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PEN Ten with Alexander Chee

The PEN Ten is PEN America's biweekly interview series curated by Lauren Cerand. This week Lauren talks to Alexander Chee, author of the novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night, forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2014

When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?

In high school. I had one of those English teachers who had us write journals, and I tried writing a poem, and he admired it. I was fascinated he understood it—it seemed too personal to mean anything to anyone but me. Then I wrote more of them.

English teachers, please keep assigning journals.

Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?

Reading Collette makes me occasionally feel larcenous.

Where is your favorite place to write?

I still like a train best for this kind of thing. I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers. And after trains, libraries at night, especially empty ones.

Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?

I was arrested on the set of Basic Instinct, protesting the filming, back when Queer Nation believed it would be an anti-lesbian film based on the script. We were held at the station and then released. There was no way to know it would go on to become a lesbian cult classic. They probably sell tickets to it now for GLBT fundraisers. On the whole, it was an early lesson on how complicated politics can be.

Obsessions are influences—what are yours?

At some point recently I realized I mostly read about assassins. Assassins and sex work—in particular, I'm fascinated by the new porn narratives, the way porn has moved on to something like Reality TV—episodic, personal, and usually on the web, with porn stars integrating their fans into their lives through social media and blogs. Sexbook instead of Facebook.

What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?

I don't know if we ever get to know what that is until some time later, if ever. I'll hope it's a novel, but I guess I'll see.

What is the responsibility of the writer?

To attend to their own freedoms, and the freedom of other writers, for the way it increases their own.

While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?

Is it out of fashion? Or has it just shifted? Twitter strikes me as the arena and the farm team camp for the current and the next generation.

What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?

Probably a book of Mencius's, with a note saying "I'm sorry it was your destiny to be a jailer. Perhaps there is still time to change it."

To the extent that I know anything about ancient Chinese emperors, it was because of Chinese poetry. Emperors jail poets because they know poets will be known and loved much longer than they will. This drives emperors and their imitators insane with their own powerlessness. They never seem to learn, but all you can do is set the poet free.

Where is the line between observation and surveillance?

I think it's the line where anyone types their password, for anything.

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