Scott Montgomery: Did the idea of bank robbing GIs come from your military experience or author’s imagination?
Martin Limón: Imagination. Because suddenly it dawned on me that I’d never heard of bank robbery committed by American GIs in Korea—and back in those days there were very few bank robberies committed in the country at all. The elements needed for a successful bank heist just didn’t exist. Very few people, other than the wealthy, owned a car. And in order for a crook to make his getaway, a la Bonnie and Clyde, he needed wheels. And there was total gun control. Only the military and the police were armed. So the occasional bank robbery was virtually always an inside job. Embezzlement rather than armed robbery. But GIs had access to vehicles and they had access to arms. So good old American know-how made it possible for these guys (fictionally) to get away with their crime spree.
SM: How do you go about creating a criminal as dark and believable as the main robber they are closing in on?
ML: Years ago, I briefly worked for a guy who was Armenian. He talked to me about their genocide and diaspora and since he was older than me he sometimes counseled me about reaching my personal goals. The small business he owned was moderately successful but his real dream in life was to paint. He tried to sell those paintings or get them exhibited but hit a brick wall everywhere he went. He was very smart and very kind but he had a dark side. In despair, I believe, he killed himself in a single-victim car crash. So in building my villain, I started with this good person I once knew, made him younger, enlisted him in the army, and gave him a burning desire to build up a nest egg of $5,000, a lot of money for a GI in the early 70s. And I set him to work.
SM: You have a second plot that deals with a general bringing in prostitutes for his men. Was the character influenced by an officer you heard of?
ML: Not specifically, no. But some of the senior ROK Army officers were known to throw lavish entertainments, often including beautiful kisaeng, young women similar to Japanese geisha. I started there and made it even more sordid. By the way, the women wouldn’t be for his “men.” That is, the enlisted men. They would be strictly for the senior officers and their invited guests, often American military brass. And since I was never amongst their exalted rank, I could only imagine what the partying must’ve been like.
SM: Two newspapers play a part in the story. The army’s Stars and Stripes and the Overseas Weekly. What did you want to examine about how things were covered?
ML: The Stripes, as we used to call it, was an officially sanctioned Department of Defense publication. Therefore, more staid and largely without an opinion of its own. The Overseas Weekly, however, was a newspaper owned and operated privately, with a very pro-GI point of view. It covered Vietnam and the rest of the Far East from, I believe, 1966 until going out of business in 1975. Gaudy tabloid headlines were interspersed with plenty of photos of pinup girls in bikinis, so the GIs called it the Oversexed Weekly. They did real journalism, however, and exposed graft and corruption and outright stupidity in the military that really stuck in the craw of those officers with stars on their shoulders.
SM: Katie is a wonderful character to team up with Sueño and Bascom. How did you go about constructing her?
ML: The late Ann Bryan Mariano was the main reporter for the Overseas Weekly in Vietnam. I never knew her, of course, but I located her papers which are archived at the State Historical Society of Missouri and managed to borrow some microfilm with many years worth of editions of the Overseas Weekly. I had her in mind, along with the other truly intrepid female reporters in Vietnam when I created Katie Byrd Worthington. I don’t suppose visiting Austin and Houston last year hurt either; since you’ll notice she’s from Fort Worth. She has the frontier spirit and, unlike me, never gets fooled by anyone.
SM: I’ve noticed more humor in the last few books and you allow more time with Bascom and Sueño to bulls#!t and banter. Are you having more fun with these characters?
ML: Yes. It’s the only fun I have. Other than that, I’m a pathetic old shut-in. But when I’m with George and Ernie, I’m a real boulevardier. A man-about-town. I was gratified to run into a woman last year who told me that my books made her laugh out loud. I thanked her for her compliment but also asked if she had considered seeking out a mental health professional.