I’d like to welcome my client and friend, Susan Blumberg-Kason to The Girlfriends Book Club today. Her debut memoir, “Good Chinese Wife” has just been sold to Sourcebooks and will come out in Spring 2014…
Tell us briefly what “Good Chinese Wife” is about.
It’s a memoir of my five-year marriage to a man from central China. We met during my first semester of grad school in Hong Kong almost twenty years ago. At that point, I was twenty-three and had already lived in Hong Kong for a year in college. So when we met that fall, I thought I was an Old China Hand. But as I would find out, I was grossly mistaken, especially when it came to Chinese family life. My memoir chronicles the culture—and personality—clashes I experienced with Li. The story is mostly set in Hong Kong, Mainland China, and San Francisco. I’m probably the only person in the world who had a rough time living in San Francisco!
Walk us through your road to publication. About how long did it take from when you first started writing the memoir and when you got your book deal?
I could write a book about how not to go about publishing a memoir! The whole thing took five years.
Back in 2008 when I had a few chapters I’d written here and there, I found a database of agents on agentquery.com and sent out a dozen letters. Within a few days I received several requests for the first fifty pages. I eagerly awaited my offer of representation! But after several months of rejections (of my query letter, but also sometimes after an agent had requested fifty pages), I decided to look for an independent editor. I worked with a few, but then I stumbled upon your novel, Midori By Moonlight, and checked out your website (and also found you on SheWrites.com). We worked together until the winter of 2011 when it seemed like the manuscript and query letter were as polished as could be.
Just after the New Year, I sent out a dozen query letters to agents. Before the end of January, I received an offer from Carrie Pestritto at Prospect Agency! Carrie explained early on that finding an editor was a lot like searching for an agent. It takes time and patience and probably several rounds of revisions. And that proved to be the case. After a couple rounds of submissions and more revisions, by early 2013 we felt like we were in a great place with the manuscript. Carrie waited for Valentine’s Day to submit to a new batch of editors. Ten days later we had an offer from Sourcebooks! I’m thrilled to join their fabulous list of memoirs set abroad. I also love Sourcebooks because they work closely with their writers to publicize and market their books.
What made you decide to write this memoir? Did you ever consider turning it into a novel?
When I was feeling alone and desperate in my first marriage, I sometimes searched for a memoir about someone going through a similar experience. I knew there had to be other women (or men) out there who struggled with marriage to a person from a foreign country. But I found nothing in the library or on Amazon. It was after my divorce attorney asked me to write about all the problems that occurred in my marriage (in case we went to trial) that knew I could write that memoir. I didn’t consider turning it into a novel, even though other writers and editors suggested that a couple of times. I thought the story would seem more compelling as a memoir, and I wanted other women or men to know that if they were in a similar situation, they might be able to turn things around before it was too late. My agent agreed that we should keep it a memoir.
What advice would you give writers who are writing memoirs?
Unless you’re a celebrity or have amazing clips, I wouldn’t worry too much about your proposal and would instead concentrate on finishing your manuscript. Agents these days usually sell memoir the same way they sell fiction. In other words, they send out the full manuscript instead of a few chapters and a proposal. I probably queried a hundred agents during those four years and was only asked for a proposal once. It’s a good idea to create one just in case, but don’t overthink it or spend too much time on it.
I’m also slightly obsessed with memoir structure these days, so if you have a creative way to present your story, that will only help. I have to say, though, that I’m getting tired of chapters beginning with random quotes. There are ways to be more creative than that.
What are the challenges in writing memoir?
For a long time I had trouble self-reflecting and sharing intimate details, things I couldn’t even tell my friends and family for many years. As a reader, I find it extremely frustrating when a memoirist holds back. And it’s easy to detect; if the reader has any questions at the end of the story, the memoirist hasn’t done her job. So I tried to keep that in mind when I wrote, yet it was difficult to be so forthcoming until this last round of revisions. I think it’s safe to say that I cover all grounds now!
Did you consider self-publishing your book? Why did you want to pursue traditional publishing?
I didn’t think about self-publishing “Good Chinese Wife” because in 2006 and 2008, I self-published a guidebook to drinking tea in Chicago ( “All the Tea in Chicago” ). I felt rushed to publish those books before someone else beat me to it. Of course I didn’t know back then that it’s not a bad thing to publish a book that’s already been done. When my tea books came out, there were three dog guidebooks for Chicago! A good idea can spread pretty thin and still work. Self-publishing my guidebook was a fun and rewarding experience, but I wanted to try something different for my memoir. I was hopeful for a publisher that would help me with publicity and marketing. In Sourcebooks, I’ve found just that!
What advice would you give to writers in searching for an agent?
Stay patient. It only takes one person to fall in love with your manuscript. If you continue to receive the same comments in rejection letters, incorporate those suggestions into your revisions. And if you receive requests for chapters or the full manuscript, that’s a good sign. It means you should persevere and work on your manuscript until you get an offer. If you don’t receive any bites from agents, you’ll need to rethink your query letter, story, or maybe both. Don’t be afraid to seek out an independent editor or a writing partner. And never take rejection personally.
What is your favorite Chinese restaurant in the U.S. and why is it your favorite?
You saved the most difficult question for last! When I lived in San Francisco, Yank Sing was my favorite. It was so elegant and pricey that I could only go when my parents visited from out of town. Their dim sum was so fresh and beautifully designed. Although in Hong Kong I enjoyed eating at grungy Cantonese coffee shops, I have a thing for elegant Chinese restaurants. Maybe it’s a way to escape. Yank Sing has beautiful décor and certainly took me away from the chaos at home when I ate there a few times in the 1990s. I’d love to hear about other favorite Chinese restaurants!
Follow Susan on Twitter: @Susan_BK and check out her blog and website at: http://www.susanbkason.com
Wendy Nelson Tokunaga is the author of the novels, "Midori by Moonlight"and "Love in Translation" (both published by St. Martin's Press), and the e-book novels, "Falling Uphill" and "His Wife and Daughters," and e-book short story, “The Girl in the Tapestry.” She's also the author of the nonfiction e-book, "Marriage in Translation: Foreign Wife, JapaneseHusband." Her short story "Love Right on the Yesterday" appears in the anthology "Tomo," published by Stone Bridge Press, and her essay "Burning Up" is included in "Madonna and Me: Women Writerson the Queen of Pop." Wendy holds an MFA in Creative Writing from University of San Francisco and teaches for Stanford University's Online Writer's Studio Novel Certificate Program. She also does private manuscript consulting for novels and memoirs. Follow her on Twitter at @Wendy_Tokunaga, friend her on Facebook and visit her website at: www.WendyTokunaga.com