UW News

March 2, 2006

Prof Hollywood: Book makes film debut

UW faculty write books all the time, but it’s rare for one of them to be made into a movie. That’s what’s happened to Shawn Wong’s book, American Knees, and this month the movie begins a round of appearances at film festivals.

Wong, a professor of English and director of the UW Honors Program, wrote American Knees a decade ago in response to his late first wife’s plea to write something she could read on the beach.

“The other part of that,” Wong says wryly, “is, instead of one of those books you have to read with a highlighter pen in one hand.”

So Wong set out to write a novel he calls a romantic, erotic comedy, a book aimed at his wife and Asian American women like her. It took him a year to write the first 100 pages, but after his wife’s diagnosis and treatment for colon cancer, he finished the first draft of the book in a month.

American Knees had another source too, Wong says. One bleak winter quarter, one of his students in an Asian American literature class raised her hand and said, “How come every book we read in this class is depressing?”

“Yes,” another chimed in. “And how come it’s always grandma arriving in America? Let’s move it up a couple generations.”

American Knees does that too. It’s a contemporary story about race and ethnicity within relationships. It was published by Simon & Schuster and quickly became common on the syllabi of Asian American literature classes, though Wong says he never assigns his own work in his classes.

Within a year of the book’s publication, Wong received a letter from film producer Lisa Onodera, who wanted to make a film of the novel. The two met, and Wong quickly learned they had a previous connection. When Wong’s first book was published in 1974, Onodera’s father, a graphic artist, designed the cover.

But that wasn’t why he granted her the option. “I knew she would make the movie because she has made every movie she’s optioned,” Wong said. “She’s tenacious. As an author you just want to find somebody who wants to make the movie for the right reasons. She really believed in it. The rest is just patience.”

In this case 10 years of patience. That’s how long it took for Onodera, best known for a movie called Picture Bride, to raise the money needed to begin production. Wong is listed as an associate producer, which he says means, “Here’s some money, now go away and don’t bother us.” He didn’t see the film until near the end of production, when he spent two days on the set.

His reaction wasn’t what he’d expected. “I had already read the script, so I thought I would just go down there and stand on the sidelines and make a mental note, ‘Oh that’s from my book, that’s not from my book. That’s an interesting interpretation of the character,'” Wong said. “But when I first saw them — live actors acting out in front of me, my response was completely different than what I had prepared myself for. It was very emotional. These people only existed in my head, and here they were, fictional characters I created in the flesh doing all the things I had written about.”

The movie, Wong said, is faithful to the book, but it is not a comedy. The director, Eric Byler, chose to focus on the dramatic portions of the plot. But Wong calls the film “terrific,” and is becoming involved in the marketing of it — thus earning his associate producer title after all. Its premiere will be March 11 at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. The next week it will be at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, and at the end of March at the Chicago Asian American Film Showcase. Wong will speak at universities in San Francisco and Chicago in conjunction with those showings.

“It’s been entered in the Seattle International Film Festival, but we don’t know yet if it will get in,” Wong said. “If it doesn’t, we’ll show it here anyway.”

The film version is called Americanese, which refers back to the same thing the original title does. “When I was a child, kids used to come up to me and ask ‘What are you — Chinese, Japanese or Americanese?'” Wong said. “The other version of it is ‘Chinese, Japanese or dirty knees.’ I never really knew what that meant when I was kid, but I knew I didn’t like it.”

In the book, the expression is the main character’s first exposure to matters of race and racism. Wong said both book and movie explore race in a different way, by looking at it in a more intimate setting. What do you do, the story asks, about the subtle racism within a relationship or within a family?

American Knees went out of print at Simon & Schuster, but UW Press came to the rescue, reissuing the book last year. Now it becomes the first book the press has ever published that became a movie. Wong is hoping that at the film festivals, the movie version will find a distributor to bring the story to a wider audience.

“It’s funny,” he said. “I’ve published eight books, and even among people in a university, it’s like I’m validated because Hollywood made a movie of one of them. That makes me legitimate. It also makes me more hip to my students.”