Monday, August 31, 2009

What's Your Theme?

by Joan

As writers, we’re asked this by our critique groups, by agents, by our inner voices. This blog post started out in one direction and morphed into something else. As different twists and turns came up, I followed them, knowing each was worth pursuing. But then as I revised, I worried that there was no cohesive theme. I started writing about professionalism, then career change, then courage, then perseverance. I stepped back one more time and realized it reminded me of something: my life.

In college, I changed my major many times. I started out in art and went through various others, math and psychology among them, before ending up with two degrees—accounting and marketing. Without a clear direction, I explored many subjects and learned something from each one. Though the majors were very different, one thing was consistent: my resolve to get a college degree.

When I worked in the corporate world, I used to stare out my tenth floor window onto the streets of Washington, D.C., and dream of being my own boss. As cyclists delivered packages and weaved through cars and business execs, I imagined their careers (and wardrobes of bike shorts and athletic shoes!) were more exciting than mine. As a CPA, whether employed by an accounting firm, executive recruiter or private company, I yearned for a time when I would answer only to myself. I could play well with others (most of the time!), but I realized I was self-motivated and became frustrated when others didn’t put in 100 percent. Both classic signs of someone who should work for herself. I only needed to muster the nerve to do it.

In 2002, the decision was made for me. My son broke his femur and I took an extended absence from my job to care for him. Several months later, after watching my brave nine-year-old struggle from wheelchair to walker and finally to crutches, I gathered the courage to launch my consulting business. Along with my son, it took me a few months to find my legs, but before long, I had to turn away clients. I was successful because of my expertise, hard work, and dedication. And because I resolved to make it work.

Now I look out my metaphorical window at published authors and dream of my next venture. (I already have the writer’s wardrobe of pajamas and slippers.) I consider the road to publication as a start-up, just like my consulting company, a tiered path requiring a current investment of time with no guarantee of future success. But like any other start-up, the chance of success increases with skill, hard work, and yes, perseverance.

At times my life appears to have no real theme, but it does. Whether it’s a manuscript that needs revision, a new career, or a blog post that needs direction, I persevere until I make it happen.

Elbows-deep in my next manuscript (with ideas for others tucked away nearby), I steal glances out my window, perseverance at the forefront. I’ve successfully started a business before, and I can do it again. I’ve got a theme.

Friday, August 28, 2009

An Interview with Jantsen's Gift Co-author Aimee Molloy

By Susan
I had the opportunity to have a candid conversation this week with Aimee Molloy, the co-author of Jansten’s Gift. For Aimee, the book was more than her next title, it was a life-changing event. Check out our quick conversation and let us know what you think!

1) Tell our readers a little bit about the story of Jantsen's Gift.
Jantsen's Gift is the story of Pam Cope. In 1999, her fifteen-year-old son Jantsen died unexpectedly of an undetected heart ailment. At his funeral, she and her husband, Randy, requested that people donate to a memorial fund in Jantsen's name in lieu of flowers. They raised more money than they ever expected--nearly $25,000. Pam ended up donating a portion of that money to friends in Vietnam who had started an orphanage. She, Randy and their daughter, Crista, went to Vietnam to visit the orphanage, and it was here that her whole perspective began to shift.
She went on to use the money, as well as her grief and compassion, to start an organization called Touch A Life. First, they worked in Vietnam saving children who lived on the street and were at risk of being trafficked. Then, after reading about the issue of child slavery in Ghana--which, believe it or not, is still a big problem there and around the world--she began to rescue children who had been sold by their parents to fishermen who worked Lake Volta, the nation's largest lake. Now, they have a boarding school in Ghana and have rescued 69 children. While it sounds like a sad story, it's not. Pam is incredibly inspiring and funny, and really puts herself out there in the book. We've heard from so many people, who said Pam's story has changed their lives in very good ways, making them take stock in themselves and figure out what's really important to them.

2) What began this incredible journey for you that became Jantsen's Gift?

The book was actually the idea of Heather Schroeder, a literary agent in New York. The New York Times wrote about Pam's work in Ghana, and after reading that article, Heather knew it would make a great book. She got us together. Pam and I first met at a coffee shop in New York. Our second meeting was three weeks later, at the airport, on our way to Ghana.

3) This is your third collaboration on a narrative nonfiction book, the first, For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire, with Chaplain James Yee, and the second, This Moment on Earth: Today’s New Environmentalists and Their Vision for the Future, with John Kerry and Teresa Heinz Kerry. As a writer, how did you gravitate towards this niche?

When I was very young, I used to practice writing by trying to emulate my favorite authors' styles. In fourth grade, I won a contest for writing most like Edgar Allen Poe. Perhaps it was that blue ribbon that set my fate, although I certainly didn't expect to be able to make a living doing this someday. I also got a very fortunate first break. In 2004, I read a story in The New York Times about Chaplain James Yee, a Muslim U.S. Army chaplain, stationed at Guantanamo, who had been arrested on suspicion of belonging to Al Qaeda.

The story seemed fishy to me, and I became really interested in learning more. So I chased it. I was working full-time at a gallery, and doing this in my free time. I interviewed his family, his colleagues and his lawyers. He wouldn't grant me an interview, however, as he was weighing how best to present his side of the story. I was hoping to write an article about his case, but that didn't transpire. That was a big disappointment to me because I had invested a lot of time in it. So I decided to quit my job, become a waitress if necessary, and pursue writing full time. On the last day at my job, Chaplain Yee called me. He told me that he had sold his story to a publishing house, and wanted me to write it for him. Nobody was more surprised by that than I. But I got the job, and it's turned into so many great experiences and opportunities.

4) How has your involvement with Pam Cope and Touch A Life changed you?

The better question may be how has it not. I got to travel to incredibly remote parts of Africa and Asia and interview child slaves, their masters and the parents who had sold them. I never imagined I'd ever get to do that. I've gotten a very rich understanding of how people in other parts of the world live. I've met so many children who have endured so many unspeakable things, and meeting them has had a profound impact on me. I've also gotten to know Pam, who has inspired me beyond belief, and will be one of my closest friends forever. In the end, this experience has taught me that as long as I am fortunate enough to make a living writing, I'd like to be involved telling stories that may contribute in some ways to making a real difference.

5) Of all the travels and children you met while writing this book, who or what location affected you most?

That's a hard one. I think the experience that's affected me the most was visiting Cambodia, where I interviewed young girls who had been working in the sex industry for many years. It was heartbreaking, and two years later, I still haven't fully shook that experience. It's one thing to see children in Ghana sold because of poverty. While that's incredibly hard to witness, I don't think that the intentions behind it are evil. But it's another thing to see these young girls being forced into these situations because men--many of them Westerners--will pay a high price for them. That experience has made me want to explore this issue more and help to tell the stories of girls like those I met.

6) The book strongly carries Pam's voice. What was the process you two used in writing this project?

It was very intense, and it worked so well mainly because Pam was willing to be very open and very honest with me from the beginning. We spent a lot of time talking to each other, and we travelled together a lot too, which was very helpful. It's easier to come to an understanding of another person's voice when it's all you hear for two-week stretches and are forced to share beds, clothes and toothbrushes in the middle of Africa and Asia. She also shared with me all of her journals, which was an act of trust that I will always appreciate. Then we just sat down and went to work. I holed up in a little hut in Bali and wrote a first draft, which Pam read very carefully and made tons of suggestions. We went back and forth several times before we got to a place--and a book--that we both fell in love with.

7) Did you begin Jantsen's Gift with specific goals in mind, or was the goal to simply tell Pam's story?

Elizabeth Gilbert's inscription at the beginning of Eat, Pray, Love reads: Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth. Pam and I read that book at the same time, and whenever we hit a rough patch in the story telling or wondered where we were going, we'd return to the idea that we just wanted to be honest. Of course, this was a much different, and probably more difficult, process for Pam, as it was her life we were delving into. But I think that this, above all else, was the thing that was most important to both of us, and the reason why people are responding so well to Jantsen's Gift. It's definitely something I've always believed in: a book can't be really good if it's not completely, 100 percent, brutally honest.

8) For other writers out there seeking publication of nonfiction, how do you recommend they get started?

I get asked this question a lot, and even after three books, I still don't know if I'm qualified to give advice, because, unfortunately, there really is no formula for it. Some people find going to school or taking classes helpful, but I didn't go that route. I do know that there were many years that I spent talking about wanting to be a writer far more than I was actually writing. The one thing that I do know is that the trick to writing really is simple: you have to write. Write all the time, at least every day. It doesn't have to be a great work of art, or something you even intend to show to anyone. Right now, the best writing I'm doing is in my journal, and it was like that for me for many years.

Once you feel comfortable--meaning you've found your own voice and have overcome all the demon voices in your head questioning your ability or right to write--there are steps you can take to get published. I started very small, with local magazines, which, as long as they exist, are great resources for new writers. Write as many articles as you can, even if you don't get paid. If you want to publish a book, you must get an agent. Publishing houses will no longer look at work unless it is presented through an agent. That may sound like an impossible goal, but there are many agents who will take their chances on unpublished writers with good ideas and a strong voice.

9) What writers and/or works have influenced you the most?

That's kind of like asking me to choose my favorite child! Because I write narrative nonfiction, the writers who have influenced me the most tend to be novelists. Ian McEwan is probably my all-time favorite. I've read Enduring Love so many times, I think I may have memorized it. I recently went through a stage of discovering writers from the 1950s and '60s. Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road and his short stories are works of genius. I'm also drawn to writers who are willing to take risks. The best example I've seen of that in the last few years is Joshua Ferris' Then We Came to the End. Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird is never too far away from me. Anyone who has aspirations to write should read this book. It's a great tool on the writing process, and on working your way through the moments of utter horror and lack of confidence that are a constant and never-ending part of the writing process.

10) If there was one key to publishing a successful non-fiction work, besides solid writing skills, what would you say it is?

I'd love to know the answer to that one myself. While I don't think there is one key thing, there are certain elements that I believe have to be part of anything artistic: as I said earlier, you must be willing to be honest. You must be able to quiet the part of you that judges yourself for even writing, and put yourself out there. Then you must find the right people who are willing to support you. I've been very lucky to work with great editors--people, who I believe, don't get nearly enough credit for all that they contribute to the process of publishing a book. Then when it's all done, you have to just sit back, believe in what you've done, and hope that others want to read it.

11) What's next for Aimee Molloy?

I'm currently working on a proposal for my own book. It stems from the research I started with Jantsen's Gift, and will profile sixteen girls who are sixteen years old from sixteen totally different cultures from around the world. It feels like a big step for me to be pursuing my own book, rather than co-authoring, and I'm excited, terrified, and relying a lot on trust right now.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Finding Inspiration in Landscape

By Kim

The idea that I was meant to be a writer came to me as a jolt – literally. I was eight years old when my parents located my grandmother’s childhood home, an old stone farmhouse in Galt, Ontario, Canada. Listening to the owner reminisce about his boyhood encounters with a poor starving artist (my great-grandfather, Carl Ahrens) and his pretty daughters (my grandmother and great-aunt), I learned much of the art my parents owned had been created in that very room. With threadbare carpeting and ugly faux-wood paneling on the walls, it hardly looked like a space to inspire an artist. I fought the urge to blurt out, “Why did you ruin a perfectly good studio?” The words not only would have landed me in a great deal of trouble, but they made no sense. I had no idea what Carl’s studio had looked like.

I had other strange urges as well; to pull up a corner of carpeting to see if the wood floors were still there underneath, to run outside and hug a gangly looking elm tree that waved at me through the window, to seek out my grandmother’s old bedroom. One impulse I could not resist: As I left I touched the outside stone walls.

I felt an electric current course from the stones into my hand – a feeling I’ve never forgotten. At that moment I knew two things: I was going to write a book someday, and my grandmother was with me. We later learned she had passed away while we were at her old house.

I imagine every creative person, whether their craft is writing, painting, dancing, or quilting, has a place that inspires them, a place where the muse speaks freely. For Carl Ahrens it was the forests of Waterloo County, Ontario. I knew I must experience some of the places he held sacred in order to write his story in the way it was meant to be written. I hoped to feel something, to feed off the same creative energy that once fed him. I never expected to fall in love.

I will always be drawn to Waterloo County for the family history connection, the forests, and the wonderful people I have met there, but I know the Kitchener/Waterloo area is nothing at all today like it was in Carl’s time. His house in Galt was once a mile or more from the nearest neighbor. While the house itself has been lovingly restored to a much closer version of the original, there is a modern subdivision in the back yard, and an industrial park around the bend. Gone are the big trees the house was named for, and many of the old farm fields now yield only strip malls, restaurants, and big box stores. Were Carl still alive, he’d flee for the unspoiled wilderness up north.

‘Up north’ is where my heart resides. I know exactly the moment I first glimpsed Georgian Bay, because my camcorder clearly recorded my “Oh my God, look at that!” Next comes ten minutes of gushing remarks about the turquoise water, the lopsided windblown trees, and the rocky islands as the camcorder rests in my lap, recording footage of garbage littering the floor of the car.

I’ve been in Ontario four times in the last five years, and it’s the bay that draws me. Thankfully, I have close friends who live in Midland, so it’s a convenient place for me to visit. Being there brings back the memories of the best parts of my childhood in Maine. Quiet walks in the woods, rock-hopping on the coast, spotting the occasional deer, the smell of pine, night skies where the moon and stars feel so near you can touch them.

Unlike Maine, there’s also a deep personal connection for me, almost primal, to the landscape of that part of Ontario. I have many candid family photographs of the Ahrens family on the beach at Leith, near Owen Sound and a newspaper article claiming Carl christened a stretch of forest there his church. Much of the Bruce Peninsula is still strongly influenced by the same Ojibwa tribe that adopted Carl as a young man. I first heard the sound of native drums and smelled the intoxicating combination of sage, sweetgrass and tobacco just outside of Tobermory. Many of Carl’s contemporaries found inspiration in the landscape of Georgian Bay – Tom Thomson, Frederick Varley and A.Y. Jackson to name a few. The image you see here of a painting by Varley is a prime example. Some of the places I find most inspiring, however, have no family connection at all. The first time I saw the north shore at Killarney my immediate thought was “I want to paint this.”

If I could bring a laptop and camp out at my friend Mike’s cabin on Wahnekewening Beach, I’m certain I’d finish my book in six weeks. As a wife and mother of two, this idea is merely a daydream I indulge in when the words just don’t want to come. I remind myself that Carl, too, relied on photographs and memory for inspiration when illness prevented him from leaving his house for over a year, and still produced some of his best work. Hoping to do the same, I surround myself with images of my recent trip to Georgian Bay with my oldest daughter, Sasha. When that doesn’t work I use one of the rocks I picked up from the shore as a worry stone, play my CD of Georgian Bay sounds, drink my Ojibwa Sacred Blend tea and dab sweetgrass lotion on my neck for aromatherapy. All senses engaged, I begin to type.

Monday, August 24, 2009


My husband and I celebrated the seventh anniversary of our first date this past weekend. Just as we did seven years ago, we saw the Old 97s, an alt-country band that started out right here in Dallas-Fort Worth. You might have seen them in the concert scene in The Breakup or caught a mention of them in the first season of Friday Night Lights when Matt and Julie were supposed to see them, but football prevailed as always.

Last weekend's concert was held at the Bass Performance Hall, Tarrant County's premier concert venue and home of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, Texas Ballet Theater, Fort Worth Opera, and the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. We collected our tickets, the uniformed ushers pointed us toward the right section, and we passed through a private anteroom where we could leave an intermission drinks order, then settled into our plush first balcony box seats.

I gazed over the pristine edge of the balcony, at the crowd gathering in the orchestra level seating, toward the elegant stage, and up at the breathtaking Great Dome, painted to resemble white feathered wings embracing a Texas noonday sky.

And then I recalled my first Old 97s experience in 2002 at Fort Worth's Ridglea Theater, a west side landmark built as a state-of-the-art movie theater in 1948, but now constantly under the threat of closure. The Ridglea hosts an array of bands every week. Mostly young fans crowd into the fraying art-deco space, nearly all standing and likely ignoring the mural depicting the arrival of Spanish explorers in America while raising a beer bottle or the occasional Solo cup of soda in homage to their favorite bar bands.

A single word came to mind:


In the seven years between the two concerts, I've gained it. As I watched the Old 97s perform at a strange distance Friday night, my writer's brain kicked in. I compared not only the concerts, but also the writer I am today with the writer I was four or five years ago when I began this journey.

You wouldn't think there'd be so many similarities.

Back then, Todd and I were in the thick of it, edging as close as we could get to the stage, surrounded by rabid, mostly young Old 97s fans who danced right along with Rhett Miller and Murray Hammond, so near the band, our sweat probably mingled.

Now, Todd and I were content to watch them at a comfortable distance. The crowd stood in the orchestra section (yes, they stood, even at Bass Hall!), and we chuckled at the young girls who danced in the second row, gazing up adoringly at Rhett and Murray, and we raised eyebrows at the fans who appeared so devoted, but left two-thirds of the way through the show.

Back then, I edged as close as I could get to the writing world, inhaling craft books, agents' and writers' blogs, conference agendas, and acknowledgement pages, surrounded by other equally rabid novice writers, eager to plunge into this exciting venture.

Now, I'm content to keep a watchful eye on the writing world, often at a comfortable distance, jumping into the fray when it makes sense. I smile sentimentally at the newbies, so eager to learn everything on the fast track. And I raise my eyebrows at others who seemed so enthusiastic and likely to succeed when they drop out two-thirds of the way to publication, and I wonder what changed for them.

Back then, I didn't know the lyrics, much less recognize the songs. I knew I liked some of them, and I knew I was having a great time with a guy I hardly knew but already could tell was going to matter in my future.

Now, I recognized all but the latest songs, and was able to sing along in my head with many. I didn't worry much about the ones I didn't know or didn't like, because I knew another familiar favorite would come along soon.

Back then, I didn't know "the rules" of writing fiction. In fact, I'm not sure I even knew there were rules. I poured my everything into writing that first manuscript, clueless how many of those rules I broke along the way.

Now, I cringe when I come across a sentence or paragraph, or heaven forbid, an entire chapter where I've blatantly and badly committed the grievous sin of telling instead of showing. On the other hand, my heart races and my smile widens when I rediscover a section where I've either followed the rules to great effect or broken them brilliantly.

Between then and now, I've seen the Old 97s in other venues, and each time is a unique experience, some better than others, but all memories to cherish.

Between then and now, I've hidden several manuscripts away in files on two different computers, knowing those first attempts aren’t likely to surface again, but each holding valuable lessons and enduring feelings of accomplishment.

Back then, I was perhaps a little naïve. I imagined a perfect second marriage to my knight in shining armor, envisioning the two of us in our eighties with our walkers at standing-room-only Old 97s concerts.

Now, I look at my perfectly imperfect husband in his slightly creaky armor and imagine we'll still be attending concerts together well into our 80s, but we sure did enjoy those plush box seats. Having to shout at each other as we exited the concert half-deaf from the volume of the music was a scary reminder that hearing aids might not be that far in the future.

And I'm not too cynical. I know I made the right decision seven years ago when I accepted a blind date to see some alt-country band I'd never heard of.

Back then, I was perhaps a little naïve. I imagined a perfect world where I'd write a perfect manuscript on the first try, and agents would contact me and publishers would fight over the right to usher me into the world of bestselling authors. But the journey has been worth it, and now I've learned every word is one word closer to publication.

And I'm not too cynical, even from my new perspective. I know I made the right decision all those years ago when I accepted the challenge to plunge myself, heart and soul, into this writer's life.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Why I Freelance

My writing career has taken many paths, from local parenting magazine publisher to newspaper features writer to Christian newspaper interim editor. Currently I am pursuing fiction projects (including short stories, essays and two novels) while freelance writing and editing for a regional magazine. And raising a family.

Why freelance? Well, I have several motivations. First, writing for area publications gives me a little extra cash. Not a lot, but a little. An added bonus is being able to deduct writing expenses (such as conferences and professional memberships) on my taxes. According to my accountant, you can claim expenses for only a limited time before you have to show revenue. It’s not big revenue, but I have the 1099s to show for it.

Another great perk to freelance writing is building rapport with local editors and publishers. Right now I have an audience of over 700,000 people reading my articles in any given month—from Dallas to Houston and beyond. Some time in the near future, I’d like to be able to add to my byline: and her first novel will be published next year. Not bad publicity.

Along with schmoozing—well, emailing—those in the publishing business, I am also building an enviable list of experts in my Rolodex. One week I might interview an interior designer, a plastic surgeon or a pastor. Today I talked to a neuro/orthopaedic spine surgeon. Who knows what next week will bring? Why should this matter to me? The next time I’m working on my novel and need to know what a guy would do if he shattered the bones in his face or broke his neck, I know who to call for expert info. Can’t beat that!

So, if you are contemplating a freelance career, some free pointers:

Be proficient
Spellcheck everything from emails to articles before submitting. If you have a willing critique partner, let them double check your writing prior to sending it to the editor.

Be prompt
Never, ever miss a deadline. If you are calling it close, let your editor know why and when she can expect it.

Be professional
Submit invoices that look professional and follow up if you don’t get paid in a timely manner. Sometimes this happens and it’s usually just a slip-up. If it persists, then turn down future assignments from the client. Don’t allow them to take advantage of you.

Be proactive
Don’t wait for an editor to come looking for you. If you have a blog, great, but chances are you’ll have to go after your gigs. It’s pretty rare for an unknown writer to be discovered through her blog. Pay attention to local and regional publications. Once you have some bylines established, you can try for national publications.

Be persistent
My current account didn’t respond to my first email query about freelance opportunities. I had to take the old-fashioned approach and pick up the phone. I also get more assignments if I come up with ideas to pitch instead of waiting for my editor to call me.

Be patient
You might have to accept some less-than-thrilling assignments before you find someone willing to publish what you want to write. Essays and columns (the fun stuff) are usually given to staff writers, in my experience. News articles are easier to farm out.

If you have experience as a freelance writer and have any helpful advice I missed, feel free to leave a comment here. I find I learn something new every day.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Free Week

by Elizabeth

A few weeks ago, everything was free. Well, I still had to pay my bills, and when I stopped at the grocery store, lights didn't flash nor bells ring announcing the contents of my cart were gratis--but a lot of stuff was.

My kids went to a drama camp, two hours a day, no charge. (Thank you City of Dallas!) Each day after dropping them off at the rec center, I walked the quarter mile path to the library where the reading is free, not to mention the workspace. (And the A/C! Free week boasted 100+ degree temperatures. No thank you, City of Dallas.)

One afternoon, a taxi pulled beside me as I strolled and the driver asked where I was headed. "Just to the library." I pointed, puzzled. "I was going to offer you a free ride," he said. That day, a bank visited the library offering a financial seminar, and when they announced there would be a drawing at the end for a ten dollar gift card, I couldn't resist. Guess who won? Free week, I'm telling you!

So it continued. A friend and I took our kids to Heritage Farmstead in Plano, and after we begged for a peek into a locked storage cellar, the guide invited us into the (ahem, air conditioned) Victorian house for a tour, no admission today, ladies.

Another night St. Andrew's Methodist Church in Plano hosted writer Jane Green--no charge, not even for the chilled bottle of water or home-baked goodies. The book I bought for Jane to sign was not free, but I was happy to fork over my credit card as I munched another cookie. Afterward, my friend and I headed to Pacuigo for some ice cream and, though I decided to pass (did I mention the shortbread?), I could have indulged and maintained my record since I had a buy one/get one coupon floating somewhere in my car.

The next day was Dress Like a Cow Day at Chick-Fil-A. I'd show you a photo but the Internet is forever. I would like to assure our readers that, unlike my kids and their friends, I did not sport either a tail or udders. (Though if it had been required to get that grilled southwest chicken salad, I would have. That sucker was tasty.) That night my family curled up on the sofa to watch a borrowed DVD.

Friday was free Slurpee Day at 7-11. No costume required.

Saturday capped the week. I figured I'd count the complimentary performance of the city's drama camps the freebie of the day until the family of one of the kids I'd toted to camp presented me with a Barnes and Noble gift card, and the other family treated me to lunch. Free! Whipped cream all over the place, baby.

But really the very best part of free week were those free hours--free from responsibility for my kids, free from my laundry room, free from the regular surroundings that can both comfort and stifle me--at the library, to write, where I cranked out a good 10K words. For free. I guess you could argue that the ink and notepads cost something, but not much. (Besides, on the Chick-Fil-A day, I forgot my tablet and the rec center donated some paper, and I'd scored a pen from the basket off the book table the night before.)

And writing is always free. All it costs us, really, is time and effort, both of which most of us have in greater abundance than we claim. Sure we have time, no matter how busy we are. We just find other ways to waste--I mean--spend it. Television, Internet, Twitter, name your diversion. And effort--funny how somtimes the toughest thing a writer does all day is plant her heiny in a chair and keep it there. So yes, it requires diligence, patience, tenacity--but I've yet to see any of those being peddled at Target. Free, to anyone, just for the effort. Like the Chick-Fil-A meals--I spent some time, did a little work with scissors, paint and glue--but got five free meals in return.

Better still, like with writing, it gave me a story to tell. And any writer will tell you: you can't put a price on that.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Q&A with Adriana Trigiani

by Joan

New York Times Bestselling author Adriana Trigiani followed her wildly successful Big Stone Gap series with poignant, hilarious novels featuring lovely Italian families in New York. ( Lucia, Lucia, The Queen of the Big Time, Rococo, and Very Valentine). Her new book, Viola in Reel Life, will be released September 1 (available for pre-order).

When fourteen-year-old Viola is sent from her beloved Brooklyn to boarding school in Indiana for ninth grade, she overcomes her initial reservations as she makes friends with her roommates, goes on a real date, and uses the unsettling ghost she keeps seeing as the subject of a short film—her first.

Put it this way: If Adriana Trigiani writes it, I will read it. Recently, I had the unbelievable privilege of interviewing Ms. Trigiani. Check her Web site for tour dates or follow me to her Dallas book signing September 17 at the Borders at Preston and Royal.

Joan: Each time I read one of your novels, I dub it my favorite. Do you have a favorite?

Adriana: Thank you! As for favorites--I really don’t have one--I’m a good mother (in that way). I love all my children equally.

Joan: Speaking of children, Viola in Reel Life is your first venture into young adult fiction. What led you to write in this new genre?

Adriana: Tara Weikum, my editor--called and asked. I’ve been dying to write a young adult--as this was the period when I got hooked on reading--I loved Beverly Cleary, Madeline L’Engle and Louise Fitzhugh when I was a girl. I used to pick them up on the Bookmobile. Writing young adult books is like a trip back on to the bookmobile for me.

Joan: I’m excited Viola will encounter a ghost. Tell us about the spirit and why you chose to introduce a supernatural element into the story.

Adriana: Well, I was looking for a way to explain the unseen--the spark an artist experiences when she goes to create a poem, a book or a movie--the impulse--and in the case of Viola Chesterton, a budding filmmaker--she learns about her artistic impulses via a very delicious story about an event that happened on the campus many years ago. I wove those two ideas together.

Joan: Most of your books center around families, yet Viola is sent away to boarding school. Is this intentional?

Adriana: It’s so interesting. I still consider VIOLA IN REEL LIFE about families at its center--Viola is part of a loving and interesting family, who are very present in her life and the book. She also becomes part of a boarding school family. I really never venture far from my deeply ingrained themes- even when I try!

Joan: I imagine that’s the reason your books are so beloved. I’m thrilled your latest adult novel Very Valentine will be another trilogy and am looking forward to reading Encore Valentine next February. Will Viola also be a trilogy?

Adriana: Thank you--I’m so excited for you to read Encore Valentine. I’m crazy about it--it’s in its final copyediting stage now--and today I go and look at the cover art--always a wonderful part of the process. As for Viola--expect a lot more of her--three to start, and hopefully more!

Joan: Your fans will be very happy. You have a strong connection to your readers, and I understand you listen carefully to them. Have you ever been surprised by a reader’s reaction to one of your novels?

Adriana: Not really--though the responses run the gamut. There is criticism, and praise, and my favorite letters are about the families of my readers--and stories of their lives.

Joan: You use a lot of personal family history in your books. Do you have plans to write a book about the wisdom your grandmothers passed on to you?

Adriana: I keep a book for my daughter, and hope to write a non-fiction book based upon it for my readers.

Joan: With such a full schedule, how do you find time for everything: writing, directing the Big Stone Gap movie, answering your own email and caring for a small child? Do you sleep? Or have a clone?

Adriana: I’ve always been aware, even more so today because I’m a mother--of the ticking of the clock. My mother gave me very good advice when I had Lucia, she told me that I can do anything, as long as my family comes first. I build my life that way, and believe me, I fail a lot, and come up short. But, I also know my time on this earth is limited, and I try and make the most of the time I’ve been given. I am very lucky, and I know I’m lucky. I figure the best way to honor the blessings is to work hard and do my best. I answer the emails personally because my readers take the time to write to me, and I owe them a proper response. I’m a good sleeper--I go to bed early and rise early. As for clones--one of me is enough!

Joan: As an author of very visual stories, art plays a big role in your books, and I understand you keep a sketchbook, fabric and other relevant items close to your desk. How does this practice help you create visually stimulating characters?

Adriana: I was very lucky to have a professor at Saint Mary’s College--Dr. Reg Bain, in theater. The first thing he had us create was a collage inspired by reading a play. This became a habit with me. I collect odd items and fill my desk with them. Maps, bits of fabric, beads, small paintings, you name it--it has the potential to inspire me. When I met the great Mario Buatta, he shared that he creates a board for every interior design project. Tactile objects, old letters, texture, materials--all these things inspire me.

Joan: Speaking of art, your book covers are stunning. We've heard horror stories of authors not having a say in their cover art. Did you just get lucky?

Adriana: Thank you. I love my book jackets and cover art. After I’ve written the book and the editor and publishers have read it, we have a lot of discussions and meetings--about everything from color palette to message. I’m right in there with the cover artists. I have been very lucky--my designers are brilliant.

Joan: How often do you travel to the places in Italy your characters visit? Would you consider writing a book set entirely in that country?

Adriana: I travel annually--all over the place and mostly--Italy. Yes, I’d love to set an entire book there--and other places I have been fortunate enough to visit. Whenever I leave home, I find something wonderful. My job as an artist is to soak up the details of a place and bring the lush landscape to my readers. Of course, the characters and story have to live up to the settings, and in my novels, I hope they do!

Joan: They absolutely do! Thank you so much for joining us!

Readers, if you haven't pre-ordered and want to win an autographed copy of Viola in Reel Life, leave a comment. But hurry; we’ll only take entries from people who comment before midnight on Thursday, August 6, so check back on Friday to see if you’ve won. Be sure your comment links us to contact info for you or contact us at wwwtx6 (at) yahoo (dot) com. Also, unless you're willing to spring for postage, winner must live in the U.S.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Taking Critique without Breaking into Hives

by Susan

I’ve been writing my entire life. Starting at 15 years old, I was a sportswriter, columnist and feature writer for my local weekly paper. In college I spent a huge part of my time cranking out stories for my journalism classes, frantically handwriting articles at the last minute. And then, somewhere in my 20’s and 30’s, as career and motherhood changed my direction, I began writing fiction.
For whatever reason, having someone read my fiction was completely different than publishing an article in a newspaper. Newspaper work, in general, is no reflection on the writer as a person. It is hopefully unbiased, clearly written, and concise. In a way, everyone reads it and nobody cares, which is fine with me. Yet fiction felt so glaringly personal and intimate that the mere thought of someone reading it caused me to break into hives.

Therefore, when I decided to get serious about my fiction writing, one of my first steps was to join the DFW Writers' Workshop and open myself up to critique. How could I submit a manuscript to an agent if I was terrified of anyone reading it?

The set up at DFWWW is structured and simple: meet once a week, break into small groups, read your work aloud for 15 minutes, then listen to 5 minutes of critique without comment (and without breaking into hives). After 5 months of reading my manuscript aloud to this diverse group of writers, I’ve learned several valuable things about critique groups.

1)Genres don’t matter. Good writing does.

At first I was concerned that the sci/fi fantasy writer and the romance novelist would have nothing to offer me. How could they understand the nuances of Southern Fiction, my genre? What I’ve realized is that if the story holds up, writers of other genres can have great insight into your work. They see things you didn’t even consider and will tell you if it’s boring. And if they tell you it’s boring? Take them seriously, because it probably is. Don’t dismiss them just because their genre is different than yours.

2)Constant praise is not necessarily a good thing.

A writers’ group that tells you how great you are is not helpful. My first crucifixion (or cruci-fiction, you decide) by the group came Week Two. I was trying too hard, they said. Overwriting, said another. One even said, “It’s not the story, it’s how you’ve written it,” which Pamela Hammonds reminded me sounded like “It’s not the dress; it’s how it looks on you.” It was painful, but necessary. I went back to the drawing board, and came back with a much stronger piece because of it. Keep what makes sense and fix it. Don’t take them too seriously, yet don’t dismiss all critique either. Find the balance.

3)Meeting weekly keeps me writing.

I like reading at a writers’ group, therefore I write every week, no excuses. They keep my procrastination habit at bay. Knowing that I am expecting myself to read each week keeps me going. Sometimes it’s good sometimes it’s great, hopefully it’s never garbage. If it is, I know that they will tell me.

My advice to a new fiction writer? Find a critique group, or form one yourself. Don’t rely on your spouse or your best friend to give you the best possible feedback, they probably like you too much. Grammar, sentence structure, and spelling will all work themselves out in the end. But glaring issues and overriding flaws need to be corrected, and quickly. A writers’ group can do that for you. Just be prepared for the occasional hives.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Dream a little dream, then wake up and get back to work!

It's funny how often lessons come from the ones we're trying to shape – our own kids. Even lessons about being a writer.

I received this text from my 15-year-old while she was window shopping at the mall. (In other words, she was broke.)

I have on this gorgeous yellow prom dress, and it's twenty dollars ...

Translation: Mom, I gotta have this dress for prom next year. It fits perfectly, and it's cheap! Think how much money and time we'd save by not having to shop for one next spring when I'll need it for sure!

Unfortunately, my response had to be: Too bad prom isn't for a year, and you don't know what life will look like then. :)

My daughter has a sweet boyfriend. He's respectful and brings her home on time. Recently, he ate dinner with us and rinsed and loaded his own plate into the dishwasher. I wouldn't mind keeping him around for a while -- there sure is less to worry about when your daughter has this kind of boyfriend.


He's a senior this year, she's a sophomore, and there's no telling what can happen in the course of a year when you're an adult, much less a young adult exploring life, love, and who you will become.

My daughter is dreaming of a prom that might never happen, picturing herself in that beautiful yellow dress that could end up gathering dust in the back of her closet. She might do better to contemplate life in the here and now, focusing on the aspects she can actually control and enjoy in the moment.

And this is just a twenty-dollar prom dress. Think of all the money spent on wedding gowns that were never worn. You've read the ads on Craigslist. Wedding gown, never worn. Prom dress, never worn. They're all slightly sad, though we can hope some of these ladies simply found a better dress.

I'm not saying you shouldn't ever plan ahead, and I'm definitely not saying it's silly to try on dresses for the heck of it.

But here's my point. (Yep, this really is about writing.)

Often, in our excitement about becoming novelists, we delve into similar territory. Even while crafting our first stories, we begin researching agents and the market. Research is certainly not a bad thing in itself. An educated writer makes a better client and more marketable author.

But when we lose sight of the real goal – writing the best book we can in the here and now – we can get in trouble.

We begin to pin our hopes on that one agent who meets our dream qualifications. We tailor our story to what that agent's looking for (though it's proven the market can change on a whim, not to mention it's impossible to predict whether what's hot today will be kicked to the curb tomorrow). Perhaps we attempt to become our dream agent's dream client by studying their current authors, reading everything we can find by their clients, and commenting on their blogs.

In other words, we pay a lot of attention to getting an agent when the book's not even finished, and Ms. Dream Agent is just one among many who might be the best representative for our project when the time arrives.

Maybe we're even doing a pretty good job of writing a great book, but we don't begin to think about the next project as we wrap up the earlier one. After all, our first novel's the one agents and editors will flock to publish and promote, the one that'll send us on a twenty-city book tour, right? Can't we worry about that next story later? When we're resting on our laurels and wallowing in all the cash we made off that instant bestseller?

The dress of our dreams could be symbolic for several legs of this exciting, but often puzzling journey. And really, it's just another metaphor we could equate with those age-old proverbs:

Don't put all your eggs in one basket.
Don't count your chickens before they hatch.
A watched pot never boils.

Okay, that last one's a stretch. I asked my youngest daughter if she could think of another example, and she said, "Don't spend your allowance before you earn it?" (Thanks, sweetie, I like that one.)

All I'm trying to say is take your time. If you're new to this journey, put the bulk of your energy into writing the best book you can. Believe me, there will be plenty of time to research and find the agent of your dreams when the time comes.

And don't feel silly if I've described you. After all, how could I write this without learning from experience? I see a finger pointing back at me as I gaze into the mirror, dreaming about my agent crush in my fancy yellow dress.

Photo credit: Gabriela Camerotti/Creative Commons license on Flickr

Monday, August 10, 2009

Writers=Deprived? Not so much

A recent comment left on agent Nathan Bransford’s blog suggested that true novelists are born out of deprivation. The person leaving this comment admitted he’s spent the past 20 years living in poverty so he could spend his “every waking moment either writing, reading, or thinking about fiction.”

Here’s my chance to refute this belief.

While there are successful novelists who view writing as a catharsis to their pain and certainly more than a few memoirists have profited from their horrible childhoods, to imply that the only true novelists are those who suffer is pretty narrow minded.

Yes, Stephen King spent years working horrific jobs before hitting it big with Carrie, but he continues to entertain us with his writing, and I doubt he’s lived in poverty in the past 30 years. Harvard-educated Dr. John Michael Crichton hardly lived a deprived existence before penning his novels. So, the sweeping generality that you must bleed in order to feel pain and then write about it is hooey.

Instead, I believe good writing can be achieved by drawing on your life experiences. I’ve never been homeless, addicted to anything stronger than tea, nor physically abused. But I have lived paycheck to paycheck, been divorced and had my heart broken.

I’ve skidded out of control on an ice-covered highway and gone airborne over a railroad track trying to make my curfew. My first real boyfriend was shot and killed in a hunting accident, and I watched my college friend make a difficult life-changing decision. While I’ve never lost a child, I have held a friend in my arms and cried along with her when she lost hers.

None of these life-altering moments have found their way into the stories I’ve written, but my perceptions of people and how they handle love and loss and tragedy certainly influence what I write.

As most writers do—forgive the sweeping assumption—I have a tendency to find perfect contentment behind the closed doors of my office and get swept away by the solitude of creating a world within my own. I choose the setting, the characters, their actions and reactions. It’s like giving birth without the excruciating pain.

But if I don’t step outside and connect with my environment, then I miss out. I miss watching the woman at the market who weighs my vegetables with careful hands while she talks to my daughter about riding on the tailgate of a rusted Ford through her grandpappy’s watermelon patch. How she never makes eye contact with me but seems captivated by my six-year-old who cradles a ripe melon in her arms. The woman’s muddy-brown eyes curtain with memories and I wonder if her long dark hair was once blond like my child’s.

So, forget being deprived. Instead, choose to be present.

If you write YA and it’s been a while since you were a young adult, then you’d better spend a lot of time around young adults, to observe their unique speech patterns and lingo and clothing and communication abilities. (I have two in my house and the home phone stays silent. Not at all like the household I grew up in, where four kids raced to the phone while it rang incessantly.)

If you write romance and you’ve never had your best friend steal your crush or loved someone who lived unaware of your longing, then you’d better have a broad group of friends who turn to you for advice and consolation when it happens to them.

If you write crime dramas, I’m assuming you’re either a cop, a detective, a private investigator, an investigative journalist or, well, a criminal.

I only expect you to live a minimal existence and wallow in a life of self-pity if you somehow choose to do so. I find nothing wrong with working a respectable 9-to-5 or part-time job—even if it has nothing to do with what you aspire to write about—while you write in the wee hours of the morning on your lunch hour and on weekends. I know lots of folks who do so.

Myself included.

Friday, August 7, 2009

A Tale of Trusting Ms. Muse and Going for What Ms. Serendipity Offers

by Deborah Downes, Guest Contributor

One year, my clothes hung in closets in Dubai, Korea, Charleston and Dallas, and were about to take up residence in the wardrobe of a Shanghai apartment. While I unpacked my suitcases, I felt off-balance, more than the usual disorientation from a bad case of jet-lag and immersion in a new country. I’d felt that way since I landed in Hong Kong to meet my husband, Fred, and get a China visa.

In Hong Kong, my out-of-whack state triggered the memory of five-year-old me, struggling to stay upright on the undulating floor of the carnival fun house at Riverview, a Chicago amusement park long since shut down. The night before Fred and I left Hong Kong for Shanghai, I dreamed of looking in one of the distorted mirrors of Riverview’s fun house. Instead of seeing the funny squatty image of me as a little girl, I watched as my adult self took the shape of an inkblot with bewildered eyes. I didn’t need a shrink to tell me my dream boiled down to feeling lost and impotent from too much moving within a single year, too much uncertainty over where Fred and I would be moving to next and how long we’d be there and too much time away from Fred. On top of all that, Ms. Muse insisting I let go of my unfinished trilogy and the dream of becoming a published novelist and instead focus on writing true stories about my life as a global nomad.

Since our 14-month stint in Dubai, Fred and I had bounced around from place to place far more than usual. Fred has worked for the same golf course architectural firm for over 30 years, and usually I can count on his being involved with an overseas job for more than a year. Occasionally our length of stay in a foreign country stretches out to years, like in Thailand. Due to a number of factors, including weather, politics, and start-up delays on construction projects, we never know how long we’ll be in a country, or when and where we’ll move to next.

I’d like to say after all the moving, letting go and uncertainty I’ve faced over the years, I’m a pro at dealing with all three. I’m not. At best I adapt by hanging onto to what I think of as my floats, keeping me buoyant on an ever-changing sea: faith, relationships with loved ones, and my writing. No surprise when I develop a problem with one or more of my floats, I struggle to keep my head above water.

And before moving to Shanghai, my writing float developed a serious leak. I went through what I think of as a writer’s identity shakeup during the months I spent in Dallas, while Fred was in Shanghai. I’d been passionate about writing for over 30 years and, for most that time, believed I was cut out to be a published novelist. Shortly after I started the first book of the trilogy I began in Bangkok, I became convinced I was destined to write novels loosely based on my expatriate experiences. After I finished that book and revised it many times, I went through the challenging process of finding the right literary agent. Rejection letter after rejection letter didn’t shake my faith in becoming a published novelist. Neither did the blow of losing an agent a year after she offered me representation. What got to me was an ever louder demand from Ms. Muse to switch to writing memoir, while working on the third book of my trilogy.

I’d read books within the genre before and enjoyed them, but at that time nothing jumped out at me and said this is the kind of writing I should be doing. Until the very loud inner message I got from Ms. Muse while reading Tales of a Female Nomad by Rita Golden Gelman before moving to Shanghai. Part of me cheered over how travel memoir seemed the perfect fit for me, considering my lifestyle, love of creative writing and my reflective nature, but another part of me screamed over letting go of my trilogy and dream of becoming a novelist. In a way it felt as though I had to end one long passionate love affair and immediately start a new one. Though the new one looked promising and felt right, I ached over the thought of letting go of the old. But when I decided to trust Ms. Muse and follow through on her forceful request, Ms. Serendipity came a-knocking, and not just once.

The first time, Ms. Serendipity showed up at my door through a writing request from the editor of the Spirit, AWCS (American Women’s Club Shanghai) monthly magazine. She also suggested I start an AWCS writers’ group. Months later, seven women writers comprising The Prose Portal (calling each other the Literatecs), were committed to producing and publishing an anthology of Shanghai stories, the profit from which would be donated to a local charity.

Following published articles in the Spirit and other Shanghai magazines by Literatecs and hearing of the anthology we were working on, Ms. Serendipity stepped in again, this time through the editor of that’s Shanghai, a very popular city magazine. He offered us a platform for our prose by inviting us to write for Shanghai Salon, the new literary section of that’s Shanghai. And some of us Literatecs, including me, profited in more ways than one from that opportunity.

Ms. Serendipity repeatedly made appearances with generous offers during the publication process of The Prose Portal’s anthology, Shanghai Lu. Her greatest overture followed the launch of Shanghai Lu and came in the form of an invitation to the Literatecs to participate in the 2006 Shanghai International Literary Festival that hosts emerging talent and local writers, as well as international literary celebrities and legends. And during that exciting event, while we shared some of our Shanghai stories with a captive audience, Ms. Muse helped me see I’m meant to write a series of travel memoirs, the first about the two times I lived in China, with each book covering a chapter of my expatriate life in relation to my past, passages as a woman and a writer.

So the moral of this story is trust your muse and when serendipity knocks at your door, not only let her in, but make the most out of what she offers.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


Earlier today, I floated down the Oconoluftee River in an inner tube, the North Carolina sky grey and blue overhead, the clouds plump with fat drops that fell once or twice as I lay back and let the river take me. Mostly the water flowed evenly, a soft bob propelling me forward for a few hours of bliss. But there were rapids as well, accelerating my ride, thrusting the tube fast along the river, rushing me over ancient rocks, past verdant foliage lining either bank. It was a good ride, exhilarating and peaceful, and one I'll repeat in a few days' time.

It's also sort of how I write. The actual writing, the first draft pours forth like those rapids, a burst of fluid energy that zips along leaving me laughing and breathless. I usually find fifteen hundred words or so slapped onto the page in under an hour, finishing with the same kind of smooth landing the calm water beyond the rapids offers over and over again. The steady flow of most of the river is how the fine tuning works for me, a long warm stretch toward my destination, time never wasted as I get closer and closer to the take-out.

I know some writers are more steady, and it's even something I wish for myself. Two thousand words a day, every day, would be wonderful. For now, though, I'm like the river: short bursts, not quite as long as I'd wish, but never regretted, with good warning just like the rising trickle then splash then thrum of the water as the tube nears the rapid. I'm flowing like the water, ideas and words rising and falling from my pen as does the tube on the river. And then a calm, in which I relax and enjoy, maybe not the most exciting part of the journey, but the most satisfying. It's in those moments of quiet floating that I remember to see the mountains and the sky, to glance down under the dark skin of water for fish and otters and mossy stones, fallen leaves skimming the water, the details and beauty missed while the thrill of the river spins the tube over the whitecaps.

On Saturday I'll be on another river, this time in a raft, paddle in hand, all about the rapids. Maybe it will remind me of writing, and give me inspiration to take those fast furious moments of frenzied creation, and show me how to stretch them from fifteen hundred words to a quick repeat of more, and all of them as fresh and breathtaking as the river itself. There will be slow moments too, on the Tuckaseegee, even a spot to climb a rock that Cherokee Indians no doubt scaled a thousand years ago, and jump into the cold still depths waiting patiently below. I'll lie back there and rest, eyes on the mountains surrounding me, sniff the trees and memorize the world. I'll edit my day, plan my second draft before plunging back into the storm of the river.

I hope I never get true writer's block. If I do, I'm afraid my only recourse might be going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. A fast fall, dropping endlessly--surely a hot eighty thousand words will spring from my pen at the bottom. If my arm isn't broken, that is.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Q&A with Jamie Ford

by Joan

In February, fellow What Women Write blogger Julie Kibler invited me to join her at Jamie Ford's author talk and signing at Dallas’ Crow Collection of Asian Art. It was an intimate gathering for an as-yet unknown author, but I figured, if I didn’t like him, I’d get a peek at some fantastic art. Little did I know, the next month his novel would make the New York Times Bestseller list. As it happened, Jamie thoughtfully answered our questions and enthralled us with a short reading from his debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.

Since then, I’ve been reading his Bittersweet Blog and following him on Facebook. He’s a genuinely nice person and kindly agreed to answer some questions.

From his publisher:

In the opening pages of Jamie Ford’s stunning debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Henry Lee comes upon a crowd gathered outside the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle’s Japantown. It has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has made an incredible discovery: the belongings of Japanese families, left when they were rounded up and sent to internment camps during World War II. As Henry looks on, the owner opens a Japanese parasol.

This simple act takes old Henry Lee back to the 1940s, at the height of the war, when young Henry’s world is a jumble of confusion and excitement, and to his father, who is obsessed with the war in China and having Henry grow up American. While “scholarshipping” at the exclusive Rainier Elementary, where the white kids ignore him, Henry meets Keiko Okabe, a young Japanese American student. Amid the chaos of blackouts, curfews, and FBI raids, Henry and Keiko forge a bond of friendship–and innocent love–that transcends the long-standing prejudices of their Old World ancestors. And after Keiko and her family are swept up in the evacuations to the internment camps, she and Henry are left only with the hope that the war will end, and that their promise to each other will be kept.

Forty years later, Henry Lee is certain that the parasol belonged to Keiko. In the hotel’s dark dusty basement he begins looking for signs of the Okabe family’s belongings and for a long-lost object whose value he cannot begin to measure. Now a widower, Henry is still trying to find his voice–words that might explain the actions of his father; words that might bridge the gap between him and his modern, Chinese American son; words that might help him confront the choices he made many years ago.

Set during one of the most conflicted and volatile times in American history, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is an extraordinary story of commitment and enduring hope. In Henry and Keiko, Jamie Ford has created an unforgettable duo whose story teaches us of the power of forgiveness and the human heart.

Joan: Jamie, thanks for agreeing to answer a few questions here. Success has come quickly for you. If you weren’t such a nice guy—we might be stabbing pins into a Jamie Ford voodoo doll. What’s been the biggest surprise for you?

: Aside from someone actually paying me to write? Hmmm…let’s see, the most surprising moment would probably be a group of ESL students that were reading Hotel in their classroom—students from all over the world: Ethiopia, Sudan, Thailand, Iran, just to name a few. They could all relate to the challenge of trying to assimilate into another culture while retaining their unique identities. They also gave me these really cool hand-made cards, which were lovely.

Joan: That must have been a wonderful moment—knowing your book reached other cultures and touched them in such a way. Hotel is a moving novel—did you really write it in two months? If yes, stabbed voodoo doll will be mailed to you.

Jamie: Well, yes and no. (Hold onto that voodoo doll). I’d actually been researching 1940s Seattle for another book when I wrote the short story that would later become the Hotel. So I’d spent a lot of time––probably six months––researching and ruminating on the time period, the neighborhood, the jazz scene, etc. But when an editor read the short story and encouraged me to write the book, I wrote like a madman—about three months, with a week or two of non-writing in the middle where I flew to Seattle for more research, toured the Panama Hotel and met with historian Doug Chin.

Joan: Okay, we’ll save the voodoo doll for someone else. But what’s the latest on Hollywood? Are you negotiating a bit part into the contract? Will you write the screenplay?

Jamie: Hollywood is strange. Creatively, I’m sure there are incredible screenplays collecting dust while Dumb & Dumberer III gets made. Because of that I’m morbidly curious about the whole process (read: frightened). So far we’ve turned down two small offers on the film option. Both were intriguing, but not intriguing enough, I guess. Hotel is a difficult story to finance from a Hollywood perspective since the three main characters are Chinese, Japanese, and Black—not exactly a vehicle for your chisel-jawed Caucasian movie star, but we’re hoping that the success of Slumdog Millionaire has changed that mindset a bit. And no bit part for moi. I think the Hollywood version of that these days is an Executive Producer credit. I’d probably be better off with the walk-on. And as far as writing the screenplay, I love the control I have when writing novels. A screenplay on the other hand is like a sandbox where all the kids take turns getting dirty. I’m not sure I’d be able to share my toys in that environment.

Joan: I’m sure you’re right about the screenplays collecting dust. Executive Producer sounds good. No bit part, but at least you read your audio book, right?

Jamie: Oh, actually the audio version is read by actor Feodor Chin, but thanks—he has a far better voice than I do, trust me. Back in the day I think there was something sexy about having the author read, but then, some authors are terrible readers, so professional voice talent is used these days––a much better proposition than listening to some drunken, slurring, crowd-shy, Tourrette’s-addled writer who’s better off staying behind a keyboard. I listen to a LOT of audio books, and a great voice can make a book come alive. Mine would probably make dogs howl.

Joan: Hotel visits two time periods—something I’m writing as well. What was the biggest challenge for you? How much cutting and pasting did you do? Not as much as I’ve done, I’ll bet.

Jamie: Not so much really. I found that the narrative ebbed and flowed as my short-attention span waned. What was the question again?

Joan: Well, it worked. I couldn’t put your book down. It truly was a sweet love story. You’ve been fairly close-mouthed on your next book. What can you tell us about it?

Jamie: The juicy good news is that I’ve just agreed to a new contract with Random House, so my new book, tentatively titled WHISPERS OF A THUNDER GOD, is slated for release in early 2011. It’s about a failed Kamikaze pilot, now in his 70s who’s still searching for a noble death—one that will allow his spirit to be reunited with that of his late wife. It’s another historical, multi-cultural love story. Shhh…but don’t tell anyone.

Joan: I love it! But I don’t want to wait until 2011. I’ll never understand this crazy business. What advice can you give an aspiring author in this strange and uncertain publishing market? What do you think of the publishing industry’s current crisis?

Jamie: The best advice I can give to aspiring authors is this: Allow yourself a healthy margin for self-improvement. Keep writing. Consider everything to be good practice. You wouldn’t expect to sit down at a piano and play Mozart the first time. The same rule applies to writing. It just takes practice. As far as the publishing industry’s crisis, I think it’s rooted in an inward self-reflecting style of literary writing mistakenly aimed at other writers (and critics) rather than readers who are looking to be entertained and perhaps educated a bit. If publishers focused more on storytelling and less on performance writing, I think they wouldn’t be losing their battles with television and cinema.

Joan: Great advice and an interesting take on the industry. For self-improvement, do you have favorite books on writing? Tell us a little about Orson Scott Card’s boot camp. Did you have to run ten miles before breakfast?

Jamie: Scott Card’s Characters & Viewpoint was a godsend. It’s a terribly practical read, but really helped break some bad habits of mine leftover from writing for the camera. I stopped writing from the outside in and started writing from the inside out. And his Literary Boot Camp was amazing––and exhausting. With most writers conferences, you bring something you’ve already written, you workshop it, you sit through panels and basically hang out in some resort-like setting with a glass of merlot in your hand. At Boot Camp you start with a blank screen and you write. No show, all go. Then you go through a blood and guts workshop of those stories. It’s tough love at its finest. There were writers there who wrote 9,000-word short stories in two days that were AMAZING (and later published).

Joan: I’m not big on blood and guts, but I’d love to attend one day. You’ve traveled quite a bit since then. How many cities did you visit on your book tour? For your next book, imagine the budget is tight so you’re asked to sleep on friends’ sofas to save money. How many states can you visit if you employ this tactic?

Jamie: Hmmm…(counting)…I think I did 22 events in 16 cities. The funny thing is, I had friends (or relatives), in almost every city, which was fun but exhausting, because we usually ended up going out every night for dessert or a late dinner. And if I did the couch tour I’d probably have a place to rest my head in every city but Chicago. Hello, Chicago?

Joan: Our blog audience will want me to ask this question: How did you snag the wonderful Kristin Nelson as your agent? I love her blog, but I skip over the “what’s playing on the iPod right now.” If I don’t, the songs follow me around all day. And did you really turn down four New York agents?

Jamie: You know, honestly I think Kristin was surprised that I chose Kristin––because it seems that most newbie authors equate New York with success. But I’d always looked at Sandra Dijkstra in California as one of the premier agents in the industry, so the distance/geography thing was really a non-factor. In the end I did turn down those other agents, because Kristin truly understood the book, she understood what I wanted to do with my career, and she’s a well-respected up-and-comer in the industry. I describe her as “relentlessly nice.” She knows her stuff, and don’t be fooled, she’s a strong negotiator, but she doesn’t make you feel like you’ve been in a hockey fight afterwards. Plus she has an insanely diverse taste in music.

Joan: She sounds like a dream. Okay, what’s a question you’d love to answer but no one ever asks?

Jamie: “How did you get so strikingly handsome? Are you single? Is your wife here?” I keep waiting for stalkers, but they just don’t seem to show up at book events.

Thank you so much for joining us, Jamie. We wish you great success and will anxiously await your next novel. Readers, the paperback of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet will be out in October. And if you’d like to leave a comment here, we’ll enter you in a drawing for an autographed copy of the hardback. But hurry; we’ll only take entries from people who comment before midnight on Thursday, August 6, so check back on Friday to see if you’ve won. Be sure your comment links us to contact info for you or contact us at wwwtx6 (at) yahoo (dot) com. Also, unless you're willing to spring for postage, winner must live in the U.S.

UPDATE: The winner of the autographed book is C. I will email you today for your address. Thanks everyone!
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