In creating a routine “entirely alien to his normal life,” Alexander Chee attempted a real vacation from his work as a writer on a recent trip to Greece. For the New York Times, he sketches his way around Sifnos, capturing both the “least famous” Greek island and his memories of it in a Moleskine notebook. In rediscovering the pure pleasure of art, he draws fresh strength to fuel his writing. (You can read the first chapter, The Queen of the Night, Chee’s latest novel, here.)
Drawing is an excellent way to remember a place. In my mind I can still see clearly the towns I drew and the mornings I spent there.
When I left on the ferry home, I could feel I had in fact relaxed, deep down, in some way that was entirely new to me. But also, drawing had opened that new door to the old place. It had brought me back to the pleasure of the art you make just for yourself, where all art begins, easy to lose track of when you become a professional writer. Your own private conversation about ideas and aesthetics.
Vacation is so often cast as a luxury now in America, a bourgeois game of Instagram tagging and food photos. But for me, in Sifnos, I came to know it as the time in the year when you find not only rest, but also the strength you need to meet your work and your life when you return to them. In the years since, it’s been hard to be an American writer and take vacations like this. But I would never want to live the other way — without them — again.
When the New York Times asked authors to share stories of love intersecting with travel, Alexander Chee recalls a summer in Granada, Spain, with M. — his boyfriend at the time — who betrayed Chee at a local hammam. “He thought I wanted monogamy more than him, and I didn’t. And I couldn’t forgive that I didn’t get to choose.”
I liked M. I was having my first summer in Spain and he was good in bed, funny at dinner, smart about books. Enjoying that was not a mistake. Hiding himself from me was. When I eventually discovered the truth, I was more offended that he wouldn’t tell me. He thought I wanted monogamy more than him, and I didn’t. And I couldn’t forgive that I didn’t get to choose.
Some things I remember very clearly from that summer: learning to love the feel of cold red wine in my mouth on a hot day. The beautiful boy on the bus the whole way to the beach at Carboneras from Granada, burning the back of the rubber and vinyl seat with a lighter, but slowly, never enough to catch fire, who stopped only to take pictures of himself on his phone. The man putting saccharin in his fresh orange juice. And the streets paved with stones taken from the river, smooth and shining in the dark, like the backs of fish.
M. can keep his secrets, I told myself then. I have this. That was my bargain. I still think it is a good one.
At Catapult, Alexander Chee has a self-reflective essay about a period in the early aughts when he got to sublet a friend’s plum 19th-story apartment in Gramercy Park. She let him have it for just $900 per month, a steal, which took a great deal of financial pressure off of him. This was after the release of his first novel, when his stock as a writer was rising and he was commanding a little more money–by writer standards, anyway. Bonus: Chee soon learned that actress Chloë Sevigny, of whom he was a big fan, was his upstairs neighbor. This revelation, and a few nervous encounters with her, made the author take a hard look at himself. Double bonus: He got a great chandelier out of the deal, which he has to this day.
Every day, the apartment felt like some just reward after a long period of hard work, even a sign that further success was close by. The paperback of my first novel had just come out from Picador and with that money, in addition to money from teaching, I felt rich for the first time in my life as a writer. I knew I was not rich in a way that anyone else in the building would recognize, but I was writer rich. I had money earned from writing that I would spend on more time to write, and the cheap deal on the beautiful apartment meant the money would last even longer—it even felt like the beginning of more of that money and more of that success. It was a beautiful moment, when the money and the time it represented added up to a possibility for the future that felt as vast as the edges of the known world. The apartment’s vast views resembled the way I wanted to feel about my own future each time I looked at them.
The only sign of darkness was that I was trying to begin work on my second novel and it was not going well. Each week I abandoned it by Friday and returned to it on Monday, as if it was a bad love affair. I think somehow I knew even then that the novel would take me a decade to finish. But the apartment made my despair easier to bear.
This is a wonderfully rambling essay over at The Morning News on reading books in the age of the iPad. Appropriately enough, I read it on my iPhone, in bed last night, thanks to Instapaper. (I didn’t post immediately because I couldn’t remember who’d directed me to it; this morning I realized it wasDaring Fireball)
Our latest Longreads Member Pick is “Alexander Woollcott and Harpo Marx: A Love Story,” by Ned Stuckey-French, originally published in 1999 in culturefront, the former magazine for the New York Council for the Humanities. It’s a story that takes a closer look at the dynamics of a friendship, and the roles we play in each other’s lives.
Alexander Woollcott fell in love with Harpo Marx the first time he saw him. It was the evening of May 19, 1924, and the Marx Brothers were making their Broadway debut in the slyly titled musical comedy I’ll Say She Is. Woollcott was there, reluctantly, to review it for the Sun. Another show, a much-hyped drama featuring a French music-hall star, had been scheduled to open the same night, but when it was postponed at the last minute, the firstline critics decided to take the night off. Except for Woollcott. His career was in the doldrums, and hoping against hope for a scoop, he dragged himself over to see what he assumed were “some damned acrobats.” Read more…
“Jamie Figueroa brings her pen to the blank pages of her family’s history, navigating generational trauma and lost ancestral stories in order to reveal and reclaim her cultural and familial inheritance.”
My first move to New York begins at the back of a Queer Nation meeting in San Francisco in 1991, with a man visiting from New York with his boyfriend who tried to pick me up. I turned him down as a way of flirting only with him. He seemed at a loss as to what to say next, and so I said, When can I get you alone?
We stood at the back of that meeting for some time, not quite willing to walk away. We hadn’t known each other long but the attraction we felt that would end up tearing up our lives and remaking them was already in charge. We exchanged addresses, deciding to be pen pals, then wrote each other letters for months. We met up again at a writers conference, then wrote more letters. He broke up with his boyfriend and got an apartment by himself. The answer to my original question then seemed to be, Seven months from now, in New York. And so I put my things in San Francisco up for sale and boarded a bus for New York that summer, with a copy of Robert Graves’s The White Goddess as reading material, and my best friend, who we’ll call S.
S and I dressed more or less alike for the trip, as we had for much of our friendship. If memory serves, we were both reading the same book. We made White Goddess jokes the whole way. We wore jean cutoffs, combat boots, and sleeveless hoodies, and sat in seats next to each other, emerging from the bus for smoke breaks. Our aesthetic then was modeled mostly on the comic Tank Girl and what we could remember of issues of The Face, and I had recently shaved my own head after a long night in Oakland that served as something of a private goodbye to San Francisco. S was coming with me a little in the way of a best man or a bridesmaid, as if I were getting married. I wasn’t used to getting what I wanted from love, and survived through intense friendships instead. We had been inseparable best friends since meeting, writing in coffee shops and stalking used bookstores for books by Joy Williams, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Adrienne Rich, Andrea Dworkin, Marilyn Hacker, and, yes, Joan Didion, and so while he joked he wanted to make sure of me, and I wanted him to — I didn’t trust myself — we were also, I think, preparing for being without each other on a daily basis.