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 in South Korea, Kauai, Truk, Guam and Maine. 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.