Sunday, March 01, 2009

Book Club: EDINBURGH, by Alexander Chee

Welcome to the March Book Club meeting! Today we're talking about Edinburgh, Alexander Chee's rather elegant debut novel. A short synopsis:

Fee is a twelve-year-old soprano in an all-boys choir in Maine, and only one of the victims of the choir's director, who chooses his favorites among Fee's best friends to molest. As Fee struggles to come to terms with his own sexual identity, he watches the consequences of what he and his friends have endured mushroom.

I found this novel impossible to put down. And luckily, Alexander Chee stumbled across my blog here and offered to subject himself to the classic interview questions.

Moonrat: So, Alexander, tell us how you landed your agent.

Jin Auh at Andrew Wylie found me at a reading at the Asian American Writer's Workshop in 1995, when it was down in the East Village. It was an open mike. She gave me her card, having liked the story I read. Years later, as in, 8 years later, I ran into her at a David Leavitt reading (she also represents him), and she knew so much about my career, I was really impressed. I was very unhappy with my representation, as my hardcover publisher had filed for bankruptcy owing me money and my agent of the time said there was nothing she could do, even though there were things to do. After I fired her, I called Jin and two other agents interested in representing me. Jin indicated she was willing to see what I was looking to do next, and met with me, and I gave her two proposals, with writing samples. She took me on, quickly addressed the issues I was having and sold my second book in a 9-day auction, as a partial.

This is contrasted with the sale of Edinburgh, which took nearly two years. And which, after my first agent was unable to sell it to a major house, I sold by myself. I nearly wept at the difference.

Jin, it should be said, is my third agent, and after signing with her I thought, This is what it is supposed to be like, to have an agent. You want someone who gives you the freedom to work and not worry, and who'll make sure you're well-taken-care-of. That's what she is to me. And she knows how I work, I think, better than I do.

My advice is, then, open mikes are not a waste of your time. Agents really do scout there.

Moonrat: Yay for open mikes! I've always believed that, too--they help approval seekers like me add new friends on Facebook. So now tell us about your book deal.

It was like two guys in a basement on 26th St., who decide to make you a star.

My first book deal was initially a small one, a very small indie house deal, that turned into a major house deal when Picador purchased the paperback rights. My hardcover publisher had never before published a living American author. I was a test case for them, they liked to joke. They did well by me, getting me reviewed in many places and creating a lot of attention for the book. Everything went well except for that part about their filing for bankruptcy. But that wasn't personal to me. It just made problems for all of their authors who were alive. I'm not mad at them. I really do wish things had worked out for them.

Moonrat: Yay for small presses! It's nice to hear a little dream story like that.

Ok, wait, wait. Let's go back to how you mentioned you've already sold your next project!! Can you tell us what exactly this book we're waiting so desperately for is about?

In the works next: The Queen of the Night, my new novel, which I'm finishing March 31. Another novel, Saint Spencer of the Lost, will come a few years later. And a memoir/nonfiction novel, Koreanish, like my blog of the same name---a novelistically structured memoir.

Also, I'm making comics now. But I don't know what that will be yet. I'm making an autobiographical comic with drawings of me as different superheroes---Superman, Batman, Green Lantern.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for asking.


Ann Victor said...

Moonrat/Alexander - my apologies for not participating. Unexpected personal priorities haven't allowed me to finish the book yet, but I'll be lurking (cue in "Jaws" theme music) & following the discussion with interest!

Ann Victor said...

PS I'm sure the grammar in my previous post is twisted but not thinking straight right now

moonrat said...

quiet day! no one's here today. hmm, they'll probably remember tomorrow when they're at work. the only reason i remembered is because *i'm* at work ;)

angelle said...

okay, I guess I'll be the first to talk about this!

i wrote an extensive review of this online already though, so not really sure what to say to kick off discussion...

ooh i know. can we talk about how PERFECT the title is? that was one thing that i thought was really rather clever, in the way it works on several levels. edinburgh = eden burrow? edinburgh also = obviously the metaphor of the mass underground city that he mentions in the book.

i really enjoyed the language employed. there were some really awesome nuggets of poetry in there. i heard chee was sort of a poet too, so i suppose that makes sense.

mm... what did people think of the ending?

angelle said...

p.s. love the tibits chee gave about himself. totally looking forward to his next book! and i didnt realize AAWW did open mics...

moonrat said...

angelle--yeah, you should get involved with AAWW. heck, i'm involved with them and i'm only asian on the inside.

i second your comment re: language. one thing i really appreciated about this book, and which i think is probably what caught me up in it, was that the language is so original and poetic--without being in that painful "literary" way that makes you feel dumb. really well-handled, engaging, "hmm" kind of metaphores.

moonrat said...


(skip this comment if you haven't read the book)

am i ready to tackle the topic of the ending? i know we talked about this (you and i did) a little already, and i totally agree with what you said then--with a story this twisted, it is hard to have imagined any ending that didn't have an "oh shit" kind of feel to it.

i'll admit part of me was looking for perhaps even more horrific fulfillment--i think adult Fee had a real opportunity to confront the cycle of abuse, and he almost (almost) escapes having some of the worst thoughts about himself.

on the other hand, Fee's attraction to his life-ruiner's son--underage son, i should mention here--is a nuanced take on two things: 1) what kind of attraction is and isn't acceptible (for example, if you forgive Fee for being attracted to a nearly adult boy, do you forgive him for cheating on his very loyal partner?), and 2) how much of Fee's supposed draw to this boy is in fact the playing out of the hurts that were dealt to him twenty years earlier?

i liked the ending for these reasons, although Alexander does let us sit rather uncomfortably with no resolution.

Angelle dearest, why don't you flesh out more of your thoughts--i know you had a slightly different take.

Lisa said...

I'm going to apologize for not having any detailed insights to offer because it's been several months since I read EDINBURGH, but it was an amazing story. The prose was -- beautiful and hypnotic. I remember feeling a sense of sad symmetry at the ending. It was as if I hoped it wouldn't go where it did with the boy, but I knew it couldn't have gone any other way. I wasn't expecting it and yet when I read it, it was sort of an "of course" moment. And then to me it felt like the end was the real beginning.

moonrat said...

thanks, Lisa. we're forgiving ;) i agree with everything you said.

one of the things i liked best about Fee as a character was his sense of personhood. instead of streamlining all Fee's experiences in a way that only forwarded the plot (as soooo many novels do), we saw all kinds of facets of his personality and experiences that are introduced as tangiental but formative--his Korean heritage, his speedreading, his love of history, his art, his swimming, his music. just another random thought.

Sarah Laurenson said...

Oh my. Another book to add to my must read list. Great interview, too!

Lisa said...

I had to flip the book open and the prose is even more beautiful than I'd remembered. Like this:

"Chronotope: An intersection of time and place. Here is time, here are the places of your life, a connect-the-dots; here are the people, made from time into radiant, concatenated glow-worms, all the forms they've been from first glance to good-byes run together in a sine-cosine curve of color-lights, as if they had walked through a camera frame with the shutter stuck open, one age at the beginning, another at the end. You decide, I want to remember this or that, and so the part of you that faces the future is now like a dragon flying over the sea, moves in on a flash of color here or there that looks familiar, bites down and spits the bite to its glance, which catches fire. Here is the flaming pearl famous from every Chinese calendar. Imaginary appendages attaching it to past anll me d future-past fly to the pearl's side. Imaginary eyes to see past conditional, the "if this then that", blink open. An angel, it seems, but really, what you make is a golem out of your own life, and then you ask it a question, you say, Speak to me. Tell me what I did. How did I get here?"

Sublime. Beyond the incredibly textured story, there is so much here to savor.

Marie said...

Agree with you, Moonrat, about the ending. One of the things that is unique and powerful about the book is the way in which you see how the past really does affect the present. Many writers try to do this--because we see how human lives really work and how past events haunt us into the future--but few are really able to capture it in prose. I love that Edinburgh did.

A few questions:

1. I, too, am curious about the ending. Was it a struggle to write? Did it come early in the drafting? Did you envision what happens next? Did you have to cut back to just this ending? Were you always writing up to this ending?

2. I'm curious about the two voices. Did you ever worry that they were somewhat similar--both sensitive and poetic? It didn't bother me--the characters felt distinct. But I also wondered if any similarities were intentional.

3. I was waiting and waiting to read Peter's note to Fee. And then I forgot about the note, so when it came, I had this: "Oh, yes! The note!" moment. Are we to assume that Peter just never really forgave Fee, and wanted him to be so unhappy?

Finally, I loved the way the start of the novel perfectly captured the feeling of being trapped in an abusive relationship: the lack of power, the fun the boys still managed to have, the "perks" of being a chosen boy, etc. It read like a bit of political intrigue and was uncomfortably accurate--and yet I couldn't put it down.

Alexander Chee said...

Hi from the Toronto airport. Where I may be stranded because of a storm.

Thanks for having this book as your choice, and thanks for the extensive compliments. I'll answer a few questions now and check back tomorrow if you have any others.

1. Early in the writing of the book, I knew it would end near the scene that happens on the beach, the vision he has of the winged figure, and wrote my way there. I knew the ending was on the far side of that.

Your various senses of the precise nature of the ending's difficulties is what I wanted to convey, so, it's pleasing to read that conversation.

2. I did worry and worked to listen as closely as I could to each of them. I knew there were similarities--they're both from Maine, for example--but I really did hear a different person as I wrote that part. I found Warden's voice to be a very hard, shut-down and then passionate--even insane--voice. Fee was just hiding out on a ledge overlooking his whole life while he lived it, thinking that might keep him safe. Warden almost never thinks of his safety or the safety of others.

Fee's voice came first, and Peter was considered and discarded as a second voice. Warden seemed the best and he arrived as a narrator when I was with a friend at the VCCA, in the laundry room, talking. She said she wrote about characters as faraway from her as possible because the act of writing about them necessarily brought them close. And as she said the word "close", I had a sudden vision of Big Eric walking along, holding his infant child. I knew instantly that at the time Big Eric gets out of jail, he'd be a teenager. And I looked at my friend and said, Can you put that in the dryer for me? And ran to the studio. I suddenly saw the rest of the novel.

I'd been reading Aristotle's Poetics, and his thoughts on peripeteia, and also what Janet Frame calls economy of character---looking within your drama for characters you've already invented as marginal characters, and using them again as central characters later. That's how it came to be.

3. Not exactly wanting him to be unhappy, but to know that he did something wrong. And so the reason for the vision, in a sense---the vision of Peter he has while shrooming, the ghost of him rising in the air with the fireworks, is to release him from that. The moment with the note is to remind us all that we only release ourselves from our variously improvised prisons. Even the one we wronged doesn't have the power we have to absolve ourselves.

And now, off to see if I can get on my flight. Thanks again, and I'll see you tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

I felt such sadness reading this book, even while recognizing its beautiful language from the first page,that I had to tell myself I'd read it quickly over 2 to 3 days. (Thanks to the book club deadline for enforcing this!) Perhaps also because it was present tense (which exerts it own kind of pacing), I was glad it was 200 pages, not 500, because I wouldn't have made it through.

The repeated abuse and vulnerability in the first part of the book was hard to take, even though I enjoy books that are grim. (I recently finished The Gathering by Anne Enright and felt it was a hard but worthwhile read). The difference between Enright and Chee was I felt she was more in control; with Chee, I felt we were skating close to memoir (whether or not that's the truth) and I felt like the author/narrator was not quite in control as the story evolved, or didn't have a settled sense of distance from the story, which makes it more unnerving. These aren't bad things, certainly! It just makes for a tense reading experience. When the story takes a new directon in the middle, and we begin again from Warden's perspective, at first I felt, "oh dear," but it quickly settled into a second, confident viewpoint, and then the novel had more of a purposeful structure and arc for me. The coincidences were more of a stretch, but that made it feel more like fiction, less like memoir, with the potential for some satisfying circularity (which we did, indeed, get).

OK, I'm going off on structure. About content and characterization -- lots of great, nuanced ideas about sexuality, i.e. what a bolder story than one about a single traumatic abuse of a single boy. I was less uneasy about Warden + Fee than I'd been about Fee + Big Eric, because at least as this story is told, Warden was seeking Fee (even if such a pairing might be unwise) and we were watching from the perspective of a young man who is in control (or feels he is in control, even while he is vulnerable) not young boys who have no control at all -- true victims.

The musical descriptions (especially choir scenes -- I know nothing about voice but enjoyed what I learned here) and Asian-American issues added depth and pleasurable moments to the book.

Thanks to the author for visiting here! I also enjoyed his blog, and especially an anecdote he tells about having learned to write by playing Dungeons & Dragons. I've listened in on kids playing D & D and am amazed to hear them spin one story after another, without realizing how creative they're being.

angelle said...

Moonie - sorry to be late in discussion. Not easy when you are home away from home (Alexander - my flight back to San Diego from New York just got cancelled bc of the storm so I feel the pain.)

In terms of the ending. For me I wasn't entirely sure how I felt about it. I knew going in that there would be no easy resolution to a story like this. I appreciated teh reality of the situation in that, well, in real life, there is no happy hollywood ending. Abuse doesn't often result in inspiration and a full closure or turnaround. And so I never expected such from the book, even if I'd be lying to say the gushy part of me craved it. Already discomforted by the rest of the book, we learn early on tht this book takes chances and doesn't shy away from the difficult reality. However, having said that, part of me wondered if it wasn't a little too ... what's the word... maybe too easy, for it to end with Warden killng off his father and then fee taking him in and eventually leaving him behind. Throughout, I was never sure about how I felt about the draw Fee and Warden naturally felt towards each other, and the ending therefore made me feel a little ambivalent. Fee in some ways does the right thing to put a stop to his madness, and leave Warden behind. On the other hand though, I felt it was somewhat cowardly. That ambivalence probably contributes to the fine nuance of the novel, and to be honest, I'm not complaining about the ending. I suppose I just felt conflicted when I got to the end. No catharsis in sight. Which, after all, may be the very point of the whole thing.

moonrat said...

Anonymous--I know what you mean; I certainly responded to the book in an "ack can't stop reading" kind of way.

Good thing indeed it wasn't 500 pages. I would have starved to death.

Re: D&D: most excellent.

Alexander Chee said...

Anonymous: My novel is a stereoscopic narrative--it isn't one person figuring his or her life out, but two memory plays at angles to each other, people telling stories of themselves to a reader who then puts the pieces together. And so it is a different feeling. At the end of the novel, the reader knows more than either Warden or Fee does about the events that have shaped their lives.

Enright's novel is a single narrator, Veronica, who thus can pull all of the novel (and her story) together in a way Fee or Warden can't. And I did this because I wanted the novel to be larger than a single person's story.

The story's events are drawn from several sources--a local sex scandal, a local suicide, and a news item, about a couple arrested for sexual abuse, both of them going to jail. The setting I drew from my life. It is not almost a memoir at all---my father died when I was 16, for example, after three years as a paraplegic following a car accident. But people often suspect it of being a memoir.

Angelle: Yes, I wanted him to be as imperfect as that.

Thanks again for reading the book.