Andrew Byrds: So I’ve been doing some digging into what people are saying about King of Joy. This goes beyond just reading the blurbs on the back of my copy, going into Goodreads and lit mag territory. A lot of people are making comparisons of your writing to filmmakers, specifically David Lynch and how your narratives/characters are very “Lynchian”. However, I want to kick against that currant and say KOJ gave me some Harmony Korine vibes, especially with its emphasis on voyeurism and the strange wilderness these people find themselves in. Matter of fact, I just Amazon-searched “Harmony Korine” and one of the first things to pop up is KOJ. So my first question is really a melding of an observation with a curiosity–did Korine have any influence on you–not only limited to KOJ, but writing in general–and also, do you find yourself using a sense of auteurism into your work?
Richard Chiem: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk w/ me Andrew! I really appreciate you taking the time to read my novel as well!
The first scene I ever wrote from King of Joy came right after watching Spring Breakers (2012) for the first time. The viewing was incredibly stimulating to me and it helped me unlock something I wanted in prose: how style and form can push, transcend, and become substance. The movie moved very much like a music video, which was so dope to me, and yet the core narrative was still very much within grasp and accessible to the viewer. It was easy to dive in but very difficult to leave.
Because I am very much a sentence-level writer, sentence by sentence, witnessing Spring Breakers allowed me some freedom to tackle an entire novel, and King of Joy was the result of that experiment. I see each sentence working in a narrative in the same way a single camera shot works in film. I think each sentence and each shot can tell (or show) so much, as far as tone, atmosphere, plot and character details, etc to the reader. I am in love with figuring out the sum of these parts, and crafting how the narrative builds and builds on the sentence level. I am also in love with the tension of what the author knows versus what the characters know versus what the reader knows, and I like having fun mapping out these possible tensions and pivots in the story. I think each sentence also contains musicality in their cadences and I like figuring what my sentences sound like and what that can do for the reader.
I don’t find myself using a sense of auteurism, but I do like asking myself if I am staying to the truth of the narrative, to the truth of what my characters are experiencing.
AB: Your adoration of dramatic irony actually gave KOJ a theatrical feel, oftentimes I pictured it more as a play than a film. Kinda like Sarah Kane meets Beckett. Has theater played into any of your inspirations?
RC: Thank you so much for saying, Andrew! Although no plays directly influenced KOJ, even though Perry is a playwright, I do love the apparatus of theater and how this is another thing for the audience to overcome to become fully immersed in the story. I am fascinated with performance though. Like Dennis Cooper, I am obsessed with the films of Robert Bresson and his use of non-professional actors in his work. There is something intimate he created from the spaces of these performances that undeniably captured the attention of the viewer.
AB: How did you approach the writing of KOJ? You’ve mentioned before it is definitely about grief, did it present more obstacles compared to your previous projects?
RC: I think writing this novel was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I wanted a reading experience that felt both immersive and emotionally authentic, and I tried to accomplish this one scene at a time, one section at a time, sentence by sentence, to build cadence, musicality, and suspense.
I approached writing King of Joy in a very similar way Wong Kar-wai directed his films I think, almost on the go and in the moment, and without a real sense of an outline or storyboard. While watching the behind-the-scenes and the-making-of for In the Mood for Love, I learned that Wong Kar-wai often doesn’t have a fully developed script once he begins filming, and often than not, his actors will have to wait around all day on set, in full costume, until inspiration hits. I think I crafted each section of King of Joy in the same torturous way. My characters were waiting around in my head, always in costume, always in their feelings, ready for the scene to be built out and crafted.
AB: If you had to choose one mantra to stoke up in you while working on KOJ, does anything specific come to mind?
RC: I think the best writing advice I ever got was to write or read every day, which is simple, but not easy. I also learned how to forgive myself when I needed time away from the novel. But usually I just listened to music to put myself in the right tone and atmosphere, and because I love my characters, I try to build a story that would answer to the truth of my characters, whatever that means. I think realizing that I was a lifer also helped, that I was going to be writing for the rest of my life.
AB: What was the weirdest small town interaction you’ve ever experienced?
RC: Oh man, this is such a good question. One moment comes to mind: Riverside, California. I remember a biker gang. Bikes like Ninjas. I remember having just graduated high school and feeling very eager and very anxious to leave San Bernardino. I wanted to be very far, far away from where I went to high school and some of my hometown friends knew I was never coming back. Alejandra, a close high-school friend, whom was always looking out for me, whom I was probably a little in love with, wanted one last night with me to party before I left The Inland Empire forever. One hot summer afternoon, she took me and her older sister to this vacant parking lot in Riverside. I remember the parking lot being very unremarkable, and I wondered why she took us there. As the sun went down, people started to show up with their Ninjas and fast cars with nitro tanks. The pavement shook with hip-hop, and men and women were dancing and drinking in between revving cars and motorbikes. It felt like a scene from 2 Fast 2 Furious. I spent the entire night with Alejandra and her sister, talking to bikers, drinking beers, sitting on the pavement, and laughing at the moon. I think we all ended the night on some stranger’s couch, watching The Mars Volta music videos until morning. I remember the night being tender and fleeting.
AB: So when it came to KOJ, was there an attempt to display some of the inane aspects of the human experience? For how dark the book gets, there are some moments where it gets darkly comedic if only because of the bizarre world the characters find themselves in moment from moment, as their realities shift.
RC: I think I just wanted the book to feel real, authentic, and true to the characters. I’ve been a sad person my whole life and I have never been able to escape the inane aspects/details of life. I find these details incredibly grounding and comforting to see. I think there is a kind of math in those details of what surrounds us when we’re in strange stages of trauma or grief. When I was about fourteen, my parents decided to get a divorce, which was devastating for everyone in the family, but I remember my father especially during those days and how he was effected. I remember at the height of it, before we left and moved to California as part of the divorce, my dad and I were at a gas station sometime late at night and then suddenly, our car wouldn’t start. It was completely dead. I could see the energy being sapped out of my dad but he stayed there, looking at me, smiling. He was and still is, this strong serious man, almost without any emotion, and the divorce broke him down, and I remember how much he was hurting and I remember how much he was trying to hide it from his children.
I remember my dad walking into the gas station, and I remember sitting on the curb, waiting for a tow truck. I remember feeling fat and ugly and sad. My dad came back with two strawberry shortcake ice cream bars and they were perfect. We ate them in silence, under those orange gas station lights. I remember the dry dirt on my shoes, and I remember that even though it was night time, I didn’t feel cold. I remember the details.
AB: Going back to the aesthetic of the novel, this time literally, I’m fascinated by the cover. Especially all those blues and purples, it has this vaporwave mosaic appeal that makes it hard for someone not to wonder what this book is all about. Could you tell me how this cover complements the tone of KOJ, and maybe some insight into the process of coming up with its design?
RC: Thank you, Andrew, I love the cover so much. The cover was designed by Michael Salu, a brilliant artist based in Berlin. Michael has designed the past few of Soft Skull covers and they all have been masterpieces. I believe Salu designs his book covers as digital sculptures, something kinetic and alive and always in motion somehow. I believe Michael described this cover as one of agony and ecstasy, which compliments the themes of the novel.
Michael went through a few interactions, which was such a dope process. especially honing down on the right color palate. Soft Skull has all those cover ideas on their IG story highlights, and it’s cool to see how the cover evolved.
AB: Now that KOJ has been out for some time, how do you feel about its reception, and is there anything that’s really struck you from what people have been saying about it?
RC: Oh man, I have been so grateful for all the attention my novel has been receiving and so grateful for all the generous support I’m seeing online. Finding out about all the readers, reviewers, and interviewers has been doing something really special to me, something truly tender and next level, and every bit of news has meant the world to me and it’s as though my world is getting bigger and bigger.
What has really struck me so far is how so many readers have gone into my book not knowing what to expect, or expecting to even hate the book, and then somehow falling in love with the novel once they dove in. Readers have been telling me they have read the book in sometimes just a single sitting. They tell me how much they relate to Corvus, and how they were never expecting to relate so deeply to a grief novel. Some readers have said KOJ has now become one of their favorite books. Hearing this has filled me up with gold.
AB: What’s next down the line for you?
RC: I am currently working on a revenge novel about two women, Chloe Battles and Sarah Kush.
I am also working on a new book of short stories and experimenting with a screenplay.
Named a 2019 Writer to Watch by the Los Angeles Times, Richard Chiem is the author of You Private Person (Sorry House Classic, 2017), and the novel, King of Joy (Soft Skull Press, 2019). His book of short stories, You Private Person, was named one of Publishers Weekly’s 10 Essential Books of the American West. His work has been published in The Nervous Breakdown, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Fanzine, 3:AM Magazine, and Moss, among many other venues. He has taught at Hugo House and at the University of Washington Bothell. He lives in Seattle.