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Chat & Selfie: On holler clans, Korean P.I.s, and a white supremacist chimera

A selfie of Leonard Chang at his South Los Angeles home.
(Los Angeles Times)

Novelist and TV writer Leonard Chang and the California section’s Jason Song recently hung out at a restaurant by the Los Angeles International Airport, talking about making it in Hollywood, why cabernet sauvignon is worse for your wallet but better for your soul, and which “Justified” character he had the most fun writing for. We later emailed the Long Island native questions and crunched the conversation into this:

You set a trio of crime novels about a Korean American private investigator around the Bay Area. How different would the books be if they were transposed to L.A.?

L.A. has more Korean Americans than any other city in the world, so I think the main protagonist, Allen Choice, would probably feel differently about his sense of alienation. He’d probably find his way into K-Town (Koreatown) and be a lot happier and well-adjusted, which makes for terrible fiction.

Best way to quickly vacate an Oakland apartment?

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When I made the decision to come to L.A. I put an ad on Craigslist and basically said I was giving everything away for free in my apartment. Everything had to go that weekend. Saturday morning at 9 a.m. there was a line outside my door as everyone from new college students to retired couples looking for “Antiques Roadshow” discoveries showed up and literally cleaned my apartment of everything — even the rug on the floor.

Fitzgerald and Faulkner struggled in Hollywood. What made you think it’d be different for you?

I don’t like gin (Fitzgerald’s addiction) or mint juleps (Faulkner’s poison). Complex, textured cabs are my weakness, and those can be cost prohibitive. I’m too cheap to be a Bordeaux drunk.

You lived in Santa Monica for awhile before settling in South L.A. Biggest differences?

In Santa Monica I lived across the street from a TV celebrity, so there were often paparazzi hiding out in cars, waiting to see her emerge. Now I’ve settled pretty comfortably in South L.A., just east of Inglewood and west of the 110 (Freeway). I don’t see any paparazzi down here. Which is fine with me.

How is “Justified,” a show about clannish cops and criminals in Kentucky, a natural landing place for a Korean American novelist from Long Island?

Eastern Kentucky was peopled by immigrants of Scotch-Irish descent, who were steeped in the “cultures of honor” heritage stemming from generations of herding sheep and cattle. They formed closely knit clans and were quick to fight and defend their livelihood. They were a community that could go back decades and recount the familial histories, connections and conflicts. The Korean American community in New York when I was growing up was small and closely knit, and had connections that went back generations. Just go to any Korean church anywhere in the U.S., and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Hell, my mother went to a yoga class in L.A. and ran into someone she knew in grade school in Seoul. But it’s the notion of community and connection, and the feuding culture that was resonant for me.

More fun to write dialogue for: bad guy Boyd Crowder or hero/U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens?

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Boyd, Boyd, Boyd. Man, I loved writing for Boyd. Eloquent, literary, biblical and poetic. He was a white supremacist-thieving-murdering-romantic chimera, and I couldn’t get enough of him.

Best part about filming in Santa Clarita? Worst?

Best part? I’d often be there during sunrise, when it was quiet and I had a nice view of the mountains. Worst part? When I had to commute up there from South L.A. during rush hour, I’d be spending often two to three hours each way in my beat-up Honda and had no choice but to listen to a lot of podcasts, so I’m filled with esoteric knowledge. I’m good at boring people to sleep.


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