GS: I think we should start with how you discovered Tae Kwon-Do. LS: It is your favourite story! I found myself a new date, I seem to remember, and he happened to be a TKD Instructor. We went to a few competitions, and every single person I met asked the same question: 'When are you going to start training?' And I told them 'Never!' I was perfectly happy with yoga and dancing, revolted by the idea of doing something just because my boyfriend did it. I tried your class simply out of politeness. Never turned out to be a lot sooner than expected! I loved it. Of course now, when I recall being 5 years old and in trouble in my ballet class for kicking the other girls, it is obvious that my path took a wrong turn a long time ago! But at the grand old age of 36, in 2006, there I was, finally, with my brand new white belt. Since then I have been made redundant from two desk jobs, become an Assistant Instructor, and now here I am, teaching 6 nights a week. Plus I married you, so Tae Kwon-Do changed my life totally.
GS: That is a good story, in my opinion. Now you may explain what the Tae Kwon Do Time Travelling Tour Bus book is about. LS: It's about the facts and the myths that are behind our pattern meanings. In the definition of Chon Ji, for example, the reason for it being the first pattern are kind of covered in the meaning, but hardly any student I spoke to knew that Chon Ji is the name of the lake where all life was reputed to have begun. In Korea, this knowledge is commonplace, it doesn't need any further explanation.
GS: But you didn't write a book of facts, did you? Why not? LS: The facts, and the myths, can be Googled, they can be read and researched by anyone with access to the internet or a library. A story is something that breathes life into facts. It can convey something beyond a list of dates. When I am teaching our students new techniques I often put some kind of humorous or even gruesome narrative together as a way of helping them remember how to chamber, what the target is, what stance they should be in. Stories build real meaning. The pattern meanings are supposed to inspire students, but if we don't know the stories, that inspiration is lost.
GS: Why do we need that inspiration?
LS: Training can get tough. We need mental, moral, physical strength. Life can be tough too. I think the pattern meanings contain encouragement to cope with both. And there is more to this art than kicking and punching each other. Parents like their children to do a martial art for self defence and for the discipline. They worry about their children playing online games, for example, identifying with characters who gain skills with the push of a button, when in life skills take practice and graft. The moral side of it is something to be proud of.
GS: Agreed! What first gave you the idea of writing these stories?
LS: The idea was bubbling under the surface for ages, I think. Actually putting pen to paper happened as a result of observing how much the interest factor of odd bits of information, like 'Dan Gun's mum was a bear,' improved the concentration and effort of students; adults and children, combined with sitting on the theory table at colour belt gradings. I was watching all these scared yet bored faces reciting a bunch of words which they didn't necessarily understand or care about beyond getting their next belt, and I thought, why bother? Why bother if we are getting nothing from this? We explain physical techniques to our students, why not the pattern meanings too?
GS: So, you thought this and you wrote the book. What gave you the confidence to tackle the project yourself?
LS: You know this morning we went for a walk in the woods?
GS: Er, yes?
LS: Well, I know I can balance on a tree branch, because I've practised it, although I'm scared of heights.
GS: You are referring to that branch over the old drainage pit?
LS: Yep. We both walked over it. For me the confidence to do that came partly from the knowledge that I'd practised, partly from the simple fact that I'd seen the challenge was there, and you learn most from life when you push past your comfort zones.
GS: Be more specific!
LS: I have always written. I can't remember not being able to read and write, it was like something I was born to do. But the rest of this project is sheer bravado. I didn't really know I could do it until it was finished. Just like when I made it to the other side of the drainage pit and the branch hadn't snapped and I hadn't fallen off, there was an element of surprise to it.
GS: Was there ever a point in writing or researching where you thought, this is too difficult, forget it?
LS: There was the point where I spent all of my savings getting it printed! That was scary!!
GS: It's true, we could have had a campervan.
LS: Indeed! Or a holiday!
GS: Let's get off that subject! What about the illustrations- you are always telling people you can't draw- but these pictures say otherwise.
LS: I have a limited range of drawing skills. What I managed to do was play to my strengths. It's something I wouldn't have even tried if I'd had the money to pay another illustrator! Now I can't imagine the stories without the pictures, and I have to say I have impressed myself. I can't take credit for the colour though: my designer did that. He is a genius, and my brother, which has been a major help.
GS: Which stories were the most difficult to write and why?
LS: The modern histories of Dosan and Joong Gun, firstly because the civil war was so traumatic, secondly because these times are within living memory, so there is a great sense of responsibility to do justice to these memories. I had to find a balance between not underplaying the horror of those circumstances and not in any way glorifying them. Conflict is not the issue: dealing with conflict is.
GS: So the older stories were easier?
LS: Finding a way of expressing the philosophical differences of Yul Gok and Toi Gye was a challenge. These are probably the best examples of how a story can breathe life into otherwise baffling facts. Not everyone wants to read the Four Seven debate, or know everything about how Confucianism differs from neo-Confucianism. It makes more sense to show Yul Gok at his smithy, using work to make his thoughts strong, and Toi Gye at his desk, using his thoughts to make his work strong.
GS: Where there any easy ones?
LS: Yes: Chon Ji, Dan Gun, Won Hyo and Choong Moo - once I'd done the research- these stories just flew together. Very satisfying, but I have to make the point that I write everyday, and so the ease of putting these stories together is the result of plenty of hard work. Hard work beats talent if talent doesn't work hard!
GS: Do you have a favourite?
LS: Yes, but it changes.
GS: Depends on your mood?
LS: That was a well informed guess! Yes. But mostly it wavers between Choong Moo and Dan Gun.
GS: What is it about these two?
LS: Dan Gun's story is an established folk tale, so the story was all ready in existence, I just had to put my energy into how to tell it in my own words. I had great fun playing with words. It was like one step sparring: a format that you can make your own. Dan Gun is a calm old character with a sense of humour, I find this story quite relaxing. Choong Moo is a much more serious chap, but his sincerity is lovely. I was impressed with the victories of Admiral Yi Sun Sin, aka Choong Moo, and tracked down a copy of his war diary, which I had expected to be all about military tactics. I wasn't quite prepared for the poetic language or the emotional pull of his story. It brought him to life, and I was utterly captivated by it. I don't want to give too much away but there was one section that made me cry, and there were a couple that caused great hilarity. I was amazed by his attention to the weather as well. That's the kind of detail that pulls a reader into a story, and I thought it was a British obsession. It was quirky, so no wonder I liked him so much.
GS: Only one colour belt pattern you haven't mentioned yet. LS: Hwarang! My favourite colour belt pattern too. This pattern definition has two lots of history in it, and it would have been easy to focus on the daring exploits of the Hwarang warriors. But when I was trying to find information online, on the 29th Infantry Division, everything that appeared was about the Americans. I wanted to write the bit that was missing. Major General Choi Hong Hi was easier to research. The first versions of that story began with him, and then looked back to the 600s, which just didn't have the right flow to it. I had an epiphany moment whilst at our TAGB Southwest Summer Camp. I asked Master Dew what he thought of the pattern and he said he liked how it seemed to flow from the old: solid simple techniques like palm block, sitting stance, double punch: to the new: the much fancier manoeuvre of the release move with sidekick. It was obvious then that the story should do the same, and then I was able to work in the Heavenly People, a Korean folk tale of how people came to be on earth.
GS: Why was that important?
LS: All of the patterns are part of one syllabus, I wanted all of the stories to be part of one body of work too. Wherever possible I've tried to add some Korean 'flavour' to the writing, and the creation stories in particular also bring a sense of order from chaos. That theme can't help but run through all of the history.
GS: You did a fair amount of background reading for this project, didn't you?
LS: I started just by looking online, if you check Wikipedia, for example, there is often a bibliography or links to other sites. While I was doing that I was playing with ideas for how to present each story, and that helped to narrow down which books would be most useful to read. I had to be disciplined about it, because firstly the budget was tiny and secondly it is easy to get overwhelmed by all the facts or sidetracked by folk tales. I go back to my books frequently and am looking forward to getting more soon.
GS: So you're not done with researching then?
LS: As well you know! I am working on a collection of Black Belt pattern meanings. Just at the ideas and surface research stage currently. When I first started showing people the colour belt collection, all the Black Belts said 'When are you going to write about our patterns?' I was always planning a full set, but that response has prompted me to start sooner. A trip to Korea would be the ideal research tool. One of the odder things I did for research was go to the Eden Project and sit in the bamboo hut in the tropical dome, writing notes on humidity, which I used to help create a picture of Jeju Island. The best research uses all the senses, so just like you can bring mindfulness to movement when you are training, you can bring physicality to the brainwork of writing.
GS: Tae Kwon-Do training and writing are a good compliment to each other?
LS: Definitely. I think martial arts training is a good balance for modern life altogether. Benefits are more than physical, it beats going to the gym. There's more challenge to it. Stress and boredom are evil afflictions, and every good martial art cures both. I also think that pushing at the limits of your comfort zones make for a bigger brighter life.
GS: Like how nervous you were before your Second Dan grading?
LS: Exactly. I steeled myself for it by remembering that I had survived all of the preceding gradings, by thinking of the genuinely brave people like Dosan, Joong Gun, Kodang: how they gave up their lives, which makes grading stress seem less significant, and by doing things that scared me, like walking on tree branches. I trained for it in the dojang, too, I should add that! The support of fellow students and all of the Instructors that have helped me, that also keeps me going when I get close to those comfort zone edges.
GS: Like when you broke your foot in a freak sparring accident?
LS: It was all the dislocations that were troublesome. I had to spend a couple of days upside down while the swelling subsided, before the surgeons could pin it all back together. I never thought I wouldn't come back training, though the first time I put my sparring kit on, about eight months later, I was shaking! My feet are different shapes now and the broken one does present a challenge. Plenty of people have injuries though, we all work around them. Think of Bill 'Superfoot' Wallace. And read your pattern meanings- there's inspiration aplenty there! Which kind of sums it all up: martial arts have more to offer than punching and kicking stuff, but the punching and kicking: or grabbing and throwing: is pretty fundamental. All together, it's my perfect way of life.