Show him a tatami mat, and John Donohue feels right at home, just as he does in his office at D'Youville College, where he is vice president of academic affairs. The black belt in Karatedo and Kendo has written four nonfiction books on the Asian martial arts. Donohue believes his first novel, "Sensei," offers a thriller for the thinking man.
"Sensei," also the first in a series of suspense novels, has already been optioned for a movie, and that excites Donohue -- as does anything to do with martial arts.
Originally from Long Island, the professor of Social Science and his wife live in Youngstown.
What about martial arts has you so transfixed?
As a kid, I was very interested in other cultures. I decided I wanted to be an anthropologist at 8. Then I went to graduate school for anthropology, and one of the areas I was interested in was east Asia. Not being a very athletic kid growing up, I was very interested in the blend of physical and philosophical activity in martial arts. I started in college. I did my dissertation on Japanese martial arts.
Do you remember the first time you donned a gi?
Sure, at SUNY Potsdam, where I went as a freshman. These days I don't wear a gi much. I do Kendo, which is a different kind of uniform, much more elaborate.
Kendo uses a bamboo fencing foil, and you wear body armor.
Does martial arts get a bad rap in this country?
Well, it tends to get portrayed stereotypically. Most of the presentations in popular media are sort of guys flying through the air and catching bullets with their teeth. It's a somewhat different experience in real life, though no less interesting.
It's not quite as dramatic. It takes a long time to get good at this stuff. There's a lot of self-discipline, and a lot of plain hard work. For all the philosophy and all the mystic overtones, at the end of the day it's just a lot of practice and a lot of sweat, and a lot of boredom at times. It's not the sort of hobby that presents you with immediate gratification.
Have you ever failed a promotion test?
The last time was probably when I was going for brown belt in Karate, when I was a junior in college. It's a fairly regular feature of people in martial arts. The higher you go, the more difficult it becomes. At one level in Kendo, you actually have to wait a couple of years before you test. That's how the faint of heart are weeded out.
What else makes you feel good?
I play the guitar. I also play the bagpipes and march in a band. What's your favorite martial arts movie?
"Seven Samurai" is a beautifully made film, amazing scenes. It's interesting they remade it as the "Magnificent Seven," a western. That's one of the things that got me thinking about writing a novel. A chapter in one of my books compares the myth of the cowboy or the private eye or the cop, with the sort of things you see in the martial arts movie. When you strip them down, it's the same exact story. There's a person with a fairly well-developed fighting skill and they have to save somebody somewhere and they don't get a lot of help.
What's the toughest part about writing a book?
Really listening to the people who tell you what you need to do in terms of editing. I wrote and wrote and wrote and people would tell you things, and you sort of fight them on it, and then gradually over time, you start to see the wisdom of it. My editor and I call it killing the children.
What's more forceful than a kick of a black-belt champion?