Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions with Alex Gillis

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Ten Questions with Alex Gillis

This week at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, martial artists will be engaging in hand-to-hand – or foot-to-foot – competition in Tae Kwon Do. The sport began in 1938 in what is now North Korea. Today, Tae Kwon Do is practiced by an estimated 50 million students. In A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do (ECW Press), investigative journalist and feature writer Alex Gillis examines the development of Tae Kwon Do and looks at the powerful dynasties of Choi Hong-Hi and his nemesis Kim Un-Yong, two key figures in the history of the martial art. A Killing Art will be available in stores across Canada this September.

OB:

Tell us about your book, A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do.

AG:

After a surreal opening scene with some of the martial art's elderly founders in 2001, the book flashes back to a poker game in a remote Korean village in 1938. A fight breaks out during the game and one of the men – the future "Father of Tae Kwon Do" – flees for his life to Japan, where he begins hardcore Karate training. Today, the martial art is an Olympic sport and is likely the most popular art in the world, and its founders like to pretend that it's thousands of years old, but, in fact, it's only about 50 years old and it centres on this brash young man, Choi Hong-Hi, who trained until his hands bled and who transformed Karate into his own techniques. In a 1955 Korean geisha house, he named them "Tae Kwon Do," which roughly means Foot Fist Way, and he developed its tenets for soldiers in the South Korean military and the Vietnam War.

Unfortunately, the art with the devastating kicks became so popular and profitable that its founders sometimes ignored their own tenets: Integrity, Courtesy, Self-Control, Perseverance and Indomitable Spirit. The art has always espoused high ideals and fought violence with violence, but from 1955 to the present, the art's founders did their best to hide the painful truths about their art's history of secret-service agents, Korean gangsters, espionage missions and cheating in the Olympics.

After Choi fled from a South Korean dictator in 1972, the dictator assigned a high-ranking secret-service agent named Kim Un-yong to become Tae Kwon Do's new leader. Kim became Choi's nemesis and led a successful "007 operation," as Kim put it, to get Tae Kwon Do into the Olympics. As if in a Bruce Lee movie, Choi challenged Kim, befriended North Korea's dictator and fought both Kim and South Korea for decades – a global Cold War to control Tae Kwon Do, a war that involved the South Korean CIA, North Korean assassination plots and, by 2004, seemingly limitless corruption. The book follows these two men and their disciples into the Olympics and shows how their savage history affects people today.

The book also follows the rebels in Tae Kwon Do, those who countered violence and corruption. What redeems the art are its beautiful techniques and its huge following of athletes and instructors in more than 180 countries, people who try to adhere to the art's tenets and practise it for the health, awareness and the empowerment that it fosters.

OB:

How does Kim Un-yong's Olympic style of Tae Kwon Do differ from the original style that was developed by Choi Hong-Hi?

AG:

The main difference is in the use of hand techniques. The Olympic style relies mainly on kicks during sparring, while the original style uses hands as much as legs, including the original jumping and flying kicks that we're used to see in movies.

Actually, the main difference isn't in hand techniques, now that I think about it more deeply. The huge difference lies in a practitioner's intention when unleashing a technique. The Olympic style is a sport and encourages a light-contact approach that focuses on winning points – loud yells for dramatic effect and no punches to the head, for example. The traditional style is an art of self-defense, not a sport, which means that people train to end a fight with one blow; during an attack, for instance, a defender aims a punch not only at the head, but at the philtrum, which is the space between the nose and upper lip, a devastating strike if you put your whole body into it. Many people distinguish Kim's sporty, Olympic style from Choi's traditional, martial-arts style.

OB:

How did you research your book?

AG:

The book was extremely difficult to research because many of the facts were unbelievable, bizarre and took enormous effort to corroborate. I began by reading most of the mainstream works about Tae Kwon Do and conducting a couple of crucial interviews (to see if I could gain access to the deeper stories), then I dove into obscure sources, including more than 4,000 pages of U.S. Congressional documents about Koreagate (the scandal that followed Watergate in the 1970s), documents that contained previously classified details about martial arts leaders and secret-service agents in Tae Kwon Do in the 1960s and 1970s, which was when Tae Kwon Do became as hot as Karate and Kung Fu.

I interviewed some of the pioneers of the art after much of the research was done – interviews that were the most challenging in my life as an investigative journalist. In once case, I had to interview a former martial arts assassin. In a second, I needed to corroborate that a martial arts instructor had been a Korean CIA agent in a highly publicized presidential kidnapping. In a third, I had to triple-check that a cult had been involved with Tae Kwon Do. I found at least two sources, usually three, for every fact.

During the interviews, too many people asked not to be named or told me to avoid naming someone who might take offense. I'd sit back at night and think things like, "Okay, this martial artist who I'm not supposed to name was part of a mass espionage mission that resulted in innocent people tortured and killed, and I'm supposed to be careful not to hurt his feelings?" The terror these men instilled in others was palpable even decades after the events.

The redeeming thing in the research is that I met many instructors and martial arts leaders who countered violence and corruption every step of the way. They were inspiring, and I dedicated my book to them.

OB:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

AG:

At home: strong coffee, constant email, children laughing in the background, and, at the end of a day, a reprieve in a martial arts gym. The techniques of Tae Kwon Do can be empowering after a long day.

OB:

What was your first publication?

AG:

This Magazine published "Tools of the Trade," a feature about China's trade in goods made by prisoners and slaves stuck in its prison gulag. I tracked some of the goods to a major hardware chain in Canada and, in another case, to our Canada Cup. This was a seriously under-reported issue at the time – my first investigative piece.

OB:

Describe the most memorable response you've received from a reader.

AG:

Toro Magazine published my first article about Tae Kwon Do, and Derek Finkle, the editor, told me that about 50 people across Canada had requested copies. I thought he was joking, but it was true. The most memorable response was from a CBC producer who took Tae Kwon Do; he asked if it was true that North Korean agents were involved in the martial art.

OB:

What's the best advice you've ever received as a writer?

AG:

"How is it possible for a working journalist to report human events in a way that does good?" That advice was from a former journalism instructor a long time ago. I taped it to my wall.

OB:

If you had to choose three books as a "Welcome to Canada" gift, what would those books be?

AG:

This is a tough question. Only three? If I had to choose only fiction, I'd pick something by Michael Ondaatje, probably The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, because it's a wild, Canadian take on an old tale – and Ondaatje's surreal work has always inspired me. (Or I could pick a more recent book of poetry, Leonard Cohen's Book of Longing, a difficult, erotic work, but one worth reading for the weirdly Canadian eroticism alone.) Another book? My mother's family is from Lebanon, and I remember when she and I read about the prairies – Who Has Seen the Wind, by W. O. Mitchell – and we were blown away. Something from out east: Mean Boy, by Lynn Coady, or Heave, by Christy Ann Conlin. Both build and destroy a couple of Maritime stereotypes. Aaah, then there are the Quebec writers... sorry, I'm up to five books already.

OB:

What are you reading right now?

AG:

The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffennegger, is mesmerizing and led me to Homer's Odyssey and Thucydides' The Peloponnesian War, a beautiful, map-filled tome edited by Robert B. Strassler. I thought our 20th-century wars were the most horrific in history, until I read about the brutal 27-year Peloponnesian War in 430 BC.

OB:

What is your next project?

AG:

I hope to write a book about love, lust and longing, something that isn't solely about overcoming suffering and countering violence. A Killing Art almost killed me – the crazy scenes, the difficult interviews, the time pressures, the lack of money and, more than all that, the shock of discovering the darker sides of my martial arts heroes. A book about lust would be an escape. However, I'll probably chicken out and continue writing investigative features for magazines and newspapers.

A Killing Art Visit the ECW Press website to read more about A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do by Alex Gillis.

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