Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Honesty and Brevity: An interview with Triplines author Leonard Chang

Nobody combines the delicate and the startling into one literary knockout punch the way Leonard Chang can. Chang’s latest debut, Triplines, an autobiographical novel, is the perfect showcase for his attention to detail, manipulation of subtlety, and ability to sting with story and then sooth with diction. In all of Chang’s work, the presence of the author is felt and this is especially true in Triplines.

Written in third person, Triplines chronicles the childhood of Lenny Chang, focusing particularly on the events leading up to the breakup of his family. As Lenny navigates a claustrophobic, confusing, and at times violent world, he finds refuge in the library, martial arts, and his new friend Sal, a local marijuana grower. During this brief window of time, Lenny straddles the roles of child and adult and becomes more confident, independent and self-aware.

If we think back, we all had that one summer, that one year of school, that one defining sliver of time where we slipped into the twilight bridging innocence and revelation, simplicity and complication, and became aware for the first time our lives were shifting beneath us. With the grace that only a master of fiction can conduct, Chang guides us through this crucial time in his life and reminds us of the poignancy, and power, in the simple act of growing up. 

Leonard Chang is one of my modern literary idols and so you can imagine how excited I was to be able to ask him some questions about his work. He was in the middle of a research trip for Justified when I caught up with him, but still graciously took the time to respond.

Steph Post: Triplines is labeled as an “autobiographical novel” and is written in third person, with your childhood self as the main character Lenny. How does an autobiographical novel differ from a memoir and what made you decide to use this unique form?

Leonard Chang: I wrote an early draft as a memoir, with all the usual trappings of the form -- first person, a distance from the events, the rumination and contemplation from the perspective, etc. -- and, quite frankly, I wasn't satisfied with it. Moreover, when I showed it to my family for their approval, since I was writing about them as well, my mother's reaction was more of concern for me and the legality of it. She was worried about me being sued, about the criminality in it, the ramifications of telling this story as fact. A lawyer friend also had some concerns. So I did a lot of thinking about the form -- most memoirs have a fictional element, since how can everyone remember everything in such detail? Of course they can't. I also thought hard about my strengths as a writer. I'm a fiction writer, and feel most comfortable in the form. So I decided to rewrite the book as a novel, but keep it rooted in fact. I wanted to be honest with the reader -- this is clearly and unabashedly autobiographical -- but I did conflate events, collapse timelines, and I allowed myself the flexibility of fiction to shape some scenes. Most memoirists will do a version of this, but I gave myself the protection of calling it fiction, since that's what I am: a fiction writer. The difference between the two forms is that I acknowledge the truthfulness to most of this, but also acknowledge that I took fictional liberties, so this must be considered a novel.

SP: Throughout Triplines meaningful totems appear (I’m thinking in particular of the maple tree and wood chips, the bear rock and the church), but symbols like these are most often used in fiction. Did you know how important these items and places were to your life at the time or is this something you came to realize during the process of reflecting and writing?

LC: Great question, because in a strange way I *did* know even as a kid that some of these things were important. After the maple tree went down, I really did collect the wood chips because I knew those little pieces of wood were important. I didn't know or really understand why, and I suspect I had a sentimental streak that just pushed me in that direction, but I saved it all. I saved a bag of wood chips for twenty-plus years, until I made those pendants. I saved the bear rock for almost four decades. The back cover of the novel has a faded image of the bear rock which I *still* have in my possession, for the precise reason I mentioned in the book. I will never get rid of it. I've lost many things over dozens and dozens of relocations all over the country, but I will never lose that rock. I feel like I've had an unstable and bewildering life, but there are some things that can be stable and understandable: meaningful things, people, memories. Perhaps this helped determine my path as a writer.

SP: Because of your signature minimalist writing style, I’m curious about your revision and editing process. For example, the single line “You killed my tree.” broke my heart and encapsulated the entire story for me. The restraint used in your style is incredible and also takes guts to use. Do you start with more complex drafts and then edit away everything that is unnecessary or do you write in this style from the beginning?

LC: Probably more of the latter. I definitely do a lot of rewriting, revision and editing, but my writing is not too far a reflection of my personality and my own personal style of communication. I tend not to talk a lot. I like to listen more than talk. I try to choose my words carefully in both speaking and writing. This is not anything artful -- it's more personal style. So, yes, I was drawn to the minimalists as a writer. Yes, I tend to believe less is more. And yes, most people who know me would agree that restraint and subtlety is almost a way of life. My sister once visited my apartment in Oakland years ago and her comment was: "This looks like a yoga studio." It was very bare, with wood floors and sunlight streaming in. I looked around, and thought, This looks like a clean, uncluttered living space.

SP: I am always in awe of authors who dare to write about themselves. As a novelist, did you find it difficult to focus on yourself instead of a fictional character? Were you nervous about repercussions from your family or judgments from readers who are being given an insight into your private life?

LC: Absolutely. I wasn't nervous about strangers or readers, I was nervous about writing about my family and, going even further and *naming* them as characters, rendering them on the page. That felt like a violation, and that's why I needed their approval before moving forward. I don't care so much about writing about myself -- most good fiction writers do that in some permutation. After all, you know yourself better than anyone. Or, you should, if you're going to be a writer. If you don't understand the intricacies of self, then how the hell are you going to write about the intricacies of characters who are Other? Understanding character begins with the self. And the repercussions? Yes, I worried very much so, which is why, as I mentioned earlier, I rewrote this completely from a new fictional perspective. But I feel like it's a better book -- it's a more artful book.

SP: Near the end of Triplines, we begin to see the seeds of a writer being planted. You mention devouring books, writing to authors and “using reading and writing as a way to keep connected.” Even your mentioning of dreaming of escape is keenly familiar to any writer’s childhood recollection. When did you first realize that writing was your future and how did you handle that realization?

LC: I would pinpoint a moment when my high school best friend Joe told me he wanted to be a writer, and I had to readjust my understanding that the novels on my shelves were not only written by someone -- weren't a pre-existing piece of art that just came into being -- but that someone could be me. With that epiphany, I began writing, and I envisioned books on the shelves that I created. I think most avid readers consider the transition for the very simple reason that they want to create the things that make them happy. If reading is nourishment, then it's natural for an avid reader to want to create his or her own food.

SP: I first discovered your novels because I am a tremendous fan of the television show Justified and was an admirer of your work writing for the show. Is it difficult to transition between working on your own books and being part of a writers’ room for a television show? Are the writing experiences and processes comparable?

LC: It wasn't difficult to make the transition; quite the opposite, it was actually a welcome relief. Imagine spending twenty years in a room writing by yourself, agonizing over characters and stories and spending year after year pecking away at novels that sometimes worked, sometimes didn't, and then doing it again and again and again, in solitude. Now imagine doing this with a group of like-minded, intelligent, funny, kind and generous friends. Suddenly the pain is shared by others, and the questions you were banging your head quite literally on the desk about and the massive amounts of alcohol you were drinking to help dull the agony of this was no longer your sole burden, but one that ten other people were banging their heads in unison on the table in front of them as well. Suddenly it's not a lonely, shuddering experience but a communal one, and it's not solely dependent on you to come up with all the answers. This doesn't mean when you're writing a script the head-banging may commence, but guess what? You can walk out of your office and peer into another, and ask a question that may spark something for you. You're not alone.

The writing experiences are the same, but you're working with others. The processes are the same, but you have others to discuss and argue and fight with, ultimately finding a solution that you may have found on your own, maybe not. Yes, you are always alone when you're on the page, typing, but you're not completely alone when you want to talk it out, and there's someone else who knows the path you've been crawling on.

I'm writing this in Lexington, Kentucky, where I've just spent a week with a handful of other Justified writers, talking to many, many people in Harlan, where Justified is set, and we're all thinking about this final forthcoming season, and some of the terror is shared and diminished by the fact that we're facing it together.

SP: Finally, what can readers look forward to in the future from you?

LC: I'll be diving into the sixth and final season of Justified with my fellow writers, while beginning to think about this very question. Once Justified ends I'll be working on creating my own TV show, since I'm enamored by this form of storytelling. But I'll always be writing in some way, so that's always in the future.

Thanks so much to Leonard Chang for a kick-ass interview. If you haven’t read Triplines yet, get on it! Check out his other novels as well (you can read my review of Crossings here) and, for the love of God, I hope you’re already watching Justified. If not, yeah, fix that now. Thanks for reading.


  1. Great questions and intriguing answer - everything an interview needs to be. Great job with this, Steph. I enjoyed it very much.

  2. Great interview! I'm a fan of Justified and I'm looking forward to his work in this final season. Triplines is now on my to-be-read list. :-)


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