Lucy Wang: An Interview
Daniel M. Jaffe
Lucy Wang is one of those writers whose pen knows just where to hit the page. Lucy recently won the Television Writing Award from CAPE (Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment) for her script, Without a Trace: Born Again. Her earlier play, Junk Bonds was named Best New Play by both the Katherine and Lee Chilcote Foundation and the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays. Other scripts of hers achieved finalist status for such prestigious awards as the Sundance Screenwriting Labs, the Heideman Award, and the Eugene O’Neill National Playwright Conference. She has sold a television pilot to Disney, and is the recipient of several fellowships, including the James Thurber Fellowship. Her work has been performed at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and in other major cities around the country. Lucy recently served on a Theater Development Fund panel at Sundance, and has served as a vice chair for the Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights.
Without a Trace: Born Again, Lucy’s recent, award-winning teleplay, explores what happens when a best-selling author goes missing, at which point the FBI’s ability to separate fact from fiction becomes a matter of life and death. Has the CAPE Award generated interest in the teleplay or opened doors for Lucy to work as a member of a television show’s writing team?
“Winning the award has been thrilling,” she said, “spurring demand to read the script and possible opportunities to work with some top-notch creative folk. I wish I had an agent currently circulating my award-winning TV spec script, since quite a few show-runners requested my script and said if only they had read it earlier, they would have definitely hired me!”
Lucy’s professional life began with receipt of an MBA from the University of Chicago, after which she entered the world of business (as a bond trader) and government. “Wall Street was instant gratification, or instant loss. Serving New York City as Deputy Chief of Staff during the Mayor Dinkins Administration brought me tremendous pride and joy. When I write, I never know if and when what I’m writing will ever be published or produced. I never know if what I’m writing will ever make a single dime. I never know if I’m crazy. Leaving the conventional workforce where one is paid regularly, often with perks and benefits, to write as a profession was one of the toughest, gut-wrenching decisions in my life, and there are still days when I question my sanity.
“It was only when Dinkins lost his bid for re-election and I found myself out of work, that I finally had to write—in between job interviews and part-time work. I mostly wrote to keep my spirits up because with elections held in November, that meant all of us at City Hall were coming out of the holidays unemployed.
“The windfall of 1994: Junk Bonds (about the work life of a Chinese American woman bond trader) won an award from the Kennedy Center, the Mark Taper Forum selected another play of mine, Bird’s Nest Soup (a comic and poignant coming-of-age story), for Taper Too!, and the New York Times ran a two-page profile of me with two photographs starting on the front page business section. For better and for worse, I took this bonanza as a sign that writing was my destiny, and I’ve been writing ever since.”
Lucy’s business experience still plays a role in her writing life. “My MBA and diverse business experience help me make better informed decisions, stay focused and cope with the uncertainty,” she emphasized. “I impose strict deadlines and structure; I break up the writing process into concrete ‘deliverables’ (number of words or pages written) to mark progress. I do my best to distinguish between the creative side and the business side of writing.
“The business world provides rich dramatic material and excellent training for crafting a story. Most of us have to work and the workplace is a setting where management sets clear-cut goals and we face a series of conflicts trying to get ahead, work well with others and please the boss. My play, Melting, is my homage to Othello where the ‘Moor’ character is recently promoted over ‘Iago,’ and, in hopes of sabotaging the ‘Moor,’ my ‘Iago’ character spreads evil rumors that this promotion is the result of affirmative action. I’m using quotes because my play takes quite a bit of creative license and departs from Othello in many ways.
“I believe the best writing comes from mixing what you know with what you want to know. Trust me, I never went to Wall Street thinking someday I’m going to use this experience in my writing. Far from it. I went to Wall Street because as a teenager I read the Wall Street Journal, invested in the capital markets and made my first sweet, but modest profit. When I sat down to write a play, I found I wanted to write about trust and it seemed natural to set it on Wall Street where the stakes are so high and immediate. When my City Hall cronies came to see Junk Bonds, they told me that play could’ve been set in City Hall.
“Same with 9/11. I was there in NYC near Ground Zero that fateful day, but I was in too much pain, and rejected outright the notion that I would ever write about the tragic losses. I’d lost many friends and former colleagues. My friends and I looked for the missing/dead, and donated supplies. I took Amtrak cross-country where every seat was taken and every voice heard. When I finally returned to Los Angeles, I wasn’t sure I would write again as I wasn’t sure there was a point. Not only did I lose a lot of friends, faith, colleagues, I lost productions and artistic residencies. Many theaters went out of business because people were staying home and no longer donating to the arts.”
Lucy couldn’t write about these experiences until 2003, when she “was accepted to do an artistic residency with Eric Bogosian at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, and Eric called—as luck would have it, on Sept 11. Naturally, we shared our experiences of 9/11 and then moved on to discuss projects we might work on while in artistic residence. When I met Eric face to face two weeks later, Eric brought me an article Frank Rich wrote, wondering why there was no Tony Kushner of 9/11. He told me I had to write about 9/11, that I had to be brave and step up to the plate. Later that night, when I turned on my computer to write, the words, scenes and voices just starting pouring out of me. The floodgates had opened. I wrote the first draft of Good Mourning, America in three weeks with a troupe of actors rehearsing my pages and Eric pushing me to push myself.”
Now that the fifth anniversary of 9/11 has passed, we’re seeing art deal with the tragedy more frequently. Yet Lucy wrote her play about the 9/11 experiences of many different characters long before the fifth anniversary. Were theater companies initially receptive to it?
“Good Mourning, America scared many of the theater companies because it was atypical, ran boldly against people’s expectations. Many told me they admired me for my courage and my honesty. Many wished they could produce it. Many were startled by the truths. When the play was done in NYC last year, in two boroughs, my director and I were worried how the audience would react, but the play was very well-received. Everyone said the play felt real, incredibly moving, and the point of view so unusual and refreshingly so.”
Much of Lucy’s work involves Chinese and Jewish American characters. “This falls under the category of plays originally inspired by what I want to know. I grew up in a largely Jewish neighborhood. I even have Jewish godparents. For most of my life, I heard that Asians were the new Jews. I’m curious why so many Asian Americans and Jewish Americans intermarried, and once married, why some Asian Americans converted and others didn’t. This question inevitably led to my wondering whether there are any Chinese Jews. I actually did quite a bit of research on the `original’ Chinese Jews, that is, Jews who fled to Shanghai during the Nazi regime and Jews who ended up in China following the Silk Road (Kaifeng). I joined the Sino Judaic Institute, met and corresponded with several scholars, and invited a preeminent Chinese Jew scholar to my home for dinner. It has long been a dream of mine to visit the lost Jews of Shanghai and Kaifeng, and who knows, maybe someday incorporate an inkling of what I’ve learned about them in a best-selling story. I can dream, can’t I?”
What are the major differences between writing stage plays and screenwriting? “There are many, but I’ll try to hit on the differences that first come to mind. In screenwriting, scenes average three pages or less, and the director can make the transitions seem seamless and smooth. In stage plays, too many short scenes makes a play feel choppy, especially with characters and props having to physically move.
“In screenwriting, dialogue is one necessary element, yet in many produced films, people will comment that the dialogue seemed so unnecessary, an afterthought. Students often make the mistake of thinking a play is ‘just dialogue,’ until they discover that dialogue in a stage play is the locomotive engine that must whistle, steam, purr, sing and drive the plot forward. Plays are moving trains. One thing stage plays and screenplays have in common: they’re tough to get produced.”
The Huntington Library has long been interested in Lucy’s work, serving as archive for her drafts. But she’s so young! I wondered how that relationship came about. “The Huntington Library archives all plays produced at the Mark Taper Forum, which I learned about one day while reading my member newsletter. Since Bird’s Nest Soup was performed so many places including the Taper, I thought perhaps I should revisit an earlier draft, a purer one, a draft that didn’t attempt to please more people than it could possibly please. The short blurb in the newsletter also mentioned the Huntington’s desire to be more proactive, to create a collection of Southern California writers, and to archive living playwrights before manuscripts are lost and destroyed. This only emboldened me to contact Sue Hodson, the curator of literary manuscripts, who impressed me with her intelligence, commitment and vision when we met. I only wish I met her much earlier, when I lived in a shoebox in NYC where I threw everything away to avoid turning my shoebox into a fire hazard.”
Lately, Lucy’s been adding fiction to her mix of literary media. “I have always been a voracious reader, a lover of books, and I was reading books long before I saw my first play. I wrote short stories in high school and in college, and began my writing career writing short stories and working on a coming-of-age novel. I’m thrilled to report that a few short stories were published in literary magazines. It was in a writing group that the idea to write a play was born. After several discussions, the group urged me to adapt several short stories into a play, giving birth to Bird’s Nest Soup and Number One Son (about a closeted gay son who tries to please his father’s wishes for a family by adopting a child). So I feel like I’ve come full circle now that I’m currently hard at work on a young adult novel based on my real life experiences as a teen business prodigy. I also think that’s why so many of today’s writers cross genres and mediums. Bottom line, we’re storytellers at heart, and stories flow like rushing rapids, forcing us to follow their direction and let the stories define how best they will be told.”
Those interested in reading Lucy’s plays can purchase four of them online. Original Works Publishing published Junk Bonds and Good Mourning, America. JAC Promo and Publishing published Big Red and Little Tiger and Concerto For Organ in B-Sharp.
Dan is the author of The Limits of Pleasure, a rather controversial novel nominated by some for awards and by others for public burning (well, almost). A former corporate lawyer, he shed his suits to become a rebel with a cause—creative freedom in life and art. Dan frequently publishes short stories and personal essays in literary journals and newspapers such as The Forward, Green Mountains Review and The Florida Review. He compiled and edited With Signs and Wonders: An International Anthology of Jewish Fabulist Fiction, and translated Here Comes the Messiah!, a Russian-Israeli novel by Dina Rubina. He also teaches fiction writing for UCLA Extension. Dan can be reached at
and his web site can be found here.