This Affecting New Novel Is A Meditation On Grief, Inspired By 'Spring Breakers'

Talking with Richard Chiem about 'King of Joy,' which is gentle and devastating, like grief itself—only with more hippos

"I actually wrote King of Joypretty caffeinated. I was drinking cup after cup," Richard Chiem tells me over the phone, sharing his predilection toward abusing coffee. It's an impulse that's very familiar to me; vices do have a powerful sway during times of trauma and grief. So it makes sense that Chiem would be drinking, as he says, "a ton of coffee," while writing his debut novel, a disturbingly beautiful portrayal of trauma and grief, loss and redemption, friendship and fucking—and hippos.

King of Joy is hard to explain in the way grief is hard to explain; it's a book you feel inside of you, that weighs you down but also keeps you moving. It centers around Corvus, a young woman who is grappling with the loss of her partner, Perry, and finds some solace in a new friend, Amber, whom she meets on a porn shoot, directed by a guy named Tim. There's a distinctly dreamy feel to the novel, the sense that everything is perception, nothing is tangible; the sense that because nothing much is real, or maybe it's because reality is mostly nothing, everything we do matters more than we can possibly realize. It's beautiful and painful and just psychedelic enough to make you feel like you've gone on a real journey when you turn the very last page.

Below, I speak with Chiem about the elliptical nature of grief, what the name "Corvus" means, and why it's an honor when an animal chooses you to be its friend.

What was the genesis of King of Joy? When did this become a novel in your mind?

To be honest, I think I was very stoned and watching, for the first time, Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers. We didn't watch it in theaters—I was with my wife-at-the-time. I was so stimulated by it, that after we were done, we talked about it briefly, and I wrote the first scene, which is Corvus watching Amber burn the tree down.

At that time, I was already writing a different novel, and I was kind of struggling to get through it. And I think I was just in my own head a little bit. And I remember, with this project, I kind of allowed myself to become a little possessed with, I guess, the visuals that I was seeing. I also learned in the writing process. In that particular movie, form became substance in a way; form kind of became content. Which I thought, in the past, that stylized stuff was almost too cheap or not doing enough work, but I found an emotional narrative within Spring Breakers that I really loved. And I wanted to translate it somehow in prose.

So I think King of Joy started out as my attempt kind of to translate the cinematography of that film to create, to kind of add a certain tone to my own prose, to give it a surreal aspect. Not to distract the reader, but it's a pretty grief-heavy book, a pretty depressing book, so I think having these kinds of—not fanciful—but other things to look at, is kind of how I vibe with it. I think sometimes we find ourselves in really strange places when we're grieving, and I'm really fascinated with the details of those places.

King of Joy's narrative is really elliptical, which is how I think about experiencing grief. On the one hand, when you're grieving, time is even more irrefutably than ever moving in a linear way, because you're so conscious of before and after, and the series of events. But at the same time, because you're flooded with memories and all these different stimuli and the weight of an unimagined future, grief takes you to different places in time, and you feel like you're existing outside of that structure. How did you balance these oppositional things?

I don't work within an outline; I saw something the other day that Werner Herzog said that outlines are for cowards, and I thought that was really funny. I'm very interested in the tension between what the author knows and what the characters know versus what the reader knows, and I really loved playing with that tension. I think, starting when I wrote the book, I knew Perry was going to die. Honestly, one of my biggest goals with the book was to kind of weave this strange hippo death element into it, and that was really hard. I wanted to kind of make that somewhat believable, but also in line with the emotional narrative of the story. I thought a good juxtaposition with that was Corvus finding a life after men, in a sense.

I knew what I wanted to get across, and I knew what themes I really wanted to really hit home. For me, I think it was the hippo death scene, for the reader to know that Corvus is in a kind of limbo that she's slowly getting out of. I think when I read sad-ass books, or stories about grief, I'm not looking for an escape guide or a how-to manual, I'm looking for examples of just strangeness or weirdness or things that have been survived. I read those books to know that people can survive that shit. I think it's providing this strange place or resource. I think it becomes comforting for people who are isolated.

When you're grieving, your body kind of moves on its own, back to its own individual routine, and it's quite heartbreaking how we can move through our day like that, almost secretly. That's one of the reasons why, on a day-to-day level, I kind of find myself, as a person, being overly polite. I think I'm always kind of worried that someone sitting next to me may be having the worst day of their life, and I'm really conscious and sensitive to that. I always wanted to write a novel that was sensitive in that kind of way. I didn't have an outline, I just kind of molded it scene by scene, and some of that was changed up during the editing process with my editor, Allie Wuest, who is the greatest of all time; I love working with her.

It feels really authentic to the experience of what it is to grieve. Grief is such a physical thing, and one of the ways that Corvus manifests this is by going to physical extremes. But it's also metaphysical, and everything is imbued with this different meaning. You're on a different frequency and wavelength, and you notice things you wouldn't otherwise notice.

Yeah, your senses are heightened.

Everything feels really absurd, like a terrible joke—especially living. But it's because of that that there winds up being a kind of triumph in surviving, which Corvus does, and in fact has something of a triumphant ending, at least narratively. Did you know you wanted to end on such a victorious note?

I thought about the ending quite a bit. I think the book took me something like three years to write. I knew the book was going to end with the hippo attack, so I was kind of waiting until I had the book written until I wrote the actual attack. Actually, that last sequence is very short, very purposefully.

Corvus is pretty much me—and same thing with Perry; I think, especially with Perry. There's a quote from the poet Ariana Reines that I really love. I think she wrote, in talking about Eliot Smith, "There's a beauty to people who hate themselves." I think it was in her book Mercury. I remember reading that for the first time and thinking, Holy fuck that really resonates with me. I am a person that suffers from depression, and I had a tough childhood growing up. There's something special that happens when you're in that frame of mind of survival mode, and someone comes in your life that's not planned and you fall in love. It's this really sweet, tender... it makes everything okay and worthwhile.

I was thinking what would happen when that kind of person goes away for a very selfish reason, and how that would play out to me, and what I would actually go through. Corvus herself was never in any real danger in my mind, [even though] she got really close. I'm really happy you used the word "triumphant," that was kind of what I was going for. It was also important for me that it was Corvus who punches Tim in the neck—it was just enough action to where she finally gets out of her stasis, her feeling kind of the most alive, and knowing that she can potentially survive anything now, which I think is true for her. Especially with the friendship she makes with Amber. Amber wasn't really a big character when I started writing the book, she just kind of popped in. I realized I needed her just as much as Corvus needed her, to guide her to the next life.

I really liked that Amber was there, both for being fully realized and also for being a very good companion and friend. I think that's a harder thing to write than it would seem to be, because it's very much Corvus' story, but it's important to have someone who can take you to the other side, and move you forward.

Some of my closest friends, I met when I didn't really want to meet them. Some of them come through work environments or just darker times in your life. There are folks that see some kind of beauty in you, and want to stick around for some reason, even if you don't ask them to. This is very much Corvus' novel. I think there's a time and place for that, and I appreciate that character for that.

Speaking of characters that guide you through difficult times, animals play a big part—many big parts—in this book. Let's start with Corvus' name, which is an unusual one, what was the inspiration for that?

The Quick and The Deadby Joy Williams, it's one of my favorite novels. There's a character in it named Corvus... that name stuck with me. It means crows and ravens. It also means a greeting. There's another definition I thought fit her that has to do with healing. I was attracted to that name, and I see it everywhere now. I'm a huge fan of Joy Williams. The way King of Joy was structured was loosely structured to mimic Breaking and Entering by Joy. Part present tense, part past tense, and a surreal part three.

And then there's the rest of the animals. They are really as fully realized as any living creature should be. And you really reflect how animals are with us during everything, including grief.

I think it's such a special honor when an animal chooses you to be its friend. Something I've never gone away from is when you see animals feel, you get a sense of what they're thinking. When we're going through rougher trauma in our lives, or points of healing, animals do this thing where they provide telepathy for me. I've always felt secretly that I'm some kind of animal whisperer. I'm so sad sometimes that I think animals can tell, and the fact that they can tell brings them closer to me, and they know I'm not a danger. I think that Corvus has that going on. Creatures will gravitate towards her and protect her. Not in a surreal way, but how they communicate despite themselves or the world they're in.

We tend to lose ourselves, quite deeply, in ourselves. So I love the way people talk to animals. I think it's special when we find language again. I think when you talk to a dog, it's an interesting thing what words you choose. I think they understand every little bit, especially in tone and cadence. If there's any opportunity for a random person to find language, I think animals are a great soundboard for that. I'm happy that came across in the book.

How do you know when you've written something good? Or something that you're happy with?

I tell my students this sometimes. If a poem is thrown against a pane of glass, that pane of glass should shatter. Every poem should be staggering, every book should be staggering. I can't tell you how I know if something is good, but I can tell you that I worry a lot about things that I want to happen and things that I didn't want to compromise. I wanted to get those themes across accessibly. I wanted to clear access for the reader. By the time I walk away from it, I feel like I don't have any more to say. I think that's why the ending is so short. I wanted the feeling of surviving something. I wanted the ending to end bare. Because I accomplished that feeling, to me, I thought I wrote something good. As a person, I have insecurities and fears, but I don't feel this way about this book. I feel very confident about what this book does. It was very hard to write.

Well, it was not hard to read. It was a pleasure, albeit a weird one.

King of Joy is available for purchase here.

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