The Autobiography of My Novel

Alexander Chee

Spring 2018

 

1

 

The question came amid some more ordinary ones: How long did the book take to write, and did you do any research? Seven years, and yes. And then: Were you a victim of sexual abuse yourself?

Yes.

Why didn’t you just write about your experience? the reader asked me. Why isn’t it a memoir?

I looked at him and felt confused for a moment. I didn’t understand the question immediately. The questioner sounded annoyed, as if I were deliberately hiding something from him. As if he had ordered steak and gotten salmon. Had I chosen? I felt the presence of conflicting, confusing truths. I was talking with a book club in downtown Manhattan, on Wall Street, a paper cup of coffee on the table in front of me. All of us were seated around a conference table, blinking under a fluorescent light that felt, along the skin and eyes, both thin and heavy at once. Like this question.

The questioner was an otherwise nice white man, a few years older than me, I guessed. He would have been in high school when it all happened to me, and I wouldn’t have told him about it then. That I could even speak to him about it now was not lost on me.

The things I saw in my life, the things I learned, didn’t fit back into the boxes of my life, I said. My experiences, if described, wouldn’t portray the vision they gave me.

I saw the room’s other occupants take this in.

I had to make something that fit to the shape of what I saw, I said. That seemed to satisfy them. I waited for the next question.

That afternoon, I tried to understand if I had made a choice about what to write. But instead it seemed to me that if anyone had made a choice, it was the novel, choosing me like I was a door and walking through me out into the world.

I began in the summer of 1994. I had just finished my MFA and moved into an apartment with my younger brother and sister off Columbus Avenue, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. My brother was starting his first job in finance, at a stockbrokerage. My sister was beginning her studies at Columbia University. I used to joke that we were a little like the Glass family from Salinger’s novels and stories, except our mother was in Maine, alone with her own troubles. But the truth was more complicated, and more melodramatic, than the world of a Salinger novel. My mother had been betrayed by a business partner, who doctored their partnership agreements indemnifying her for his debts, then vanished. After she refused to declare bankruptcy, she sold our family home. She had mostly hidden her problems from us until they could no longer be hidden, and to this day I think we three siblings moved in together in New York at the same time she was forced out of our house because it was the single self-protective gesture we could make that was entirely under our own control.

The means by which I had made my way in the world prior to that summer were coming to an end. Grad school was over, as was my accompanying stipend. The inheritance left to me after my father’s death, meant to provide for my education, was likewise almost spent—the move back to New York would exhaust it. I had not won any grants or gotten into any of the postgrad programs I had applied for. The despair I felt as each possible future I had dreamed of dropped away with yet another rejection was the surface of me; underneath that, on the inside, I could sense my family fracturing. Myself also.

I kept seeing reports that summer of other writers, some of them friends of mine, selling their novels, some of them unfinished, for what seemed like outlandish sums of money. I thought it was my turn when a friend from college who worked in the fiction department at the New Yorker asked me for stories, and I sent her part of my then novel-in-progress, which was about AIDS activists in the late 1980s in New York and San Francisco. While she found the excerpts weren’t right for the magazine, she admired what I submitted enough to send the pages to an editor she knew at William Morrow. The editor, in turn, liked the pages enough to tell me he wanted to have his house consider the unfinished novel for publication. This interest quickened the interest of a friend’s literary agent, who agreed to represent me, and I spent a happy ten days hoping this was it. But the house eventually passed on the novel, thinking it would be too large to publish based on my synopsis. “They fear it will be six hundred pages long,” my new agent said. Her advice: “If you finish it, then no one will be guessing how long it will be, because we’ll know, and we’ll just send it out then.”

I tried to master my desperation at this news. What happened next was a product of my cynicism, my youth, and my anger. By now it was clear our apartment was too expensive for us to keep, and that my sister, due to our mother’s bankruptcy, would have to leave Columbia.

I could have finished that first novel. In the next year, as if to mock me, several novels longer than six hundred pages would appear, and the year after that, Infinite Jest, weighing in at 1,079 pages. Length was not the issue, though. I could have tried even one other publisher. But I didn’t. Instead, I became obsessed with the idea that I could sell an unfinished novel and that the money would be enough to save my family. I began what would become my first published novel with the idea that autobiographical fiction was as easy as writing down what was happening to me. I turned my back on the experimental novel I’d put forward, and told anyone I knew, “I’m just going to write a shitty autobiographical first novel like everyone else, and sell it for thousands and thousands of dollars.” And then I sat down to try.

The story of your life, described, will not describe how you came to think about your life or yourself, nor describe any of what you learned. This is what fiction can do—I think it is even what fiction is for. But learning this was still ahead of me.

I knew what I thought was normal for a first novel, but every first novel is the answer to the question of what is normal for a first novel. Mine came in pieces at first, as if it were once whole and someone had broken it and scattered it inside me, hiding until it could be safe for it to be put back together. In the time before I understood that I was writing this novel, each time a piece of it emerged, I felt as if I’d received a strange valentine from a part of me that had a very different relationship to language than the me that walked around, had coffee with friends, and hoped for the best out of every day. The words felt both old and new, and the things they described were more real to me when I reread them than the things my previous sentences had tried to collect inside themselves.

And so, while I wrote this novel, I can’t say that I chose to write this novel. The writing felt both autonomic, as compulsory as breathing or the beat of the heart, and at the same time as if an invisible creature had moved into a corner of my mind and begun building itself, making visible parts for itself out of things dismantled from my memory, summoned from my imagination. I was spelling out a message that would allow me to talk to myself and to others. The novel that emerged was about things I could not speak of in life, in some cases literally. I would lie, or I would feel a weight on my chest as if someone was sitting there. But when the novel was done, I could read from it. A prosthetic voice.

Prior to this, my sentences were often criticized in writing workshops for being only beautiful, and lacking meaning. I felt I understood what they meant, and worked to correct it, but didn’t really think about what this meant until the novel was done.

I’d once organized my life, my conversation, even my sentences, in such a way as to never say what I was now trying to write. I had avoided the story for years with all the force I could bring to bear—intellectual, emotional, physical. Imagine a child’s teeth after wearing a gag for thirteen years. That is what my sentences were like then, pushed in around the shape of a story I did not want to tell, but pointing all the same to what was there.

I have a theory of the first novel now: it is something that makes the writer, even as the writer makes the novel. It must be something you care about enough to see through to the end. I tell my students all the time: writing fiction is an exercise in giving a shit—an exercise in finding out what you really care about. Many student writers become obsessed with aesthetics, but I find that is usually a way to avoid whatever it is they have to say. My first novel was not the first one I started. It was the first one I finished. Looking at my records, I count three unfinished previous novels; pieces of one of them went into this first one. But the one I finished, I finished because I asked myself a question.

What will you let yourself know? What will you allow yourself to know?

2

 

The idea of autobiographical fiction had always rankled me. Whenever I told stories about my family to friends, they always told me to write about my family, and I hated the suggestion so much that I didn’t write about families at all.

Even so, most of what I wrote then, if not all of it, was in some way autobiographical. My central characters were typically a cipher for me—like me but not me, with one-syllable names. Jack Cho, for example, the recurring character in four of my first published stories, all a part of that rejected experimental novel. Jack was a Korean American gay man from San Francisco, the only son of a single mother, who moves to New York for love and becomes involved in ACT UP. His relationship to me was more than accidental, but not so close that I couldn’t delineate his experiences from my own. Even the name, Cho, was like Chee—a name that was Chinese and also Korean. I invented Jack to help me think through my relationship to activism and sex. Other stories I wrote at the time were investigations of various friendships, relationships, and breakups. I was, meanwhile, struggling with an existential issue that my writing peers from more normative backgrounds simply didn’t have to address. Kit Reed, my undergraduate fiction teacher, first identified it. She told me that if I was fast enough, I might be the first Korean American novelist. She wasn’t entirely right, through no fault of hers: Younghill Kang was, in fact, that person, but he was, until recently, lost to contemporary literary history. And when Chang-rae Lee published Native Speaker, in 1995, she said, “Well, you’ll be the first gay one.” And she would be right.

None of this was inherently interesting to me, however, at age twenty, and it felt strange, even uncomfortable, to aspire to. I was by now used to people being surprised by me and my background, and their surprise offended me. I was always having to be what I was looking for in the world, wishing that the person I would become already existed—some other I before me. I was forever finding even the tiniest way to identify with people in order to escape how empty the world seemed to be of what I was. My long-standing love for the singer Roland Gift, for example, came partly from finding out he was part Chinese. The same for the model Naomi Campbell. Unspoken in all of this was that I didn’t feel Korean American in a way that felt reliable. I was still discovering that identities are unreliable precisely because they are self-made.

When people told me to write about my family, it felt like I was being told that my own imagination wasn’t good enough, that I could only write one kind of person. For a fiction writer, this was a double standard: I was supposed to both invent characters from whole cloth and tattoo my biography onto each of them. The absurdity of casting my every story in half-Korean gay characters alone made me rebel. I think every writer with a noncanonical background, or even a canonical one, faces this at some point. I was fighting with this idea, in any case, when I pulled out a binder I had promised myself I would look at once I got to New York.

I had assembled the binder a few months earlier, in the spring, as I was going through my papers, deciding what to save and what to throw away when I left Iowa. I discovered some pieces of writing that initially seemed to have no common denominator. There was a short story, written in college; several unpublished poems, whose blank verse felt a little too blank, more lyrical prose than prose poem; a fragment of an unfinished novel, with a scene in which a young man kills himself by setting himself on fire; and a fragment of an unfinished autobiographical essay about the lighthouses in my hometown at night. I put them all in a binder and said, out loud, “When we get to New York, tell me what you are.”

I think I knew all along that the process of writing a novel was less straightforward than it seemed. But thus far it hadn’t seemed straightforward at all. Perhaps out of a desire not to appear prescriptive, at no point in my education as a writer had my teachers offered specific instruction on the writing of novels and stories. We read novels and stories copiously, argued about what they were constantly, but plot was disdained if it was ever discussed, and in general I went through the MFA feeling as though I had to learn everything via context clues, as if I had wandered into a place where everyone already knew what I did not know, and I had to catch up without letting on.

The one conversation I can remember having about the conception of a novel had come indirectly, several years earlier. In college, when I was at work on my first collection of short stories for a senior creative writing thesis, I had the good fortune to be classmates with the writer Adina Hoffman, who read my collection and delivered this news: “I think that these all want to be a novel,” she said. “I think you want to write a novel.”

Hoffman’s idea challenged me at first—I had been trying very hard to write stories, and I felt as if I had failed. The connections between the stories seemed at best remote to me. But over time I understood: she saw the way each of them had roots that connected to one other, and also the way I’d formed a narrative in my ordering of them. Even the enjambments between sections gave the reader the pause you feel as you understand a story is about to unfold. And when it didn’t go further, it felt like a mistake. This vision of my own process, and the way it has informed what I do, and even how I teach, continues to this day. That day when I asked my fragments to tell me what they were when we arrived in New York, before I got into my loaded car and drove there, I knew I was calling out to a novel. I knew these pieces had their own desire to be whole. And as I opened the binder, that summer in New York, and read through the fragments again, I could sense the shadow of something in the links possible between them, and began to write to the shape of it.

The first plot I came up with was drawn right from that summer: a young man returns home to help his mother move out of their family home. She’s been forced into bankruptcy after being betrayed by a business partner, and the son finds her lost in depression and grief—still grieving her husband, his father, who died eight years earlier. The son plots his revenge on the lawyer he sees as responsible for his mother’s troubles, hoping to find a measure of justice, and then a lightning strike burns the lawyer’s house to the ground.

The main character was, of course, another cipher for me.

At one hundred thirty-five pages, I sent it to my agent, who said, “It’s beautifully written. But it’s a little hokey, in the sense that no one is going to believe this many bad things happened to one person.”

I laughed. I had found my own life implausible on several occasions. I don’t recall that I said anything to this.

“Still, it really picks up after page ninety,” she said. “Keep going.”

When I look at that first manuscript, I can see again how the plot was, well, not a plot—it was only a list of things that had happened. I also see what she felt changed on page ninety. After the narrator visits his father’s grave, the novel moves into the past, and into the present tense.

This is how I remember the summer of being twelve to thirteen: foghorn nights, days on bicycles at beaches, lunches of sandwiches and soda. My mother works to get recycling made mandatory, sends me off into parking lots with hands full of bottle-bill bumper stickers as she does the grocery shopping. My hair is long and wavy and I am vain about the blond highlights at my temples that my father admires. Summer in Maine starts with the black flies and mosquitoes rising out of the marshes to fill the woods, and they drive the deer mad enough to run in the roads. The tan French-Canadians arrive in cars, wear bikinis, eat lobsters, glitter in their gold jewelry and suntan oils. The New Yorkers bewilder and are bewildered, a little cranky. The Massachusetts contingent lords around, arrogant, bemused. They are all we have, these visitors. The fisheries industry is dying, the shoe manufacturing industry, the potato farms, all are dying. Our fish are gone, our shoes are too expensive, the potatoes, not big enough. The shallow-water lobster was made extinct the year I was born, quietly dropped into a pot, and now we serve the deep-water brothers and sisters. The bay no longer freezes in winter and dolphins have not visited us in decades. In a few years, cutbacks will close our naval-yards. Soon a doughnut shop will be a nervous place to be. We can only serve the visitors and make sure everything is peaceful and attractive as we sell them our homes, the furnishings inside them, the food we couldn’t think of eating.

A space break, and then:

The sun is hours from setting. I am sunburned, tired, covered in sand. I go into the bathroom, lock the door and lay down on the floor. On my back the cool tiles count themselves. I pull down my trunks, kick them across the floor to the door. The only light a faint stream coming in under the door, a silver gleam. I look into it and wait for time to pass.

I’d moved into the present tense as I had the idea of making the novel into something like Cat’s Eye, by Margaret Atwood, a novel I loved, told from alternating points of view by the same person at different times in her life. An artist goes home for a retrospective of her work, and memories of the scalding love of her best friend from childhood return and overwhelm her. The novel uses past tense for the sections in the present, and present tense for the sections in the past, and between the two, the reader develops a sense of what the girl experienced that the adult does not remember.

I was interested in this idea of the self brought to a confrontation with the past through the structure of the narration. But what I found in writing in the present tense was that it acted like self-hypnosis. Discussions of the tense often speak of the effect on the reader, but the effect on the writer is just as important. Using it casts a powerful spell on the writer’s own mind. And it is a commonly used spell. The present is the verb tense of the casual story told in person, to a friend—So I’m at the park, and I see this woman I almost recognize . . .—a gesture many of us use. It is also the tense victims of trauma use to describe their own assaults. I didn’t yet know what I was trying to do.

The pages previous to this, in the past tense, shed a little light on what my agent meant by “no one will believe this many bad things happened to one person.” The draft included my father’s car accident and subsequent coma; the suicidal rage he emerged with, which returned in storms until his death; my father’s family’s various betrayals of us, ranging from stealing bank statements for my father’s business, to suing for custody of me and my siblings, to accusing my mother of infidelity while she was caring for my father; and my own suicidal feelings, and sexual abuse, which I hadn’t told anyone about, because I feared becoming even more of a pariah than I already was just for being mixed. And while it had never felt like love or community, it had almost felt like not being alone.

These autobiographical events were not organized within the novel in any way. When I was helping my mother move, I’d noticed she had not truly moved in; she had just left everything where the movers had dropped it. I’d had the sense of being in the presence of a metaphor, and I was: my novel draft was like that. Page ninety was where my narrator’s attention turned inward, when he looked away from the crisis in his mother’s life to see his own.

I cut those first ninety pages and continued with the remaining forty-five, using them as the new beginning. These pages took up the problem of my narrator’s silence and his urge to self-destruct, and saw it as if for the first time.

The college story in the fragments binder had been my first attempt to write about my abuse: a story about a boy in a boys’ choir who cannot speak about what is happening to him, and thus can’t warn away the other boys, and so the director continues his crimes until he is arrested, and the boy blames himself for the role his silence played in the ongoing disaster. The boy wants to kill himself once the crimes are revealed—ashamed of his silence more than anything else—and is prevented by the accidental intervention of a friend, a victim also, one of the boys he was unable to protect. This, I understood, was where that story belonged. I had written my way there, and that was what came next. As I continued, this happened again and again: I would pause, find a place to insert a section from the binder, and continue, writing it all in the present tense.

3

 

In an interview with the Iowa Review, Deborah Eisenberg describes learning from Ruth Prahwer Jhabvala that it is possible to write a kind of fake autobiography, and that idea—the one I understood from that quote—guided me next. I needed to make a “fake autobiography,” for someone like me but not me, giving him the situations of my life but not the events. He would be a little more unhinged, a little less afraid, a little more angry. These inventions were also ethically necessary: they gave anyone else involved in the real events distance and anonymity. As I began imagining the memories that drew my narrator into the past, I found myself wondering what that boy was looking into, in the light under the crack in the door.

There’s a quotation in my journals from June 4, 1998, four years into the writing of the novel: “These stories are gothics, and have in common a myth of a kind where the end result is the same paralysis.” I don’t remember who said this to me. There is no attribution and no context. I think I must have thought I would always remember the speaker—my hubris, and as such, a common omission in my journals. But it succinctly describes many of my early attempts at fiction, what I was reading, even what I thought of as my life, and the primary challenge I faced next with the novel.

The boy needed a plot. I wanted to write a novel that would take a reader by the collar and run. And yet I was drawn to writing stories where nothing happened.

My stories and early novel starts were often criticized for their lack of plot. I was imitating the plotless fiction of the 1980s, but also, it seems, lost in a landscape where I unthinkingly reenacted the traumas of my youth. All of my stories lacked action or ended in inaction because that was what my imagination had always done to protect me from my own life: the child’s mistaken belief that if he stays still and silent, he cannot be seen. I had believed this without quite knowing I believed it. In light of this insight, I knew I needed a new imagination. I needed to imagine action.

The plots I liked best worked through melodrama, the story’s heart worn on its sleeve and then bloodied up: rings of power, swords, curses, spells, monsters and ghosts, coincidence and fate. These were safe to the person I had been, as all of them were imaginary and impossible problems with imaginary and impossible solutions. They consoled, but they did not consist of choices, emotions, and consequences, people exchanging the information they needed to live their lives. Finding a magic ring of power that would allow me to face an enemy who had won all our fights before was not the same as mastering myself for the same fight. And these stories rarely required that the hero change. The plotless literary fiction of the eighties and the blockbuster science-fiction novels I’d read and loved until now had in common a consoling, thrilling power, but neither could teach how to write this novel. I needed to learn how plot and causality could be expressed in story—not one I read, but one I wrote. Stories about the most difficult things need to provide catharsis, or the reader will stop reading, or go mad.

I examined my favorite myths and operas, searching for plots I loved, ones with explicit action, drama, and catharsis. Tosca, for example, where everyone conceals a motive in their actions, and at the end everyone is dead. Or the stories that made me uncomfortable, but that I never forgot, like the myth of Myrrha, who falls in love with her father, poses as his concubine, becomes pregnant, and is turned into a myrrh tree. When she gives birth, tree nymphs hear the crying child, cut him loose, and care for him, raising him as their own. The tree weeps myrrh forever after. Forbidden desire, acted upon, results in transformation, paralysis, and then catharsis. I needed to learn how to make something like this, but not this exactly. I needed to hack a myth, to use the structures of myth to provide some other result. I wanted my novel to be about this thing no one wanted to think about, but to write it in such a way that no one would be able to put the book down, and in a way that would give it authority, and perhaps even longevity.

Mythic plots contain events so shocking or implausible that the reader sympathizes with the characters’ emotions instead, the recognizable humanity there: loss, forbidden love, treachery. No one has ever said they couldn’t empathize with Hera for her jealousy when Zeus takes lovers just because they themselves never lived on Mount Olympus. The recognizable emotions in the story did this. As I remembered the way we victims were met with condescension, disgust, and scorn, I knew that if I told our story, or something like it, I would have to construct a machine that moved readers along, anticipating and defeating their possible objections by taking them by another route—one that would surprise them. They would want to grasp for something familiar amid it all. Plot could do this.

Plot was also a way of facing what I couldn’t or wouldn’t remember. The gothic story that led the character into paralysis left me paralyzed and unable to write. Annie Dillard, in my nonfiction class at Wesleyan, had warned us that writing about the past was like submerging yourself in a diving bell: you sink down to the bottom of your own sea. You could get the bends. You had to take care not to let the past self take over, the child with the child’s injuries, the child’s perceptions. “All of us were picked on, growing up,” she said. “Come up before that happens.” I knew that my situation was different, but also the same. I would need a way to descend and return safely. Turning myself into a character, inventing a plot, turning that past into fiction, I hoped, could solve for all of this.

4

 

Autobiographical fiction requires as much research as any other kind of fiction, in my experience. I bought books about sexual abuse, the predatory patterns of pedophiles, and a self-help book for survivors, which I needed more than I knew. I bought a book about the flora and fauna of Maine in every season. I took out my old sheet music from the choir. Whether or not I could trust my memory, I was also writing across gaps, things I wouldn’t let myself remember. While I had no choice except to invent my way forward, I relied on material that contained the facts I needed.

I also bought a weathered copy of Aristotle’s Poetics, Malcolm Heath’s translation, with tiny print and crumbling pages, at a library sale. I don’t know for sure when I purchased it. All I know is that at some point, looking to address my need for story, for plot and catharsis, I turned to Aristotle. The book is remarkable for many reasons, including the pleasure to be found in reading Aristotle on tragedy, as if it has just been invented, speaking confidently about how no one knows the origins of comedy, but that probably it is from Sicily. He notes that the root of “drama” is the Greek verb dran, which means “to do” or “to act,” and this became one of the most powerful insights for me. Memorable action is always more important to a story—action can even operate the way rhyme and meter do, as a mnemonic device. You remember a story for what people did.

Tragedy is a representation of an action of a superior kind—grand, and complete in itself, presented in embellished language, in distinct forms in different parts, performed by actors rather than told by a narrator, effecting, through pity and fear, the purification of such emotions.

Here the text is footnoted:

purification: the Greek word katharsis, which occurs only here in the Poetics, is not defined by Aristotle and its meaning is much controverted.

Pity and fear and grand action. And purification. This was what I was after. I had reached for the right instructions.

Reading Aristotle to learn how to structure a novel means reading at an angle, almost at cross purposes, but I understood him all the same. And rereading him now, I still thrill to his descriptions of beginning, middle, and end, or his casual mention, in the section on scale, of “an animal a thousand miles long—the impossibility of taking it all in at a single glance.” While he was speaking of scale in the story, this was, in a sense, what a novel was: a thought so long it could not be perceived all at once. His assured way of saying that a story “built around a single person is not, as some people think, thereby unified” gave me an understanding of both the idea of a person, and the way it was distinct from a story about a person, and what this meant for his claim that Homer “constructed the Odyssey, and the Iliad, too, around a single action”—of the grand kind—was for me like watching lightning. A single grand action unifies a story more than a single person, the characters memorable for the parts they play inside it. Or it did, at least, for the novel I was writing. And that is the thing that is harder to describe. Each of these lessons meant something specific to me as I constructed the novel; who can say what they will mean for others?

Also of great use to me was the very simple explanation of “something happening after certain events and something happening because of them.” I think of this as a chain of consequences, made from the mix of free will and fate that only one’s own moral character creates. Finally, Aristotle’s comparison of poetry and history struck me as precisely the difference between fiction and autobiography. Or at least, fiction and life.

From what has been said it is clear that the poet’s job is not relating what actually happened, but rather the kind of thing that would happen—that is to say, what is possible in terms of probability and necessity. The difference between a historian and a poet is not a matter of using verse or prose: you might put the works of Herodotus into verse and it would be a history in verse no less than in prose. The difference is that the one relates what actually happened, and the other the kinds of events that would happen.

For this reason poetry is more philosophical and more serious than history; poetry utters universal truths, history particular statements.

This was where my biggest problem lay. The difference is that the one relates what actually happened, and the other the kinds of events that would happen. Recounting the way in which these terrible things had happened to me did not lead the reader to the sense of a grand act of the kind Aristotle describes. A simple recounting did not convince. The plot I needed would have to work in this other way, out of a sense of what would happen to someone like me in this situation, not what did happen or had happened to me. The story of my mother’s financial destruction, for example, one of the great tragedies of my life, would not pass muster with Aristotle as something that would arouse the audience to pity and fear and eventual purification. As a story, it was only the account of good people undone by misfortune, and any poetic truth to it belonged to my mother, to share or not share as she preferred.

I chose one of my favorite operas, Lucia di Lammermoor, based on the novel The Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott, as a model for my plot. A young man seduces and then betrays the daughter of the man who destroyed his father, as an act of revenge, but he unleashes a terrible murder beyond his control. I decided I would queer it: instead of the daughter, there would be a son. And instead of a marriage, the doomed love of a student for a teacher.

The choir director character in my draft thus far had a son, Warden, age two at the time of his arrest and trial, and this was the clear Aristotelian tragic line to draw: sixteen years later, Warden is the spitting image of the best friend my narrator, Fee, had been unable to protect, his father mostly unknown to him for having been in prison. Fee meets Warden when he takes a job at his school, falls in love with him, and thus is seduced, unknowingly, by the son of the man who molested him as a child, these many years later. Only after they fall in love do they discover the truth about each other.

I set about making up someone like me but not me. I brought the father back to life and restored the mother. The grandparents whom I had never known well because they lived in Korea I moved into Fee’s family home, to live with him.

Then I turned my attention to my main character’s family in greater detail, through the plot’s other parent: the myth of the kitsune, the shape-changing Japanese fox demon. When I read in the lore that red hair was considered a possible sign of fox ancestry, I recalled the single red hair my father used to pull out of his head and the benign stories he made up for me at bedtime about foxes, and went looking for a fox ancestor. I found the story of Lady Tammamo, a medieval Japanese fox demon who had come to Japan from China. According to legend, she escaped her pursuers by leaping from a rock that split from the simple force of her standing on it, just before she vanished into the air. When I looked up where the rock was—said to emit murderous gases until exorcised of her ghost—I saw she could fly in a straight line to the island off the coast of Korea my father’s family came from. I could continue Lady Tammamo’s story, braiding her, fantastically, into the ancestry of my autobiographical narrator.

The foxes in these kitsune stories were said to be able to take the shape of both men and women, but the stories were only ever about foxes as women. I queered the myth much the way I had the opera, making up a fox story about a fox taking the shape of a boy. I decided to give my cipher a life like mine but not mine, one in which he would always be made to feel uncanny, and then made that feeling literal: Fee suspects himself to be part fox, a little alien in the way that makes you entirely alien. A complex tragedy, then, as Aristotle calls it—with two characters, my cipher and the director’s son, no single narrator, reversals and discoveries, “fearsome and pitiable events,” my plot born of a Japanese legend exiled to Korea, and a Scottish novel turned into an Italian opera. The original reason for the title Edinburgh was no longer in the manuscript—I had discarded my plan to send Fee to the University of Edinburgh—but I kept it. It now made sense to me for new reasons that had nothing to do with my life, as a symbol of the novel’s eventual separate life.

I made a world I knew, but not the world I knew, and told a story there.

5

 

Sometimes the writer writes one novel, then another, then another, and the first one he sells is the first one the public sees, but usually, the debut novel is not the first novel the writer wrote. There’s a private idea of the writer, known to the writer and whoever rejected him previously, and a public one, visible only in publication. Each book is something of a mask of the troubles that went into it, no matter how autobiographical it is, and so is the writer’s visible career.

Edinburgh was almost that for me. I finished a draft of Edinburgh finally in 1999 and applied for the Michener-Copernicus Fellowship, a postgraduate award of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. That’s twenty dollars I’ve wasted, I remember thinking as I mailed the application. I’d applied before with unfinished excerpts of the same novel; this was the first time I sent the entire thing. Frank Conroy called my agent a few months later to tell her I would be getting the prize. She then left me the most thrilling voicemail of my life. I remember listening to it in a phone booth on the corner of Third Avenue and Fourteenth Street, just listening as she described how excited she was. Conroy had picked up the novel in the morning and read it all day to the end. When he decided to give me the prize, he called my agent, alerting her in advance of the official announcement.

He said he would do all he could to help sell the novel. It seemed like publication was close. Instead, the submission process went on for two years, and the book was rejected twenty-four times. Editors didn’t seem to know if it should be sold as a gay novel or an Asian American novel. There was no coming-out story in it, and while the main character was the son of an immigrant, immigration played no part in the story. “It’s a novel,” I said when my agent asked me what kind of novel it was. “I wrote a novel.”

She eventually asked me to withdraw the manuscript from submission.

The days of imagining that I could write a “shitty autobiographical first novel just like everyone else” and sell it for a great deal of money were five years behind me. The Michener- Copernicus award came with a one-year monthly stipend that allowed me to work less and write more. It was meant to help writers during what was typically the first year of work on a novel, since debut authors often receive small advances. The grant was more than twice the advance eventually offered by the independent press that accepted Edinburgh, when, after refusing to withdraw the novel from submission, I left my first agent and found a publisher on my own. My editor was a Korean American from Maine named Chuck Kim. It was a coincidence out of a novel—my novel, actually.

It’s the story of my life, Chuck told me.

I really hope not, I said, hoping he had a happier life than the Greek tragedy I had made of myself.

You’re my Mishima, he said, once I agreed to the contract.

I really hope not, I said, wishing for a happier future than the Japanese writer and suicide Yukio Mishima.

I was the first living author for this house, the now-bankrupt Welcome Rain, which I called “Two Guys in a Basement on Twenty-Sixth Street.” Chuck and his boss. They were smart, ambitious men who made their business publishing books, mostly in translation, mostly by dead authors. Chuck frequently had me to his home for dinner with his wife and brother, and we would speak of Korea and Maine equally. I had based Fee a little on someone I knew in childhood, a young woman who would always try to kill herself, and fail every time, and who turned out to be a friend of Chuck’s as well.

I feel as if you’re on a mission with this novel, and I don’t think it’s in your best interest to complete it, my first agent had said when she tried to convince me to let it go. No one will want to review this, given how dark the material is, and they won’t want to tour you with it, she said. One editor had rejected the novel with a note saying, “I’m not ready for this.” I don’t want to say the problem was the whiteness of publishing at the time, but it was not lost on me that the first editor to try to sign it up was Asian American also: Hanya Yanagihara, who then worked at Riverhead Books. She ultimately agreed to submit it for the Pushcart Prize, which allowed editors to nominate works they had tried and failed to acquire. I was preparing my manuscript for this when I met Chuck.

With Chuck behind the novel, everything changed. His enthusiasm for it was peerless. He got it in front of scouts, in front of editors at the New Yorker, and he hired a freelance publicist to pitch it to newspapers and magazines. Eventually the paperback rights went up for auction and eleven of the houses that had turned it down for hardcover asked to see it again. One editor even sent a note: “I feel as if we let something precious slip through our fingers.” The winner, Picador, had in fact turned it down for hardcover.

But the result that mattered most came when I received a postcard from a friend of mine, the writer Noel Alumit, who also works as a bookseller. He had enthusiastically pressed the novel on a friend, who sent it to a prisoner he was corresponding with, a man serving time for pedophilia: he’d been convicted of having a relationship with a teenage boy. The card, written by the prisoner to the friend, described how he read the novel in four days and didn’t speak the entire time. People thought he was ill. “This is the only thing that ever told me how what I did was wrong,” he wrote.

I didn’t know I had written it to do this, but then I did.

I wish I could show you the roomful of people who’ve told me the novel is the story of their lives. Each of them as different as could be.

I don’t know if I’d be in that room.

Alexander Chee is the author of the novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night. He is a con-tributing editor at the New Republic, an editor at large atVQR, and an associate professor of English and creative writing at Dartmouth College. “The Autobiography of My Novel” is part of his forthcoming essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.

Read More

Web Design and Development by Riverworks Marketing