Friday, March 7, 2014

LEONARD CHANG the storyteller, the memoirist, and the philosopher

Christal Cooper – 1,425 Words

the storyteller, the memoirist,
and the philosopher



For six months Tom lay in a hospital bed, blind, in a coma, though he didn’t know that – all he knew was that he sometimes heard voices around him, wavering, echoing away, and he couldn’t see, couldn’t speak.  
Copyright by Leonard Chang

Everything I learned about Farrel Gorden I learned from reading his letters, and although I knew reading someone else’s mail was illegal . . .The letters helped distract me from my problems. . . Copyright by Leonard Chang


         I glance at the tape recorder.  She sighs and shuts it off.  “Okay, you want to start off the record?  I’m just trying to do my job, Mr. Choice.”

         “My job requires that I stay quiet.  I’m not supposed to be noticed.”
Copyright by Leonard Chang


This is a story about Linda as much as it is about me, about the disturbing events we would witness together and separately, about what happened after she visited her mother and stepfather in Los Angeles. 
Copyright by Leonard Chang


         Allen lives off Clement Street, around the corner from the New May Wah Supermarket and near Green Apple Books, where he has been buying used, well-worn, and student highlighted copies of Kierkegaard and introduction to philosophy texts.   
Copyright by Leonard Chang

Los Angeles, California based writer and Korean-American Leonard Won Chul “the pinnacle of wisdom or philosophy” Chang, along with his older brother and younger sister, was raised in Long Island, New York by his parents, Korean immigrants. 

Chang was a quiet, shy, imaginative child living in an environment that could be described as tumultuous.  By the age of seven, he found escape by reading voraciously outside his apartment building or at the Merrick Library. 

“I used to read everywhere but I liked reading outside, even if it was cold.  Huddling with my parka on, my hood over my head, my gloved hands cradling the book, I felt as if I was burrowed with the characters I was reading.  Maybe on some level the book was warming me up.”

Upon entrance to Dartmouth College, he chose to study Philosophy instead of writing.  “I wanted to study philosophy because I’ve always had questions about God, religion, the purpose of our lives, and all those other big questions, but no real avenues or opportunities to explore them.  I found that studying Philosophy was just a different way to approach the same questions I had in fiction writing.” 

         After two years Chang found himself stressed and unhappy.  “I needed to get away from school, from taking classes I wasn’t very interested in, from my peers who seemed not to have similar goals and ambitions.  I wanted to focus on my writing, which I wasn’t at the time.”

         Chang chose to enter the Peace Corps and moved to Kingston, Jamaica where he worked on the computers, automated the database systems, and managed the head office library. 

He also focused on his writing – by reading at least one novel per day and writing short stories, which was both cathartic and moving.  “I realized I had actually composed something that seemed to work.”   Two of those short stories, “Clay Hats” and “Collect Call” were published.

He also traveled to his parent’s homeland, Seoul, Korea, to learn the language and culture.  “This affected me as a writer insofar as I felt completely alienated and isolated in Korea, that despite my ancestry Koreans viewed me as some oddity.  I did find kinship, friendship and fellowship with other Korean Americans.  I knew that I wanted to write about the Korean American experience as we knew it.”

         After one year at Kingston he returned to the states with a new zest for writing, but he chose to pursue his philosophy degree.  “Most writers advise aspiring writers not to major in English because you approach texts as a critic, not as an author. I found this to be true.” 

After graduating with honors from Harvard University, Chang moved to California to attend the University of California Irving’s MFA Creative Writing Program, where he made a habit of reading two to five novels per week. 

The two novels that influenced Chang the most were The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, which he reads at least once a year. 

The Great Gatsby is wonderfully unified and tightly-written novel, and is a constant reminder of how a novel can be a piece of art.  Hemingway is rougher and cruder, and the power of his writing comes from concision, repetition and ambiguity.”

Since then Chang has written five novels, each exploring authentic Korean-American characters:  Thomas Pak and the Rhee Family in The Fruit ‘N Food are hard working Korean Americans who focus all of their dreams on the family grocery story, only to have the end come to devastating results;

Caucasian Farell Gorden’s journey from dissatisfaction to anger and violence against his Korean-American boss and his anonymous Korean American letter reader is explored in Dispatches From The Cold;

and then, perhaps, Chang’s greatest character come to reality, Allen Choice, is born in Over The Shoulder, and continues to fascinate readers in Underkill, and Fade To Clear

Allen Choice, an isolationist Korean American who loves to read philosophy on one hand and carry a gun in the other, is a private detective in each of the novels – which explores not only the authentic life of the detective, but that of Allen Choice, his relationships, and search for meaning. 

Two of Chang’s books have been adapted for movies - Dispatches From The Cold has been adapted by Canary Films, and actor Daniel Dae Kim, a Korean American who is scheduled to play Allen Choice, has optioned Over The Shoulder.  

     In response to questions about the movies being faithful to his books and his readers’ expectations, Chang said, “I hope my readers will view any movies based on my novels not as a representation of my work, but as an interpretation or re-invention.  If they are disappointed then I hope they return to the novel.”

         The people in Chang’s novels and short stories are not characters but real living human beings whom Chang describe as being “sometimes more real than the person standing next to me.”  The process of creating these real-life-characters takes responsibility, discipline, and skill, which Chang takes seriously. 

“I want to be truthful as I can in rendering characters and stories.  I like to try to have the reader come away with something useful, whether it’s knowledge or understanding or simply a greater appreciation of my characters.”  

         Chang’s goal is to write one piece of work in which all three aspects of writers are displayed  – the storyteller, the memoirist, and the philosopher.  To Chang, having these three aspects as well as characters that are “well-written, well rendered, vivid, and dictate the plot” is the ultimate literary novel.   

         Chang does most of his creating in his home office.  “It is a small room with huge windows where I get morning light.  I have a view of buildings, pine trees, and a lake.  It’s messy but comfortable, with papers and books strewn on the floor.” 

Here Chang writes at first dawn on the computer, usually with a cup of green tea.  He is known as a perfectionist and can write dozens of drafts before he is satisfied.  He rewrites some of the drafts at the local café and then edits them with pen and paper, and, after the best draft is chosen, the others are thrown away.  Others might think this is tiresome and self defeating work, to Chang it is the joy of being a writer.

“I’ve never had writer’s block.  I’ve had slow days and frustrating days, but I just keep chipping away.  Writing is just a blessing; never a curse.  I can’t think of anything better except maybe being in love.”       

Or except his love for rock climbing, which Chang’s brother introduced him to about four years ago.  “I spend most of my free time rock climbing.  Rock climbing is both intellectual and physical.  Writers ought to have lives outside of writing, because quite simply, they need something to feed the art.”      

Chang is presently working on the screenplay for Over The Shoulder, short stories, a novel about a young married couple, and future plans for more Allen Choice novels.  He also writes screenplays for television including NBC’s Awake and FX’s Justified.

Photo 1
Leonard Chang and his mother Umee Chang Pepe.  Copyright by Leonard Change.

Photo 2
Welcome sign on Merrick Avenue.  Public Domain.

Photo 3
Leonard Chang’s high school graduation picture.  Copyright by Leonard Chang.

Photo 4
Seal of Dartmouth College (  Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law.

Photo 5, 20, 21, 23
Leonard Chang.  Copyright by Leonard Chang.

Photo 6
Leonard Chang volunteering for the Los Angeles Community Beautification Grant Program.  Copyright by Leonard Chang.

Photo 7. 19, 22
Leonard Chang in his office.  Copyright by Leonard Chang.

Photo 8
Seoul Panorama from Namhonsanseors.  CCA3.0 Unported License.

Photo 9
Leonard Chang attending a workshop at the University of California in Irving.  Copyright by Leonard Chang.

Phot 10
Jacket cover of The Great Gatsby

Photo 11
Jacket cover of The Sun Also Rises

Photo 12
Ernest Hemmingway in 1939 in his Sun Valley, Idaho home.  Attributed to Lloyd Arnold.  Public Domain.

Photo 13
Jacket cover of The Fruit N Food

Photo 14
Jacket cover of Dispatches From The Cold

Photo 15
Jacket cover of Over The Shoulder

Photo 16
Jacket cover of Underkill

Photo 17
Jacket cover of Fade To Clear

Photo 18
Daniel Dae Dkim singing autographs at the Hawaii International Film Festival on February 28, 2007.  Attributed to Crissy Terawaki Kawamoto.  GNUFD License Version 1.2 and CCA-SA 3.0 Unported.

Photo 24, 25
Leonard Chang rock climbing.  Copyright by Leonard Chang.

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