Alt Lit, Small Presses, And Writing In Your 20s: A Discussion With Richard Chiem
Richard Chiem has done more in his twenties than most of us: he’s getting married soon to a lovely woman named Frances, he has a cool, grown up job at a place everyone’s heard about and he’s the author of You Private Person, a collection of short stories published by Scrambler books.
In the past, Richard Chiem has written for Thought Catalog, but this is his first interview with here. We discussed You Private Person, small presses, the elusive thing known as “alt lit,” and the all-star fans of You Private Person (Daniel Handler of Lemony Snicket fame and Dennis Cooper, to name a few).
Thought Catalog: Let me start off this interview by saying that I really like YPP for the same reason I like the pieces you wrote for universal error — those pieces were my introduction to your writing and I’m really lucky Frances linked me because your voice is one of a kind.
Richard Chiem: Thank you sincerely. That left me quite speechless, thank you.
TC: Are all the characters of you private person based on real people from your real life?
RC: Yeah, I like to think that I cast my friends, people I’ve known, relationships I’ve had, into the book as loose influence for the characters but no one is exactly influenced by anyone else.
TC: There are so passages that I have highlighted. I found so many of your descriptions to be so beautiful and unique.
RC: Oh thank you.
TC: Like, the part where you are describing a character from your past that you imagine ‘surviving’ with, in “What If, Wendy.”
RC: I first thought about writing that story, drunk and talking with a close friend, who was also a writer. I think we were talking about how strong we felt despite of how alone we were.
TC: When did you start writing YPP?
RC: A few beginnings of the stories were written when I was in college. I was 21, maybe 22. The entire manuscript took me more or less two years to write.
TC: Did you do it the traditional way — finding a lit agent, the lit agent connecting you to a publisher — or did you take an unconventional pathway to publication?
RC: No, I don’t have an agent. I dropped out of school, worked full time at an independent movie theater, and I wrote in the evenings and early morning. I dropped out of school because I didn’t want to take out another student loan and because I knew I didn’t want to be in school any longer. I knew I had books in me that I wanted to read and I felt confident. So I wrote and worked until what I imagined became more real and I was able to achieve more and write more after seeing what I was able to accomplish, if I worked hard and stayed on course. I wanted to educate myself alone. After I was fortunate enough to have a few stories published, I started to submit my manuscript around. By then, because of the community of young writers online, many of which are often categorized or grouped as ‘Alt Lit,’ my writing was being read and shared. I was lucky to have a name in the community. At first, YPP was rejected everywhere.
TC: What do you mean by “everywhere”? How many places did you submit your manuscript to?
RC: Haha, I mean every small press i could think of said they loved it or really enjoyed it but would only like to see what my next project would be. Jeremy Spencer, my publisher, had originally rejected the manuscript but a year after the rejection, right before my move from San Diego to Seattle, and after a year of stories and getting klout in the community, I heard word back from Jeremy, saying he would love to publish my book.
TC: How did you feel when you got the news?
RC: It felt wonderful. I had dedicated my life into that book and was very honored that it could be read by others. I was ready to move to seattle without YPP being published and starting brand new. I was fortunate enough that Jeremy saw something he liked and took a chance on me. The version that was published is actually, I think, very different from the version Jeremy accepted.I went through a heavy edit through the book to make sure each scene was sound and how i wanted them to be and Jeremy loved the new edits and backed the book even more.
TC: Do you think YPP is a book very much for the writing community you’re a part of or do you think it could get acceptance with a wider community of writers and readers?
RC: I know I wrote the book to be read and I know the community that I’m a part of, be it small press, Alt Lit, or whatever, was reading and showing support and enjoying the book, but I didn’t write it for a specific audience. What has surprised me so far is the reach of the book since its publication. People I have never heard of, or people I would have never imagined to pick up my book, were getting in touch with me and telling me that they’ve read my book. I have readers in Australia and Spain and other other countries overseas. The day Daniel Handler contacted me was unbelievable.
TC: If you could give any advice to a young writer who aspires to write words for awesome people like you to read?
RC: Think about Michael Jordan. Michael Jordan would wake up every day, workout, and then go to the gym and shoot like 3,000 fucking shots or something.
TC: Was there a time when you didn’t or couldn’t prioritize writing because your work/school schedule or mood or whatever? I feel like so much of high school and even college is spent wishing to write and not doing.
RC: Of course. That’s the whole issue with most writers, right, the writing part.
TC:What’s your next project going to be?
RC: I’m working on a novel called KING OF JOY.
TC: Thank you so much for talking to me.
RC: Thank you so much for talking to me.
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