Frances Dinger: Hey baby, after this show is over, can I interview you?
Richard Chiem: Can I answer only in head-butts?
FD: I feel kind of silly interviewing you. I feel like a lot of these questions are really erudite in a bad way.
RC: Just ask whatever you want to ask.
FD: Okay. So, this book has been dedicated to me since the first draft. When you wrote the first draft, we were both seeing other people. What made you want to dedicate it to me and risk alienating both of our then-significant others?
RC: It just made sense right away. To be honest, I didn’t really think too much about it. Or, I did, but I felt completely confident in doing it. … I don’t know. I met you in a time of survival and the book is about survival. You’re editing down what I say, right?
FD: Very few stories in the book are explicitly about our relationship, but the ones that are about us heavily rely on fantasy elements. For example, one story in the collection describes you running to me in Seattle from your old home in San Diego and along the way, your character comes across a burning house and eats guns to survive. In another story, my character appears motionless among ballet dancers. Where does this fantasy element come from and what made you choose to write about our relationship in that way?
RC: I think we were both going through a very hard time. I think, in the root of it, I wanted to surprise myself and surprise you. I don’t know. Our lives were tough, right? These stories were kind of fun and romantic, but I wanted to make them as authentic as possible. … Mainly, they were like letters from me to you to show you I was thinking about you and the craft. They weren’t really fantastic to me, they were direct. The point of them is the complications, not really what is literally happening. … I remember, when I wrote ‘We Are a Gold Mine,’ you were having a really low time for like three or so weeks. And I was having money trouble but I didn’t want to tell you. So, that story was really just about me wanting to help you in some way despite the distance.
FD: Which story are you most afraid for my parents to read?
FD: Not even the anal sex one?
RC: “What if Wendy” talks about anal sex, yes, but there’s no anal sex in the story. It’s just sex talk. If there was a movie, there would be no nudity. Your parents will disagree with a lot of things. I disagree with a lot of things. There are a lot of questionable things happening in this book.
FD: One of those questionable things that struck me as reader was the scene in “Sociopaths” in which the character Mary is on meth while cleaning hotel rooms. Where did that come from?
RC: She was on meth?
FD: Yeah, I think she was.
RC: Oh, originally she was. In the revision she’s just smoking weed. I guess it just relates back to survival, especially with people working service industry jobs being poor and finding ways to enjoy themselves. … It was just very casual. I wanted Mary to be a person without a fear of discipline.
FD: Did you send me the revised manuscript?
RC: Do you have more questions?
FD: Hmm. What are some not stupid ones.
RC: I do love you.
RC: I’m just saying. I don’t know. I’m being funny. I love you a lot.
FD: Stephen Dierks interviewed you for HTMLGIANT recently and I actually learned some things about you. Like, I didn’t know you were originally a psychology major and I kind of forgot about the pre-law thing. When did your ambitions change? Have you always wanted to be a writer?
RC: I wrote poetry in high school, but I never thought it was serious.
FD: How long have you been serious about writing?
RC: I guess since, like, 2007? I think I recognized I wanted to do it after I noticed I could read more than my friends. … They had less interest [in books].
FD: You wrote most of the stories in YPP when you were 21 and 22 aside from a few more recent ones. Do you have any concerns about your earlier work being out there when your style is a bit more polished now?
RC: I’ve grown less insecure about how people are going to view my writing. For the most part I strive not to care.
FD: From what I can tell, not a lot of your writing is autobiographical, is that an accurate assumption? I mean, you’ve had some really interesting life experiences that are definitely worth writing about.
RC: Like, why do I blend it? Like, why do I write fiction? I don’t know. The best fiction relates to [the writer] in the small moments. … I guess I don’t really know for sure. It’s just never to show people I’ve done something. Except for the car accident story because it’s such a clear narrative in my head, so telling it came easy. The rest is just a created universe. Even though I do use a Richard character in the book, but he’s not me.
FD: Where did that Richard character come from?
RC: I started reading Dennis Cooper and the character Dennis comes up in the George Miles cycle. I liked the idea of confusing the reader like that. I wanted to use that confusion about identity to manipulate the reader’s perception of the narrative. By using myself as a non-character, it serves as a distraction. … When you break the fourth wall — well, I don’t do that — when you go meta, it’s easier to scare people. I don’t know. I’m not going to do it again. … But I believe that if you write under certain [formal] restrictions, it gives you more to work with because you have to work around something. It’s exciting to have to learn how to make something work. … You know who David Lynch is, right?
RC: David Lynch said ‘Dune’ sucked because he had the money to do everything he wanted, he could have fog or an exotic animal run across the screen, he wasn’t forced to be creative. His other movies were good sort of because he couldn’t have everything he wanted. When you have limits, you have to be creative. You can’t have everything you want.
FD: That self-denial seems very contrary to everything in internet lit or whatever.
RC: I don’t want to talk about internet lit right now.
FD: Okay, well, contrary to youth culture.
RC: I’m not trying to be contrary. I’m just going with what feels good to me. It’s like building your way out of a maze. That’s what makes the experience enjoyable to me. I think people know when they finish a story if they’re out of it or not. Sorry, I’m not feeling very articulate right now.
FD: Do you want to read this over before I send it out?
RC: No, I’m kind of sick of myself at the moment.