When I received my grant I was living in Brooklyn in an apartment above two very nice and well-meaning piano teachers and their two tuba-playing children. We don't practice much, they said when I moved in, but of course, they did. I couldn't write there, though. To afford the apartment I was teaching two teaching jobs, and commuting all the way to Connecticut for one of them, where for about three days a week I had peace and quiet, though, a great deal of student writing to look at. I had just completed promoting the paperback of my first novel, Edinburgh, and my publisher and agent were waiting to hear what I would do next. But there wasn't anything really, just a slim chapter and a synopsis that everyone told me was very exciting. My problem was I was too tired to be excited. Too broke to be excited. I was on the one hand very grateful, to have the teaching work. Anyone would be. I was on the other hand wanting very much to drop the manuscripts in the river and run away into the woods to just write. I love my students and teaching very much, but when you have to teach too much to make ends meet, when anything gets too much in the way of writing, it doesn't matter how beloved it is, I want to get rid of it completely.
Now I have a contract for the second novel, and the slim chapter is a half-finished novel, due out in 2007. I live far away from the piano teachers and their children. I can be home all day and almost never hear anything besides the rain and the cats. Something fell out of the sky and put me here and it was hard work and money. I hear they call it the NEA.
From the Prologue to the novel Edinburgh
The Lady Tammamo was a fox who fell in love with a man and took the shape of a woman in order to marry him. Her hair remained red and so she was feared, for at that time in Korea the only people with red hair were said to be demons. She was very beautiful, in the way of fox demons, and her husband loves her. And she loved him.
She bore her husband children, all sons. After some trouble in their village, for which she was blamed, they left and moved to a tiny island between Korea and Japan where they settled and were accepted by the fishermen there, who had seen many things and were not afraid of her. I'll be safe here, she told her husband. And she was. Rumored to be from Mongolia, she told people, when they asked her where her clan was from, that it was a place where the sky bent the earth.
When her husband died and his family came to burn the body, she stood by him and stoked the fire under him. Her husband's family watched her, afraid. Would she turn back into a fox, now that her husband was dead, and kill them all? Make their skulls into helmets and hunt the fishermen? She smiled at them, pressed her hand to her husband's cold face, and stepped up onto the fire, which then rose until the family could not see them. The fox can breathe a fireball, if she likes, and it burned husband and wife both to ashes.
Her children, now without their mother, never learned to be foxes and so her descendants have lived as ordinary men and women since. The village sometimes wondered why Lady Tammamo fled into the fire when fox-demons can live to be hundreds of years old. Some felt they'd been wrong, and that perhaps she hadn't been a demon after all. The children, seen sometimes selling their fish in the markets, were so beautiful and kind to everyone. You couldn't see the red in their hair unless the sun shone right on it, and then you'd see it, red threads among the black.
My father tells me the story of her when I find a red hair on his head, growing from his left temple. This is all that remains of her, my father tells me, when he tells me the story. And he pulls the red hair out of his head and hands it to me.
When I show the red hair to my blond mother, she laughs. He always pulls that hair out, she says. I had a red-haired great-grandfather, you know.
My hair is brown. But in my beard, the red threads grow. I shave them. My name is Aphias Zhe. Aphias was the name of a schoolteacher in Scotland five generations back on my mother's side. Zhe is the name every man in my father's family has been called by since that first day we fished the sea between Korea and Japan, five hundred years ago. Aphias became Fee in the mouth of my friend Peter, and Fee became Fiji in college. But Fee is the name that stuck, because Peter gave it to me.
This is a fox story, of how a fox can be a boy. And so it is also the story of a fire.
Alexander Chee's first novel, Edinburgh (St. Martin's), won the Michener/Copernicus Prize in fiction, the Asian American Writers Workshop Literary Award, the Lambda Editor's Choice Prize, and was named a Best Book of the Year by Publisher's Weekly. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, with an MFA in fiction writing and a recipient of a 2003 Whiting Writers' Award. In 2003 Out Magazine named him one of their 100 most influential people of the year. He has taught fiction and nonfiction writing at Wesleyan University, Goddard College and the New School. His second novel, The Queen of the Night, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin in 2007.
Photo by Eric McNatt