Saturday, December 25, 2010

Why you should buy this book

There might be any number of reasons why someone would want to buy this book, not the least of which is someone who knows me or is interested in historical fiction.

On the other hand, if you've been debating whether or not you should buy this book, consider this:

What makes my novel unique, is that it is not so much about the war and battles, as it is about the closure many families are still hoping to get with the search for the 8,000 service members still listed as missing in action from the conflict. Likewise, the novel is also about "discovering" this forgotten war. To be sure, this theme of "discovery" pervades throughout the novel from the opening chapters to the end.

Finally, and this is something I set out to do when I started writing this novel, I wanted to honor, not only all those who served in the conflict, but also all their families.

I think these are some good reasons why you should buy this book.

Merry Christmas from Korea -- December 25, 1950

It's early in the morning, Christmas day 1950. Bobby, sits inside his tent around a makeshift heater and writes a letter home to his wife, Mary:

December 25, 1950

My Darling Mary,

Merry Christmas, my darling wife! I hope this letter finds you and Ronnie both feeling well.

It is a little after midnight here in Korea, Christmas Day. It is bitterly cold this evening and it doesn’t look like we’re going to have a white Christmas even though some of the guys are con­vinced that we will. Then again, a white Christmas just might make us feel all the more homesick.

Some guys in the company cut down a pine tree and decor­ated it with some ornaments they had shaped out of foil from some packing crates. I think they did a pretty good job to bring the rest of us a little holiday cheer.

Tonight some Korean children serenaded us with a Christmas Carol. It was very touching. They sang “Silent Night” and it really got to a lot of the men.

I got some stuff from the Red Cross the other day, some paper and some chocolate.

I pray this war ends soon and that I am home with you and Ronnie. It was two years ago this week when I proposed to you. Can you believe that? Even though I have been away from you most of this time, being married to you and having a son are the best things that have ever happened to me and they are what I am most grateful for this Christmas. The thoughts of you and Ronnie have gotten me through some rough times here and are a continual source of strength for me.

Be strong my love. We will be together soon.

Give my best to the family, give Ronnie a big hug, and kiss for me.

Merry Christmas my Darling.

Your Affectionate and Loving husband,


Friday, December 24, 2010

"Silent night...Holy night..." -- Korea, 1950

Christmas Eve in Korea, 1950...

They clanked their cans together and took a drink of the icy cold beer. It was the first beer either had tasted since the regiment withdrew to Chunju. They were about to take a second drink when they suddenly stopped. It had gotten very quiet outside and inside the tent and that’s when they both thought they heard what sounded like some far-off singing.

Did you hear that?” Bobby asked. “Sounds like singing.”

What Bobby and Harold had thought was singing had started off low, almost like a whisper and had grown louder and nearer. They recognized the song immediately. One by one, the men in the platoon crept out of their tents to find the source of the mellifluous melody, which turned out to be a dozen young Korean boys and girls aged around 10 or 11 huddled together with a middle-aged Korean man around a fire burning inside an empty fuel drum. Bobby, Harold and the rest of the men who had come out of their tents to investigate, gathered around these tiny carol­ers.

Silent night, Holy night,

All is calm, all is bright.

Round yon virgin Mother and Child

Holy infant so tender and mild

Sleep in heavenly peace

Sleep in heavenly peace.

It was the first time that most of the men had had close con­tact with any Koreans, especially children. They had come across thousands of refugees fleeing burning villages along the Pusan Perimeter last summer, had passed thousands on the road to the Naktong and on the road to Pyongyang. Seeing all these refugees had always put a different perspective on the war for the men, but this was different.

Flames from the fire burning inside the fuel drum danced in the cold night air and illuminated the dirty, rosy-cheeked faces of the children. The girls were bundled up in thick woolen jackets over traditional Korean hanboks while the boys wore similar jack­ets over baggy trousers. They sang slowly and eloquently, enunci­ating each word clearly and carefully.

The men stood silent, transfixed by the carolers and their sweet, angelic voices. A few of the men with children of their own back home thought about them and how much they missed them, especially at this time of the year. Those without children, thought about parents, brothers, sisters and other loved ones at home. Al­most all of the men were a little misty-eyed, even First Sergeant Marshall, who was never known for showing any kind of emotion in front of the men, looked a little choked up.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Book Review and Interview in the Korea Times

Ines Min from the Korea Times wrote a very nice review of War Remains:

“It’s never been a forgotten one for me; not with the lead I still carry in my body.”

Exactly what has or has not been lost in the dredges of time is the Korean War (1950-53). Sixty years later, the battle scenes may not be as visceral for most of us as carrying shrapnel in our flesh — but it remains tangible, emotional and wholly real for many on the peninsula.

Jeffrey Miller, an English teacher at Woosong University in Daejeon, uncovers the horrors of war in his debut novel released late last month, providing an insight into the torrid time.

War Remains follows the tale of Bobby Washkowiak and his grandson Michael, who explores the past in order to find out exactly what happened the day his grandfather went missing.

Alternating from present day to wartime past, the novel unfolds through pulsating battle scenes, personal vignettes and quiet introspection, making use of jumping perspectives in order to create an intimate tale of loyalty, love and livelihood.

You can read the rest of the review and the interview here.

Thanks Ines!

Friday, December 17, 2010

My first autograph

It was only fitting, not to mention an honor that my first autograph I signed inside my novel was for Mrs. Arlene Gandolfi, one of the people included on the book's dedication page.

Her son Brent, one of my elementary school and high school classmates, read the News Trib article last month and got in touch with me (via Facebook) and asked how he could get an autograph copy for his mother. He ordered the book, had it sent to me (which I received yesterday) and today, after I signed the novel, I sent it back to Brent.

It's going to take another two weeks to get to his mother who's going to be very surprised when she receives the book.

I thanked Mrs. Gandolfi, who first encouraged me to write back in 1971, for her kindness and encouragement, as well as her teaching.

Thanks again, Mrs. Gandolfi.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Trolley Car Family

What does The Trolley Car Family have to do with my first novel War Remains? Three words: Scholastic Book Services.

When I was growing up in Oglesby, Illinois—a small town in north central Illinois, approximately 90 miles southwest of Chicago—and attending Washington Grade School, a few times a year our teacher would hand out an order form for ordering books from Scholastic Book Services. Sometimes there would be a book fair for students to check out what new books were available; other times we would look through the teacher’s copy of the catalog to see what books we would like to order.

After we had made our choices, we would then persuade, convince, beg, borrow, and cajole our parents for the few dollars to buy the books we had checked on the order form. In my case, it usually meant asking for an advance on my allowance for a couple of weeks with the promise that I would do a much better job cleaning the living room, putting away my clothes, and doing the dishes. Sometimes I would sweeten the deal by promising not to pick on my brother.

The teacher would collect the money from my classmates and myself and then, we would anxiously wait for the arrival of our books. Every day when we went to school, we did a reconnoiter of our classroom to see if the books had arrived. It was like waiting for Christmas, one’s birthday, and the first day of summer vacation all rolled up into one anticipatory moment each day we looked for that box.

When that day finally did arrive, the box would be on the teacher’s desk in front of the classroom in plain view for all of us to see. One could literally cut the anticipation with a knife, as we watched the teacher open the box, and then remove the literary treasures inside. We leaned forward at our desks, hoping for a glimpse of the books we had ordered.

With her master order form in hand, she would call out the names of the students who had ordered books and then, one by one, we would go to the front of the class and receive our books. There was no point in having class until we had thumbed through our new books, read a few paragraphs, or showed off our prized new literary possessions to classmates sitting around us.

I remembered how excited I was to finally hold those books in my hand after having only seen them in a catalog or on a table in the lobby of the gymnasium. I loved the feel of the covers and the pages or the smell of the ink. I couldn’t wait to get home and start reading them, like The Trolley Car Family. Unlike books that I could borrow from the library, these were my books.

And that’s exactly how I felt today, when after three weeks since I ordered it, my novel War Remains finally made it to Korea. For the past week, I have been stopping in at the office at school, sometimes two or three times a day to see if the mail and my book had arrived. The same anticipation I felt back there at Washington Grade School forty years ago had become magnified one hundredfold.

This was my book I was waiting for; this was the book that had taken up over a year of my life. This was the book that announced to the world that Jeffrey Miller the novelist had arrived.

As soon as I saw the book mailer from Lulu yesterday, I was filled with the same excitement I felt when I saw the box of books on a teacher’s desk all those years ago. I raced upstairs to my office, and nervously opened the mailer. Would my book look exactly like the one I had only seen on a computer screen? Would the cover photograph look good? Would the print inside be easy to read? Would it really look and feel like a novel?

The answer to all these questions would be yes, as I stood there holding my novel in my hands.

What a great feeling.

Friday, December 10, 2010


Today I was honored with the comments left by the son of a Korean War veteran who discovered my post about the US Second Infantry Division monument at Hoengsong and the battle that was fought there in February 1951.

His father served with the 38th Infantry Regiment and fought in the battle that I described in my novel.

He wanted to know the exact location of the monument because he is planning to visit Korea on the 60th anniversary of some of the battles his father fought in during the war.

I am honored because that was one of my original intentions all along, when I first started writing War Remains, was that I wanted to honor all Korean War veterans and their loved ones and especially, those who served with the US Second Infantry Division and the 38th Infantry Regiment.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Welcome to Korea! Lost Luggage, Digestive Crackers, & David Letterman

Not long ago I blogged that I first started to write War Remains back in 2000 when I decided to read and review Retrieving Bones, a book I came across at the Kyobo Book Centre in downtown Seoul, one cold February afternoon.

Yes, it's true that after I read and reviewed that book, I would review many more books on the Korean War. And yes, those book reviews enabled me to cover Korean War commemorative events, which eventually took me to one commemorative event at Chipyong-ni where some of the veterans I met would become the inspiration for my novel.

However, if there was a starting point for all of us, it would have to be twenty years ago today, when I first came to Korea and when the die was cast.

This originally appeared in a blog in October 2009 and later, in the anthology, The Sanctuary.

When you decide to leave your country and travel halfway around the world to live and work-in my case to teach English in Korea-there are some things that you are never going to forget about your experience abroad and your life as an expat.

It goes without saying that for every foreigner who has set foot in Korea to live and work a universal chord is struck by what we all have in common. Whether it was getting accustomed to a new culture (with all its quirks and idiosyncrasies), attempting to speak the language, as well as making new friendships and enjoying a lifestyle commensurate with our professional and personal pursuits, much of what we might remember fondly is of this shared experience.

On the other hand, for better or worse, there are other things of a more personal nature, which will always remind us of the time, we spent in Korea. For me-after living and working in Korea for 19 years (and still counting)-one thing that will forever stand out most was my first week here and how I ended up in Korea in the first place.

“How did you end up in Korea?” asked an acquaintance who I had not seen since 1984 and who I had recently reconnected with on Facebook.

“I turned left at Japan,” I replied, tweaking a famous line from The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night.

(In the movie, John Lennon was asked, “How did you find America?” upon which he replied, “We turned left at Greenland.”)

One thing is for certain, I didn’t end up in Korea based on what I knew or didn’t know about the country. To be sure, if you were to have asked me prior to 1988, which Korea was the Communist one, who Kim Il-sung was, or where Korea was located specifically in Northeast Asia, I probably wouldn’t have been able to get all three right.

I had heard of Korea though. Two of my uncles had fought in the Korean War, my high school friend “LJ” had learned Taekwondo in the 70’s, and I had (until he decided to return home) a Korean roommate when I was at college. I knew a few Koreans in some of my classes, but we never talked much about Korea. Sadly, for most people our knowledge of Korea was limited to what we could glean from the popular TV show M*A*S*H.

On the other hand, the few times that we did hear anything about Korea was when there was some disaster or tragedy like the USS Pueblo seizure in 1968, the Panmunjom Axe Murder Incident in 1976, Koreagate, the downing of KAL Flight 007 in 1983, and student demonstrations in the 80’s.

Despite these international events our knowledge about Korea was limited. Even the Korean War, which was for all semantic purposes a substitute for World War III, had sadly been called “the forgotten war.” Even my two uncles who had fought in it never talked about it.

Of course, the world would learn much about South Korea in 1988 with the Seoul Olympics that could be best described as one massive “coming out party” for the nation and its people.

Korea was not some place that you just heard about one day and decided that is where you wanted to go. No, Korea was a place that you had to have heard about somewhere from someone who had either been there or knew someone that had. People just didn’t end up here by accident. Fate maybe, but not by chance.

Two years after the Seoul Olympics, I found myself in Korea to teach English. I had not intended to teach in Korea when I graduated from graduate school in 1989. After a year in Japan and a semester teaching ESL at a community college in my hometown, all I could think about was getting back to Asia. Call it the lure of the Orient or something that I had to get out of my system before I could get on with my life, I applied for teaching positions at various schools in Asia.

One day, out of the blue I get a call from a language school recruiter in Culver City, California asking me if I wanted to teach in Korea.

“There’s a position opening up at a school in Seoul in December right before Christmas,” she said. “Are you interested?”

Before she had a chance to finish, I had already made up my mind.

I was going to Korea.

Yeah, I guess it was fate after all.

I arrived in Seoul on a cool, clammy Friday night in December 1990 just two weeks before Christmas. For some, traveling to another country around the holidays to begin work might be a little depressing, but I was too pumped up to feel depressed. The recruiter, who had phoned me back in October and offered me the job, told me that I would be too excited to feel depressed. She was right.

Then again, I had spent the previous Christmas in Japan and there were the two Christmases I had spent in Panama back in 1976 and 1977, so the holidays were not much of a problem.

The only problem, at least after I had arrived in Korea was going to be a change of underwear. I’ll get back to this later.

I had left Chicago the day before at 7:00 in the morning on my way to Seattle and then on to Seoul. The day before I left was a bit of a trip down memory lane. I had lunch with Dick Verucchi at the House of Hunan in Peru, bumped into Steve Stout there, went to Vallero’s Bakery in Dalzell on a bread run for Verucchi’s Ristorante and later that day, hung out with LJ who quizzed me on the Korean flag.

I had to get up to O’Hare early in the morning and my friend Mary Sue Hurley drove me up. It’s sad and ironic when you look back and realize that on what would end up being one of the major turning points of your life, would also be the last time you would see some very special people in your life.

If you had traveled to Korea prior to March 2001 when the new Incheon Airport opened, then you had to go through Seoul’s Kimpo Airport.

What I remember most about Kimpo that night, and all the other times I flew in and out of there, was how dreary and archaic it was. There’s no question that Kimpo was an obvious testament to Korea’s rapid economic development in the 70’s, but still had this sort of “developing nation” feel to it. Even though Korea had hosted the Olympics just two years earlier, one really felt as though they had stepped back into time-back to the 70s-when you had to go through Kimpo.

I have flown in and out of Korea countless times over the years, and usually when you go through immigration formalities, the immigration officials hardly utter more than a sentence or two, if that. However, on that night the immigration official asked me for a stick of gum. Well, it was more like “give me a stick of gum,” but have to give the guy credit for trying out his language skills.

“Mmm… Juicy Fruit,” he said.

If my first night in Korea was going to be a memorable one, it was not going to get off to a good start when I soon discovered that my luggage had been lost.

Great, I thought. I start work on Monday and I don’t have any clean clothes to wear.

After waiting until the last bags from my flight had been unloaded and filling out some forms, one of the ground staff assured me that my luggage would arrive in a day or two. It didn’t.

I wasn’t alone. A few other passengers, who had flown out of Chicago with me on Northwest, were also missing their luggage. I should have known there was going to be a problem when I checked in and noticed that the luggage conveyor belt was broken and the luggage had to be carried downstairs by the Northwest staff. Well, that sort of thing is just begging for a problem to happen.

I was not the only teacher arriving that night. There were three other teachers who would be joining the ELS Kangnam (a district in Seoul, referred to as a Gu in Korean, south of the Han River) school staff (one more was due in from Thailand a few days later). After we had met, we got in a van and headed to Chamsil (located very close to Olympic Park), which would be my home for the next two years.

Say what you will about the pitfalls of the hogwon (institute) system in Korea, (there have been countless horror stories of teachers coming to Korea and after being met at the airport being handed a book and told that their students were waiting for them in some crowded classroom) but ELS, at least back then took very good care of its teachers and made it very comfortable for a person to come to Korea to teach, especially when it came to your accommodations.

(ELS, which was based out of California had schools and franchises around the world. The three ELS schools in South Korea in 1990 were owned by Sisa-Yong-o-sa, at the time, Korea’s largest English book publisher; now it is called YBM Sisa.)

The school put us up in these rather spacious apartments in Chamsil not far from Olympic Sports Complex and only meters away from the sprawling Lotte World shopping and entertainment complex.

Back in 1990, Lotte World was one of Seoul’s major attractions that had everything from a classy hotel, department store, and indoor swimming pool to Lotte Adventure, what came across, for better or worse as a bit of a Disneyland knock-off.

The apartments were starting to look a little rundown back then (the housing complex was leveled a few years ago and new apartment buildings have already gone up), but if you didn’t mind the rats scurrying above in the crawl space and the black soot from people still burning yontan (cylinder-shaped, coal-like briquettes used for heating) which darkened the walls, it wasn’t too bad of a place to call home, especially when you didn’t have to pay any rent.

That night, I was the last person to be taken to an apartment. I remember standing outside and having a smoke and listening to the steady drone of traffic speeding along Olympic Expressway. The housing complex had this “gulag” feel to it, row after row of apartment buildings all looking the same with a central heating plant located in the center.

I might have been in Asia, but it sure didn’t feel like it.

Unlike the other teachers who arrived that night, I did not have a roommate waiting for me when I was taken to my apartment. He was supposed to arrive from Thailand a few days later (which turned out to be a week later). I got a quick tour of the apartment and was told that in the morning another ELS teacher would show me around town and how to get to the institute (just a ten-minute subway ride away). So, at least for this night, my first night in Korea I was on my own.

The apartment came furnished and even included a telephone and a TV. The refrigerator was stocked with a few items to satisfy any hunger pangs that I might have until I could get to the store. I didn’t find the package of “Digestive Crackers” too appealing (gee, I hope I could digest them), but a few hours later and feeling a little hungry, they hit the spot. They were similar to graham crackers and I had no trouble digesting them.

I turned on the TV and the David Letterman Show was on-courtesy of AFRTS, the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service or as it was more appropriately called in Korea, AFKN (Armed Forces Korean Network). Weird. I might have traveled halfway around the world and ready to experience another culture, but there was David Letterman beaming into my apartment. And if I might also add, just in time for his Top Ten List.

I walked out on the balcony to have a smoke. On the sidewalk below I could hear people walking home from work and the bars. It had gotten foggier and cooler. A thousand points of light in the towering housing gulags across the street that dwarfed the smaller housing complex I lived in.

I listened to the night. I listened to this strange, new language drifting up, wondering how long it would be before I would be able to understand it.

And I wondered if I was going to like it here.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

It's not as easy as you'd think

Coming up with an attention-grabbing "blurb" to promote War Remains was not as easy as I thought.

You don't want to give away too much information about the novel, less is more that sort of thing, but you want to give enough to entice would be readers and buyers of your book.

My first time out, I think I gave away a little too much with the book description. It was okay, but I felt I could do better.

And I did.

Robert “Bobby” Washkowiak battles his way through the bitter first winter of the Korean War, longing for home, his wife, and newborn son. Fifty years later, his son and grandson come across his wartime letters and together, they try to find out what really happened to him on one of the battlefields of that “forgotten war.”

Yeah, I like this a lot.

I hope you do, too.

Friday, December 3, 2010

How I discovered a "forgotten war"

I confess, when I came to Korea 20 years ago, I didn't know much about the Korean War. I knew of the war, but not much. Even though I minored in history, my knowledge of the conflict was severely and sadly limited.

Most of what I knew, like most Americans from my generation, was from what I gleaned from watching M*A*S*H. Two of my uncles fought in the war, but I never recalled them at any time, when the family got together for holidays or birthdays, regaling us with any "war stories."

What I knew and what I didn't know would all change that cold day in February 2000 when I bought Retrieving Bones.

If there is any penance for my ignorance, or autobiographical underpinnings in War Remains, look no further than the character of Michael. Much of what Michael does to learn about the Korean War was what I did after I read Retrieving Bones and the other books I read and reviewed for the Korea Times, as well as the articles that I would eventually write about the Korean War Commemorative events in Korea.

I knew when I started writing my novel that I could never really accurately describe combat or know what it was like because I have never been in combat. But what I could do, and what I knew I could do well in the novel was write about what it would be like for an ordinary person to learn about a war the way that I did and the way that Michael does in the novel.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

This book is dedicated to....

That was easy.

I knew from the beginning, when I sat down and started writing War Remains that I would dedicate the book to my mother, my eighth grade English teacher, Arlene Gandolfi and Oscar Cortez.

My mother was proud of me when I started writing for the Korea Times in 2000 and went around LaSalle-Peru showing everyone the clippings from the newspapers I had sent her with my articles in them. She was always after me to write a book but I never knew what to write about and kept on telling her, one day mom, one day.

Mrs. Gandolfi first encouraged me to write when I was in the eighth grade at Washington Grade School 1971-1972. It all started with his science fiction story we read in class and some extra credit for writing a short story. I started writing a serialized story about invaders from Mars that Mrs. Gandolfi read in class. I included all my classmates battling Martians and saving Oglesby, Illinois from destruction. Very early on in life, I understood the meaning of, "the pen is mightier than the sword." Of course, my classmates were not too thrilled when Mrs. Gandolfi gave quizzes on my story; they felt I had an unfair advantage as the author.

Interestingly, Norman Mailer's first story, written when he was in elementary school, was also about an invasion from Mars.

I first met Oscar Cortez in 2001 when he visited Korea with a group of Korean War veterans from San Antonio. His story about his military service in the Korean War, was one of the inspirations for War Remains. His story could have been the story of any man who was thrust into extraordinary circumstances during the war.

The book is also dedicated to all Korean War veterans and their families, as well as those families who lost a loved one during the war, or who are still waiting for a loved one to come home.

And finally, I dedicated the book to the men and women of the US Second Infantry Division who to this day, still help to keep peace on the Korean peninsula.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A plug from ROK Drop

War Remains got a little more press today with a mention on ROK Drop one of the more widely-read South Korean blogs/websites.

I sent them a press release a few days ago and appreciate the plug.

Thanks ROK Drop!

It all started with a book

The day I held Retrieving Bones—a collection of short stories and poetry written by Korean War veterans—at the Kyobo Book Centre in downtown Seoul one cold February afternoon in 2000, was the day I started writing War Remains.

As I stood there in Kyobo, debating whether or not I should pay the 39,000 Won for the book, I convinced myself that if I bought the book I could maybe write a book review for the Korea Times; after all this was 2000 and the 50th Anniversary of the start of the Korean War. Maybe, the editor would go for the idea. He did, and asked me if I could write more book reviews. I said I could. And that is what got me started down the road as a feature writer for the newspaper and covering many Korean War commemorative activities in Korea from 2000-2003.

It's true, I was an accidental journalist, but for the first time since college, I was writing almost on a daily basis and at the same time becoming a part of history while learning about history and above all, discovering a forgotten war.

In May 2001, I had the opportunity to meet some Korean War veterans from San Antonio who came to Korea to commemorate Chipyong-ni, an important battle of the Korean War in February 1951, which turned the tide of the war for the US Second Infantry Division (2ID). Most of the veterans had served in the 2ID, including Oscar Cortez who was captured by the Chinese on February 12, 1951 north of Hoengsong—east of Chipyong-ni.

When I sat down a little over a year ago to begin writing War Remains, I had in mind that battle. Although, the battle itself would not be featured prominently in the novel, it was part of the inspiration.

It’s a good thing I bought that book that day. It changed my life forever.

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