Friday, January 5, 2018

Book Bites: Leonard Chang, author of The Lockpicker

Book Bites: Short and Sweet Interviews for Readers on the Go

Today, I'm thrilled to bring you an interview with Leonard Chang, author The Lockpicker as well as writer for FX's Snowfall television series (and many of you may also know him as a writer for FX's Justified). I was lucky enough to speak with Chang back in 2014 to discuss his autobiographical novel Triplines and I've been a longtime admirer of his subtle, yet biting, style that always leaves the reader with a gut punch of wonder and emotion. Enjoy!
"...the restrained and exquisite writing gradually builds the suspense to the climax. Replete with details about picking locks and peppered with philosophical discussions, Chang's eighth novel is recommended for all readers of intelligent crime fiction."
- Library Journal

 How do you handle writer’s block?

Luckily I really don’t get writer’s block. When I started writing I went through dozens and dozens of biographies of writers I admired, and in some ways I was putting myself through informal writing school with examples like Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, etc., offering me unintended guidance. What I got from them was the understanding that it’s always a process -- that we’re not striving just for a finished work but for the exploration to get there. Someone like Steinbeck, for instance, constantly talked about avoiding writer’s block by thinking not about the finished book but just working through it, not even to think about ending, ever. He in fact said in effect to “lower your standards” and know that the book will have to be rewritten and revised, no matter what. That liberated me as a novice writer, because I was no longer paralyzed by fear or criticism -- I knew I’d rewrite everything eventually, so nothing held me back. I’ve carried this feeling well into my professional writing career, so I can’t think of a time when I actually couldn’t sit down and start writing. I think about process, not product, and I have fun with it.

Have you ever given up on a writing project?

Sure, although nothing is truly ever given up or wasted, because sometimes I need to work through a project to get to the next one. My first novel, The Fruit ‘N Food, went through two completely different versions -- different characters, different locations, different stories -- before arriving at the third and final version, which was published. Does this mean the first two versions were wasted or given up on? I don’t think so. I needed to write those two versions to arrive at the third. Similarly, I’ve put aside projects because for whatever reason they weren’t clicking, only to pick them up years later, even decades later. One of my novels, Triplines, had at its core a story I wrote some fifteen years earlier that I never did anything with. Like the previous answer, nothing is wasted, nothing is for naught, because it’s all a process.

Do you have a set routine as a writer?

I do. I’m definitely an early morning writer, and even when I’m working on a TV show I get to the office very early, writing not just for TV but also working on my own material -- novels, essays, stories. The mornings are when my subconscious seems to be just transitioning into the conscious, when the clutter of the day hasn’t yet accumulated in my head, and I feel free and open, and the page before me is receptive to whatever I want to write. A routine for me is important, especially when I’m working on longer pieces, because I’ve trained myself that in those early morning hours I’m in “writing mode” and my creativity is at its height. However, I am often called upon to write during all times of the day or night, especially in TV, when I may actually have to write on set with a couple hundred people waiting for me to re-write a scene we’re shooting in ten minutes. That’s a different kind of writing, but it has its roots in the same morning writing ritual, because I’m accessing the same kind of creativity, but it’s not as open and free -- it’s using the years of practice of writing to render a compelling and effective scene given the tools I have. But my most creative writing time is in the mornings, which, incidentally, it is now. I’m in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, having woken up at dawn, and am pecking away at this interview at this very moment.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

Interestingly enough, the best piece of writing I received wasn’t about writing but about the writing life. One of my mentors, the late Oakley Hall, who had a long and varied career as a writer -- writing everything from pulp mysteries under a pseudonym, to bestsellers with Robert Redford adapting his work, to allegorical westerns nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction -- told me to live economically because the writer’s life is rarely consistent and you never want to be trapped to write solely for money. Even if you make a lot of money and it seems like it’ll never stop, it always will. This was reinforced when I did my self-study of novelists I admired, and I saw quite clearly how this trap hurt many writers. So, for example, when Fitzgerald was at his height of popularity, he was making over $30,000 a year (in 1920’s dollars, when the average household yearly income was $1800), and he spent it all on trips, cars, houses and parties, always ending up in debt. He then had to churn out stories for slick magazines to maintain his lifestyle, becoming more and more embittered and unhappy at this commercial writing. He never dug himself out, falling into alcoholism, and died thinking he was a failure. This was sobering to me as a young writer, and I never forgot it.

What single book has been the most influential to you as a writer?

I guess that depends on what kind of influence you’re talking about. I think the novel that was an epiphany of sorts -- the novel that affected me deeply and made me yearn to write something as pivotal -- was Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. I know all about the various criticisms against the book and Hemingway himself, but let me set the context. I was nineteen years old, having just dropped out of college and joined the Peace Corps. I was living in Kingston, Jamaica, trying to work in the most crime-ridden city in the western Hemisphere at the time. The coke wars made the homicide rate there insane. I was trying to write -- trying to be a writer -- and it wasn’t easy. I was lonely, sitting at what felt like a crossroads in my life, and picked up a worn-out old paperback of a novel called Fiesta (which was the title for some foreign editions of The Sun Also Rises), which was about ex-pats in Paris in the 20’s, also trying to write or at least trying to find a way of life with few models and understanding of how the post-world-war era was affecting them. Although I had very little in common with the characters, I felt like I had everything in common with the sensibility of the novel, and the writing was unlike anything I’d read before. I remember opening the novel after dinner and staying awake and reading well into the night, unable to stop. When I finished, I felt I had achieved some rare state of transcendence that had nothing to do with the ganja all around me or the gunshots in the distance -- I had found a work of art that I connected to, and truly understood what a novel could do to a receptive reader on a similar wavelength. I closed the novel, deeply moved, and literally pulled out a pad and pen, and began writing my first real short story -- not the juvenalia I had attempted before that. This was the beginning of my becoming a real writer, and I will always point to that novel as the inception.

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