RCL Exclusive

Grieving Woman Finds Solace in a Friend Met Through Porn, Earnest Hippos

Chapter One: Debut author Richard Chiem tapped his own past—and surreal imagery—for inspiration.

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Chapter One is RealClearLife’s conversation with debut authors about their new books, the people, places, and moments that inspire them, and the work that makes their literary hearts sing.

Everyone who experiences grief feels it differently, and it’s only once you have lost someone close that you can spot the depths of grief in someone else. Richard Chiem explored this understanding in his debut novel, King of Joy. The book is told from two perspectives: the inside of heroine Corvus’ head and a disembodied narrator who picks up on her unique coping mechanism: imagining she’s elsewhere. We first meet Corvus a short time after the loss of her husband and are shown glimpses of her life before and during their relationship—when she’s not losing herself in the drug and alcohol-fueled world of amateur porn. That’s the main setting of the short but impactful novel that somehow finds space to squeeze in a few timid yet terrifying hippos.

chapter one
Richard Chiem’s debut uses porn as a backdrop. (Brooks Calison)

RealClearLife: You write about grief with such care, was there any instance of it in your life that inspired what Corvus experiences after losing Perry [her husband]?

Richard Chiem: Without a doubt, I would say all the characters are some iteration of me or a composite of an experience. Mostly my experience. I went through a deep, dark depression around 2008 and wrote the book sometime after that. I used Corvus as a vessel to work out some of the themes of depression and grief throughout her narrative. I never did porn or anything, but I related to the special places we go to when we’re grieving and the extremes we go to. I was interested in how we go there and get through it. A writer, Kristin Iversen, wrote something that resonated so completely with me. She said something like, ‘I read sad books not because I’m looking for the sadness, but when you read about someone else’s grief, it’s almost like a map or a guiding light to show you how you can survive it, no matter the grief.’ That’s why I wrote a sad book. Sad books helped me survive much darker times.

RCL: We’ve got to talk about the hippos. Were they a metaphor for something or just a curveball you wanted to throw your readers?

RC: The joke I told to all of my friends while I was writing the book was that it was about a hippo attack. They’re [the hippos] not a metaphor for anything specifically, they’re more supposed to be a surreal element in the story. There’s something about a hippo I find incredibly alluring. I read a Washington Post article a few years ago about a man surviving a hippo attack and I’d never read anything so visceral. I didn’t know they were so violent. I read up on them, and had no idea they had such potential for violence. People underestimate them; and because of that weird, surreal fact, I thought introducing the element would help guide the reader through a story of grief. They gave me a checkpoint that grounded the narrative. 

RCL: Why porn? What about that industry or lifestyle do you imagine would attract someone in Corvus’ shoes?

RC: As far as why Corvus chose to do that, I think when we experience a great loss that upends our life, especially a loss that for her was her other, essentially, who she never wanted to find to begin with, and when she fell in love, it was a truth for her. I experienced a similar loss that upended my identity and I went through a phase of sex and drugs and I was very unembarrassed and felt like I didn’t have to answer to anyone, not even myself. Corvus had to go through a similar experience. I thought it would be incredibly challenging for me to write about it and I knew readers wouldn’t focus on the porn aspect, but it would allow me to shift the focus to her survival and her emotions and giving it that weird tidbit is all for the benefit of telling a real story with a real character. 

RCL: Was it a conscious decision to write about the porn industry without actually giving sex a prominent role in your book?

RC: Being a cis male person, I’ve been reading through my favorite books and rewatching favorite movies and seeing how problematic a lot of them are. In trying to write a strong female character, I’m writing outside of my identity, and there were certain questions I felt I needed to answer to the truth of that identity for the characters to work. There are certain movies I used to love but some of the things they did were all for shock value, and a woman’s suffering isn’t worth that. I think a rape scene is despicable and not worth it. I always question it. When I was writing about porn, I knew it was going to be a challenge and I wanted to do it properly, I didn’t want shock value. It’s not meant to be about sex and violence, but I wanted it to be done in an authentic way and that never meant gratuity—that had no place in my prose.

RCL: You were a short story writer first, so how did you find writing a novel? Do you have a preference?

RC: Completely different. It twas the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. With short stories, it’s one of my favorite ways to write a narrative. This was my first time writing a novel and it was exciting to figure out, not only how to manage it, but how to make it stimulating for the reader. With short stories I definitely had practiced the art of the word count and the novel presented this marathon that I had no idea how to train up for. But once I got going, I found much more that I can use to essentially bring the reader in to a much more stimulating narrative. It was tough. Now that I’ve done the novel, I’m working on another and I’m also writing a book of short stories as well; but I’d chose the novel. Like the running analogy: Sure, I can run a mile but I like the marathon.