The following is an excerpt from a Door County Pulse podcast that has been condensed and edited for clarity. Listen to the full interview below.
This year, Joshua Phillip Johnson will be the fiction judge for the Hal Prize competition. He teaches writing and literature at the University of Minnesota-Morris. Her first novel, The Eternal Seawas released in 2021, and the sequel, The endless song – the conclusion to the epic tale – is set for release in January 2023.
I recently sat down with Johnson to discuss his book, writing in the fantasy genre, his journey as a writer, and what he looks for in Hal Prize competition submissions.
Grace Johnson (GJ): We touched on eco-fantasy briefly, so we’ll talk about that a bit.
Joshua Phillip Johnson (JPJ): So I think fantasy, perhaps more than some other speculative genres, is often dismissed as not being particularly serious or relevant to the important issues at hand. I think it’s a fair question to say, “Listen, if you have something important to say about the environment, why do it with this genre that seems to deviate from reality?”
I think fantasy has a few things that work in its favour, or that are built in, that are really great for thinking about the environment.
I think one of the things that ecologists often encourage people to think about is something called systems thinking – a kind of thinking beyond a particular phenomenon or catalyst and the question, “How do we does it work in a larger system of really interrelated factors? That’s all world-building is. I think fantasy – just as a genre, which uses this idea of world-building and imaginative play – is really good for thinking about that kind of stuff.
GJ: Tell me about your writing journey. How have you evolved as a writer?
JPJ: I started out as a reader, and I still think of myself as a reader first and foremost. If I could only do one of two things, read or write – and I’m not on the deadline – I would always prefer to read.
I think books really saved me when I was a kid. I had a difficult childhood like many other people, and stories have always been a refuge.
When I was a child, I remember when I was staying with my father, I would go up to my room and use the candy money my father gave me to buy note cards, and I would play choose yourself on these sheets.
I put everything in my room to have a large floor space, and I made a kind of tree with these cards. “If you killed the hydra, go to this page”, or whatever. These, I think for me, were my first way of using writing to deal with the world around me.
GJ: Did you have a moment when you felt like you could officially declare yourself a writer?
JPJ: I haven’t touched it yet. I do not know what it is. I think I’ve detached myself from the product of writing, even though the book is right there, and I know it has my name on it.
GJ: Regarding the Hal prize, what are you looking for in submissions?
JPJ: What often attracts me is a story that knows what it’s trying to do – there’s a kind of whiff of intentionality. A writer who knows that the voice is his strong point. I think of stories that lean towards complexity and find something in it. A story that doesn’t need to be carefully tied with a bow – stories that accept ambiguity.
The Hal Prize is open to submissions in the fields of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and photography. The competition – open to anyone in the United States – will end on September 16. Visit thehalprize.com to learn more.