Six years ago, I checked out You Private Person by Richard Chiem from Mellow Pages Library. I went to Mellow Pages often, as it was on the other side of the block from where I then lived, a party house in Bushwick with four other roommates. Reading You Private Person felt similar to the excitement of discovering a new band in high school, where the preciseness of certain lines perfectly reflected my own emotions or environment at the time.
It’s now 2019, and I do not live in that party house anymore, and the great Mellow Pages is gone too. While I am unsettled by how quickly the years pass, the one satisfying thing about it is to see the careers of writers you like unfold in real time. I am very glad that Richard Chiem is back with his first novel, King of Joy. Like his story collection You Private Person, and all his writing, it pulses full of feeling. It’s about Corvus, a floaty young woman who, after a great loss, enters a career in pornography. There’s grief, friendship, love, a plot of greed and betrayal. All the characters, even the most minor ones, wear their miseries openly. But they also dance with abandon in the club or goofily quote a Barenaked Ladies song. Oh, and you might have heard that there are hippos in this book—some hippopotami.
I met up with Richard in New York to do this interview shortly before his event at McNally Jackson, one of the stops on his tour to promote King of Joy.
How has the tour been going? It seems you have a day or two in between cities, so it’s not all travel days. What have you been up to?
I think the best part of the tour, other than getting to meet really sweet folks who are interested in the book, is getting to see friends in different cities. And actually seeing people that I’ve known online and wanted to meet for awhile. That’s been important, to see the real folks behind the cool community work. I’ve been really grateful for it. A lot of my older writer friends have told me to savor the moment, so I’ve been doing that.
King of Joy is so unique. Where did you get the idea from and how did you develop it?
So I got really stoned once and then watched Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. For some reason I found that film incredibly stimulating. I think also part of it was entering the film I thought I was going to really hate it and I ended up really loving it. I loved how essentially the film was a music video, but more important than that, it was so stylized that it transcended the form and became content. For me, because I’m such a sentence-by-sentence writer, it taught me a lot as far as how to build cadence and atmosphere and tone towards an emotional arc, rather than just something strictly in the explicit details. Something with Spring Breakers gave me a good jumping off point for that. Right after I watched the movie I wrote the first scene of the book where Corvus watches Amber burn down a tree. Once I had Corvus, I knew I wanted to just build a novel around her.
It’s cool you mentioned Spring Breakers, because I think the book is really cinematic. Not just in an, “Oooh these scenes that happened in the book feel like they could have happened in a movie” way. It’s more that I feel you’re trying to do things in your writing that imitate techniques I see in film, which is a hard thing to do. Like, the way a camera follows a character in a room. Or the ambiguity of a look an actor will give. So I’m wondering if you want to speak to that, if that is in fact your intention.
I also remember you saying once that you feel like some of your writing is weird fanfiction of scenes in movies, so I wanted to know if in King of Joy there were any other movies besides Spring Breakers that you were tipping the hat to.
For sure. Just as much as this book is inspired by a thousand books, I worked at a movie theatre for seven years, so I’m a huge movie geek. I love translating other things to other things. I love translating a camera shot or a scene into prose, and what that actually looks like on the page, because I think with a visual media there’s so much that’s just inherent in the single shot. To me, I like to take a very studied approach to how that interaction is from viewer to screen, and then figuring out how to mimic that with atmosphere and tone, and cadence and musicality, with the reader and prose. It’s not quite a fine science, but I do try to see things more on an X-Y-Z axis.
What’s really important to me, that I also love in film, is the situational irony. The tension between what the author knows versus what the characters know, versus what the reader eventually knows at the end. I think the discrepancies and then tensions between those three different knowledges (with the writer knowing everything) is very special and a lot of fun to play with. Especially in films when there’s a plot twist or a sudden surprise, usually I study whether that twist was cheap or if it was already kind of embedded in the story for you to discover. I think it’s very important for the reader to feel like they discovered everything for themselves. I think it creates a bigger intimacy with the text for the reader.
I don’t think I could pinpoint one other movie, but I love David Cronenberg for that very reason. He has a bunch of really dope mid shots, where it’s just a person’s face and they’re really simplistic shots but you get so much out of it. Also Bresson, that French director. He traditionally used non-actors in his films, which gave a real interesting effect, a detachment almost, which Dennis Cooper also really loves. That ambiguity that you mentioned is special to me because I think if a person is sad there’s much more than just that they’re sad. There’s exterior details that if you’re watching a film maybe they’re present, but in prose you have to dig a little deeper to bring those things to the surface for the reader.
I wanted to ask about Perry, since I feel most reviews and interviews will focus on Corvus, and rightly so, as she’s the main character. But he’s the opening voice you hear in the book, though the reader doesn’t know that at first. So I wanted to talk about making that character and your thoughts behind that character.
I think all the characters are essentially me. But with Perry, I definitely tapped into my insecurities as a creative person. Perry is chubby when he was younger, I was also a very chubby kid. It doesn’t really get explicitly covered in the novel—I’m actually going to explore this topic in future works, I think, but he definitely has an eating disorder. He’s a runner. He cares very much about how people view his work, his plays. Corvus is definitely the focus of the novel, but I like Perry’s gentleness and I needed that to be clear. But I also needed it to be clear that he was very selfish in his own particular ways, despite his tremendous love for Corvus, which I think made everything complicated. He was definitely a complicated character.
You mentioned an aspect you were going to explore further. Are you going to write something else with that character or explore some of the themes?
Some of the themes. I’m working on a story now that’s about a—I think it’s called “Gold Ranger” right now—it’s about a male character that’s dealing with an eating disorder. And he builds a mech suit to maneuver through the world, but I’m still kind of working out the details.
In previous interviews, you’ve referred to personal experiences with loss and translating them to Corvus. Can you talk about a specific example and how you did that?
Sure. I’ve always been a sad, depressed person, like, no doubt. I know exactly why. It’s usually a mother issue. My mother was unfortunately very abusive, so was Corvus’ mother. I would say my mother’s actually even more so. You lose your childhood when that happens. There’s something you can never get back because of that—that’s why Corvus is so sad, that’s why I’m often kinda sad. I think one of the reasons why I thought Perry was so special, or why he meant so much to Corvus is when you’re in those states of mind, or when you think you’re going to be this way for your whole life, and then you meet someone who gives you joy or gives you different perspectives. That’s kind of my whole jam anyway with narrative—figuring out how to surprise even my own characters with other characters, because I think that’s when I get shocked alive again, when I stop becoming numb. It’s usually because there’s someone very real, very caring that’s near me. For some reason they’re staying and they’re giving me comfort and attention. I think that’s well deserving of a narrative.
Switching over to a more chill question—I wanted to ask about the cover. It’s awesome and it fits the tone of the book perfectly. There’s also a motion graphic version? How did that cover come about and did you have any input?
The wonderful artist behind the cover, his name is Michael Salu. I believe he’s based in Berlin, currently. Since Yuka [Igarashi]’s era of Soft Skull, he’s been their art director for the covers. What he essentially creates are digital sculptures. He creates a digital sculpture that usually comes out as a GIF for each cover and I believe each cover is usually a screenshot of that digital sculpture.
I did have a say in the cover. Michael did his thing and then he showed me his mock-ups. To be honest, at first I was very jarred out by it. It was actually in different colors. Michael knew that it was inspired by Spring Breakers, so it was more yellow neon-y and lime green. Which I thought was cool, it looked good, but it was almost too bright or happy. So I gave Michael some color palettes that I thought were more in line. Actually the new Blade Runner had a lot of similar color palettes and I sent Michael that, and he essentially just used my favorite color palette with that cover design. He said he based it out of agony and ecstasy. The cover definitely spoke to the work. I had no idea until he finished it and I thought it was perfect.
What’s your writing schedule like? How do you fit in writing with your day job?
It’s similar to working out. I either do it very early in the morning, or when I have time very late in the evenings. There has never been a part in my life where I haven’t had a day job. I’ve always had a 9-to-5 or something between 40 or 50 hours a week. Usually I try to do a little bit every day. It used to be way more of a set schedule, but I’ve learned that writing every day isn’t exactly productive. But I’ve also learn that spending time with it every day is and how writing can come in different forms. One of my favorite writers is Jesse Ball. He once taught a class about the art of walking. It’s not quite his same methodology, but I tend to walk with my stories a lot. I don’t do any outlines, I more just figure out what moments I want to capture, what I want the characters to go through or who I think they are. Possibly have an ending in mind, and then I just really go from there. But usually if I can get a half hour to an hour of writing in every day, it feels good.
There’s a lot of friendship, or portrayals of friendship in King of Joy. There’s Corvus and Amber, which mirrors the earlier friendship of Corvus and Michelle. Friends seem pretty important to you too, so I wanted to talk about that in relation to this book.
Yeah, so Corvus, in the book, she has a hard relationship with her family. I unfortunately share that sentiment. I think we create our own family through the friends that come into our lives. I think that’s why when Michelle decided to kind of dip on Corvus it was devastating, but also incredibly relatable. I’ve probably been on both sides of this, but sometimes you abandon people when they cannot be abandoned. Or vice-versa, sometimes you are abandoned by people that you think would never have. Obviously, it’s very shocking. And usually it’s years of friendship that just kind of go away. I think that’s a very special kind of tragedy to capture. Because with Corvus and Michelle there’s kind of an understanding that they chose each other to be friends, and Michelle eventually chose to not be a part of that anymore.
Whereas with Amber, I think it’s a little more special. I think some of the best friends I’ve had in my life weren’t people I even wanted to necessarily be friends with. They were just folks that were so—I kind of mentioned this earlier, but they stuck around. There was a love there. I’ve found that in the worst parts of my life, the deepest of depressions, the close friends I’ve had were the ones that were just witnessing me in those moments and they made sure I was okay. I think that was something that Amber did. She definitely fell in love with Corvus and wanted to protect her. It was also not her movie, you know? I think sometimes we recognize when another friend is going through a tragedy and it’s not your moment but you’re there to support them. I love moments like those and they also need to be championed. And also, the Amber character was almost accidental. I had no idea she was going to become that for Corvus. But she became a comforting character, both for Corvus and for me. For sure.
It’s common at the end of a writer interview to ask about what you’ve been reading, but I thought I’d make a question that’s a bit more specific. You taught a class recently that was called “How to Break Hearts.” So, was there something you recently found heartbreaking or moving? It could be a book recommendation, a movie, a song, or simply something you saw on the street.
So many things. I like to get my heart broken at least once a day. You mean as it pertains to the novel? Or just like recent stuff?
Either. It could be something that pertains to the novel, or what you’re processing for the next project, or just enjoying.
I teach this film. It comes up in the class I teach. It’s actually a really tough film to watch. It’s called 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. It’s from 2007, it’s set in Romania, it’s a Romanian film. The main character is Otilia and her friend is Gabita. Gabita is pregnant and they’re looking to get a black market abortion in Romania, which was illegal [in the late 1980’s, when the film is set]. So the journey follows Otilia helping her friend out.
Long story short, in getting this black market abortion they go through horrible shit. There’s a moment after all the horrific stuff has happened, where Otilia leaves her friend for a moment to make a meeting with her boyfriend. She is meeting up with her boyfriend and she’s a little late. He’s immediately rude as hell to her. This is what I like that I mentioned before. I like the tension between what the author knows, versus what the character knows, versus what the viewer knows. The viewer knows that Otilia has gone through one of the most traumatic things of her life. The boyfriend has no idea. So we’re witnessing Otilia in her complete composure dealing with all this. They go up to the family’s household and the shot’s almost like The Last Supper. It’s a shot of the dinner scene. Otilia’s silent and the family’s berating her, because she’s late. There’s one point where she tries to light a cigarette. They just talk shit, mad shit the whole time. And it’s actually just normal, family petty shit, but because the viewer knows how much she went through there’s this incredible—it’s one of the best cinematic scenes I’ve ever seen. Because you side with her, you know what she’s going through, there’s all these things that are happening underneath.
I think that’s the core of what I was trying to do with my book. There’s so much we all carry. Without sounding too cliche, we all have very specific trauma we’re carrying and grief that is very much secret that we’re crafting and kind of suppressing. Moments like those are really illuminating, jarring to me, if anyone would really know what you’re going through. There’s a special kind of loneliness that comes with that.
I agree. Thank you, Richard. Unless you had any other things that you want to recommend, I think that’s about it.
Read Chelsea Hodson. Tonight I’m Someone Else. I love that book. I think Chelsea’s a genius.