Review: How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee

When I am gripped with despair, when I think I might stop, I speak to my dead. Tell them a story. What am I doing with this life? They hold me accountable. I let them make me bolder or more modest or louder or more moving, but I ask them to listen, and then write.

How to Write and Autobiographical Novel

Summary and Thoughts

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is the author’s manifesto on the entangling of life, literature, and politics, and how the lessons learned from a life spent reading and writing fiction have changed him. 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, 9/11, the jobs that supported his writing—Tarot-reading, bookselling, cater-waiting for William F. Buckley—the writing of his first novel, Edinburgh, 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.


Artfully organized and beautifully written, Chee provides the reader indispensable writing advice through the vehicle of his life, analyzing his own struggles and realizations as he’s grown into himself. Most of his essays, especially “The Querent,” “After Peter,” “Inheritance,” “The Guardians,” “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel,” and “On Becoming an American Writer,” are full of honesty, well-explored introspection, and skillful composition. The lead-up to each powerful moment of realization is expertly crafted, and I felt breathless by the end of the book. Though other essays felt a bit disjointed to me, I’d still highly recommend reading this, its message of hope, love, and vulnerability not saccharine, but refreshing. Strengthening. True.

Photo Courtesy of Goodreads

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