“I Would Never Forgive Myself if I Let the Book Go Out”

Alexander Chee on why, three years ago, he withdrew his novel The Queen of the Night just before publication.

Alexander Chee.

M. Sharkey

Alexander Chee’s lyrical, disturbing first novel Edinburgh was quietly published in 2001 by an independent press. The novel drew praise, was re-released by Picador, and marked Chee as an important emerging voice. He went on to write essays and criticism while struggling with his second novel.

Fifteen years later, that second novel, The Queen of the Night, is out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It could hardly be more different from his debut: a dense and dazzling 600-page historical epic that traces the life of the shape-shifting Lilliet Berne, an orphaned American girl who joins a traveling equestrian circus and sails with them to France intending to find her mother’s family. But once in Paris she discovers a world of glamour and friendship, sex and opera—and her own extraordinary voice. Through the excess of the Second French Empire and the violence that ends it, Lilliet tries on a string of identities—prostitute, maid, courtesan, protégé, and at last, world-famous soprano.

The novel is a bravura performance, a kaleidoscopic portrait of an artist as a young woman and paean to the glories of fashion and art, melodrama, and the myths we tell about ourselves. It didn’t come easily. I talked with Chee by Skype about the long journey from first novel to second and why, three years ago, he withdrew the book just months before its scheduled publication date.

I first read The Queen of the Night in early 2013 when I came on to copy edit the manuscript. But a few months later you decided you weren’t comfortable with it. You pulled it back and publication was postponed. Ever since, I’ve been curious: Why?

When I was doing some fact-checking, I stumbled across some important research I didn’t have when I was writing—about the life of an important character in the book, Lilliet’s teacher Pauline Viardot Garcia, who was a famous soprano and composer. I found all of these wonderful new details, and not using them, it struck me, would be an inexcusable omission. By the way, thank you, JSTOR. I need to give JSTOR a big shoutout in the revision of this novel.

What did you find?

An incredible trove of details about Pauline’s life and her relationships with Turgenev and George Sand, as well as Pauline’s letters. All the new details helped make Lilliet’s relationship with Pauline so much richer.

So how do you pull a novel just a few months before publication? That’s kind of a big deal.

At first I thought: OK, you really can’t delay things more than you have already. That would be a horrible thing to do to yourself at this point in your career. But the more I thought about it, I realized I would never forgive myself if I let the book go out and did not include some kind of redramatization of Lilliet’s relationship with Pauline. So I made the case to my agent. She made the case to my editor. We pulled the book back and I wrote somewhere between 70 and 100 new pages altogether. I was so in love with Pauline as a character. I felt like after finding all this new material that if I didn’t use it in the novel, I would just end up publishing some kind of novella about Pauline independently, which would be a shitty consolation.

Back in early 2013, you’d recently completed a new restructuring, and you weren’t totally comfortable with it. What was going on before you handed it in that first time?

The structure was basically the hardest part of the novel. I thought I was going to lose my mind making it all fit together. Sometimes I was sure I actually had lost my mind. There was an especially bad winter I was living in Leipzig, where I spent a lot of time walking around feeling like I was never going to finish and everything was hopeless. It was a very difficult time. The longer the novel was unfinished, the more it endangered my ability to keep teaching, which was a large part of my income. It endangered my ability to get further grants. It endangered my relationship, because I had been working on the novel so obsessively for so long that my partner felt widowed by the project. Everything in my life felt like it was being crushed to death underneath this problem: How should the novel be structured?

How did you break through that?

Actually, my first ideas about the novel, the ones that for a long time I trusted least, were the ones that solved the problem. I’d run as far away from them as I could. But the only answer was the first answer: It would be a retrospective novel about Lilliet looking back on these different pieces of her life and trying to make sense of them. The idea that she may be cursed was also one of those old ideas—she’s afraid she’s destined to repeat the fate of her characters. But I’d worried that was too corny. Finally I realized I had no business writing a novel about opera if I wasn’t going to be able to risk being corny.

You published Edinburgh in 2001. What made the journey to the second novel so long?

I had the idea for it around 2000, around the time Edinburgh was going out on submission. And there was an incredible amount of excitement about The Queen of the Night even back then. Sorry, that sounds horribly conceited. It dwarfed the attention to Edinburgh. There was the novel I was trying to sell and there was this, like, two paragraphs about a novel I might write in the future, and every publisher was like: Can you do that one?

That sounds like a mind-fuck.

It was incredibly depressing. I’d already tried to find a publisher for a previous manuscript, which was bigger, more ambitious—I’d wanted to write a Great American Novel–type novel but centered on the AIDS activists in San Francisco and New York. That got nowhere, no surprise. Then I sat down to try to write Edinburgh, an autobiographical novel, and that took five years to write and two years to sell. So when publishers were saying, can you write this other one now? I thought: If I keep going back to see if publishers like something, where am I going get in my life? So I found an independent publisher for Edinburgh, and tried to move on. But in the aftermath, I was pretty bitter. I didn’t feel like I’d tried to do anything particularly more difficult with Edinburgh than any other …

Debut novel?

Yeah, exactly. So it took me a while to get back to The Queen of the Night. I was angry with it as an idea because I felt like it had sort of ruined my life, by taking so much attention away from Edinburgh. So it essentially languished in a drawer until 2004, when I pulled it out, dusted it off and thought, Oh, I actually really like this idea.

When you turned it in the first time your editor seemed perfectly happy with it.

Andrea Schulz became my editor in 2009. She loved the novel right away, and I’m really grateful to her for that, because I really did need that boost of enthusiasm at the time. So I can’t thank her enough for this eventual publication, especially with her being so kind as to allow me to hold the novel and restructure it in 2013.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a novel pulled so late before.

It’s pretty rare. In general publishers don’t want to do it. And why would they? I think everyone involved thought the novel was fine just the way it was. But the only thing, in the end, that protects you is that you did the book the way you wanted to, because then if it succeeds or fails, at least you have that satisfaction. At least you didn’t compromise and then fail. If you compromise and then you succeed, that’s another kind of feeling. But if you compromise and fail, it’s two failures at least.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.