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The new novel, publication date tentatively set for 2016… Just a mock-up cover…
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crazyowl88 said: I just wanted to say that I loved the "Allen Choice" trilogy! Me and Allen have a lot in common. Not the murder part but the whole not being smooth and cool. I remember reading that you were working on adapting the novels into a film. Any updates on that? Maybe Allen could find a home on FX.
Thanks so much for reading the novels. I do appreciate that. I wanted to create a character who felt real to readers, and am glad you enjoyed Allen. To answer your question — because I’m now firmly entrenched in TV, I want to adapt the Choice novels into a TV series, so have been slowly moving in that direction. I’m pretty busy with Justified and the other novel-related work, so it may take some time. Thanks again for writing!
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Here’s an interview with Michael Piafsky, of The Missouri Review. The print version available here.
The online version available to MUSE subscribers here.
A Conversation with Leonard Chang
By Michael Piafsky
MICHAEL PIAFSKY: What prompted you to move from literary fiction to more genre-based, noir writing? Do you differentiate between these genres or, like other writers —Michael Chabon, for instance—do you refuse to recognize difference?
LEONARD CHANG: It’s interesting that you mention Chabon, who was at UC–Irvine’s MFA program a few years before me, and there was a growing unease among the faculty and grad students with the rigid distinctions and hierarchies in the way that literature was categorized. UCI was great because my mentors there, Oakley Hall, Thomas Keneally and others, were very progressive about what constitutes “literature,” and they themselves have written in all different forms. What mattered to all of us was the quality of the writing, no matter what the subject matter or style involved.
That ease of movement between genres was always a part of my reading and writing experience, even as a kid. My mother started me on American classics as an adolescent—I read Twain, Dickens, Steinbeck and even a little Faulkner—before I read mysteries and science fiction, so I was always moving back and forth between different genres fluidly. I find it really difficult to categorize my own work, so I probably fall in the Chabon camp of viewing those categories as more for publishers and booksellers, not writers.
PIAFSKY: Why did your mother want you to read American classics? Was there a sense that this might help you, as a second-generation immigrant, integrate more seamlessly into American life?
CHANG: Oh, definitely. But there was something more—my mother was an artist, a painter, and a deep lover of literature, and she felt that the arts is where we find key meanings to life and existence. There’s an undercurrent of existential understanding in the things that she pushed on us. I remember stacks and stacks of art books in the basement—da Vinci, Monet, Picasso—and shelves of literature upstairs with her tiny handwritten Korean marginalia next to the English text. She just knew there was more to life than our day-to-day, and infused in all three of us some sense that we had to strive for more than what we saw before us. So my older brother became a facial plastic surgeon, reconstructing the faces of accident victims in his own artistic way; I became a writer; my sister makes documentaries of exploited and abused women all over world (see Half the Sky). My mother understood that Life is Art, and vice versa, and, without it being too overbearing, inculcated in us the deep appreciation of transcending the mundane.
PIAFSKY: You’ve said often how you don’t want to write books that only get read for literature classes. How much of a role did that play a role in switching genres? You wrote once that “you’ve been writing crime novels all along, only shrouded in literary pyrotechnics with Ethnic Studies stamps on the covers.” Can you elaborate on this?
CHANG: A lot of time has passed since I’ve made those comments—well over a decade and four novels—and when I look back at the body of my work, I find that no matter what I thought I was writing, or trying to write, or trying NOT to write, the subject matters and the sensibilities all pretty much stayed the same: I wrote about transgressions, about alienated characters, about fractured families and communities. I think I said those comments because I spoke to a few high school and college classes that were studying my novels, and the sense I got from some of the students was that the novels were “good for them”: i.e., homework. Of course I loved that they were reading me, but I began wondering if I could engage readers not just to teach them something about race relations, for example, but to entertain them in ways such that they wouldn’t even realize they were learning about race.
It was very natural for me to write about crime. I come from a long line of criminals, and whenever there was anything criminal in something I read, whether it was Dostoyevsky or Hammett, I felt a spark of connection to the material that made me want to replicate it through my own lens. So when I thought about writing novels that wouldn’t feel so much like homework yet would retain the themes and issues I cared about, it was very easy to write novels that dealt with crime. The more I wrote about crime, the more I saw I was always writing about crime in some way. Nothing really had changed except that publishers and booksellers marketed me differently for certain books—put me on different shelves, essentially.
PIAFSKY: It’s funny that you say that you come from a long line of criminals. You once wrote, “Most of the characters I write about … are small parts of me I wish I were.” In light of the fact that you write about gangsters and alcoholics and the seedy underbelly of Korean-American life, that almost sounds like libel.
CHANG: Well, that’s very perceptive, and there’s a reason why I changed my forthcoming book from a memoir to an “autobiographical” novel. I actually don’t remember when I said that quote, but it seems as if I haven’t changed much.
PIAFSKY: Your earlier books often featured monstrous, abusive fathers and silent mothers or stepmothers. In Crossings (2009), those fathers seemed to morph from the micro into the macro—from the father of a family to the crime-boss godfather of a community—yet are no less monstrous. And the silent mothers have become the silent prostitutes or slaves. Do you tend to see community and family as similar and perhaps similarly destructive? Was this movement from little to big a product of growing experience as a novelist or was it just the story that Crossings wanted to tell?
CHANG: I don’t think I consciously set out to deconstruct and demolish ideas of family and community, but my notions of those were formed early on by what I knew and experienced: a violent and destructive family and an alienated sense of community. That I grew up Asian in a completely white and working-class/middle-class neighborhood made me feel very isolated and embattled, so there was no real refuge for me, except in books. And the notion of me moving from micro to macro is definitely, as you suggest, a product of both my confidence as a novelist growing and a story I’ve been wanting to tell for a while.
PIAFSKY: The characters in your story “Clay Hats” became the basis for Crossings—what made you decide to follow up with the characters? Particularly since “Clay Hats” was such an early story for you (1998) and Crossings was your sixth novel?
CHANG: This is related to me wanting to write this story for some time but not quite feeling I was ready. Often I’ll write short stories to explore characters and then let the ideas lie fallow in my subconscious. I feel if there’s something that needs to be written, eventually it will percolate back to the surface. I might have been influenced by Updike’s Olinger stories and the way he would revisit those characters every so often, tracking the veiled autobiographical character of Allen Dow. That Updike would revisit characters over a fifty-year period gave me plenty of perspective and patience. I’ve always thought in terms of years and decades, not weeks and months. I was planning to be writing for a very long time, so there’s no hurry to write everything now.
PIAFSKY: Like so many of your characters, you are a second-generation immigrant. These characters are often alienated not only from their white neighbors but also from their parents, who speak a language they cannot understand. How did becoming a writer help you work through these problems of identity and lineage?
CHANG: Being a writer meant that I found an outlet to explore what those issues of identity and lineage meant to me. I could take characters with similar issues and force them into situations that required responses, and I could also find some means of catharsis to see what then happened. But to be clear, my experiences aren’t that unique. I just chose to explore and render them in stories.
PIAFSKY: In thinking about this alienated sense of community, your first novel, The Fruit N’ Food, shows both the dangers of trying too hard to belong to a community and the problems that come from not belonging anywhere. Did your own personal experience mirror this catch-22? How did you ultimately reconcile this more productively than Tom Pak did?
CHANG: In many ways I understood very much what Tom was going through. I tried very hard for a long time to find that community—be it in tae kwon do clubs, Korean churches, even going to live in Seoul for a semester—and I felt even more distanced and removed from any sense of belonging. But where I differed from Tom is that I did eventually find some kind of community: other writers. And the crazy thing is that I discovered the other writers were as alienated and messed-up as I was. I and others often had another layer of complication—race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, whatever—but we were all struggling in our own ways. That was a bit of an epiphany, and actually kind of a relief.
PIAFSKY: How did your work in Jamaica while in the Peace Corps help both with your writing and your identity?
CHANG: Oh, very, very fascinating. I went from being a minority in America to a strange minority in Korea (where Koreans didn’t consider me ethnically Korean because I couldn’t speak the language; nor did they consider me American because I wasn’t white), to a very different kind of minority in Kingston. I was living and working in the most crime-infested city in the Western Hemisphere at the time, and not only Americans were hated; Chinese were disliked (the Chinese immigrant population in Kingston were primarily wealthy), so I had to tell Jamaicans first that I wasn’t a “chin”; then I had to downplay being American. But it was strangely liberating. There was a moment when I was being mugged and thinking how surreal my life was, that something shifted. It was in Kingston that I realized, “Fuck it, I don’t belong anywhere, so I will just do whatever the hell I want.” And that’s when I began writing seriously. I wrote a few short stories and began thinking about a novel. I was also working in the Peace Corps library, so started a very rigorous self-study of novels, beginning a regimen of reading a novel a day. I knew what I had to do, and that was where I began doing it. Honestly, I would say that as difficult as the Peace Corps was, it helped me figure out a lot. I had dropped out of college, but after the Peace Corps, I went back to school focused and determined to be a writer.
PIAFKSY: You ultimately ended up at Harvard, where you majored in philosophy. Notably, you were not an English major, and you’ve suggested that was beneficial since “English majors approach texts as a critic rather than a writer.” Can you elaborate?
CHANG: One of the benefits of working at the Peace Corps Library was not only the novels but the many interviews with writers, the biographies, the writer-related information. I remember reading a biography of Isaac Asimov, and he suggested that a young, aspiring writer study anything but English Lit. I can’t remember the precise quote, but it made an impression on me. I read a few more authors who had similar warnings. Then, when I went back to school, I took a lit course, and one of the first discussions we had was about a writer from India who wrote a novel set in Iowa. The T.A. went on about how setting the novel in Iowa was about setting the novel in America’s heartland and how this was thematic for the isolation the immigrant author herself was trying to convey. I looked at the author bio and saw that she had gone to the University of Iowa straight from India and raised my hand. I said she probably set the novel in Iowa because that’s where she went to grad school. The entire class looked at me as if I was an idiot. The T.A. condescendingly explained that that wasn’t a satisfactory answer as to why she set it in Iowa, and I began to realize that of all the things to examine in the novel, making up reasons for the location seemed irrelevant. The experiences in Iowa were relevant, the feelings the character went through because of her isolation were relevant, but I still remember the lit-crit responses to that question, things about geographic analogs to liminal spaces, and some of the academic-speak that I knew very well from philosophy—and I felt I then understood Asimov’s recommendation. A writer thinking about thematics and meaning, about theoretical abstractions, before character and story is doomed. That cemented my decision to stay in philosophy. It was easier for me to argue about the existence of God than it was to argue why an author wrote what she knew.
PIAFKSY: You went through UC–Irvine’s MFA and later taught at Antioch University. How did you encourage students to approach texts? Do you miss teaching?
CHANG: For me as a student or a teacher it was always about honesty and authenticity. Approaching texts as a reader or a writer means thinking about intention and response, but thinking about it without guises or pretentions. Be honest in both the creation and response. I remember dozens and dozens of aspiring writers trying to be something they weren’t. The artifice eventually reveals itself. Hemingway was often a fake in real life, but he really tried to be honest in his writing, even if it made his characters pathetic. So when I saw a student trying to write in some way that was obviously an emulation of someone else, I called him or her on it. I remember a student who was extremely talented but wrote the most obtuse and esoteric metafiction I’d seen. I like metafiction, and Barthelme and Coover are great. But this was not Barthelme. When I asked the student what he read, he listed crime writers, minimalists and very realistic writers. I asked why he was writing bad metafiction, and he said he wanted to be a respected literary writer, and this was what literary writers wrote. It didn’t take long to disabuse him of this, showing him modern offshoots of minimalists, and I urged him to write what he read, not what he thought others wanted him to write. He hadn’t even read half of the pillars of metafiction. And for this reason, teaching is difficult. Many people like the idea of being a writer but not the life and work of a writer. Writing is goddamn hard, and telling a student to throw out a novel and start over is so hard on many levels. I couldn’t be dishonest or falsely encouraging. So, no, I don’t miss teaching at all. Occasionally I see students of mine publishing, and that’s lovely, but I’d prefer to be a writing colleague, not a teacher.
PIAFSKY: Your writing was steered partly by reading an undergraduate paper on your first novel, presumably by one of the English majors mentioned above. What prompted you to do read and trust this paper?
CHANG: To be honest I wasn’t quite steered by the paper but reminded of influences I’d forgotten. That paper was by an undergraduate in, I believe, one of Elaine Kim’s classes at UC–Berkeley. I think I was able to read the paper because I spoke to the class, and many of them contacted me afterwards. The paper just got me thinking. You’re referring to an essay I wrote about my love of crime fiction, and how the reminder of Jim Thompson got me thinking how I’d strayed from some of my crime roots. This is true insofar as I have and always will write about crime in some way. That paper, which was just a brief response paper on The Fruit ‘N Food, cited Thompson’s precision and dark worldview. I certainly didn’t trust the paper to guide me, but I appreciated the insight into influences because she, the writer, was right. I was influenced by Thompson, but I had just forgotten. The Fruit ‘N Food was consciously influenced by Camus and others but subconsciously influenced by crime writers I’d forgotten about. And that sent me down an investigatory path of other influences and where I wanted my writing to go next.
PIAFSKY: Can we talk a bit about your forthcoming autobiographical novel? How has writing for television has affected the voice of this novel? What prompted you to move it away from memoir, and what are the differences between the two forms?
CHANG: TV writing has had negligible influence on my prose; the skills I’ve had to acquire for TV are less about writing and more about collaboration with other writers, producers, actors and directors: the TV production and editing process. The reverse, though—my novel-writing skills influencing my TV writing—is another matter. I think being a long-form writer has helped me tremendously in serialized TV shows. But the fact of the matter is that for this novel, Triplines, I wrote first a memoir even before I moved into TV and then rewrote it slowly over the past few years. I frankly can’t think of one element of TV that influenced the rewrite.
As for the reason why I rewrote it as a novel, I hinted at this earlier, that the truthfulness of the telling of this story began getting me into trouble. I had my mother, brother and sister read the early version, and everyone was a little uneasy at what my father, with whom I’ve been more or less out of contact for over twenty years, would do. A lawyer friend counseled me that some of the illegal things that are attributed to me and others in the book probably wouldn’t get me in trouble, but there were possible issues of libel to consider. I began wondering why I even tried to write a memoir, since I’m so clearly a fiction writer; I was shackled in many respects to the verisimilitude of the form. Eventually, when I shelved the memoir and started over, everything felt more artistically coherent to me. I was able to compress timelines, change and disguise characters and not feel so constricted by, as you say, the historical accuracy. It was liberating, and I was glad I did it. At its heart it’s the same book—a story about a young boy’s maturation in a tumultuous family—but I decided to be more selective in shaping the material.
PIAFSKY: Interesting that you brought up TV collaboration, since that was what I was about to ask. How does Justified handle its writers’ room? How do you navigate developing characters and plot arcs that were not originally yours and that might not be yours again next month? How can you shape a character or plot to provide some future momentum, even when someone else takes the next script?
CHANG: For Justified the majority of the creation of characters and stories occurs in the writers’ room; there are ten of us who sit in a room all day and hash things out. The process that I might do by myself for novel-writing —thinking about characters, the overarching storyline, the smaller subplots, etc.—are done in a group, and then once the larger issues are discussed, argued and finally approved by the showrunner we begin to “break,” to plan out, individual episodes, also as a group. Your question about what’s “yours” is the crux of understanding how TV generally works. It’s not mine; it’s “ours.” We work as a collective, and in any given episode, no matter whose name is in the “written by” credits, there are many other contributors to that story, whether it’s character details or story turns or even a tiny image that no one will ever notice. It’s extremely collaborative.
However, once the episode is “broken” out on the board, the assigned writer(s) go off and write a brief outline of the episode based on what we talked about in the writers’ room. Sometimes this outline reveals problems or questions, and we can take it back into the room to discuss. At this point the writer takes the outline and goes off to write the script. This is where the individual writer begins to flex his or her own writing chops, changing some things, adding and developing others, but stamping on that particular script his or her own vision within the context and voice of the show. Then, depending on what kind of notes we get and whether or not the various entities involved—producers, studios, networks—have suggestions, the script gets ready to be shot. As it’s shot, more questions and issues might arise, which is why the writer is on set and helps make modifications as we continue shooting the episode.
In terms of navigating stories and characters that weren’t yours to begin with, the goal here is to lose the ego and the proprietary sense of ownership and understand that you’re here as a group to make the best show possible. Your contribution is vital to make that show great, but it’s not about personal glory; it’s about teamwork and camaraderie. This is what makes TV writing wonderful for me, after having written solo for two decades with no one to talk to but myself, but difficult for some who aren’t good with interpersonal relationships. Many writers mistakenly assume that because they’re good writers they can write for TV. It’s not just about the writing; it’s about knowing how to share and contribute and participate in meaningful and helpful ways. This is from the top down. Even a good showrunner will step back and let the group take credit for something that was so clearly his.
And this is partly why I’m in TV. I started becoming interested when I watched shows like The Sopranos, and The Wire, in particular, and saw that TV was doing things with narrative and social commentary that novels strive to do and that TV was not only reaching a larger audience; it was provoking change. I don’t think there’s any disagreement that The Wire is one of the best social novels ever to be put on TV. So, I began investigating how to be a part of it and moved to Los Angeles. I began writing and trying to sell my own show, and once I realized I needed more experience with the details of working on a TV show, I opted to join other shows to learn. The first show I joined was Awake, a short-lived experimental crime/psychological drama about a man who was living in two realities because he couldn’t face the truth. It was a difficult show but an amazing learning experience, and that’s when I realized how much I liked the medium and the people involved. You’re with a group of highly intelligent and creative people like yourself, all working toward a common goal. I can’t overemphasize how pleased I am with this evolution in my writing. The novels will never stop, but I’m learning and growing every day as an artist.
Also, something that was important to me as permission to break out of my normal routines: I wrote John Updike, with whom I had had a correspondence, because he was one of my favorite writers, about what other kinds of writing he would be doing if he were a younger writer starting out. He wrote poetry, book reviews, essays, short stories, novels, and I was curious what he’d do differently if he were my age and plugging away. He said without reservation that he’d be in TV as well. That solidified my decision. I now had Updike’s stamp of approval. And so here I am.
PIAFSKY: You mention both your own vision and social commentary. Justified is predominantly Caucasian and African American, whereas your fictional writing seems actively engaged in breaking stereotypes of Asian-Americans. Have you noticed any of your usual commentary about injustice transformed? I’m thinking particularly of Ava’s treatment by the realtor in the episode “The Hatchet Tour” or Ellen May’s (potential) sale in “Peace of Mind.”
CHANG: Well, if you watch this recently finished season you will see a Korean-Mexican who is a drug cartel leader. Ingrid Escajeda, one of the writers—actually, all the writers on staff—knows very well my goal to break stereotypes and depict Asian Americans in ways never seen before, so she, prompted by Taylor Elmore, pitched this notion of the Henequen Koreans in Mexico—a little-known historical fact about Koreans enslaved in Mexico in the early 1900’s. I believe roughly 4,000,000 people watched that episode. We as a group might have educated many, many people about a tragic injustice with current-day ramifications, within a compelling and interesting storyline. I remember when that episode aired, and some people on Twitter were confused as to why an Asian was a Mexican drug leader, and that prompted them to go to Wikipedia and investigate. This is important to me as a writer.
But to answer your question, my goals for subverting stereotypes and investigating injustice have perhaps been transformed, but these are not just my goals; this goes back to what I was saying about working with like-minded people. Every single person on that staff is similarly engaged in the same pursuits. They may not be as strident or annoying as I am, but they get it. Class injustice, issues of gender and economic inequalities: all that was in there before I joined the staff. I was delighted to be able to participate and add to what they were already interested in. Justified, set in the coal-mining town of Harlan, Kentucky, was long invested in the issues of social justice; they just did it with a certain amount of panache, violence and humor.
PIAFSKY: That combination of injustice and social commentary is part of what makes your Allen Choice trilogy so fascinating. In terms of stereotypes in the noir genre, Asian or Asian Americans too rarely get to be the detective. Instead they are henchmen or sidekicks or comic relief. But one potential downside of creating a character designed to explode stereotypes is that it could bind your protagonist to behave stereotypically—as the stereotypical noir detective rather than the stereotypical Asian American of noir works. Did you ever feel obliged for Choice to behave like Spade or Marlowe?
CHANG: The short answer to that is no, I never consciously protected or contrived the character to fit any convention. Allen Choice was a real and fully realized character for me, not a P.I. manqué or a symbol for subverting stereotypes of any kind, racial or genre. Being fully aware of the genres helped me avoid that, I hope. Choice was a frustrating character for some editors because they WANTED him to act more like Spade or Marlowe, but he wasn’t going to.
PIAFSKY: Presumably that lack of conformity was part of what contributed to the lack of marketability you alluded to earlier.Class injustice is such a thorny topic for American detective novels. Whereas the reader of a British drawing-room detective novel is assured of a justice that affirms the status quo of the class system, American noir traditionally ends with the reader’s dissatisfaction that the investigator has ferreted out the truth but the villain goes unpunished anyway. So the truth only serves to make us aware of some larger class injustice.
CHANG: The truth that the investigator has ferreted out highlights a larger injustice and also demands a high cost from the investigator. I think I see noir as a Modernist reaction to the ordered and stable crime and mystery stories preceding it. I just wrote the introduction to a forthcoming anthology, Asian Pulp, and have been thinking about the way noir has evolved over the past seventy years. Where I fall on the continuum remains to be seen, but that notion of subverting expectations can be reinvigorating to a reader but frightening to publishers. Editors complained that I was presenting an Asian character who had little if anything “Asian” about him, that he knew tae kwon do but never used it; that he could barely speak the language; that he was a man of inaction and contemplation rather than the archetypal hero of a PI novel. They essentially asked what was the point of making him an Asian American detective if he wasn’t emblematic of Otherness and wasn’t acting like a detective? My response was, Exactly. Allen Choice was the first assimilated Korean American hero of a novel that dealt with crime, ever. No one quite knew how to deal with that. Even the subtitle “A Novel of Intrigue,” a concession on my part to the publisher, reveals the uneasy hybridity of the form: Is it a thriller? Mystery? Crime novel? Ethnic exploration? Literary novel about family? Who knows, and who cares? It’s a story about a man looking into his familial past. Now, of course, a decade and a half later, I can look back at the turmoil of getting this novel published and roll my eyes.
The studios had more financial concerns, such as having a Korean American lead and a Latina co-lead, with much of the story centering on Korean characters. This didn’t surprise anyone—if a studio is going to invest millions of dollars in a film, they will of course want some hope of recouping that investment. For them it was about risk assessment, which is why you’re seeing that split in the film industry going on now.
PIAFSKY: One more episode-specific question from Justified, in “Wrong Roads” you namedrop King Lear. Do you see something Shakespearian in the way the show is framed or executed?
CHANG: The answer to this is probably way more convoluted than it should be, so I’ll try to simplify it. Yes, Shakespeare is woven into this show, whether or not it’s obvious. Ben Cavell, one of the writers, was actually a Shakespeare scholar at Harvard before coming to TV. His father, by the way, is Stanley Cavell, a philosopher I had the privilege of working with briefly. Anyway, often you will see in the climax of the show a set piece, a staged confluence of characters and stories that, like it or not, have a Shakespearian influence. You can even track the act structures of the two forms. For that particular reference, credit goes to Dave Andron and Steve Harris, the actor. Dave and I split the script in half to write it. He had the misfortune (or good fortune?) to write that big final scene, and it was difficult. After many drafts, Dave talked to Steve, who has a Shakespearean background as well, and they came upon the King Lear reference. That final speech went through various incarnations until the version you see now on the screen. Tim Olyphant, who is good friends with Steve, also liked a particular take of Steve’s, and that cut was the one that made it into the episode.
PIAFSKY: That is collaboration. As someone currently making a living working with another writer’s creations in Justified, can you talk about the inverse? What was it like having potential movie adaptations of Dispatches from the Cold and Over the Shoulder? Are you still working the screenplay for Over the Shoulder?
CHANG: I’ve learned that cinema is in a bit of a crisis right now. The problem with the mid-list novel in publishing has a parallel in movies. Either a movie has to be a big-budget blockbuster or it’s a tiny indie film; anything in between gets lost or, more recently, not even green-lit. So to answer your question, both projects, Dispatches and Shoulder, have floundered in this strange period of bifurcation. I wrote a couple drafts of both projects, and then the funding dried up for Dispatches, and Over the Shoulder never quite got off the ground. Interestingly, some of the same questions I received about the novels, particularly Shoulder, about the marketability of the subject, character and story, were echoed in the responses to the pitches/scripts by the studios.
In terms of writing itself, adapting my own novels required a complete disassociation with the genesis and creation of the original material, because a film is not a novel, and vice versa. I learned pretty quickly that the best way to write an adaptation is to think of it less as a translation and more as a reinvention of the source: the source as inspiration. And this made the scriptwriting fun, because I was writing something new, but not really.
What’s fascinating is that the opposite is happening in TV. There’s no mid-list in TV. Now there are so many networks wanting different kinds of material. So it’s not a surprise that a lot of filmmakers and film screenwriters are flocking to TV. Eventually, that’s where I’ll probably bring my novels to, especially since I’m learning the art and business of TV from the ground up.
PIAFSKY: You’ve now experienced setbacks in multiple media, with your first novel nearly being pulped, your first television show canceled and the movie problems we’ve been talking about. I’m guessing that you have your share of rejections from magazines. What have you learned from your various failures?
CHANG: I guess when you list it like that I should just quit and deal pot. I was pretty successful at that. No, just kidding. But I don’t see rejections, cancellations or unbought projects as failures. For me, failure is quitting. Failure is giving up. That’s when you’ve truly failed. I see rejections as part of the process toward acceptance. This is what astounds me about some aspiring writers who give up after one or two rejections. You NEVER give up. At least I don’t. My first short story garnered some 33 rejections (including the Missouri Review, by the way). I remember the number because it was so holy. That short story eventually caught the eye of my first agent, and he repped some of my novels. If I had given up at rejection 32, what then? And this applies to everything, not just writing. I taught myself martial arts from books before I formally studied with a school, and when they first saw my form they essentially laughed at me. It was humiliating and horrifying, but I just gritted my teeth and asked them to correct me. And I had to relearn everything and worked harder than I’d ever worked before to master the form. You have to stamp down your ego and pride and want to better yourself in every way.
So, to answer your question, I have learned nothing from my various failures because I have never failed. I have only delayed success.
PIAFSKY: You’re an avid rock-climber. Delayed successes there are probably a lot more permanent, right? What attracted you to that sport?
CHANG: Yes, delayed success there has been very, very painful. I dislocated one shoulder, tore the rotator cuff of another; strained an ACL in one knee, tore the meniscus in the other; ruptured three finger tendons; have bone spurs in both hands and can barely make a natural fist in one; and my lower back is basically fucked. Something is seriously wrong with my left foot—because of the tight climbing shoes, I might have broken a bone, and it never healed correctly. And, most importantly, I’ve lost two rock-climbing colleagues. BUT, I still love it. I don’t climb as hard as I used to, but I doubt I’ll ever stop. Let me try to convey this …
When you’re climbing, there is absolutely nothing else in your head but where is the next hold, how secure are your feet, and are you resting, breathing and focusing? Nothing else. Nothing about work, about your book, about the script due, about your personal life, about how the mole on your arm is growing and you should probably get it checked out, about your mother who has just moved into town and now you have to be a good son… . Nothing is in your head but where is the next hold and how secure is it. And to get to that point where if the hold is good, can your fingers “stick” it? Well, you better have trained enough to make sure. It’s the purest experience you can have. There’s only one thing to think of, and nothing else intrudes. For someone who often has way too many things going on his head, this is pretty pure.
My brother introduced me to the sport, and I found a climbing community in the San Francisco Bay Area that was wonderful. Ever since I moved down to L.A., I haven’t climbed as much as I wanted to—the hours as a TV writer can be very hard—but I still train and occasionally climb, and there is a beautiful unity with nature when I climb.
Also, if there’s ever a Zombie apocalypse, I can escape them with ease. I can climb buildings and trees like no one.
PIAFSKY: Your website has remarkable transparency about your writing process and is full of writing tips, from sources as varied as William Faulkner to sitcom writers. Who is your audience on the site? Why do you devote so much attention to it?
CHANG: A UC–Berkeley undergrad student almost twenty years ago came up to me after a reading and asked me why I didn’t have a website. Now, this was before the Internet was as pervasive as it is now. Amazon.com had just launched. Netscape was just getting traction. AOL was the dial-up ISP of choice. I told him I didn’t quite know how to do it. He said he’d do it for me and show me how. So leonardchang.com was born, and it was a text-only website written in html by William Han. He then showed me who was visiting it—he was able to track visitors from all over the world—and I was suitably impressed. And the Internet got bigger and bigger. Bill maintained the site for many years, for free, because he was just a cool guy who liked programming. Then, after ten or so years, he was moving on to other things, and he showed me how to run it, but it was actually a lot more work than I realized, so I just forwarded the site to tumblr and have been keeping it up as best I could since then. My audience is pretty eclectic, comprised primarily of my students when I was teaching, and then various readers and fans of my work. In terms of my time and attention to it now—well, there is something amazing about a reader or viewer contacting me directly after reading a novel or watching something I wrote. That direct access is less for me, more for them. I understand how much time and effort it is to order my novel and then take a few days to read it. I appreciate it and remember when I was a novice writer and loved a novel and just wanted to communicate with the author in any way I could. Remember, I said I was an avid letter-writer? Well, I wrote letters to writers I admired. And guess what? Many of them WROTE BACK! Some of them, like Updike, actually maintained a correspondence and offered me advice and guidance. This, for a lonely, alienated kid not having any kind of real sense of home or community, was … awesome. I still write back to every (sane) note I receive, and the website has made that much easier. One of my happiest moments as a writer was when, years ago, I was depressed about my writing and struggling with a new novel, and I got a random letter, forwarded through my publisher, from a teen in Paris who had read a translation of one of my books. It was a breathless, eager and hopeful letter—a letter that I had written many times myself. Of course I wrote back, so very grateful, and remembered how happy I had been, when I was a fan, to get a letter back from a favorite writer.
So, that’s why I keep the website updated as best I can. I am returning the favor to the writers of the past who had done the same thing to me. I was terribly upset when Updike passed away, for many reasons, and I will always follow his example of graciousness and generosity as a writer responding to his readers. We are a community of writers and readers, and I won’t ever forget that.
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The new Missouri Review has just landed, appropriately subtitled “Ultra-violence,” and includes a very long interview with me. It’s not online yet, though some of the other stories are viewable. I’ll be sure to post the interview here soon. Here’s the info:
"In his interview with Michael Piafsky, writer Leonard Chang discusses his interest in crime fiction and the cross-influences between it and his writing for Justified, the TV series based on the novels of Elmore Leonard. Chang talks about the differences between the solitary work of novel writing and the collaborative work of writers for film and television, and he also speaks candidly about his frustration with the stereotypes of Asians in movies and television."
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.
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 theEncyclopedia 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.
“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 Menand Breaking Bad began to fill the public void. Chang himself was hooked. He became an avid fan of The Wireand 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.”
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.”
Old video of Lost Rocks Bouldering dug up. Taken by Seth Joseph.
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