Janis Butler Holm

An Interview with Multigenre Author Lucy Wang

Support for this project comes from the California Arts Council, a state agency,
and from the National Arts and Disability Center at the University of California Los Angeles.

Lucy Wang is an award-winning published and produced writer. Her plays have been performed throughout the U.S. and abroad. Her poetry and prose have appeared in literary and trade magazines. Upon learning that Wang sold a half-hour TV comedy pilot, feminist icon Gloria Steinem urged her to do stand-up–which was so exhilarating that Wang developed and performed two one-woman shows to sold-out audiences. Her manuscripts are archived at the Huntington Library.

Holm:  In Los Angeles, you’re known primarily as a dramatist and performance artist. You’ve also published poetry, fiction, and award-winning journalism, to say nothing of filmscripts and pilots. Before we talk about your art, though, can we talk about your background? What took you to New York City before coming to L.A.?

Wang:  New York, New York, seduced me with Wall Street. When you grow up poor, the rags-to-riches dream that a career in finance offers is irresistible. Of course, it helps immensely if the markets fascinate you. My father carpooled with a colleague, and that colleague always gave me his Wall Street Journal at the end of the day. He would engage me, too, in a way my father never did, asking me what I thought about the market, who/what I would bet on, and why. Because of his interest in me, I followed the financial markets at an early age. I had an imaginary portfolio where I’d track my stock-picking abilities. And, believe me, imaginary profits can be quite a motivating force when your stomach is growling!

On our first trip to New York, I begged my father to take us to see the stock market and A Chorus Line. I was hooked and decided that one day I was going to live in “The City That Never Sleeps”–which I’ve also come to know as “The City So Nice They Charge You Twice.”

When I was an M.B.A. student at the University of Chicago’s Booth Graduate School of Business, I worked part-time conducting research at the Chicago Board of Trade. I learned about all sorts of sophisticated financial instruments, a whole new world and vocabulary compared to my childhood days. Shortly after I graduated, I moved to New York with my freshly minted M.B.A. to trade mortgage-backed securities and was the first woman on my trading desk. It was exhilarating, exhausting, and exasperating. To escape the pressures and stress, I treated myself to the theatre, spending most of my disposable income seeing shows on and off-Broadway. I had no idea I wanted to be playwright, but, looking back, I can see I was earning my M.F.A.-equivalent, one show at a time.

Holm:  Did you write before getting your M.B.A.?

Wang:  I always loved reading and writing, but, as struggling immigrants from Taiwan, my parents insisted I had only three career options: doctor, physician, or M.D. Money was indeed scarce, so I wrote on the side and in secret to keep the peace. If, however, a particular writing contest came with a cash prize, I was allowed to enter. My winnings only encouraged me to write more.

I started writing poetry and short stories because my love affair with the arts began with literature. My goal was to write a novel, but aspiring writers are often advised to submit short stories to literary magazines in hopes of attracting credentials, readership, and an agent So I wrote short stories and poetry as a preliminary move toward something bigger.

Later, I found writing after a demanding day job very difficult, so I joined a writers’ group in New York for support and motivation. I knew at some point I would have to turn in pages and risk feedback–or get out. One day, after we read my short story “Number One Son,” the group praised my dialogue and said this story would make a terrific play. Turns out my writers’ group was right. As drama, “Number One Son” was a finalist for the L. Arnold Weissberger Award the following year.

Holm:  And why did you move to L.A.?

Wang:  What brought me to California? Love. My spouse was accepted into Stanford Law School, and he couldn’t say no. He dragged me to the Golden State, kicking and screaming. I hated it the first year because I had to start over as a law-school widow, but we soon found ourselves California dreaming. Once my husband graduated, we moved to Los Angeles.

When you’re a writer in L.A., it’s inevitable that someone will ask you if you write for TV or film. You soon learn that almost everyone you know has a screenplay or a TV pilot idea, and you wonder: why not me? I adapted Bird’s Nest Soup into Young Americans, which placed as a finalist at Sundance. I’m currently adapting another play into a financial thriller. One day I met a manager who represented famous comedians, and he asked me about my childhood. When I regaled him with stories of how difficult it was to grow up Asian American in Akron, Ohio, he laughed his head off. He was the first to insist I was a comedian, and he urged me to turn my Ohio tales into a half-hour comedy, which I eventually sold to a major TV network.

Holm:  When did you commit to life as a writer and performer? Was there a specific motivating life event, or did you make the move gradually?

Wang:  When Mayor David N. Dinkins lost his job, I lost mine–as Deputy Chief of Staff to the Deputy Mayor of Finance and Economic Development.

I loved working at City Hall, where my responsibilities were nearly as diverse as the city’s population. Never a dull moment and always challenging, trying to please all the taxpayers and visitors to the Big Apple. I met a lot of greats, including Nelson Mandela and Bill and Hillary Clinton.

I used to joke that I owe my writing career to Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Finding myself unemployed at the end of a year, December of 1993, was very difficult for the mind and the wallet. Ishmael Reed always said that writing is fighting, so I followed his advice. I wrote my first play in January of 1994, and that play, Junk Bonds, won an award from the Kennedy Center.

The play caught the attention of Hubert Herring at the New York Times. Herring wrote a two-page profile of me that included three photos and landed me on the cover of the business section. My doorman told me he was proud of me. Strangers called to invite me to Thanksgiving dinner and asked to represent me. My mother-in-law stopped sending me classifieds. Everyone said I had it made–all the news that’s fit to print—and, my mistake, I believed them.

My first few years as a playwright were lucrative, relatively speaking (for an artist, not for a bond trader), as well as productive, so I was optimistic. I thought that as long as I worked hard, I would survive. I had no idea that making a living and sustaining an artistic career would prove to be so challenging. And, of course, there were no Internet, no bloggers, no Amazon at that point. Even now, in the gig economy, I’m juggling three to four jobs at one time–if I’m lucky.

The struggle is real. Too real. Artists have to be resourceful in order to survive. I love to write and welcome any opportunity to write, improve my craft, and explore new ideas.

That’s why I’ve written in so many genres. Stories can be told many ways, but some stories dictate the form where they resonate most.

Holm:  You recently won an award from the American Society of Healthcare Publication Editors, based on your writing for the American Journal of Nursing. How does a person with an M.B.A. and a passion for drama find her way into medical journalism?

Wang:  People often express surprise when they learn I’m a healthcare journalist. They question my credentials. “Are you a doctor? A nurse?” A friend recommended me for a freelance writing assignment, and the news editor at AJN gave me a chance. She liked the diversity of my writing resumé and assumed my experience on Wall Street and City Hall meant I could work under pressure and meet deadlines. The rest is, as they say, herstory–I’ve been writing for them, whenever I can, since 2014.

Medicine makes excellent drama. That’s why there are so many medical shows on network and cable TV. The public seems to love these stories. Of course, when I write for AJN, I’m writing the news. I’m challenging another part of my brain. To write without drama, without hyperbole. To write with precision, economy, and truth. I have to fact-check and supply proof for every sentence in my article. Most of my articles are limited to 350 words, which forces me to distill complex issues to their essence. These assignments have provided me with great editorial tools and a finer appreciation for writers who make every word count.

I feel fortunate that my editor assigns a broad range of topics and keeps me aware of the health issues facing our country. I’ve written about veteran suicide, border crises, gun violence, homelessness, Native Americans, infectious diseases, the Affordable Care Act, nonconsensual sexting among young adults. My award was for reporting on opioids use and abuse, which remains a national public health crisis, even as Covid-19 dominates our headlines. You never know–one of these topics might end up in a future play.

Holm:  While in New York (and thereafter), you did stand-up comedy and two very successful one-woman shows, Chinese Girls Don’t Swear and It Ain’t Easy Being Chinesey. What led you to perform? Who inspired you? How does your ancestry figure in your work?

Wang:  Theatres often lamented that they loved my work but could not cast my plays. “We have no Asian American actors.” “We have no Native American actors.” We have no _______.”

Sometimes a theatre would ask, “Do you want to perform in your own play?” I always refused, as I’m no actor. Performing was out of the question until I met Gloria Steinem when we were both writers-in-residence at Hedgebrook on Whidbey Island. Gloria mistook me for a comedian. She laughed at all my jokes. She encouraged me to share more stories. So, when a legendary feminist icon thinks you’re funny and dares you to stand in the spotlight, you listen.

I took a stand-up comedy class at Flappers University and forced myself to get up in front of the mic once a week to tell jokes. It was addicting, a huge adrenaline rush, but the idea of performing my own one-woman show was too scary.

What was scarier: watching a few actors butcher my comic monologues at festivals. I get it. If you’re not paid or you’re paid little, my monologue falls to the bottom of your to-do list. After one too many botched cold performances, my spouse turned to me and said, “You have to do this.”

So I started performing my monologue Down There. It always brought down the house, and people started asking for more material, which meant I had to write more. Chinese Girls Don’t Swear evolved into It Ain’t Easy Being Chinesey. I performed these shows in Los Angeles, New York, and my hometown of Akron.

Holm:  And speaking of performance, you’ve worked as a teacher in multiple venues across the country: high schools, universities, community centers, and arts groups. You’re now teaching online at E-script. What do you like about teaching creative writing? What is the most important takeaway for your students?

Wang:  I love teaching, helping others find their voice and vision, blossom as writers. My students tell me I don’t just teach creative writing. I teach success. I don’t have the coveted M.F.A.–writing was a second career for me–so one of the most important takeaways for my students is do not let anyone squash your voice, push you to the margins. It takes hard work, dedication, craft, luck, and some measure of ingenuity, but, bottom line, you have a voice, your voice is a gift, and your voice matters.

Holm:  Of your numerous awards and residencies, which have been most satisfying? How have they affected your writing?

Wang:  Awards are always nice, I have to admit. They’re like icing on the cake–validation always tastes sweet. Awards and residencies are morale and career boosters. Let’s face it: a career in the arts is fraught with a lot of disappointment and rejection. You lose more than you win, so when you win something, it’s important to savor that moment, take full advantage.

When I’ve been lucky enough to be accepted for an artistic residency, my whole face lights up. Eric Bogosian noticed this phenomenon when he chose me to be part of Bogo Rep at the Atlantic Center for the Arts. He said, “Lucy, do you know you’re always smiling?”

I was in shock. “I am? I am!”

I was tickled pink when I was in residence at Hedgebrook, Djerassi, MacDowell. To be somewhere where the staff cares for you and your work, provides you meals and lodging. I rarely put myself first, and these artistic residencies free me to create.

Holm:  Given the various genres in which you write, do you find it tricky to move between them? Or do they interconnect and inform one another? Do you favor one genre in particular? Is one much easier for you than another?

Wang:  All good writing is hard. A friend once told me on most days he’d rather suck gas than write. Every writer I know loves having written but writing, well, not so much. It’s a constant battle. You face a blank page that dares you to fill it with meaning and beauty. Your elegant query letters are met with rejection or indifference. And now there’s a pandemic usurping your creative juices. Even when you’ve written something you’re proud of, you have no idea if it will ever live to grace the stage, the screen, or the bookshelf. And even if it does get released for public consumption, will you be celebrated and critically acclaimed?

Writing for AJN has definitely made me a better writer. Cut out unnecessary words; stay focused, lean and mean. Screenwriting has taught me to think more visually and to activate the senses. What/how does it smell, look, sound? I always outline screenplays and teleplays because structure is critical. I am in the process of adapting one of my plays into a screenplay, and to make it work, I had to divorce the play. It was quite painful, but luckily my mentors Robin Swicord and Nina Sadowsky were there to cheer me on and lead the way.

I met with a literary agent shortly after a performance of Chinese Girls Don’t Swear in New York, and she told me that my show would make a great young-adult novel. She loved my sense of humor; she loved the title and thought sharing my story would inspire and empower young teens everywhere. Write a book!

Thus began my journey into the world of YA fiction. My first draft was incredibly short because I was accustomed to writing plays. Economy of speech. I had to laugh at the irony: I had started out writing fiction, and now I had lost those muscles. Would have to retrain and reacquaint myself with the elements of fiction. Write more drafts. Read more books.

I never abandoned literature and am still a voracious reader. Marie Kondo would likely be horrified to see how many books clutter my house because not all my books spark joy. Some of them spark agita, as in “Read me! Finish me! Learn something!” So, yes, here’s hoping that someday very soon I can find literary representation and add “novelist” to my resumé.

Holm:  Do you have an artists’ community that supports your work?

Wang:  Los Angeles is a sprawling metropolis, so the first thing I remember doing here is joining the Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights. L.A. is famous for its film and TV industry, but there’s a lot of theatre, as well.

ALAP offers playwrights community; I’ve made some wonderful friends over the years. ALAP also offers resources to navigate the local theatre scene and opportunities to improve or showcase your craft. I’m a lifetime member and recommend that everyone become a lifetime member so that we can continue to support theatre and each other.

Holm:  Have you published your plays?

Wang:  Thanks for asking, Janis. My work is published by Original Works Publishing, YouthPLAYS, One Act Play Depot, Applause Books, Meriwether Publishing, and you can even buy some of them on Amazon.

My plays have been performed all over the country and abroad in London and Dubai.

Some plays remain unpublished because publication is a double-edged sword. So many theatres refuse to consider work that has been previously produced or published. But it’s outrageous to think that a play is good only for “one-time” use. Can you imagine if Shakespeare’s plays were performed only once? The playwriting community is trying to change this policy one theatre at a time, and I’m happy to report that some theatres are now willing to consider plays that have been previously produced, as long as those productions occurred many miles away.

Publications also pose another problem–namely, sales. So often we think of publication as an end goal, but it marks the beginning of a new goal: revenue. Very few people “read” plays, and those who do often want free copies. For this reason, last year one of my publishers closed shop. So sad. I’m still grieving that loss and trying to process what to do next.

Holm:  Are you conscious of theme and plot when you begin to write a play, or do you start with dialogue and see where it takes you? Do you outline? What are the major themes in your work? With which plays are you particularly happy?

Wang:  I rarely outline when I start writing a play because the excitement of discovery is what propels me to face the blank page. I’m never sure in my first draft where my characters are going to lead me. I want to be free and open to the voices that inevitably emerge. Free to change course. I do everything I can to keep writing a joy, which includes adopting Hemingway’s trick into my routine.

Hemingway advised writers always to leave something on the table to entice us to come back the next day. I learned that when I have a really great writing day and completely exhaust the creative reservoir, the following day is usually a “waste.” But on days I quit a beat or two ahead of myself, I wake the next day wanting to finish where I left off. That compulsion forces you to log on and resume your battle with blank pages and messy ideas.

Students often ask me where I get play ideas. Anywhere I can. Listen, read, observe, experience. An article in the New York Times Sunday magazine about a First Nations woman’s unsolved murder inspired My Aim Is True. A New Yorker article about organ transplants inspired Concerto for an Organ in B-Sharp. One of the reasons I miss New York dearly is that the city set my imagination on fire. The subway didn’t just transport passengers–it transported stories. Curiosity is the best travel guide.

Holm:  What makes a work identifiably a Lucy Wang work?

Wang:  Well, a friend told me that he found two things prevalent in all my work. Strong female characters. And comedy. He might be right. I write strong female characters because I want to see more strong female characters represented.Most of my plays are comedic. Dramedies, dark comedies, family comedies, romantic comedies. Comedy is revolutionary. You can’t force people to think something is funny if they don’t. We all know what canned laughter sounds like. I’ve found I could change people’s minds with comedy because comedy is as disarming as it is welcoming. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to laugh and laugh more. I don’t think laughter is the best medicine, but it’s pretty damn close.

Much of my work is dedicated to activism and social justice. Junk Bonds won the award from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays and Best New Play with social, political, economic significance from the Katherine and Lee Chilcote Foundation. The play chronicles the brutal struggles an Asian American woman faces on Wall Street. Two Artists Trying to Pay Their Bill is a comical look at how artists are expected to give their work away for free and still support themselves. This short won an international comedy prize and inclusion in The Best Ten-Minute Plays 2020 anthology. Down There is a hilarious biting monologue that shows how many languages are sexist and inform legislation, as well as how we feel about our bodies. My current work-in-progress, Fill or Kill. focuses on what happens to a woman when she fails to do the dirty job she was hired to fill.

I also write for youth because we need to attract young audiences and we need to see more inclusive roles. I remember how humiliated I was when my high school drama teacher refused to let me audition for Lil Abner. “There are no Asians in Dogpatch.” I’ve written some audition monologues for Asian American youth, Pretty for an Asian Girl, No Joy No Luck, and My Superpower. Excerpts from my play Teen Mogul are being used in the classroom as part of StudySync. A conservatory for Orthodox Jewish girls commissioned me to write plays about them so these young women could present their stories. Thurberific made its debut at the Caesar Ford Theatre this past September and starred a nine-year-old as a young James Thurber.

Holm:  To what extent are your talents and interests the product of overcoming difficulties in your past?

Wang:  This is a tough question. I’d better follow Oprah’s advice and stick to What I Know for Sure. I grew up poor. No money, no love. My father beat us; my mother abandoned us. I’ve had to pick myself up by the bootstraps and believe in myself when no one else has. I’ve often been underestimated and marginalized because I lack the ungodly sums of money, the expected credentials, and the rich connections that help so many in the arts. So I write about the outsiders, the less visible, the less fortunate, and the changemakers. Theatre should belong to everyone, so I write roles that include and invite nontraditional casting.

Holm:  Do you work better with deadlines? What feeds the muse? Do you do a lot of revision?

Wang:  Before Covid-19, deadlines were merely frenemies. During the pandemic, however, deadlines are necessary, a godsend. Currently there are too many days when the news is so depressing and debilitating that the last thing I want to do is write. I’m filled with too much anxiety and dread. Having a deadline forces me to turn off the news, focus, and fight. The fact that I’ve always met my deadlines means the fear of missing one adds extra pressure and extra motivation.

My muse is a perpetual wonderer and wanderer. I wonder what this character is thinking or feeling. What happens if we wander down this road? Wonder what would happen if…? Sometimes my muse leads me somewhere dark, and I’ll do what I can to flee momentarily–squirm, grab a snack, scroll through social media–but there’s no true escape. She keeps dragging me there, burning me with her curiosity. Sooner or later, I give into the wonder, and I wander, search for the light. That’s why I think my muse is a goddess; she always persists.

My first drafts usually come out fast and whole because I’ve spent so much time thinking about the story before the actual writing. Thinking is writing, I tell my students, which makes them happy. But when I warn them that a lot of writing is rewriting, that news is met with groans. I try to lift their spirits by sharing that I rewrite a lot. As did Neil Simon, Tennessee Williams, and Oscar Wilde.

Some stories are far easier to write than others. Some words are much funnier than others. Some comedies need to evolve. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld told the New York Times that being funny is hard work. “If it takes me three years, I’ll wait. If I love a joke, I’ll wait.”

It’s crucial to do whatever it takes. To give each story the time it deserves and needs. To be kind to yourself in the process and not beat yourself up in the process. Great works take time and revision. And…who knows? You might be handsomely rewarded for your work ethic and natural talent.

Holm:  Have there been periods in your life when you weren’t able to write?

Wang:  I was in New York City, near Ground Zero, on 9/11. I was supposed to dog-sit for friends in their penthouse apartment on 14th Street. Instead, we watched from their balcony as the towers fell. I lost a lot of former colleagues and friends that day, including my former mentor on Wall Street. It was the first time I realized that the arts saved my life.

I spent the next two weeks looking for “lost” friends and helping those trapped in Manhattan. My friends’ penthouse apartment served as a crisis center. I couldn’t write after those devastating losses. With all the canceled productions in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, writing seemed purposeless.

It wasn’t until I met Eric Bogosian–we spoke for the first time on 9/11–that I wrote another full-length play. He told me I had to write about my experience, and we workshopped that together, as a company lovingly called BogoRep, at the Atlantic Center for the Arts. I emerged from that residency with Good Mourning, America, which was a finalist for the O’Neill Conference. Given what is happening to our country now, I am very tempted to revisit and rewrite that play. Oscar Wilde hit the nail on the head: plays are never finished, only abandoned.

Holm:  The recent pandemic has created multiple obstacles for theatre, and dramatists are scrambling to make sense of this very different world that none of us wanted. How will you continue to make art during and after Covid-19?

Wang:  I’m finding it very difficult to write creatively right now. My father-in-law is 92, and I’m not sure when I’ll be able to visit next. It’s frightening. Like many others, I’ve had shows canceled, trips canceled, and sources of income dry up. Meanwhile, the bills keep adding up, piling on the anxiety. I didn’t realize how social I was until we couldn’t go anywhere, so isolation exacts its pound of flesh, as well.

Covid-19 has spawned a proliferation of Zoom readings and DIY videos. I was asked to write a one-minute play about Covid-19, and I thought, okay, one minute–you can do this. I did; it was performed; it was a comedy.

Similar thing happened when I saw a submission opportunity for the ALAP/City of West Hollywood Pride Festival. I challenged myself to enter the contest and was thrilled when The Dawning of the Age of Ganymede was chosen. It was a lot of fun, exploring how to present this short comedy on a virtual platform. Grateful to have a creative outlet during the pandemic, my cast and director went above and beyond. We had a blast.

Resuming work on larger, more ambitious projects has been more challenging during these dark times. It can feel pointless, ludicrous to write when theatres across the United States are closed until further notice–and so many theatres/businesses are shutting permanently. I need paying work.

Soon after I joined a writers’ group, Governor Newsom ordered a lockdown. After weeks of meeting virtually and providing feedback but no pages, it was time for me to make a decision. Although the group never pressured me, I questioned the wisdom of staying, given I wasn’t writing. It was a very close call. I’m glad I ended up submitting old pages. The group helped me fall back in love with my characters and story, and renewed a sense of urgency to finish.

Holm:  Thank you, Lucy, for sharing your time and energy for this interview during a period of such hardship and uncertainty. I’m looking forward to viewing your next play.

Wang:  Thank you, Janis. I appreciate the opportunity to talk about my work and look forward to learning more about yours. I hope we can celebrate life and art when the pandemic is over.


About the interview:
This activity was supported in part by the California Arts Council, a state agency, and the National Arts and Disability Center at the University of California Los Angeles.

About the interviewer:
Janis Butler Holm has served as Associate Editor for Wide Angle, the film journal, and currently works as a writer and editor in sunny Los Angeles. Her prose, poems, and performance pieces have appeared in small-press, national, and international magazines. Her plays have been produced in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.

Images: Portrait images courtesy of Lucy Wang.

Image (page header): Comedian’s Handbill by Paul Klee (1879-1940). Gouache on newsprint, mounted on cardboard. 21.4 x 14.2 inches. 1938. Public domain.