Novelist Walt Mussell is a current finalist in the Inspirational category for both the Heart of the Rockies and Lone Star contests. His stories are set in late 16th century Japan, during Japan’s Christian century and the reign of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (roughly a decade before Shogun).
Walt lives outside of Atlanta, Georgia with his wife, a native Japanese who is now an American citizen, and their two sons, ages thirteen and eight. They moved to the Atlanta area from Portland, Oregon four years ago after a job opportunity offered Walt the chance to return to his native South and offered his wife the chance to be a stay-at-home mom. Walt has a B.S. in Physics from Auburn University, an M.B.A (Finance concentration) from Wake Forest University, and a Post-baccalaureate in Accounting from Portland State.
When Walt is not writing (or studying about the period in which he sets his stories), he can be found in attendance at his older son’s baseball or his younger son’s football practice. Walt also spends a great deal of time relearning various seventh and third grade subject matter that he thought he’d never see again.
When I asked Walt to tell me about some of his favorite foods, his thoughts went to dessert. Here’s what he had to say:
I’m fond of all kinds of cheesecake and crème brulee. However, I really like this berry-lime tart I got from Rachael Ray’s magazine. The recipe calls for lemons, but we prefer to use limes. I also use a water bath when I cook the tart portion, though that isn’t mentioned in the recipe either. Here is the link.
Wow, Walt! You write and bake, too? How cool. For those of you’ve who have stopped by, feel free to grab a piece of virtual berry-lime tart prepared just the way Walt likes it, and enjoy it as you learn more about this talented writer.
Walt Embarks on His Journey
•When did you become serious about seeing your name in print and begin calling yourself a writer?
When we lived in Portland, I was active in the local chapter of my alumni group (Auburn University). I used to do an e-mail newsletter during the football season with previews and post game write-ups of every game. I got a lot of great responses on my writing/analysis with a number of people commenting “You should be published.” I took a break from it, missed it, and finally had to start again. (Oddly, my break from doing my newsletter coincided with a 15-game winning streak.)
As I started doing the newsletter again, the idea of writing a book took hold. However, instead of sports, I became fascinated with the possibility of doing a humorous, nonfiction book on marriage. I began writing vignettes that I thought would be appropriate for it.
•How long did it take you to complete your first manuscript? Did the words fly from your fingertips, or did the story emerge slowly?
I have completed two manuscripts, one non-fiction and one fiction, and I kind of consider both a “first” manuscript. The first drafts were written quickly, spurred by self-imposed deadlines. How I got there, though, is a long story.
As I mentioned above, the nonfiction one came first. I sought the advice of my aunt, Jeanne Robertson. She’s a professional speaker, specializes in humor, and has written several books. (She also has YouTube videos that have millions of hits and you can hear her on satellite radio comedy channels.)
My aunt taught me the importance of setting a deadline and just writing. We signed a contract that I would send her a draft of one vignette each week for three months. If I didn’t complete a story any week during the contract, I had to send her $5. I ended up sending my aunt two stories each week and running well over the original contract period. She offered advice on many of the stories. After six months, I had completed the rough draft of my manuscript. That was in 2007.
My fiction manuscript resulted from a trip to Japan in the summer of 2008 to visit friends and family. While there, I had an idea about an inspirational historical set in Japan. With the help of author Debby Giusti, I put together a synopsis for a story. Debby, who is part of the Seekerville blog, told me that one of the Love Inspired editors would be visiting her group’s blog. I posted a blurb about my story on the blog and the editor asked for a full. Other than the synopsis, I didn’t have anything. It was November. I e-mailed the editor, told her the situation, and said I would send it in May 2009. I finished the first draft of what became The Samurai’s Heart in March 2009.
Walt’s High Points
•You’ve ventured into the Contest Circuit and made an impressive showing. Please tell us about your successes and what they’ve meant to you.
I’m a little blown away by what’s happened. The Samurai’s Heart was declined by Love Inspired, but I continued to believe that it could find a home somewhere. I entered it in several contests, seeking feedback, and even managed to final in the American Christian Fiction Writers Phoenix chapter’s “Does Your Story Have Bite?” contest. However, in April of this year, I decided the story still wasn’t good enough to get published. So, I scrapped my intro and tried something different. I entered the new version in three Romance Writers of America® contests back in May/June. My hope was to final in one of them and just get some good overall feedback.
When one of the three contests announced finalists in early August, I got a little down about it. I had hoped to final in at least one of the contests and this announcement meant “one down.” Then, in the middle of the month, I got a call from the Heart of the Rockies coordinator with the word that I’d finaled there. I was excited about it because, to me, it justified the changes I’d made. Then, a few days later, I got the e-mail about making the final round of the Lone Star. At that point, I’m not sure what I was thinking.
•Wow! Two finals in one week is awesome. Mega congrats! I know you’re a guy and probably didn’t burst into tears when the coordinators’ notifications came, but I gotta know. How did you react to the news? Did you call your wife on your break and break the news to her, go around the office getting high fives from your colleagues, or stand on your chair, thump your chest, and yell like Tarzan?
I was home both times when the notification came. I got the call from the Heart of the Rockies coordinator on a Sunday evening and I was not thinking about the contest when I saw the Denver area code pop up on my cell phone. When the coordinator told me the news, I had to sit down. I told my wife and spent the rest of the evening psyched.
The notification from Lone Star was via e-mail on Friday morning a few days later. I got it before the boys left for school. I re-read it a few times as the impact of finaling again began to sink in. At that point, I was still saying to myself “I did what?”
My actual, official celebration was rather tame. I bought myself mochas each time. I felt odd about mentioning this at the office. (I still haven’t said anything to co-workers, even though most people know I write in my spare time.) But, I was dying to tell my friends on my writing loops. However, because I’m a little superstitious, I didn’t announce anything until the contest coordinators released the news on the RWA® contest loops. When that happened, I exhaled and told people.
•Contest placements are way cool. Congrats on yours! But you’ve experienced another thrill: seeing your name in print. How many of your articles have been published, and how did it feel when the first piece appeared? (Yeah, I just asked you—a guy—about your feelings, but I figure you can handle it. You do write romance, after all. :-))
About seven of my pieces have been in print. Most have them were short essays on parenting, though a couple of them were about things to do in the Atlanta area. My first one appeared in Parent: Wise Austin. The feeling of getting that first call was great, but it didn’t sink in until I saw it on-line and later received a copy of the magazine.
•You create stories intended for the inspirational market, which is a small piece of the publishing pie. Within that sub-genre, you write historical romances, narrowing the field further. You take it one more step, setting your stories in medieval Japan. What led you to this niche?
The simple answer is: you write what you know. I have a love of Japan that goes back a couple of decades. When I was in school, I got interested in working internationally, notably Japan. However, it was mostly a feeling of business and understanding. After I finished school, I moved to Japan to teach English, hoping to learn about the Japanese way of doing business.
One of my hobbies, though, is studying history. Japanese history and culture grabbed me after I arrived and haven’t let go since. I spent a lot of time visiting temples and castles, learning about samurai, and studying the old politics. I ended up spending four years in Japan in various jobs and met a wonderful woman there. We’ve been married 15+ years.
•What sparked the idea for The Samurai’s Heart? Did you begin with a name or place? Did scenes begin playing out in your creative mind? Or perhaps your characters began chatting?
During our trip to Japan in 2008, we visited Himeji Castle in the city of Himeji. Most of the castles in Japan are not the original one as many of them were destroyed by fires, bombs, or for political reasons. Himeji Castle, though, is an original and considered an international treasure. (If you’ve seen You Only Live Twice or The Last Samurai, you’ve seen Himeji Castle.)
One of the features of many Japanese castles are various good luck symbols that adorn the eaves and protect against disasters, such as fires, tsunamis, and typhoons. Among the symbols at Himeji Castle, though, is a cross. The cross has been there since the late 16th century, appearing about the time when the ban on Christianity was announced. The blogosphere does offer suggestions as to how the cross got there, but the official sign at Himeji Castle says that the origin of the cross is unknown. The castle was rebuilt/remodeled (and greatly expanded) in the early 17th century and the group of samurai in charge of the project chose to keep the cross as part of the new building. No one knows why.
I’ve been to Himeji Castle many times. However, until that trip in 2008, I don’t remember seeing the cross. After I saw it, I was gripped with the memory of the numerous martyrs for the Christian faith in Japanese history. Even though my characters are fictional, it’s as if I have a chance to tell their story.
•How do you go about conducting your research? Do you have connections in Japan who can help you nail down facts, or do you use your love of Japan as a good reason to visit the country and perform research on-site?
I would visit Japan again and again if I could, but my love of the culture doesn’t translate into money for the plane tickets. For my research on the 16th century, I spend a lot of time reading about Japanese history through various sources and writing it down to help myself remember it. This is helpful as my sources don’t always agree. Studying that time period is almost a specialty and I often find myself picking up books in bookstores just to read a few pages. A lot of times, I find out something new. Sometimes, I find information that suggests I made a mistake in my manuscript. Then I have to go back and verify my facts.
My wife has also helped me in my research. She searches Japanese websites and e-mails her parents and relatives about questions I have. Even then, I run into dead ends. I also recently joined a Yahoo loop that specializes in Asian fiction. It’s called Authors of Asian Novels. Everyone in that group has their own set of historical/cultural resources about Asia. You can post questions there and they become interesting discussion items.
Lastly, one of the people who helps me is one of my critique partners, Melinda Leigh. In addition to being a wonderful writer, Melinda is a martial arts specialist with knowledge of kendo. Having a CP with that background is beneficial for what I write.
•Do you endeavor to work actual historical events into your stories? If so, how do you go about incorporating them?
I do and I use an Excel spreadsheet showing dates of things like movements of major players, full and new moons, and Easter. However, this doesn’t really affect my first book much. The only major historical events mentioned in The Samurai’s Heart are the ban on Christianity in 1587 and the sword hunt in 1588. My book begins in August 1587, one month after the ban, which provides the impetus for the story.
The sword hunt, which my sources suggest different months for the inception of, serves as a plot twist. (The sword hunt involved the government gathering up all the swords of the populace under the pretense of melting them down to produce Buddhist artifacts. Sixteenth century Japan had no 1st or 2nd amendment.) There are actual people from history mentioned in the first book, but you don’t meet any of them.
In the third book of the trilogy (I skipped the second, though I have started on it), I incorporate actual people into the story. This becomes an issue as these people’s movements can be traced. The third book takes place in Kyoto in February – April 1591. Japan’s ruler, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, appears in the book three times and I know from my research when he was in and out of Kyoto. I’ve even got a parade and some weather related events that I’ve marked and somehow hope to incorporate into Book Three.
I do have hopes of including things, though, that I know won’t work. In the third book, I wanted to somehow work in the news of the defeat of the Spanish Armada as a historical tidbit and frame of reference as, by 1591, the news could have reached Japan (given the time it took ships to travel between Europe and Japan). However, I realized that the particular Europeans visiting Japan at this time would be disinclined to discuss the battle.
Walt’s Challenges and Solutions
•You wear many hats, including husband, father, banker, blogger, freelancer, and coach. How do you fill all those roles and still find time to write novel-length stories? What advice would you offer others whose hat racks rival yours?
I have one little correction. I’m not a coach. I’ve volunteered to help out my teenage son’s baseball team by being an extra adult on the field, if needed. What I usually do is keep the scorebook.
As for the rest of it, when I think about this, I’m often reminded of a comment that one of my favorite authors, Karen White, likes to make to me at meetings of the Georgia Romance Writers. She will often tell me, “Walt, you have a wife. I want one, too.” There’s a lot of things that I could not do unless I had the support at home.
The only advice I have is that you need to find the time. Kelly L. Stone has a wonderful book called Time to Write. In it, she talks about keeping track of your time for a week to show when you have time available. I use my lunch hour, before work, and after the kids go to bed.
•You’re a male romance writer in a female-dominated genre. That presents some challenges. Sure, the hotels hosting RWA Nationals turn many of the men’s restrooms into ladies’ rooms, complete with strategically placed potted plants as camouflage, but that’s minor compared to the day-to-day aspects of your choice. How do you deal with the realities of being vastly outnumbered? Who or what has helped you come to grips with your choice?
Being vastly outnumbered is not the worst thing, unless you’re in the middle of a battlefield. The worst thing is feeling out-of-place. I joined RWA initially because of my nonfiction manuscript. It was targeted to women. There’s no organization better than RWA on teaching a writer how to market a book to women.
Yet, there were times when I felt out of place because of my gender. What helped me get over that were the actions of certain well-known male writers. One of my favorites is Barry Eisler, a New York Times bestselling author known for his books about John Rain, an assassin for hire. (Eisler used to work for CIA in Japan and his John Rain character is half-Japanese.)
In 2008, the RWA conference was held in San Francisco. I saw Barry Eisler in the pictures from the conference that were published in the Romance Writers Report. Prominent male author. Thriller writer. Extolling RWA.
I’ve also heard other male authors praising RWA. One in particular is Bob Mayer. I was at a workshop of his and he referred to RWA as “the most professional writing organization in the world.” It was things like these that let me know I was doing the right thing.
•What do you see as some of the benefits of being a male romance writer, other than the obvious advantage of having an innate ability to understand the nuances of malespeak?
The biggest advantage, other than the fact there’s never a line at the bathroom at a romance writer’s conference, is that you’re remembered easily. When I’ve had reason to e-mail people after meeting them, I always try to start it with something like “I don’t know if you remember me…” I probably don’t need to lead with that line.
The second benefit is that I’ve been introduced to a lot of really great writing that a few years ago I didn’t know anything about…and a lot of great writers.
Walt’s Journey Continues
•What are you working on now? What ideas do you have for future projects?
The Samurai’s Heart is the first novel in a trilogy. However, it didn’t start out the way. Two of the characters in my first book wanted their own stories told, which is how the trilogy idea arose. Book 2 takes place in Osaka. Book 3 takes place in Kyoto. Book 3 is my primary focus as that character screams louder.
I’m also noodling a synopsis for a contemporary inspirational involving missing children. A childhood friend who’s now a Federal Air Marshall has offered his technical expertise, provided I include him in the book and devise an interesting way to have him killed.
And, I’m always on the lookout for a way to sell my nonfiction articles. I continue to submit to magazines with the hope that something will break.
Five Fun Facts About Walt, the Person
~ I was once stopped in the Nagoya airport for bringing in a strange variation of “uncooked rice” into the country. Was eventually successful at explaining grits to the Japanese customs official.
~ During a trip to Thailand, I made friends with a Japanese-speaking street vendor in Phuket. Accepted his offer to join him and his family for lunch. Declined the offer of his daughter’s hand in marriage.
~ It is very hard to get my attention if a game involving the Atlanta Braves or the Auburn Tigers is on TV.
~ I was featured in columnist Susan Reinhardt’s book, Dishing with the Kitchen Virgin. I had two of my recipes published as well as some of my thoughts on cooking and related topics.
~ Used to (and still do a little) have a problem with book covers when purchasing books because I get embarrassed at checkout. A mutual friend of ours, Robin Kaye, provided an introduction for me to her editor for the purpose of submitting my nonfiction manuscript. The best way for me to show how grateful I was for the introduction was to purchase a copy of her book, Romeo, Romeo. It’s hilarious and I would recommend it to anyone. However, I’m sure I was blushing when I bought it.
Walt’s Question for You
The idea of a Japanese hero and heroine is not the norm. What types of untapped cultures would you like to see in romantic fiction and/or inspirational fiction?
Walt has generously offered to give away an origami Christmas ornament handmade by his talented wife. It is a kusudama, which literally translated means medicine ball, and is about three inches in diameter.
To enter the drawing, just leave a comment for Walt by midnight September 7 (Pacific time) and enter your email address when prompted during the comment process. (You don’t have to leave it in the body of your comment this way.)
On September 8, I will hold the drawing and post the winner’s name here as well and will contact her/him via email to get a mailing address. (I don’t share your information with anyone, other than sending your mailing address to my guest, and I don’t add your name to any mailing lists.)
Congratulations to Christina, winner of the ornament.
Note: Offer void where prohibited.
Limited to those with a U.S. mailing address.
Odds of winning vary due to the number of entrants.
Learn More About Walt
Visit his blog about parenting ~ Daddy Needs Decaf
Visit his blog about Auburn University football ~ Walt’s Place
Friend him on Facebook ~ Walt Mussell
Follow him on Twitter ~ wmussell