It’s both a scary and exhilarating moment when fiction can make you realize something about yourself. When I began reading Richard Chiem’s latest novel, King of Joy, the lonely and melancholy protagonist, Corvus, reminded me a lot of myself. That, I did not expect. But it had me thinking about this novel days after I finished it. (You can read my full review here).
Last week, I had the privilege of speaking with Chiem on the phone. Not only is he a fantastic and unique writer, but he has a very calming presence, that made our interview feel much more like a conversation between friends.
Check it out below as he speaks about sadness, how film has inspired his work, the women who helped shaped him as a writer, bullshit best American novel lists, how cool Chelsea Hodson is and some of the best writing advice I have heard to date.
Kailey Brennan: Let’s talk about sadness. Your main character, Corvus, is very aware that she's kind of an inherently sad person. I read somewhere that you feel that you are a sad person too and that you like that part of yourself. I really liked that you said that. On a personal level, I think that I am a sad person myself, but I try to reject it because I feel like I should be happy. Especially because I was really happy as a kid. So hearing you say that made me feel more connected and validated. Do you think that the emotion of sadness as talked about enough? Do you think people are comfortable talking about it?
Richard Chiem: I think the stigma has gotten a lot better. What I've seen online in the past few years, people are more into talking about self-care and depression. Tweeting about depression is really common and really funny. It’s interesting how a really depressing tweet can go viral. I think I do find some kind of comfort in the fact that there's obviously some truth in that particular kind of loneliness.
I really appreciate you saying that, Kailey.
For me, I had a tough childhood but I also experienced really great moments of joy that I didn’t realize were tainted until I got much older. I think my life got a whole lot better once I recognized I am kind of a depressed person. One of my favorite definitions of ambition is someone being incredibly dissatisfied. I do find myself to be an ambiguous person - to come back and find those moments of joy or to pivot towards them.
I think I said this in a different interview — and I really hold by it — but I think we wear sadness or loneliness deep. Without being too cliche, we do keep it buried just to get through the day-to-day. There’s always that everyday hustle just to be okay. And I like when you meet someone that forces you to confront a new language and that also makes you confront this performance that you have been doing with the world this whole time to be okay. I like the avenues of honesty that pop up when you meet someone significant, who makes you reorient yourself and makes you ask those right questions. I think that's what happens with Corvus when she meets Perry —the recognition of individuality from Perry to her. It was very staggering and hard for her to realize, which added to her sudden loss.
KB: Do you think sadness aids in creativity? I think of someone like Kurt Cobain who was such a sad person, but he created this amazing music. Do you think that sadness and creativity kind of can go hand in hand?
RC: Oh man. Unfortunately so. I think there is an extra vision or heightened sense with very sad people. I think the poet Ariana Reines once said there's a beauty to people who hate themselves. I really resonated with that. Elliot Smith was really beautiful because he hated himself so much and it really came through in his music. I think there's a certain thing we do or certain perspectives that people have where you can go a little deeper, you can deepen and darken certain aspects of yourself and those can be really glowing moments of truth.
I was just talking with a friend about this yesterday - how I don’t read uplifting books to feel uplifted. In a darker part of my life where I was near suicide myself, the books that really resonated with me where like Joy Williams, Denis Cooper, and even stranger experimental works. The prose were so fine and masterful, that even if the content may be about very sad people or deranged folks or violence or what have you, because the book goes there and pushes towards something strange and untoward. I find that those gestures and those books have kept me, not alive directly, but it gave me kind of a desire to create that way. As writers, when we go through a horrific or traumatic event, we can kind of regurgitate them and they become diamonds for us to mine. But yeah, even though I like joyful and simple things, my favorite kinds of books and music and movies are the ones that get a little deeper and darker. I think certain individuals can really put bring that to light.
KB: I heard that the idea for King of Joy was sparked from watching Spring Breakers. I saw that movie a long time ago and I’m still not sure how to form an opinion about it. (Laughs)
RC: I still feel the same way.
KB: I’m curious about how movies have influenced you as a writer and as a person?
RC: Oh, tremendously. I worked in independent movie theaters for like seven years and I loved movies growing up. They always were a point of comfort for me. When I was younger I didn’t know it would help me later on, but I used to love such specific scenes and there were films that I would recreate in my head. I think in that playfulness I learned a lot about character development, how to build scenes and build tension. I love translating a film into prose. I’ll look at a scene and say well what is that actor doing? How can I put that into a sentence? I think that film and poetry have a lot to offer that writers can steal to implement into their own prose.
I like using the phrase translate into prose because it means it has to go through the prism of the writer, not necessarily by any kind of form. It’s really how you interpreted it. If you read King of Joy, you would probably never make the connection to Spring Breakers at all. But because the movie was so stylized, it gave me permission. Before King of Joy, I knew I loved writing a good sentence and I liked playing with plot, but it wasn’t necessarily a big focal point. I cared more about characters. Once I saw that film, the stylized nature of it taught me that I can focus on my sentences and my characters and the emotional arc will just come. Although I think there are a lot of problems with that movie, it did teach me that even though something doesn't make sense in a narrative arc kind of way, it can make sense in an emotional kind of way. I really took that and ran with it with King of Joy.
KB: I like that you said it gave you permission. I know for myself when I read other people's work or I remember what I learned in college, it makes me think that this idea I have it too out there. Then I watch something like Spring Breakers, or read something and it's a reminder that, Oh, I can do whatever I want.
RC: It's such a great little truth because you're like, oh man, they did that, why can’t I do that? I could do it differently or in my own way.
KB: I could see King of Joy being a movie.
RC: Thank you so much. I tend to write visually or I try to write in a sense where it's completely accessible to the person. Usually I kind of think of it cinematically so I really appreciate that.
KB: You write in a way that sets a really specific tone, which is one of the ways movies can really affect us. By the tone. I definitely felt like I was in a specific place when I was reading your book so I could see it translating to film well.
RC: Maybe one day.
KB: So I’m always really curious what music writers are listening to and your book kind of gives me a great segue into asking that question since music is mentioned a lot. Who are some of your favorite artists of all time or some of that have been an inspiration? Besides Robyn. (Laughs) We know Robyn is one of your favorites.
RC: Oh for sure. Of all time and while writing King of Joy, I listened to a lot of Elliot Smith. I listen to a lot of artists that —as you already kind of mentioned —artists that create their own atmosphere through their music and are consistent. I mentioned this in another interview, one of my favorite writers now is Chelsea Hodson.
KB: I love her.
RC: She’s amazing and also the sweetest person. I love what she does with how she plays with methods and how she approaches writing. I believe when she wrote Tonight on Someone Else, she listened to the Under the Skin soundtrack, like over and over again. That is a really ambient, strange kind of electronic, sci-fi kind of album. When she said that, it gave me great comfort.
I do listen to a lot more things with lyrics. I think there’s something we resonate with in a good pop song. And that goes hand in hand with the core value of what I believe about prose - that you should complicate it in a very simple way.
But yeah, Beach House, Elliot Smith, Robyn. I’ve been listening to a lot of SZA over the past couple of years because I love her voice. Diane Cluck. Deer Hunter. Jenny Lewis meant a lot to me growing up.
KB: Cool. I actually interviewed Chelsea Hodson. She was one of the very first interviews I did for Write or Die Tribe.
RC: That’s dope.
KB: Yeah, I met her in Boston at her reading when she was on her book tour. She is such a unique person. The interview was through email because as one of my first ever interviews I was way too nervous to talk on the phone. (Laughs)
RC: When she has a new book coming out you can try again. I think she is writing a novel right now.
KB: Yeah, I follow her on Instagram and it seems like she is always doing some kind of out there, really cool creative project.
RC: She’s cooler than all of us.
KB: Yeah, she really is.
So what does your writing process look like? Do you have a ritual or routine? How long did it take to write King of Joy?
RC: It took me three years to write King of Joy. My writing process is almost the same as me getting sleep. I’m an insomniac so I just take as much sleep or writing time as I can. I do work a 9 to 5, so I write on my breaks and I write in the morning and in the evening. I also forgive myself if I can’t make some magic happen. Other things I do to help the writing process is I like to go for a long walk. I like to go for long runs too. It does something for me. I kind of think of scenes as is they are running. I think Jesse Ball does something similar with walking. I wanted to kind of approach different ideas of writing without just being on the page so often. I found just by being a little active actually does help with that.
But the answer to that question is whatever I can. It doesn’t feel desperate to get writing time - it's simple not easy when it happens, I believe. I try to make time for it every day but I’m also learning how to approach a narrative in a way that applies the right kind of pressure on myself. Whether that be every day or just finding the rhythm.
KB: So when you watched Spring Breakers and you got this idea for your novel... how do you know when an idea is something that you really want to pursue?
RC: That’s actually a really dope question. I was lucky enough to have one of my favorite writers as a professor when I was an undergraduate. Her name is Franny Howe. I was just like this doofus 20-year-old and I think she was in her 70's at the time, but she looked me in the eye — she had these gorgeous green eyes —and she said Richard, do you really love your characters? She said it so simply and I had never thought of fiction like that. So now, once I know I love my character, I know I can sustain some kind of project, be it a short story or something longer. Once I knew I had Corvus —I mean all the characters are me— but once I had a sense of what I wanted her to survive and go through and what I knew her emotional capacity to be, I knew she was a winner. Even if she didn't feel like she was one, she is one. It’s a strange thing to describe.
But because I love my characters so much, I can sustain a narrative around them. Once they become kind of formulaic or just not fun, I usually lose interest. I've had plenty of short stories that I've started and I liked the premise of it but I didn't fall in love with people. They ended up just being beautiful prose. I don't need to read beautiful prose. I want to read staggering work.
KB: That's good advice that I'm going to take. What made you pursue writing? How did it begin for you?
RC: Oh man. If I could be real, I actually was a psychology major in college. I always wrote like email poetry and shit in high school. I wrote short stories too, but it was just really for me to have fun.
I didn't take it seriously. At the time, I was still trying to figure out how to be a person, how to be an adult. I had a crush on a friend who was a writer and she convinced me to take a writing class. I really enjoyed it and that's why I changed my major. So a really short, weird answer is I started taking writing seriously because I had a crush on a woman.
I also think it was a wonderful happenstance. I went to UCSD and I was there at the perfect time. We had a lot of incredible authors and writers — I would say they're actually more famous now —but they built me up.
Eileen Myles. I took classes with Anna Joy Springer. I mentioned Franny Howe. Chris Kraus was there at the time. Just really powerful women doing really incredible, strange, experimental works. I was never taught classics in my undergrad program. I was taught very strange experimental writing - Rebecca Brown, Dennis Cooper, Kathy Acker - usually more feminist prose that tackled a more challenging narrative. Once I finished these challenging books, I felt more enlightened, or alive that works like that were out there.
So yeah, I got started because I changed majors, because I liked a woman and then, I essentially found other incredible women that taught me so much about writing. I don't think they taught me how to write, but they taught me what was available, what was possible, where I could fit and also what I wanted out of the world. I also recognized that these books weren’t being bought or being celebrated and I wanted to find some kind of middle ground.
KB: That’s awesome. Do you think that's why you kind of gravitate towards writing a female character?
RC: I think so. I think my goal in writing is always to write the story I would like to read myself. I know that’s cliche. Two movie directors that I like, more currently, Hayao Miyazak and in the past, Robert Bresson, I like them for two different reasons. Miyazak usually uses a very young protagonist who goes through some vital, important event that changes her and challenges her to reach some kind of new truth. There is a lot of beauty in —I hate the word “journey” —but in the recognition of the self in those positions. I like Robert Bresson because he usually uses nontraditional actors in his films. The performances these nontraditional actors gave created a lot of ambiance to the screen time and gave a lot of emotional capacity to the scene.
I think I choose to usually write women characters because I personally believe that they have a stronger emotional capacity than I ever could. And that forces me to step outside of myself as a cis male and ask good questions. Questions that go back to the narrative and also ask who is this person? I’ve been very grateful and honored that a lot of people have told me that they enjoy Corvus. That’s a huge honor for me because I want my readers to see her as a real person and hopefully, I was asking the right questions when I was writing the book.
Another answer to that is it's much harder for me to write for women and I think that I'm always gonna try to do the challenging thing. And do it correctly.
KB: Well I love Corvus too and I think that’s an attest to everything you just said.
RC: I really appreciate that.
KB: I have one more question for you. Because my goal for Write or Die Tribe is to encourage and inspire writers as much as I can, can you think of any writing advice you have heard on your writing journey or recently, that has stuck with you or that you want to share?
RC: That's such a great, great question. Some of this is going to sound cliche. I think early on, I wanted to be a certain kind of writer. And then I wanted to be friends with certain kinds of writers. When I was in my early twenties, I wanted to be part of the Muumuu House crew. In wanting to be part of that group, I didn't ask myself the right questions like what I wanted to do in prose. Once I didn’t want to be “cool” anymore or want to be recognized by them —which is such a weird, young writer thing to go through— I realized the kind of narrative I wanted and had no shame about that. I would say go into your prose completely unembarrassed.
I remember seeing Morgan Parker two years ago, in Seattle. It was a pretty big crowd and someone asked a question, essentially asking why she put hip hop in her poetry, why would she degrade it like that. She handled it really well. She basically said dude like everything is everything is everything. I'm not going to put Mozart in my poetry because I don't fucking listen to Mozart. I put Beyonce in my poetry because I listen to Beyonce.
Earlier when I was an undergrad, I was very self-conscious about books. Have I read the right books to belong in this class? Had I read the classics of the canon? It gave me a lot of insecurities. The best advice I can give to other writers is you have to find your canon.
I think Time magazine, like 10 years ago now, had a list of the 100 best American books of all time. Only one woman made the list - it was Flannery O’Connor. Which tells me —okay Flannery is fine, she’s cool —but that’s a bullshit list. You know? That list is illegitimate and Time magazine put it up which tells me that the gatekeepers are still old and problematic and white.
So you have to find your own classics, your own canon. The gatekeepers can tell you that they're classics and yeah, they might be very vital, very good books, but there's a reason why I push towards stranger works. That’s when I feel the most alive in writing. I would urge other folks to push for that truth and what you truly want to write. Find your own canon. Build your own canon. And don’t let anyone make you feel embarrassed about the prose you want to do. There is no such thing as low brow, high brow. That’s bullshit.
Richard Chiem is the author of You Private Person (Sorry House Classics) and the novel King of Joy (Soft Skull Press, 2019). His work has appeared in City Arts Magazine, NY Tyrant, and Gramma Poetry, among other places. His book, You Private Person, was named one of Publisher Weekly's 10 Essential Books of the American West. He lives in Seattle, WA. You can also find him on Instagram and Twitter.
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