"What a long, amazing journey it has been."
You’re originally from LaSalle, Illinois, which is part of the quintessential American Heartland John Mellencamp has made a career singing about. Now you split your time between South Korea and Laos. An obvious first question is, what brought that about?
A lot had to do with wanting to see some of the world after I graduated from graduate school in 1989. Having been a big fan of Gary Snyder and Ezra Pound, I set my sights on the Far East. At the same time, I was very interested in writers like Yusunari Kawabata, Kobe Abe, and Yukio Mishima, not to mention film director Akira Kurosawa, so I decided to teach English in Japan. I ended up teaching English at a small school in Hamamatsu, Japan for about one year. As I look back now, I see it impacted my writing a lot, just as much as studying Pynchon, Joyce, Steinbeck, Didion, and Cather in grad school.
It definitely made me more aware of my surroundings, the use of a new language, learning a new culture, and adapting to an entirely different lifestyle. There was a lot of sensory input which I would be able to draw upon one day. And of course, there was the romantic side of being overseas, of embarking on this great adventure, which after 22 years has never ceased to amaze me.
After a brief time back in the States, I returned to Asia, this time South Korea in 1990. Just as much as my time in Japan affected my writing style, the time I have spent in Korea gave me the chance to write—first as a feature writer for an English-language newspaper and blogger and then as a freelance writer and author. Without question, my development and maturity as a writer would not have happened had it not been for living in Japan and Korea.
Splitting my time between South Korea and Laos is by design, not choice. My family resides there for the time being (my wife is Laotian) and we have just built a house there. At some point they will join me here in Korea.
On the other hand, this could very well be the next chapter of my continual evolution as a writer when I finally decide to move there permanently. I am fascinated with Southeast Asia’s history and at some point, I would like to write a history of ancient capitals in the region. I am in awe of places like Angkor Wat, Luang Prabang (Laos), Ayutthaya, and Sukhothai (Thailand).
I’ve made a few big moves, geographically and culturally, and managed to stay in the US. I can’t even imagine what a shock it would be to move to Japan and South Korea. What changes were the hardest to adapt to?
It wasn’t that much of a shock. I’m a migratory bird by nature. I have two chapters in my memoirs, Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm which describes my first weekend in Seoul and how surreal it was to travel halfway around the world and, once I got to my apartment, just down the street from Olympic Stadium, to be able to watch David Letterman.
I enlisted in the U.S. Air Force while in high school and after I completed basic training and technical training school three short months after I graduated in 1976, I was sent to Panama where I spent the next two years. Although not the same when it comes to immersing one’s self into another culture, it laid the groundwork for future excursions overseas.
I believe I adapted quite well—language, food, notwithstanding—in the beginning and never really experienced any significant culture shock. I’ve always tried to keep an open mind about everything. Living in Japan was much harder than Korea because I lived in a small town where I had to learn Japanese if I was going to survive—from being able to buy kerosene for my heater or a bag of rice. On the other hand, living in Seoul was much easier, given the wide usage of English.
What were the biggest positives of the move?
The two most obvious ones (not including meeting my wife in 2006) were the chance to travel around Asia and the chance to write for the Korea Times. Had it not been the chance to write for the paper, I don’t think I would have stayed in Korea for as long as I have.
When I started writing for the newspaper as a feature writer, I “rediscovered” Korea. I think a lot of expats go through a series of peaks and valleys with living overseas. I was in one of those “valleys” toward the end of the 90s when I was feeling a little jaded and disillusioned with where my life was headed. Then all of a sudden, I am writing Op-Ed pieces and book reviews and the next thing I know, I am standing in line waiting to shake Kim Dae-jung’s hand during a ceremony to celebrate the Korea Times’ 50th anniversary on November 1, 2000.
In the past 21 plus years, I’ve got to see a little bit of the world and be a part of history. To paraphrase The Grateful Dead, “what a long, amazing journey it has been.”
You mentioned above that The Korea Times is the largest English-language newspaper in South Korea. Who is the primary audience for English language news in South Korea? What are some of the favorite feature stories you did while writing for them?
Back in 1998, when I first started submitting Op-ed pieces and later in 2000, when I became a feature writer for the paper, there were only two English language newspapers in Korea. You have to remember that this was a time when the Internet was still in its infancy and blogs were still a few years away, so all expats got their news from these two papers. Additionally, a segment of the audience was also comprised of Korean readers, many who used the papers to improve their English, including former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung who was an avid reader of the Korea Times.
Without question, some of my favorite articles and the ones very near and dear to me, were the articles I wrote from 2000-2003 when I covered the Korean War commemorative events in South Korea, which became the inspiration and the basis for War Remains. I met many returning veterans and it was an honor to meet them and listen to them talk about their war time experiences. I’ll never forget interviewing Oscar Cortez, a former POW, on the way to Chipyong-ni, one of the battlefields of the war (that interview and others are featured in Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm).
Because of those articles, more doors were opened for me and soon I was flying into Panmunjom with CNN in a helicopter to write about the Joint Security Area, covering former President Jimmy Carter’s visit to Korea for Habitat for Humanity, and thanks to some articles I wrote about the U.S. Air Force, including a feature article about female F-16 pilots at an air base in Korea, I got the chance to fly in an F-16.
And what makes all of these stories interesting for readers in my recent book are the back stories for them. For example, when I flew down to Kunsan Air Base to interview the three pilots, it was the day after 9-11, so I describe what it was like hearing the news of 9-11 and then the next day, flying down to this air base and as far as I know, being the only civilian allowed on base (all the bases were locked down) to have my interview.
Some other favorite stories include, covering the 25th Anniversary of the 1976 Panmunjom Ax Murder Incident on the site where it occurred with North Korean guards watching us through binoculars, Yoko Ono’s first visit to Korea, an interview with the U.S. Second Infantry Division Commander, which included a lesson in tomahawk throwing, being a member of the press pool for President George Bush’s visit to Korea in 2002, and my interview with Johnny Grant, a USO entertainer during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, who later became the honorary mayor of Hollywood (he was the person who emceed all the Walk of Fame ceremonies).
How do you think this experience has helped (or hindered) you as an author?
Just as Hemingway perfected his craft as a writer by being a journalist, I also feel writing for a newspaper helped me to become a better writer. However, I was never any good at writing a news story and filing it in time to make a deadline. My style of writing was better suited for feature writing, or creative nonfiction. Interesting, there are parts of War Remains which have a sort of a feature story feel to them. I don’t think that was unintentional on my part; I think I was really trying to capture the feel of writing a feature story and discovering this so-called forgotten war like I did when I wrote those feature articles, and in many ways, mirrors how Michael also discovers the war in the course of the novel.
Without question, I cut my teeth as a writer for the newspaper the same way I did when I was in graduate school.
It also made me hungry for audience. Writing three or four articles a week, I knew there were people who were regularly reading my stuff. A couple of times on the subway, I saw people reading one of the articles I wrote. That was such a thrill for me to actually see someone reading something I had written.
You currently have four books, two short story collections, War Remains, your Korean War novel, and the last is a memoir. Tell us about each of these.
My first novel, War Remains came out in 2010. I wanted to write something for the 60th anniversary of the Korean War. Originally, I was going to compile all the articles I wrote, but when I re-read the interview I had with Oscar and another story about two men who were reunited after 50 years, I felt that there was something there—there was a story waiting to be told. In fact, when I started writing the novel, I saw it as a movie. I saw the beginning, a battle scene and I also saw the ending. That’s how I started to write the story.
I’m really proud of this novel. Not that it was my first one, but the story I tell with it. I wanted to call attention to the fact that this conflict has been wrongly referred to as a “forgotten war” and that for many families, the war has not ended. It is not a “war story” in the strictest sense of the term. It is just as much a novel about the battlefields of that forgotten war as it is about the home front and the aftermath of the war.
Last year I was honored by the Military Writers Society of America (MWSA) with two awards: Gold for Literary Fiction and Silver for the Korean War Book Award (the first year it was offered).
My second book, Invaders from Mars and Other Tales of Youthful Angst, is a collection of essays about growing up in America’s Midwest during the 1960s and 1970s. It is sort of like The Wonder Years meets Dave Barry and Bill Bryson. Many of the stories in this collection were originally blog posts, which I later revised and edited for this collection.
Damaged Goods is a collection of short or flash fiction. While I was writing War Remains, I was also writing a lot of flash fiction to clean my writing palate when I needed a break from my novel. Just as writing for the newspaper helped to sharpen and define my craft, so did flash fiction. It helped me to tighten up my sentences and paragraphs. Almost all of the flash fiction in this collection was published online or in journals, including the 2010 Micro Award Nominee, “Scent of a Woman.”
Finally, Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm is not only a memoir about my life in Korea but it’s also a modern history of Korea. The book is divided into several themed sections: “Welcome to Korea” looks back on Korea in the 1990s and what it was like living and working in Seoul ; “How I Discovered a Forgotten War” is most of the articles I wrote about the Korean War commemorative events I covered for the Korea Times; “The Accidental Journalist” is a selection of feature and news stories I wrote; “Witness to History”” is about all the times I journeyed to the “scariest place on Earth”—Panmunjom; and finally, “Literary Stylings” is a selection of prose and poetry about Korea.
There’s something for everyone in this book. I’m really proud I put this one out and that more people will have the chance to read articles that are no longer available (the Korea Times changed servers and did not back up many files; almost all my articles from 2000-2003 were lost).
I ask most of the authors interviewed about their route to becoming an Indie author. Tell us about yours?
It all started with Archie Comics! Back in 1969, my letter to the Archie Fan Club won top prize, and my first royalty check of $5.00.
I’ve always loved to write and wanted to be a writer, but it wasn’t until I went to college and later graduate school when I became more serious about my writing. Also, working as the editorial assistant for the Mississippi Valley Review, put me in contact with a lot of authors as one of the magazine’s readers. I believe that one learns the craft of writing by what we read. We have to have the desire inside, but to perfect one’s craft we have to read as much as we can. There’s no substitute.
I wrote a lot in grad school; however, it would not be until 1998, almost ten years after I graduated when I started to write again. To be honest, I don’t know why there was such a long dry spell. I wrote a poem here and a poem there, but nothing more. Maybe it had to do with immersing myself in the culture and living for the moment as it were. You know, you have to live life in order to write about life—something like that.
Of course, that would all change in 1998 when I sent off my first Op-Ed piece to The Korea Herald (interestingly, the Korea Times didn’t accept my first three Op-Ed pieces). I haven’t stopped writing since. I am finishing up my fifth book now, a novel and have four more books in the works, including a novella and a cold war history book.
One difference between you and most authors I’ve interviewed is those who have paper versions of their books typically do this through Createspace, a POD (print on demand) service that is a subsidiary of Amazon. You do your print versions using Lulu.com, an older company in the same business. What were the factors that led you to that decision? Is Lulu.com involved in getting your eBooks to Amazon or any of the other eBook retailers?
I chose Lulu on the advice of a friend who also self-publishes. He had checked out Createspace and felt that Lulu was better. I’ve been pleased with Lulu, but what it all comes down to is getting my books to market and marketing them. Lulu does offer a service that prepares digital versions of your book for Apple and Barnes and Noble (though I prefer Smashwords for your one-stop digital needs) so that is a plus in that column. The downside is that Amazon is a trusted name and folks might feel more inclined to buy a book through them than the publisher.
How do you think the process of publishing your books is different for you than for authors in North America or the UK?
It’s harder, no question about it. I don’t have the chance to do many book signings or release parties here, and because my books are POD/BOD I don’t have copies to hand out or sell. The shipping costs to Korea are horrendous. It’s not surprising then that most of my sales are eBooks.
Promoting my books is the hardest part. I use social networking media as much as I can as well as my own website.
I wish I could have book signings and the chance to meet folks to talk about my books. I’m missing out on those two things living here in South Korea.
Although eReaders and reading eBooks on other devices such as Smartphones and tablet computers is becoming commonplace in North America and the UK, it is still far from the norm. How does this compare with what you see in South Korea?
Everyone is connected in Korea. All of my students have Smartphones and many have iPads. WiFi is everywhere. I am seeing more and more people using these phones and tablets for reading books.
For More Jeffrey:
Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm
Invaders from Mars and Other Tales of Youthful Angst