Alexander Chee's Voice Shines Through In 'Queen Of The Night'The long-awaited novel follows a famous opera singer on her journey of constant reinvention. Despite the 19th century France setting, Chee admits there are autobiographical elements.
Alexander Chee's Voice Shines Through In 'Queen Of The Night'
Readers have waited almost 15 years for a second novel from the acclaimed Alexander Chee, following the highly-praised Edinburgh. The wait is over.
The Queen Of The Night is sprawling, soaring, bawdy and plotted like a fine embroidery. Lilliet Berne is the most famous soprano in the French opera. She is offered the role of a lifetime: an original part written for her. But then she sees that the opera must be based on a part of her life she's kept under wraps.
Who would so precisely, exquisitely and cruelly use her past against her? Lilliet Berne's journey to discover that, and herself, propels a story of the Second French Empire featuring a number of characters also drawn from history.
In an interview with Scott Simon, Chee discusses the inspiration for his protagonist, opera singer Jenny Lind, and his connections to a character who, on the surface, comes from a very different background and place in history.
Scott Simon: Did this story begin for you with a photo of a woman in a cape?
Alexander Chee: In a way it did. That was one of the elements that was the most powerful draw, I suppose — there were a number of things. Back when I began this novel I had a writing exercise I would give my students where I would ask them to take photos that they found particularly compelling, a group of them, and kind of arrange them in an order and make a story out of them. And I suppose I did something of the same. I found this one from the Minneapolis Ice Festival in 1882: a picture of a woman wearing a fur cloak inside of a castle made entirely of ice, holding a torch, and I couldn't quite see her face in the picture and I just, I just kept looking at it.
SS: You spent your childhood inSouth Korea,Kauai,Truk,GuamandMaine. Does that variety in your background give you some sense of identity with your character?
AC: I think in writing her, I was writing about a certain sense of placeless-ness, of feeling like I was not from any particular place.
SS: A lot of people believe that [Edinburgh] had to have autobiographical themes. This novel doesn't have such obvious similarities — or am I missing something?
AC: I have joked that it is yet another autobiographical novel from Alexander Chee. But I think the autobiography in this — to the extent that there is any in this — is in things like: When you are a professionally-trained singer in a boys choir, you are very aware that there is a time limit on your voice. And I think it was then that I began to become fascinated with women sopranos who seemed to have less of a limit because I loved my voice so much as a child and I couldn't imagine myself, once I could sing with it, I couldn't imagine who I would be without it and so that is very much in this book.
SS: We encounter Lilliet in so many different incarnations. Is there something about her that is always true or does she shape shift within our imaginations?
AC: That's a very good question. I think one of the things that I always loved about her was her fierce will to live and to have a destiny that she could believe in, in a sense. And so through all of her reversals of fortune, all of her adventures, all of the disguises — that remains. But all of it, in a sense, is done to protect that will that remains. Even, in a sense, when she at one point seems to give up on it. That she has some urge to survive that's larger than herself.