“Enter the room already fulfilled rather than hungry.”
Kailey Brennan DelloRusso: Do you remember your first rejection? How did you feel about it? Looking back, is there anything you learned from that experience?
Richard Chiem: I don't remember my first rejection. I wish I did, actually. That would be really cool. The advice I got from professors was you have to submit often, and you have to submit wide. At the time, I was a baby writer. I knew I was a nobody, and I knew how the game worked. For me, it was about the art of the bio. I didn't want my bio to be like, he lives in this place, and he likes this thing. I wanted my bio to say he's in this journal, he's done this, or he’s written this book. You can’t put that in your bio until you get there so I just needed journals that I respected and liked.
I started out when Tumblr was really big. There were even journals just based on Tumblr, which is kind of insane to think about now. But I would get published on Tumblr and eventually, because they were really indie, a really beautiful thing happened where I was getting published in those little sites, and it gained momentum.
As far as rejections, a good rejection, if the editor has the time or is thoughtful in that way, there is a thoughtful note that can guide you. But I don't know, I like rejection now. I don't wanna go too bold to say that like I’m a masochist or something. But I like seeing when writer’s friends aim for a certain amount of rejections in a year. That means you’re really trying. I like that energy. I like that mentality.
Early on as a young writer, I felt sorry for myself in weird ways where it was motivating. Like it made me feel like well, I gotta prove myself or something. But now, if someone doesn't want me in their journal, I don't feel personally rejected like I did 10 years ago. Like they don't want me, they don't love my work, I'm a failure kind of thing. Now when I get a rejection, I just say well who is this journal? Who's the editor? Is the staff even getting paid? Now I see the routes to publication much differently. I see the slush power route, but I also see that some things are just published because —I don't know, my whole career has been hard work and a lot of good luck. I think that’s true for a lot of people. You can never escape the ego, but I think you can use it as a motivating factor. But sometimes, if a piece didn't work and if I really love a journal, then I'm gonna figure out a way to get into that journal. But you gotta have integrity when you do that. I think as long as you go with rejection with integrity, your work will prosper from it.
KBD: I like what you said about the bio. It really is important. Right now, mine basically says my name and where I’m from (laughs), but I have a few pieces out there right now that I’m hoping to get published. And you want the publication for many reasons, but I think the bio is a valid enough reason to try submitting.
RC: It's like the ultimate business card among writers. Honestly, writers are overworked and underpaid. But also, your bio is important because you are building this literary community, so even if they don't know you yet as a writer, maybe it's their introduction. They know you're part of this thing that's incredible.
KBD: For a short piece like a story or a poem, how many places do you submit it to at a time? Do you keep track of your submissions? What does your editorial process look like before you hit submit?
RC: Early on, I just needed to prove myself and so I submitted wherever I could to gain traction. Now I'm really targeted. Like there are journals I want to be in because I've never been in those journals or I really like those journals. As a younger writer, I didn't think I had the chops to go for those journals. But now I think I have enough resources with me.
I always tell my students when I teach, the best things you can do as a writer is just to have good etiquette when you're communicating with people. So many of us are very rude online, you know, especially in terms of your first question about rejection. A lot of writers have their personalities and identities in acceptance versus rejection. And it is about that, of course. But, for me, it's really about how I maneuver as a person and as a writer.
In the past, I learned to submit through the submission guidelines. Now— and I don’t think it's dangerous— but I write a simple cover letter. I teach this when I teach querying and how to submit or how to get agents. I did this with a journal the other day. And they essentially told me, thank you, but go through our Submittable anyway. And I was like, okay, my bad. But then other editors are like, thank you for sending this. I’ll read it right away. I don’t think that’s gaming the system. Let’s say someone like yourself. You know a lot of writers and for lack of a better word, those writers are editors too. They're gatekeepers. Because you've known this person personally and you've done something for them — not like you're expecting them to do something for you, but you've done them justice by just giving a good interview. You've done a lot of great community buildings, so it wouldn’t be inappropriate for you reach out to. I've done it, too. It’s always that little sandwich of kindness, directness and then kindness. Like, hey, I'm sorry to bother you, I hope you're doing well, but please consider the short story. And essentially give them a way out. If this is not cool, I completely understand, but I appreciate time consideration. If anything, that's really good behavior because it gives them away just to say no.
KBD: What type of writer are you when it comes to submitting your work: Do you hold on to a piece for a long time or are more like fuck it, I’m submitting right away?
RC: There are two writers I think about. Katherine Faw, do you know who she is?
KBD: I do.
RC: I love her two novels. She had an interview a few years ago where she talked about how when she has a story out, now she needs to get paid, or it needs to be in a big publication. And for her to say that in a public forum, I thought that was just fascinating. Like wow, those are two really hard standards and requests. That must mean you don’t get published a lot. But when you see a Katherine Faw [piece], it’s exciting. Not that she doesn’t produce a lot, she’s just targeted. I think there's something about that.
I think of another writer name like Scott Bradfield. He had a major novel Vintage that I'd never read. He got a big book deal early on and the book kind of just sank. And then he had a second life on an indie press, Two Dollar Radio. I read an interview with him, I thought he was super cool, like how you can make a career doing indie after you have a big press book out. He talked about how his readers with Two Dollar Radio and that although a smaller independent press, he had more readers through them. Less money but more readers. For me, in my career now, I don't feel the anxiety I had earlier on where I felt like I needed to prove myself. I know I said that a couple of times now. I know the work I'm doing. I want to finish as many books as possible, but there's a lot more things I'm doing on a personal level. I guess I'm no longer worried that the work is good even though that's a question I ask myself all the time as far as the audience. I'm not quite like Katherine Faw. But I think getting paid is nice. Sometimes I just wanna work with specific people. I think that's how I'm gonna guide my publication history. I have an agent now, which is a new thing for me. And there are places I know he wants me to be in or shoot for and I get it.
KBD: Did you get the agent before or after your novel came out?
RC: I got my agent actually three days after my novel was nominated for the PEN Open Book Award, the long list. And he literally emailed me like an hour after that went public.
KBD: Oh, no way.
RC: I was fascinated with that. He's a good agent, but he literally didn't hear of me until that long list came out and he is like, Hey, do you have an agent? I'm like, Um, no. And then I looked him up and was like okay, yeah, let's work together.
That's also one of those things where I was like, Oh, that's how this all works. It's like one door definitely opens another and you don't even see the size of that door until you've been through the one you're trying to get through.
KBD: Are there any publications or magazines that you would love to see yourself in? Like your dream pub?
RC: I don’t know. I really love Elle Nash. She’s a writer I really respect.
KBD: I do too.
RC: Elle’s like a fucking genius. She tweeted something recently about how you don't have to be a New Yorker writer essentially. I don't think I believe it anymore, but I used to tell my students, if you were an indie writer that had like 10 small press books or a writer that had a big deal story in the New Yorker, I wonder who has the better bio, you know? I don't know the answer anymore. But also I've known writers who have written 10 small indie books and they're incredible writers. But then I've known writers who get a big story in New Yorker and I think somehow it feels like the latter gets more attention. Like you might have more of a lucrative career despite your skill set. The New Yorker still holds a lot of weight. So it would be dumb as a writer not to work with the New Yorker if I had the opportunity to. And I mean, I was a 16-year-old reading New Yorker magazines in libraries kind of person. I get the history. Every short story I finish, I submit to New Yorker just as a force of habit. I think their acceptance rate is some insane figure. It's like you have the odds of getting in a car accident, falling in love, and eating this kind of sandwich— all those odds are much higher than getting into The New Yorker. And then I see that, and I’m like, okay, let’s fucking do it.
KBD: Is being published all it’s cracked up to be? What is your advice for writers who are working on getting published?
RC: I think yes. It used to be my sole main goal. In the past, it’s where I sought outside validation. I don't need that validation anymore. But for me, it's a great honor to get books finished and published. It does lead to opportunity. I still can't describe out of all the things I've experienced in life, the experience of having a book out and being read is unquantifiable. Not to be like hyperbolic, but every time it happens, every now and then a reader reaches out in a DM or an email and I have no idea who this person is, they’re in various part of the world and they tell me a little snippet of how they found my work and what is meant to them. It just always means a lot. I'm always like kind of shocked by that. Because they are very sincere in that moment. And my work was able to do that, which is the whole fucking reason why I wanted to write anyways. I wrote as a sad person when I was younger and books kind of helped me survive. Now I'm able to handle the hard knocks of life, and I remember those books. I guess that's one of the reasons why I write fiction—to connect with people in that way.
So is publication all it’s cracked up to be? Yes. Just because you're able to reach people, and you also get to establish a lineage with whatever press you're working with. I think that's cool. Like, because I was published by Soft Skull, it feels cool that I was part of the Soft Skull family. Because I was long listed, it feels like I'm part of the PEN family, whatever that means. Like once you become part of like a crew, it's nice because it does help your momentum going forward. I always think about sports, like once you're like a Portland trailblazer, you're always gonna be a Portland Trailblazer or something.
For the question about what I would tell people now —you’re a writer to write, not necessarily to get published. I think the true work about how to get published is simple, not easy. You have to read and write every day. You have to submit and you have to be courageous. You have to keep it simple that way. And there's not a formula with it. You have to deal with rejection with great integrity and class and then move forward. I use very simple terms there because you have to kind of use those in whatever life circumstances you may be facing. When I do teach, I'm fascinated with the students I have and the broad spectrum of life they're going through. Like you have parents, you have young folks in between colleges, you have people that have escaped the writing life and come back to it kind of thing. I know sometimes the writing process can seem so desperate. I think if it starts to feel desperate, you have to figure out how to reclaim your power with it. Because I think if you're starting to feel desperate, it means that you're scraping for bites. You should be fulfilled before you enter the room. And I know that's like the hardest thing to do. I think my advice to writers trying to get published is to enter the room already fulfilled rather than hungry. And then when you get the the cookie, it won’t feel like you're gonna need it to survive, but it will feel like something you deserve.
KBD: I love that. Last question- all time favorite sub/sandwich?
RC: Oh man, that's such a good question. Any kind of breakfast sandwich. I don't eat meat anymore, but just like an egg sandwich Anything. Egg and cheese croissant.