Friday, January 27, 2017

The Story Behind the Story:
“Koreatown Blues,” by Mark Rogers

(Editor’s note: This is the 68th installment in The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series. Today’s guest contributor is Mark Rogers, who lives most of each year in Baja California, Mexico, with his Sinaloa-born wife, Sophy. His work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Village Voice, and other publications, and his travel journalism has taken him on assignment to 54 countries. While Endeavour Press beat Brash Books to market with Rogers’ mystery novel Red Thread, the author considers Koreatown Blues—due out on February 1, from Brash—to be his debut novel. In addition to penning fiction, Rogers blogs at Pissing on My Pistols.)

* * *

The warm rain fell on a tin awning in Mexico. I waited, up against the building’s wall, staying dry. The pieces of my crime novel Koreatown Blues were all there. Waiting to be remembered and imagined …

Back in 2005, a screenplay of mine had been optioned by a major player, and I’d been signed to a hip literary management company. At age 55, I knew I was way past my sell-by date. Even so, nothing was going to stop me from making the move from New Jersey to Los Angeles and giving screenwriting a shot.

I told my wife, “If I don’t take this chance, you’ll end up with a bitter old man. I don’t want to be him, and believe me, you don’t want to be married to him.”

I drove cross-country and sublet a dark studio apartment in L.A.’s Koreatown. The apartment had only one window that looked out on a brick wall close enough to touch. It was ugly as hell but in reality, perfect conditions for a writer, fulfilling Henry Miller’s dictum: “Writers should be put in a prison cell and given only bread and water.”

The plan was for my family to join me in three months (in a bigger apartment). Instead, they refused to make the move. And I was too stubborn to return to New Jersey.

Divorce followed.

Every three days or so the loneliness of my apartment would get to me. On one of those nights I wandered into a Korean nightclub a few blocks from my apartment. When I ordered a Hite, the beer arrived with a cordless microphone and the request to sing “Yesterday.”

“As usual, I was the only white guy in the place.”

That’s the first line of my crime novel Koreatown Blues. And that’s the way it was. The Koreans accepted me at once, and it wasn’t long before I developed a crush on the barmaid, Sung. Her husband was in South Korea, having refused to make the move to the States, which mirrored my own situation. Sung worked full-time and took care of her two teenage kids. She told me that once a year she liked to go to the beach and stare at the horizon line.

Part of my affection for Sung was driven by my respect for her. When she arrived in L.A. from Seoul, she first worked as a taxi driver, which had to be daunting for a newcomer who didn’t speak English.

(Above) Author Mark Rogers

During my hopeful nights sitting at the bar, trying to connect with Sung, the life of the nightclub went on around me, a mix of B-girls, Korean gangsters, and ordinary Joes Korean-style.

One night, a dude at the bar got tired of eating his rice and started playing the drums on my head with his chopsticks, like a deranged Gene Krupa. When he wouldn’t stop, I told him, “You’re fuckin’ with John Wayne.” A fight was only averted when he sped out the door and disappeared into the night.

A middle-aged Korean man sat beside me at the bar and told me about his son who had died in infancy. Then, when the mike was passed to him, he sang “Tears in Heaven,” by Eric Clapton.

Another young Korean was in love with Sung and challenged me to a bout of arm wrestling. I beat him easily and he insisted we try it left-handed. I beat him again and he complained, “You should have let me win one.” My response was, “You’ve heard of ‘When in Rome do as the Romans do?’ Well, I’m from New Jersey.”

One cadaverous-looking Korean got up in the middle of the floor and sang an impassioned version of Celine Dion’s “Power of Love.” At song’s end he sat down beside me and pulled out an envelope from inside his shirt: X-rays showing his inoperable lung cancer.

While I loved every minute of this, I was also developing much more than a crush on Sung. I’d ask myself, “If L.A. is filled with women, why did you have to go and fall for a married, non-English-speaking Korean woman with two kids?”

All during this time, I had the feeling of being surrounded by a culture that would ultimately and always be alien to me.

The romance with Sung never ignited and the optioned screenplay sputtered out, even though the production company had invested $400,000. I eventually drifted out of L.A., all the way down to Mexico.

A few years later, standing under an awning in Baja California, waiting out the rain, a stray remark from those L.A. days bounced around in my head: “There are many ghost stories in Koreatown.” I pulled out my notebook and in a half-hour had the main story beats for Koreatown Blues, although my ghosts would be flesh and blood.

Koreatown Blues is the story of Wes—whose purchase of a car wash in L.A.’s Koreatown comes complete with a young Korean wife he’s never met. Wes soon learns her five previous husbands were murdered before the honeymoon and finds himself with a ring on his finger and a target on his back. Will he become the next victim of this centuries-old blood feud—or will he emerge as the last husband standing?

Some of my favorite writers are Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, David Goodis, Jim Thompson, John D. MacDonald, James Lee Burke, and James Sallis. While I admire all of them, the truth is they didn’t provide the inspiration for my Koreatown Blues protagonist, Wes Norgaard, who I describe as having no reverse gear. Instead, I was inspired by a simple exchange between two characters in Lights in the Dusk, a film by Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki:

The heroine comes upon the badly beaten hero: “What will you do?”

Blood trickles down the edge of the hero’s mouth and his eye is bruised. He says, “I’ll open a garage.”

She says, “It’s good you haven’t lost hope.”

Once I started writing Koreatown Blues, the words flowed, 1,000 a day. This is how I like to work, making my thousand and stringing together as many writing days as I can—at least six a week.

When I was 22 years old, I used to explain away my lack of success by telling myself that Ernest Hemingway didn’t publish his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, until he was 26. Well, my 26th birthday came and went, along with a bunch of other milestones. Now, here I was at 64, still plugging away at the novel. People I’d grown up with were planning their retirement, while I was still trying to put even one run on the scoreboard.

Then, in one six-week period last year, the floodgates opened. Brash Books contracted for Koreatown Blues; Endeavour Press took an early mystery novel of mine, Red Thread (written in 1990), and will publish an ’80s noir novella of mine titled Night Within Night (written in 1986). Common Deer Press picked up a middle-grade novel titled Rex, co-written with Cody B. Stewart and Adam Rocke. And Tapas Media contracted to distribute a self-published novel of mine titled Basement, for download on iOS devices. (Basement was written in 1988).

What changed? Why is my work suddenly worthy of publication? Whatever the reason, I’m now a guy in his 60s who feels like he’s 26. I have a lot of catching up to do. Presently I have four other novels making the rounds, and I plan to write three more this year.

One of them is a novel based on that screenplay optioned years ago, the one that sputtered out. Who knows? If my book is a success, maybe I’ll see a film made from it after all.

Moving toward publication has been a charmed process, with an amazing cover design; great editing and support from my publishers at Brash Books, Lee Goldberg and Joel Goldman; and lots of enthusiastic pre-publication buzz. Publishers Weekly called Koreatown Blues “an entertaining, fast-paced first novel, with an unexpected, up-to-date solution,” while Edgar Award-winning author Bruce DeSilva (The Dread Line) had this to say: “Koreatown Blues is a cleverly-plotted hard-boiled novel with crisp, muscular prose, a feverish pace, a vividly-drawn urban setting, and characters so real that Rudy Giuliani would stop and frisk them.”

1 comment:

John said...

Mark, great post. As another "sixty-something" writer, your words ring true. Even young writers should know that plenty of people have not hit "the big time" (or any kind of time for that matter) until later in life -- so don't give up, keep on trying. I am eager to purchase "Koreatown Blues". Best of luck.