Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

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And the walls came tumbling down…

Friday's SaloonFriday’s Saloon is no more.

Today, I came across a photo on Facebook, courtesy of WLPO, a radio station in the Illinois Valley (an area 90 miles southwest of Chicago) that showed the building where Friday’s had been located with the roof caved in with debris strewn on the sidewalk.

The bar, which for one brief moment in the late 1970s and early 1980s became synonymous with the resurgence of “live music” in the Illinois Valley following the demise of disco. It was there that bands like The Jerks and Longshot, (composed of former members of Buckacre, that darling band of the area) who called the bar home, played before packed crowds every weekend and inspired other musicians to follow in their footsteps. And it just wasn’t Fridays that had everyone jumping, pogoing, slam-dancing, and bopping on the wooden dance floor (which thankfully held up!) either. On the corner was the Delta Queen, part of the Red Door Inn complex, across the street was The Rusty Rail (Originally called The Whistle Stop, it was a rail passenger car converted into a bar) and down the street, Murphy’s Bar where The Jerks, Longshot, and later The Libido Boys played.

It was a happening time.

In October of 1980, the Daily News Tribune (now the News Trib) thought so when the paper published an article, “The Boys Are Back in Town” about the resurgence of live music in the Illinois Valley. The article talked about some of the local bands and the bar scene which had seen more live music following the demise of disco. I just so happened to be home for the weekend from Southern Illinois University and decided to check out one of the bars mentioned in the article.

 

That weekend I went down to Water Street (appropriately named Water Street because when the Illinois River crested whenever there was a lot of rain or flooding, the street was usually under a foot or two of water) in Peru where one of these bars, Friday’s Saloon was located. It was located in a cluster of buildings at the far end of the street, (past a few factories and other industrial complexes) which also included the Delta Queen and The Red Door Inn, a popular Illinois Valley eatery (now since closed). Rumored to have been a “speakeasy” during Prohibition, Friday’s had become a popular hangout for younger crowds (many who could get in without having their ID’s checked) and was the “official home” of The Jerks and Longshot.

I guess that’s what made the place special, located on Water Street along the Illinois River, past all these factories. If you were to stand in the street (which at one time had been a brick street) and look east you could see these factories rising up underneath the Peru Bridge (U.S. Route 51, a major North-South artery—before U.S. 39 was completed—ran across the bridge). At night, and especially when it was raining there was an almost surreal aura to the place. This was a working-class neighborhood and I suppose it was only fitting that the three bars located on Water Street—Friday’s, the Delta Queen, and Murphy’s Bar (which had been a grocery store years before) rocked on the weekends.

Whenever The Jerks or Longshot played Friday’s it was an exciting time to be down on Water Street. During the heyday of this “resurgence of live music” in the Illinois Valley, people would be lined up outside waiting to get in. Inside, it was just wall-to-wall people. You had to fight your way through the crowd gathered around the bar to an adjoining room where the bands played. When it got too crowded inside, many people walked across the street to The Rusty Rail, and waited until the crowds thinned out.

The interior of Friday’s Saloon was long and narrow with a bar that ran the length of the room. Actually, Friday’s was two rooms—part of the wall had been knocked out to make an opening into this adjoining room that was on the right. The bar itself was a throwback to another era with the high embossed tin ceiling and funky retro wallpapered walls (the lower half was paneled with dark stained wood). After pushing and fighting my way through the crowd, I entered this second room that was just as crowded as the first one. The air was heavy with smoke and perfume. A large group of people was standing in the back while others were sitting at tables on either side of the room. The dance floor was packed. One person in particular stood out. He was standing near the entrance to this second room. He wore a leather jacket, with spiked black hair, and a small padlock and chain around his neck who reminded me of Sid Viscious. I didn’t know it at the time, but the man was Bruce Kowalski, a.k.a. Bob Noxious. He had his own radio program Alternative Opposites at a local radio station and was known for doing a wicked rendition of “Gloria” with The Jerks. I was definitely in the right place.

On a small stage at the other end of the room, The Jerks were playing a cover of a new wave hit by the English band The Vapors. The band was good, very good. This was a seasoned band. They were tight. With a pounding, staccato backbeat and driving guitars and booming bass, The Jerks were playing high octane rock and roll that had—judging from the way the speakers were swaying back and forth from the vibration of all the dancers on the crowded dance floor—energized the crowd. This was what rock and roll was all about. Before I knew it, I was in the middle of that dance floor, dancing and sweating and caught up in the excitement and allure that only rock and roll knows.

(Miller, 2008; retrieved from http://jeffreymillerwrites.com/meet-the-jerks-rock-roll-from-americas-heartland/)

Seeing the photo of Friday’s today, opened the floodgates to the memories I have of that time, the music I listened and danced to, and the many people who I met back then who are still my friends today. “Those were the days,” Mary Hopkin lamented in her famous song. “We thought they’d never end.” They did. We all moved on. But for many of us, Friday’s, The Jerks, Longshot…they will always be near and dear to us.

Book Trailer for Bureau 39

bureau39_ebook_front 2If you’re going to promote your book these days, you need to spend a lot of time on social media. Just posting a link to your book on Amazon or wherever else that it is available is just not going to work.

You need a video.

Specifically, you need a book trailer.

Of course, you still have to publish it somewhere and of course you still have to get people to watch it…who you hope will want to buy your book, but it’s just one of the things that indie authors have to do if they want to reach a wider market.

 

What do you think? Makes you want to go out and buy the book now, doesn’t it?

Proof Day

Proof 1You know the adage, “the proof is in the pudding?” Well, that’s how I felt when I received my proof of Bureau 39 in the mail today. It’s a big day when you see the physical copy of your book for the first time.

It’s a thrill that never gets old.

Even though I had already seen the eBook version, nothing beats holding your book in your hands; the one you worked on for so long; the one written with lots of sweat and torment when certain scenes didn’t always turn out the way you wanted.

This time, I went for a matte finish instead of a glossy one. Although I’m not too happy that the print is not too sharp, I do like how the cover feels.

Like I said, “the proof is in the pudding.”

What is Bureau 39?

DSCF2413What exactly is the infamous Bureau 39?

This is what Wikipedia says:

“Room 39 (officially Central Committee Bureau 39 of the Korean Workers’ Party, also referred to as Bureau 39, Division 39, or Office 39) is a secretive North Korean party organization that seeks ways to maintain the foreign currency slush fund for the country’s leaders, initially Kim Il-sung, then, in progression, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un.

The organization is estimated to bring in between $500 million and $1 billion per year or more and may be involved in illegal activities, such as counterfeiting $100 bills (see Superdollar), producing controlled substances (including the synthesis of methamphetamine and the conversion of morphine-containing opium into pure opiates like heroin), and international insurance fraud.

Although the seclusion of the North Korean state makes it difficult to evaluate this kind of information, many claim that Room 39 is critical to Kim Jong-un’s continued power, enabling him to buy political support and help fund North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Room 39 is believed to be located inside a ruling Workers’ Party building in Pyongyang, not far from one of the North Korean leader’s residences.”

And, in the immortal words of that endearing radio personality, Paul Harvey, “and now you know the rest of the story.”

Of course, the real story is here.

 

CIA Creates Mission Center on North Korean Threat

5980819f593a46c491b6c1887823263a_18I couldn’t ask for better publicity for my new novel, Bureau 39.

Every time there’s a story about North Korea these days means more exposure for my novel. In this case, a mission center in Seoul to assess the North Korean threat.

“Creating the Korea Mission Center allows us to more purposefully integrate and direct CIA efforts against the serious threats to the United States and its allies emanating from North Korea,” CIA Director Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

In Bureau 39, Frank Mitchum a CIA operative flies to Seoul to find out what he can about a dead North Korean defector who might have had information about a drug distribution system that the North might have been using to smuggle missile components for their WMDs.

Keep the publicity coming. Every little bit helps!

Bureau 39: The Beginning

bureau39_ebook_front 2Many people have asked me how did I come up with the story for my latest novel, Bureau 39. The story of Frank Mitchum chasing down an old Army buddy in Korea while trying to cut-off North Korea’s funding for its WMDs started out as a story about a murder in Itaewon, which was based on an actual event that happened in 2002. The novel, Murder in the Moonlight, which was my first foray into the annual National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in 2012, was the story about a woman found murdered in a hotel in Itaewon. The woman, the daughter of a former United States Forces Korea (USFK) general was in Korea visiting friends. When she ends up dead, her father contacts one of his former NCOs, Greg Sanders, who is a defense contractor in Seoul, to find out what happened. Sanders runs into his old nemesis in the CID who is convinced that the woman was murdered by her boyfriend. Later, Sanders finds out that the daughter got caught up in a drug smuggling conspiracy involving members of South Korea’s underworld and a North Korean defector. The closer Sanders gets to finding out who killed the girl, he becomes caught up in a web of deception and murder.

I wasn’t happy with the how I developed the story and shelved it to work on The Panama Affair.

And then in 2014, I heard about a former Army Ranger who was caught trying to smuggle 100 kilograms of methamphetamine into the United States.

The meth was from North Korea.

It was time to look at the story again.

Bureau 39 — An Excerpt

bureau39_ebook_front 2WRAPPED IN LAYERS of threadbare rayon and vinylon, Kim Min-hee shivered on the shore of the frozen river and hoped she wouldn’t have to wait too long. After traveling for almost two days to get there, she had lain low for another day to watch for military patrols, and had been unable to light a fire for fear of being spotted. Hungry and cold, she spent the night huddled under an old blanket she had found tucked between rocks at the edge of the mighty Yalu.

She felt the small package under her clothes. Its weight and shape were both comforting and deadly. If things worked out, she would make contact with a Chinese buyer who would pay her well for the package. Bingdu—methamphetamine or crystal meth, was a valuable commodity, but if she was caught carrying the drugs, she would either be shot on the spot by one of the patrols, or worse, arrested and sent to one of the work camps where she would most assuredly die. The risk was extreme, but definitely worth it if Min-hee wanted to escape to the South.

Getting the drug was simple, since there was a man in her village who made it in his kitchen. He had once been a renowned chemist at a state-run laboratory, but when the country fell on hard times, he and other chemists who found themselves out of work turned to alternative means to support themselves. There were others who made the drug, but Min-hee’s villager was the most reliable. He had lost his wife the winter before, and no longer cared about life. The government threatened to crack down on the production and sale of bingdu, but the kitchen labs prospered, and the thriving black market along the border between North Korea and China was impossible to stop.

Min-hee had heard there was even a factory that was producing the drug on an industrial scale. Supposedly a Chinese businessman had built it and was manufacturing the drug using some of the same chemists who had been producing it in their homes. Min-hee feared it would only be a matter of time before chemists like the one in her village would be put out of work, or executed. The regime liked to keep the people scared, and mandatory attendance of public executions in the village square did that. Either way, if these rumors were true, she would have to come up with another way to fund her passage to the South.

Like many of the people in her village, Min-hee had sampled the drug she was carrying for the Chinese trader. Fellow villagers had told her how, in small quantities, bingdu suppressed the awful hunger they all felt. At first, she wanted nothing to do with it, but when she could no longer endure the gnawing emptiness in her stomach, she relented. The drug also had other supposed medicinal benefits. Some took it for headaches, to treat a common cold, or to seek relief from depression. She heard about soldiers who used it to stay alert when they were on duty or workers who took it to work longer hours in the country’s factories.

Everyone who tried it more than once found it extremely difficult to stop using.

Min-hee was not the only person in her village who sold the drug to Chinese traders. There were others who were willing to take risks, but not everyone was so lucky. There was one woman in her village whose son was arrested and thrown into jail for smuggling the drug into China. When the woman went to try to secure the release of her son, one of the guards told her that if she ever wanted to see her son alive, she had to bring him two grams of the drug. She did, and her son was freed. Another woman was caught and never heard from again.

It never crossed Min-hee’s mind that what she was doing was wrong. When she was younger, she had been mesmerized by her country’s charismatic leader. Once, while serving in the army, he visited her radar station on a mountain. She and the other women in her unit wept when he stopped to talk to them and pose for a photograph. It was one of the happiest days of her life. She believed in her country’s policy the Juche ideology or self-reliance. However, not everyone felt the same way. People grew tired of the food shortages and the empty slogans that told them to grow more mushrooms or annihilate the enemy to the last man. These slogans did not improve their lifestyle or put more food on the table. Soon, she dreamed of a better life.

National Geographic — December 1979

national-geographic-seoulOne of my prized possessions is a 1979 issue of National Geographic that I bought on eBay to remind me of what it was like to come to Korea in 1990.

It was late summer 1990. Iraq had invaded Kuwait, Die Hard 2 and Ghost were two of the summer’s hottest movies, and I had been working at a Del Monte canning factory in Mendota, Illinois since mid-August.

How I ended up at Del Monte, after having taught in Japan just nine months earlier, is not entirely another story, but part of my plan to return to Japan via Malaysia—you know, the shortest distance between two points is not always a straight line.

The day after I interviewed for a teaching position at a new language school opening in Malaysia, I was hired by Del Monte and promptly started working the night shift from six at night until six in the morning. If I were headed back to Asia, I was going to need some funds to tide me over until I left. As it turned out, I got to put some of my college skills to good use: my job was tell trucks where to dump their loads of sweet corn and to keep track how much corn had been delivered and processed. I also relieved the two tractor operators who pushed the ears of corn into the processing facility. Actually, it was one of the best jobs I ever had and I really enjoyed the people I worked with at the facility. Had I not been offered a job in Korea (I’m getting there) I had been offered a full-time job at that plant.

At the same time, one of my friends, who worked at a printing shop in LaSalle, told me that one of her clients was the manager of a Japanese plant which made auto parts. This client had a thirteen-year-old daughter going to Washington Grade School in Peru, Illinois. Problem was, the girl’s language skills were too low for her to do well in school. My friend suggested that because of my Japanese language skills, I would be a good tutor for her. In the end, I ended up teaching the girl, her younger brother, and mother before I left for Korea. I’m getting there!

Around this time, I was informed by the recruiter of the language school I had applied for that I didn’t get the job. Although I had done well on the interview (later, I would see the notes from that interview which included the comments, “He has that All-American look; he will sell well in Asia”), the school wanted more seasoned teachers. However, the recruiter told me that positions at two schools in Seoul were opening all the time.
chamsil-2-danji-001

In the beginning, I taught the girl in the afternoon before I went to work at Del Monte. Most of the times, I got to the school early and waited for her in one of the classrooms while she finished her classes. One day, I happened to notice a stack of old National Geographic magazines in a bookcase. I picked a copy and started thumbing through it. Turned out it was one from 1979 that had a story about Seoul, South Korea. It was more of a coming-of-age story about Seoul and how the city had finally risen from the ashes of the Korean War. One photograph in particular of a housing project near Olympic Park stuck out more than the other ones of salarymen drinking and Andre Kim posing with two models. Maybe it was the stark, cold feeling that I got from the photo which showed the Number 2 subway line being built and the muddy tidal flats of the Han River in the distance which made me stare at it longer than other photographs.

Three months later, I would be living in that apartment complex when I started teaching at the ELS school near Kangnam Subway Station.

Had fate intervened that day which made choose that issue over other issues? I would like to think so. Not long after I started teaching at ELS, one of my colleagues and friends, Ken Celmer had that same issue and shared it with me. I still couldn’t get over how I had seen that same issue rightbefore I found out that I had been hired to teach at ELS.

Looking at it today, it’s 1990 all over for me.

chamsil-2-danji-002

That’s when I took the road less traveled again…and once again, it would make all the difference in the world.

Book Review: Tina Barry’s Mall Flower

Mall FlowerOne of the joys of reading is discovering a new author and immediately falling in love with his or her writing. Such was the case when I heard about Tina Barry’s Mall Flower.

The stories and poetry in this collection are just as much visceral as they are bittersweet images and vignettes of school, broken homes (and lives) and lost souls trying to find meaning in a world that is not always fair and kind. And don’t get me started on the cover! If you can forgive me for saying, the cover rocks!

But it’s what is inside what counts and there’s plenty to move you. I was immediately drawn into the short fiction and poetry in this collection by Ms. Barry’s poignant use of language and imagery. Whether it’s a reference to Bill Murray and Gilda Radner as Emily Litella talking about “all the violins” in movies on Saturday Night Live (which by the way is one of my favorite SNL moments!) in the story “What’s All This” or the terribly painful “Table Talk,” where the protagonist’s mother listens in on a phone conversation about her father’s latest misdeeds—“Mother sits at the dining room table, legs thrust underneath, a filmy nylon nightgown brushing her knees, her calves dry and scratched. I’m stretched out beneath the table watching her feet rub together like another pair of fussing hands”—Barry is nothing short of brilliant with the prose and poetry in this collection. To be sure, these are stories and poems that will stay with you long after you have read them.

On the horizon…

523ffb134784123e50fd543a9bc760fcNot one, but three new books coming down the pike.

The first one is a collection of short stories, The Roads We Must Travel, which is being published by the Big Table Publishing Company. I’m really excited to have this collection published by an indie press, especially this one which has published some very good titles the past few years. Two of Big Table’s highly acclaimed titles, Finding the Wow and Fat Girl, Skinny (which has been nominated for a Pulitzer) are at the top of their respective charts.

I’ve also completed my sixth novel, a thriller set in South Korea. I’m keeping this one under wraps until I find some beta readers and it’s been edited, but I can tell you this, it’s about a plot to smuggle 1000 kilos of methamphetamine from North Korea to the United States.

I had toyed around with the idea of publishing it through Inkshares which is this publishing platform combining the best of social networking with publishing to help authors from writing to publishing. One of my former colleagues, Peter Ryan is publishing two books with the company. Check out his first one, Sync City, which is in production now.

I’m not sure if my novel would be a perfect fit for Inkshares because from what I have seen, most of the books that do well are either science fiction or fantasy.

And finally, I’m just about finished with a novella set in the Midwest which is about fracking.

Lots to look forward to in the next coming months.

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