KILLER NASHVILLE, PART 2: THE CLAYMORE AWARD
“Just keep your expectations realistic,” my father told me as we prepared our trip to Nashville. “Who knows, you might actually win this thing. But even if you don’t, just focus on having a good time and getting the most out of this experience.”
I appreciated his attempts to ease the pressure—my mom’s as well. In the days leading up to the Killer Nashville Writers’ Conference, it seemed everyone in my household was trying to dial back the excitement and be as objective as possible about my chances of winning the Claymore Award. I was glad for it. It took some of the burden of expectation off my shoulders. Besides, the judging was out of my hands. I could no more influence the outcome than I could wish the moon down from the sky.
We’d had a cool August in northern Wisconsin. My visit home to see family and old friends had been just the escape I’d needed from the scorching Japanese summer. Yet all throughout my stay, I’d been looking ahead to the coming Nashville trip. It would be my first writer’s conference, my first time mingling with so many novelists in one place, and my first time meeting agents in the flesh and blood. Yes, I was nervous, but it was an eager sort of nervousness, the sort of heady, fluttering sensation that comes when stepping into a challenge that also promises growth.
The trip to Nashville took two days by car. My younger brother tagged along as well, since neither of us had ever been to the American South before and he wanted to explore cultural and historical spots while I was at the conference. My dad, meanwhile, planned to visit the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame before joining me at night for the awards dinner. As a longtime musician and songwriter himself, he’s often been blamed for the artistic genes in our family.
The Killer Nashville Conference was held just south of the Tennessean capital, at the Embassy Suites in Franklin. It was a beautiful, gleaming venue, and as I arrived I wondered what sort of crowd awaited me within.
I laughed. What even happens when you put a crowd of writers together? Do we socialize, or something?
Then, as I stepped through flashing front doors, a thought struck me.
Of course. I should have known. These weren’t just any writers.
I had walked into a den of blackguards and scoundrels, a venue tailored toward the most devious of imaginations, the most twisted of minds. No Action-Adventure, Teen Romance, or Christian Inspiration here, no—these were crime writers. Mystery writers. Thriller, espionage, and suspense writers—villains, all. Many of these writers had killed before, and would likely kill again. Why, even now, that lady over there—with the glasses, red blouse, and curly black hair, scribbling on a notepad at a table in the lobby—what sort of maleficence was she concocting? Somewhere on that notepad, under that rapidly scratching pen, a character I’d never met was dying horribly. I could feel it.
These were the sort of people who wrote about conspiracies and heists, anarchist plots and government corruption, serial killers and buried secrets.
Yes, I should have known.
I let my gaze rove around the hotel lobby at all these normal-looking folk, these miscreants, these writers.
And I introduced myself at the front desk.
“Hi, I’m Joseph Simurdiak, checking in.”
* * *
Due to my imminent flight back to Japan, I was only able to attend Killer Nashville for one day, rather than the full four days of the conference. My mission, then, was to make the most of my limited time before the awards dinner that evening.
And what a whirlwind! Speaker panels, a networking lunch, and meetings with literary agents filled the day. I saw bestselling author Alexandra Ivy speak, as well as the legendary Joyce Carol Oates, both guests of honor. I mingled and made new friends among my fellow writers and degenerates, who seemed just as interested to hear about my work as they were to share their own.
The agent round tables I joined were especially eye-opening. A small group of authors would sit together at a table headed by a literary agent, then share their stories one by one—but only the first two pages. The agent and other writers would offer feedback. The job of those first two pages was to catch the agent’s attention; if she liked what she saw, she might give her email and ask to read more. By the end of the afternoon, I’d received lots of positive feedback and multiple manuscript requests.
I met other Claymore finalists as well. One, who I befriended early in the day, was an older man who wrote espionage thrillers. He’d had a long, storied career in government that had taken him all around the world in service to our country, and those adventures had informed his writing. I’d read a sample of his novel at one of the round tables; it was indeed very good. He told me he’d tried competing for the Claymore several times in the past, but this was his first year as a finalist.
That was my first concrete indicator of how competitive the Claymore would be at this level. Some of these people had been competing for years. What were the chances that I could win? Did I even deserve to be here?
Who was I, anyway—just some young upstart who happened to get lucky?
That evening, before the banquet and the moment of truth, I called my mom to tell her how much I'd learned and experienced in just one day. I let her know that no matter how the awards turned out in the end, the trip had been worth it.
She told me she’d be keeping me in her thoughts, and she wished me good luck. I said I’d call her again after the banquet.
Dad returned to the hotel just then. I greeted him in the parking lot. He smiled at me, and in that moment I could tell he had more faith in me than I did.
“You ready, bud?” he asked.
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” I said.
Whatever the outcome, it meant the world to me that he was there. In pursuing the creative arts I’d taken after him, and he’d always been one of my greatest supporters. I know certain very talented people whose creative passions withered away because their families had never encouraged or believed in them. And I knew just how lucky I was.
I led my dad inside, and together we headed into the banquet hall.
Well, it was just about time.
* * *
The dinner ran for about an hour before the awards announcements started. Dad and I sat at a table toward the back of the hall, joining several friends I’d made during the round table discussions. The food was delicious, though Dad ate surprisingly little—he’s never been big on fancy banquet food, being very much a “steak-and-potatoes” guy. Still, he enjoyed the drinks and the live jazz band, and found it easy, as is his way, to make new friends around the table. It was a very fun, lively beginning to the night, and the good wine and conversation managed to take some of the edge off the tension.
For a short while, at least.
At around 8:00, the band stopped playing and Mr. Clay Stafford—author, screenwriter, film producer, and founder of Killer Nashville—took the mic at the front of the room.
The hall fell quiet as the awards announcements finally began.
I glanced down at my evening program. In addition to the Claymore, a handful of Silver Falchion Awards would be given out to authors of already-published works. There would also be presentations to the guests of honor, and a couple scholarships as well. The Claymore winner would be one of the very last announcements.
Of course. I’d spent a full day among these literary blackguards, but the deadliest thing at Killer Nashville was going to be this wait.
All told, the announcements, guest presentations, and speeches lasted nearly two hours, with the Claymore runner-ups interspersed throughout. Each time a runner-up was announced, I held my breath and dared to think they’d call my name—I’d gladly have taken such an honor—but each time, some other name was called, and I resigned myself moment by moment, bit by bit, to the fact that this wasn’t going to be my night.
Silver Falchions made up the majority of the awards that evening: Best Suspense, Best Anthology, Best Thriller, Novel of the Year.... A thundering drumroll preceded each name, and a triumphant burst of music and applause followed after. Now and then a winner would be announced who wasn’t present to give a speech, as they were off on a book signing or promotional tour for a new novel. I’d hear these things and think, aghast, These are the sorts of people competing tonight! What am I even doing here? I’m toast. Utter toast.
I would content myself to remain a finalist; that was a milestone in its own right. Besides, many Claymore finalists go on to land book deals and have fulfilling careers. I was young—I had years still to win a literary award. It was an honor just to have made it this far, and unhealthy to indulge in such wishful thinking.
But still, as the final announcements drew near, I allowed myself to entertain, just for a moment, the thought of what it might be like to win tonight. To call home and tell my mom and sister that I was an award-winning author. If my imagination was the only universe in which I’d ever experience winning this evening, then I’d experience it there in my head, even though I knew it was just an idle flight of fancy with no power to sway my reality.
I entertained the thought for just a few seconds, that was all. Then I breathed out and let it go.
“It’s time to announce the winner of the 2019 Killer Nashville Claymore Award,” said Mr. Stafford. He held up the envelope containing the winner’s name, and the drums began to roll.
I couldn’t possibly have heard it over the drums, but somehow, in my memory, I recall the scratch of an envelope opening. The flutter of paper unfolding.
The drums stopped.
“…Well, this is interesting,” said Mr. Stafford.
Despite myself, I felt my mouth go dry, but I was suddenly too frozen to reach for my water.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, this has never happened before, but tonight we have two winners for the Claymore Award. A tie.”
A murmur rippled through the room.
“The judges say the two top entries were so different from each other, and from such completely different genres, that they couldn’t decide how to place them. They said it was like comparing apples to oranges. So they declared two winners instead of one.
“Our first winner is a fantasy novel.”
My breath stopped. Time stopped.
A fantasy novel?
No, it couldn’t be. Someone else had to have entered a fantasy novel, too. Someone else among the seventeen remaining finalists—
“It also happens that the author is with us tonight from Japan.”
“A Red Autumn Wind, by Joseph Simurdiak.”
Sounds, colors, blurs of light and noise. I couldn’t think. I couldn't speak. Somehow I stood and looked silently back at my Dad. He was applauding, and I’d never seen his eyes shine that way. If I live to be a hundred, I will never forget the look in his eyes at that moment.
I fumbled my way through the music and the applause to the front of the room, where Mr. Stafford handed me the Claymore Award. It was heavy—a massive chess piece carved from wood, pierced through the top by a long, gleaming dagger. Engraved at the base was my name, and the title of my novel.
Mr. Stafford smiled and beckoned me to the podium to say a few words. I don’t actually remember much of what I said. People told me afterward that I did a good job of it, but until I see a video recording, I’ll have to take them at their word. I vaguely remember thanking Mr. Stafford and my father, then making some comments honoring the memory of my Grandmother, who helped me get started on this path long ago. But the rest is just a jumble, a fog.
And that was it—I’m now an award-winning author. It was truly one of the most amazing nights of my life, the realization of a childhood dream. But it was also a huge step in an even larger journey, one in which the following chapter is already underway.
After the awards wrapped up, I chased down my fellow Claymore winner John Carenen to congratulate him. I also met and shook hands with Mr. Baron Birtcher (who cleaned up the evening by taking three Silver Falchion Awards) and David Morrell (author of First Blood and creator of Rambo, who was present as a guest of honor).
I waited until I had returned to my hotel room to call and inform my mom, then logged onto social media to message friends and family. Right away, at the very top of my newsfeed, I saw something that made me smile: that exact same weekend, my friend Chris—the one who had convinced me to make the trip to Nashville—had taken his Best Actor Award at the Seoul Webfest in South Korea. On both sides of the Pacific, there was a great deal to celebrate.
I sent him a message of congratulations, then went for a long walk in the night to get fresh air with my brother John. Though the night sky was overcast, to me it might as well have been jeweled from end to end.
With this little memoir complete, I’d like to give a quick shout-out to Robert Vance, John Slayton, Justin Greenway, Baron Birtcher, and Andy Van Wey for showing me such a great time at the conference. Thanks as well to Liz, Joseph, Mr. Stafford, and everyone else who helped make Killer Nashville 2019 such an amazing experience. And thanks of course to my dad and my brother, who came all that way down to Nashville with me on just the chance that I'd make it.