Kera Bolonik interviews novelist Alexander Chee about his novel, The Queen of the Night. While fact-checking his now critically acclaimed, best-selling historical novel about an enigmatic soprano named Lilliet Berne — a sensation of the Paris Opera — he happened upon a piece of information on JSTOR he could not ignore. It involved Lilliet’s mentor, Pauline Viardot Garcia, a real-life famous soprano and composer. Chee ended up pulling back the novel from his publisher to work in this new information, pushing the publication date back three years to work in between 70 and 100 new pages. It’s a rare occurrence in book publishing, but one that proved to pay off, because as it turns out, the ghost that had spooked him was one who would transform the novel from a great one into a classic of 21st century literature.
Kera Bolonik: At Slate, you spoke with Marian Ryan about taking that huge risk, pulling your novel back — something that just isn’t done — delaying the publication by three years. But as we now know, as you were fact-checking The Queen of the Night during the copy-editing process, you came across some very important information with regard to a character in your novel: Pauline Viardot Garcia, a real-life famous soprano and composer, who appears here as the protagonist Lilliet Berne’s teacher. In your conversation with Marian, you gave JSTOR a shout-out. What did you find in JSTOR that compelled you to write nearly 100 new pages?
Alexander Chee: I found the work of the literary scholar Patrick Waddington,who wrote extensively about the life of Ivan Turgenev and his friendships with George Sand and Pauline Viardot Garcia, and went on to translate her letters. I was able to find those translations on JSTOR. That work was the most significant contribution in my work on the novel. It made materials available to me that I would otherwise have had to go visit in person at a special collections library — which I am never averse to doing. I enjoy that, but that definitely helped.
You discovered the letters while you were fact-checking?
Yes. It was after I’d turned in the novel. His writing about Sand and Turgenev included Pauline in a way that had more details about this period of her life, when she was living in Germany and teaching voice students. It had more details about her life than the biography I was using. That lead me to a significant realization in particular around the lives of women: I have not backed it up with further research, but my hunch is that even when scholars write about women, there is sometimes more information available when those scholars write about the men in those women’s lives, and then include them in a weird way, than when the women are the subjects themselves. So, what I found in Patrick Waddington’s work in JSTOR was that Pauline was working on operas with Turgenev — they were collaborating. He was writing the libretti and she was writing the music. It is impossible to understate how few women composers of opera there are. Much less in the 19th century. This season, the Metropolitan Opera is staging its first opera by a woman since 1903. Her name is Kaija Saariaho — she’s Finnish. It’s apparently one of the most acclaimed operas of the last decade.
It is incredible. Waddington was not great at the literary criticism per se, but he was fantastic at the biographical details. Through his work, I was able to discern some of what the bios had not let on, which is that Turgenev was actually advocating that Pauline compose because of her talents in that respect. He was urging her to do this thing that no one else was going to urge her to do in her life. That seemed like a significant thing to include in the novel, given the themes that I was working with. That was why I went after withdrawing the novel also. The chance to show a singer transform not just into a teacher, but into a composer in the background of Lillet’s life, was huge.
Discovering new information like that would send me down a million rabbit holes.
You know, I did. That’s how I found the letters. I think as a novelist actually, you sort of have to in a way. People kept saying to me, “How do you not fall down the rabbit holes?” I would say, “Well, I don’t know that I kept myself back.” Falling down the rabbit hole in an intelligent way is part of what you need to do as a fiction writer, and I think it is one of the things JSTOR allows.
There is nothing worse for historical fiction than trying to do Google searches. There are so many junk sites, and there is so much low-quality information or things that are just ripped out of Wikipedia and put on site after site after site without any citations. If you’re looking for something that is going to be something that you can put the weight of a book on, the weight of your reputation on, you really have to rely on your sources. JSTOR makes that possible because of the way that it is constructed. It’s good that Google includes JSTOR listings in its ranking. That’s a fantastic thing on their part. I was trying to research something, for example, about the history of Atlantis. That was a nightmare to do on Google.
I can imagine. Like falling into Atlantis.
On JSTOR, though, it’s a pleasure. People often say the internet makes it so easy now. Yes, it makes it really easy to make a lot of mistakes though too. That’s what I really credit JSTOR with is creating that ability to create a high-quality search very easily.
I know you’ve said more than once that this book had been calling to you, but you felt like it was insane to take on a historical novel so vast and so out of your comfort zone. You put so much research and so much of your soul into this, to know that you can have this resource… it would send me on a huge detour. If you decide to do another historical novel, it might make it seem a little less daunting.
I think what’s great now is that it’s easier than ever for people who don’t have institutional access to still access JSTOR. That is something that is really helpful for novelists. A lot of what we’re after as fiction writers is the kind of stuff that will be footnoted in the scholarly articles. Things that they would use for context, we actually need to use, things that a scholar would provide in context in a footnote is a thing a novelist has to make the center. In a sense, our ability to access those citations and bibliographies may seem a little academic in some strange way to academics, but it’s because we need the scraps. It’s also very helpful with looking up materials about the operas themselves — there’s a lot of great music scholarship there. The layperson probably doesn’t know that JSTOR is more than just literary criticism. It is across many disciplines.
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So you found a lot on opera that you wouldn’t have been able to find?
Sometimes it was as simple as lyrics that I needed that were older than 1920. There is the public domain. I couldn’t use any translations that weren’t public domain. One of those things that I was seeking was the play Fratricide Punished. It turned out that I was citing a later translation, and I needed to use an older one. There were lots of ways that it became very useful. At a certain point, I thought I was going to have to go to England or to have someone in England go and look at it for me, the manuscript, then I was able to find a copy on JSTOR.
I remember your telling me in another conversation that on JSTOR, you can find the work by scholars who haven’t published books, but who have published articles or pieces of scholarship that are totally indispensable — especially when you are looking for something very specific as you were.
That work is not lost. That’s a poignant and beautiful thing. During a scholar’s career, of course they imagine that it’s all going to come together — they are going to get the things that they want done. They truth is that many people don’t finish their books. At least the things they published along the way remain.