The Queen of the Night

Chee’s Novel Rips Open
the World of French Opera and Politics

An exclusive Authorlink interview

By Diane Slocum

May, 2016

The Queen of the Night
by Alexander Chee
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The Queen of the Night, Alexander Chee, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt –Tragedy throws a young Minnesota farm girl with an incredible voice and equestrian skills in with a circus bound for Europe. During a performance in France, the emperor gives her a jewel, which turns up much later under mysterious circumstances.  Lilliet runs away from the circus to find her only known relative in Switzerland, winds up in a brothel in Paris and meets an opera tenor who recognizes the potential of her voice. This sets her on a journey of intrigue from the imperial courts to the starvation of the revolution, always wondering who is pulling her strings and why and how she may reinvent herself next. 

“The main character, Lilliet, came to me by accident–I fell in love with a mistake .”

AUTHORLINK: How did you come up with the idea for this story?

CHEE:  The main character, Lilliet, came to me by accident–I fell in love with a mistake. A friend had told me a long story about Jenny Lind, “the Swedish Nightingale”, an opera celebrity from the 19th Century. She retired in 1850 at a very young age after a short career, complaining that she thought opera was immoral, but PT Barnum convinced her to go on a farewell tour that would end up lasting two years, and which made them both very rich. My friend thought this was hilarious.

I left him and began imagining an opera singer on a circus train–because of Barnum, I imagined there was a circus–walking at night along the train, preoccupied with her secrets, her real reason for leaving the stage, and sneaking into the elephant car for solace. I imagined she was not really Swedish but American and passing herself off. And then I got home and looked up the real Jenny Lind and found a remarkable woman who was nothing like what I imagined–no circus, no scandal–and decided I liked my character better. I thought, “Oh, that would be the novel…” So I moved her through time, left Jenny Lind alone, and began. 

I wrote it a little like an interview, imagining questions for this presence that felt like a visitor, and listening to the answers. If you can be haunted by someone who never lived, it was like that. 

“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. “

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.

“. . . it was sold unfinished on the basis of 130 pages. But long novels are popular now. “

AUTHORLINK: Even though this is your second novel, did you have any problems selling your agent/publisher on the length?

CHEE:  No, but this is probably because it was sold unfinished on the basis of 130 pages. But long novels are popular now. I keep hearing from readers who say they wish it wasn’t over, and who loved the immersion. I think there is a new or at least renewed appetite for long fiction. 

AUTHORLINK: How does this story compare to your first novel?

CHEE:  The first was a smaller more intimate contemporary novel, the second is historical fiction at 3 times the length. The first is about the sexual abuse of children, and understanding yourself in relationship to monsters; the second is about war, survival and art, and a world that required the enslavement of women, except for the rare few who were celebrities. 

AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?

CHEE:  A collection of essays and a new novel. I may even use quotation marks. We’ll see.

About the Author:

Alexander Chee is a contributing editor at the New Republic. He has written for Tin House, Slate, NPR and more. He is the recipient of fellowships and residencies. Edinburgh, his first novel, won a Whiting Award. He lives in New York City.

Diane Slocum
Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum

Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.