Leonard Chang is a novelist and staff writer on the new NBC show Awake. With a vast and intriguing life of stories, he granted me a few questions in this honored and insightful interview.
KS: What first interested you in a writing career?
LC: My mother was a lover of literature, studying English and American Lit in Korea, and when she came to the U.S., she brought over this love of books and reading. She introduced me to great novels at a very young age, and then it wasn’t much of a leap to go from a reader to a writer. When you run out of things to read, you create your own material. I began writing seriously in high school.
KS: Who and what inspires your intellectual thinking while writing?
LC: It depends on what I’m working on. Great novels inspire me to write novels. Great TV also acts as an inspiration. Sometimes I’ll read non-fiction, biographies, books about science and psychology, sometimes even philosophy, and that inspires me in different ways.
KS: What can you tell me about the novels you’ve written?
LC: They all deal with race, family, community and crime in some way. I wrote a trilogy of mystery novels that did pretty well, and a few of my race-related novels are used as course texts in universities around the world. I’ve talked about my novels in numerous interviews, which you can find on my website.
KS: What can you tell me about Awake? The inspiration, direction, personal relations to the show?
LC: Kyle Killen created the show, and he’s talked about this in many different arenas. I can summarize briefly that his wife, an E.R. doctor, told him about a quiet, calm patient who kept seeing worms all over his body, and this idea of a subjective view of the world versus what others see began to spark something in Kyle about how people view the world and deal with tragedy. This, combined with Kyle’s thematic concerns about duality, manifested in Awake. For me, I was immediately connected to the show when Kyle began exploring the psychological implications of a man living in two worlds, with neither world being definitively real or imagined. I studied philosophy and metaphysics in school, and was easily drawn into the implications of what this meant in terms of storytelling possibilities.
KS: What do you do on your free time to connect with the world?
LC: I rock climb. I spend time with friends. I generally do what most people do.
KS: What is your favorite way to connect with your fans?
LC: For my novels, I enjoy meeting readers at book signings. I’m going to be a panelist at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books later this April, and venues like that help me connect.
KS: What are a few of your favorite stories that you’ve read?
LC: Oh, so many — by stories do you mean fiction, particularly short stories? For many years I’ve taught Creative Writing at Antioch University’s Master of Fine Arts graduate program, and I have a long list of novels and short story collections that I recommend to others. You can see them here: http://leonardchang.tumblr.com/readinglist
Three of my all-time favorite short stories are:
“In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Bured” by Amy Hempel
“Emergency” by Denis Johnson
“People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk” by Lorrie Moore
KS: What writers do you look up to for inspiration?
LC: In fiction, John Updike, Denis Johnson, Lorrie Moore, and classic Modernists like Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald. The list I referenced above has a lot of my favorites. For TV, David Simon, David Milch, Graham Yost, Matt Weiner, Shawn Ryan, Vince Gilligan, John Wells… the lists go on and on.
KS: What is your favorite genre of writing?
LC: Right now, honestly, I’m really enamored with TV and the possibilities, especially in this new “Golden Age” going on now.
KS: Do you prefer working on scripts or novels?
LC: Tough question because they’re pretty different. Although I have a new novel coming out next year, I’ve been focusing primarily on scripts these days, and probably will be for a long while. So, right now: scripts. There’s definitely a rush to write a script and see it on the screen a few weeks later on TV.
KS: What in life do you find to be the most touching and fulfilling?
LC: In terms of writing, some of the most sublime moments are when a character on the page takes over and does something unexpected, something that suddenly makes sense and the story blossoms. It’s those surprising pleasures in writing that makes the job fulfilling and even touching.
KS: What can you tell me about future projects of yours?
LC: My new novel is an autobiographical account of when I was a kid living in Long Island, and apprenticed with a marijuana grower and dealer. On Awake a couple scripts I co-wrote are about to air.
KS: Where can fans write to you for autographs?
LC: For my novels, through my publishers. Black Heron Press in Seattle is the easiest.
KS: While working, do you always find yourself enjoying the process, or can it be stressful, too?
LC: Frankly, it’s really, really enjoyable. I love writing. I know plenty of writers who hate the process, who find it not only difficult but painful. But I’ve loved writing ever since I was a little kid and wrote long letters to friends.
KS: What is one quality that best defines you?
LC: I have no idea. I like to think that I’m hardworking and dedicated, but someone’s self-image is often way different from reality. You’ll have to ask others about that.