In Alexander Chee’s latest novel The Queen of the Night, we meet Lilliet Berne, a woman of unknown origin who has risen to soprano stardom in 19th century Paris. One night, at a ball at the Luxembourg Palace, a writer approaches Lilliet with the idea for an opera that will feature a role written for her, every singer’s dream. Yet Lilliet is stunned to hear the plot—the opera tells the secret history of her life.
As Lilliet tries to uncover who might have spilled the truth about her past, we learn how her enchanting yet, at times, cursed voice has taken her from a farm on the American frontier to a traveling circus, the brothels of Paris, the Tuileries Palace, and at last to the opera stage. Famous historical figures, including the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi and the Countess de Castiglione, mistress to Emperor Napoleon III, figure prominently in her life, guiding or foiling Lilliet as she struggles between two men: the Prussian tenor who bought her life, and the composer she loves.
I met Alex at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, where we toured what had served as a writing and research space as well as a source of windfalls and inspiration. Here, Alex had stumbled upon Le Dernier Sorcier (“The Last Sorcerer”), composed by the mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot to a French libretto by Ivan Turgenev. This chamber opera is one of the many performances that readers see unfold in the novel, stories-within-stories that heighten the outsize drama of Lilliet’s life and deepen the mystery she has fallen into.
An innovator and survivor, Lilliet exchanges names, trades masks, and slips from one dress into another as she enters new chapters of her life. Alex and I talked about the impressive women, including the Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, who inspired Lilliet and the development of this sumptuous, intricately elegant novel.
The Rumpus: While you were a visiting writer at Amherst College, you supervised my creative writing thesis for the English Department. I remember the first time I heard about Queen of the Night was when you did a reading from it during my senior year. It’s been five years then. When did you first learn about the “Swedish Nightingale,” and how did the novel evolve from there?
Alexander Chee: I first started the novel in 1999. I ran into my good friend, the late David Rakoff, on the street, and for whatever reason, that day he told me this story about the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind. At the time, he was very focused on how she had a two-year farewell tour promoted by P.T. Barnum. The story cast a spell on me, where I imagined this opera singer touring the United States in the 19th century with the circus. When I got home on the train and was able to look everything up—of course it was the 90s and we didn’t have smartphones to look everything up immediately—she was even more interesting to me. As a little girl, she was overheard singing her music lesson by the director of Sweden’s Royal Opera, and he ordered her to attend the training program. That idea of a talent that was bigger than an artist’s ability to choose to use it, that would dictate the artist’s life more than the artist could dictate, was interesting to me. Especially because later, she wasn’t retiring because her voice was failing. She was retiring because she thought opera was immoral. At least that’s what she told people. And then she did a two-year farewell tour.
Rumpus: Nothing immoral about making money off of that.
Chee: Right. And as I became aware that I might make her life into a novel, I also realized that she was really famous. People really had feelings about her. And so I had the sense that if I wanted to write about her, I would have to write about someone like her, someone who was the woman I suspected that she was. The 19th century was full of tall tales spread by both the audiences and the entertainers. The gossip that you spread about yourself and the gossip that other people spread about you. Not so different from how we live now.
Rumpus: At least in the book Lilliet seems to have much less control over that gossip.
Chee: That loss of control over her own narrative is very much a part of the story. The idea of the novel actually was born out of a statement that both Joan Didion and Oscar Wilde made. They each said, approximately, that the things that you write come true. That inspired the novelist character at the ball.
Rumpus: Your first novel Edinburgh is a coming-of-age story, while Queen of the Night is an ambitious, sprawling work. But I felt they had similar characteristics. The main characters are influenced by what they perceive as their fates and fortunes, there’s passion and violence bound up with love, and they’re both sopranos. What did you learn about your interests while you were writing Queen?
Chee: I had noticed the similarities also. My interest in women’s voices started when I was in the boys’ choir and we were singing in opera choruses. That was my first close-up experience with the female soprano voice. I was amazed at how it could be within the same scale but so different in quality.
There was actually a minor character in Edinburgh who was a soprano singer. In the drafting, she sort of took over the story. I wrote twenty pages with her in it, and then I was like, “This is absurd; I can’t keep this.” I remember as I cut them, I jokingly promised the character, “You’ll get your own novel later.” The Queen of the Night is in some ways the rebirth of that character.
I also felt the pull of this particular era, but I didn’t know why. I did have a friend joke that growing up in Maine was like growing up in the 19th century, or at least growing up in the period that I was writing about. My mom’s family has been in Maine for like three hundred years. So that image of the family graveyard, where Lilliet Berne gets her name, comes from that family graveyard in Maine, which is also on a hill. My mom was born in a farmhouse that is held together with wooden pegs. And that story they tell about Lilliet, of a young woman who is kidnapped and raised by Indians? I had an ancestor I discovered named Mehitabel who was kidnapped that way with her daughter and then eventually returned. A lot of these stories were around me and were part of how I was thinking about Lilliet.
Also, the more that I discovered about that time, the more interested I got in this relationship between the American Wild West and the French Empire. The French Empire was, much as it says in the novel, fascinated with stories of the American West, especially Native Americans. There were even French street gangs called the Apaches. Those kinds of things are not what I think of when I think of that era, or how that era is portrayed. That Paris was actually this really cosmopolitan place with people from all over the world even then. And so that peculiar American relationship was what I was trying to bring into this when I essentially introduce my main character to Paris through a Wild West show.
Rumpus: How about opera specifically? Did you have a deep knowledge of opera going into the book, or did you develop your interest as you were researching it?
Chee: As a child, I sung in a few operas. As a result, I learned what you learn when you are participating. The backstage myths in Tosca, which appear in Edinburgh, are the myths that I learned as a child. That was also when I fell in love with what opera could be. The rest I just kept reading. I would read the biography of Verdi and that would lead me to Giuseppina Verdi’s letters and that would lead me to Giuseppe Verdi’s letters and his passion for cooking. And so on. Each source that I read, I would look through the bibliography and the footnotes, and use that as a map for the next thing I would read. Some of the most useful resources were the letters of the soprano singer Lillie Moulton, which are available online, luckily. They’re letters that she wrote back to her mother and her aunt about her life in France as a friend of the Emperor and Empress. She met them while she was skating in the Bois de Boulogne. They admired her and asked her to teach them how to skate. She was an American soprano singer who had married a wealthy American who had a mansion in Paris so she was going to all these fabulous parties. She also studied with Pauline Viardot’s father. [Viardot herself becomes Lilliet’s voice instructor.] There’s also a fantastic encounter with Jenny Lind that I found. That’s where I got the expression “vocalizes” from, through Jenny Lind. It’s a perfect 19th century word for a vocal exercise.
The connection between Fee in Edinburgh and Lilliet? It’s true that in some ways both are wrestling with fate. Maybe that’s the fate of a soprano, no matter whether you’re a boy or a woman, I don’t know.
Rumpus: It’s a gift that doesn’t last forever.
Chee: As a boy soprano, that’s much more obvious. I like to joke that the Queen of the Night is yet another autobiographical novel from Alexander Chee. I’m surprised by how much of myself ended up in there, and I was also surprised by how much didn’t, also.
Rumpus: I have a hard time describing the physical experience of doing something, and I was really interested in how you described singing. Did you get that from your experience as a singer?
Chee: Yes. That, and I used that experience to imagine what it would be like to be her. I’ve been told it’s hard to write about singing. I didn’t realize that going into it. I might not have tried if I knew!
Rumpus: What about the historical figures? Which was your favorite to write into the novel?
Chee: Pauline Viardot for sure. Finding out about her was actually its own sort of lesson. I read a biography of her to start, and I thought that was sufficient. Then when I was fact-checking that information, I found a monograph by Patrick Waddington, a critic who used to be a stage actor who had become really fascinated with Pauline Viardot, Turgenev, and the writer George Sand, and their relationships to each other, and his work was the most vivid. For example, the biography that I’d read said that Pauline and Turgenev and her husband had lived together in Baden-Baden, and they’d had these operettas in their house. But Waddington had all the goods on that. Like, when they built the building, what it looked like, how big it was, illustrations of it. I don’t know how the biographer could have missed that Pauline and Turgenev were writing operas together. That’s such an incredible detail. And that Turgenev was writing libretti and also performing in them, and also sometimes lip-syncing in them with someone singing from behind him offstage. It was all in this slim piece of work—An Improbable Entente. It was technically about George Sand and Turgenev but because they were connected by Viardot, she was included. That was a lesson, too, in the way in which you could be someone so famous, like her, and yet so much of your life would be missing from the main scholarly work about you. That it would be in this other minor work where I would find this incredible trove of things.
Rumpus: Toward the end of the novel, Lilliet talks about women not having the right to live but being allowed to live. I found that so moving. What was it like writing a woman of that time period?
Chee: One of my big inspirations was Céleste Mogador. She was a courtesan who wrote her memoirs in order to pay off her debts, which is a hilarious gesture. Speaks to the economics of the time I suppose. As soon as it was published, it was deemed obscene. It’s a miracle that we’re able to read it now. In her book, the way those women lived with those limits was very plain to me. The way some were entrapped into lives of prostitution, the way that something like marriage could rob them of their rights. The details of the women’s jail and prison in Queen all came from that book, as well as the dance hall competitions because Mogador was a can-can queen in her day.
Rumpus: And Lilliet becomes all these different women.
Chee: It has a little bit of a relationship to the 19th century tall tale autobiography. But also, Céleste Mogador herself was amazing. She started out as a small-scale registered girl in a maison close before she became a dance hall queen and courtesan of high value, and then she married a count and received a title but was still considered a dishonored woman. She and her husband left for Australia where they were following the gold rush. He ended up dying there, but she supported them for a while by writing. She moved back to France after he had died and had a country estate next to Bizet, and became the inspiration for Carmen. Someone like her, who had so many different episodes, was really the inspiration for Queen. I wanted to write a picaresque. Although I don’t think Mogador ever faked her own death and lived inside the Tuileries like Lilliet.
Rumpus: The plot is tied to historical events, and has so many little moving pieces. How did you manage that?
Chee: It was incredibly hard. I often thought I was losing my mind, or that I’d done something that would kill me before I finished it. I had read something about Orlando Furioso, the epic poem, being the source of all opera plots, and so I became interested in the idea of trying to create a novelistic version of Orlando Furioso, which is this endless chase of a woman by this man across a landscape, with all these different episodes to it. I remembered these men in my own life who would neither get closer nor would they go away. They were always around, in this way that was frustrating to both of us.
But then another layer is that I saw Ingmar Bergman’s film version of The Magic Flute, and once I read the libretto, I realized that the film doesn’t make sense in the way that a typical adventure should. It starts out with the hero as an ineffectual creature who is the puppet of these women who need him to do these things that he promptly fails to do. He encourages Pamina, the woman he’s meant to rescue, to betray the Queen of the Night, who sent her on her mission, and then they convert to the cult of the wizard, who was their enemy, and they live happily ever after. Technically. Even though it was interesting, I put the libretto away and said, “Well, this is a really stupid idea; just think of something else,” and so I proceeded to try to write the novel for three to five years before I looked back again at the libretto, and then it hit me. Lilliet is Pamina, the daughter of the Queen of the Night, and the Countess de Castiglione is the Queen, and the Emperor is the wizard, the tenor is the demon, and Turgenev and Paulina are Papageno and Papagena. And there are also tests of fire, water, and silence, which are all in the novel. If you had started with Pamina way before she met the Queen of the Night and followed her well past where the opera ends, maybe you would have this book.
Rumpus: What was it like to take on a project for such a long time?
Chee: There was a lot of hopelessness combined with periods of breakthrough. As I get ready to buy a new computer, I’m stunned at all the many micro drafts, of different chapters and scenes and whatnot, that litter the hard drive. In some ways, as much as I learned writing Edinburgh, there was a lot I did not learn. Queen is about three times as long, and as you said, the story is much bigger. I had a naiveté that I would remember the things that I had written already, but I was getting lost in the forest of my own ideas and having to find my way out.
Rumpus: Speaking of breakthroughs, how did you come up with the novel’s structure?
Chee: I realized that it should be structured like a five act opera, essentially. You know, some of the earliest ideas I had for the novel were ones that I was reluctant to trust, but they ended up pulling the whole thing together. The idea that it should be a retrospective novel. The idea that someone was tricking Lilliet into moving towards them and hiding their identity in the process. The idea of the curse that follows her. All these things that I had initially rejected as too corny turned out to be entirely necessary to the book.
Rumpus: Totally fitting for the drama you were going for.
Rumpus: Do you feel like you have your next novel?
Chee: I have ideas for about three different novels, and a nonfiction book project and a collection of essays. Right now I’m working on putting together the collection of essays and trying to decide if the nonfiction book project is more urgent or the next novel.
Rumpus: Do you see yourself as a novelist, or an essayist, or does it depend on the context?
Chee: For a long time I identified as a novelist because I’d been working on this novel for so long. But in the meantime I’d been working on all these essays, so I realized that my identity as a novelist was private. Only I knew how much of a novelist I was!
Right now what I’m really looking for is the editors who can help me take my essays to the next level for myself. Who can really push me. Most written work is a conversation between the editor and the writer, that the writer essentially fulfills in public, and the editor provides the stage for that to happen as well as the prompts. The ideal editor will hold you to the best of yourself in the piece. I’ve had that a few times, and I’m very grateful for it. Those are the kinds of editors I’m looking for still.
Rumpus: I heard Edinburgh is going to be adapted into an opera.
Chee: So, a little bit like in the way that the things that you write come true, I had a composer [Stefan Weisman, whose previous works include Darkling, Fade, and The Scarlet Ibis] approach me about it.
Rumpus: Did you have a prior relationship with him?
Chee: No, he just came to dinner. And it was a real surprise to me when he proposed it but I’m incredibly excited. It’s the kind of thing you don’t even think to dream about because why would anyone ever do it to your novel? It’s still in the early stages.
Rumpus: I really see Queen of the Night becoming a movie, with period costumes, adventure, love found, lost.
Chee: We’ll see. Maybe a miniseries. It’s so big, it would be an awesome miniseries. Five episodes, five acts. Period can be expensive, but period is also really popular right now. I think it has good chances. I’m optimistic that the right people will fall in love with it at the right time, and something great will happen.