On Writing and the Martial Arts

My stories revolve around seriously psychotic bad guys doing very gruesome things. Even my good guys can be outlandish. I therefore often get the question, “Where do the crazy things that you write about come from?” A fair question: particularly from those who know me as an architect rather than as an author.

I think that I have always been fascinated with the idea that just below the surface, hidden in the normalcy of everyday life, lurks a world of extreme danger: monsters and demons lying in wait like saltwater crocodiles concealed in muddy water. One of my favorite authors is Stephen King. I love the way that he is able to pull the readers convincingly into a world that is not safe.

I don’t fear these concealed boogiemen of my imagination. Instead I actually fear the normalcy of everyday life, that there really isn’t a world beyond full of poisonous serpents and fanged wraiths. Growing up I imagined encounters with this other world and felt that I should train myself to be prepared. Consequently the martial arts have always had an attraction for me. I feel that my martial arts background is interconnected with my writing.

My family moved from Brooklyn to Japan when I was six years old and I grew up watching samurai movies on black and white television. The plot was fairly standardized. A lone samurai, dressed in a modest kimono, straw sandals on his feet, would stroll down a dirt path through the forest with his two swords thrust in the obi sash around his waist. Suddenly twenty brigands would step out of the trees where they had been lying in wait, nervously pointing their swords and demanding the samurai’s money pouch. The samurai stays calm, registers no surprise. He says nothing. He just sneers (If Clint Eastwood was Japanese he would have made the perfect samurai hero). One by one the brigands attack. (I never figured out why they never attacked all at once.) The samurai spins through his attackers, his two swords flashing silver as his adversaries fall, slicing and dicing his way through the brigands. Within minutes they all lie dead around him, he sheaths his swords, and with one last sneer continues his stroll. I wanted to be that guy! He could most definitely handle the goblins of my fantasies.

I enrolled in my first judo class at the age of fourteen. I would take the bright orange Chuo Line train from Higashi Koganei where we lived to Suidobashi in downtown Tokyo to the Kodokan, the mecca of judo. I could feel the spirit of the sport in the building. The structure spoke to me, of judo’s origins by Jigoro Kano and the development of budo, and this may have also been where I first became interested in architecture. I remember the smell of the tatami mats that we practiced on.

This was the beginning of my journey in the martial arts, and the first thing that I learned was that to do a few techniques well was better than to learn a lot of techniques so-so. My favorite technique was called osotogari, which I would practice over and over again. Grabbing an opponent’s gi, I would pull him towards me. He would instinctively pull back, and I would follow, using his momentum, stepping behind him with my left leg and sweeping his feet with my right. Smack, he would fall to the mat, making a noise like a felled tree as he slapped the tatami to break his fall. I was that samurai guy! I was hooked on martial arts.

As I grew older I went from Judo to Shotokan Karate, learning the techniques of punching, kicking, and generating power with body mechanics. I moved back to the U.S. my last year of high school and stopped practicing martial arts until the age of thirty when I enrolled in a Taekwondo class, starting out as a white belt again. Taekwondo taught me to stay relaxed and loose in combat, control my breathing, able to snap a punch into an opponent without putting brakes on my muscles by tightening up. I earned a second-degree black belt in Taekwondo, and the lessons that I learned from practicing are applicable to almost everything that I do in life.

In my novels I write about a world of dangerous villains hiding just beneath the surface of everyday life: the psychotic Japanese doctor who performs horrific experiments at Unit 731 in ‘The Journal of Rabbi Levy Wang’, the serial killer who cannibalizes Indonesian domestic helpers in ‘The Witch of Wanchai’, and in my soon-to-be-released ‘A Devil in Hong Kong’ an assassin with a Maori tattoo on his face and a desire to turn his corpses into art. The worlds that I create are not safe, not one little bit. The heroes in my books are ‘that samurai guy’; people who can persevere through amazing odds, stay calm when defeat seems imminent, and most of all, can kick some serious ass. My writing explores that unsafe world lurking in the underbrush just beyond normalcy. I invite my readers to journey with me, to be ‘that guy’, to perform a perfect osotogari when it seems like the bad guys will win out.

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