On March 26, Amherst Books was filled with students, professors and literature fans in anticipation of the store’s latest guest in the Visiting Writers Series: Alexander Chee. Chee is the author of the novels “Edinburgh” and “The Queen of the Night.” He formerly taught at Amherst and is now an English professor at Dartmouth College. On top of these impressive feats, Chee’s newest release is a collection of nonfiction essays titled “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.” The book’s essays center on the meaning of writing, how to write a literal autobiographical novel and personal anecdotes from Chee’s own life. The essay collection was already nominated for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay and is captivating readers from all over.
“You are the ax, the wood is your life,” Chee writes in his essay collection, speaking about how we must write about our lives. He compares writing autobiographically to building a house; It’s a house that we must construct by using the material of our lives, as if it’s wood for building a house. This metaphor seems to translate into all of his essays, in which he crafts his own narrative. The essays span from his experiences as a 15 year old, when he first began writing, to his present -day position as an English professor, demonstrating his growth into his role as a writer.
In his event at Amherst Books, Chee read an essay called “After Peter,” a story which was originally in his first novel, “Edinburgh.” However, Chee told the audience he took it out after he “deemed it too autobiographical.” The story is about an old friend, Peter, whom Chee knew when he was working in AIDs activism in San Francisco, and his eventual death. He describes himself as a minor character in Peter’s life, yet crafts a moving and heartbreaking story about his old friend, who touched him deeply and emotionally. While discussing his work in AIDs activism later, Chee said, “At the time I felt like AIDs was taking the best people. It wasn’t just an epidemic but the loss of everything we loved” — a sentiment Chee truly captures in the essay “After Peter.”
The audience listened in silence and awe at the beauty of his writing. In another essay, “The Autobiography of My Novel,” Chee writes about how a professor told him his words were beautiful but lacked meaning; sitting in Amherst Books, I was able to truly feel the meaning of his words through his eloquent writing. The audience was silent as Chee finished reading, processing the emotion of his words.
Chee finished the reading with some advice to writers: “The great thing about writing your own book is you get to decide how long it is, which can also be a dangerous thing, so you have to act judiciously.” He also differentiated the values of fiction and nonfiction: “There’s a truth I can express through the essay and a truth I can express through fiction,” he said. “They’re different. The reasons why are always shifting and surprising and interesting. I do think novels are an illness that you come down with and writing is the cure of it. Nonfiction is about an idea in the middle of your life and having to work it out.”