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the story behind the book | kate tuttle

Researching his own life

david wilson for the boston globe

As long as he’s been writing fiction, Alexander Chee has also produced essays. The author of two novels, “Edinburgh” in 2001, and 2016’s “The Queen of the Night,” this spring Chee published his first nonfiction book, titled “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.”

The book began with an invitation. Asked to read at the Columbia University nonfiction program, Chee prepared a list of his favorite essays to share. “As I was getting ready to send it,” he said, “I was looking over the list and I thought, ‘Oh, that actually starts to look like a table of contents, doesn’t it?’ ” His agent agreed and pointed out, Chee said, “that it would be a book that I’d already written, in effect, which I thought was hilarious at the time.”


Chee put as much research into this book as he did into his novels. “I decided to treat myself like I was a subject,” he said, “as if I was writing about another writer; I went through my diaries and letters and drafts.”

He interviewed friends and family members to check his memories and re-read books he was reading during the times he chronicled.

All writing forces a confrontation with our deepest beliefs and strangest truths but in nonfiction, Chee said, “it’s that impulse to quote-unquote make it a better story that people trip on.”

Back at work on another novel, Chee said that writing fiction is a process that’s even harder to explain. “There’s a misunderstanding about the kind of imaginarium that you have to build to work on a piece of fiction,” he said. “It’s hard to build up in your head, and it can be at various times quite vulnerable. At other times it can feel more powerful than life. And more preoccupying.”


Chee will read at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Brookline Booksmith.

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Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.