” which has just been nominated as a finalist for the PEN America award.
AC: The essay is about the writing of my first novel, about being an AIDS activist in San Francisco in the late 1980s, about a trip to Mexico that I took when I was 15, about teaching myself to grow roses in Brooklyn, about being a survivor of sexual abuse and struggling with recovered memory. There’s a wide breadth of topics.
You said “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel” ended up “being like a book of interconnected short stories about the self and the world.” Could you elaborate on this idea?
AC: I guess what that means is that there is no direct narrative thread in the book. It was designed to be a essay collection, but there is a chronological timeline to the essays, which I did because when you are writing an essay collection, you have to anticipate essentially two ways that people will read it. One way is that someone will pick it up and perhaps read an essay or two, put it down and come back to it maybe years later. Other people will sit down and read the entire essay all the way through. There are other ways that people will read the book, but those are roughly the two primary ways. So in every essay you have to introduce yourself, and if you have a book like this and you do not order it chronologically, the result — for someone who is reading it all the way through — feels repetitive if you say, “We’re in San Francisco,” and then you leave San Francisco and then suddenly you’re in San Francisco again. That doesn’t make sense. It was tricky because I didn’t want to suddenly turn it into a memoir either, because it’s too partial for that. There’s not enough in it for me to definitely call it a memoir. Also, the essays really are on different subjects. They’re not just about me. So the result is something that feels like interconnected short stories, in which I am the thing that they all have in common.
Can you share some memorable experiences in your years as a professor at Dartmouth?
AC: I think I’ve been very impressed by the support that I get from my colleagues here. When I was offering a Writing 5 course on the American essay, one of the librarians at the Rauner Special Collections Library reached out and asked me if I wanted to look at these archives of Dartmouth students’ papers reaching back into the 18th century as a possible tool for the class. That was a lot of fun to do. I really enjoy working with humanities and social sciences librarian Wendel Cox. I brought him to have a meeting with my fiction writing students where we talked about how you research fiction writing, and he always enjoyed the topics that got generated out of that class. I really enjoyed working with the Asian-American Students for Action in their student-led seminar last spring. That was a lot of fun and very interesting.
Where do you find inspiration for your writings?
AC: It can come from anywhere — that’s the thing that’s interesting about it. It can be something that you notice in yourself or in others. It can be someone that you meet on a train or while traveling. It can be something that someone said as they walk by, something that’s overheard. Usually, ideas for essays come especially from something that I notice about myself, that I am suddenly able to connect to all of these other instances in the past. Or I try to look for things that seem obvious for me, but that other people seem not to be noticing, and then I try to write about that.
What advice would you give to writers at Dartmouth?
AC: General writing advice across the board. I think a lot of my students already do this, but reading a paper out loud helps you revise it. One of the big problems that I think every writer has — whether they are literary writers or a writing student or a student of some other discipline — is what I call, “the word that is spelled correctly but is the wrong word,” where it sounds like the word you meant. I think people who work on Apple devices especially, there’s autocorrect that can create chaos in the manuscript, where the word is corrected to something that is not what you intended. Retyping something also is helpful. It seems counterintuitive. It seems like it would just take an impossible amount of time, but when you retype something, you enter into a revision process with a finite ending. When you’re done retyping, you finish a draft. Most other revision processes don’t have a cue that tells you that you’re done. Especially with computers, you just feel like you could sit there poking at it forever, but if you print it out, mark it up, retype it, then when you’re done retyping it, you finish a draft. You’re off the hook.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.