Writer: “What’s the difference between photography and writing a novel?”
Dean Wong: “Well, with photography, you have to be there. You have to see the scene in front of you, you have to be ready to capture it.
“The thing that I find fascinating about writing is that you don’t need to be there to capture it. You don’t need a camera. It comes from your head. I can totally control it. I can visualize scenes I’m describing and put it on paper. That’s totally different from photography.
“And it’s a lot longer process than photography. With journalism, you could work on a story for a couple of hours or a couple of days. [Writing a novel] is a long, drawn out process.”
Apparently. Highly-acclaimed photographer Dean Wong finished a novel that he has been working on since the early 1980s. He didn’t know that it would turn into a novel back then, but he began putting down his memories of growing up in Chinatown during the 1960s.
“When Greg Tuai started donating computers to the International Examiner, I was going there and writing down all my childhood memories, of different people, characters, situations and things like that. I ended up with 16 single-spaced pages of things I remembered. Why did I do that? Probably because I figured I would forget it if I didn’t write it down. And I figured I would do something with it someday.”
Thirty years later, he’s looking for a publisher of his crime novel, “Little Three Grand”, which takes place in Seattle’s Chinatown in 1965, a period in which illegal gambling was tolerated because, Wong says, police took bribes to look the other way.
It’s full of colorful characters: Kwok Lee, an enforcer “hatchetman” in the Fook Sing Gambling Parlor; Sonny “Six Pack” Cooper, the antagonist small time criminal involved in the mugging/purse snatching of Mrs. Woo; Cow Grandfather, the wise man with a proverb to deal with every aspect of life; and 20-year-old cab driver trainee Danny, who witnesses all that is going on, like Dean Wong once did (and still does).
In the early 1990s, Wong started to teach himself to expand his writing, “with the help of copy editors at the Examiner.” It was only five years ago that Wong felt comfortable sketching out scenes and dialogues. “These writings were all based on myself,” he said. “In the writing I call myself Danny, so this was all based on Danny being an 8-year-old.”
But he was stumped plot-wise until he changed Danny into a 20-year-old. “I could put him into more adult situations. And it was about the same time that I was able to write dialogue that was partly based on things I remembered, and things that I made up.
“Once I figured out a plot, it was pretty easy to write. There are chapters, where I’d sit there and I’d have it done in an hour. It kept flowing out really easily. I was able to figure out twists and turns for the characters.”
Count on Wong to continue to figure out the twists and turns on his writing career.
Writer: “Why did you want to write? Why a crime story?”
DW: “Well, I learned to write journalism. I think I became pretty good at it. And this is just another area that I wanted to conquer.”
Writer: “When you say conquer, you’re suggesting it’s a battle.”
DW: “Oh, it is a battle. It’s a thirty year process. I haven’t worked on it for 30 years, but I started 30 years ago. I have a long ways to go as a writer. I don’t think I have the skills to write my life story, about my upbringing, my culture and what it means to be a Chinese American, but one thing I realized when I started to come up with a plot was, I do read mystery novels. I watched enough television and film to understand crime stories. That’s why I wrote a crime story, because that’s the easiest thing for me to do.”