Author Series: Devon Rowcliffe
For those of you who follow me on Twitter, you’re probably well aware of the fact that I like to read and post about what I’m reading. As a future author, I know how challenging of a project writing a book can be and therefore I try to support authors in any way I can.
However, one aspect I haven’t gotten much into is talking to the authors whose books I read, something I hope will change. I realize that “author series” is a generic title but it encapsulates what I’m attempting to accomplish here.
For the first of hopefully many interviews, I spoke to Devon Rowcliffe, who recently released his first title: Who Ate All The Squid: Football Adventures in South Korea. You can purchase it here. I highly recommend doing so -- I very much enjoyed this book.
Question: As someone who is currently working on two books and constantly asks himself why he's actually doing it, what compelled you to take on this project? Essentially, why did you write the book?
Devon Rowcliffe: I became interested in soccer in early 1999, after stumbling upon a Blackburn Rovers match on Canadian television. The next year, Canada miraculously won the CONCACAF Gold Cup, likely the greatest factor that cemented my interest in the sport. When I ventured out to South Korea three years later, it was my first experience living in a country with a proper soccer culture.
Around that time, two books came out that chronicled a season following a soccer club: Tim Parks’ A Season with Verona and Joe McGinniss’ The Miracle of Castel di Sangro. These weren’t the first such books of the genre, as Hunter Davies wrote his fly-on-the-wall experience with Tottenham more than three decades earlier in The Glory Game, but there seemed to be an increasing interest in English-language books about soccer clubs outside the UK.
Additionally, two books had been written about Japan’s J.League ahead of the 2002 World Cup, but there still wasn’t a book about South Korean soccer.
I was living in Busan, South Korea’s second-largest city. Rather fortuitously, the local club had just hired a British manager – the first ever in the K League – and he would soon tempt three players from English football out to Korea. It felt like a historic season was coalescing.
Writing was an activity that I had dabbled in from a young age, and I suspected that if I didn’t tell the story of this unique season, it would never be captured for posterity.
Question: Obviously the book takes place in South Korea...why did you move there and what did you find difficult or interesting about living in the country? What was the most peculiar part of culture that you had to get used to? The thing you loved the most?
Rowcliffe: I studied Northeast Asian politics in university, but felt like a bit of a fraud when I had earned my second degree despite not having ever stepped foot in Asia. I wanted to put that right, so off I went.
I found the Korean language quite tricky at first, especially compared to Japanese and Mandarin. Although the Hangul script is easy to pick up, Korean has complicated grammar and various levels of politeness (similar to Japanese), and I would argue is more difficult for an English speaker to understand than Japanese or Mandarin. There are a few sounds in particular that are challenging for an English ear, such as double constants as well as one or two of the vowels.
The food was a highlight of living in Korea. It’s always impressive to see the assortment of fresh side dishes that are served in restaurants. As I was in Busan, there was plentiful seafood, and everything was quite cheap back in 2003.
The most challenging aspect initially was trying not to commit any cultural faux pas, such as making someone lose face (embarrassing someone in front of others). Living in a different culture always takes some getting used to.
Question: Most books like yours that I've read have involved some sort of crazy soccer culture, a successful team, or both. Busan, as you described it, is a baseball city where not a ton of people went to soccer games, which were played in a massive stadium filled maybe 10% full. Was it hard to follow a team with such little support? What did you find compelling about the city/team that made you still want to write about it?
Rowcliffe: South Korea’s supporter culture definitely had an appeal. The national team fans were highly organized during the 2002 World Cup, which was held less than a year before the plot of my book. Soccer fans watching from across the world were impressed by the coordination and passion of the South Korean supporters.
The K League proved rather different, especially in Busan, as the club was then in its fourth year of ownership austerity and crowds had dwindled. And yet, there were still interesting aspects such as the presence of a capo (chant leader), bouncing back and forth repeatedly as a goal celebration, utilizing sparklers and even flares – these were all quite different from what most soccer fans in North America or the UK were familiar with.
Question: Perhaps I missed it in the book, but what does the title refer to and, well, who actually did eat all the squid?
Rowcliffe: There’s an old chant in British soccer: “who ate all the pies?” Meat-based pastries are perhaps the most common food at stadiums in the UK. The chant was supposedly first used in the late 1800s, as Sheffield United goalkeeper William Foulke towered above everyone else on the pitch and also developed a rather rotund figure.
One of the unique foods served at South Korean stadiums was dried squid, which could be pulled into shreds and dipped in either hot sauce or an Asian mayonnaise. I never did quite figure out who ate all the squid, but I suspect it was Suwon Bluewings goalkeeper Lee Woon-jae.
Question: Each one of your chapters begins with a Korean idiom...how did you pick each one and where did you learn them (from the fans, other locals, somewhere else)?
Rowcliffe: I had found the use of idioms in Korean and Chinese to be a fascinating aspect of the languages, as some date back thousands of years and brim with history and culture. As I started writing the book, I thought that squeezing in idioms relevant to the plot would appeal to people unfamiliar with Korea. I already knew a few idioms, but I conducted deeper research to gather a larger variety.
There were a few other linguistic “Easter eggs” sprinkled throughout the book. Chapter 14 is titled “colgó los guayos”, a Spanish expression unique to Colombia that literally means “hang up the football boots”, but is usually used to refer to either death (especially murder) or the abrupt end of something. As it fit the plot, I thought I would sneak it in.
Question: I assume you've been following the sport in the country since 2003. What's changed and where do you see Korean football going?
Rowcliffe: The K League is the oldest professional soccer league in all of Asia, and it was considered to be in the top two East Asian leagues back in 2003. Its status has slipped a bit in recent years, as an absurd amount of money has been injected into the leagues of some Asian countries such as China and Qatar, eclipsing the K League in financial power. (Despite this, a South Korean club won the AFC Champions League just last month.)
One of the big improvements is that club football is starting to mature. Like most South Korean professional sports leagues, the K League was unfortunately established upon the American model: franchising and a closed league. Previously there was only a single division, and the gap between the professional first division and semi-pro second division was massive.
Since then, the K League has expanded to two divisions, semi-professional football has also increased to two tiers, and amateur soccer has three levels, combining for a pyramid featuring seven divisions. Promotion and relegation has also been added within each of the three types (pro, semi-pro and amateur), with a plan to remove franchising and link the entire pyramid in future years. Hopefully we’ll see the same degree of club mobility in South Korea that can be witnessed in Japanese soccer.
Question: Were there any details that you wished you could have included in the book but couldn't? If so, what?
Rowcliffe: Unfortunately a tremendous amount of information had to be left out of the book, otherwise the length would have been unwieldy. The book covers numerous aspects of South Korea beyond football, but my original plan was to include much more. Ultimately I had to leave out interesting topics such as how Koreans count age differently, why November 11th is a celebration of a chocolate-covered snack instead of Veterans Day (or Remembrance Day), and why adult diapers sell better when South Korea’s national team plays in major tournaments. Yet I still managed to cram in a lot of unique aspects about South Korea into the book.
Question: Do you have plans for a second book?
Rowcliffe: Eventually, but probably not for a while. Book writing isn’t as lucrative as it was in generations past, so I’ll likely go back to concentrating on my bread and butter – articles about politics and soccer, often the two intersecting – for the time being. I already have numerous ideas for future books, for both soccer and politics, but time availability will be the key factor regarding whether they ever come to fruition.
Question: Anything else to add?
If your American readers are interested in purchasing a copy of Who Ate All the Squid?: Football Adventures in South Korea, it’s available as both a paperback and an eBook. The paperback is technically only published in the UK, so they would need to order it online. I would recommend buying it through your local independent bookstore or from Bookshop.org (which donates a portion of each sale to a local bookstore). Otherwise, most of the chain stores – including Books-A-Million, Barnes & Noble, Kinokuniya USA and Amazon – carry it.
If you’re interested in the eBook, I would suggest buying it from My Must Reads as a slice of the profit will go to a local bookstore of your choice. Other options include Kobo, Apple Books and Amazon Kindle.
The best place to find me online is on Twitter and Instagram at @WhoAteTheSquid.
Thanks again for the opportunity!