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Novelist Jamie Ford Talks About Writing

Featured Jackson Hole Writers Conference speaker Jamie Ford is the author of The New York Times best selling novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. The forthcoming Love and Other Consolation Prizes returns to Seattle, but the setting is the 1909 World’s Fair, not WWII. (Unfortunately for the conference-goers, publication for Love is set for September 2017.)

The conference has snagged Jamie for a keynote talk and a workshop. During the conference he is also offering seven short manuscript critiques; most of those slots have already been spoken for. Last month I caught up with him by phone – between busy speaking dates. After signing up to come to the conference, he was invited to talk before the American Library Association in Chicago Saturday night of the conference. That means he will have to fly out of Jackson that morning to make the prestigious event. What a schedule!

Novelist Jamie Ford didn’t take the most direct path to a successful writing career. He isn’t one of those authors who wrote since he was a child in the Beacon Hill area of Seattle. He didn’t fill notebook pages with musings and observations of the adolescent sort, or even worse of the astoundingly literary sort that annoy those of us who struggled with our alphabets and penmanship.

“I was always adjacent to writing,” he said in an interview from his home in Billings, Montana. Art was the first love for this self-described “weird, creative child.” He admits to scribbling some poetry in sketchbooks, but it wasn’t until his 20s and 30s that he began “clumsy attempts at writing a novel.”

“But I didn’t have the emotional toolbox to write a novel,” he admits. “I say this often, but I feel like my writing career began when I wrote my parent’s obituaries.” With their deaths he developed a deeper understanding of the emotions that motivate people and characters, what drives a good story.

At that point, Jamie began to attend writing conferences. “That’s when I started to subject myself to … tough love.” Some of that more critical approach also came through advice he received from another writer, who suggested Jamie buy three out of print books at a garage sale, novels presumably by an unknown writer, for a quarter a piece.

“Force yourself to read them with a writer’s perspective. Try to pick up on what’s working and what is not working,” Jamie says, recalling his mentor’s words. “When you sit down to apply all those things, you’ll catch (out when you are writing badly). It helped me immensely.”

By reading poorly written fiction, as opposed to getting caught up trying to write like Michael Chabon or giving up because you don’t write like Michael Chabon (“It’s really unfair”), Jamie suggests concentrating on your own writing. “Look at your own work objectively. Notice when you are being lazy with your language.” i.e., don’t resort to cliches or predictable descriptions that add nothing to the character or the story.

“For every person who asks (me) if I should do an MFA, I say try this first. It’ll only cost you a quarter.”

None of which is to say that Jamie dismisses having an MFA. “I’m kind of a self-taught writer. I come at the craft of storytelling (from a different perspective). … I focus more on story, more than on the writing itself. Story is uber important (to me).” He added that he didn’t want to be classified as a writer only writing for other writers.

Most of all Jamie advises novice writers or those trying a genre for the first time to give themselves some slack. “We try to write our magnum opus right out of the gate,” he noted, “with 25 characters.” We all remember Tolstoy and Dickens, don’t we? Perhaps beginning with one narrator in first person might be something the antsy race horse should try first, before running a quarter-miler.

Perhaps taking a lesson from Jamie Ford’s own history with writing a novel is good to remember as well. His first novel was some “weird literary thing” that he worked on for four or five years. The queries he sent didn’t get a response from any agent. When he realized nobody was interested in the novel he had suffered over, he let it go and grieved, but moved on.

“A year later I started on Hotel (on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet),” he says. A Hollywood ending of sorts followed. Although he describes what he sent out as a rough draft, the agents he queried responded quickly. From the time he sent letters out to agents, signed with one of the agents, responded to that agent’s feedback, and saw the book auctioned off, it was two months. “Just ridiculous,” he concedes. “Sometimes it’s the right book at the right time for the right reason. It just happens.”

But to get there, “you have to be patient,” he reminds me. “Start off with training wheels.” Sometimes that means unlearning what you think you have learned writing a novel. Sometimes you may have to “empty your teacup,” Jamie Ford says. And begin again.

This interview was conducted April 13, 2017, by Connie Wieneke. I look forward to talking with Jamie Ford in person at the conference.