Kelly Writers Series Review: Alexander Chee

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“I was trying to figure some sort of dramatic way to jump on stage,” author and current associate professor of writing at Dartmouth College, Alexander Chee said as he stepped up to the podium on stage. “So I decided at dinner I’ll do this,” Chee added while unfurling a giant creme colored fan and using it to cool himself off.

Chee, author of the novels, “Edinburgh,” “The Queen of the Night” and “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel,” spoke in Peeler Auditorium this past Wednesday night to an audience hanging on his words, and watching his giant fan sway back and forth.

Professor of English Samuel Autman introduced Chee, by talking about finding him, and a few other authors, on social media who focused on their writing and social justice.  “If you want to know what is happening in the American letters, follow these guys,” Autman said.

Chee spent much of his time talking about writing as a craft. He spoke about how often people ask how much of his fiction is autobiographical, even if his novel is about an opera singer in 1880s Paris. “The truth is for me as a reader I never wanted to know [how much of it was nonfiction]” Chee said, “All I cared about was the novel.”

He also spent time focusing on his collection of essays, “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, and read the second essay in the collection, The Querent which focused on the reading of Tarot cards, their impact in his life, and his work as a professional tarot card reader.

Autman also spoke, during his introduction about this book, that he is also teaching it in one of his courses, saying “This book will go down as one of the great writing books of the 21st century.”

Chee talked about how the book came together naturally. “It was a little bit of an accident,” he said, “I was simply gathering favorite essays and started to notice there was a certain theme that emerged.” He spoke to the audience as if it were a crowd of old friends who he was just catching up with.

In addition to talking about his nonfiction craft, Chee answered several audience questions about his work “Edinburgh.” When asked about why a character in that book reads another’s cards Chee said, ““Lots of people have surprises like that.”

He continued by talking about the process to develop that scene, saying, “I did choose the cards myself for the reading and they fit the novel pretty perfectly.”

Chee also offered advice to the writers in the room about the way people will perceive you as a writer. His family’s reaction to his career as a writer. “[My mother] has worried about me off and on,” he said, and added laughing, that when he got his job at Dartmouth, “she said I can stop worrying about you- and I was at age 49.”

And Chee’s advice spanned to more than just the writers in the room. “You have to prepare to disappoint your parents- and to be okay with it,” he said, “and that’s a way to be a grownup in the world as well.”

Students seemed to enjoy his speech and many went to have him sign their books. “It was really interesting to hear,” said sophomore, Sydney Fajka “I feel like you don’t hear from fiction authors about the actual process of writing often, so I thought that was really insightful.”

And many students loved getting to hear Chee read his prose aloud. “His books are definitely really different stylistically, so if you’re looking for something new to kind of switch it up, it’s definitely like a breath of fresh air,” Fajka said.

The next installation of the Kelly Writers series will feature poet Joshua Bennett on Oct. 3.