You Private Person: An Interview with Richard Chiem
What was your favorite book when you were younger? What books have made you lol or cry or feel excited?
I think I read a lot of Goosebumps books and Animorphs books, and I was trying to collect the whole series for each. If I think about 1995, there were many times of me just waiting by myself inside a Safeway, because you could find them in the book aisle. I could read one of those books in about two and a half hours, so it became an easy addiction, since I wanted to know everything, to know the whole story. I would stack up my stacks of books next to my video games and my comic books in towers. They were each numbered like episodes, and in different colors. It seemed perfect to me at the time to have them all. I would save up six or seven dollars, everything other week or so in 1995, waiting in line at a Safeway. I recognized a particular need to read. But they never made me cry or laugh. I don’t really remember what exactly I was feeling when I was eight years old, in third grade, but I remember those simple horror and adventure stories, and I can still talk about them.
I turn on subtitles when I watch movies now. Some of my friends hate it and some really like it. It was adding another dimension to every movie and it quickened the pace of the viewing experience for me. And I watch a lot of movies. I always write after watching
a movie when everything still feels really alive about the story.
Beauty Talk & Monsters by Masha Tupitsyn was one of my favorite books that I was very excited to read. It’s basically a book of short stories as told through what character’s love of film, or how they are being haunted and motivated by movies. Diane Keaton comes up, and so does David Cronenberg and it’s all really beautiful and kind of staggering. I read the book once a year. Try by Dennis Cooper was my favorite novel for a long time, but anything by Dennis Cooper is the perfect read. How I feel at the end of his novels or stories is how I always want to feel when I read a book. I fall into a happy deep quiet. Breaking & Entering by Joy Williams made me cry. Why Did I Ever by Mary Robison made me laugh and think. The Revisionist by Miranda Mellis stays with me. I Go To Some Hollow by Amina Cain. Ever by Blake Butler. High Life by Matthew Stokoe kind of changed how I read everything. I read Bed by Tao Lin once a year.
Cool. I remember reading Goosebumps books at my best friend Bill’s house across the street.
What has it been like living in Seattle? How is it different from your experiences in San Diego? What’s the scene like, or how is it for you hanging with other writers?
I felt as though I was depressed for a long time in San Diego. I dropped out of school and ended a relationship while trying to keep my apartment. I had to get creative in more than a few ways and learn how to thrive in all conditions happy or sad and convince myself I could not afford a certain way of thinking. For a couple of years, I was trying to figure out how to be a person. I started to work what jobs I could find by day, and stay up long nights to read and write, as a ritual.
The Internet became a tool and a hangout spot and really my only true portal to other writers. Since San Diego was not an ideal spot for readings, although there were some cool reading series happening at the time (the New Writing Series at UCSD, run at one point by Anna Joy Springer and Rae Armantrout), there was simply no writing community. I knew a man named Dennis who owned a small bookstore in downtown La Jolla that told me San Diego existed in pockets of culture, that die and start up again every three or four years, and he was dead on.
I found the Internet. I found Frances and found within her my best friend and the love of my life. I read and followed Tao Lin, and things started to happen from there. I worked paycheck to paycheck, and wrote at night and reading on a more consistent schedule. I started to go after a DIY MFA because I felt like I didn’t need school if I cared this much.
One of the only real working writers I met in San Diego was Ana [Carrete]. She had made her own chapbook and was making these interesting videos of herself, almost every day. She has an unnamed video project that can go the length of her career, with each video like a weird poem on its own.
Being in Seattle has been wonderful and rewarding. I met some good friends here and found a good rhythm. I am not quite sure what the scene is, but there are more events, readings, and writers. There is actually a deep sense of community here, because I do see the same few people at every reading I go to in the city. I have a core group of friends, including my girlfriend, that keep showing up and doing the work.
I feel you man. I have mostly lived paycheck to paycheck since college.
You mentioned writing immediately after writing movies. How do movies influence your writing style? Also, what’s your favorite Wong Kar-Wai movie and why? I know we both like him a lot.
I’ve always been some kind of cinephile or movie nerd. When I was younger, my younger siblings and I would watch the same twenty or so VHS tapes, over and over again, until one day I realized I could remember every scene of every movie we had. i could remember lines and how the actors looked when they said everything, what music played over the scene, how the scenes transition into new scenes, somehow making a movie.
I think we owned Goodfellas, True Lies, Die Hard: With A Vengeance, Ever After, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and a few Disney movies, and hundreds of pirated tapes of dubbed Vietnamese Kung Fu/soap opera television shows, and other random movies. When I started college in San Diego, I started to collect DVDs and watching foreign films or select horror movies in the school library. I started working at a movie theatre in 2007 and talked about movies with friends, breaking down scenes with people who have seen the same things. I started to love what I could remember.
I think movies influence the writing in the same ways anything does, in that it allows me to figure out what I like and don’t like, in what I want to experience if at all.
I think my favorite Wong Kar-Wai film is In the Mood for Love, but I like his other movies, too. I like that 2046 uses the same characters but in a new narrative.
Cool. I think 2046 and Happy Together are my favorites by him.
Changing topics: Are you a shy person? What kind of person are you socially, would you say, typically?
I’ve noticed that I can be two different people. I used to think i was a shy person but I realized I am more of a quiet person.
When I was younger, I think I was afraid of people.
I was afraid of getting in trouble when I was real young.
I was less afraid of trouble and more afraid of authority. I enjoyed trouble.
I think I don’t like authority.
I don’t think anyone likes authority, man. It takes a lot to serve and obey.
But back to your question about being shy. I don’t think I am being shy but I am always trying to listen to people and the conversations around me. I found out pretty earlier that I cared about people from the lives they were living out and became interested with the way they portrayed themselves in small talk. I think I tend to keep things hidden so I can seem shy. But I don’t think I can claim being shy anymore.
Yeah. What is your family like?
I am the oldest of five. Three sisters and a brother. With a large extended family outside my intermediate family. My grandmother, my father’s mother, had thirteen children.
Oh really. The oldest. Wow. I am a middle child. Two sisters.
Haha oh yeah. I always assumed you were the oldest.
This is a very particular question. It’s about hmm, peers or something.
I can be very protective, which I think comes from being an older brother.
Did you ever have a friend or friends growing up, where, he or she was sort of like you but different, and you found yourself comparing yourself to him/her or something? Almost as if he/she was like almost “an alternate version” of you, I mean not really but almost like that?
I think that is who Frances is.
Oooh. Now we have gotten to the good part of the interview. Hurray!
I seriously think of Frances as the voice that I was always talking to when I was younger. I had friends all throughout school, but I was always lonely. Rules were strict in my upbringing and to be honest, my home life early on was very rough.
And I never liked to complain. So in my public life, for the most part, my friends never knew. Until when they found out themselves.
So I wasn’t talking to myself, but I was always working things out in my head, talking to an invisible protector, if you can imagine that. Some one to help me work things out, figure things out, and help me be better. When I met Frances, I felt like I was always talking to her.
Did you feel particular pressure to succeed or pressure from being the oldest or something? Are you close to your siblings?
I don’t feel pressure to succeed but I make that pressure, strangely enough.
Were you an A student?
Yeah, I was an A student. I did extracurricular shit too, like Mock Trial, Destination Imagination, and Harvard Model Congress, etc. I was in line to go pre-med or pre-law but once I got to college I started to dive into the things I always wanted to dive into, I didn’t start losing respect for academia, but I started to lose my purpose within that environment. I felt like I could survive there, but I didn’t want it. I wanted to venture elsewhere.
What was your major? Any highlights of jumping ship re pre-law? Any classes or professors or certain things?
I was a psychology major and actually changed my major to Literature Writing to start getting to know someone better intimately. I have to say, the major change was totally motivated by a girl. I always loved reading and was writing like emo ass poetry in high school, but I had never considered being a writer. i was in line to become a doctor or lawyer or any other lucrative position. But I had a crush, took some writing classes. Then I had a summer course with Ali Liebegott. She wrote The Ihop Papers and Beautifully Worthless.
I remember the last day of the summer course and I wrote a story called “Rid of Me” based on the PJ Harvey song. Kate Schatz actually had a book called Rid of Me based on the PJ Harvey album of the same name, and the assignment was based off that. And Ali told me to wait after class during the workshop. And I remember reading her comments, in red ink, about how she thought I was the real deal. And I can’t express how much of a shock it was or how much it meant to me. I started to read her recommended reading list, which included Raymond Carver, Miranda Mellis’ The Revisionist. Which was cool, because I got the first taste of experimental writing, from Miranda’s work, and fell in love with the choices the narrative made or didn’t make, and also got a taste of minimalism from Carver.
Fanny Howe, Eileen Myles, Anna Joy Springer, Rae Armantrout, Ben Doller, and Sawako Nakayasu were other professors at UCSD that had a profound shaking effect on me, especially Fanny Howe, since she dropped out of her undergraduate studies at Stanford.
From there, I started to read a lot more. I actually found out about Blake that way. Since Miranda Mellis was published on Calamari Press, I discovered Robert Lopez, Gary Lutz, and Blake. HTML GIANT soon followed, you know, and all this internet business. And because my writing department focused on experimental texts, and was mostly taught my amazing writers themselves, I was exposed to the new weird right away. But it wasn’t weird for me. I remember I had classmates basically saying, “what the fuck are we reading,” when I was wanting more.
I owe a lot to that department, despite the fact that I dropped out. Also, Chris Kraus. She was a visiting professor there, and although I never had a class with her, I became aware of her work, both in her prose work and her work with Semiotext(e), and also learned a lot by simply reading the work she was putting out.
And I discovered Tao really randomly. I think I saw EEEEE EEE EEEE and picked it up because he was Asian and read it in one shot at the campus book store.
The Internet thing soon followed my dropping out of school.
I see your writing as neither minimalist realism nor “the new weird.”
How do you see my writing then, Stephen? If you don’t mind me asking.
“Impressionistic realism.” Lol I don’t know.
Haha naw, I like that. That works kind of. Maybe. I don’t know either. It doesn’t really matter to me.
You don’t remind me of him that much in other ways, but I think you share with Julio Cortazar the sensation of a prose style that is like an improvising jazz musician.
Haha I haven’t read him much. I like Hopscotch. And thanks, man. I listen to a lot of music when I write. Watch a lot of movies.
OK so while we’re, whatever, what do you think of this bit of realism?
I mean Realism is the set of conventions. But in terms of things “seeming real” or even being “drawn from life.” How do you relate to that, what do you think of it as you’re writing or as a reader? Do you care about it?
I do think a writer has responsibilities, that is very individual for him or her, but I think I stopped caring about rules or how it draws from real life.
Have you seen any movies by Kelly Reichardt? She directed Wendy and Lucy, and Old Joy, and most recently Meek’s Cutoff.
No, but I’m aware.
I think Gary Lutz might have mentioned this somewhere, but if I remembered right, he said he enjoyed a narrative where the character gets tested, and gets completely destroyed in the end.
What about Reichardt, though. Do you identify with her?
Yes, I think so.
My impression, never having actually seen her movies, is that they have a documentary-esque naturalism. Is that true?
I think she gets called as “being slow,” that her films are slow but real.
Right. That’s what I mean. Your stories are not slow. That was the distinction I was going to make.
But that’s the thing, I don’t think Reichardt is slow either.
Your stories’ “realness,” to me, is abridged, distorted by a shifting voice.
I think the scenes she makes in her movies are filled with detail. Exposition is hard for me. I don’t like participating in the “show don’t tell” discussion, because it doesn’t really relate to me, but I know I don’t enjoy exposition. I like scenes to be episodic and open.
Have you seen Holy Motors yet? I saw it at a festival.
Naw, I want to.
It has a through-narrative of the numbered “appointments.” But each appointment is an unpredictable episode in which the main character completely transforms.
The back of his limo has a changing room.
What do you mean, like personality-wise.
And he emerges each time completely different. In appearance. One time he’s an old beggar woman. Another time he’s a hairy monster man.
He puts on makeup and costumes. And the reality of the world outside the limo, and in general, is hard to ascertain. I was very into it.
Damn, that sounds great.
Did you see The Master?
Damn, man, not yet. I really like Paul Thomas Anderson, though.
Yeah. I like him, too.
His first movie especially, Hard Eight.
I haven’t seen that one. It would seem to be his least-praised movie, no?
I think everything he has done is very good, well crafted, and interesting, but Hard Eight did a lot of things for me. It was his first one, I think, so it gets overlooked. He makes wholes.
I liked The Master. I enjoyed watching it more than There Will Be Blood, but it had less visceral impact on me versus Blood.
I think good fiction makes a hole/whole into the page or screen and I think P.T. Anderson does that.
Rachel and I were discussing after how it didn’t seem dramatic to us at all. There wasn’t any dramatic tension to us although it had the tone and scenes and characters that would seem to suggest that drama was being attempted.
Haha, that seems badass. Dude, do you know the story behind the creation of The Master?
It just seemed like some sort of meditation on masculinity with an attempt to have two great actors square off chewing scenery.
Joaquin to me was head and shoulders more exciting than Hoffman though, to me.
I need to see it.
So have you seen Punch-Drunk Love?
Hoffman I think seems like he’s acting to me, whereas Joaquin seems more consumed in the act he’s doing.
Joaquin is a beast.
He seems very committed and consumed by his weird act.
I’ve seen Punch-Drunk yeah. Liked it. That movie and The Master share the thing of “guy throwing a tantrum” scenes.
He seems to share the same kind of crazy as the people I love.
So the opening credits of Punch-Drunk Love was made by this visual artist, Jeremy Blake, who was close friends with PTA, and who killed himself by walking into the ocean.
Oh yes, yeah. They’re making a movie about them.
There has been a few articles on his suicide, because it happened a week after his lover’s suicide, Theresa Duncan. The rumor is that Scientology played a big role in why they chose to end their lives.
Oh really. Sucky.
I can’t confirm, but The Master, I heard, was somehow P.T.’s revenge or his homage to his friendships to them.
I wonder if that is speculation. Does P.T. just not want to admit? He downplays the Scientology thing a lot.
It’s an interesting discussion because there are a lot of politics involved.
Originally, the novel I am currently working on was based on the twin suicides of Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan. But I decided not to do it since I found out about the movie and since I wasn’t too sure why I was so caught up in the details of their deaths.
I figured out a title, I think. Worst Kept Secrets.
Worst Kept Secrets or Any Place I Hang Myself Is Home.
I look forward to reading that. Hmm. I think we’re done. Anything else?
Tags: blake butler, chris kraus, david cronenberg, Dennis Cooper, Eileen Myles, frances dinger, Hard Eight, Holy Motors, Joy Williams, Kelly Reichardt, Masha Tupitsyn, Miranda Mellis, paul thomas anderson, Punch-Drunk Love, richard chiem, scrambler books, Tao Lin, The Master, Wong Kar-Wai, You Private Person