Shortlisted (or Not) for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award

March 7th, 2012 — 3:23pm

Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Prize This is my experience of waiting to hear about being shortlisted for a major writing prize, the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award, the world’s largest short fiction award.

I was thrilled that my short story, “Where the Gods Fly” had made the longlist for a number of reasons: 1) I’d had so much trouble creating the pdfs they wanted for the application that I didn’t think they had even received my entry; 2) I knew they’d had over 1200 entries and was convinced I wouldn’t ever hear from them again, even if they had gotten my submission; and 3) the other writers on the longlist of twenty include greats like Lionel Shriver, Emma Donoghue, A.L. Kennedy, Alison MacLeod – need I say more?

The writers on the longlist heard the news a few weeks before it was made public. In fact, we were told the same day the decision was made and sworn to secrecy.

Then came the waiting for the news about the shortlist.  I didn’t think I had any real chance of making the shortlist. Some of the authors I most admired were on that longlist. However, I did want know for sure so I would have time to recover from my disappointment. Cathy Galvin, the founder of the prize, had tweeted on Twitter that the shortlist meeting would be on Wednesday, February 22. I was traveling on that day, flying from Amsterdam to New York with a Dutch television crew which was filming a documentary about my novel, Girl in Translation, and my

I worried. What if they somehow did choose me, yet tried to call my Dutch mobile phone, which wouldn’t function for the two weeks I was in New York with the television crew? What if they left message after message, then decided, “Oh dear. She obviously doesn’t want to be on the shortlist, let’s move on to someone else.” I hoped that if there was any news that they would send me an email or ring my US cell phone instead.

I fidgeted throughout the long flight to the US, went through customs, took a taxi to the hotel and finally set up an Internet connection. No email. No phone call.  Nothing. Not on my home phone, not on the US mobile number. I’d known it was unlikely that I would make the shortlist – it was already incredible that I’d made the longlist – but I still felt sad. I decided I wouldn’t be fully disappointed until the next morning because perhaps they would wait a day before telling the shortlisted authors.

The next morning: still nothing. Now I felt like a loser writer. I understood what had happened – my story was the one that a single judge mildly liked but the other judges had laughed at that person because my story was so bad. I imagined all of the authors who had made it, sipping champagne and glowing with heavenly approval. I emailed my UK editor, Juliet Annan, told her I wasn’t on the shortlist and was sorry I wouldn’t be able to take her to the award ceremony at the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival. She wrote back and told me that I always took first prize in her eyes anyway. That helped. I took a deep breath and told myself that the shortlisted authors deserved their happiness. I’d gotten friendly with a few of the other longlisted authors and I hoped they’d made it at least.

Time passed, almost a week. Tuesday morning, as I was frantically trying to get all of my hair dry in time to meet the television crew downstairs, my US mobile phone rang. At first, I didn’t understand who it was, then realized it was someone from the same organization that had rejected me for the Sunday Times short story prize.

I knew why the lady was calling. She was going to say, “We feel so sorry for you for not making the shortlist that we would like to offer you this pamphlet on how to become a better writer.” Or maybe, “We need someone to help clean the ballroom after the award ceremony and we were wondering if you might be interested.”

While this was flashing through my mind, the lady on the telephone, Hannah Davies, was saying, “Jean, do you have a moment to talk?”

I did not really want to sweep the ballroom after the ceremony and I was still a bit hurt (irrationally) that they had not shortlisted my story for the prize so I answered, “Well, a little but actually I am rushing to get ready so I’m afraid I don’t have a lot of time.”

“Oh, this will just take a minute. I wanted to tell you that you have made the shortlist for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award.”

I shook my head to clear it. “I have NOT made the shortlist, is that what you said?”

“No, no, you HAVE made the shortlist.”

It went on this way for a while. We sounded like Laurel and Hardy. Hannah is extremely British and kind and I could tell that it physically pained her to say “no” to me so forcibly, but I drove her to it.

Finally I understood that I had actually made the shortlist of six writers. Somehow, out of a field of 1200, my story is in the top six. In fact, everything that had happened had been in my imagination and had no connection to reality whatsoever. In my mind, my hopes had sickened, then died. I had already grieved and moved on. Only it hadn’t actually been necessary.

There must be a lesson in here somewhere but I’m not quite sure what it is. Possibly that you should be grateful you are not married to me because I don’t think I can stop being like this.

So my story has been published in a collectionSunday Times EFG Short Story Award Shortlisted Stories available at, alongside the other shortlisted stories by Emma Donoghue, Kevin Barry, Tom Lee, Robert Minhinnick and Linda Oatman High.

And I am going to London. First, I’ll be at the Waterstones in Piccadilly on March 29 at 7pm where well-known actors will read mine and the great Kevin Barry’s stories aloud, and then I will actually take my lovely UK editor to the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival for both a panel and the award ceremony on March 30.

Fortunately, I am quite certain I will not win so at least I do not need to worry about preparing a speech or anything. This time it is not my imagination. Really.

7 comments » | Awards and Honors, Publishing, Writing

Book Tour: Fears and Reality, Part 2

May 25th, 2010 — 9:14pm

Here’s the continuation of my fears for my national book tour and what the reality turned out to be.

FEAR: You will be so busy, you won’t even have time to take a shower.

REALITY: You will be so busy, you will need to plan your showers in advance.  Here is one sample day I had on the road:

Woke up in St. Louis at 5am.  Dragged myself into the shower as I had planned because I knew the radio shows would start calling at 5:30am.  Then did the “Morning Show with Errol” on WWRL-AM (IND) in NYC,  “The Big Show with Ron” on WXBR-AM (BusinessTalkRadio) in Boston, and then the “Morning Show with Dorothy & Brian” on KBBO-AM (IND) in WA.

This was all by phone.  Here are a few tips for taped phone interviews, whether they’re for radio or print: 1) make sure you’re awake and ready to go; 2) warm up your voice beforehand if you can, even if that means sounding really silly in the shower; 3) if you’re in a hotel, hang the Do Not Disturb sign outside your door.  I usually take the precaution of telling the front desk I’m doing an interview and don’t want to be disturbed, although incoming calls must be allowed — remember that the hotel loves you and will unexpectedly drop by to bring you amenities like goldfishes in bowls (not to be eaten); 4) if you wear earrings, take off the one that presses into the receiver.  You don’t want it to be clicking away against the phone while you’re trying to talk; 5) turn off the heater/airco/cell phone, anything that makes or can make noise in your room; 5) hold the mouthpiece a bit away from your mouth so that your voice doesn’t “pop” on aspirated letters like “p”; 6) if you’re me, make sure you know how to answer your phone.

So when I was done with these interviews, it was only 9:30am.  I then wheeled my suitcases downstairs, checked out, got driven to the airport and flew to Milwaukee.  I landed at about noon.  Then I was picked up by another wonderful media escort and taken to my hotel, where I had another radio interview by phone with Beth Hadley of “Dance Diva” on KSVY-FM (IND).  After that, I had a taped phone interview with Rebecca “Becky” Chang for SAMPAN, a Chinese-English bilingual newspaper for Boston and New England, and  then a podcast for the Christian Science Monitor in Boston.

An hour or so later, I had the reading for that day at Next Chapter Bookshop, a wonderful independent bookstore in Mequon, WI.  The reading is the only event of the day that most fans will see on your public schedule.

I got back to the hotel at about 9:30pm, ordered room service so I could have dinner since I don’t like to eat too much before a reading, and then spent some time updating my team in NY on everything I’d done that day.  It was pretty late by the time I was done and my call the next morning was at 7:45am, meaning I needed to be packed, clean and checked out by then.

I really needed to work out in advance when I would shower, which clothes I needed to keep with me in case I had to do something directly from the airport, etc.

But with all the craziness, I still had time on some days for things like this unexpected drop-in at Louise Erdrich’s bookstore in MN, called Birchbark Books.  Not only does Louise Erdrich have a confessional in the store (!), but it is a warm and cozy place filled with really cuddly fans like this one:

FEAR: You will be kidnapped and held for ransom.

REALITY: It would be very easy to kidnap you if you’re anything like me.  Once you get into the swing of a book tour, you will look for your media escort or driver as soon as you exit the airplane.  Many times, they will be holding a copy of your book.

One media escort explained it to me like this, “An author will often walk right by a sign with their name on it, but they never ever walk past a copy of their book without looking.”

When I see someone holding a copy of my book, I go up to them and say, “Dave?” or “Elaine?” or whatever I know their name to be from my media schedule.  All they have to do is to say, “Yes,” and I will give them all my possessions and follow them blindly wherever they lead.

I was in an airport and the media escort disappeared to put my carry-on luggage and handbag in the car while I waited for my checked piece.  I realized that I’d just given my wallet, my cell phone, my media schedule and my passport to a person who just happened to be holding a copy of my book.  This was not good.  Luckily, he came back.

The only saving grace is that no one wants to kidnap authors.  Most people don’t want an author at all.  We are not appreciated.  See earlier blog post (Book Tour: Fears and Reality, Part 1) about not being appreciated.

P.S. I do have to note that some places do special things for authors, like giving them an engraved bookmark.  This was from the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver, CO — a really amazing place for booklovers.  I don’t know if you can read it, but having my name on a bookmark did make me feel appreciated.

MISCELLANEOUS FEARS: Finally, I’d like to talk about a few last random fears and what reality taught me about dealing with them.

MICROPHONES: I was quite disconcerted the first time I had to talk into a mike.  It was strange to hear my voice reverberate through the room with a split second delay.  It seemed to make my words so weighty, and I also didn’t know exactly where the mike should be so that I’d sound clear, yet not “pop” on the aspirated letters.  Near the end of my tour, I went to the Asian American Writer’s Workshop, a fantastic community, and first had a videotaped interview with Ken Chen, the Director, and then gave my entire reading with a mike, which was also videotaped.  I was glad that earlier, a sound engineer at KBOO, where I did a radio interview, had given me some excellent advice.  She told me to point the microphone towards the left corner of my mouth at a 45 degree angle.  It works every time.  The mike is quite close, so it can pick up everything, yet nothing you say will cause the mike to “pop”.  Since then, I really love using a mike because it ensures that everyone in the vicinity can hear me.

The only thing is that events coordinators at bookstores often take one look at me, then I hear a storewide announcement go out, clearly meant for the technical person: “The author is NOT tall!”  The technical person then runs to adjust the mike about a foot lower.

LOSING MY LUGGAGE: As you know, I was afraid of losing my bags during the entire book tour.  I realized on the last day, however, after I’d given a reading at the Back Bay Borders that I would never lack for coverage while I still had GIRL IN TRANSLATION posters:

My marketing team is looking into making a sandwich board for me.

43 comments » | National Book Tour, Publishing

New York Times Bestseller

May 20th, 2010 — 9:28pm

GIRL IN TRANSLATION has just hit the New York Times Bestseller list at #29!  I received the call from my editor, Sarah McGrath, last night!  I was also congratulated by my agent, publisher, and other members of the Penguin/Riverhead team.  Yet another thing I didn’t know before I became a published author was that Wednesday would become a very important day in my week.  This is because the BookScan numbers come out on Wednesday, which more or less tell you how many copies of your book sold the week before.  Your agent or editor will send those numbers to you.  Then, if you’re anything like me, you start to calculate furiously and fruitlessly to try to figure out if your numbers have set into motion something to do with the other Wednesday event, which is: in between 4pm and 6pm Eastern Standard Time, the New York Times Bestseller List gets sent to your publishing house, ten days before it appears on the Internet and in print.  So they get an early look at what everyone else will be reading a week and a half later. Although there are many other bestseller lists, the New York Times list is still the list.

At least I assume this because no one calls me for any other list.  GIRL IN TRANSLATION has only been available for two complete weeks now and has already made the ABA Indie (Independent Bookstores) Bestseller List, the Walmart Bestseller List, the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association (SCIBA) Bestseller List, and now, the New York Times Bestseller list — all of which I am very happy about, but I only get called for the NY Times.  Of course, this may also be due to the little problem I have with telephones (see earlier blog entry on Trials of the Telephone) plus the fact that I now announce triumphantly whenever I pick up the phone and hear a voice at the other end, “I managed to answer the phone this time!”  This may not instill confidence.  And it is also close to midnight here in Holland by the time the Times list comes out.  Probably, no one DARES to phone me.

I did see something hopeful from my window, which was:

So since we’re getting a peek at the NY Times list in advance, it will actually be posted on the Internet on May 30, 2010.   I’m going to finish my blog posts on the end of my book tour, and all of the things I learned by then, as soon as I find the time.  I just got back to Holland and am dealing with a 9-hour time difference (can we spell JETLAG?), and have my two little and very active boys, plus phone calls with film people, and a live to tape national Dutch television program where I have to speak Dutch (NED 1 at 10:30AM on Sunday, May 23), and tomorrow I have two print interviews with two different photographers (for the TELEGRAAF and GROOT VOORSCHOTEN), and a phone interview with another television producer…  all of this within five days!  Not to mention the New York Times thing, which I am really completely THRILLED about, if I weren’t falling asleep here in front of the compu…

12 comments » | New York Times Bestseller, Writing

Book Tour: Fears and Reality, Part 1

May 17th, 2010 — 8:35pm

I realized that there could be a need for this post because I was in a television studio not long ago.  I had many fears, and waiting to go on after me was a very beautiful girl, clearly a professional who’d been on television for years.  I told her I was nervous because I was new at all of this, and she assured me I would be just fine.

“Do you have any tips?” I asked her.  I knew I had only minutes before I’d need to go onto the set.

She looked at me.  “About what, exactly?”

“Anything!”  I was desperate.

She squinted her eyes and thought hard.  “Well, I really hate to buy anything at full price.  You have to look around to get the best deal.  You could try…”

And she told me all about that until I got led up to the stage.

It really was my fault because I was unclear, but I also realized there could be a need for some good advice for authors preparing for their first book tour.  Here are some of my fears and what I have found the reality to be.  I hope it’s helpful.

FEAR: You may not get a book tour.

REALITY: You may not WANT to get a book tour.  Of course, I dreamed about having a book tour before my book got published too, but I was just as terrified as I was thrilled when it became a reality.  What does a writer like me know about such things as being on television and radio?  I don’t know if there is anything more antithetical to being a solitary writer than going on a book tour.  I thought I’d be safe behind my computer as an author.  In my daydreams, I can’t look like  a complete idiot in an interview while in real life, I can.

And while you’re busy with your book tour, you’ll miss all kinds of shows, like:

But I know, most of us would be willing to forgo seeing interesting drama in order to go on tour.  Which leads me to all of my other fears.

FEAR: You will go on a television or radio interview and the host will be out to get you.  He will deliberately ask you the most difficult, awkward questions he can think of and then roll on the floor with laughter while your embarrassment is recorded, live.

REALITY: Unless you’ve written a book on how it’s OK to torture bunny rabbits, your host will not be out to get you.  Their job is to make the whole interview as entertaining and smooth as possible, so they’re trying to make you look good.  Most of the time, they will be really well-prepared like Irene Rawlings of the show “FOCUS” on Clear Channel Radio in Denver, CO:

The interview is then a piece of cake because they know exactly what to ask you.  I find it more intimidating to do live television, but I really try to focus on two things: 1) answering the questions and 2) my host’s nose.  If you stare at his nose, you can’t throw yourself around wildly, which is something they hate in television studios.  Only disadvantage is that it freaks out the host a bit.

This is Matt Chambers, whose nose I now know very well, on the “Great Day St. Louis” show on KMOV-TV (CBS):

Remember, your host does not want the listener or viewer to sit there and think, “Boy, that was an incredibly awkward moment.”  They will do everything they can to keep things smooth and easy.

It’s more difficult when the host hasn’t read your book, which can happen (and does NOT mean the person is evil), because of the sheer volume of the interviews they need to do.  There are moments when they can start asking about things that are quite different from your book, just to pass the time.  It’s then your job to gently steer the conversation back to something relevant.

If you did write a book on how it’s all right to torture bunny rabbits, then your host may well be out to get you and you’ll need types of professional help that I cannot give you.

FEAR:  No one will appreciate you.

REALITY:  Hotels will appreciate you.

Well, I don’t suggest going into those little bookstores at airports looking for your book, because unless you’re already a very popular author, chances are that they won’t have it.  So that doesn’t make you feel appreciated.

However, hotels really like authors.  I’m not sure why.  I think it has something to do with being classy and of course, the added business doesn’t hurt.

I was recently just wheeling my luggage inside a hotel when both of the doormen said, “How are you today, Ms. Kwok?”  Now, this was very nice but I realized something: I hadn’t checked in yetHow did they know my name? I stared at them in horror.  And they were just the beginning.  I felt like I was in a Kafka novel as I fled from pole to pole in this terrifying hotel, hiding from the Kwok-calling masses.

Later, after I had managed to escape outside, I asked my media escort about it.  Media escorts know everything in the world.  And indeed, she solved the mystery!  There was a picture of me hanging in the staff room so that they could learn what I looked like!  I kid you not.  Those poor people, trying to eat their sandwiches in peace with these visiting authors staring at them.

When you’re feeling blue, know that the hotel loves you (a little too much).

18 comments » | National Book Tour, Publishing

Tips for a Book Tour, Part 2

May 10th, 2010 — 7:18pm

Here’s the continuation of my tips for a book tour.  They may or may not work for you.

3. Be prepared for anything.

Your media schedule will tell you clearly if an event is voice only (radio) or video (television, video, etc.)  However, while this is important, I’ve realized that you need to be ready for all kinds of mixed media.  I’ve done live readings where they whisper to me a moment before I start talking that it will actually be recorded for a podcast.  Sometimes, you go to a radio interview but it turns out they’ll also film you as well.

I always try to look like an actual author when I go somewhere, but if I know I’ll be filmed, I will need to adjust my makeup.  While large studios like CNN will have their own makeup people, smaller ones won’t and you’ll need to do it yourself.  I’ve been done up by professional makeup artists several times by now and I’ve learned that I basically need to put on enough makeup to look scary.  When I have enough makeup on to frighten myself in the mirror, I know I’ve got enough on.

Here’s an example.  Yesterday, I was interviewed by “Literary News” with Chris McKenzie for Evergreen Radio, which will be broadcast on KUOW-FM:Seattle, KPBX-FM: Spokane, and KFAE-FM:Richmond.

Jean Kwok recording for Evergreen RadioJean Kwok with Chris McKenzie and John Pai

It’ll also be a podcast, but that’s all voice, right?  No visuals.  Wrong.  I was met by John Pai, the Producer, and he was holding a big ol’ camera.

Here’s another tip: if you wear makeup, be sure to always carry enough to make yourself look scary.  I ducked into the bathroom, frightened myself in the mirror, then came out.

Chris was so amazing hosting the interview, and we had a great time.

Then that evening, I had an interview with Larissa Min for the INTERNATIONAL EXAMINER right before my reading at the Elliot Bay Book Company, which is a legend among independent bookstores.

Jean Kwok and Larissa Min for THE INTERNATIONAL EXAMINER

Again, lots of photos were taken of me for the interview.  The reading was great as well:

Jean Kwok at Elliot Bay Book CompanyJean Kwok with her youngest fan

And I got to pose with my youngest fan, my old friend Rich Louie’s son, Keon, who is adorable!

So my point is, while we wouldn’t want to frighten the neighbors, do be prepared to look presentable at all times on your tour.

4. Say thank you.

A lot of people have done a lot of work to finalize all of the details for your tour, and I think it’s really important to thank everyone you meet.

I personally also make sure to be nice to my media escorts.  You can always recognize them because I get carsick like a five-year-old and the only way to address this is to have the air on at maximum the whole time I’m in the car, so my media escorts are the ones who look like they’ve just escaped from a tornado, because they have.

Another thing I’ve realized since this book tour is that hotels are very nice to authors.  You’ll find the funniest things in your room, like:

Goldfish in hotel room

Much as I enjoyed the company, I find myself worrying about the fish.  There doesn’t seem to be anything more vulnerable than being a goldfish named Debbie in a hotel room, and I also didn’t know if she liked the light on or off.

And hotels will give you stuff, like bottles of wine and extra flowers and chocolates.  At one hotel, I found a copy of my book.

‘That’s a strange gift,’ I thought, ‘I already have a copy of my book.’

I was about to pack it in my suitcase when I finally read the accompanying letter, which asked me to sign the book and give it back.  Good thing I read it.  At times, hotels will also write you handwritten notes, welcoming you – I always feel sorry for the staff person who was forced to do that.  And sometimes the manager even waits for you in the lobby to shake your hand.

In any case, since I can’t really get sloshed every night on the bottles of wine they give me, I always pass them on to my media escorts.

5. Things to have with you at all times.

There are certain things I always keep with me now.

Makeup, as mentioned earlier.

A copy of my book, because an interviewer for television or radio can suddenly ask you to read a passage from it.

Sharpies, for signing books.  I never knew this before, but most authors sign with Sharpies, and it seems that bookstores and readers like that as well.  I’m not sure why, but it certainly makes your little signature look really big and black.

A small blank notebook, for taking notes on the road or during an interview.  Sometimes during a radio interview, I’ll think of something I want to come back to later and I can quickly scribble down a note for myself instead of stuttering like crazy because my head is overloaded.

Camera.  I like giving it to my incredibly windblown media escorts, so they can get some photos while I do events.  That way, I have a record of the tour.

Laptop.  I’d thought about trying to just bring an Iphone or Blackberry instead, and I’m so glad I have my little pink netbook with me.

Jean's pink netbook

It allows me to stay up-to-date with things like my blog, and I could never have written that article for the NY DAILY NEWS (see earlier entry) otherwise.  And don’t knock its pinkness.  Most security guards at airports, which you’ll be seeing a lot of, are too busy saying, “Awwww, what a cute laptop” to send you to the Possible Terrorist room.

Your media schedule.  I actually bought a bag that was big enough to carry all of these things, and it was essential that it could hold my unfolded media schedule (so, the size of an unfolded sheet of paper).  Why unfolded?  Because chances are, your schedule will be too thick to fold.

Jean's handbag

You must keep your media schedule with you every waking moment of the day because it will tell you where you are, where you’re supposed to be, who’s going to meet you, and who you need to call when things go wrong. If you’re anything like me, you can lose track of where you are.

I was waiting at the airport yesterday, and the nice lady sitting next to me asked me where I was going.

“One moment,” I said, pulled out my schedule, and then announced, “Denver.”

She looked at me strangely, then decided to give me the benefit of the doubt and asked, “Where are you coming from, dear?”

I thought a second, then had to search my schedule again.  “Seattle.”

That was when she got up and changed seats.

BTW, I’ll be reading at The Tattered Cover in Denver tonight (I know this because I just checked my schedule).

2 comments » | National Book Tour, Publishing

Tips for a Book Tour, Part 1

May 10th, 2010 — 5:53pm

Obviously, everyone is different, but here are some things I’ve learned about touring as an author that I didn’t know before.

1. Have everything essential with you in your carry-on.

On this tour, I’m in a different city almost every day and often, I need to go to a media event as soon as I land, directly from the airport.  If my bag gets lost, it will never catch up to me in time.

If you can fit everything into one bag that you can carry on, that’s the best.  My problem is that I have a lot of hair.  I can’t take enough shampoo and conditioner for a three-week book tour onto an airplane with the current liquids restrictions.  So what I do is, I travel with two bags:

Jean's larger bag

The smaller one comes with me everywhere I go and if necessary, I can do the entire rest of the tour with the contents of this bag.  My coat, heels, nice clothing, makeup, laptop, chargers, etc. are all in here.

What’s in the other, larger bag?  Shampoo!  Of course.

However, you can outsmart yourself because I was recently on a flight on a smaller airplane.  They made me gate-check my carry-on bag.  However, everyone else’s bags were tagged with this fluorescent green tag, and mine wasn’t.

“They’ll tag it,” said the stewardess when I asked her.

I nodded and sat down, but couldn’t get the vision of my lost untagged bag floating through miles of airport corridors out of my head.  The thing about this method of mine is that EVERYTHING essential is in your carry-on bag.  All I’d have left is a lot of shampoo.

“They’ll tag it,” she said, when I asked her again.

“I would be forced to slit my wrists if I lost that bag,” I said.

“EVERYONE is afraid of losing their bag,” she said, rolling her eyes.

But not as much as an author on tour is, I think.  She was right, they did tag it and it was obediently waiting for me when I exited the airplane.  Whew.

2. Ask your team for help when you need it.

Josh Greenman, Op Ed editor for the New York Daily News, had emailed me when this book tour began, asking if I’d be interested in writing a piece for them.

“Sure,” I said, “someday,” thinking that this meant when I was done with the tour and safely back in Holland.

Then I got a few other emails from Josh, gently nudging for ideas and the such, until a few days ago, he came to the point: “How about for Mother’s Day?”

“Ummm… when would you need it?”

“Tomorrow.  2pm.”

Now, this is what my life was like:

I’d started early that morning to get driven to Sonoma, CA for a lunch with Lilla Weinberger of Reader’s Books and some of her wonderful customers.  In the back is Bob Wilkins, media escort extraordinaire:

Jean Kwok with Lilla Weinberger and Bob Wilkins

Lynne Lancaster, author of the hugely successful THE M-FACTOR, was there too:

Jean Kwok and Lynne Lancaster

Then back to the hotel to prepare for a reading that evening at Kathleen Caldwell’s A Great Good Place for Books, a fantastic bookstore:

Jean Kwok at A Great Good Place for Books

After the reading, I had to pack everything so I’d be ready for an 8AM pick-up the next morning to fly to Portland, OR.  By the time I landed, Josh’s 2PM EST deadline would have passed.

In other words, I was incredibly busy, without a moment to spare, and there was no time in the morning, so it’d have to all get written that night.  Normally, I wouldn’t have done it, since I am a sane person, but it was for the NY DAILY NEWS.  How could I turn it down?  It’d be like passing up the Yankees or the Mets.

However, when I sat down to write, I realized that I’ve lived in Holland for so long, I wasn’t even sure what an Op Ed piece was anymore.

Luckily, I rang up Patricia Wood, author of LOTTERY, to moan and groan, and she said, “It’s just an essay.  You don’t have to make some kind of political argument.”  She directed me to some heartbreaking pieces written by Ann Hood (author of THE RED THREAD) and after I read them, I could write the article:

“Our Mothers, Ourselves” (NY Daily News Op Ed piece for Mother’s Day)

I only got three hours of sleep that night.  The problem was, I knew from experience that the whole article still needed to be sent, edited and approved.  In the morning, I panicked, then thought to call my Riverhead/Penguin publishing team in NY.

Stephanie Sorensen, Director of Publicity, coordinated the whole effort.  Sarah McGrath, my editor, got on the phone with me while I was juggling a croissant and a cup of tea at the airport, and we quickly polished the entire article.  Then when I was on the airplane, she spoke with Josh and they went back and forth, as editors do.  Really, I’m glad to be far away when you have not one, but TWO editors with red pencils working on your article!

After I landed, I couldn’t get online for a while because I had to go directly to a radio interview with the awesome people at KBOO for the show “APA Compass”:

Jean Kwok with the fine folks at KBOO-FM

By the time I got to the hotel, Josh and Sarah had a completed manuscript I only needed to look over and approve.  I made a few final changes, then printed and signed the permissions form Josh had sent me.  Again, I had ask for help since I needed to race off for a reading, so the hotel faxed it back to him for me, and it was all done.

Then I hurried to read at Powell’s, which is a wonderful place:

Jean Kwok reading at Powell's

I could never have done it without help.

Comment » | National Book Tour, Publishing

Trials of the Telephone

May 6th, 2010 — 4:24pm

In our household, I’m the one who deals with everything electronic.  I’m  competent with things like a computer, since I used to work as a part of the multimedia team for the Board of Directors of an international  investment bank.  However, there is one great exception to this ability, and that is:

I was waiting for an important call yesterday from the film department of William Morris Endeavor.  The telephone rang and all the lights started flashing.  I started punching the buttons, trying to answer the call.  Nothing worked.  It kept ringing, and I kept hitting everything I could think of, until I wound up hanging up on the person.

I knew they’d call right back, so I immediately phoned the concierge (miraculously, this worked).

His voice was warm and polite, as they always are in nice hotels.  “How may I help you, Ms. Kwok?”

“How do I answer the phone?”

He hesitated for only a fraction of a second, then said with complete seriousness,  “You would pick up the receiver, ma’am.”

Right.  I tried that the next time, and it did wonders.

The day before this, I was in another elegant hotel in Atlanta.  I’d just ordered through room service and hung up.  Or so I thought.  I swear, there was a second when nothing happened, and then the phone called room service again, all by itself.

The lady’s voice was friendly.  “How may I help you again, Ms. Kwok?”

“I’m so sorry, the phone called back by accident.”

There was a moment while she processed this, then she answered smoothly, “No problem, ma’am.”

I tried to disconnect again.  One moment of blessed silence, then it rang room service again.

The lady was a bit more careful this time.  “How may I help —”

I interrupted her.  “I’m so sorry.  It did it again.”

The third time it rang her, she said tentatively, “Ms. Kwok?”

I could hear that although she’d clearly been trained to be nice to all the guests, even the crazy ones, what she really wanted to ask was “Ms. Kwok, are you stalking me?”

When it started to call her for the fourth time, I succeeded in yanking the cord out of the wall.

On a happier note, I’m now in San Francisco and this is the view from my hotel:

And there was a wonderful crowd at the reading at Book Passage yesterday evening, which was co-sponsored by the Asia Society:

Jean Kwok reading at Book Passage

Jean Kwok at Book Passage

Today, I’ll be reading at a luncheon in Sonoma CA with Readers Books, and then this evening at A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland.  And don’t be afraid to come because I won’t have to answer the phones there.

4 comments » | National Book Tour

National Book Tour, the Beginning

May 5th, 2010 — 7:16pm

There has been so much news!  GIRL IN TRANSLATION is now finally available and has already received an amazing amount of attention in the press.  It’s been picked out as one of the books to read by Vogue, Entertainment Weekly, O Magazine,, USA Today, and more!  I’m on the national book tour now, and am writing this on the airplane as I fly to San Francisco.

I woke up yesterday morning at 5AM in Raleigh NC.  Flew into Atlanta, then had to quickly iron my clothes (a big challenge for me) and rush off to:

Jean Kwok at CNN

I got my pass from the most elegantly-dressed security guard I have ever seen (I know, you’re all hoping for a picture of him, not the pass, but I was too embarrassed to ask for a photo):

Jean Kwok CNN pass

I was pretty nervous.  Anna Shcherbakova, the producer, met my media escort and me downstairs and led us up to hair and makeup:

Jean Kwok at CNN hair and makeup

No, my media escort Robert didn’t have to have his makeup done, he just took the pictures!  Then Anna brought us to the studio, where we met Jarrett, the other producer.

First thing I said to Jarrett was, “I really hope I don’t come across as an idiot.”

He said, “You won’t come across as an idiot.  But don’t sit on the mike.”

Once the taping began, they were so well-prepared and knew so much about me and the novel, that they really made it easy for me:

Jean Kwok at CNN studios

After that, I met the incredibly warm and intelligent Paula Gordon and her husband Bill Russell to be taped for the Paula Gordon Show.  Like she said, it was like we were doing a dance together.  I was so impressed by the in-depth questions she asked me. There was one moment when she asked me this very long question and I just had no idea what the question was, let alone the answer.  I looked at her, like, “What?!” and she very smoothly jumped in and rephrased it so that I could answer.  Whew.  That Paula Gordon’s a good dancer.

I think these taped segments are going to be some of the most illuminating media about the novel and me so far.

Then a very short break, and finally, the reading at the Georgia Center for the Book:

It was such a wonderful crowd, and not only were books sold and signed, but special GIRL IN TRANSLATION fortune cookies were given out (you can catch a glimpse of the cookies on the table):

The cookies have fortunes like, “You will love GIRL IN TRANSLATION”!  I know, my publicity and marketing team are amazing.  I also saw a GIRL IN TRANSLATION bookmark, folder, and poster.

This is me with Joe Davich, Assistant Director of the Georgia Center for the Book.   And that was my day yesterday!

I know this post is getting really long but I just have to put in one more plug for the fabulous folks at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, NC, where I was the day before yesterday.  The reading was so fun to do, and the people were so great:

So if you’re in CA, I’d love to see you at some of the events I’ll be doing today and tomorrow (click on the Events & Media tab)!

6 comments » | National Book Tour

Slower than a snail

March 9th, 2010 — 2:04pm

I was riding my cargo bike, which has a wooden box in the front.  I’d just filled it with kids, and one little tyke (who can hardly talk) suddenly came up with a full sentence:  “We’re going slower than a snail!”

Another one piped in with, “Those people walking are faster than us!”

And indeed, at that moment, a little girl in pigtails zoomed past us on her pink bike, closely followed by a granny who had her walker tied to the back rack of her bike.

“Road hogs!”  I wanted to call, but the truth is, I’ve been a bit preoccupied lately.

Jean Kwok and her cargo bike

It is really strange, and very special, to be a debut author.  Especially one whose book hasn’t even come out yet.  It started when I first went to Riverhead headquarters and walked past rows of books by Junot Diaz, Anne Lamott, and Chang-rae Lee.  Then, in my editor Sarah McGrath’s office, I spotted the manuscript of Khaled Hosseini’s A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS in a box next to mine.  I had to pinch myself hard then.

When you love books, people in books and publishing are kind of like rock stars to you, and it’s just stunning to be in a position to actually meet the people you’ve always admired.  You probably knew this already but I hadn’t realized that real people wrote and published the books I cared about so much.

In the past seven days, I’ve heard that my novel is a “Discover Great New Writers” pick for Barnes and Noble, the Russian rights have been sold, and seen myself in an author video, looking like a real writer.  I can’t tell you how many times I wandered through bookstores, wondering what it would be like to actually have my own book in there.  And now, I’ll be featured in lots of stores, including some really fantastic independent bookstores.

So my husband claims I’m a danger to traffic on my bike but I would like to state that although we may not be traveling at light speed, there is a whirlwind going on in my mind.

11 comments » | General, Publishing

How to go from complete unknown to published author

February 25th, 2010 — 10:37pm

First of all, you probably shouldn’t listen to me.  The only reason you might even consider listening is because I was pulled out of the slush pile, without any connections, for the two most important moments in my professional career: my first publication and when my agent found me.  I’m going to tell you the twelve things I would tell my best writer friends.  (It seemed like a nice number.)

1)  Stop.  If you can stop writing, do it.  Or at least if you can stop hoping to become a professional writer, go do something else.  Why?  Because it is hands down the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, creatively and business-wise, and pretty much the only people left in the book business at all are those poor (and glorious) suckers who can’t let go of their love of books.  Otherwise they’d be making millions doing other stuff.

2)  Are you still reading?  OK.  If you can’t stop writing, if you’re one of those people who will obsess about writing or not-writing for the rest of their lives, then I urge you to show your work to some other people.  Preferably people you are neither related to nor sleeping with.  Yes, there are solitary geniuses who absolutely need to work alone, but I find it very helpful to get some feedback.  Even if they completely misunderstand what you’re trying to do, you can use that information to deliberately mislead your readers, who will also no doubt misunderstand what you’re trying to do.  Think of it as a breath of fresh air for your work.

3)  Make sure the structure works before you fine-tune the language.  I know I’m going in the face of a lot of popular wisdom here and don’t get me wrong – I LOVE to work on the language.  I’m a voice-driven author myself and I can’t set a word on paper until I hear the right voice in my head.  However, for me, the voice is not enough.  I need to know that the whole foundation is basically right before I build the house.  Otherwise, I can throw away hundred of (beautifully written!) pages later that don’t work.  I know this because I did.

4)  Remember in fiction that there are two timelines: 1) the actual order in which your events happened and 2) the order in which you chose to reveal them to the reader for maximum impact.  Write down the first for yourself and figure out the second one as a part of the structure of your piece.

5)  When you sit down to work, don’t set a time limit for yourself – set a word limit.  For me, that’s 1200 words a day, although when I’m under a deadline, I can write many times that.  I can sit in the chair and fill an entire morning doing something else if I don’t have a word limit.  However, when I know I can’t leave until I’ve produced a certain number of words, I’m motivated to get it done.

6)  If you tend to procrastinate (and who doesn’t), set a kitchen timer for five minutes.  Promise yourself that if you work non-stop and seriously for those five minutes, you’re allowed to stretch and take a break.  This is usually not-scary enough for most people to get going.  And once those five minutes are up, take a break, and then reset for another five minutes.  You can try ten or fifteen minutes if you’re up to it but keep it short.  You can write a whole book in fifteen minute spurts.

7)  For your first draft, don’t worry about making it good.  Just get it done.  Get the whole thing down on paper in the crappiest way possible.

8)  On your second and subsequent passes through the work, now is the time to make it as good as you possibly can.  Show it to people.  Don’t let it out into the professional world until it’s ready.

9)  If you have anyone who is incredibly generous enough to introduce you to their agent, make sure you’re ready before you submit.  You only have one shot.  Don’t fire off a submission because you’re bored or want to set a deadline for yourself or because it’s easier to work on the business angle than the writing itself.  If you need incentive, go buy yourself some diamonds instead.  Because diamonds are worth less than a good agent’s serious consideration.

10)  If you have someone who knows an editor in publishing who might be willing to look at your un-agented submission, don’t do it.  Get an agent first.  Again, I know I’m going against popular wisdom here.  I mean, who would turn down the chance to have a real editor read their work?  The thing is, your work can be brilliant but in my humble opinion, that editor is not going to read it with the same positive expectations as they would if it had been submitted to them by a reputable agent.  I think chances are high they’ll turn it down.  (Of course, there are exceptions, but in general, this is what I believe.)  Then, when you finally get that reputable agent, the first thing she’ll ask you is, “Where has this been sent?”  If you got turned down by some editor at Norton, for example, your agent can’t resubmit there, while she may well know a Norton editor who would have loved it.

11)  Believe in yourself and your work.  When my friend, a fierce dancer, goes to an audition and doesn’t get the job, she says, “It’s not that they didn’t like me.  They didn’t even SEE me.”  And that’s almost always what it is.  She just dyes her hair a different color and goes back in again the next time they have auditions.  In writing, you can’t resubmit to the same person but just keep going.  Don’t let the rejections knock you down.  Take a look at my FAQ page for more details on what happened to me.

12)  Don’t listen to anything here or anywhere else that doesn’t work for you.  Trust yourself and your own gut feelings.

16 comments » | Publishing, Writing

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