Thursday, August 9, 2012



It was I'll-conceived. It was devised quickly, without thoughts to long-term plans, without any thoughts about collateral damage.

At first, I did it to pretend. The plan was to create a world and a person that was believable. As time went on, I did it for fun, as a means of escape. In the end, I did it because I couldn't see a way out. Not without hurting people, without giving up the emotional attachment in which I had invested. Without ceasing to be who I had become, who I could be for a few hours of a day.

I was Roland Axam.

In the early days of writing Songsaengnim: A Korea Diary, I wrote a story that largely followed my own experiences, living in Chŏnju, South Korea, from March, 1997, until March, 1999. Most of the story line that follows the day-to-day routine of Roland is taken from my own experiences, including the language institute where Roland worked and his travels to Cheju Island and Beijing, China. Most of the characters are fictitious but are based on actual people.

But the first draft of Songsaengnim was pretty dry, read like a travel journal (I know:it still does in places. That's why it's called a "Diary." The sequel will be less so.) I wrote from the first-person perspective (my preferred format), but I wrote the story from my life, travelling to Korea and working as an English-language instructor (I left my wife out of it).

Even I found the narrative boring. After about five chapters of rough draft, I started over.

I decided that I didn't want to be the main character in the story (I didn't want to be in the story at all), and so I turned to a fictional character that I created in the early 80s and had used in numerous short stories and in my first attempt at a novel (it was a trilogy, actually).

Enter Roland Axam.

When I set out to create Roland, I started with a name. I always liked the name Roland, thought that someday I would have a son with that name. For my character's last name, however, I would have to turn to the phone book.

I started blindly flipping through the pages, hoping that I would be able to drop my finger on a name that I'd be able to pronounce, that would roll off my tongue, that I would like. I actually aimed for the B section, wanting Roland to have the same initials as me.

I was so close: the name that my finger hit was Axam. And it stuck: I could pronounce it. Roland Axam rolled off my tongue. And I liked it.

The next task was to find a place of origin. Roland was going to have his Canadian citizenship but he was possibly going to come from another country.

To find Roland's home, I turned to an atlas. My parents had a beautiful, large, well-detailed atlas. The hard-covered book was about 24 inches by 12 inches and almost two inches thick.  Many countries spanned two pages, the number of cities and towns well-marked. If the country was large, like Canada, Russia, the United States, China, or Australia, the country would carry over several pages. It would be easy to pin-point exactly where Roland was born.

I closed my eyes, flipped the pages, and dropped my finger. Right into water.

Did you know that our planet has a lot of water? And inhospitable land? After more than a half-dozen attempts (maybe a dozen or so), I gave up. The chances of blindly finding a place where I would be happy to associate with Roland were slim, and so I decided I would narrow my search considerably. I decided that he would come from the U.K.

My parents' atlas had the best illustration of Great Britain. Because of the large size of the pages, not only small towns were marked on the map, but also some remote villages. The detail was amazing.

By narrowing Roland's origin to Britain, I also thought it would be easier for him to fit in with the greater Canadian society (of the 80s). His English would be fluent. And British spies were the best, weren't they? (Back then, I had read every Len Deighton book and loved the spy genre.)

I spread the book wide on the table top, closed my eyes, gave the book a spin, and dropped my finger.

Straight into water.

But close to land. I was touching the mouth of the Firth of Forth, in Scotland, very close to a coastal town that was just east of Edinburgh.

North Berwick. Roland Axam was born in North Berwick, East Lothian, Scotland, but now lived in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

And Roland Axam was a spy.

In 1988, I flew to Scotland to visit a friend who was studying at the University of Glasgow. But my secondary purpose of my trip was to see the town of North Berwick for myself, to see the place I had come so close to on my parents' world atlas. That trip also took me to East and West Berlin to research Roland's trilogy, to flesh out a spy story.

I crossed Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin, wandered the narrow streets and alleyways that were closest to the Wall. I shot many photos and mapped out parts of the Communist neighbourhoods. I created a great story that would make for Roland's first big adventure in the world of espionage. (Sadly, the Berlin Wall fell before I could complete the story, making the theme not at all current. I shelved the trilogy.)

So that is the character that has been with me since the early 80s, who I chose to use as the main character of Songsaengnim. Even though I had never before published a story about Roland, that nobody had seen any of my short spy stories (actually, a couple of my friends in journalism school saw the first one), I wanted Roland's history to stay intact, in case I brought some of his stories back.

Now, you might be asking yourself: what was a spy doing in Korea, teaching English? How did Roland go from being a spy to teaching English in East Asia?

Patience, my friends. Patience.

The title of today's blog post is "Gammon," which means "to deceive."

If Roland was going to be a feasible lead character in my Korean novel, he needed a story that was not only compelling, but believable. I didn't know what my hook was going to be, but I wanted Roland to be a troubled individual. To have skeletons in the closet. To be haunted.

There had to be tragedy.

I had a couple of ideas, but I didn't know if they would work. So, in order for anyone to be drawn to this character, I had to sell his story to people who didn't know that Roland was fictitious. Roland had to be real. He had to have a plausible story.

And so I, myself, became a spy of sorts. I had to go undercover.

And I became Roland.

To be continued next week...

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