Running With Cannibals
Running With Cannibals
by Robert W. Smith
On the run from a hangman’s noose, a young man joins the army in search of anonymity, but lands in the Philippines in the closing phase of the war (1901), where his life intersects with a beguiling and mysterious young Filipina, a disillusioned Catholic priest and an American “Negro” deserter. They join forces, each in his or her own way, to hold back the tide of greed and colonial barbarity from a ravenous Eagle. At great cost, the young soldier will find his place, his people and himself. But to end his running, he must endure the last battle and the dark jungle beyond that holds the key to his fate and future.
One will die in the fight. One will learn that truth wears no flag and must be pursued and safeguarded, no matter the price. The other two will live forever, legends in the minds and hearts of the Filipino people.
A sick feeling churned in his stomach, like that of a man who’d blindly taken his first step over a cliff in the dark. The unfortunate soul could almost feel the soft blades of grass drooping teasingly over the ledge, only inches from his outstretched hand as he mourned a fatal mistake, but the inevitability of his fate cruelly mocked the effort.
With his coat buttoned up and the saddlebags over his shoulder, the man reached for the old newsboy hat on the table before leaving. The wavy, chestnut hair would be a dead giveaway for anyone searching by description, and he tucked it in the best he could under the cap. In the same instant, the flimsy door to his room imploded from its hinges as a parade of uniformed police poured in behind it, and the man with no name faced his rendezvous with destiny. With two friends surely facing a hangman’s noose, surrender equaled slow suicide. In a split second, he chose the cliff over the noose.
Just maybe, he thought, he could fly. The window was barely large enough to accommodate his slender frame, and he proved it the hard way, headfirst through shattering glass. Like the man grasping in vain for the ledge, he reached instinctively back for the window, knowing this was his last mistake and praying only for instant death.
About the Author:
Bob was raised in Chicago, enlisting in the Air Force at age eighteen during the Vietnam War. Following a year of intensive language training at Syracuse University, he served three years as a Russian Linguist in Security Service Command, a branch of the NSA. Upon return to civilian live, he attended DePaul University and The John Marshall Law School in Chicago on the G.I. Bill while working as a Chicago Transit Authority Police Officer. Thirty-odd years as a criminal defense lawyer in Chicago ensued. His first book was Immoral Authority (Echelon Press, 2002) followed by Catch a Falling Lawyer (New Leaf Books, 2005) and The Sakhalin Collection (New Leaf Books, 2007, hardcover)
Q&A With the Author
When did you first consider yourself to be a writer?
Right after my first book was published in 2001, Immoral Authority, a legal thriller. When the reviews came I had to reconsider. One reader described it as having “the feel of a first novel.” Bummer, but the lady was dead on. My second book was a series follow-up named, “Catch a Falling Lawyer.” New Leaf Books was an amazing small press. The editor is still a close friend. She recognized my possibilities and patiently taught me this craft, still does. I love her. It’s hard to teach a lawyer anything. From a craftsman ship POV, CAFL was a better book all around, although I think both were strong stories, based on my many years as a criminal defense lawyer in Chicago. But writing legal thrillers didn’t scratch my itch. I had always loved history and discovered my niche was historical fiction based on true stories or real events. So I wrote “The Sakhalin Collection,” a fictionalized account of “The Sakhalin Koreans,” thousands of Koreans citizens kidnapped from their homes by the Japanese during WWII and sent to work and rot in the mines of Sakhalin Island. After the War, the island became a Soviet possession and the Soviets left the poor souls to rot, all with knowledge and tacit approval of the U.S. and its Western allies. Many of the Koreans were still on Sakhalin when I served in the Air Force during The Cold War as a Russian Linguist for the NSA. I heard the story as a young airman in Wakkanai, Japan, only twenty miles from the Soviet island. I met a beautiful young Korean girl working as a bartender in the Airmen’s Club. I was curious about how she came to be living in such a remote corner of Japan, a notoriously homogenous society. She told me the story. Hers was one of hundreds of families to have escaped in fishing boats and such. The tale haunted me for years and I finally wrote it. New Leaf Books published it in hardcover in 2007. That’s when I considered myself to be a writer. I think it’s a good book.
What advice do you have for a new writer?
Learn to write with what you know, then write what you love. Some years into my law career I started to write a book about something I understood. John Grisham was the hottest thing in print then and what the hell did he know about defending murderers? So I wrote about crime and corruption in Chicago. It was slow going because I was working and pursuing an Abe Lincoln-style creative writing education, not by the light of a fireplace, but you get the drift. After the second legal thriller I drifted because my head was in the clouds somewhere with Len Deighton’s two heroes of “Goodbye Mickey Mouse,” brothers in all but blood, one mortally wounded, both waiting for the moment the sea would take young Mickey. Two simple salutes and an exchange of smiles across P-51 cockpits told a tale I could never forget, brought it to life without a single word and made me cry, bringing me closer to an understanding of brotherhood than could any expertly crafted pages of conversation or narrated reflections.
That’s when I recognized my mission, bringing my commentary and observations to life in compelling stories of memorable characters throughout modern history. Deighton and Graham Greene, Solzhenitsyn, even the early Twentieth Century author, Joseph Conrad, had all along been writing consistently with a theme, some exploration of humanity, inhumanity, brotherhood, colonialism, war, ant-war. It was always there and it’s what drew me to them in the first place. Since then I write what I want when I have something to say and can find a way to say it, always including an off-beat romance. My reward has been hundreds more rejections by agents, with one brief exception, and almost no access to major publishers. But I’m cool with that because I have another good publisher and editor who know the game and love books. I found there are book people out there looking for more than the “style de jour” i.e. “Gone Girl.” It's not my intent to sew sour grapes, I’m not bashing popular styles or series or genres, simply pointing out to readers that there are thousands of good writers out there writing important, compelling books with little or no mass commercial appeal. It doesn’t mean an author won’t get lucky and the possibility is exhilarating. I won’t quit because there are readers looking for my work. All this gibberish is simply a defense of any writer who chooses not to conform to the mandates of agents, chooses to write what’s in his or her heart because that’s where his or her best work lives. Readers are always looking for great stories. Publication by one of the “big five” shouldn’t be the standard of measurement for a writer because it limits the reader.
An author isn’t likely to get rich this way, especially if he’s old like I am, but he will make ends meet. Draw from his or her trust fund, marry a rich man or woman or live a frugal, happy life on a park bench at a Florida beach. But she’ll also bank indescribable moments of joy and satisfaction, leaving the most important part of herself in a permanent record for anyone who loves books and cares to take a peek in a hundred years.
What is the easiest part of the writing process for you?
After chapter five. For some reason, my stories always seem to take shape and blossom after chapter five. The writing becomes more energetic, intense. Deb, my editor, will agree. I will inevitably need to go back and infuse more life into the opening chapters.
What is your favorite part of this story?
The love story; believe it or not, because in school I learned in passing something about the “Philippine Insurrection,” a brief and minor conflict in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, a subject steadfastly ignored in U.S. History books. With a little digging on the internet, I uncovered a completely different version of the so-called “insurrection,” a version based on facts and more fairly represented by Filipino historians and official U.S. Army records. Filipinos more accurately call the conflict, “The Philippine-American War.” Ultimately, the war held lessons that might have altered the course of history, specifically the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. As my research deepened, I explored America’s Age of Manifest Destiny, a time during which powerful forces pushed the McKinley administration into a policy of colonialization modeled on the British experiences in Africa. The policy was motivated partially by a perceived need to control valuable trade routes and raw materials in the Far East and resulted in the U.S. “purchasing” the Philippines from Spain after vanquishing her meager forces in battle. Some historians simply attribute the entire policy to greed. The result was accurately predicted by no less than Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, in his famous essay, “To the Person Sitting in Darkness.” U.S. forces occupied the seven thousand Philippine Islands, formed a military government and embarked on a brutal war of aggression against the Filipino people. I was struck by the parallels to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam and to the general ignorance of history that certainly contributed to the initial acceptance of U.S. policy in Southeast Asia. Delving even deeper into that time and place, I learned the true love story of a Filipina, Casiana Nationales (Geronima) and Sgt. Frank Betron of the U.S. 9th Infantry Regiment and the so-called “Balangiga Massacre” in which villagers rose up in defiance of their occupiers, killing some fifty American soldiers. Filipinos call it the Battle of Balangiga. Geronima is a national heroine in the Philippines, a strong and beautiful woman of inexplicable influence who fell in love with Sgt. Betron and yet opted to side with her people against the Americans. Little is known about the details of their love affair. Those details are fictionalized in Running with Cannibals, the product of my imagination, but the romance is not. Betron lived the rest of his life in the Philippines and raised a family. To me, bringing real characters to life in a fictionalized, plausible story is the most rewarding achievement for an author. So My favorite part of this story was the quirky, unconventional love affair between two unlikely people who really lived the experience in some form.
Which Character was the most fun to write about? Why?
The tormented priest, definitely. He’s lost his faith and turned his back on the Church. He’s brilliant, worldly and broadly educated, but riddled with guilt, regret and self-doubt. I can’t tell you who he is because it would be a spoiler, but he likes girls, I mean really likes girls. I can’t seem to avoid putting a jaded or troubled priest in every book. I was raised strict Catholic and still recovering. Still have my own issues with that whole thing, I guess.
Which Character was the hardest to write about? Why?
Definitely my female co-protagonist, and on every level. First she’s a woman and I’m not. My wife used to tell me to avoid going too deeply into female characters because I think like a man. Secondly, she’s Filipina, which raises all kinds of touchy cultural issues. And I want Filipinos to read this book, so I tried hard to get her right and believable. I even had two Filipina friends review the book for those issues. Finally, and most importantly, her fictional persona is loosely based on a revered and much-loved figure in Filipino history. So if Filipinos don’t like her, it’s game over for me.
Social Media Links
Goodreads: Robert Smith
Robert W. Smith will be awarding a $25 Amazon or Barnes and Noble GC to a randomly drawn winner via rafflecopter during the tour.
a Rafflecopter giveaway