Approaches to Autobiographical Fiction


You could call your storage stuff memorabilia, or, material. We will talk about ways of turning the one into the other.

Over at the Center for Fiction, I’m offering a class in Autobiographical Fiction. The idea behind it is approximately that there are many more approaches to writing fiction using your life than most people consider. Some people think writing autobiographical fiction is as easy as writing down what happened and changing the names—and sometimes, it is—but we will examine many approaches to making use of the writer’s lived experience and history in a work of fiction. Topics will include the ethics and methods for writing about the living; borrowing formally from memoir, diaries and letters; researching your own life and memories; researching and using family histories. We’ll read selections from a mix of autobiographical fiction—James Baldwin, Ben Lerner, Sheila Heti, Colette, George Sand, Chris Kraus, Edmund White, Maxine Hong Kingston, Renata Adler—and workshop work from students.

We’ll read examples of different approaches, and there will be writing prompts based on each approach to help the writer develop some new material–and methods they can use afterward, wherever they go.

That class is full. Interest was such that I’m also offering this online version, for those not in the New York City area.

The course will be 12 weeks, beginning this Thursday, with 6 sessions, two weeks between. There would be weekly prompts and readings, an essay from me on the topic, and workshop work would go up on a private password protected class blog–a blog called Generation Atari, a science fiction blog of mine I never used, that I have decided to take out for a spin as my online writing school.

All student workshop work would be taken down at student request at the end of the class so there won’t be any concerns about the security of the work. Or, it can remain, complete with class comments.

There would be one to two pieces up for workshop each session. Stories would go up a week before they are critiqued. I will read and comment on all your exercises. On workshopped pieces, you would get a workshop letter from me and comments also, within the manuscript. Cost is 450.00. If you’re into it, write to me, and we can discuss it if is right for you. You can pay via Square or Paypal. There are still some spaces left.

Here below, the pre-homework for the class, an expansion of my column over at Center for Fiction. They are 5 research tasks to do either in the first two weeks, or over the 12 weeks, to help build the ground for what you will write.

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My Year in Review: 2014

Me as I exited the train in PDX, at the end of my Amtrak Residency. Photo by Zac Hug, who met me there.

Me as I exited the train in PDX, at the end of my Amtrak Residency. I am just now noticing what looks to be a really happy cowboy behind me. Photo by Zac Hug, who met me there.

Best Idea I had in public, where people could hear it: the Amtrak Residency.

Best Semester Away: I spent the spring semester in Austin, TX, as the visiting writer at the UT Austin English Department, teaching in the MFA program there and eating some very fine food–and teaching some exceptional students.

Best Semester Home: In the fall, I returned to the Columbia University MFA program and taught a fiction workshop also with exceptional students.

Best New Trend In My Life: I published two poems–one at The Awl, the other, in Azalea.

Best Ending To A Long Story: I finished the changes to my second novel, The Queen of the Night, with publication planned for 2/16 (please, at that link, mark it as ‘to-read’ on GoodReads!).

Best New, Possibly Less Long Story: I then started a new novel, and have been drafting it longhand, in a notebook. I have over 100 pages of it now. I even used up a pen, something I hadn’t done in years.

Personal Best: I published two new short stories, “The Insincere House”, in Tin House, and in Time Out NY’s Fiction Issue, “Life Model”, my first science fiction story. I wrote reviews, for the New York Times Book Review, Slate, and the Barnes and Noble Review.

I also published many essays throughout:

  • In February, a memoir of serving as a caterwaiter in the Buckley household in Apology.
  • Also in February: a memoir of how I went from being someone who used to joke about MFA programs to studying at Iowa, in the n+1 MFA vs NYC anthology–excerpted on Buzzfeed Books.
  • I wrote what turned out to be an early essay on the culture of Internet outrage, for Dame.
  • This September, The New York Times Book Review ran a column from me thinking back to when I gave up reading men for almost three years (and, it was my first time being on the cover).
  • A look back at the three times I’ve moved to New York, for Never Can Say Goodbye, which I’m happy to say is on the New York Times Best Seller list for travel writing–and which is ironic, because it is about not traveling.

And, speaking of travel writing…

Best Travel Writing: In 2013 I had cover stories for both Departures and Departures Black Ink, on Shanghai’s The Bund neighborhood and the avant garde restaurant Ultraviolet (the Ultraviolet profile was print-only). I also did some blogging for Bon Appetit that year. This year I was pretty busy with the book, but managed to write about sushi in Narita airport for Bloomberg Pursuits, and about the inspiration for the Amtrak residency, for Afar, which honored me as one of their Travel Vanguard.

Best of Me on NPR: I spent a little time on the radio this year. I spoke to Melissa Block about the Amtrak residency. On All Things Considered, I talked about Maggie Shipstead’s Astonish Me. And on the Brian Lehrer show, I discussed my essay in Never Can Say Goodbye, and books that changed my mind.

2014 set the bar really high. We’ll see about 2015. I got started a little, over at Electric Lit, where Benjamin Samuel, partly inspired by my Times column on reading women, asked many of us for our literary resolutions. Mine is here.

Martin Amis and The Zone of Interest

Every new novel by Martin Amis now faces its own sort of test, it seems: it must be either his best or sign of a decline. Either way, it must move out of the shadow of his most famous novels, his personality, his famous friends, his famous father, his famous life. Each is, in a sense, a little like he was himself when he debuted with The Rachel Papers, and had to make his name, apart from his father. For this reason, I found I could empathize with Mark O’Connell at Slate when he said he wished, for a moment, that he could read this novel as if it were by an entirely unknown writer, and evaluate it that way.

For all that, I think it is better not to—better instead to see it as a part of a group of books in the neighborhood of this one — Time’s Arrow, his most famous of these thus far, twenty-five years in the past; a nonfiction book, Koba the Dread; and the novel House of Meetings. We should think of them as a group, along with all of his novels, and also think of why we do this to our writers — ask them to perform their personality for us in public, and then, when they do, to hold it against them. We should ask why we ask them to challenge themselves aesthetically, and when they do, tell them they’ve abandoned us as readers.

The editors at the Barnes and Noble Review asked me to take a long look at the newest Martin Amis novel, and I did, with pleasure.

Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life

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I have long loved Penelope Fitzgerald, ever since falling for her novels The Gate of Angels and The Blue Flower many years ago. The Gate of Angels remains in my mind a paragon for the acute simplicity of its ending–few novels close with that sort of grace.

It was a pleasure then to review Hermione Lee’s new biography of her for Slate Books.

On November 19th, I’ll be participating in a Penelope Fitzgerald event at the Heyman Center for the Humanities, a conversation about her work with Ellis Avery, Margot Livesey, and Hermione Lee. Please join us.

The Queen of the Night: To Read

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Thanks to the many who have already marked The Queen of the Night as to-read on Goodreads. If you haven’t yet, please consider joining them. Or pre-order with your bookseller of choice.

The above is the photograph we used for the cover with permission from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is from Pierre Louis Pierson’s The Opera Ball, a series of photos taken of the Comtesse di Castiglione, a major character in the novel.

New Mug, New Novels


I get a new mug, as I begin work on a new novel.

New mug for a new novel.

A photo posted by Alexander Chee (@cheemobile) on

I am working on a new novel because the previous one is finally in production.


A friend writes. She remembers how it was when she first moved on to a new novel, and warns of the way a new draft can depress you after all the long hours on something finished.

I thank her. It would be easy to think I’d forgotten–but I do remember. It was agonizing, and with Queen, seemed to extend for years.

The new novel doesn’t seem to be like that, though.


More specifically: The Queen of the Night is finally, officially, truly on the road to publication. The dates are being discussed but the season will be the Fall of 2015, which for Houghton, extends through February of 2016. I’ll be updating with news here as I get it. I’m very excited to finally share it.

In the meantime, there’s a new novel to work on.

Thank you all for your patience, readers– I’m very grateful for it.