Don’t Call it a Memoir: Alexander Chee on His New Book, “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel”

Don’t Call it a Memoir: Alexander Chee on His New Book, “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel”

At the Strand Book Store last week, Alexander Chee took to the podium to read from his recent release, “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel,” and made one thing very clear: This book is not to be confused with a memoir. The “way in which it resembles a memoir,” said Chee, “is something of an accident in chronology.”

That doesn’t mean that the book isn’t intimate. The essays collected in Chee’s first non-fiction publication approach identity, writing, politics and art through personal experience in such a way that takes on the closeness of a memoir, as if over the course of consuming the essays, the reader sees the author emerge. Part of this is Chee’s distinct ability to create a cohesive, reliable voice despite disparate material—a skill that he utilized in his ambitious 2016 novel, “The Queen of the Night.” It can also be attributed to his willingness to give himself over to the reader.

Throughout the collection, Chee discusses his activism during the AIDS epidemic, his time spent as a student of the writer Annie Dillard, his search for identity and belonging as an openly gay Korean-American and his relationship to trauma experienced during his childhood. He also talks about writing, uncertainty, power, desire and so much more. Formal variances in the structure of the book come like breaths. An essay titled “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel,” for example, takes the shape of a loose listicle, breaking up the book’s longer stretches of prose. It’s a change of tempo and rhythm, abruptly distancing the reader from the more personal material that Chee offers in other essays. His language, in this way, tends to get inside you, like a metronome or a heartbeat.

But as much as these essays are about Chee, his life and experiences, they are about the process of becoming a writer, of engaging with narrative and coming to understand the power of writing stories into being. In his final essay, “On Becoming an American Writer,” Chee says:

All my life I’ve been told this isn’t important, that it doesn’t matter, that it could never matter. And yet I think it does. I think it is the real reason the people who take everything from us say this. I think it’s the same reason that when fascists come to power, writers are among the first to go to jail. And that is the point of writing.

We spoke to Chee before last week’s Strand event about this role of the writer, the process of writing about the self and how it feels to have such a book out in the world. The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

ALL ARTS: How do you define autobiographical novel, and how did that definition in your head inform how you wrote this book?

ALEXANDER CHEE: I think at the time that I was doing the thinking that I describe in the essay “Autobiography of My Novel,” we had started to see a number of novels where the main character would have the same name as the author or would be someone who is clearly based on the author in some way. Then we got to where people were just using the same name. So, that’s kind of the working definition that I had in my head. But I think lots of pieces of our autobiography end up in our fiction.

What I try to do with my students is to encourage them to make use of their autobiography in ways that leaves them less vulnerable. Sometimes they’re writing about very difficult things that have happened to them without a lot of distance or filter, and that can be quite uncomfortable to have people talk about and workshop. They may not be aware that that’s actually what they’ve set themselves up for. This other way of writing, I think, allows you to make use of your intimate knowledge of an event without actually also exposing yourself.

AA: That leads me to where you talk about your theory of a writer’s first novel in “The Autobiography of My Novel.” What really stood out to me was when you say, “What will you let yourself know? What will you allow yourself to know?” I wanted to get more of your thoughts on that.

AC: The reason for that was that I had started writing about something I thought would be simple enough, and it had gotten me into material from my life that was not at all simple or straightforward. And I was aware that I was fighting writing about it even as I was also aware that I wanted to write about it and that I needed to write about it. And so I was actually even fighting against ways that my own mind would cover over those events. And I think that’s where the “what will you let yourself know” line comes in. How do you walk yourself into those darker parts of your past?

AA: How did you navigate going into that examination of self?

AC: I think even when you’re writing about what seems like not upsetting things, you can discover things that you didn’t expect to discover about yourself, and that is its own drain—the process of just making the new connections between the old things. But writing about the more difficult things is extraordinarily hard.

I think a good thing to do after you finish is to do something physical like go outside, take a walk, go for a run, go for a bike ride, go to the gym. Just anything that involves repetitive movements and a literal change of state. But especially movements because you want to feel drawn back into the present by moving the body around. So, at the level of literally, “how do you do it,” that is the easiest way. Smoking is another way to do that, it’s just a less healthy one. But in the old days when I used to smoke, stepping outside having a cigarette would remind me that I was in the present, and that I was in my body. It just wasn’t holistically the greatest thing I ever did for myself.

AA: My next question is about the role of the writer, especially in these times. You talked about the importance of giving voice to the dead and speaking to the dead, and I was wondering: What part does that play in your concept of the role of the writer?  

AC: One of the books that I read as I wrote this book and revised the essays was Vivian Gornick’s “The Situation and the Story.” In it, she talks about how you feel so clearly your role in relationship to material when you do something like give a eulogy. And I thought about, as I discuss in that essay, the time that I wrote an elegy for someone and how well I knew my role in that instance.

I’ve been told throughout my writing career that the kinds of things that I want to write about are impossible to publish, that no one wants to read this kind of work. That I should be doing other things. That I should in fact just be another person, another kind of person. And the success that I had in my career shows that all of that was wrong.

I feel like this sort of belief in our own powerlessness as writers is something that American writers are asked to buy into as a part of being an American writer. Like accept that you don’t have any power. Accept that you should try to be a bestselling author or not be a writer. And I think all of that is so toxic and weird and self-denying. And I think that it denies the power of how when you speak out about something that’s wrong or when you describe something that you can see that no one else has described yet but everyone else recognizes as soon as you describe it. That’s why you write. That’s why you do these things—to participate essentially in the construction of a greater number of stories than we’ve had thus far.

AA: In the beginning of your book, there’s so much about coming to terms with who you are and figuring out your identity and your actual physical weight in space. And I was wondering what it feels like to have what is basically a manifestation of self in book form that’s tangible and sharable with other people?

AC: I think I’m still figuring that out. It feels good. I’m both happy and a little wary. But I’m also just really pleased by the reactions that I’m getting from it. Like, a friend told me that she was able to take the collection into therapy and talk about things that she’s never talked about. And that just meant the world to me. So in some ways, I’m not really thinking about myself; I’m thinking about the ways that these stories are helping make other people’s lives possible.