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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.

At the Kodokan, 1965.

At the Kodokan, 1965.

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.David 1965-4david 1965-2.1-3

david 1965-2.1

A Fascination With Bareknuckle Boxing

I have just put the finishing touches on my third novel, ‘A Devil In Hong Kong’, and so I am opening myself up to inspiration for my next book. The way that I write is unpremeditated. I allow an interesting aspect of the world that crosses my path and which captures my attention to flow into a story. Lately I have become fascinated with bareknuckle boxing.

I have been watching giant English and Irish men knock each other senseless on BKF fights on YouTube. The fights usually are held in trailer parks, vacant lots, or in pubs. An area smaller than a conventional boxing ring is cordoned off with bales of hay in a pub. Two steps and you are in the center of the ring, essentially toe-to-toe. Muhammad Ali would have no room to float like a butterfly in a bareknuckle ring. My writing muse is telling me that this brutal sport might have the threads to be woven into a tale!

In ‘The Witch of Wanchai’ I talk about the Burmese sport of lethwei, which is also bareknuckle. Other than the fact that lethwei fighters use elbows, knees, and kicks as well as fists, there are other marked differences between lethwei and English BKF. Lethwei fighters are not huge men, usually in the range of 150 pounds, if that. Their bodies are strung with taut muscles, not an eyedropper-full of fat on them. BKF fighters, on the other hand, for the most part have bodies that a hippopotamus would be proud of. It is rare to see one that would not break the average bathroom scale. (A personal observation from my YouTube viewing: the fatter BKF fighters are almost always the victors. Evidently in BKF huge girth equals awesomeness?)

I suspected that the BKF fighter’s mammothness is fuelled by a steady diet of Guinness, and this was confirmed by watching James ‘Gypsy Boy’ McCrory fight a U.S. contender in a British versus U.S. bout. (Yes, BKF has come to the attention of the Americans.) The U.S. contender, Jason ‘Machine Gun’ Young, arrived in gym-toned shape, six-pack and all. (He obviously was not told about the big belly equals awesomeness rule.) Gypsy Boy arrived to the match late and inebriated, sporting an inflated stomach the size of an ottoman. He said that he was late so that he could ingest a proper amount of Guinness pre-fight. (I knew it!)

The fight started with Gypsy Boy covering up and letting Machine Gun pepper him with powerful blows, taking huge brain-rattling shots. It looked like the American would win, essentially using McCrory as a punching bag with no answering blows from England. That was until the American punched himself out. Then McCrory calmly shot out a right hook, right uppercut, and left hook. Match over. Machine Gun went down and stayed down.

Another fascinating aspect of BKF is that the fighters are frequently in their late forties, or even their sixties! I am intrigued by an ancient, shapeless guy who looks like his only training is lifting a pint to his lips in pub wailing away on some upstart, twenty-year-old pup. You can’t look away. It is an impossibility of nature. The laws of all that is sane and logical are violated, somebody’s grandfather trading shots to the head, bleeding, and still walking in swinging. (Did I mention that there is a lot of blood in BKF? A lot!)

From the aspect of my potential story line, however, I am really fascinated by the Irish Travellers, a marginalised ethnic group whose lives revolve around bareknuckle fighting. Living in trailer parks, essentially gypsies, they speak a mixture of English (sort of), Shelta, and Traveller Cant. (I can understand maybe half of what they say on the YouTube videos.) Various Traveller families feud against each other, and their raving diatribes are on YouTube: the Joyces, the McDonaghs, the Quinns, and the Nevins, challenging each other to bare knuckle bouts and insulting each other’s fighting abilities. This is a world pregnant with story potential!

My stories, of course, all involve Asia. However, I am not worried about inspiration set in Europe. When I sat down to write a sequel to ‘The Witch of Wanchai’ the writing muse that I connect with had me start writing about seventeen-year-old computer gamers in Anaheim, California. No matter, I soon had the gamers living in Hong Kong and operating drones for a nefarious mercenary group. Could BKF try to breakout of the Traveller’s trailer parks to go mainstream. A bout arranged in Asia? A Traveller fighter ends up dead in Hong Kong? Travellers take their feuding to the streets of Tokyo? All possible!

Okay, I Admit My Fascination with Bareknuckle Boxing

Real-fightclubI have just put the finishing touches on my third novel, ‘A Devil In Hong Kong’, and so I am opening myself up to inspiration for my next book. The way that I write is unpremeditated. I allow an interesting aspect of the world that crosses my path and which captures my attention to flow into a story. Lately I have become fascinated with bareknuckle boxing.

I have been watching giant English and Irish men knock each other senseless on BKF fights on YouTube. The fights usually are held in trailer parks, vacant lots, or in pubs. An area smaller than a conventional boxing ring is cordoned off with bales of hay in a pub. Two steps and you are in the center of the ring, essentially toe-to-toe. Muhammad Ali would have no room to float like a butterfly in a bareknuckle ring. My writing muse is telling me that this brutal sport might have the threads to be woven into a tale!

In ‘The Witch of Wanchai’ I talk about the Burmese sport of lethwei, which is also bareknuckle. Other than the fact that lethwei fighters use elbows, knees, and kicks as well as fists, there are other marked differences between lethwei and English BKF. Lethwei fighters are not huge men, usually in the range of 150 pounds, if that. Their bodies are strung with taut muscles, not an eyedropper-full of fat on them. BKF fighters, on the other hand, for the most part have bodies that a hippopotamus would be proud of. It is rare to see one that would not break the average bathroom scale. (A personal observation from my YouTube viewing: the fatter BKF fighters are almost always the victors. Evidently in BKF huge girth equals awesomeness?)

I suspected that the BKF fighter’s mammothness is fuelled by a steady diet of Guinness, and this was confirmed by watching James ‘Gypsy Boy’ McCrory fight a U.S. contender in a British versus U.S. bout. (Yes, BKF has come to the attention of the Americans.) The U.S. contender, Jason ‘Machine Gun’ Young, arrived in gym-toned shape, six-pack and all. (He obviously was not told about the big belly equals awesomeness rule.) Gypsy Boy arrived to the match late and inebriated, sporting an inflated stomach the size of an ottoman. He said that he was late so that he could ingest a proper amount of Guinness pre-fight. (I knew it!)

The fight started with Gypsy Boy covering up and letting Machine Gun pepper him with powerful blows, taking huge brain-rattling shots. It looked like the American would win, essentially using McCrory as a punching bag with no answering blows from England. That was until the American punched himself out. Then McCrory calmly shot out a right hook, right uppercut, and left hook. Match over. Machine Gun went down and stayed down.

Another fascinating aspect of BKF is that the fighters are frequently in their late forties, or even their sixties! I am intrigued by an ancient, shapeless guy who looks like his only training is lifting a pint to his lips in pub wailing away on some upstart, twenty-year-old pup. You can’t look away. It is an impossibility of nature. The laws of all that is sane and logical are violated, somebody’s grandfather trading shots to the head, bleeding, and still walking in swinging. (Did I mention that there is a lot of blood in BKF? A lot!)

From the aspect of my potential story line, however, I am really fascinated by the Irish Travellers, a marginalised ethnic group whose lives revolve around bareknuckle fighting. Living in trailer parks, essentially gypsies, they speak a mixture of English (sort of), Shelta, and Traveller Cant. (I can understand maybe half of what they say on the YouTube videos.) Various Traveller families feud against each other, and their raving diatribes are on YouTube: the Joyces, the McDonaghs, the Quinns, and the Nevins, challenging each other to bare knuckle bouts and insulting each other’s fighting abilities. This is a world pregnant with story potential!

My stories, of course, all involve Asia. However, I am not worried about inspiration set in Europe. When I sat down to write a sequel to ‘The Witch of Wanchai’ the writing muse that I connect with had me start writing about seventeen-year-old computer gamers in Anaheim, California. No matter, I soon had the gamers living in Hong Kong and operating drones for a nefarious mercenary group. Could BKF try to breakout of the Traveller’s trailer parks to go mainstream. A bout arranged in Asia? A Traveller fighter ends up dead in Hong Kong? Travellers take their feuding to the streets of Tokyo? All possible!