Walking to meet Richard Chiem in Seattle’s Capitol Hill District to talk about his new book, King of Joy, I passed a bar named Corvus. I stopped for a few moments to consider the coincidence. In King of Joy, out now from Soft Skull Press, Corvus is the tragic protagonist, a depressed young woman struggling with a grief and sadness so great that her life has been turned into a surreal movie in which she is the only star. It’s a powerful performance.
Chiem’s first book, You Private Person, was recently reissued by Sorry House Classics and was named one of Publishers Weekly’s ten essential books of the American West. His work has also appeared in Moss, NY Tyrant, and Gramma, and many other places.
Chiem’s work is characterized by rich yet unadorned sentences, dreamlike scenes, and images that shock and awe with their astute observations. King of Joy’s subject matter is heavy, but the reader is somehow able to float above it on Chiem’s pleasant rhythms. That’s not to say that the reader isn’t going to come away from the book haunted. Weeks after reading the book, I still think of Corvus’s insatiable appetite for drugs, Tim’s pornography studio where Corvus finds escape and further pain, and the cadre of animals that run amok in this tight, heartbreaking work.
I was curious about Chiem’s experience making the jump into being a published novelist, some of the inspiration for his prose quality, and what it means to perform with text.
The Rumpus: How long did it take you to write King of Joy?
Richard Chiem: Three years, I would say. It took me about a year after to find a home.
Rumpus: Did you have an agent at the time?
Chiem: No, I didn’t. I’m not anti-agent. When I finished the novel, I took a year to look for someone. There were a few that almost took it on. I had crafted a really nice query letter and was surprised how successful it was. There were soft rejections, and a few requests to see my next book. After six months of this I thought why don’t I approach publishers and editors directly? So, that’s what I did. I think Soft Skull was the perfect home for it.
Rumpus: Did you approach Catapult or Soft Skull first?
Chiem: That’s a really delightful story, actually. I’m a close friend of Chelsea Martin. I’ve been a fan of her work since 2006. She’s been really bad ass for a long time. She has five or six books out, all really quality work. She just had Caca Dolce published by Soft Skull, and she had a release for it in Spokane which she invited me to read at. We were having a beer afterwards and talking about the Editor-in-Chief of Soft Skull, Yuka Igarashi, and Chelsea’s experience with the press. Chelsea thought that maybe Yuka would like King of Joy. And so, Chelsea introduced me.
Rumpus: Who was your editor? And what kind of editorial work went into the book? Structural changes? Line level?
Chiem: Allie Wuest. I think this was her first for Soft Skull. I cannot imagine this book without her. We spent a very intensive three to four months editing. I call Allie the GOAT. At times I felt like she knew the prose better than I did. She was also a fan of my first book, You Private Person, so she had a real sense of what I was doing. I had never had that relationship with an editor before, and I think that made the novel even better. She knew how to ask the right questions, but also knew when to let me be me. It felt like a collaboration at that point.
Rumpus: The novel is structured in three sections with the novel moving from the grief of the present day into the past where we focus on Corvus and Perry’s relationship, then back to the present. What made you choose this structure?
Chiem: I knew from the beginning that it would have part one, part two, and part three in that way. The book is loosely modeled after Breaking and Entering by Joy Williams. I remember reading the book twice, then trying to remember the structure without re-reading it again. Like trying to conjure the ghost of the thing. I remembered that there is a pivot in the story, where the reader realizes Liberty and Willie have been through a lot of trauma together. I wanted the same effect for this book. Because the topics I grapple with in King of Joy are quite sensitive, I had to figure out how to do it with respect, and without making it too much like a cheap twist. I really like the tension between what the characters know, what the writer knows, and what the reader knows, and how to reveal effectively. I think this structure made it more immersive for the reader and avoided those problems.
Rumpus: It’s funny you mention Joy Williams, because I kept turning to The Changeling while I was reading your book and noticed the similarities between your prose and hers. The level of adornment. The richness in rhythm. How do you approach your line work? Does it come naturally, or do you find a need to strip away?
Chiem: One of my favorite writers, Dodie Bellamy, had an interview with Michael Silverblatt on Bookworm. It was when her book When the Sick Rule the World came out. She talked about how her contemporaries are very smart, but usually among the academic world, and that their work tends to be very highbrow. Academic writing has a weight of difficulty, and maybe lacks accessibility, even if there still is magic at play. Dodie talked about the tension she has within herself, wanting to be a smart writer, while also thinking of class issues. She works to make her prose simple. I like trying to figure that out within my own work. How can I make the prose feel rich but also accessible? I like the idea that someone could pick up my novel and just dive in on a sentence level, even though the book deals with a lot of heavy subjects.
Rumpus: I’m curious about how the act of performance plays out in the book, and what it means to you as a writer.
Chiem: I think that when a person goes through a very tough childhood, or grief or depression, it becomes some kind of secret that we have to sometimes bury or hide to get on with the day to day. It becomes a performance. When you meet someone who you have affection or affinity for, they tend to force you to perform differently, perform honestly. Corvus goes through that in the book. On an interpersonal level, anytime we have a personal language with anyone, like building a new language with that person, it makes the end of that relationship all the more staggering. You actually lose how to speak. And in death or the end of a relationship, you also lose that role you’d learned to play.
Photograph of Richard Chiem © Brooks Callison.