Q&A with Richard Chiem

You may have developed a taste for Richard Chiem’s voice from his story “Back Pockets Full of Dynamite” published in the September issue of City Arts. This month, though, you’ll have the chance to curl up with his debut full-length book of short stories You Private Person, out from Scrambler Books on Oct. 15. We recently met up with Richard to talk about dropping out, heading north and finding the importance of story.

How did You Private Person come about?
In 2009 I dropped out of school. I went to the University of California San Diego. When I dropped out I was working two jobs—one was Lucky Brand Jeans and the other was Barnes and Noble. The only way I was getting by was basically writing my way out of it. I was writing every night from about midnight to 5 a.m. Doing that for about a year and a half, two years. And then found a little online community of people who read my stuff. When I started submitting my manuscript to Jeremy Spencer, my publisher, he rejected it at first. And then I had a really good year where I had about 40 publications, and he wrote me and said, “Send it to me again.” And I sent it to him again, and by this time it was a brand new manuscript. This time he loved it and he said he’d publish it.

When was this?
The “yes” came about a year ago, right before I moved to Seattle. So I was leaving San Diego thinking I didn’t have anything, but the week before I moved he sent me an email and before I knew it I had a book forthcoming.

Do you spend more time editing than writing?
Because the writers that I tend to admire are slow writers—I think my favorite writer right now is Joy Williams, she’s a very slow writer and she taught me a lot about the editing process—I would have to say yes. But I try to contradict that with writing every day. Not in the efforts of being prolific, but I don’t think creativity should be wasted and you just have to use it when you can.

Is what you’re writing now terribly different from what you were writing in California?
I can see it being honed down. Since being here in Seattle and talking to people doing similar things I made a goal to try to read a book every week and kind of stay on it. Because of that there’s kind of a work ethic that has changed dramatically. To me the story is incredibly important and before I think I was just trying to write pretty lines and now it’s not just about pretty lines.

There’s such a fluid intersection of authentic urban interiors and exteriors in your stories. Are the settings in the book inspired by your life?
I was raised really poor so all I really had was TV and a VHS player. To protect me and my sisters from some weird poverty sadness we watched a shit ton of movies and read a lot of books. And I think I get most of my settings from movies. Do you know what the movie game is?

It’s when someone lists a director and then the other person names a movie and then an actor and back and forth. I think I retain a lot of that knowledge because of these things I love. Like I can still go through whole plots of shitty movies and long running TV shows and they’re not all like major plot things, they’re just little things I care to get caught up in. Like waiting for an elevator. Those are the moments that seize me most because those are the ones that seem real. Maybe it’s not necessarily the awkward moments but the ones where you’re forced to be present and make a decision. Usually setting is very tied to that, because you can’t just be floating. It’s more like you have to react to a person being there in this place. Literature for me has always been a coping thing. I never want to portray that in my work because I don’t think that politics have a place in it but I would like eventually for the writing to help somebody out.

Is the community you write around important to you?
In San Diego I felt very much like a lone wolf among academics, like no one my age really took it seriously. They were waiting to get the degrees first before launching anything else. I wasn’t disillusioned by it, but I lived with close friends who were MFA students and they were always hesitating before they wrote and I wasn’t having that. So when I moved up here, my girlfriend was a writer and there was a bunch of community groups and I felt like every other motherfucker I met was a writer, which was a totally different thing. It was intimidating, but eventually I loved it.

Photo by Frances Dinger.