Author Archives

Alexander Chee
Alexander Chee is most recently the author of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.

The Changeling

Headshot of the author at 18, courtesy of the author; body composite by Katie Kosma.

Alexander Chee | Longreads | April 2018 | 16 minutes (3,921 words)

Some years into the writing of my first novel, I was 32, living in Brooklyn and waiting tables in a midtown Manhattan steakhouse a few shifts a week. I worked there instead of some trendier or more downtown place for the exact reasons that made it seem odd to the people I knew: it was a world apart from the one I wanted to live in. The commute was long, 45 minutes on the subway each way from my Park Slope Apartment, but I used the time to read and write, often writing on legal pads as I came and went. My income from three or four nights a week, 5 hours a night, was just 15 percent of what the people who ate there spent on dinners out each year — after taxes, I lived comfortably on this. To my relief, I never saw anyone I knew there, except for a single classmate who worked at Vanity Fair and was good at not condescending to me. Celebrities came so regularly, it was a little like working inside the pages of a gossip magazine. I remember the day O. J. Simpson reserved a private dining room under his lawyer’s wife’s name, but then came out onto the main floor, joking around with the diners. The New York Post cover the next day had a photo of our steak knife, bearing an uncanny likeness to the presumed weapon in his wife’s murder.

The best celebrity sighting for me, however, was Dr. Ruth Westheimer.

The hostess seated her in my section for lunch, at an unassuming but generous table by herself. “I love her,” the hostess said, as she walked by me. We had what I thought of as the ordinary interactions between waiter and guest, and I left, put her order in, and returned to my work. Sometime after her food had been served, she called me over as I passed her table. I stopped and leaned in.

“You’re not a waiter, are you?” She said this with a conspiratorial affection, like she knew me.

“Is something wrong with your service?” I asked, alarmed.

“No,” she said, smiling. “Everything is wonderful. But you’re not a waiter, are you? You’re a writer.”

The lunchtime clamor receded a little around the last word. I felt found out, if in the nicest possible way

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I am.” I then asked her why she had asked me that.

“You can just tell,” she said, her smile gone cryptic.

I thanked her, then went back to serving lunch. I tried to think of what it was that had caused her to descend into my station like an oracle and make this pronouncement, the sort of unrealistic deus ex machina moment of the kind I eventually made the topic of my eventual second novel. I was surrounded by coincidences then, a forest of messages from the universe. But this couldn’t have been a coincidence. Surely this was something else, a more divine and direct kind of message. The voice from the burning bush, but instead of a bush, the message was coming from that marvelous smile, the familiar, kind eyes, the perfect hair — and that twinkle.

Here I was again in an old story, one that had begun with people always telling me to be a writer, starting at the age of 14. My interaction with Dr. Ruth that afternoon, though, mattered in an entirely new way. By that time, I had finally decided to be a writer. I just wasn’t sure I could do it. But I was trying. I was halfway through the novel, though I didn’t know that then. The difference Dr. Ruth made, however, was this: she wasn’t telling me to go and become a writer. She was telling me I was one. And that it was finally something visible, even legible, no matter what else I was doing.

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Our Well-Regulated Militia

Illustration by: Kjell Reigstad

Alexander Chee | Longreads | April 2016 | 15 minutes (3,713 words)

My partner Dustin and I recently bought a cabin in a 1930s-era hunting association a few hours from New York City. Out in the yard is a game hook for hanging a deer after shooting it. We are thinking of turning it into a swing.

Last summer, my retired prison guard neighbor there tried to convince me to do two things: marry Dustin—“I’ve seen too many gay guys like you get screwed by the family when something happens to one of you”—and get a hunting license to help him shoot some of the bears. We thanked him but did not marry, and as for the hunting license, we prefer watching the bears eat apples from the trees in the meadow—you could even say we prefer the bears to some of our neighbors.

The bears don’t bother us.

Most of the members of the association don’t seem to hunt much. Dustin and I go up regularly, every other weekend, and only a few times a year do we really hear anyone off in the woods shooting at anything. One day another neighbor appeared in camouflage and a bush helmet, carrying a bow and arrow, inviting us over to drinks.

Real hunting, as I know from my own family life, is hard. You have to be in decent shape, you need to be dressed for the weather, sprayed for bugs, you need sunblock, you need food packed for the day, you have to have a good dog you’ve trained year round, and you have to be able to field-dress what you kill or at least drag it to where you parked your car. Also: you need to know how not to get lost in the woods. I have a lot of respect for many of these hunters even if I don’t agree with what they’re doing or want to participate in it.

But I also know my cousin Jon back in Maine has a sideline as a butcher for deer and moose, was young when he learned how to carve them up from his game warden father, and he gets a little money and a little or sometimes a lot of meat from it, plus bones for his dog. This sideline exists because most of the hunters coming through his small town don’t know how to do what he does, or they can’t be bothered to do it.

His venison with garlic marinade is exceptional. Every time I have it, I’m grateful to his clients.

I wonder if the day will come when I’ll have to buy a gun. I’m just afraid that when the day comes, it won’t be because I’m hunting bears. Read more…