Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Writer Todd Shimoda

In art, books, fiction, writing on December 1, 2011 at 7:41 pm

Todd Shimoda

Todd Shimoda. Photo by Linda Shimoda.

An introduction to Todd Shimoda, author of the novel Oh! A Mystery of ‘Mono no Aware’. Shimoda’s other books include The Fourth Treasure and 365 Views of Mt. Fuji. This latest book, Oh!, was selected as an NPR Summer Read, and Todd Shimoda won the Elliot Cades Award for Literature, the highest literary honor in Hawaii. Besides writing novels, Shimoda is Vice President of Chin Music Press, and Director of Product Design and Development at SF Design Associates.

Quick Facts on Todd Shimoda

  • Todd Shimoda’s websites: and
  • Home: Upland, California
  • Comfort food: tofu with rice, mac’n’cheese with tomato soup
  • Top reads: Kobo Abe’s The Ruined Map, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, the “big three” authors of the American hard-boiled detective novel: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald
  • Current reads: Levy Hideo’s A Room Where the Star Spangled Banner Cannot Be Heard

What are you working on at the moment?

My next novel, Subduction, will be published in May 2012. I just finished it at the end of October; well, there will be galley reviews and final proofing and promotion—all of that is work too. I call Subduction a literary thriller set on a tiny, earthquake-plagued Japanese island. Endo, a young physician unjustly charged with a patient’s death, is banished to the island to care for the few remaining elderly residents. Determined to remain on their crumbling island and resuscitate their defunct fishing industry, the aging islanders plot against all outsiders. The aftershocks of the islanders’ past, as well as Endo’s own troubled history, replay in the present through paranoia, seismology, and dark humor. Inserted in the book, there is also a very cool, illustrated retelling of the Japanese myth of the giant catfish that causes earthquakes.

I’m now writing a new novel titled The Royal Book of Monsters. It’s a break from what I’ve been publishing in that it has no direct connection with Japan. Monsters is a postmodern, philosophical horror novel that explores how and why humans have created all of our monsters like vampires, werewolves, ghosts, witches. It’s a fun, page-turning, thought-provoking write, so I hope it’s a fun, page-turning, thought-provoking read.

What do you hope readers will take away from your work?

“I like the idea of ‘satisfaction’

as an explanation of

how people experience literature.”

I like the idea of “satisfaction” as an explanation of how people experience literature in general, and what I hope readers take away from my novels. Satisfaction is different from, but intertwined with, pleasure. When we are satisfied, we may feel pleasure. Satisfaction is an emotion after a completed action, whereas pleasure refers to a current emotional state. Satisfaction is also different from happiness, which is a more complex bundle of emotions and refers to a positive general state of being. The important dimensions or factors of satisfactions are:

  • satisfaction is an emotion
  • satisfaction is achieved when expectations are met or exceeded
  • satisfaction is changeable and temporal
  • satisfaction varies greatly from person to person
  • satisfaction is relatively short-lived
  • satisfaction is addictive

So in other words, readers come to my novels with differing expectations—some want to be entertained, some want to get lost in another world, some want to learn something or be inspired, some want to be surprised. I try to create something that is satisfying as a whole, complete work, and meets the expectations I have set up with my characters, plot, and other aspects of the novel.

Who do you picture as the ideal reader of your work?

Someone I’d like to share a drink or dinner with, and have a great conversation. She would be well-read, but not snobby about what she reads. If she isn’t familiar with my work, she would be willing to give my somewhat experimental style a chance. That said, I really don’t have a very specific reader or person in mind, because I’m writing to the characters and story more than to the reader. On the other hand, I appreciate my readers immensely, and I’m amazed and gratified when some go out of their way to contact me, especially if they liked the book. Well, only if they liked the book [laughs].

Where and when do you prefer to write?

I have a home office space and do some writing there, but I do the bulk of my writing at coffee shops, bookstores, or libraries. I find that outside the house there is the right level of quiet and stimulation, and I have to sit there. I tend to pace at home, and usually find something else to do, like wash the windows, pay bills, anything but write. I do most writing in the morning, but also do some evening writing. The afternoons are tough going for me, writing-wise.

It’s been said writers can do their work from any place, where would you most want to live and write?

I’m not sure it’s true writers can work from any place, at least not for me. I lived in Hawaii (Kauai) for several years and thought the relaxed pace would be conducive to writing. But, I need a little more stimulation to write well. Plus, all the bookstores closed on Kauai except a small one that was too far away for me to go to regularly. I also find it’s easier for me to write about a place where I’m not living, perhaps because I don’t have to dwell on the details of the place. I have to write from memory, which is better for the creative process in writing a novel. An ideal place? That’s hard to say, but I’m finding Southern California very stimulating.

What do you listen to when you work?

Usually jazz by Bill Evans, Miles Davis, Chet Baker. Sometimes electronica or art rock works too.

Do you have a philosophy for how and why you write?

Much of my philosophy for and approach to how I write comes from the books I like to read. A book that really affects me, satisfies me, creates a response not unlike what a friend provides. There is a long-term bond established, a change in my way of viewing the world, and a sounding board to bounce ideas off. The good book also sets a bar for me to shoot for, so I’m asking myself: Is the book I’m writing going to be as satisfying as the ones that satisfy me?

“I’m asking myself: Is the book

I’m writing going to be as satisfying

as the ones that satisfy me? “

I think it’s largely the same answer for why I write, although it’s much more of a subconscious, visceral need. When I go for more than a couple of days not writing I get very antsy, and even cranky. Even though the writing process can be very aggravating, when it works well, I get that writer’s high, not unlike a long distance runner gets a runner’s high.

How do you balance content with form?

For me, content mostly defines form, assuming content means the story, which is made up of many factors like character, plot, voice, style. Content is not limited or constrained. Form is how the content is placed on the page, which has limitations. But I like to experiment with form, moving text around, using different fonts, adding art and even formulas. Of course, the book designer is responsible for the ultimate form. I like working with a great book designer, and have been lucky to do that.

In Oh! A Mystery of ‘Mono No Aware’, how did you choose the images and artwork that are included throughout the novel?

I collaborate with my wife Linda, a contemporary abstract artist who also uses classical Japanese brush techniques. When we collaborate, I discuss the story idea with her, then we go to our separate spaces—me to write, she to create art based on the story idea. So, she is not illustrating the story, but rather creating her interpretation of the story. When we are finished, she reads the story and selects the art, placing the pieces where she feels it is most closely interpretive of that point in the story. This works well, and it adds much to the written word.

Is there a quote about writing that motivates or inspires you?

I can’t recall a single quote that motivated me, but John Gardner’s book On Becoming a Novelist rings true and useful to me. On a personal note, the wonderful Nan Talese, of Nan Talese/Doubleday, described my writing as “fresh” and I often think of that simple yet powerful assessment.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

I’m mostly a self-taught, trial-and-error writer. Lots of trial, many errors. I didn’t go the MFA route, not to say that I couldn’t have benefited from it. I think writers have to find their own route to publication; there is no royal road. Of course, I do believe becoming a writer means writing a lot, learning what works and what doesn’t, and understanding what “story” means.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?

I tend not to take advice, so I haven’t sought out advice, although perhaps I should! But the Gardner book I mentioned contains a chapter titled “Faith” and I think that says it all.

What do you find most challenging about writing?

The writing part of being a novelist has many challenges, as anyone who writes can attest. But those challenges are a necessary part of the creative process. Overcoming them makes a writer an author. However, for me, the most difficult part is not the writing process but making a living while I’d rather be writing.

“Challenges are a necessary part

of the creative process.

Overcoming them makes a writer an author.”

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

Read, watch television (too much), enjoy good food and drink, golf, hang out with cool people. Believe it or not, I’m enjoying driving on the LA freeways.

About Todd Shimoda
Todd Shimoda recently won the Elliot Cades Award for Literature, the highest literary honor in Hawaii. He has published three novels that deal with Japan and Japanese themes: Oh! A Mystery of ‘Mono no Aware’ (Chin Music Press), The Fourth Treasure (Nan Talese/Doubleday), and 365 Views of Mt. Fuji (Stone Bridge Press). The books have been translated into six languages and The Fourth Treasure was listed as a 2002 Notable Book by the Kiriyama Prize, and won first prize for fiction at the New York Festival of Books. Oh! was selected as an NPR Summer Read among other honors. His fourth novel Subduction will be published in spring 2012.

Besides writing novels, he is Vice President of Chin Music Press, and Director of Product Design and Development at SF Design Associates. He has also been a professor in the Journalism and Technical Communication Department at Colorado State University, a visiting professor at the University of California-Berkeley, and an engineer and technical writer. Born in Fort Collins, Colorado on April 30, 1955, he has also lived in California, Hawaii, Texas, and Japan. He is married to the artist LJC (Linda) Shimoda. He blogs about writing at His reviews for the Asian Review of Books are at

Buy Oh! A Mystery of ‘Mono no Aware’, preferably at your local independent bookstore.

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Todd Shimoda.” Words With Writers (December 1, 2011),

Oh! A Mystery of 'Mono no Aware'

Oh! A Mystery of 'Mono no Aware' by Todd Shimoda (Chin Music Press).

  1. Oh wow, I love the work he describes between author and artist. I bet that type of teamwork is so much fun! Great interview.

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