Instead of “Stealing” Buddha’s Dinner, I Optioned It by Jenna Finwall Ryan
One bookworm took her love for Bich Minh Nguyen’s coming-of-age-memoir, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, a step further…she’s turning it into a movie.
Several dozen Kit-Kat candy bars ago on what would eventually turn out to be a “fateful” day, I attended a memoir panel at the Los Angeles Times
Festival of Books. One of the panelists was a new author promoting her debut book, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner. The title piqued my interest, as did Vietnamese immigrant Bich Minh Nguyen’s quirky struggle to find her identity among U.S. pop culture during the life-affirming 80s. Weeks after the
festival while shopping at my favorite hipster used bookstore, I found a beautiful first edition hardcover copy of the author’s Judy Blume-endorsed memoir. Price: seven dollars. I paid in cash then scurried over to the Upright Citizen’s Brigade next door for a comedy show. I can’t tell you who the headliners were that night or recall any of their jokes because I was too consumed with fear of forgetting Nguyen’s book, stowed away under my seat.
Luckily, I ended up remembering the book and immediately delved in. I time-travelled back as Nguyen searched for her identity within Pringles potato
chip cans and the epic synth-pop drum machine of Erasure. The book consumed me from the first unnaturally-shaped potato chip to the last imitation drum beat of one of my own favorite bands. Not only is Stealing Buddha’s Dinner a love letter to junk food and the music of the 80s, it’s also a universal story about trying to fit in and not measuring up. The author’s fascination with American pop culture is at once nostalgic and humorous. The way she parallels her lust for tasty treats with her experience as an outsider mirrored my own struggles to fit in with my childhood peers in my affluent suburb of Chicago.
The author and I coincidentally came of age at the same time and just 150 miles apart. While she was trying to pitch the merits of peer-approved Wonder Bread to her step-mother Rosa—the gatekeeper of the Nguyen family pocketbook—I was begging my mom for designer Guess jeans and a hideous men’s rugby shirt that my fellow classmates wore with over-sized confidence. At our tender pre-pubescent age, these were no ordinary feats and it should surprise no one that we both routinely failed in our efforts to persuade. And while Bich Minh Nguyen never wished to completely eschew her Vietnamese roots and homeland cuisine, she did enjoy indulging in the pre-packaged American snacks she put on a pedestal or at the feet of Buddha. These culinary coups weren’t easy for young Bich so she often had to get creative. By either scoring invites to friends’ sacred American dinnertime rituals or—in one thrilling passage from the book—breaking and entering, the author of Stealing Buddha’s Dinner made sure the demands of her sweet tooth were met, no matter the consequences.
Likewise, when back-to-school shopping veered too far from the department stores carrying my well-dressed peers’ wardrobes, I too found inventive ways to procure enough designer duds to avoid being relegated to pre-teen fringe. A Sunday trip to the mall with a friend and her physician father resulted in pizza and a free pair of Guess jeans. I couldn’t wait to wear them to school on Monday, but my mom was furious at me for accepting such an extravagant gift and threatened to make me give them back. Timepieces like a girlfriend’s Gucci watch with interchangeable bezels and boyfriends’ oversized Swatch watches were borrowed for indefinite periods of time or until we broke up, respectively. And when above-the-waist fashion was focal on crucial occasions like school picture day, friends’ denim shirts and shaker sweaters from The Limited were borrowed and sometimes returned—when they went out of style.
Bich Minh Nguyen’s childhood obsessions resonated with me, and I wanted badly to reach out to her. Memoirists share poignant private moments with their readers, and if done so successfully, can leave their audience feeling like they “know” the author personally. Wishing to close the gap on this one-sided dialogue, readers sometimes feel compelled to recount their own profound experiences with authors. I had an additional motivation for contacting Bich: I wanted to translate her amazing memoir to the screen.
I vowed to approach the author about this possibility once I had writing credits, figuring there was no way she’d entertain the idea of an adaptation with a newbie screenwriter. Years later, armed only with television research credits, I decided to contact her anyway. I shared an anecdote with her about my crusade to procure a Benetton rugby shirt (the one my friends wore and the one my mom eventually ruined in the washing machine) at my 10th birthday party. I greedily tore open birthday cards from my relatives—some of whom drove up to an hour or more to celebrate my entry into the double-digits. Once my bounty reached my $45-dollar target, I rudely excused myself from my own party to hightail it to the mall with two semi-reluctant accomplices: my younger cousin and my sister who had just gotten her driver’s license. Looking back, my teenaged sister who had just come of driving age was probably not all that reluctant to take the car out unchaperoned by an adult. Nevertheless, my partners-in-crime’s commitment to my self-centered mission was forever solidified at some point during the chorus of Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” which we blasted on the radio and shouted from the windows of my mother’s metallic blue Buick Skyhawk. When we arrived at the Benetton boutique, cash in hand, I was hardly disappointed that they were out of my preferred color of blue and I had to get the icky kelly green version. Cringe.
While the author of Stealing Buddha’s Dinner never owned this iconic train wreck piece of pre-teen fashion, she admitted she had coveted the same
exact one (although probably in blue). And even though I wasn’t a Vietnamese immigrant, we quickly realized that we both had similar fish-out-of-water stories and a shared sensibility that would help shepherd her book to the screen. The idea of optioning Stealing Buddha’s Dinner for a screenplay adaptation was no longer just a dream; it was now a possibility.
She referred me to her literary representation, the illustrious New York City book agent Nicole Aragi, to negotiate the details of the memoir option. This gave me serious trepidation and pause. I knew that Nicole repped famous authors like Jonathan Safran Foer and had even procured a landmark $500,000 advance for his debut novel Everything Is Illuminated. When Foer’s second novel, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar at the 2012 Academy Awards, some people encouraged me to abandon the idea of adapting Stealing Buddha’s Dinner altogether. Why would a superstar agent and beloved author Bich Minh Nguyen give adaptation rights to a still-emerging writer like me?
And, admittedly, the conversation was silent for a while, at times deafeningly so. Life went on, and I made sure I finished my psychology Ph.D. so that if—no when—the option did go through, I could commit my undivided attention to its adaptation. I was assured by a very good editor friend that the publishing world was notoriously slow. It was unclear as to whether she was telling me this because a) she was a very good friend or b) the
publishing world was indeed tortoise-like. So for good measure, I persistently sent the author’s agent regular email check-ins, possibly to the point of annoyance, and a photo of myself with her client Jonathan Safran Foer, snapped at a reading he did in Chicago seven years ago.
My check-in emails became more frequent in the run-up to a table read of my new television pilot . Afforded with such a unique opportunity, I hoped to break the news of the book option to my captive audience. Nicole sprung into action and heroically helped finalize the option deal the week before my event. After a lengthy 16-month negotiation, the day the contract was signed was an emotional one. Four years prior on that very day, I lost my
mother to breast cancer. I would be using a portion of my inheritance to purchase the rights to the book, and perhaps it was fitting that my triumphant close of the Stealing Buddha’s Dinner option was on the anniversary of my mother’s passing, assuring me without a doubt: mom approves. And finally,
that this was meant to be.
Jenna Finwall Ryan is an unrepped up-and-coming television and screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles. If you too approve of Jenna Finwall Ryan adapting Bich Minh Nguyen’s quirky love letter to 80s pop culture & junkfood while growing up as an outsider, you can follow its page-to-screen journey at Jenna’s website.
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