I had the very good fortune of interviewing Leonard Chang.
Award-winning author of several novels, FX’s “Justified” TV Show writer and his most recent autobiography, Triplines, he shared his writing process and advice for other writers. He is currently at work on another novel, The Lockpicker, due out in 2016.
What inspires you and what is your writing process when writing novels?
Perhaps this might be a circular answer, but writing actually inspires me. When I write a scene or a story or a character that suddenly *clicks*, whether it gets at something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, or a character does something surprising and delightful to me, or any kind of confluence of the creative forces as I’m trying to make a story coalesce — when it works, I feel an incredible sense of… I don’t know, joy, or maybe even a hint of transcendence. It’s what Kafka has said, and which I’m sure I’ve talked about before: for the him writing was the axe breaking the frozen sea within us. Of course not all writing does that — and getting to that place is arduous, painstaking work, but when it happens I feel like all the pain was worthwhile, and I want to keep doing it…
My writing process for my novels is very, very simple. I get up early and I write a few pages a day, and then do other things until the next morning. The pages accumulate over time, and then I rewrite these pages over and over, sometimes starting over from scratch. I keep doing this until the novel is finished — it can take years. I’m not being facetious — it really is this grueling. It’s all about stamina.
How did you get into writing for a TV series? Was it something you’ve dreamed of doing? What would you advise wanna be TV series writers to do?
I’ve never dreamed of writing for a TV series, but certainly have dreamed of being able to write all the time, which is essentially what I’ve been doing since I became a professional writer. For me, writing TV is just another kind of writing. It all comes from the same place. And I got into TV writing the same way I got into novel writing. For novels, when I read everything I could and found I wanted more, I began writing books for myself. For TV I watched shows like The Sopranos and The Wire, and hungered for more, so began trying to create my own shows. However in TV there’s a lot more to the business that just writing, and I needed to understand all facets of TV production, which is why I had to begin staffing on other shows to learn. I’ve been lucky to work on excellent shows with superb people. As for breaking into TV there’s no one way — every writer you meet in TV has a different story about how they broke in. Often it’s through a mentor, through a lower level writing assistant job, through the TV writing programs, or through a different medium (film, novels, plays, etc). My only general piece of advice is at the very base level of all of these is being a great writer, so that’s the factor you can control. You need to write so well that everyone who reads your work will feel like they’re missing out if they don’t ally themselves with you.
Describe a typical day at work for “Justified.”
“Justified” has ended (we aired our season finale a couple months back) but for me a typical day looked like this: I would get into the office at around 5:30 AM. I would spend a couple hours writing various things, sometimes Justified scripts, sometimes other things. I’d then watch the previous day’s “dailies” — the footage shot yesterday. I’d read through yesterday’s writers’ room notes, think about the issues we’d be talking about that day. The writers’ room would start around 10:00AM, and I along with eight or nine other writers would continue “breaking” a new episode — basically discussing at length the current story and state of the characters, laying things out on a whiteboard — and then we’d finish around 6:00PM. I’d then do a little more work, and then go to the gym. I’d get home by 8:00-ish and spend time with my partner (she is also a writer but works at home) and we might watch TV and hang out, and then I’d pretty much crash by 10:00PM. All this changes if we’re shooting an episode I wrote, since our writers were always on set for our scripts — those were long days and nights.
Thank you for your time and attention, Leonard!
For more Q&A, check out his blog: http://leonardchang.tumblr.com/
Readers, click on the book covers to purchase his books. They Ah-mazing!
Here is his author’s page on Amazon.com.