How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee (Books 2021, 4)

Despite the title, this is not a writing ‘how-to’ book, except maybe by example. Nor is it a novel itself; it is a collection of essays. The subjects they cover do include writing and writing courses, most notably the Iowa Writers' Workshop. That was one of the first, if not the first, postgraduate-level courses in creative writing, and Chee studied on it.

But the book covers a lot else, too. As Chee is a mixed-race gay man, you won’t be surprised to hear that those details feature in a number of the essays. As does living in New York and trying to make it as a writer. And growing roses, and the origin of Catholic rosary beads.

I was drawn to this because one of the essays was assigned reading on the MA early this term, and he was also cited at various other points on at least two modules.

His debut novel is called Edinburgh, which immediately interests me. Though you learn from a couple of the essays that he hoped, when younger, to go to Edinburgh to study parapsychology, but didn’t; and that the Edinburgh connection in the novel didn’t survive the writing and editing process, but he kept the title anyway.

I don’t know what his fiction is like yet, but he’s a fine essayist.


Saved Life

In International Clash Day I mentioned a life-changing song: “Wasted Life,” by Stiff Little Fingers. SLF’s anti-military song literally changed my life; or its potential direction, at least. I was probably moving in an anti-war kind of direction anyway, to be fair, but it was definitely a trigger point.

People say — or used they to, at least — that a song couldn’t change your life. By comparison, I don’t think there was ever a similar tendency to say that a book couldn’t change a person’s life. I suspect that is down to their comparative sizes: it seems respectable for something the size of a novel to have a major impact on a human’s psyche, while a three-minute song? Not so much.

Although if it were merely length, then people wouldn’t have complained if you said an album changed your life. I’m not sure that anyone ever said that,1 but I suspect that if they had, their statement would have been pooh-poohed just as much as the same claim for a song.

At this point I feel I ought to quote Springsteen, giving the opposite view:

We learned more from a three-minute record, baby,
Than we ever learned in school

he sings in “No Surrender.” Hyperbole, certainly, but there is a core of truth to it: the truth of the feeling you can get from listening to a great song.

With “Wasted Life” the feeling for me was of sudden crystallisation, or realisation. I had, for some years, been saying that I wanted to be pilot, join the RAF. This was before the horrors of the Gulf War, or for that matter the Balkans. Though it was in the heart of the Cold War, and British soldiers were stationed in Northern Ireland during the troubles — though not so much RAF staff, I would think.

But I was blind to all that, brought up as I was on a diet of Second World War films, Commando comics, and Airfix models of warplanes. I had, in short, a thoroughly romanticised view of war. And I just wanted to fly.

But I didn’t want to kill. I had always known that, I’m sure. But two lines of that one song made it real for me:

Stuff their fucking armies
Killing isn’t my idea of fun2

And that was all it took. I remember that it was a while before I could tell my parents that I had changed my plans. Perhaps because they would have asked why, and I didn’t want to have to explain it. Maybe because I thought they’d be disappointed. I’m sure my Mum wasn’t. My Dad kind of was: “But you were going to be a Spanish-speaking pilot,” he said. He had always been slightly amused that my school taught half of us Spanish, instead of the then-much-more-conventional French.

A life can hinge on such a small moment.


  1. Somebody must have, of course. ↩︎

  2. In an amusing followup to recent thoughts, I originally wrote that as “army,” but find that lyrics sites think this plural too. Correctly, of course. ↩︎