(Following the awards at Killer Nashville, the Price County Review ran an article on my award, my writing background, and my upcoming novel. Below is the full text of my interview with news editor Anna Hansen.)
The Simurdiak Family
ANNA: Joseph, here are a couple questions I had for you. Feel free to expand on any of the questions or add anything you think would be relevant.
From reading through your website bio, I know you’ve enjoyed the art of writing and storytelling from a young age. Can you put a name to what draws you to the craft?
JOSEPH: I’ve always loved the act of creating, the satisfaction of bringing something new into the world through my own hands that wasn’t there before—and I’ve always loved language. So it naturally follows that I would love most of all to create with language. My mother read to me a lot as a child, and that’s how I first learned to love books and appreciate the power of stories to bring not only excitement, but instruction and insight to real life. Storytelling became, very early in my life, my preferred way to channel a restless creative impulse.
But to me, writing is about so much more than mere self-expression. It’s a mode of seeking and discovery that invites the reader along for the journey. Writing allows me to explore—to delve the depths of love and hate, good and evil, pain and beauty, triumph and tragedy, and all their myriad shades. As I write, my characters become lenses through which I (and hopefully my readers) can see life from new angles and perhaps discover something of value… as well as be entertained in the process.
ANNA: Throughout the course of your life, have there been people who have served as motivators or inspiration for your writing journey (either authors or more personal connections, such a family member or teacher)?
JOSEPH: My grandmother was the first. Back when I was five or six, before I could read or spell anything more than my own name, I was still able to write my first stories because of her. I used to go to her house every day after school, and there I would spend afternoons illustrating stories on printer paper, leaving space at the top of each page for text. Then, when I had my story illustrated in crayon and colored pencil, I would number the pages and bring them to Grandma. “Grandma,” I’d say, “I’d like to write a story.” She was always happy to help. We’d sit together at the kitchen table and I’d give her a pencil, and then I’d speak my story out loud to her. On each page, in the space I’d left blank for text, she would write down my words. Page by page we’d continue, until my story was complete. Then I’d ask her to read it back to me to make sure everything sounded how I wanted it. Finally we’d staple the pages together with a construction-paper book cover, and I’d have my book.
The legend of Theseus, the labyrinth, and the Minotaur—this was the first story that enchanted me to start telling my own. The first story I ever wrote on Grandma’s lap was about a sea monster in an underwater labyrinth, and the hero who saved the day by slaying it.
By the time I was eight, I no longer needed help and could finally write stories on my own. I filled entire journals with them. But I still have about thirty such stories that I wrote together with Grandma’s help, boxed away in the basement.
ANNA:What initially drew you from Wisconsin to Japan, and what has your experience there been?
JOSEPH: Wisconsin is still very much in my blood. In my heart I never truly left it. I come back to visit Wisconsin twice a year—not out of obligation, but out of spiritual necessity. One day (many, many years from now, God willing) I will likely be buried there as well.
But for now I enjoy living in Japan, experiencing and exploring the country and culture. I fell in love with its history and mythology first, which led to a desire to learn the language and to study abroad. My college experience in Tokyo was so amazing that I decided I wanted to return and teach English while I finished my novel. I generally find the people here to be very kind, welcoming, and thoughtful. The scenery is beautiful, the food is delicious, and the culture is rich with millennia of tradition. The history runs deep, both the light and the dark of it, from old samurai battlegrounds to serene temples more ancient than my entire home country.
At Osorezan in Aomori Prefecture, Japan.
ANNA:What originally prompted your interest in Japanese culture?
JOSEPH: My interest in Japanese culture resulted from an interest in East Asia more broadly, which really sparked when I went to China with my family to adopt a baby girl when I was 11. In subsequent years, as I read more about China and the cultures around it, I found myself increasingly intrigued by the history of feudal Japan, as well as Japan's ancient mythology and art. The violent and dramatic yet culturally rich world of the samurai struck a chord deep in my young imagination. Eventually that fascination led to further interests in Japanese literature, language, and modern culture.
ANNA: In writing A Red Autumn Wind, what served as inspiration for the tale?
JOSEPH: I was already knee-deep in samurai tales and Japanese literature by the time I conceived this particular story. A Red Autumn Wind was born from a mental image—the image of two young men, two enemies, two samurai, meeting on a fog-wreathed bridge for a final, fateful showdown. I had no idea at the time who these two men were, what their history was, or why their conflict was so important. I just had that picture in my mind, an insistent image that wouldn’t let me go—and the rest of the story grew out of that climactic scene. I delved deep into the past of these characters to find out what had brought them to this moment, and an entire world unfolded before me: a world of mystery, honor, romance, treachery, and war. Never did I expect that I was embarking on a journey that would lead me so deep, and which would take me years to complete.
But I often find it the case in writing a story that the first idea that comes to me is an image from the climax, or from the story’s very end. That image captivates me and demands that I seek the full tale behind it.
ANNA:Is this your first completed novel?
JOSEPH: I wrote one short fantasy novel in elementary school and at least five more in middle school; however, they are very amateurish and I have no intention of ever publishing them. Not that I’m not proud of them, but you can tell they were written by a child/early teen, and aren’t exactly something I’d put before other people as examples of my best work. I was very much cutting my teeth on the craft back then!
ANNA:How did living in Japan influence the story?
JOSEPH: Though my story is set in a fictional world, from the very beginning I intended it to reflect the history, culture, and lore of feudal-era Japan. Obviously, no one alive today has actually experienced the Japan of the samurai—that time period is gone forever. But I still gained much by experiencing the Japan of the 21st Century. The seasons, festivals, architecture, weather, dress, social customs and cultural values—when I write about these things in my novel, I am basing them on a world I’ve had the opportunity to live, breathe, and touch firsthand. Most people I know and interact with day to day are Japanese; I inhabit a world shaped by their values, preferences, aspirations, conflicts, and traditions. Hopefully this adds a deeper layer of believability to my writing.
ANNA:What was your writing process?
JOSEPH: I originally composed A Red Autumn Wind in a series of 25 to 30-page volumes that I always intended to put together as a full novel at the end. Each time I finished a volume, I would show it to just a small handful of trusted readers. Having this little audience eagerly awaiting the next segment of the novel—this kept me motivated and on track. It also kept the story from slowing down, because each new volume had to bring something exciting for my readers. I felt a keen responsibility to keep them turning the pages and breathless for the next volume—I never, ever took their attention for granted. Thus each 25-30 page segment of the novel features some sort of new development—a surprise, a twist, a confrontation, a revelation, or some other moment of high drama to spur on the story. The result is that reading A Red Autumn Wind feels a bit like binge-watching a TV drama.
ANNA:How long have you been working on the book?
JOSEPH: It took me about ten years. I always get a little self-conscious admitting that, because what sane person stays committed to a project for so long? But it was an obsession that consumed me.
The original story took me four years to complete. I spent a fifth year editing, streamlining, making cuts, and ensuring that the narrative flowed well. But then the first few chapters started to bother me. They were serviceable, but they lacked the deeper power and impact I really wanted them to have, and I knew they could be—and should be—much better. It took me another four years of writing, rewriting, implementing, and scrapping countless pages before I finally landed on the opening chapters that I wanted.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of a novel’s opening, especially in this modern age of online previews and short attention spans. And of course, the more time I took to complete the book, the higher the stakes rose. With each additional year of my life that I invested in the project, the pressure to produce an excellent novel became that much greater.
But in the end, I’m very proud of the result. I remember long nights of doubt and frustration, wondering if all the work could possibly be worth it, if it would ever pay off in the end.
This August, as I took my first literary award in my hands, I received my answer.
ANNA: Did you begin writing the book in high school?
JOSEPH: Yes, in my Junior year. Obviously, much of what I wrote in high school has been heavily rewritten and revised since then, but the general story remains largely the same. Some of the teachers would also invite me into their classrooms to read samples of my work to younger students. Mrs. Mollman taught Creative Writing, but she pulled strings for me and had special accommodations made so that I could independently take Creative Writing all four years of high school. So not only did I take Creative Writing, but also Advanced Creative Writing, Advanced Advanced Creative Writing, and Advanced Advanced Advanced Creative Writing. Still, my best ideas often came at night, so I confess I sometimes used my Creative Writing classes to catch up on lost sleep so I could stay up writing until 1 or 2 AM.
ANNA:How did you first learn about the Claymore Award, and what made you decide to enter the competition?
JOSEPH: It’s challenging to break in as a new author. Once my book was complete, I knew I wanted an extra boost to help my novel stand out among the thousands published every year. Winning a literary award would help me achieve just that. Readers and publishers alike are more apt to pick up the work of a new author if that author’s writing has already been judged positively by professionals.
I won first place in a novel contest last winter, and that gave me the boost in confidence I needed to enter my novel for an actual award. As I researched reputable competitions for which I might be eligible, The Killer Nashville Claymore Award caught my eye as being accessible to first-time authors. I was also impressed with the publishing successes that previous Claymore winners and finalists had achieved, and I thought, “This is just what I’ve been looking for.”
ANNA:How did you learn that you were one of two winners of the Claymore Award, and what was your reaction?
With Mr. Clay Stafford, founder of Killer Nashville (August 2019).
JOSEPH: I was there at the awards banquet in Nashville when I won, together with my father.
At that time I was one of 20 finalists for the award, so I had no expectation that I would actually come out on top—my aim in attending was just to be there, to meet other authors and hopefully make connections with literary agents and publishers. Just being a finalist for the award was a big enough accomplishment for me. The top 20 finalists were selected by a judging panel of award-winning and bestselling authors, so I knew I was up against nineteen other high-quality, competitive pieces. And at just 28 years old, I was easily the youngest finalist of the bunch. I thought that maybe, if I was super fortunate, I might be a second runner-up, but surely not anything higher.
So when I heard my name called as the winner, I was speechless. It was one of the craziest experiences of my life. My whole world seemed to crystallize into a dream, only for me to realize that it was really happening. Then I looked back at my father. That sliver of time is burned sharp in my mind—I’ve never seen his eyes shine so much. Even if I live to be one hundred, I will never forget his face in that moment.
ANNA:Did you receive comments on why your novel was selected for the Claymore Award?
JOSEPH: Most of that was private—I’m not privy to the feedback sheets or the comments between the judges. I did happen to meet one of the judges after the award’s banquet, however. An award-winning and bestselling author in his own right, he complimented my story on its characters, imagery, and narrative style, and he offered to write a blurb for me. Of course I took him up on it!
What I do know regarding my win is this: Killer Nashville has run for 14 years, and this was the first time they’ve ever had a tie for the Claymore Award. As they announced during the banquet, the reason was that the two top entries this year were so completely different from one another—different genres, different styles, and totally different worlds—that the judges couldn’t figure out how to rank them against each other. They said it was like comparing apples to oranges. So in the end they decided to award first place as a tie.
ANNA:I notice you have a tentative publishing date included in the press release. Where are you at in the publishing process?
JOSEPH: That date (2020, 4th Quarter) is there just as a general goal to aim at. If I were to self-publish my novel through, say, Amazon, I could have it out this year before Christmas. But at the moment I’m looking at traditional publishers—going through them takes longer, but their promotional resources and distribution channels are just more powerful, plus brick and mortar bookstores across the country (like Barnes & Noble) would also be able to carry my book (which has long been a dream of mine). I’ve actually just started reaching out to agents and publishers this month—I refrained from doing so until I knew the result of the Claymore Award. I needed to know whether I’d be pitching my novel as an award finalist or, if my wildest dreams came true, as an award winner. That distinction kind of matters!