An Interview with Martin Limon
by Robert S. Napier
Reprinted from Summer 1993, Volume 1, Issue #1
Editor's comment: SLICKY BOYS, the second novel featuring George Sueno and his partner Ernie Bascom, of the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division in Korea will be available in June, 1997 from Bantam in hardcover. $21.95
I met Martin Limon at an MWA dinner in Seattle in February of 1993. His name rang a bell and I said so. He told me he wrote short stories featuring two military policemen in Korea. I was glad to have the opportunity to tell him how much I'd enjoyed those stories. When he said his novel featuring the same pair, George Sueno and Ernie Bascom, was out, I knew I'd have to read it.
For those who savor a sense of place in a mystery, Limon's book, Jade Lady Burning (Soho Press, 1992), delivers a double dose: the culture of the people of Korea and the unique world of the U.S. military. Army cops George and Ernie have to contend with the protocols of the service as well as the strictures of Korean customs in order to work their cases. It's no wonder they drink so much and Ernie is borderline crazy. Luckily, the thoughtful and sensitive George keeps his friend in check.
Martin Limon retired from the Army after serving 20 noncontinuous years, half of them in Korea. He lives in Lynnwood, Washington, with his wife and three children.
I had intended only to write a profile of Martin, and the questions I sent were simply to draw out some background information. But when I saw the answers he provided, I immediately asked the editor of Over My Dead Body! to allow me to use them in a short interview. What he has to say about himself and his work is too interesting to cannibalize for a character sketch.
Q: Where are you from originally?
A: Los Angeles. I was born in Compton and grew up in Gardena, 15 miles south of the L.A. city hall. My grandparents came from Mazatl n, Mexico, north to Sonora, to Arizona, and finally L.A. during the Mexican revolution.
Q: When did you first become interested in writing?
A: My first memory of writing being enjoyable was a poem I wrote as an English assignment in the 8th grade. I didn't make the staff of the Gardena High School newspaper because I wrote an article--this is in 1964--critical of our growing involvement in Vietnam. Later, I was kicked off the staff of the Korean News Bureau of the Pacific Stars & Stripes (1968) for comparing North Korean rhetoric to United Nations rhetoric in an article I wrote concerning a Military Armistice Commission meeting at the truce village of Panmunjom. Everything the North Korean negotiator said was translated into Chinese and English. Everything the South Korean Negotiator said was translated into Chinese and English. Except for a few epithets (running dog imperialists vs. communist aggressor) it all sounded like it came out of the same propaganda mill. I was speaking of the rhetoric, not the underlying truth of the situation, and the similarity seemed like a snappy lead to my article. The colonel at the Military Armistice Commission didn't agree. Neither, apparently, did the editors at PS&S. They killed the story, and I was out of there. Writing became enjoyable again when I started writing fiction in 1986.
Q: What kind of work did you do in the Army?
A: I was a clerk, an artilleryman, an imagery interpreter (analyst of photographic intelligence), a club manager, and a recruiter.
Q: Had you written fiction prior to your Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine work? Any published? Examples?
A: I wrote much fiction prior to my AHMM work, both short stories and novels. All rejected. My first published story, "A Coffin of Rice," appeared in the June 1990 issue of AHMM. When the contract came in the mail, I thought it was a bill. After reading a few sentences and finally realizing what it was, I bounded down the stairs and nearly trampled my wife and three kids.
Q: You've carved a solid niche with your Korean stories. Do you plan to use any other locales?
A: I have already used locations other than Korea for my published stories. Just up the road a piece: China. I studied Mandarin Chinese and the Taiwanese dialect in Taiwan from 1971 to 1972 while going to school on the GI Bill. Was fortunate enough to receive, besides the language training, classes on Chinese history, art, and philosophy. Lived with a Chinese family for a few months. Dad was a general in the Kuomintang army with two wives, thirteen kids, and--at last count--five grandchildren. The first wife was a patron of the arts, and my afternoon naps were often disturbed by a Chinese operatic troupe rehearsing in the courtyard. Eating with the family, I lost five pounds before I mastered the use of chopsticks. Later, I spent ten years, on five different tours, in Korea with the U.S. Army. I studied the language at night and practiced every chance I got--which was often.
I've written stories which take place in locales other than China and Korea. So far, none of them have been published. Looking back, there has always been a good reason. I suppose the Orient fires my imagination like no other place. Anyway, more than Pacoima.
Q: What are your writing habits and schedule like?
A: I get up at least by 5:00 every morning to write, and when I'm particularly enthused about a project, 4:30 or 4:00. I write before I go to work. On weekends I sleep in a little but, again, if I'm enthused about the project, I'm up at 5:00 or 6:00. I've noticed a strange correlation between being enthused and getting the piece published. My first novel was written on a Smith Corona portable manual typewriter. I now use an SCM PWP 5000. A great machine, but if I don't get my second novel published soon, out it goes.
Q: Who are your favorite authors? Which authors, if any, would you say influenced your work?
A: My favorite authors? An easy question. Herman Melville: Read not only Moby Dick but Typee, his first published book and the novel that made him well known during his lifetime. Jack London: His short story, "To Build a Fire," is one of the finest pieces of writing ever. Also, he wrote a short story about ancient Korea as a part of his science fiction novel: Star Rover. Did you know he was a correspondent for the San Francisco Examiner during the Russo-Japanese War and rode up the entire length of the Korean peninsula on horseback? [No, I didn't--rsn]
Richard McKenna: A career sailor in the U.S. Navy and the author of The Sand Pebbles, a classic about navy river patrols along the Yangtze in China during the age of the warlords. Read also the first part of the novel he never completed, The Sons of Martha. Darryl Ponicson: After a hitch in the Navy he came out and wrote The Last Detail and Cinderella Liberty. Two classics as far as I'm concerned, and both made into great movies. He's written a few other things since, but nothing to compare to his first two. I think he should have shipped over. Although I was never fortunate enough to meet any of these authors, I think of all of them as my drinking buddies.
Q: Do you rate yourself a better plotter or stylist? Why?
A: I am neither a plotter nor a stylist. What I rely on is putting people into the midst of a setting they've never seen before and introducing them to characters who they never imagined existed. That and keeping everything, including description, moving. I don't think I made it but that's my goal.
Q: Who do you read?
A: I read books on China, books on Korea (although there are few fictional works), archeological books (especially Thor Heyerdahl), and a broad spectrum of hardboiled mysteries. I much prefer private eye to police procedurals. In fact, I would have liked to have made my sleuths in Jade Lady Burning private eyes if I could have figured out a way to do it.
Q: Are Sueno and Bascom based on anyone in particular?
A: George Sueno is based on my dad, a few traits from my uncles, and the way I would like to be myself, although I know I'll never make it. Ernie Bascom started with an old buddy of mine, but I couldn't get the character in the book to act quite as wild as he always did.
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