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Let’s Talk with Jamie Ford

by Susan Henderson on September 11, 2017

Jamie Ford is the author of three novels: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Songs of Willow Frost, and out tomorrow (I’m so excited!!), Love and Other Consolation Prizes. 

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Here’s a description of it…

1909, Seattle. For twelve-year-old Ernest Young, a charity student at a boarding school, the chance to go to the World’s Fair feels like a gift. But when he’s there amid the exotic exhibits, the half-Chinese orphan discovers that he will actually be a prize, raffled off to ‘a good home’. He is claimed as a servant by the flamboyant madam of a high-class brothel. There he forges new friendships and discovers a sense of family.

Jamie’s debut novel spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list and went on to win the 2010 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature. His work has been translated into 34 languages. But, maybe more importantly, he’s a happily married father of six with a great sense of humor and a regular D&D habit.

Here is the one and only Jamie Ford with some writerly wisdom. Be sure to leave your messages for him in the comments section.

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Dear You,

Let’s talk. Because I’ve been where you are right now. Well, not literally, but figuratively. (Literally would be weird).

I’ve been that hopeful, aspiring writer, trying to figure it all out. And honestly, I’m still aspiring, still hopeful. And still trying to untie the Gordian Knot that is…writing.

You’d think that it would get easier with each book but it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s even harder.

So if that sounds a bit discouraging, perhaps you should consider the tradecraft of plumbing. Seriously, plumbers make great money and on certain frustrating writing days, sludging through other people’s sewage seems like a welcome respite.

Hmmm. You seem unconvinced? But you’re still reading this, so you must be somewhat determined. And if you have determination, then let’s keep going.

In general, I feel reluctant to dispense advice. Because, who knows, maybe I just got lucky? (Ah, can you sense my fading confidence already? That twitch in my swagger? We writers are a hopelessly insecure lot).

I sometimes avoid this type of pontification because I’m only on my third book. So come back in twenty years after I’ve published ten, including my magnum opus—a 1,200-page epic, written in second-person plural, which Publisher’s Weekly will rave about despite my not using commas, periods, paragraph breaks, or the letter Q.

But most of all, I shy away because what works for me may not work for you.

Nevertheless, here are some thoughts.

It’s okay to plink away

As a writer, I still give myself a healthy margin for self-improvement. You wouldn’t sit down at a piano for the first time and try to play Mozart, would you? Of course not. You’d play scales and work your way up. But so many first-time writers sit down and try to write an epic seven-book series, with twenty point-of-view characters, and when it doesn’t turn out well they shrug, “I guess I’m not a writer.”

It doesn’t work that way. Start small. Then kick off the training wheels when you feel the wind in your hair.

Stop scraping burnt toast

There’s a danger in being wedded to one idea, or rehashing the same idea over and over if it’s not working. Sometimes you just have to divorce yourself from a story or at least agree to explore a trial separation.

My path to publishing with Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet was remarkably easy. But my time of longsuffering was spent on an un-publishable book that I just couldn’t let go of. I hung on for years.

So step away from that 300,000-word slipstream fantasy you began in the 8th grade. It’ll still be there, I promise. You’ll find more words, an inexhaustible supply.

Don’t wait for the short bus

The market for short fiction is theoretical these days—so don’t waste years of your life trying to pad your literary curriculum vitae with short fiction before jumping into longer forms. If you enjoy writing short fiction (I do), spin that yarn, but don’t hold up your career waiting on rejections from literary journals that pay you in contributor’s copies. Finishing an unpublished novel is a greater achievement than a short story published for free in Hog Caller’s Quarterly Review.

Write for the most important audience of all: yourself

Write stories that fill the void in your imagination first. By that, I mean write stories that answer your own questions. Don’t write for a market or target audience. Octavia Butler, who wrote science fiction, once said, “There are no black people in the future, therefore the future is a dangerous place.” Instead of writing to reflect the genre, she explored her own point of view, shattering the expectations of others.

Being a writer is easy. Writing is hard

As a student, I was once asked, “Which do you like more—writing, or the idea of being a writer?” It was, and is, a very delicate and powerful question. If you enjoy the process of writing, you’ll be fine. But if you romanticize the idea of being a writer, you should keep your day job, buy a Vespa, and hang out at Starbucks and brood a lot. You can enjoy all of the affectations without the struggle.

Avoid the beauty contest

We all have a favorite author that makes us go all drooly when we savor their work. Stop reading them, at least for a while. Doing so is like leafing through fashion magazines while trying to lose weight—they’ll only make you feel fat. Instead, go to a garage sale and spend 25¢ on three, random, out-of-print paperbacks and force yourself to read them. Pick them apart for all their flaws. Then you’ll be more apt to notice those same mistakes in your own writing.

Weaponize your weaknesses

As the great Pat Conroy once said, “the greatest gift a writer can ever receive is an unhappy childhood.” Pat is right. The things that scare us the most—the things that have caused us the most pain are actually our dormant superpowers. Write about them. Spend some of that emotional equity on the page. Give your weaknesses and insecurities to your characters. They’ll come alive. And you’ll sleep better.

And lastly…

If you can write, then write. But if you can’t, then do what I do.

Also, there’s always plumbing.

Jamie’s newest book, Love and Other Consolation Prizes, is available everywhere, but I know you’ll buy it from an indie bookstore. Please leave Jamie a comment here because it’s always nice to respond when someone writes you a letter. You can also visit him at www.jamieford.com

{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Catherine September 11, 2017 at 3:46 am

Jamie

I don’t know if you remember the bar side conversation you had shortly after you published Hotel and Boyd Morrison’s The Ark was published. This interview hits the high points of that conversation, years later, with the same conviction and beliefs. Jamie is the real deal folks. Pay attention.

-Catherine

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Susan Henderson September 11, 2017 at 12:10 pm

Jamie is absolutely the real deal. Glad you’re here, Catherine!

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Paul September 11, 2017 at 3:53 am

Love this advice! Thanks!

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Susan Henderson September 11, 2017 at 12:10 pm

Thanks for being here, Paul!

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Susanne September 11, 2017 at 11:21 am

Such great advice, and I’m right there with you. It is harder and harder and you have to let go of old stuff. My favorite line: Don’t keep scraping burnt toast. Perfect. Thank you. Now I have to read your books…

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Susan Henderson September 11, 2017 at 12:11 pm

That was my favorite line, too. Such good, practical (and funny) advice.

Thanks for stopping by, Susanne!

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Gin Petty September 11, 2017 at 12:31 pm

And all of that is why I am NOT a writer. I’m what every writer needs…a reader. Jamie worked for what he has achieved, it didn’t fall in his lap, and I’m happy for him.

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Susan Henderson September 11, 2017 at 1:04 pm

I would not be a writer either if I could manage to stop myself. It’s too hard. It’s why the writers community and letters like this matter so much.

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Jamie September 12, 2017 at 12:17 am

Thanks Gin,

Can’t wait to see you and Jim at the Kentucky Book Fair!

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jessicakeener4 September 11, 2017 at 12:56 pm

Dear Jamie,
I’m going to copy some words you wrote here and keep them close. Thank you. They are exactly what I needed to hear today. Best best wishes on the success of your newest. And, thanks, Susan, for featuring Jamie. Here are those words you gave me: “The things that scare us the most—the things that have caused us the most pain are actually our dormant superpowers. Write about them. Spend some of that emotional equity on the page. Give your weaknesses and insecurities to your characters. They’ll come alive. And you’ll sleep better.”

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Susan Henderson September 11, 2017 at 1:05 pm

Yep, those words are going near my workspace too. I want to be reminded of that all the time.

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Amy Sue Nathan September 11, 2017 at 1:20 pm

It does get harder. I spend way too much time pondering this. I like to believe it gets harder because I am pushing forward and upward, challenging myself, and not because, well, it’s just getting harder. I also find the harder it is, the more rewarding. Doesn’t mean it’s not discouraging at times (now could be one of those times).

Thanks for all this Jamie and Susan!

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Susan Henderson September 11, 2017 at 1:23 pm

Amy, Yes! I thought completing novel would make the next one easier. Wrong. I thought finishing the second would make the third easier. Wrong. But I do think I’m also pushing myself to write better and to tell bigger stories. And I sort of like the challenge. Need this community of fellow writers, though. That’s for sure!

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Tish Cohen September 11, 2017 at 10:24 pm

Me too, Sue. I love your litpark community and plan to hang out here more often.

xox

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Susan Henderson September 11, 2017 at 10:34 pm

Yay! xoxo

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Tish Cohen September 11, 2017 at 10:23 pm

Yes, Amy! I’m with you, sister.

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Mark Miller September 11, 2017 at 2:31 pm

I’m an aspiring writer (as you say being published doesn’t mean you’re not still aspiring), SO I read a lot of writing advice. There’s a lot of redundancy in such things, but you have a fresh approach that makes things clear — and several original ideas. Thanks!

Congratulations on the movie deal. HOTEL is going to be as great as a movie as it is a book.

And I’m eager to read LOVE AND OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES.

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Susan Henderson September 11, 2017 at 2:55 pm

Glad you’re here, Mark!

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Joan Wilking September 11, 2017 at 3:37 pm

“Write stories that fill the void in your imagination first.” Love that!

Sad to read the advice about short story writing. So much great literature would never have been written if authors took that advice and only wrote “big novels.” I understand in terms of what to write if you want to build a career. That’s a reality of the business of writing. But where would we be without Grace Paley and Alice Munro, and others who love the form. Amber Sparks wrote this great article about the subject:
https://electricliterature.com/let-us-now-praise-famous-short-story-writers-and-demand-they-write-a-novel-860bba77abb5

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Susan Henderson September 11, 2017 at 5:52 pm

Hi Joan, I’m a big fan of short stories and I’m glad for the small presses and magazines that publish them, as well as the bigger publishers that still believe in those of us who love to read a good collection of stories.

I think what Jamie’s saying (and he can jump in and speak for himself) is that, if your goal is to write a novel, to focus on the novel. I was given that advice about 10 years ago, and it made all the difference in my career. I had a habit of writing and submitting shorter work from earlier in my career, but splitting my attention was getting in the way of going deep and hard into the book and actually finishing it. I had to make it a priority.

But if you love writing short stories, please do, because many of us love reading them.

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Joan Wilking September 11, 2017 at 6:34 pm

I’ve always been a reluctant novelist. My book that just came out is categorized as a novella but I wrote it (and Sign of the Times, which you’ve read) more as a series of vignettes or in the case of Sign a novel in stories. The “just write the novel” advice holds true if an author turns to story writing when a novel is her/his real aim. I agree with that whole heartedly.

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Susan Henderson September 11, 2017 at 6:47 pm

Yes, if like me, the novel and not the short story was the goal, you have to focus. But honestly, there are some who wrote both (Denis Johnson, Ellen Gilchrist, Cheever, Tim O’Brien) and, in my opinion, were short story rockstars and only okay novelists. It’s silly to tell someone to write in a different form just because, like it’s some natural next step. Like the article you linked to says, no one tells poets to move on to short stories.

Best we can do to support the short story writers is to support those who publish them and to be loud about the collections we love.

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Dug September 11, 2017 at 4:11 pm

Great advice Jamie!
Ditching the concept masterpiece when it’s wearing you out is wise. It opens up a whole new world of possibilities. I was locked into “More Stories About Plumbers and Aliens” until I stashed it and moved on. Those stories will always be there when you go back to them. Actually, the plumbing industry was a pretty good way to work through my English Degree.
Cheers!
Dug

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Susan Henderson September 11, 2017 at 5:53 pm

Glad you’re here, Dug!

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Lucinda Kempe September 11, 2017 at 4:59 pm

Hi Jamie! Love your tart sense of humor and the Conroy quote, but don’t know his work. A bad childhood really isn’t a gift – more like a curse or a cross you’ve been nailed to without your asking. I know. Got one and it’s great fodder and I was lucky that my family were all literate misfits who knew how to speak and what to read. They didn’t do much parenting however. Their story became the story of my life that’s now a memoir. And I am delighted to say that now I am done with it I never intend to write about myself and or them again – it’s a lot of burnt toast I scraped for the better part of forty years. Inadvertently, I have discovered I don’t like memoir, at all.

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Susan Henderson September 11, 2017 at 5:54 pm

Smiling and laughing through all of this! Glad you’re here, Lucinda!

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Tish Cohen September 11, 2017 at 10:21 pm

Jamie. Yes to ditching what doesn’t work. I’ve parted with two full manuscripts in the last four years (one of which my publisher wanted to publish) and finally have a book in the pipeline to come out next year. “Weaponize Your Weaknesses.” I’m going to print that and tape it to the wall above my desk.

I’m wishing you every good thing, Jamie. And, Susan, enormous hugs and congrats to you. I miss you and would love to hear all your good news in person soon.

xoxTish

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Susan Henderson September 11, 2017 at 10:35 pm

Tish, Yes! We need to make a plan. NYC, Boston, Toronto, wherever you say. xoxo

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Angela September 11, 2017 at 10:59 pm

Thanks Susan for litpark and all it has to offer. I’m about to buy Jamie’s book! Sounds so full of secrets and drama. Plus anything with a Madam and the world fair is irresistible!

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Susan Henderson September 11, 2017 at 11:23 pm

I’ll read anything by Jamie, but I agree, anything set in one of the world fairs, particularly with that chilling premise of selling a child there, has me. Getting it tomorrow!!

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Jamie September 12, 2017 at 12:19 am

Thanks for all the feedback, folks. And a huge THANK YOU to Susan for being such a gracious and generous host. New journey begins tomorrow.

Love to all!

Jamie

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Susan Henderson September 12, 2017 at 1:10 am

Here’s to a great launch tomorrow! :-) Happy for all of us who’ve been waiting and waiting for this book!

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Brian Wood September 12, 2017 at 2:07 am

Jamie, thank you for sharing more inspiring words to soothe ones self doubt. I have only just recently been bitten by the writing bug and have chosen to write because it is fun to imagine. I do write for myself first and realize that most of my writing is in its infancy, but because of you, I am motivated to continue and have fun with whatever I write. I will begin reading your newest story tomorrow. Congratulations on your continued success!
Brian

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Susan Henderson September 12, 2017 at 11:56 am

Glad you’re here, Brian!

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