For Novelist and TV Writer Leonard Chang, It’s All About Connecting

Julie Ha
Oct 18,2014
[addtoany]
Leonard-1

story by CHARSE YUN

photographs by MIKE LEE

IN 2009, PHILIP ROTH pronounced the death of the novel. “I give it 25 years,” Roth said. When asked if he’d really meant it, Roth was adamant. “I was being optimistic,” he scoffed. People will still read novels, he claimed, but it will be “cultic”—the way a handful of people still read Latin poetry. Widely regarded as the greatest American novelist of our time, Roth said that the concentration needed for novels just couldn’t compete with TV and film. His advice for aspiring novelists? “Quit while you’re still ahead. It’s an awful field. Just torture.”

I’m thinking of Roth’s bleak prognosis as I meet Leonard Chang on a bright, warm afternoon at a restaurant in Culver City. Once home to MGM Studios, the downtown area is cut by Culver Boulevard, a street lined with trees and a long, even row of elegant, single-story restaurants. I haven’t seen Chang in over a dozen years. When I first interviewed him for KoreAm in 2001, he already had two award-winning novels under his belt. We met at the time to talk about his third novel, Over the Shoulder, which proved to be Chang’s major breakthrough. Part noir thriller, part serious literary novel, Over the Shoulder was a scintillating hybrid that dazzled critics and readers. Backed by the huge marketing power of HarperCollins, Chang garnered more critical attention than ever before. Shoulder was the first of what would become the Allen Choice Trilogy, a detective series named after perhaps the most fully realized Korean American male hero ever depicted in fiction. Likable and disarming, Allen Choice mused about family, race and class as he extricated himself from hard-boiled storylines.

Back then, Chang told me: “I essentially get paid to tell stories. It’s something I always want to do and never want to change.” And true to his word, Chang kept pumping the books out: Underkill in 2003, Fade to Clear in 2004, Crossings in 2009. When KoreAm came out with “20 Books Every KA Library Should Have” in September of 2011, the question wasn’t whether Chang would make the list, but which of his works we would choose. (The staff settled on Crossings).

Now, Chang’s back with an autobiographical novel titled Triplines, a coming-of-age story set in Chang’s hometown on Long Island and centered on 11-year-old Lenny. Trapped in a dysfunctional Korean immigrant family, Lenny deals with an abusive, alcoholic father at home and racist bullying at school. His life reaches a turning point when he meets a neighborhood kid who gets him to join a pot dealing business. Like Chang’s previous work, the novel is a haunting story about family, transgression and violence, drawing from what the author considers a pivotal year in his life.

Triplines is Chang’s seventh novel.

But while Chang may have never wanted to change, everything else in the print industry did. Amazon.com reared its leviathan head, creating a tsunami that roiled the market. Huge bookstore chains folded. Kindles and other e-readers popped up everywhere. Publishing giants bit their lower lips and shot nervous glances at each other. As for writers, the Internet and new technology made it easier to self-publish than ever before. But it also became harder to get paid for it. And then came pronouncements like Roth’ s, which seemed to sound a death knell for novels.

Over the years, I’d occasionally hear reports about Chang’s career. First, that actor Daniel Dae Kim (Hawaii Five-O) had optioned the rights for a film version of Over the Shoulder. How, in 2012, Chang had started writing for the short-lived NBC crime drama Awake. But it was in 2013 that I heard Chang go through the biggest genre jump of his career—he’d joined the writing staff for Season 4 of FX’s critically acclaimed Justified. The show is an Elmore Leonard-based drama about a tough, unflinching U.S. deputy marshal who lays down the law in Kentucky’s hill country. “Hillbilly noir,” Slant Magazine called it. A complex and groundbreaking mash-up of genres, the show combines Old West morality with the modern crime drama. Critics hail it as one of the best shows currently on air. By all accounts, Chang had made a successful transition from print to the small screen.

Still, as I enter the restaurant, I can’t help but wonder: Did Chang move to TV because of the dismal state of the novel? Did TV change Leonard Chang?

Perhaps. For one thing, there’s his appearance. As I make my way past sleek wooden tables, I spy him scrutinizing a menu in the back. Gone is the short, cropped hair of 2001. Now, shoulder-length locks fall behind his ears, the kind of hairstyle that looks equally good on a surfer or a classical musician. Back then, he’d worn a white collar shirt tucked into blue jeans, no belt. He looked more like an engineering student than the accomplished graduate writing instructor he was. Now, he wears a black T-shirt, under which I can sense the athletic frame of an agile rock climber. He looks up from his menu and recognizes me. A sinuous tattoo of an elephant’s rising head marks his right forearm. On his other forearm, I notice a delicate Maori tattoo of a turtle.

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Leonard Chang at Culver Studios in Los Angeles, where FX’s Justified is shot.

We shake hands. He remembers that we’d met while he was still an instructor at Antioch University’s MFA program, where I’m now enrolled in the nonfiction track. Chang left teaching in 2011, but he talks about it as though it were yesterday. He asks me how I like it, who my mentors are. He was there almost from the very beginning of the program’s founding in 1997 and stayed for 14 years. I never had a chance to work under him, but Chang always struck me as the kind of mentor who’d be kind, nurturing. Gentle. I ask him about his teaching reputation. He gives a sheepish look.

“I was one of the meanest, harshest mentors there,” he says, grinning. “I just didn’t have the time or energy for bullsh-t or for holding anyone’s hand.”

As I recover from my surprise, Chang relates a few horror stories about how his mentees took his criticism. One student went into his backyard and threw up. Chang shrugs. “I felt bad, but I never hid my agenda to be the kind of mentor that I always wanted to have. And that sort of sensibility has helped me a lot as a writer, just in terms of getting criticism, of never being derailed by other people’s opinions.”

One of those opinions is Roth’s. Chang is confident that the rumors of the novel’s death have been greatly exaggerated. More importantly, Chang feels the issue to be a red herring. “I’m still writing more or less the same things I’ve always written. It’s just a different form and a bigger audience.” The real issue, Chang thinks, is connection. “It’s less about the form and the genre,” he says, “and more about what you bring to it and how you connect to other people.”

I start to realize something: Chang hasn’t changed so much. He’s basically saying the same things he always has about writing and crossing genres. It’s my awareness of him—the depth and seriousness of who he is as a writer—that has changed. Interviewing Chang is deceptive. He’s much more than he appears, beyond the tattoos and the teaching reputation. Sure, he comes off as gracious, but he only goes as far as the interviewer is capable of going. I’m somewhat embarrassed at the superficial questions I asked a dozen years ago (“So, are you a fan of crime fiction?”).

The deeper I probe, the more detailed and lengthy are his explanations. He’s deliberate, especially about writing. He listens to your question, pauses, takes a swallow of wine, then thoughtfully puts forth a careful, articulate answer. He barely touches his burger. I realize he could talk all day about writing. I anxiously scribble down notes even though my iPhone is recording our conversation. I’m afraid I won’t be able to hear what he says above the din and clatter of dishes and waiters rushing about. I don’t want to miss a word, but I’m not familiar with my new iPhone and fumble to start its voice recorder. I miss my old tape recorder. Will I be able to recover everything he says?

I ask about his career arc, the number of works he’s produced so far. He nods. “My models are John Updike or Hemingway or Faulkner,” he says. “People who have created a body of work that enables me to see the totality of what they are trying to do.” He’s right. With a few close exceptions, no other high-profile Korean American writer has been able to sustain the level of Chang’s literary output. I point this fact out. Chang gives a wry smile. He’s known this from early on. For him, it’s all part of the discipline. On a grueling TV schedule, which sometimes can include 14-to-18-hour days, Chang tells me he finished Triplines by rising early and chipping away at the manuscript, sometimes at 6 a.m.

I point out how other Korean American writers with sensational debuts have quickly faded from the scene. Again, he nods. “One book is wonderful, and I’m happy and proud of many writers who do that one book,” he says. He calmly takes another sip. “But I’m mainly curious to see what the sixth or seventh book is about.” His fries remain untouched.

The eminent John Gardner once said that the qualities of a writer are the same ones that make a great athlete. Chang is the guy in high school you sized up and thought you could out-sprint in the first 100 yards. What you didn’t realize was that Chang had the stamina and determination of a marathon runner. In fact, you didn’t realize what was happening until he glided past you. It was only then that you realized you’d just been lapped.

*   *   *

IT ALL STARTED very early, growing up on the South Shore of Long Island. Chang remembers reading the Encyclopedia Brown series when he was only 7. His mother foisted serious literature on him as well, but by the time he was 9, books had become a refuge to escape his parents’ fighting. He can still remember them screaming at each other in Korean. This early family trauma would lead to his parents’ divorce and later provide the background for Triplines. Chang’ s father served in the South Korean Navy during the Korean War, was a heavy drinker and, in addition to doing some legitimate business, was also involved in some nefarious activities.

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“I come from a long line of criminals,” Chang jokes. But he’s half-serious. His father would tell stories about Chang’s grandfather being an opium smuggler in China. His mother, on the other hand, was a devout Sunday School teacher who’d studied English and American literature at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. Chang still remembers seeing his mother’ s books lined up on the shelves: Dickens, Faulkner, Twain and even Korean American writers like Younghill Kang. One day, Chang picks up his mother’s favorite book, The Scarlet Letter. He sees the notes she’s scribbled in the margins. He’s blown away.

“That made me really think seriously about writing and being a novelist, how that could leave a legacy for readers long after you’ re gone.” He pauses as if to let the words sink in. “The idea of a book being on a shelf, and then 150 years later, still resonating and having an effect on not just a reader, but a reader from another country in another language.”

Later, Chang enrolled as a college student at Dartmouth. He tells me he was often sick. He couldn’t get used to the cold New Hampshire weather. Like a lot of underclassmen, he joined a frat that was a bit crazy. He was drinking—a lot. But he remained decidedly unhappy. At first, he couldn’t figure out why. Then it hit him: “The main thing was I wasn’t writing. I told myself I wanted to be a writer, but how can I be a writer when I wasn’t writing anything?” Most college kids wonder about what bar to go to. Chang worried about why he wasn’t writing.

So he dropped out. Chang joined the Peace Corps and headed to Jamaica. Not the Jamaica of resorts and pristine beaches, but to Kingston, with the highest murder rate in the Western Hemisphere. He recalls a chaotic city; crime and drugs and political corruption were rampant. Managing a local library there, he decided upon a strict regimen of reading a novel a day. And more importantly, he started writing. “I had been so intent on being a writer I had every reason and no excuse not to.”

By the time he returned to the States, transferring to Harvard as a philosophy major, he was finally happy. But not because of Harvard. “I actually lived off campus,” says Chang. “I didn’t know a whole lot of people from the school. In fact, if you ask people from my year about me, they’re like, who? I didn’t go to a lot of the classes, and I certainly didn’t go to a lot of the events. What I did was this: I did what I had to do in order to graduate, but I hung out in cafes and bookstores, and I wrote my first novel.” That first novel never got published, but by the time Chang entered graduate school, he’d already finished writing two apprentice novels.

But to really get a sense of Chang’s commitment to writing, we need only look at his role model. As a college student, Chang started to model his life after one of his favorite writers, John Updike. Like Chang, Updike had a lonely childhood. And despite critics who lambasted him, Updike was never derailed. “You knew he would write even if he wasn’t [successful],” Chang eulogized on his website after Updike’s death in 2009. The man just kept writing. To say that Updike was “prolific” is an astounding understatement. We’re talking about more than 20 novels, 18 short story collections, 12 collections of poetry, four children’s books and 12 collections of nonfiction. If you do the math, Updike churned out at least one major literary work every year for over 50 years.

Picture this: In college, Chang hangs a huge poster chart on his wall. It lists all of Updike’s works and the age at which he wrote them. Chang starts to read everything Updike ever wrote—in chronological order. He listens to Updike’s taped interviews on his Walkman. He rushes out to get the latest novel, the most recent interview. He rereads the Rabbit novels at least 10 times. Chang even learns to copy Updike’s professional, workmanlike routine. Get up early. Have a separate writing space. Enforce a daily page quota. If you have to toss 400 pages, toss it. For every novel Updike published, he discarded or abandoned another. Chang learns, No manuscript is too precious. You’ve got a failed manuscript that’s hundreds of pages long? Toss it. It’s simply part of the process to get to the next book.

By his late 20s, Chang can’t look at the chart anymore. He’s too discouraged. He can’t keep up. But one day, he decides to write a letter to Updike. Incredibly, Updike writes back. They strike up a correspondence. Updike kindly offers advice and guidance. When Chang asks Updike what he’d do if he were starting out today as a writer, Updike tells him: I’d probably write for TV.

The rise of Amazon, the decline of the print industry, the sea change in readership—none of this had anything to do with Chang’s decision to move into TV. He’d already known for years. Chang had already received Updike’s blessing.

Still, Chang’s timing is no coincidence. Luck always favors the prepared, and some major shifts that swung in Chang’s favor began to occur in television, particularly with the debut of HBO’s The Sopranos in 1999. At the time, big-budget Hollywood films crowded out smaller films. The result was a vacuum of good storytelling and a dearth of fully developed, literary characters. The public was hungry for compelling dramas. Then, suddenly, groundbreaking TV shows started to emerge. Exciting shows like The Wire, Mad Men and Breaking Bad began to fill the public void. Chang himself was hooked. He became an avid fan of The Wire and Boomtown. For Chang, it was the best social fiction out there. These shows, he realized, were “not just great TV—they’re great literature.” Chang cites SundanceTV’s Rectify as being akin to a great literary short story.

Other respected writers agreed. They fell in line and went to work for these quality cable shows. Author Michael Chabon eventually called HBO “the Works Progress Administration for writers.” Even the notoriously cranky Jonathan Franzen, who once famously dismissed television in the mid-1990s, recently sold the rights to his novel, The Corrections, to HBO.

Now, a wave of novelistic storytelling has taken over the small screen. Media critics like Michael Carr of The New York Times write about how they can barely keep up with this new “Golden Age” of TV. While cable channels like AMC and FX continue to push the boundaries of storytelling in new directions, venues like Netflix and Amazon offer fresh possibilities for these explorations. It’s an expanding landscape. With aggressive literary ambitions, the quality of TV has hit a new high. Novelist Mohsin Hamid even went so far as to say that today’s serial dramas are “more capacious” than novels: “In its near limitlessness, TV rivals the novel.” And unlike Hollywood film where the director is in charge, TV has become the venue of choice for writer-driven stories. In TV, the writer is king.

Chang rides the wave. He gets his first big break with Awake. There, Chang not only realizes that he can do this, but that he enjoys it. After almost two decades of writing in a room by himself, he finds the collaboration with amazingly talented and brilliant writers to be exhilarating. “There were times I stopped and asked myself, ‘I’m getting paid for this?’”

Moreover, Chang finds he’s using the exact same writing chops he’s honed for novels. He still creates the story in every sense, building characters from the ground up. Any difference as a novelist? None. The only real difference is that Chang now writes as part of a team, which, again, he loves. NBC later cancels Awake, but Chang refuses to be derailed. He loves the creativity. He loves the camaraderie.

Then, even before it airs, Chang happens to read the pilot script for a new show called Justified. He finds an incredible kinship with the show. One of the first things he does when he moves to Los Angeles is tell his agent to keep the show on the radar: “Look,” he says to him, “Justified is a show I really want to be on. You may not understand this, but I can write for this show in ways you just can’t see.”

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Photo courtesy of Leonard Chang

Still, he gets questions all the time: “What do you have in common with a Southern redneck in Kentucky? What do you know about Harlan, Kentucky?” But Chang remembers the Korean church he used to attend with his mother as a child. He recalls the immigrant Korean enclave in, say, Flushing, New York. There’s a remarkable similarity in the southern rural communities of Kentucky that echoes the Korean community’s ties to family and blood. “There are a lot more relevancies to me and my background than people might see,” he says.

But this is nothing new. He’s always moved deftly between genres and categories. Seeing the congruencies between Kentucky and Korea is the same skill that enabled him to pick up on the themes of transgression, crime and family, regardless of whether it was in Dostoevsky or in Dashiell Hammett.

And that’s why Chang still believes that novels will never die. It’s all about connection, hearkening back to the feeling he had holding a copy of his mother’s The Scarlet Letter as a young boy on Long Island. For Chang, “good books—good quality books—will always find an audience.” It may take a while, he admits, but people are always seeking that intimate contact. They may not read in the same way or in the same amount, he says, but novels— stories—are an integral part of life.

“Your life feeds you stories. Everything you read and take in feeds you stories,” he insists. Like the story of a novel crossing thousands of miles and a century and a half of time to reach Chang’s mother as a young college student in South Korea.

*   *   *

FOR THE RECORD, Chang remains loyal to print. He’s still a “big fan” of Black Heron, a small press that has been loyal to several of Chang’s novels. “[They] will give you a good rate, keep you in print and not ab- solutely need you to be a huge best- seller every quarter,” the author says.

Chang tells a story on his website. After the first year, HarperCollins dropped his novel, Over the Shoulder, despite the fact that it sold well. They pulped—or shredded—the remaining copies. Chang cursed the business. He ranted. He complained. He wondered: Am I done as a writer? Then he got a letter addressed from France. A woman had read the French translation of Over the Shoulder. She told him she’d been engrossed in the story and couldn’t believe how much she’d identified with a Korean American character so different from her. She hoped there’d be more stories. The story of a novel crossing thousands of miles to reach someone of another culture.

Chang cleared his desk. He began writing the abandoned sequel, which became Underkill.

“It renewed my faith in what I was doing,” Chang recalls. “A lot of people will want to be writers for the wrong reason—fame, fortune, whatever. But for me, it’s all about connecting. Connecting with people, connecting with readers, connecting now with viewers and sharing experiences with them and finding some commonality. That’s why I’m doing this.” I sit there, pondering what Chang has said. A waitress refills my glass of water. I’m starting to realize that, for the writer at least, TV takes the same level of concentration Roth claimed for novels, maybe more so.

Connection. Resonance. These are what keep him going. And then there is the determination and stamina. Chang can remain calm despite the intense pressure of millions of dollars riding on the line. He has the endurance to work on set for a bone-tiring, 18-hour day of shooting. So far, no other KA writer can touch Chang in terms of sheer endurance. It’s what makes Chang, pound for pound, the most versatile and resilient Korean American writer today. “I’m not interested in the one-book phenomenon,” Chang told me at the start of the interview.

“I’m doing this as a lifelong creative endeavor.” The comment so struck me that I scribbled it down, also hoping to God that my iPhone caught it.

Now, we’re done with the interview. I look down. His plate is clean. Sometime during the interview, without my noticing, Chang polished off his burger, fries and wine. At home, I check the recording. The sound is pristine. Every word is crystal clear.

This article was published in the August/September 2014 issue of KoreAm, under the title: “Crossing Borders.” Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the August/Sept. issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).