Richard Chiem’s debut novel “King of Joy” (released in March through Soft Skull Press) is full of lessons — lessons about love, loss, grief and survival. Lessons about family and friendship … and the unexpected aggressiveness of hippos. OK, so maybe that last one isn’t as profound and life affirming as the others, but it’s signature Chiem to toss in the strange and unexpected to punctuate his dreamy, poetic prose. The narrative follows Corvus — a quietly depressed young woman living in a secluded mansion with a pornographer and his other female subjects — both before and after the unexpected death of her husband. It’s a story that takes us deep into human suffering, but still finishes with a triumphant burst of hope.
Written in Chiem’s surreal-tinged style — his first book, “You Private Person” (Scrambler, 2012) was a genre-bending crossover of poetry, prose, short story and novel — “King of Joy” is light on narrative complexity, but strong in its ability to throw a sucker punch of deeply relatable emotion. In anticipation of his upcoming reading at Third Place Books on Tuesday, April 2, Chiem spoke with us about the work.
Q: Your first book, “You Private Person,” was a collection of short stories. “King of Joy” is a more traditional novel. What caused this leap of form?
A: I was already practicing writing short stories and I wanted to do something that was a real challenge. My first book was me trying to get a bunch of things out — I wrote it when I was around 19 or 20 and I was still trying to figure out my style. It was exciting and chaotic to play with tone and sentence structure and narrative. Now my style feels more solid and honed in.
Q: Where does the extreme grief in your writing come from?
A: I was working though my own personal grief as I wrote [“King of Joy”]. I think that sometimes when we are in a state of grief we find ourselves in very strange places, and some of that seeped into the narrative. I didn’t set out to write a grief novel. I knew I wanted to write this character Corvus, I knew what kind of truth she was going to go through, and I knew I wanted her to survive. The book was definitely a vessel for my own depression and [a vessel] for getting through this particular narrative to get through my grief.
Q: In our digitally-obsessed world where everyone has a shortened attention span, why is storytelling still important?
A: When I was suicidal I learned that [for me] reading very strange, very sad books was in a sense a survival mechanism. They filled me up with a strange solace, especially when there was a character that survived grief — even if it wasn’t my own grief. There was something comforting in that. People read fiction to find some kind of weird truth and I hope that I’m able to put some extra weirdness back into the pool.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for “King of Joy”? Was it a flash-in-the-pan concept or something you had been ruminating on for a while?
A: I worked on it for three years, so I wouldn’t say it was a flash, but I knew who Corvus was right away. I’m a cis male writing a novel about a woman who does porn, so I had to be very mindful about how I approached that. I didn’t want to write another novel about a young man coming of age. That seemed boring to me. As creators I think we should be more conscious of the narratives we put out into the world. I don’t like putting things into a story for shock value. So you have Corvus, who does porn, but there’s very little sex in the book. I’m much more interested in her survival.
Q: While the book rests on dark subject matter and a lot of sadness, I ultimately read the ending as hopeful. What do you hope the reader takes away from the story?
A: We often don’t expect certain people [in our lives] to stay, and the reality is that with a lot of friendships there is a special kind of love there. I’ve had so many times when friends were in my corner without me even asking them to be. They would just show up during the dark times and that made a huge impact. I wrote that into the Amber character and she really became one of my favorites in the story. Both her and Corvus are survivors.
“King of Joy” by Richard Chiem, Soft Skull Press, 208 pp., $15.95
Richard Chiem will read from “King of Joy” at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 2, at Third Place Books Ravenna, 6504 20th Ave. N.E., Seattle; 206-525-2347, thirdplacebooks.com