‘I want to be able to help’ – A Conversation with Richard Chiem

I have been Facebook-friends with Richard Chiem since March 2011. We have 146 mutual friends. This amount makes up around 10% of Richard’s total friends. We started speaking on a semi-regular basis during early stages of a [now defunct] literary project spearheaded by Frank Hinton. In the time I have known Richard, he has been writing fiction almost exclusively. Before this he was the 2009 recipient of the UCSD Stewart award for poetry.

Richard’s literary persona is demure and composed, his reading voice is a balmy lullaby. Here, he reads Frank Hinton’s ‘Something Pure and Good’ from her collection, I Don’t Respect Female Expression.

In many ways, Richard is the literary antithesis to Steve Roggenbuck’s brand of hyper-positivity. Despite this, the two are friends. Steve appears regularly on Richard’s tumblr and they recently performed together in Seattle. I spoke to Richard about his connection to the Pop Serial collective.

Artifice

  • Do you feel part of the Pop Serial group? Stephen [Tully Dierks] has been a big fan of your work for a long time.

Richard Chiem

  • I owe a lot to Stephen and Pop Serial. He was one of the first people to solicit my work. I remember at the time, how excited and honored I felt. I think for me, it always comes down to the work ethic and how people behave. I love what’s going on right now, and I agree with Steve Roggenbuck, that not everyone needs to be prolific, but I am tired of being lazy. I never want to be lazy another day in my life, unless it’s with loved ones. I think I fear, but only a little, being grouped with other Gen Ys. I think Gen Ys are called spoiled and lazy a lot. I want to be able to help. Help what? I am not sure, but I know I want to be able to.

Like Roggenbuck, Richard dropped out of writing school, feeling aversion to the culture of coasting by, on the ‘little nods’ from professors. Where he might differ stylistically from other Pop Serial contributors, Dierks clearly recognises some unity in Richard’s work ethic and good tempered spirit.

Richard certainly does not come across as lazy. He is the founding editor of vertebrae, a journal of art and poetry. In the last twenty-four months, he has been published widely, appearing in issues Two and Three of the seminal journal, Pop Serial and our own Artifice 4. In the time I have known him, Richard has authored two ebooks, What if, Wendy (Pangur Ban Party, 2010) and the exceptional Oh No Everything Is Wet Now (Magic Helicopter Press, 2011), a multimedia collage co-authored with Ana Carrete, a fellow Pop Serial writer.

In 2011, Richard moved to Seattle to live with Frances Dinger, another member of the Pop Serial community. We discussed how this move affected his work.

Richard Chiem

  • Well, in San Diego, aside from Ana [Carrete], I felt like I was a lone wolf in a way. There were writers there, but they were all old school and highly academic. I feel if writers come to San Diego, it’s to get away or something. In Seattle, I feel like every other person is a writer, which made things more competitive at first for me, but then I realized it was more important to kind of slow down and step back and know the most important thing was to be human.

Though Richard can now speak positively about his decision to move on from writing school, he recounts the period immediately after as one of severe depression. During this period, he wrote the majority of what became the short-story collection, You Private Person (Scrambler Books, 2012). We spoke about his motivations that produced this work.

Artifice

  • Is there a theme to the collection? Some overall thing to be taken away?

Richard Chiem

  • Perhaps survival; the young surviving. I was definitely trying to see if I could survive without academia and I knew the only way to do that was hard work and being human. I hope that reflects in the book. How to be human, however strangely.

Artifice

  • Are you a private person?

Richard Chiem

  • I grew up as a private person, I think. I am definitely an introverted person that likes to take risks and sometimes those risks are simply talking to other people. But I don’t know, after middle school or so, I became more confident and excited for conversation. I try to never feel embarrassed, which is hard to get away from, but when I manage it, it feels like skateboarding or something. How about you?

Artifice

  • My instinct was to reply that I was. But it wouldn’t be true.

Richard Chiem

  • Yeah, me too. I think more than anything, I am more disciplined now, which causes me to stay in more often. I don’t think it makes me more private though. I enjoy the things I don’t share equally to those things that I do share.

Artifice

  • Do you feel your book is something intimate that you’re sharing?

Richard Chiem

  • Yeah, I think it has to be, or else it’s not worth putting out. […] I’m proud but I don’t think that’s the point. I am very eager to keep going. I just don’t want to get too caught up in the celebration. Like, I don’t think it’s time to celebrate yet. I would rather use the merit for fuel.

Artifice

  • Is there anything you read/listened to while putting You Private Person together? Anything that influenced the way it was composed?

Richard Chiem

  • Movies actually had more of an impact. They’re more like weirdly inspired by things. ‘What If, Wendy’ is actually my own fan fiction of Half Nelson. ‘Planet B Boy’ is titled after the documentary of the same name. ‘Cutty’ is my fan fiction of The Wire.

Artifice

  • Can you see yourself writing professionally?

Richard Chiem

  • That is the goal, yes. I just have to put the work in. There are examples to follow, Tao just being one of them, Blake Butler another [Blake has written one of three blurbs to You Private Person].

Artifice

  • Have you met Tao or Blake?

Richard Chiem

  • Not Blake but I met Tao once, I think back in 2010. He was on tour in San Diego and crashed at my place. It was a big deal for me to meet him. When I started to read Tao Lin, I thought ‘cool, another asian male writer’. Maybe it means something to me because I am American born, but my parents were and are foreigners.

Stephen Dierks’ has repeatedly stated his belief that ‘alt lit’ was founded on a connection of people who felt an affinity to Lin’s writing. Richard identifies himself as among these writers. Scrambler Books have previously published fellow Pop Serial contributors, Kendra Grant Malone (Everything is Quiet, 2010) and Matthew Savoca (long love poem with descriptive title, 2010). In addition, they will be issuing the first English translation of Luna Miguel’s poetry (Bluebird and Other Tattoos, 2012). I asked Richard how the Scrambler connection came about.

Richard Chiem

  • I sent Jeremy [Spencer] my manuscript I think back in 2010 and he rejected it first. But I think, something like six or seven months after the rejection, he asked for it again and by that time, the collection was way different. There were more stories and I knew what I wanted to do with the collection. Right before my move to Seattle, like almost a year ago, Jeremy sent me word that he would love to publish it, which was one of the best emails I’ve ever gotten.

Artifice

  • Are you pleased with the cover? What say did you have in that?

Richard Chiem

  • I contacted Mark Leidner, being a big fan of his poetry and collages, and asked him if he could do me the honor of making a cover for YPP. The final cover was actually the second attempt from Mark. The first one was amazing too, but we were worried about copyright issues because it had an image of Princess Diana in front of a galaxy. I am eternally grateful to Mark.

Artifice

  • Do you have anything planned for launch night?

Richard Chiem

  • Haha I actually haven’t thought of the actual book release party thing. I have some close friends here [Seattle] that I would love to celebrate with but there is no clear picture of what it’s going to look like or what venue.

For Richard, writing is life, an on-going project. We spoke about the possibility of his next book.

Artifice

  • What have you been working on since you completed YPP?

Richard Chiem

  • I’ve been working on a novel, tentatively titled, ‘Any Place I Hang Myself Is Home’.

Artifice

  • How is that experience coming out of writing shorter fiction?

Richard Chiem

  • No doubt, writing a novel is one of the hardest things. It has to do with me figuring out what I want.

Artifice

  • Will there be a connection between the novel and any of the stories from YPP?

Richard Chiem

  • All the characters are from the same universe, but I don’t think anyone will ever meet. But maybe. I like breaking my own rules.

You Private Person is due to release in September. Here is its trailer.

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