How to Write an Autobiographical Novel


Essays by Alexander Chee

Named a Best Book of 2018 by New York Magazine, The Washington Post, Publisher’s Weekly, NPR, and Time Magazine, among others, this essay collection from the author of The Queen of the Night explores how we form our identities in life and in art. As a novelist, Alexander Chee has been described as “masterful” by Roxane Gay, and “incendiary” by The New York Times. With How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, his first collection of nonfiction, he’s sure to secure his place as one of the finest essayists of his generation as well.  

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is the author’s manifesto on the entangling of life, literature, and politics. In these essays, he grows from student to teacher, reader to writer, and reckons with his identities as a son, a gay man, a Korean American, an artist, an activist, a lover, and a friend. He examines some of the most formative experiences of his life and the nation’s history, including his father’s death, the AIDS crisis, his adult reckoning with childhood sexual trauma, the jobs that supported him as he wrote his debut, Edinburgh (from Tarot-reading to bookselling to cater-waiting for William F. Buckley), and the election of Donald Trump. 

By turns commanding, heartbreaking, and wry, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel asks questions about how we create ourselves in life and in art, and how to fight when our dearest truths are under attack.

Praise for How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

“Alexander Chee explores the realm of the real with extraordinarily beautiful essays. Being real here is an ambition, a haunting, an impossibility, and an illusion. What passes for real, his essays suggest, becomes real, just as life becomes art and art, pursued this fully, becomes a life.” —Eula Biss

“These essays feel like a life's wisdom, salvaged from a great fire. I feel in possession of a map of secrets and second chances, holding an inheritance whose gifts have only been partially revealed to me. But these essays are more than maps; for me, as a younger writer, they are the very ground, the earth made solid enough so that I might stand here, made rich enough so that I might plant here, and, thrive here. This book makes me feel possible.” —Ocean Vuong

“I'm astonished by the wisdom of these essays, and how beautiful they are. A riveting account of activism and artistry, as well as a profound exploration of the intersections of identities and experiences that build up this novelist's composite eye. Alexander Chee is brilliant and brave in equal measure, and has written an essential book about how to survive as an artist in America today.” —Garth Greenwell

“Alexander Chee asks one of the great coming of age questions here: Isn’t beauty strong? His welter of answers yields a really moving (and sometimes devastating) writing memoir of being young, of being someone and not entirely knowing it yet—all the while being so poetically receptive to the fragrant and devastating strains of beauty and beauty’s harsh wisdom that wind up moving and shaping a life. It's a strangely romantic and practical book. It holds a skull lightly.” —Eileen Myles

“How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is a rare hybrid of a book: an act of poetry, a gift of entertainment, and a primer for life. Alexander Chee is one of our most important writers and we should listen to every damn thing he has to say.” —Jami Attenberg 

“Alexander Chee is the very best kind of essayist, a boon companion in good times and bad, whose confiding voice you’d follow anywhere, just for the wonderful feeling of being understood like never before.” —Charles D’Ambrosio

More Praise for How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

"Part memoir, part writing how-to, Alexander Chee’s essay collection, How To Write An Autobiographical Novel, proves that the two-time novelist ranks not only as one of our most important writers but also among our greatest souls." —Rien Fertel, The A.V. Club

"Yet even at his most mystical, Chee is generous; these pieces are personal, never pedagogical. They bespeak an unguarded sincerity and curiosity. Chee is refreshingly open about his sometimes liberating, sometimes claustrophobic sense of exceptionality. As a child he reads X-Men comics and wishes for psychic powers; as an adult he finds his ambitious first efforts as a writer at odds with prevailing literary trends. Throughout, Chee endeavors to catch himself at a distance and reckon, ever humble and bracingly honest, with the slippery terrain of memory, identity and love. " — J.W. McCormack, The New York Times

"How to Write goes well beyond writing. Alex shows how to not just write, but live. How not just to live, but to heal." —Joseph Osmundson, Guernica

"In chronicling his personal and creative struggles, Chee produces a cathartic primer for treading through the challenges of life with the same grace he displays as a writer." —Ingrid Vega, ZYZZYVA

"How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, is a book that will leave you breathless, as much for its vulnerability as for its exquisite sentences. Chee is no stranger to the kind of writing that leaves you aching." —Constance Grady, Vox

"If there’s a wide range to the how’s and what’s of these essays, there’s a unity to the why’s — to the moral and aesthetic concerns that Chee pursues across subjects. He’s interested in the fluid borders between fiction and autobiography, how making things up allows us to see our lives more truthfully." —Anthony Domestico, The Boston Globe

"Chee is a very special artist; his writing is lyrical and accessible, whimsical and sad, often all at the same time. No doubt he is an inspiring writing teacher as well. His views on writing reflect his own, thoughtfully examined life." — Martha Anne Toll, NPR

"Chee is a master of that difficult magic trick, the conversion of the personal into the universal" —Brandon Taylor, them.

"As Chee's gaze turns inward, he beckons readers to experience his private moments with such clarity and honesty that we're immediately brought into his consciousness. At the same time, he asks us to contemplate the largest questions about identity sexuality, family, art and war." —Crystal Hana Kim, The Washington Post

“Alexander Chee’s first collection of nonfiction is a lovely reminder that there is indeed an art to the personal essay, and he is a master artist.” —Maris Kreizman, Barnes and Noble

“As profound as they are beautiful, Chee's essays impart wisdom from a life fully lived, and speak to what it means to be a writer and reader in contemporary times.” —Jarry Lee, Buzzfeed

“In his first collection of nonfiction essays, novelist Alexander Chee immortalizes himself through his art and literature...Enlightening, revealing the true impact of the arts.” —Bitch

“Chee’s collection is, at its core, about writing itself: about how writing happens and writers are formed. A duller, less evocative title along the lines of How I Became a Writer might have been more accurate, but that would have failed to convey Chee’s marvelously oblique style as an essayist—his capacity to inform and educate readers while they’re too enraptured to notice.” —Publisher’s Weekly, Starred Review

About the Author

ALEXANDER CHEE is the best-selling author of the novels The Queen of the Night and Edinburgh. He is a contributing editor at the New Republic, an editor at large at Virginia Quarterly Review, and a critic at large at the Los Angeles Times. His work has appeared in The Best American Essays 2016, the New York Times Magazine, Slate, Guernica, and Tin House, among others. He is an associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College.