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.
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.”
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.
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.Think Amy Tan, but with a sweeter aftertaste.
Thank you for your consideration and time,
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 Trainaccolades, 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.
Commentary From Kristin
I was really caught by Jamie’s personal connection to the history he plans to explore. I’ve never heard of the “I am Chinese” buttons, which is kind of fascinating.
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.I knew I was going to ask for sample pages, but I have to admit that his “But it’s more complicated than that” paragraph made me pause. Dual narratives are tricky and extremely hard to pull off. I would only know ifthe 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.
It always helps to know there has been some previous recognition and Jamie mentions his Glimmer Train credit and literary creds. I would have asked for sample pages without the mention though. His last sentence about himself 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.
(Kristin suggested changing the title, and she and Jamie decided on Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.)