January 8th, 2010


In a thread on Darcy Cosper’s facebook page, I learn that the New York Times forbids writing in the present tense, as it is technically a fiction, even when used in the presentation of nonfiction.


A hand-tinted stereograph of the Tuileries Palace, during the 2nd Empire

My old friend Gerard Koskovich, the historian and archivist, was shopping the yard sale of a young woman who’s mother had just died. The mother had a life-long interest in photography, and the value of it—and of her possessions—was lost on the daughter, who sold her pictures for nothing, including 6 hand-colored photographs of the interiors of the Tuileries Palace, destroyed by angry rioters during the Commune.

When you walk out into the Tuileries gardens from the Louvre palace, if you look left and write as you pass the wings to either side, you are walking through the footprint of the old palace. Which is where a good deal of my 2nd novel, The Queen of the Night, is set.

One of the challenges in writing this book has been that much of what I would want to see doesn’t exist anymore. Gerard’s photos come into my hands after I’ve already spent years trying to imagine what it was like, through reading memoirs and novels from the period, looking at any existing photos, tracking down architectural plans. So when I find them, they are more like the confirmation of a hunch than a revelation, beautiful as they are.

So that is what that lamp looks like, I think, as I sit in Gerard’s red velvet visitor chair and turn it in my hands. We speak of some other things, related to one of the novel’s minor but still important characters, and then I thank him and leave.


I’m reading Robert McKee’s Story as I think about writing a screenplay. In it, he says something perfect about research and cliché. If you don’t do your research, he says, you lose your ability to be original–you won’t have any ideas, and so your brain will pick up things it remembers from other things you’ve seen—your lack of research will make you a kind of thief. As I read it, I realize it wasn’t what I thought about my research at all, but I can see, immediately, the truth of it. My first novel was drawn autobiographically, the second, not at all, but both required a great deal of research.

You may think you know your home town, Annie Dillard used to say in class. But chances are you don’t. What is the main industry? When was it founded? The population? What are the plants, throughout the seasons? She was speaking of the importance of researching even memoir.


Happy New Year to my readers here. 2009 was a great year for this blog and for me. Here’s to 2010. To celebrate, I’m taking blog post requests in the comments.


  1. My heart started fluttering a bit when I read that word “research.” I would love for you to write more about, or document, your research findings — for your novel, or for nonfiction you’ve published — this year on your blog. With images (like the stereograph above).

    1. I’m glad—I’ve got a series planned, for sure. I’m way behind documenting last year’s Paris trips, for example.

  2. 1. The thing about the NYTimes is fascinating, and makes a ton of sense! Wow.

    2. Beautiful photograph. The idea that these photographs might have been tossed out with trash makes me quite sad. At least the daughter didn’t simply throw out the “junk” as I feel many might have done. I’m a sentimental packrat, who is forever keeping things, thinking they might one day be treasures decades down the line, when an era has passed. Of course, these photographs actually ARE very precious without any further passage of time. The photograph definitely piques my interest about your new novel… 😉

    3. Good tips on research, from both McKee and Dillard. I have Story on my shelf, have yet to read it. An old writing teacher of mine used to draw heavily from it in teaching plot. In any case, I think this makes a lot of sense, and is yet something I don’t think I would have realized myself. I will have to keep this in mind moving forward.

    4. Happy new year, Alex! I’m glad I got to know you this year. I feel like I should have some really creative request, but alas, I have nothing beyond the usual “How was the process of writing your first novel” writing questions, and perhaps a few more delicious recipes. Hmm. Maybe if I ponder, I’ll come up with something worthy of a blog post request. 🙂

  3. I have a few questions to which I’d be curious to hear your answers:

    1. What’s the literary scene like in San Francisco? I know you haven’t lived there in a long time, but perhaps you still have some insight. I love NY for its literary resources, but sometimes this massive city gets to me and I dream of the laid back atmosphere of the West Coast…. Actually, what made you decide to leave SF for NY?

    2. Who are your favorite rising Asian American authors? Do you see any trends among them?

    3. If you were applying to MFA programs this year, which ones would you choose? Say you wanted to pick 10.

    Thanks for having this blog. Also, I forgot to mention how much I enjoyed your book. What a beautiful, evocative piece.

    1. Victoria, my answers on the current lit scene for SF would be woefully inadequate. I can say when I return for visits it does seem incredibly strong, and as an aside, there’s a way being Asian American out there is really normal that grows on me.

      I’ll do the rest probably as posts. And you’re welcome. I’m glad you enjoy it.

    1. I’ll be writing about that in an upcoming blog post over at Cynthia Martin’s Catching Days blog in February. Thanks for asking.

      1. Hey, Alex-I’m looking forward to your post.

        I particularly enjoyed reading #2 above about your work on this novel. The picture is a little eerie in and of itself and to read that it was being thrown out and then of course the old palace doesn’t exist anymore–all this gives me a really good feeling about your novel and writing in general in the ways it gives us access to worlds we otherwise would miss.

        And taking blog post requests is a nice idea. I’ll put my vote in for posts about your trips to Paris.

  4. Happy New Year, Alex! I’d love to hear about your favorite books on the craft of writing (if you have any)…and I’d love to hear musings about your favorite places in the world. I think I would love hearing you talk about place.

  5. I want teaser to new stories! And more of the graphic novel from that earlier entry!

    (Yes, I’m greedy. And a problem.)

    1. Ha. Thanks, Lenore. Teddy’s work on the gn has slowed because he’s involved in a really big (and important for him) show but we’re excited by the new art and he’ll be finishing it soon. And I do have some new stories I’m finishing as well, and will soon have some more of the older ones up over at Fictionaut.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s