AUTHORLINK: When did you know how it would turn out?
CHEE: I didn’t know at the time I began. But the current ending –on the circus train–came from some of the first pages I wrote. I remember thinking the novel began there but in fact it was the story of how she got there.
AUTHORLINK: How did your own background influence the story? What is your musical background?
CHEE: I was a singer as a boy, a boy soprano. The voice is very different. No vibrato. Also no future, or, a short one. You know you have just a few years before the voice goes away. I loved my voice though, and felt like it had saved me from an unhappy childhood. And when it left me, I felt abandoned. So it isn’t entirely strange that I wrote a novel about a soprano singer who fears the loss of her voice so much she doesn’t speak.
AUTHORLINK: Did you have to fictionalize the historical characters much to fit them into your story?
CHEE: No, but I had to inhabit them. I didn’t want to fictionalize them anyway–they we’re so interesting! I tried to make them only out of the known facts of their lives, and then create events out of the implications of those facts. George Sand and Pauline Viardot really did have birthdays close to each other and enjoyed celebrating together. Turgenev really did have a dog that only liked women–except for his friend and lover, Pauline. Details like that are gold. No need to improve on that.
AUTHORLINK: Why did you choose to skip the quotation marks?
CHEE: The novel is her memory of what was said to her and what she thought of it; the speakers were often speaking in French and German. Their conversations, however, are rendered in English–she is writing this to figure herself out. I wanted it to be both like and unlike a celebrity autobiography of the time. Which typically rendered any dialogue from another country in English.
Using quotation marks would have drawn attention to the language the dialogue was in and would have made readers challenge that instead: “if they’re in Germany, why so much English?” But if I had rendered the dialogue in quotes and with French and German instead of English, that would have alienated more readers than the lack of quotation marks. It was a tricky business. But I feel it made the novel more personal.
Some online reviewers have complained of it, saying it is ungrammatical, but technically the first person means one person telling the entire story, even when she quotes someone else. I grew up reading writers like Cormac McCarthy and James Joyce, who likewise didn’t use them, so it seemed normal to me. This is not a radical choice. My first novel was done this way. If I’m ungrammatical than so are those writers and I’m content to hang out with them.