Interview#19…Matthew Polly, author #BruceLee: A Life

As a young girl when I was asked who my favourite star was, I would say Bruce Lee.  While others in my year at school would like Wham or in later years Bros (showing my age), mine was still Bruce Lee, even now as a woman in her mid-40’s, it’s Bruce Lee.  I wonder what it is about the Dragons of Hong Kong (Bruce Lee and John Lone) that have inspired me so much – sounds like a future blog piece!

Introduced to many things by my older brother away from the eyes of my parents (The Young Ones, Monkey etc) I will be forever grateful to him that I got to see Enter the Dragon at an early age and the magic set in and stayed until I moved to Hong Kong in my 20’s to experience life there myself.

I was hesitant to buy this book, Bruce Lee: A Life by Matthew Polly,  I wondered if its revelations (Bruce’s alleged affairs and drug use) would take the shine off my childhood idol and leave me disappointed.  However, what I was left with was tears (as normal) but a realisation that the Little Dragon was, and always will be, a complete human being, faults and all. His life, although short, impacted the world with such force and it’s been perfectly captured in this book – its essential read for any Bruce Lee fan.

Matthew kindly accepted my request to answer 10 Q’s on his writing process behind this book.

10 Q’s

First of all, congratulations on this book – for all Bruce Lee fans (including myself) it’s a treat to be able to read new accounts of his life from different sources.  Did you feel the books already published didn’t give such an open, honest view?

Matthew: The reason I decided to write this book is because the only Lee biography still in print was 25 years old and poorly written. I felt insulted that my childhood hero, who had fundamentally altered the course of my life for the better, didn’t have a proper biography. My view is the best way to honor our heroes is to tell the truth about them. If you love someone, you are supposed to love them flaws and all. I think the biggest mistake previous books about Bruce Lee made is they leaned into his public image—Bruce Lee: Kung Fu God. Anything that didn’t fit that archetype had to be edited out of his story or else the image would fall apart. What I realized is Bruce was an actor who fell in love with the martial arts and then merged those two passions to become the person we think of today.

If you understand him as an actor first, then his “flaws” are perfectly understandable.

In 1960’s Hollywood, he smoked a little dope, had a few flings, and spent too much money on a flashy sports car. Compared to his buddy Steve McQueen, Bruce was a prude. It is only in comparison to the saintly white-washed legend that has been carefully cultivated over the last forty-five years that anything I discovered for my book seems even remotely scandalous.

You have two biographical books American Shaolin (Matthew’s experience living and training with Shaolin Monks in China) and Tapped Out (His return to training for MMA). Would you say writing about your own life is easier or not?  

Matthew: It is much easier to be funnier about your own life. I can be self-deprecating about myself and everyone laughs. If I were to make a joke at Lee’s expense, a lot of hardcore fans would blast me on social media. So to write this book I had to dampen my sense of humor and I also had to remove myself from the narrative as much as possible. Whenever I was tempted to be clever or show-off as an author, I reminded myself, “This book is about Bruce, not you.”

Bruce Lee: A Life – took you years of research – how long exactly and how did you get started on this epic account of Bruce’s life?

Matthew: It took seven years. I spent six months in Hong Kong and another six months in L.A., Seattle, etc. conducting over 100 interviews with family, friends, students, and colleagues. I started the project by pitching one aspect of Bruce’s life as a magazine article. Playboy agreed to let me write a “behind the scenes” account of the making of Enter the Dragon for the 40th anniversary of the movie’s release. Warner Bros. was putting out a new Blu-Ray edition of the movie, so they saw my article as beneficial and got behind it. As a result, I had fairly easy access to everyone involved with that movie who was still alive. Once I did all those interviews and research and wrote the article, I had the legitimacy to transition to a full biography.

Do you have a specific writing method? E.g. x pages a day

Matthew: I wish I did. I have writer friends who are very disciplined. They write for 3 hours every morning and then go off and do whatever for the rest of the day. I hate them. I’m what’s called “a bleeder.”

I have to open a vein to write. I’ll do anything to avoid it: clean the house, play video games, anything.

And then after several days or sometimes weeks I’ll feel so ashamed and tortured that I’ll write a huge chunk in a flurry of guilt. One of my wife’s friends said to her, “It must be nice to have a husband who is an author. He works form home. He has a lot of flexibility.” My wife burst out laughing.

Did you encounter writers block or stumbling blocks at all while compiling this book? How do you deal with this?

Matthew: I’ve never spent this much time writing a book. My previous ones took 3-4 years each. This took seven. It was like running a marathon. About half way through I got really sick of Bruce Lee and wasn’t able to work on it for about half a year. Just little dribs and drabs. Eventually my passion came back and I fell in love with the project again. The one advantage I had was I am an obsessive personality. Biographies are the coal mining of literature. You have to dig and dig and dig. You have to be obsessed about getting every detail correct. Fear that I would get something obvious wrong and all the Lee fans would dismiss the entire book because of a few stupid mistakes drove me to keep digging.

Was there a specific author that inspired you to write?

Matthew: My favorite book as a teenager was James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as Young Man. I always wanted to write as beautifully as Joyce. I still do.

I feel Bruce, as do many others, was well ahead of his time in all aspects. His philosophical studies and teachings, to me, are as important as what else he brought to the world.  What else do you think he could have contributed in terms of ground-making film or martial arts.

Matthew: One of the offers Bruce had on the table at the end of his life was to make a movie with Sophie Loren. To this day, no Chinese actor has ever played a romantic lead with a white actress in a Hollywood movie. In Enter the Dragon, Bruce broke down the stereotype that Asian males were physically inferior.

If he had lived, he would have broken down the stereotype that they are sexually unattractive to any woman who is not Asian.

But beyond what he would have done as an actor, I think one of the biggest tragedies of his early death is what we lost in terms of what he would have achieved as a director. At the end of his life he was already shifting to becoming a filmmaker. I think he would have introduced a great deal more about Asian culture and Asian talent, like Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan, to the West as a director and producer of films. If he had lived, I believe his career would have more resembled Clint Eastwood’s and we would think of him as a great filmmaker first and a talented martial artist/action star second.

Your book highlighted the privileged and often cruel life of people living in British colonial Hong Kong. In this type of environment do you think it was oddly enough an ideal breeding ground for those like Bruce Lee who were highly driven to succeed?

Matthew: One of the great drivers of ambition is resentment, and the Chinese living a Hong Kong were extremely resentful of being ruled by the British. Bruce’s success is emblematic of the rise of Hong Kong in particular and then later of mainland China. The Chinese are an extremely prideful people with a 100-year chip on their shoulders. Bruce didn’t want to just be a successful movie actor; he wanted to be the biggest star in the world, bigger than Steve McQueen.

You make a good point that it is unlikely he would have had that kind of out-sized ambition if he hadn’t grown up around people who felt downtrodden and done wrong by history.

As human beings, we naturally look towards ‘idols’ – as much as Bruce hated the word ‘star’ – many over the world look up to him (and still do) – do you think your books revelations make him less of a star and more as a human being?

Matthew: My son is 3. He adores Spiderman. When I was a kid, Bruce Lee was my superhero. As we become adults, we realize even our heroes have flaws. That’s what makes them interesting. After doing all the research, I found Bruce to be an even more admirable than I did when I was a kid and thought he was perfect. It was the flaws in himself and in the societies he grew up in that make him a man worth looking up to, because he had a daunting struggle to overcome them to achieve what he did in such a short period of time.

Matthew, would you be tempted to write fiction? What’s next for you?

Matthew: I admire my friends who write novels but I don’t envy them. It’s a tough gig. Personally I find reality interesting and weird enough that I don’t feel compelled to write fiction yet, but maybe someday.

I’ve been thinking about people I might write about, but it is not easy to fine someone worthy of the time and effort after Bruce. There aren’t many people as compelling.

Matthew, thank you for answering my questions and thank you too for such an incredible book about Bruce’s life – when I thought I had seen and read everything about Bruce – I really hadn’t!


American Shaolin

Tapped Out

Dedicating this post to my brother plus to Linda Lee, a woman of supreme strength.

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