Thursday, June 08, 2023

No Way Out: A conversation with Jeffrey Miller

I first encountered Jeffrey Miller's writing back when he worked at the Korea Times more than 20 years ago (see here or here for examples). He has since written ten books, of which No Way Out, published by Winding Road Stories, is his most recent. The story, about an English teacher arriving in Korea in 1990 and being framed for murder, piqued my interest as soon as I heard about it. What I hadn't expected was what a page-turner it would be - I read its 250-or-so pages in two or three sittings. Miller clearly used his own experiences as an English teacher who arrived in 1990, lived in Jamsil, and spent time in Itaewon to paint a vivid picture of that time period, but what I didn't expect was the way it branched out to shed light on a broad swath of Korean society at the time. He also drew on various historical events from the early 1990s which basically coalesce to put the protagonist and those around him under even more pressure, all while peopling the novel with well-drawn characters and seasoning it with references that reveal his knowledge of modern Korean history (such as the fact that Shinsegae Department Store was the American PX during the Korean War) - something I (unsurprisingly) appreciated. 

While Jeffrey and I have been Facebook friends for years, we'd never had the chance to meet or speak with each other, so, curious about some of the influences upon the book, I rectified that by asking him questions about it a couple weeks ago. The conversation, edited for clarity, is below, with my questions in bold (and one spoiler-ish question moved to the end).

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I really enjoyed the book - it was a real page-turner, and I enjoyed how the story drew upon so many details of that time period. What led you to set the novel during the 1990s?

Thank you. I'm really fascinated with Korea’s modern history, in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, because there were so many things happening at that time. Korea had growing pains, moving towards democracy, and the shackles of the authoritarian governments were still there but whether it was music, art or movies, you knew something was going to happen. And also at that time, this was in the midst of the economic miracle. 

When I came up with the idea for the book, I wanted to set it back in time, because, first of all, it's a lot easier to write in the past, because you don't have to worry about modern technology. The book would never have worked if it was set in 2023. With smartphones and videos, the book would have been over after page one. In the 1990s, a lot of things could happen as they’re depicted in the book. 

I’ve researched the era around the 1988 Olympics, and am well aware that after democratization had been achieved, and after the Olympics, there was a change in the perception of the US, and less willingness to tolerate American actions in Korea. No Way Out reflects that shift. Was that something you felt when you arrived?

I didn't really feel the anti-Americanism as much when I first arrived. It really wasn’t until probably 1991 or '92. There were all of these demonstrations, and in 1991, the student from Myongji University was killed [Gang Gyeong-dae, in April 1991; a month later Kim Gui-jeong was killed at a demonstration, and a student bystander was shot by police that September], and then the demos continued until June. Of course, I'd seen them before on television, you know, back in the 1980s, so I had some idea. But I think for the most part, when I came in 1990, I was, I would say, ignorant. I had known there was a hit TV show about Korea [MASH], and that they had hosted the Olympics, but I think that was as far as many people’s knowledge of Korea went. But when I was with students, they would start talking about these things in class. I think the first time it really hit me was actually about a week after I arrived, and some students invited me and other teachers to a party for their graduation from the language school. There were several students there, but there were also two men who had just gotten out of the military, where they had been riot policemen, so it was a really awkward moment, because the students had been throwing rocks at them. I had no idea what was going on until one of the teachers told me. That was when I first started hearing about the demonstrations. 

Anti-Americanism had been around for some time, but during the authoritarian governments, I think Koreans basically had to put up with Americans and the crimes they committed. But the Dongducheon murder [of Yun Geum-i] changed all of that, and that really soured things for a lot of people. And then there was the nuclear crisis of 1994, and the threat of war with North Korea, and there were a lot of people who thought the US had worn out its welcome. I remember I had one student who really hated America, but she wanted to study in America, so there was a bit of a dichotomy there. There was also the subway incident of 1995, where a GI was accused of touching a Korean woman [who turned out to be his wife] and a brawl broke out. And then much later, in 2002, after the middle school girls were run over, some GIs were kidnapped on the subway, dragged to a rally and forced to apologize for American crimes. There was also a student at Yonsei who tore down some banner or poster about the USA, and students sort of held him, put him in a room and they thought he was CIA, so things like this were happening in the 1990s. Things like the subway incident made it into the International Herald Tribune, and that was new, its coverage of Korea, so by the mid-1990s people were beginning to write more about Korea and look at things that they hadn’t before. 

I remember back in the early '90s, I think it was the Korea Times or Korea Herald that did a story or a series of stories talking about the eventual Yongsan base relocation, and they mentioned Itaewon, and said there was a love-hate relationship with the Americans, with the older generation seeing America as their saviors, but the younger generation was tired of hearing that. So, in the story, I wanted to allude to that, to the fact that these attitudes were changing. Americans couldn't just keep saying, “We sacrificed blood for this country, so you have to let us have our way.” I didn't want to offend anyone in the military because obviously I was in the military myself, but I did sense that sort of arrogance at the time and maybe that still happens.

I’ve spoken with Europeans who were teaching English here from 1985 to 1990 and they said that in the mid-1980s English hagwons were for adults and were centered on the area around Jongno 2-ga or Jongno 3-ga, but by 1990 the center of gravity had shifted to Gangnam.

Right, I think it was 1983 when 시사영어사 first opened their language school. That would have probably been in Jongno, near Pagoda Park, as it was called then, then they had a school in Pusan, and then the school in Gangnam. And of course, in Gangnam, back in 1990, there was nothing there. I think the tallest building was the New York bakery, and the city limits were at Yangjae, and there were empty lots all along up Tehranro. I don't know when exactly they opened that school, but they did have three schools. And there were several other smaller schools that operated in the shadow of ELS, like in the book where he’s teaching and he looks out the window, and across the alley is another classroom where there's another guy teaching and, you know, I saw that all the time. These were really small hagwons, and I don't know how they survived but there was such a craze then. I remember going down to the Gangnam subway station in one of the bookstores and it had all these English books, and the one thing that always struck me as being kind of strange was AFKN English: “Watch AFKN and learn English.” There were all these books; you could watch General Hospital and learn English idioms. At the time there were so many hagwons, including university hagwons like Yonsei and Sogang, but ELS had a good reputation. We were taken very good care of, I will say that; you couldn't have asked for a better gig. We lived in Jamsil, just across from Lotte World, and could hop on the subway and be at work in 10 minutes. We’d teach in the morning for two hours, got the afternoon off, and taught at nighttime. 

I liked Korea back then, I have to say. I really liked the diamond in the rough allure that Korea had. I guess I wax nostalgic about it a lot. Being an English teacher, you were a novelty; you were not seen as a threat yet. This was years before English Spectrum - after that, things changed drastically. I remember one day, it was probably in early January of 1991, I was walking through Myeong-dong, and suddenly I heard somebody yell my name. It was a student of mine. She was shopping with her mother and wanted to introduce me to her. This was in the middle of Myeong-dong on a Sunday, but then, having red hair, I probably stood out a lot more than I do today. There was this sort of novelty then of taking the English teachers out. There were still some of the Confucian underpinnings in Korean society where teachers were respected. I remember one time walking outside and having a cigarette, and some students were smoking, and they put out their cigarettes right away, because it was considered not polite to smoke in front of a teacher. 

I liked that time in Korea, because everything was new to me, and there was this roughness to it, but you knew things were changing, that things were going to get better. And the longer I stayed, the more I began to see those changes. I also began to see things differently. When I moved across the river and started teaching at Yonsei, I started seeing an entirely different aspect of teaching in Korea. Then when I started writing for the Korea Times, I started seeing different aspects of society, and I saw things differently than when I first came here, when I was fresh off the boat, and didn’t know much and was trying to learn the language and learn the culture. 

It was kind of weird, because I lived in a nice apartment complex, and on my first night in Korea, I got to my apartment and I turned on the TV, and there was David Letterman, and it was so surreal, to see that after just arriving in another country. I lived just down the street from the Olympic Stadium, and the Olympics were still fresh in my mind. But things were changing. Korea opened up the educational market in 1994 or 1995 and suddenly all these teachers were coming over, but I think maybe it was the tail end of the euphoria that followed the Olympics and then things started to taper off going into the mid '90s, especially with the economic crisis in 1997. The '90s were kind of up and down. 

Having worked in Gangnam and lived in Jamsil starting in 1990, did you hear anything about the murder of Carolyn Abel? She was stabbed to death in her Jamsil apartment in December 1988, so that was only two years before you arrived.

Yes, folks were still talking about Carolyn Abel's murder in 1990. She taught at the ELS school where I taught. In 1992, I was the interim academic director for the Hyundai Sisa Language Institute in Jongno, which was under the Sisa Yongo-sa umbrella. One day, all the academic directors had lunch with YB Min and he brought up the murder or the topic came up, and I remember him saying that there was an unsolved murder in Thailand that was similar to the one in Jamsil. When I started at ELS, I was told that the murder in Jamsil was some bizarre love triangle. I tried to find out about her murder for the book, but I couldn’t find anything, in part because I thought it happened in 1989. [More about her murder can be read here.

There is also the unsolved murder of Monte Dhooge in 1993 in Thailand. We wrote 12 English books for the Hyundai Sisa school in 1992, which in itself was a major accomplishment back then using Microsoft 3.1. A few months after we finished he left Korea and went to the Middle East to teach. While vacationing in Bangkok someone broke into his Khao San Road guesthouse and murdered him.

Part of the book involves police interrogation and scenes in prison. Was this influenced by Brother One Cell, the book by Cullen Thomas, who was an English teacher arrested for smuggling hashish into Korea in 1994 and sentenced to 3 years in prison?

Yes, that's right. I got some ideas from that book. I did take some liberties when imagining what the interrogation and prison would be like, but his book helped to give me an idea of what it would have been like at that time. That was probably one of the hardest parts to write. I think what gave me the most trouble was trying to make the story believable enough for somebody who's never been to Korea, to understand that these things happened, that even up to the early '90s, there were blacklists and banned books and the National Security Law. So I was trying to write about that, and corruption and police brutality and then going to prison. A lot of that was based on what I've read, but I did talk to a few people and asked if somebody would be arrested like this and a few people I talked to said, yeah, that stuff could have happened. So yes, definitely that book was one of my influences. Another was Martin Limon’s books [about US CID investigators digging into crime in places like Itaewon] - that was probably my biggest influence, even though he’s writing about Korea in the 1970s. By the 1990s, a lot of those things were still taking place, such as the way that the GIs dealt with women and the way that the women grew callused because of that. His first book, Jade Lady Burning, came out in the early 1990s and his writing was really important for me, as it helped me with my own story. So those were my biggest influences writing the book.

Itaewon plays a large part in the book, though certainly not a defining one. You paint a picture of what it was like there in the 1990s.

Right, that was not difficult to write because I remember it quite vividly. Like in the book, one of my colleagues said, “Let’s go to Itaewon,” and I asked, “What's that?” I had been in the military, so I knew what a camptown was like. It reminded me of when I was 18 and away from home, stationed in the Canal Zone, and we’d go to Panama City, though Itaewon was sort of a surreal version of Roppongi or something like that. A few people who were here in Korea at that time read the book and told me I’d nailed it with the Itaewon scenes, of showing what it was like at the time. There’s a scene where they're at the Twilight Zone where one character says of the GIs that they make it difficult for the rest of us here, because Koreans sort of lump us all together. I’m sure you remember how as soon as Koreans saw a foreigner, they automatically said, American, miguk saram - it didn't make any difference who you were, everybody was an American. And as Americans, we do carry a lot of cultural baggage with us, no matter where we go. And you end up becoming an ambassador, whether you want to be one or not, and that’s something you have to deal with.

The Twilight Zone in December 2022.

The first place I visited in Itaewon was the Twilight Zone, just like in the book. There was also King Club, but I think I went to King Club only once or twice in all my years in Korea - it wasn’t my kind of scene. Another popular place was Polly's Kettle. Later, when Stompers opened up, in 1993 or 1994, a lot of people started going to that bar. At that time things began to change and people started going to other bars that had opened up on the main strip. First there was Nashville, then the Nashville extension. There were other bars, I forget the names now, but there were so many on the main strip. Things began to change, and I think a lot of that had to do with more people coming to Korea, young Koreans who had gone overseas coming back, and it was around the 2000s that we saw all of the eating spots and micro breweries opening up. I've always been fascinated with Itaewon, because there was always something about it, a roughness kind of like in the old wild west where GIs and English teachers and expatriates were all thrown into the mix. Up and down the hill there were places like the Grand Ole Opry that even Martin Limon has written about in stories set in the 1970s, so there's a bit of continuity from that era. It was sometimes rough, and fights were pretty common - I've seen a lot of those bars empty out. It was often due to guys coming off the field, coming down from Camp Casey or someplace like that - they never got along with the guys in Yongsan who worked nine to five and then got to go home. The fact that there was this slice of real estate behind the main strip, where all these things were happening and the government was looking the other way, and then you had the courtesy patrol with American MPs and Korean police coming in, made for a weird, weird scene. It was like Jim Morrison’s “weird scenes inside the gold mine” when you were going up to Itaewon.

In terms of English teachers, most of us later started gravitating towards the places on the main strip, because that’s where you could get better beer and food. There was a place called Old Germany that was sort of a German Hof - that was closer to the Japanese section of Itaewon. That's another thing people don't remember - that there was a Japanese part of Itaewon as well, where there was karaoke and Japanese style bars. Japanese tourists headed there, so there were two parts of Itaewon at the time.

I remember back at the Nashville, they had a sign that said ‘No Korean men allowed’ on the door. I did a story on the owner, Skip Tuttle, back in the early 2000s, and he told me that the reason was that if you let Korean men in, there were going to be fights. You know, even then the hostesses that had to dance at certain times of the night and do a Texas two step or something, which was really weird, but all the old GIs there got a kick out of it. Still, it was the best place to get a burger or a steak in town for many years. In the early 2000s the government shut them down because of some bad spices or something, and at the time, Outback was trying to set up shop down the street, so I always wondered if maybe that was a good way to get rid of the Nashville.

I was curious about the gangsters who appear in the book. Did you do any background reading to flesh out these memorable characters? Have you ever had any encounters with them yourself? 

Only at the sauna. I've got several tattoos and usually they would often take a look. But I’ve never really had any run-ins with any gangsters. This was different from Japan, where I actually had run-ins with the Yakuza. I taught in Japan before I came to Korea, and I remember going out and actually being invited into a hostess bar, because this Yakuza guy invited me in since I was an English teacher and he wanted me to teach him English. He brought me into this bar but it was just to show off his English. I never had any run-ins like that in Korea, though.

A lot of the gangster scenes were imagined. I’d come up with my own idea of the gangsters by watching Korean movies. Thanks to Netflix, I had a steady supply of Korean movies that I probably would not have had the chance to watch otherwise. One involved a drug lord in Pusan who was trying to sell drugs in Japan. Actually, I also drew on Black Rain (1989), though that was about the yakuza. I was using some of those movies to get an idea of the way they carried themselves, of their mannerisms, but a lot of it was the product of my imagination. Those were some of my influences, and hopefully the gangster scenes were realistic enough to be believable for readers. Guns do come into play, so I had to make that believable, since that’s not common in Korea - so it was a policeman’s gun. I remember reading an article back in 1992 or ‘93 where there was a big gang fight around the Seoul express bus terminal. These two rival gangs got out baseball bats and clubs and hatchets and axes, and started going at each other in the middle of the street. It was a lot more brutal than simply using a pistol. It's a lot more physical and in-your-face kind of violence, which does come into play in the story, with a pickaxe used at one point.

I want to keep spoilers to a minimum, but the story doesn’t just take place in the city, but moves farther afield.

I wanted to do that - to get him out in the country. It brings out the whole idea of not knowing where you are, especially having just arrived in this new country, and you're trying to survive the best way you can, and then you have a snowstorm. That was kind of more of a nostalgic touch for me, because, you know, I love it when it snows in Korea. I was trying to recall that [certain location] because I'd been there before. I remember walking through the park on a road, and finally I went to Google Maps and was able to find it. Google Maps has made it much easier to write these days, because you can always refer to it to get details about a city or a place. You can quickly answer questions like, “Was there an alley back there?” So it's made writing a lot easier.

I remember when you were working on the novel and you mentioned on Facebook that you’d gathered a playlist of songs that were popular in 1990, and couldn’t help notice that some of them appear in the book, particularly during the Itaewon scenes, like Vanilla Ice’s “Ice ice baby” or Roxette’s “It must have been love.” 

That’s something that always works for me, if it's a period piece. I can refer to music, and not only does it help me when I'm writing, it also helps to push me back to that time. Some songs will always be Korea in 1990, for me, like Sinead O’Connor [Nothing compares 2 u], and [The Righteous Brothers’] Unchained Melody because of the movie Ghost. When songs are popular in Korea, they can kind of get beaten into the ground, so you couldn't go anywhere without hearing Unchained Melody. I remember in Pusan - I went down with a buddy for New Year's Eve for my first trip out of Seoul - we were near the fish market, and we passed one of those vendors selling cassette tapes, but the sign written on the cart didn’t say Unchained Melody, but “Unchanged Melody.” And I thought, “Oh, that's beautiful.”

Whenever a popular movie came out, it seemed like all the coffee shops and restaurants were named after it; there must have been about 20 “Bodyguard” restaurants in 1993. And with my students, they always had English nicknames. I’d ask, ”What do you want me to call you?” And they’d reply, “Oh, call me The Terminator,” or “Arnold” or something. You'd have a whole class and their names would reflect whatever movie was popular at the time. And during my first couple of years in Korea, I think almost every bar I went to was playing Hotel California, despite the fact it was an older song. So in No Way Out, this music appears when they’re in bars. Having playlists of these songs really helps. I like having the music from the time playing when I'm working on the story, or I’m at the gym and thinking about the story. I’ll also look on the internet and find photographs from that time and put them up on the wall in my office where I'm writing. It’s a good way to immerse yourself in that time period and it helps with writing the story.

What are you working on now?

I'm working on a novel right now. It takes place in 1962. So, once again, I've been listening to music from 1962 as a soundtrack. It won't actually feature in the novel, but again it helps to puts me in that frame of mind, and helps me to paint the characters. As well, I will soon be coming out with my memoirs of living and teaching in Korea. I wrote them back in 2011, but they were mostly my musings about life in Korea and many of the articles I wrote for the Korea Times; this time around they are more focused and look at how I basically “came of middle age” in Korea.


[This is a bit of a spoiler and meant for those who have read the book.]

There is a switch fairly early on in the novel from first person to third person narration, which changes the nature of the story. It’s a surprise because it suddenly changes from being the story of an English teacher caught in a nightmarish situation to a portrayal of various aspects of Korean society as shown from the point of view of different Korean characters. 

That's what I intended it to be, because I was really torn between whether I should make it third person or first person. But if you go with first person, you obviously can't tell the story of Korea at that time because the narrator would not know anything about it because he's only been there for 48 hours. But then you switch to the other characters, and they fill in the gaps and get into the back story, which helps to understand what was really going on that time. I wouldn’t say it’s a historical novel, but there are points where it is depicting what was happening at that time.

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