Over our week together, more surprises came. Nancy had moved to Japan to teach English 22 years earlier, married her English conversation student —- an organic farmer, and raised their three boys in the Japanese countryside, living and working on their farm.
My head was spinning. How did a blond white woman from an upscale California neighborhood live in rural Japan with her family and mother-in-law, where there were no others like her? Plus, she spoke Japanese with ease, established an English immersion preschool near her home, and cooked traditional Japanese meals with her husband. How did she do all this with such gusto?
Fortunately, now there’s a 400-page cookbook to explain, called Japanese Farm Food. (Disclosure: I helped Nancy with the book proposal.) A hefty hardcover with a spine wrapped in indigo cloth, the cookbook features stunning photographs of Nancy’s food, family, and life on the farm and off. Personal essays make the book almost memoir-ish, but in a no-nonsense, affectionate way, not confessional or nostalgic. Simple vegetable-forward recipes are based on seasonal fresh produce from the family farm, flavored with classic ingredients such as miso, sake and soy.
Nancy began her writing career in 2008, with two magazine articles published in Japanese about Slow Food and Alice Waters. A year later, she took Stanford Continuing Studies writing classes and started a blog called Indigo Days at the encouragement of fellow writers, about her everyday life in Japan. From the blog came the idea for the book.
In a recent interview, I asked her why she thought her book is selling well.
“Japan is not a mysterious inaccessible land,” said Nancy. “I wanted to show Japanese people as real people, and Japanese food as real food, and not to get obsessive about how to approach it. This is authentic food. My Japanese husband has grown up on a farm his whole life, and this is how we eat. It’s not Westernized or rarified.”
Fair enough. She didn’t mention another reason, because doing so would make her squirm. So I’ll say it: Since getting involved in the food world 10 years ago, she has built important relationships, and they contributed to the book’s success. Here are some results:
- Alice Waters offered to write a book endorsement and sponsored a launch party at the Chez Panisse Caf’e9.
- Cookbook author and cooking teacher Patricia Wells wrote the foreword.
- David Tanis, formerly a chef at Chef Panisse, wrote a review in The New York Times.
- Elise Bauer of Simply Recipes visited Nancy in Japan and wrote a blog post about her book, as did David Lebovitz. Both were instructors at the Mexico blogging camp.
I emphasize that none of this was calculated, but happened organically. Nancy met Waters through Slow Food, and Waters respected her as a farm wife and cook. Nancy met Tanis through regular meals at Chez Panisse, when visiting the San Francisco Bay Area to visit family. She also joined The International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) and met her future literary agent at an IACP conference.
“I do things because I want to do them, not because of how they will better serve me,” she said. “I’m willing to invest in myself. I spend my dwindling resources to be in the food world.”
I wanted to know more about Nancy’s guiding principles, and her advice for other writers who might live outside the US or want to write books:
Q. What about Patricia Wells? How did you befriend her?
A. I had been corresponding with her, and signed up for a cooking class in France. “It was way too expensive for me, but it was my 50th birthday and it was convivial and fun. It was also a great learning experience about being a hostess and how the classes work. I went back several times.
Q. So what is your relationship philosophy?
A. Relationships can’t be rushed. It takes time to correspond and stay in touch. I look forward to the building part. I’m leery of the instant best friend. I find it a bit overwhelming; too many inherent expectations.
Q. How have you created such a groundswell of interest in the US when you are so far away?
A. I lead a double life. I travel to the States a lot because I have friends and family there, and I keep up through email and social media.
Q. What advice do you have for people outside the US who want to write a book for an American market?
A. It’s not enough to find some story that resonates for US readers. Find a parallel niche where you live, so your story is relevant to people in all countries. And make sure you have some route into the food world where you live and write.
Write about something Americans don’t know that much about, something about the country where you live. That old adage is still true: Write what you know. The first book is very difficult otherwise.
I had other ideas for cookbooks. Choosing this story first was the best decision I ever made. Now I am working on a proposal for the next cookbook.
Q. What have you learned as a first-time book author that you would like to pass on?
A. The most important thing is the proposal. Without a good proposal, you will not be able to write a good book. It gives you a framework and lots of good material for writing the book.
Q. Any final advice for food writers?
A. You need to get out there. You need to physically go to conferences, where like-minded people are, whether writers, cooks or bloggers. Spend time with people in your same community, because we can’t do this alone.