Q&A: Get Out There and Build Relationships, Says Book Author Nancy Hachisu

Dec 262012
 

Nancy Hachisu makes rice bran pickles in her Japanese farmhouse. Photo by Kenji Miura. (Courtesy of Nancy Hachisu)

When I met Nancy Singleton Hachisu in Mexico in 2010, I was taken aback by the sight of another woman in her 50s at a food blogger camp.

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:

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.

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  29 Responses to “Q&A: Get Out There and Build Relationships, Says Book Author Nancy Hachisu”

  1. I love her relationship philosophy. I, too, strongly believe they can’t be rushed, and the instant best friend thing makes me uncomfortable. I can’t wait to check out this book.

    • There’s a lot of that “instant best friend” thing going on in blogging, so I struggle with that too. The book is gorgeous, with a unique story.

  2. the best cookbooks or shows, to me, are the ones that contain a story. They add to a recipe and create a relationship with the author. The people are what makes me go back to experience more of their recipes so I can not only savour the flavours but their personal story too. Nancy sounds like such a character. She is really living. Good luck to her!

    p.s Where is this Mexico writing retreat?

    • She is definitely a character! She seems to know what she wants, and she pursues it with determination and a sense of humor. You’ll see all that in the book.

      The blogging retreat is in hiatus at the moment. Jaden Hair of Steamy Kitchen was in charge. She and White on Rice Couple sometimes do workshops through the Food Blog Forum.

  3. Relationships are essential. I agree. They help not only to succeed, also to learn, keep up to date and develop ideas.
    Great interview.

    • Thanks Rossella. It’s easy to hide behind the computer. I get so overwhelmed sometimes that I don’t reach out to people. This post is a good reminder to do so.

  4. I loved reading about Nancy & her take on relationships. I love what she said … “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 couldn’t agree more :-)

  5. What a lovely post! I loved Japan when I visited a few months ago. I love Japanese food, its people, the sights and all. Your insight into the author’s writing and cookbook is so heartwarming. I can’t wait to get my hands on this book which has earned a lot of praise from the food industry. Thanks for sharing this piece, Dianne! All the best for the New Year!

  6. Japanese food is my fav cuisine! I learned to make some Japanese dishes out of a wonderful cookbook (it’s packed away in a box in storage, or else I’d let you all know the title!) In any case, preparing Japanese food is an artistic, as well as culinary endeavor. But I suppose all cooking is like that. Eating it is the best part though!

    I cannot agree more that it’s who you know and the connections you make that can enhance any career. It’s absolutely essential and no amount of social networking will match the satisfaction and endurance of a personal connection, IMHO.

    • Agreed, Katya. Social networking still seems somewhat artificial to me, compared to personal connections. But they have also led to friendships and fantastic connections as well, so I’m not knocking them.

  7. Thanks for this! My gray hair and I did feel a bit odd at a conference last September (my first food writers’ conference), but it seems I was the only one who noticed! Making connections, and then friends, was so easy with that bunch of happy writers!

    Mary-Denise Smith

    • So you are one of the grey hairs too. It can be a bit unsettling to be among peers who are decades younger, but once we start gabbing about writing and blogging, I find we have so much in common that it doesn’t matter.

  8. [...] Jacob, who I had the pleasure of meeting in September, has a great blogpost on the subject this very week. I can only hope to build those types of relationships, but I have met some amazing bloggers in [...]

  9. I’m with you Dianne – it’s great to see another women of “a certain age” out there and succeeding. I think Nancy’s statement – “I do things because I want to do them, not because of how they will better serve me” resonates with me the most. Of course it is a continual source of disappointment for my husband who despairs of me ever making any money, but my involvement with (my local) food and the food world brings me enormous satisfaction. I’ve learned so much and made great friends along the way – not a bad way to spend my fifties!

    • You are not the only person whose husband wonders when you will make money, Amanda! It’s endemic to our industry. But still, food writers persevere and are privileged to be able to do so.

    • Amanda–My husband despairs of me ever making money as well! But like you I get enormous satisfaction in being out in the world – especially the food world. –Nancy

  10. I always learn something from your posts, but this one is still resonating. You definitely walk the walk, like Nancy. I met you at a small writing workshop and admired your passion and willingness to share it with others. In this age of virtual connections, nothing is more enduring than a long-term, well-earned relationship. I think the key to success in our world today is to find multiple ways to exchange with your audience, from blogging to teaching to taking courses and mentoring.

    And in the end, if you love life, life will love you back.

    Thank you for all you do, Dianne, and best wishes for continued blessings and success in 2013!

    • Yes of course, I remember meeting you in Santa Ana. Thanks for saying hello, Dana. I like your saying about life loving you back. I think Nancy has that philosophy and I liked that about her immediately when we met in Mexico — she has a high-pitched giggle and seemed determined to have a good time despite knowing no one at first.

  11. Great post and an interesting life story!
    Nancys life and philosophy really shows the close relationship between food and culture. It’s amazing how you get deeper insights about a country speaking first of all its language, knowing its history and its cuisine.
    And this is just the staring point for creating your own very personal fusion of culture,lifestyle and gastronomic traditions.
    Thank you for this interesting article!

    • Those are good points, Daiela. Typically the easiest way into another culture is through food, but she tok a harder route.

  12. This is inspiring and the second post i’ve read today about fostering more relationships. Writing is lonely, but there are always kindred spirits, people interested, usually, it’s the people you are interested in.

    • It’s a lovely message to contemplate, that there are like-minded souls waiting for us. We should be more motivated than ever at getting out from behind our screens.

  13. I love learning shared wisdom. It’s the thing I miss most from my days of being a pharmacist — hearing all of the wisdom imparted to me by my customers, especially my elderly customers and war veterans, who became like family to me.

    “I’m leery of the instant best friend.” This speaks volumes to me. I was thinking the same thing last week after accepting a friend invite on Facebook from someone I didn’t even know, against my better judgement. I love meeting people all over the world, though, and accepted. Sometimes the benefits outweigh the risks. It’s a personal judgement call, I guess. I will take this shared wisdom to heart.

    Thanks to both of you.

    • I loved that comment as well Eric, and it has stayed with me because it’s so relevant for today. This is one of the problems with social media. We are told to build up our followings, but it means communicating with people we don’t know about all kinds of personal things in their lives — their families, their pets, etc.

  14. This is a great story, and judging by the cover (nevermind the hefty endorsements), it’s probably a great read. What a delight it would be to learn firsthand what the from-the-earth cuisine of Japan is like!

    On the point of going to conferences and thereby building effective networks, I couldn’t agree more. However, I have not had the financial capacity to do so since I graduated from university several years ago. Any suggestions for those of us who crave professional and personal interaction, but don’t have the means to travel to these conferences?

    • By the way, I just finished reading “The only woman in the room” – a memoir by Beate Sirota Gordon. A Russian Jew born in Austria, she grew up in Japan pre-WWII, thanks to her professional piano playing father’s contracts with the Imperial Academy. She seldom mentions food, most likely because she and her mother were not much involved with preparing it, and because their Japanese staff were trained in European cooking.

      However, I’d be curious whether Nancy knows of this book, and the implications Gordon’s childhood had on female suffrage in Japan. According to her book, she studied languages in the U.S. during WWII, and eventually returned to Japan in the employ of the occupying Allied Forces. She is evidently almost single-handedly responsible for the clauses in the modern Japanese constitution regarding womens’ and childrens’ rights.

      I wonder if Nancy could comment on that – particularly on her experience of “going the other direction,” and integrating into Japanese culture with an American background. What role does food play in the gender balance today?

    • I once got a scholarship to attend a conference. It paid for the tuition, but I still had to get there and stay in the hotel. Most of the time, it’s expensive. Maybe there’s one closer to home you could attend?

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