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March 13, 2019

Richard Chiem 's Playlist for His Novel "King of Joy"

King of Joy

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Richard Chiem's novel King of Joy is absurd, profound, and utterly engaging.

Nylon wrote of the book:

"A disturbingly beautiful portrayal of trauma and grief, loss and redemption, friendship and fucking―and hippos . . . 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."


In his own words, here is Richard Chiem's Book Notes music playlist for his novel King of Joy:



I am the kind of person that can listen to a song I like endlessly on repeat. Catch me alone in my room with no shame listening incandescently to my song. I am the kind of person that can listen to a song on repeat for days on weeks until I can hardly recognize myself. Beats and drums, atmosphere and tone. Putting on headphones is like entering a new room for me and I get to feel a little more free in the world. I like getting absurd as a part of my process. Being a weirdo is a mood for me. I am not sure when I started to do this, but I believe there is a soundtrack for everything I write. All the prose. All of the lights. I like to make a playlist before I do anything.

If I can write it, I can hear it, and there is a cadence to the sentence, which is something Lorrie Moore said, and it’s something I believe in. I want my story to feel like how this song feels, or I want my prose to feel like how you would feel after you listen to this perfect pop song, so I will listen to something a thousand times over to emulate something from the music. Recently I heard in an interview with Brad Listi that Chelsea Hodson does something similar as a part of her process when writing sometimes. She said she listened to the Under the Skin soundtrack over and over again while writing her book, Tonight I’m Someone Else. She said, “I wish I could write something that felt the way this song makes me feel.”

Perhaps like Hodson, I believe listening to a song or a soundtrack over and over again, gets you closer to something invisible, something human and fragile and profound in the music, which you then give back to the reader in such delicate concision. It’s translating song to prose which feels impossible in some of my favorite ways.

These are the song I listened to over and over again writing or editing King of Joy.

“Normal Girl” by SZA

This is the song that plays in my head now when the novel opens into the party scene in the woods with the burning tree. It’s when Corvus recognizes Amber as a person for the first time and they make eye contact for the first time. The song is lush and emotional, sad and dancey and neon-bright. I imagine slow motion, slow tracking, and soft focus when I hear it. I wish I was a normal girl. I listened to SZA almost exclusively during the editing process.

“Novacane” by Frank Ocean

I listened to Beach House, Robyn, and Elliott Smith perhaps the most while writing King of Joy. But if there was a song I streamed over and over again, it was “Novacane” by Frank Ocean. I could write a novel to any Frank Ocean song and King of Joy is my Frank Ocean novel. The song opens almost in the freezing cold, from its own self-contained universe. The sweet pulse of the song, the steady sexy drum beat, is perfect terrible sugar.

“But there's no drug around, quite like what I found in you.”

The song also mentions porn, Stanley Kubrick, and wanting to be numb, which all ties King of Joy directly. I think the narrator of the song as Perry, Tim, and Amber all in one, and they’re all singing to Corvus.

“Go” by Grimes

I think the narrator of this song being more like Corvus than any other song. It’s perhaps the song I think of most when I think about Corvus, especially in how the song progresses and peaks. There is a need to give up and a need to keep going. The song feels how how I feel when I need to run out my anxiety and I can break the speed of sound with urgency and personal traumatic history. Although I think this song follows Corvus for most of the novel, it’s actually the song I imagine Perry is listening to when he’s running on the treadmill in the second part of the novel.

“When I go, can I go with you, you?”

“Kill For Love” by Chromatics

I think of this song as the invisible god that follows Corvus throughout the novel. I think a pop song sometimes as a guardian angel that follows us around. I sing this song to myself sometimes and I can imagine Corvus doing the same, just mouthing lyrics, minding her own business. There is a deadness to this song I love a little too much. Dream pop fog. I also imagine this to be the song playing at the absolute end of the novel.

“Two Dancers (ii)” by Wild Beasts

When I think of Perry in writing mode, in playwright mode, I think of this song. I am not sure who he is singing to or why his heart is so broken, but I think that is part of the evil process of trying to make something perfect, which is something Perry struggles for most of the novel. Trying for perfection. Endless pressure. Whomever in his way, or the whole wide world, is a deserter.

“Heard Somebody Say” by Devendra Banhart

This song scores Corvus’ rough childhood with the troubles she has with both her gambling father and her abusive mother. The piano reminds me of Corvus alone in her room as a teenager, taking deep breaths, looking out the open blinds at the closed window in her room while her father is at the casino and while her mother is cheating on her father somewhere in the city. This song plays while she is trying to feel safe in her brain, gripping her own hands, and I imagine the inanimate objects in her room coming alive and circling her like toy trains while the piano continues.

“Little Life” by Josephine Foster

Present tense. Oblivion in the woods. Right before one of the most violent scenes in the novel, before Tim leads the women to another production in the basement studios, Amber is playing ukulele and singing this Josephine Foster song. I imagine Amber having Josephine Foster’s exact voice as she is serenading the room. There is something all-knowing about Amber and she sings like there is no one else in the room, like she has already lived her whole life.

This song reminds me when I was twenty-one, on a road trip with friends going to Humboldt from San Diego. I heard Josephine Foster for the first time from laptop speakers in a house filled with garbage bags filled with weed, surrounded by stoned friends, and as we’re all lying on the floor there in the dead of night, I felt I was never sadder in my life. The voice is a timestamp and the song is forever.

“No. 1 Against the Rush” by Liars

This song is a horror movie song. I imagine this song to be Tim’s theme song in a way, or what scores most of his violent scenes. The song is tortured and has longing in the singing, and the steady rise of the accordion synth-thing feels almost overwhelming and haunting. The music video to this song is also wild and is a horror movie in its own right.

“With Every Heartbeat” by Robyn

This is also a Robyn novel. I remember so many hours deep into the night listening to Robyn and writing this novel line by line. I imagine this song to be playing on a the radio a few times while Amber and Corvus are driving out on the highway looking for the next motel to hide away for the night, and you hear violin strings. Then synth beats. I love the surrender you can hear in this song.

“Maybe we could make it happen, baby
We could keep trying
But things will never change
So I don't look back”

“One, Two Step” by Ciara

There are a few dance parties in King of Joy, and the people dancing are craving the dancing madly. This song is a few years dated but it fits perfectly with the timeframe of the novel. The song is steady electric, contagious, and sexy smooth. Top five, one of Corvus’ favorite dance songs.

“Bombay” by El Guincho

Top five, one of Corvus’ favorite dance songs. This is the song that plays over the party with the fog and the empty Olympic size swimming pool. I can see one of the only times Corvus can feel at peace is when she’s dancing to this song.

“A Fond Farewell” by Elliott Smith

I listened to so much Elliott Smith on repeat while writing this sad novel, I felt like I was living in a ghost world on more days than I would have liked. It could really be any song by him, but I think this song feels most like Perry’s whole life. Poet Ariana Reines said, “There is a beauty to people who hate themselves,” and I think this relates to Perry’s inner life. He does hate himself, and he hates himself for enough hours for each day, it mimics hard work and dedication. How easy would life be if he could just hate himself a little less, for fewer hours in the day? In the song, like all his songs, Smith sings like an angel that knows your whole life. I picture Perry just sitting, taking deep breaths, and going through worlds of hurt just silently to himself, singing this cruel song.

“He said really I just want to dance
Good and evil matched perfect it's a great romance
I can deal with some psychic pain
If it'll slow down my higher brain”

“Tempted” by Squeeze

I think this is the song that plays in Tim’s car as he tries to drive Corvus home, but he first takes her off on an unsolicited detour to the beach. There is moonlight on the water and Corvus does not want to be there.

“Kill For Love” by Chromatics

This song appears twice, in the playlist since it appears twice in the novel. I think this is what Corvus and Amber listen too as they drive away from the sand and the water. I imagine them turning the dial louder.


Richard Chiem and King of Joy links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

Foreword Reviews review
Kirkus review
The Stranger review

RealClear Life interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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