Christian: Your book contains tons of fascinating facts about Japanese culture. Like the fact that the Japanese “never give anyone anything in a group of four because the number four, shi, is a homophone for the word death.” (I don’t want to give away any more than that, but this “gift” is definitely one of my favorite parts). How many of these tidbits did you research and how many did you learn through osmosis by growing up in a Japanese household?
Valynne: I knew about as much as Claire, which wasn’t a lot. There were traditions my family observed, but I had no idea why we did some of the things we did. My paternal grandparents were incredibly superstitious. While they taught me things I shouldn’t do or say, I never knew why, and I never thought to question my elders. Writing this story allowed me to go back and find answers. The most surprising thing I learned was why it is bad manners to pass food from your chopsticks to another person’s chopsticks. I don’t want to spoil anything in the book, so I won’t explain why, but when I discovered the reasoning behind this, I thought, “How has no one told me this before? This is so fascinating!”
Christian: My favorite line in the book is “When I said I wanted to find out the truth . . . I think I was looking for a different truth.” Does this apply to you as a writer at all?
Valynne: This line applies to me as a writer a lot. This line applies to my life a lot. Quite often I have times when I know what I need to do, but there are too many emotions invested in what I want rather than what is best long-term. In writing, the phrase frequently used is “kill your darlings.” Sometimes the truth isn’t what you want to hear. I have had to let go of characters and scenes that just didn’t work even though I loved them. If I’d asked enough people for opinions, I would have eventually gotten the truth I wanted to hear. But in the end, the book would have suffered.
Christian: Your ending definitely has a sequely vibe. Do you want to tease a sequel? How do you feel about sequels?
Valynne: As a reader, I love sequels. As a writer, I’m not sure yet. However in the sequel for INK AND ASHES, a mysterious Japanese boy arrives into town claiming the only way Claire can truly save her family is if she leaves everything and everyone in Utah and accompanies him back to Japan.
Christian: You’re part of an extremely exclusive, ludicrously talented/successful critique group. Can you tell us about them and how that’s helped you in your process?
Valynne: When I first joined my critique group, none of us was published. We met and exchanged pages about once a month. It was really helpful because each of us have such different strengths. When the aspiring writers of our group started to shift to become published writers, our needs also shifted. At this point, we are best friends who support each emotionally. We rarely critique pages now although we are always willing to do that for each other.
Christian: How did you find our agent? (All right, the jig is up. You and I wrote a book together.) Your editor?
Valynne: I take the author-agent relationship very seriously. And that’s probably an understatement. There was a lot of consideration that went into finalizing our agent query list. Fortunately, I am a networker. It’s not a conscious thing, but it just kind of happens because I like talking to people. Every agent we queried was one I had some connection to, which meant we were able to avoid the slush pile.
When I met John at a conference, I immediately knew without a doubt he was a perfect fit for Christian. Once John offered representation, I prepared two pages of questions, which he was kind enough to answer in a phone conversation. When he didn’t balk at questions like “What happens if I die?” or “What happens if you die?” I had an inkling he might be the one. I explained how I never wanted the pressure of writing for money, which meant I wanted to be able to produce books at my own pace. He said he didn’t care if I wrote so many books he couldn’t keep up with me or if I only wrote one every seven years. At that point, I was pretty much sold. But the thing that completely won me over was when he said he would garrote anyone who tried to steal me from him. It’s like he saw right into my morbid soul and knew exactly what to say.
My editor, Stacy Whitman, is the only editor at Tu Books, an imprint of Lee and Low. She’s actually friends with people I know although I had never met her. Because she knew some people where I live, she posted an announcement on a local writing listserv regarding submissions for the New Visions Award. As the eventual winner of the award, I was fortunate to work with her.
Lightning Round Questions
Music to write by? Currently MayDay Parade and A Rocket to the Moon
What were you reading when you were 16? Agatha Christie, Lois Duncan, and V.C. Andrews
Do you write longhand or type? Both longhand and on a laptop. Just depends on where I am.
Thanks, Valynne! Watch out for the Yakuza . . . and write that sequel!
INK AND ASHES is available for purchase from Amazon, Powell’s, Books-A-Million, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound.