- A conversation with Leonard Chang
Click for larger view
View full resolution
[End Page 100]
Leonard Chang was born in New York City and grew up on Long Island, where he attended the public schools in Merrick. After high school, Leonard studied at Dartmouth College, interned with the Peace Corps in Kingston, Jamaica, and continued his studies in philosophy at Harvard University, where he graduated with honors. He attended the graduate creative writing program at the University of California at Irvine and received his MFA. His first novel, The Fruit ’n Food, sold while he was still in graduate school, won the Black Heron Press Award for Social Fiction and is now taught at universities around the world. His second novel, Dispatches from the Cold, won a San Francisco Bay Guardian Goldie Award for Literature. He is also the author of a popular and critically acclaimed noir trilogy, which includes Over the Shoulder (HarperCollins), Underkill (St. Martin’s) and Fade to Clear (St. Martin’s). Crossings, his sixth novel, was published in [End Page 101] 2009, and a new novel, Triplines, in 2014. His novels have been translated into French, Japanese and Korean and are regularly studied in literature, sociology and theology courses throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. Recently the U.S. Consulate in Berlin sponsored his multicity lecture/reading tour of Germany.
In addition to novels, he writes short stories, essays, screenplays and TV. He was a visiting distinguished writer at Mills College and a faculty member at Antioch University’s MFA Program. He lives in Los Angeles and writes for FX’s Justified.
This interview was conducted by e-mail in 2014.
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?
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.
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? [End Page 102]
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 the world (see Half the Sky). My mother...