There’s nothing like the 20s in a 21st Century metropolis, according to Richard Chiem in his first and only novel so far, You Private Person (YPP). The Seattle-based author gives readers a semi-autobiographical account of this with a sympathetic male perspective through strong, but inscrutable female characters.
The effect is just as sad as it is funny—perhaps a little sadder, with bottom lines like this from a story Chiem names “love in the club”: “Love feels like a thing people eventually learn to live without like tonsils or god.”
YPP is also pulled together by the common threads of resilience and survival after falls—many of them self-inflicted—as well as the need for having a public space for private thoughts. It gives voice to a shyness, an unheard-ness that needs the right amplifier. Chiem’s conscientious observation and ability to see strength where others might dismiss it makes him the right amplifier for this. And he does it with a tickled, 20-something forlornness—adding great text dialogue to boot.
It makes sense, considering Chiem was an early participant in the “Alt Lit” community—a group of social media-based literary collaborators. He grew up mostly in Southern California in a Vietnamese American home. While studying at University of California, San Diego, Chiem was on track to go to law school, but by 2008, was so taken by the creative writing process in some of the classes he was taking, that he ended up dropping out of school for a year to work on YPP while supporting himself as a movie theater attendant. (The other less romantic reason for dropping out was that he didn’t want to be saddled with more college debt).
Now Chiem has made a name for himself in the Seattle literary community and works with the group Authors, Publishers and Readers of Independent Literature (APRIL), which his fianceé and writer Frances Dinger co-founded.
Chiem shares more in a recent interview with the International Examiner:
International Examiner: The epigraph in your book is a quote from poet Eileen Myles: “The first fiction is your name.” To what extent is your character “Richard” a lie and to what extent is he the truth?
Richard Chiem: One of my favorite writers—his name is Dennis Cooper—he inserts like a “Dennis” character in the story. And you can almost assume it’s very much him, but because it’s still under the protection and the guise of “this is fiction.” … The reader may do a double take where they ask that question, “Is this the author?” But because of that double take, I think, a new narrative like exists where you can surprise and create a lot more suspense … and therefore the reader asks more questions. I think when the reader asks a lot of questions, it’s always good for a compelling story.
IE: You empathize well with female characters in YPP. Why is this and what’s behind it?
Chiem: For me it was about giving particular characters a voice, even though they don’t really say much. It’s about having their lives lived. I don’t know if that really describes it, though. I guess I’m more interested in female characters than male, and I think, you know, there are plenty of novels and short stories about dudes. … They take center stage many times. I’m not trying to take stuff down … I’m just tired of what’s out there. I want to bring more to the fold. Especially as a male writer, I think it’s just something we need to do.
IE: How has your family and background influenced your work?
Chiem: I think class kind of influenced it more than anything else. We grew up very poor, but very proud of heritage and tradition, which I think is a great mix because I notice in all of my siblings that we’re all strong in our individual ways. We definitely all show our intellect and courage in these different fields. And I think that was just the result of … very strict parents, very little income coming into the household, and a combination of figuring out how do you find the way? How do you find how to be a person?
IE: In your acknowledgments, you thanked your family, and then you thanked your dad separately. Can you maybe talk about your relationship with your dad?
Chiem: Sure. I love my father. He’s an incredible man. … When I was very young, he was just this person to me that worked like 14-hour days and came home. Didn’t drink or anything like that. He was just a very serious man. And then when my parents went through a divorce, I got to know my dad a lot more. … I kind of saw his human side. Because he was going through a lot of personal turmoil and a lot of strife, I saw him kind of open up a lot more. And in that time period, pretty much when I was in high school, he gave me a lot of support. Kind of helped me find my way with just everything: Becoming a man, and what does that mean? Becoming a person.
I think I singled him out because … I think he still believes he’s like a foreigner. … And I always found tremendous sadness in that. Because he knows his kids are American. He knows that … we’re estranged from him because of the fact that he doesn’t believe that he’s from here. He talks about Vietnam a lot, where it’s like reminiscent, it’s romantic. It’s someplace he wants to be, but he knows he won’t ever be there.
And I think I dedicated [YPP] to my father because I admire his strength. But despite all that and his longing, he’s still here to support basically all of us and be a great father figure.
This interview was edited by the author for clarity and length.