You clearly did a lot of research for Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. Was the plot well defined before you began your research or did you find the research shaped the plot?
Ah, research––I love it so. It’s really strange to say that isn’t it? It’s akin to saying, “I love doing my taxes,” but there it is.
In this case, a lot of the research had been done vicariously, as I’d been investigating the geography and time period for another book. But along the way I wrote a short story set in that time period and that short story later became the novel.
Did the initial idea for the story come to you as a ‘Eureka’ moment or was it more of a slow-burner?
Both, perhaps? I’d been splashing around in that time period for a while when I attended a Literary Boot Camp run by author Orson Scott Card. He talked about the concept of a “noble romantic tragedy” and suddenly the clouds parted. I had the characters, I had the setting, the plot suddenly seemed obvious. I felt like I’d been given permission to write something I’d been kicking around internally for a very long time.
In your author’s note at the end of the book, you say that you have attempted to create an historic landscape ‘without judging the good or bad intentions of those involved at the time.’ The novel deals with highly emotive subjects about which you must have had very strong feelings whilst writing the book. Was it difficult to keep your own voice out of the characters’ mouths? Did you struggle with that and if so, did you have a strategy for removing your own voice from the world of the novel?
In general, I don’t think it’s very productive to take the social mores of today and try and wrap them around the way people behaved in the past. You can make relative comparisons, but to convict yesterday by today’s standards seems a tad unfair.
With that in mind, I tried to portray historical events as they’d be seen by a person living in that time period. With reactions negative, positive or ambivalent, that matched the sentiment of the time. A lot of potholes in our history don’t really need added opinions or embellishments—they resonate just fine in their own context.
If a little bit of my own voice seeped through, it was probably in Henry’s reactions, which mirrored my own sadness and disbelief as I did my research.
As you know, I’m still struggling away trying to find an agent. It can be tempting to think that once an agent and publisher come along for a writer, the future is all Disney music and rose petals. I’m sure I’m not the only author-in-waiting curious to know: is this true or is the next bit even more grueling? Tell me about the transition between being a writer-to-be and being a writer.
I’ve heard other authors describe the process as actually rather anticlimactic—and there’s some truth to that. Don’t get me wrong, it’s all quite lovely, but the process is really an unending journey of small steps: Finding an agent, making revisions, selling the manuscript, more edits, cover designs, pre-launch publicity, blurbs, galleys, copy edits, it goes on and on.
Ultimately you do get to walk into a local bookery and see your handiwork on the shelf, and that is a surreal moment, but then it’s back to work—post launch publicity, guest editorials, interviews like these!
The characters in your novel are so well painted. I know I will miss them now I’ve finished reading the book. Did the characters come to you at the same time as the plot? My characters tend to arrive in a hurry but I’ve read for other writers characters can take quite a while to come into view. How did it work for you?
The characters came on stage as needed. Especially supporting characters like Sheldon, Mrs. Beatty, Mr. Okabe, etc. And I tend to render them minimally, as far as physical description, while letting their actions define who they are.
As far as character depth, per se, I don’t create character profiles or write lengthy backstories or anything. I prefer to let them wander on stage and bump into things.
You have a huge family. This makes me wonder about two things: first, how do you find the time/space/quiet to write? and second, given that your work at the moment involves a lot of moving around, how do you handle the disruption to family life?
My house is like the Brady Bunch. But they’re all older now, my youngest is 10, so it’s not like John & Kate Plus Eight or anything (a notoriously bad reality show we have in the States).
And of course it helps to have a home office that’s a bit sequestered from the rest of the family—no trap doors or secret passages a la the Batcave, but that’s not a bad idea, now that I think about it.
In general, my writing time fluctuates. During the school year my productivity soars when the school bus leaves and crashes when it returns. In the summer, I tend to write late at night, starting around 9ish and writing until 1-2 in the morning.
As far as travel, it does deplete my family time a bit, but even when I was on book tour for weeks on end, I made it home every weekend.
I know you’re writing at the moment – can you tell me anything about your next book?
Ah, the next book. It’s tentatively titled WHISPERS OF A THUNDER GOD and about a former kamikaze pilot, now in his 70s, who is still searching for a noble death, one that will allow his spirit to be enshrined with that of his late wife. It’s another historical love story.
My agent and editor are in contract negotiations right now. It’s like watching your parents fight, but politely, via email.
I’m also working on a collection of short stories with all the supporting characters in HOTEL: Sheldon, Mrs. Beatty, Mr. Okabe, Henry’s mother. Not sure if it’s a viable project, but I’m thoroughly enjoying the writing process.
And finally...any advice for struggling authors-in-waiting?
Can I answer that question with a question? One posed to me years ago by an uber-famous author. He asked, “Which do you like more, writing, or the idea of being a writer?”
(Pausing while you mull it over. Ready?)
If you like the actual writing more, you’re probably on your way.
Enjoy the struggle. Don’t be discouraged––it’s part of the process of growing as a writer. I have an unpublished novel that I re-wrote four times. Those were not wasted words. It was great practice and along the way I found my love of writing.
Thank you Jamie. Great advice for authors-in-waiting. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is an amazing novel and I can't wait to read Whispers of a Thunder God.
Interview by Rebecca Woodhead. If you quote, please link back.