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Coming home a different person


Wow. What a week at Squaw Valley. Here’s my bleary-eyed attempt at a recap. If you’d like details on anything in particular, lemme know.  

It really is a community of writers
I met a ton of cool authors and aspiring writers. The laid back family vibe starts with Oakley, Brett and Sands Hall, and Lisa Alvarez who run the conference, and permeates every aspect of the week. I could go into intimate detail of the workshops, the meetings, the parties(!) but you really have to experience it to understand. It’s such an intimate week that to blog about it feels like kiss and tell. I hung out with some über-famous authors, who are just really cool people.

Sharp doses of much needed reality
Mark Childress told us he wrote three books before publishing his first, and even then it took him six years—rewriting it 12 times! He was a wonderful workshop leader, and kept us grounded in the competitive reality of this business. The challenges as a writer are the same with each book. It doesn’t get easier. Are you in love with writing, or the idea of being a writer? If it’s the latter, do something else. You could read his message between the lines (don’t quit your day job).

Quit your day job
Andrew Tonkovich (Editor) gave me so much praise during my one-on-one it was almost narcotic. Not only did he tell me that I needed to blow my 6,000 word short story “I am Chinese” up to novel length, but that I needed to do it NOW. He told me to go after grants and fellowships that would allow me to take the time to finish my research and bang it out. He though it had huge commercial possibilities and said I shouldn’t shy away from that direction, rather than making it some deep metaphorical retrospective that might be noticed in literary circles but only sell 1,000 copies. By that point I was in la-la land. I’ll just write it the only way I know and see where it goes. I’ve already contacted the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle for someone to bounce my research off of.

I found the deep pool in which I want to swim
The novel version of I am Chinese is tentatively titled The Panama Hotel after that less-than-famous Seattle landmark. I wrote the short story, not realizing I was writing historical fiction––mainly because I had so much fun doing the research. It came easy. And it was so personal that in my writerly neurosis I couldn’t imagine anyone actually wanting to read it. Boy was I wrong.

At Squaw I got a meeting with Kathleen Anderson, a literary agent, and pitched her on my tale of the Japanese interment in 1942, told through the eyes of a 12-year old Chinese boy. She loved it and took a copy of the short story. She represents a gaggle of historical fiction authors and was all over the genre.

Killing my firstborn
Surefire, which I renamed Rabbit Years is officially on the backburner. I’m about 80 pages into the 4th draft, but it just has that stench of a writer’s first-attempt. While I was there I pitched the concept to an agent and he loved the idea, but after hearing all these authors talk about how their first books stunk, I’m sheepish of making a bad first impression.

Authors of note
Aside from the obvious luminaries like Amy Tan, Janet Fitch, Alice Sebold and James Houston, there were some lesser-known authors worth looking for:

  • Michael Lavigne––read from his debut novel Not Me about a Jewish man discovering that his father might in fact be a Nazi war criminal. Very compelling story.

  • Will Allison––read from his soon-to-be published collection of short stories, What You Have Left. Simple and powerful emotional hooks. Impressive read.

  • Kris Saknussemm––one of the more unique readers of the week read from his novel Zanesville. Hard to describe his work, but if I were to hazard a guess I’d call it gonzo-slipstream. A nod to sci-fi with a wild literary edge.

Random Thoughts
Don’t give up. There was a bulletin board of Amy Tan’s rejection letters, from agents and literary magazines. Some were quite condescending. Funny to read. Inspiring too.

No photos please. Executive Editor, Ann Patty told us how disgusted she gets when agents send beauty shots of authors in their attempt to sell the work. Let it be about the work. Who cares what you look like?


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Reader Comments (21)

So Jamie, do you feel vindicated? Actualized? Reinforced? You should. Sounds like you had an amazing experience. I loved I Am Chinese and would love to read a novel length version of it.

Congratulations again for what sounds like a wonderful and productive experience.
August 14, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterLisa
So cool, Jamie. That's got to feel so good. Maybe someday I can say, "I read his blog when.."

Thanks for taking the time to share your experience so we little people can live vicariously through you.
August 14, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJoni
Sounds like a real blast, and it's always good to hear about the evolution of successful writers. Makes it easier to keep going.

I've pretty much left my first novel on the backburner too. Not going to throw it out, but I totally gel with what you're saying.
August 15, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Hatadi
Glad you survived (and sounds like thrived) Sqauw Valley (does that make you a Brave now? or a Chief? and why do I have visions of the old Disney Peter Pan cartoon in my head and you singing "What makes the red man red?").

I too would love to read a novel length version of "I am Chinese", as I think it has only gotten better as it has gotten longer.

I'm sure glad you made that last point... cause sending a picture of me to sell a book would easily kill any chance at a writing career I ever had (if they thought my writing was bad, imagine what a picture of me would do to them).
August 15, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterCharlesP
Sounds as though Squaw Valley was a turning point, Jamie, a really great experience, your batteries fully charged now. Thanks so much for posting about it!
August 15, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJimT
(So Jamie, do you feel vindicated? Actualized? Reinforced?)

After my one-on-one, I just sat in the village and listened to this band play Bob Dylan thinking, "wow, I can really do this." I went home feeling completely validated as a writer. I mean, I have a full-time job, four kids, a fairly busy life. It was incredible to know all those early mornings and late nights spent writing actually are amounting to something tangible.

You're right Jim. I have a feeling I'm going to look back on this as a major turning point. The week couldn't have been better.
August 15, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterjamie
Jamie, huge congrats! What a rewarding experience for you. I can't wait to read the novel.
August 15, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJaye
I, for one, am waiting anxiously to get your copy of 'I Am Chinese' (Panama Hotel). Go for it!
August 15, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterDana
Glad it worked for you - I'm crazy jealous. 14k into my novel and I think I'm stalling. So something's probably wrong. I'm writing a new story involving Rumplestiltskin that's going to kick some major butt though. I'm actually proud of it.

I love this job - don't you love this job?
August 16, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Holwerda
Adam--are you working from an outline, or just writing it "alfresco?" Every time I've ended up stuck it's been because I haven't outlined well enough.

This week I'm entering a strange new land of research and opportunity grants. The problem I'll probably run into is that I'm based in Montana but writing about Seattle--so my subject matter might be too far afield for a Montana Arts Council grant, and I'm not a resident to get a Washington based fellowship.

It's an off-cycle year for most of the NEA or National Humanities stuff as well. Maybe I'll try the universities.

I'm amazed at how many grants are out there. It's a longshot, and they're all small, but I might as well apply.
August 16, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterjamie ford
jamie, this is fantastic. i particularly love what editor andrew t had to say. my concern with you has always been that you weren't going to aim as high as you should. looks like i can put that from my mind.
August 17, 2006 | Unregistered Commenteranne frasier
Lol. I guess I'm going for it. I just shelved 320 pages that I've been working on for 9 months to write a "better" book. How crazy is that?

I also just finished the classic "On Becoming a Novelist" by John Gardner. I guess I'm not so crazy after all.

August 17, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterjamie
i wasn't talking so much about the work itself as what happens to it. i could see it falling into the wrong hands, you get a small advance, a small print run, no backing, and that's that. in the right hands it could go to auction, big advance, big buzz. in life we're conditioned to start small and build. it doesn't work that way in publishing. but i'm just repeating what you already know! sowwy!
August 17, 2006 | Unregistered Commenteranne frasier
Ah, you're right about all that. Being at a conference with the executive editors from Alfred A. Knopf and Harcourt really put everything in a larger perspective. They don't play around. They put serious weight behind the books they buy.

While I'd love to be published, I want to be well published. And I'll take my time with my own work, and with finding the right agent and publisher to give myself the best possible chance.

I'm taking babysteps, but they're fairly calculated babysteps. (At least I hope so).
August 17, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterjamie ford
Thanks for sharing your recap. Wow, you have four kids, a full time job and write. Mmm, I'm all out of excuses.
August 22, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterAmra
Hi Jamie,

So glad it was an enriching experience for you. Squaw Valley is truly a community, as you said.
August 28, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMyfanwy Collins
I came home a different person. It was an incredible week.
August 28, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterjamie ford
Jamie, do you think it would be difficult for someone who was really shy to go to a conference like the one you did? It sounds like a great experience, but the thought of talking to all those people makes me hyperventilate just a bit. (Okay, quite a bit.)

Congrats on all the contacts and your new direction. Sounds like things are really coming together for you.

August 30, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMaia Sepp
Hi Jamie,

I ran across this post while looking for info about the Squaw Valley writers conference, which I just found out I was accepted into for this year. I'm an incredibly green fiction writer--a full-time Real Job as a magazine writer/editor, two kids, busy family life, etc. I applied on a whim and a fantasy, because the idea of spending a week in a fiction intensive just sounds so enriching and inspiring. That I even got IN is inspiring for me, because we always hear about Squaw's 25% acceptance rate! I've only taken one fiction-writing class ever. But I'm so in love with the process of writing fiction. The way it has to be credible, but not a true story. The requirement for muscular verbs. The way you can draw out the emotion on the page without ever saying exactly what someone is feeling. The requirement to stay true to character, even as you make people make astonishing decisions. Anyway, just wanted to say thanks for posting. I know this post is five years old, and you may not even be getting alerts from this old thing anymore, but if you see this and have any insights to share with a newbie like me about how to get the most out of Squaw, I'd be eager to hear them!
June 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKrista
Hi Krista--Congrats!

Shoot me an note thru the "Contact" link so I'll have your email and I'll be happy to give you some advice and some people to chat with while you're there.

June 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

I too am I headed to SV in a couple weeks for my first ever writing conference experience. I found you the same way Krista did and am grateful for the info. (Hey, Krista - Hope to meet you as well! )

I'm curious Jamie, did you stay in a house with multiple people? Recommend that or more alone time? Any other advice for a novice is appreciated.

Love your blog.

July 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChris

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