Monday, September 17, 2007

Jamie Ford’s Query for HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET

STATUS: I’m not sure what I think about my day. I’m still here at the office going on 7 p.m., which is never the desired thing. I guess I’ll leave it at that.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? DREAMING by Blondie

As promised and with Jamie’s permission, here is the query he sent me for his manuscript which was originally entitled THE PANAMA HOTEL.

For me, that title didn’t really capture the essence of the manuscript so we spent a lot of time kicking around alternatives before we went out on submission. It was quite a process but after sharing several forerunner titles with a variety of reliable sources, we agreed to HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET.

One of the fun things about this submission is that many editors loved the title and couldn’t imagine the novel being called anything else.

That means we did a good job. Random House hasn’t mentioned changing it so as far as we know, this will be the title for the book.

Dear Ms. Nelson:

I must admit I hate Asian stereotypes. You know the ones. Good at math. Hardworking. We all look alike. Come to think of it, that last one might hold water. After all, my father once wore a button that read “I am Chinese,” while growing up in Seattle’s Chinatown during WWII. It was the only thing that separated him from the Japanese, at least in the eyes of his Caucasian neighbors.

Sad, but true. Which is probably why my novel has a little to do with that particular piece of history.

I was really caught by his personal connection to the history he plans to explore. I've never heard of the "I am Chinese" buttons, which is kind of fascinating.

Anyway, the working title is The Panama Hotel, and when people ask me what the heck it’s all about I usually tell them this:
“It’s the story of the Japanese internment in Seattle, seen through the eyes of a 12-year-old Chinese boy, who is sent to an all-white private school, where he falls in love with a 12-year-old Japanese girl.”

I've never seen a novel about a Chinese boy falling in love with a Japanese girl during such a volatile time period. I have to say that I was pretty much hooked by this story concept. Simple but there's a lot of weight behind it. I did happen to know that the Chinese and the Japanese had long been at war before the advent of WWII so I knew of the general animosity between the countries--but I knew nothing of how that might have played out on American soil.

But it’s more complicated than that. It’s a bittersweet tale about racism, commitment and enduring hope––a noble romantic journey set in 1942, and later in 1986 when the belongings of 37 Japanese families were discovered in the basement of a condemned hotel.

At this point, I knew I was going to ask for sample pages but I have to admit that this paragraph made me pause. Dual narratives are tricky and extremely hard to pull off. I would only know if the author succeeded by asking for sample pages. I was struck by the belongings being discovered in an old hotel. This ends up being a true story and was part of what sparked Jamie to write the novel. I didn't find out this info until later and I must say that if included, it could have added power to the query letter.

This historical fiction novel is based on my Glimmer Train story, I Am Chinese, which was a Top 25 Finalist in their Fall 2006 Short-Story Competition For New Writers. An excerpt was also published in the Picolata Review.

Nice. It always helps to know there has been some previous recognition.

Think Amy Tan, but with a sweeter aftertaste. I was already thinking Amy Tan but a male version...

Thank you for your consideration and time,
Jamie Ford

The Panama Hotel
Historical Fiction 86,000 words / 353 pages

About the author: James “Jamie” Ford grew up near Seattle’s Chinatown and is busy writing his next novel, Rabbit Years. In addition to his Glimmer Train accolades, he took 1st Place in the 2006 Clarity of Night Short Fiction Contest. Jamie is also an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.

Nice. Some more literary creds. I would have asked for sample pages without the mention though.

He hangs out at www.jamieford.com and has been known to eat jellyfish, sea cucumber and chicken feet on occasion.

This made me smile and that's never a bad thing.

Now here's what's interesting. As I mentioned on a previous blog, an agent friend of mine received the same query and it didn't spark his interest at all. Now he freely admits that he was in a time crunch at the time he received it. That can change our response. If he hadn't been, he might have paid a little closer attention but for the most part, this query didn't float his boat much.

And that just highlights the subjective tastes of agents.