Author Alexander Chee on Writing, Teaching and Gin

  • Novelist and essayist Alexander Chee, an associate professor in the English and Creative Writing Department at Dartmouth College, received the Paul Engle Prize in August, 2017. The prize is awarded to an individual who "represents a pioneering spirit in the world of literature through writing, editing, publishing, or teaching, and whose active participation in the larger issues of the day has contributed to the betterment of the world through the literary arts," according to the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature website. Chee was photographed in Dartmouth College's Sanborn Hall in Hanover, N.H., Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Alexander Chee, an associate professor in the English and Creative Writing Department at Dartmouth College, speaks to a class about the rewriting process in Hanover, N.H., Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017. Chee received the Paul Engle Prize in August, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, November 16, 2017

“Do you know how to make a white Negroni?” asked the author Alexander Chee on a recent Monday evening. He’d just taken a seat at the bar in Pine, the restaurant at the Hanover Inn, where he likes to go at the end of the day.

“Um,” the bartender said. “I could Google it.”

“That’s OK.” Chee scanned the cocktail specials menu, saw a more traditional Negroni and ordered that one instead. “This’ll be perfect.”

The associate professor of English at Dartmouth College, now in his second year, recently published an essay called The Poisoning in the literary magazine Tin House. In it, he discusses how, exactly, he came to be so fond of gin — particularly in the form of the martini and its lesser-known cousin, the Negroni, which is made with Campari and sweet vermouth and is garnished with an orange slice. “It is often called bitter,” Chee writes in his essay, “but it was never bitter enough for me.”

Bitterness aside, it’s a sweet time to be Alexander Chee. In August, the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature awarded Chee its sixth annual Paul Engle Prize — Roxane Gay and James Alan MacPherson are among the previous recipients — which recognizes him as a “pioneering spirit in the world of literature … whose active participation in the larger issues of the day has contributed to the betterment of the world through the literary arts.”

As well as being a prolific essayist — his byline has appeared in too many big-deal publications to list here and he has a collection, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, forthcoming in April 2018 — he’s believed to be the first openly gay Korean-American author to publish a book, the multiple-award-winning Edinburgh (2001).

This debut, along with the ornate and operatic The Queen of the Night (2016), helped earn him a spot as a fiction judge in this year’s National Book Award competition. He couldn’t be cajoled into sharing anything about how the judging process was going at the time, though he did say he enjoyed listening to acquaintances opine about the nominated titles at social gatherings. Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing was named the winner on Wednesday.

In addition to all that pioneering, Chee is also a man who listens to Beyonce and Kelly Clarkson to get in the zone, who subscribes to several horoscope emails (he’s a Leo, moon in Pisces) and who knows a thing or two about the finer things in life.

The bartender set down two Negronis, and Chee swirled his around so the ice clinked against the glass.

“The advantage of a drink like this,” he said, “is that as the ice melts, it becomes less powerful, so you have an initial first taste of it that’s very strong and sets the tone, but then it softens as the ice melts. It still is the same drink, but if you were drinking, like, a martini that was straight up, you wouldn’t have that ameliorating influence.”

Between sips, Chee reflected on how he came into his current identity as a writer and teacher; like his relationship with gin, it didn’t blossom overnight. Born in Rhode Island in 1967, he lived in numerous places throughout his childhood, the largest chunk of which was in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, the seaside town near Portland best known for what Chee described as the “lighthouse from the Edward Hopper paintings.”

Having grown up as one of the few people of color in a state whose population in 2016 was roughly 95 percent white, Chee feels a particular empathy for the recent influx of Somalian refugees into Maine, many of whom continue to face hostility despite evidence that they’ve helped revitalize struggling communities.

During his campaign, Donald Trump accused the Somali community of producing a crime wave — a claim that police said was false — and Maine’s Republican governor Paul LePage has called refugees “the biggest problem in our state.” And so, in escaping death, Somali asylum-seekers have found themselves at the center of a political narrative they had no role in writing.

“It’s its own kind of fiction,” Chee said. “It plays on people’s fears and desires in some of the same ways as fiction, and it does it in a way where it poses as the thing that confirms your suspicions about x, y and z. And people drink that like it’s free whiskey. Like it’s open bar night on Madness.”

The Hopper reference he’d made was no coincidence: Chee went to Wesleyan University, in Connecticut, dead-set on majoring in visual art. When that didn’t work out the way he’d hoped, he became an English major “by default.”

During his senior year he studied with the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard, who instructed her students not to read any of her work as long as they were her students.

This made a strong impression on Chee, which he recounted in another recent essay: “I’m going to have a big enough influence on you as it is, she said. “You’re going to want to please me just for being your teacher. So I don’t want you trying to imitate me. I don’t want you to write like me. And she paused here. I want you to write like you.”

Chee credits Dillard for the spirit with which he now teaches his own students.

“That seems to me the only honest way that you can teach writing,” he said. “Rather than kind of blindly copying the moves of the great master, understand the great master’s relationship to what he did or what she did, and how you might have that kind of relationship in your life to material that you have intact.”

Though he’s still relatively new to Dartmouth, “I already love it,” he said. Not only are his students professional, hardworking and engaged, but “I’ve also been making friends with the digital humanities folks,” he said. “What they’re doing is definitely about reinventing our relationship with the humanities and sciences in kind of a broad way … with the idea that most jobs that most people will have in 30 years haven’t been invented yet, so you have to prepare people not just for the jobs that exist, but also the ones that they’re going to make up for themselves.”

After Wesleyan, Chee went on to the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where he spoke out against the racism and homophobia he experienced in the program, and was elected “prom king” of his graduating class.

Shortly after receiving his master of fine arts degree in fiction writing, Chee took a job that would change his relationship to liquor: a server position at Sfuzzi, a now-defunct Italian chain on the corner of 65th and Broadway, if he remembers correctly.

“It was an American’s idea of a certain kind of Italian food, you know? We had this Bellini that was supposed to be, you know, peach puree and schnapps and sparkling wine, but it was really more of a frat punch,” he said, and laughed at the memory. “Yeah, you could get really messed up on that one.”

When the Pine bartender circled back, Chee ordered a medium burger on gluten-free toast. Would he like the breaded onions on that? “We can skip those tonight. It’s a sensitivity, not an allergy, but I never really liked those onions. I would love maybe a little red onion, if they have it. If they have it.”

Then: “What kind of gins do you guys have tonight?”

After considering his options, he settled on a martini made with Death’s Door gin. “Straight up, light on the vermouth but vermouth, and a twist. Thank you.”

When the martini came out, Chee tasted it and nodded approvingly. “This is a good one,” he said. “I think Death’s Door gin is one of the best for a martini. It sort of has, like, almost a black pepper quality to it. Mineral or something.”

Around this time, his phone lit up. It was a text from his husband, Dustin Schell, a screenwriter and filmmaker living in New York City. They’d first learned about each other more than a decade ago, through a mutual friend who thought they’d be perfect together, but it was years before they connected.

“Out of all the people I chose to flirt with on Facebook,” Chee joked, “I chose him.” The couple is now working together on a screenplay adaptation of Barry Werth’s play The Scarlet Professor, based on the real-life story of a Smith College scholar whose career and friendships imploded after someone found his stash of homoerotic images.

Though they’ve spent a good part of their relationship living in different places — Schell is a New Yorker to the bone, said Chee — they’re bound by a deep friendship, and a compatible tendency to worry.

“We’re both catastrophists, but differently,” Chee said. “It’s like, we go for a walk in the Catskills, and I’ll be like, ‘Wear sunblock and bug spray and we’ll do a tick check when we get home,’ and he’s like, ugh! Then when we get back, he’s like, ‘We have to wake up at 6:30 so you can leave at 7:30 so you get there by 8, and here’s the bank where you have to deposit that check.’ And I’m like, ugh!”

What it boils down to, though, is looking out for one another. “That’s the part where it meets,” he said. “Also, he’s probably more patient with people than me.”

Chee suspects Schell’s patience came in handy while Chee was working on The Queen of the Night, about an American opera singer whose glamorous life in Paris is a world away, though not far enough, from her traumatic past. It was a 15-year project that, especially toward the end, took on a life of its own. Because he’d sold the novel in advance, he felt guilty that he was taking so long to finish it, and fell into the habit of working on it in what he described as an obsessive way.

“I ruined every family vacation, I ruined my life, to write that book. It was a disaster,” he said, wincing a bit. “So I’ll never sell a book in advance again. There’s always going to be another book, and I can’t ignore my husband forever. I can’t always be like, ‘Just wait, almost done, honey, just wait!’ ”

Obsession — or rather, obsessive curiosity — was also the driving force behind The Queen of the Night. The idea came after Chee ran into his friend, the late writer and humorist David Rakoff, in Brooklyn in the rain.

“For whatever reason he started telling me this long story about (Swedish opera singer) Jenny Lind, who went on this tour that was promoted by P.T. Barnum, while we were like, standing on the corner of 15th and Third, both under umbrellas,” Chee recalled. “I think he called her a 19th-century Cher.”

On the train ride home, he couldn’t stop thinking about the opera singer who was part of the circus, he said. “And I was pretty sure that anyone who called themselves ‘the Swedish nightingale’ had to be, like, lying. They had to really secretly be American and not really European at all.”

Neither of his assumptions turned out to be true: Lind was, in fact, Swedish, and she was never part of any circus.

“At first I was disappointed. But then I was like, ‘I kind of like my idea better,’ ” he said. “So it’s all David Rakoff’s fault.”

But Chee is determined to live the writing life differently this time around. At the time of this interview, Chee was about 100 pages into his third novel, which he’s been writing out by hand.

“It just feels better,” he said.

He’s also taking a leaf from the book of another of his former mentors, the late literary and speculative fiction writer Kit Reed, who held herself to a rigid schedule of writing from 9 a.m. to noon every day, and only then moving on to her other obligations. Chee doesn’t think he’ll take things quite that far, but he thinks there’s an antidote in there somewhere: “The idea of chasing the muse,” he said, “is precisely what I need to get away from.”

Though Chee couldn’t be cajoled into sharing much about the plot of his next novel, he did say it will explore some macabre — and self-referential — themes. “I wouldn’t call it a murder mystery, exactly,” he said. “But I would say that at its core, it’s thinking about murder and murder novels and what that relationship is.”

Chee yawned. It was getting late. He still had to drive back up to his place in Bradford, a town he likes in part because it’s “five or 10 minutes farther (from Dartmouth) than most people would think of as being acceptable,” and he’d promised to call Schell when he got home. He ordered a coffee, and quickly drank it down.

To learn more about Alexander Chee and to sample his work, visit his website at www.thequeenofthenight.com.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.