Vashon author explores women’s lives

Jean Davies Okimoto reads a passage from her new novel. - Amelia Heagerty/staff photo
Jean Davies Okimoto reads a passage from her new novel.
— image credit: Amelia Heagerty/staff photo

Islander Jean Davies Okimoto first knew she wanted to be a writer when she was a sixth-grader in Ohio.

She and another kid in the neighborhood started a newspaper, and published a lead story about Mrs. Greenbaum, a woman with hair dyed red. “Mrs. Greenbaum lights up the neighborhood,” the headline read. But when the paper came out, and Mrs. Greenbaum was none too happy, Okimoto’s parents decided they’d have to pre-approve the children’s stories from then on.

“We didn’t think that was any fun, so that was the end of the newspaper,” said Okimoto, who instead grew up to become a psychotherapist.

But she never let go of her dream to be a writer and has earned acclaim in the literary world, with more than a dozen books to her name, including “Winston of Churchill,” an award-winning children’s book that deals with global warming, and “My Mother is Not Married to My Father,” which addressed divorce at a time when few other books did.

Now, Okimoto is adding the genre she always hoped she’d write — adult fiction — to her repertoire.

This Friday, she’ll release her first adult novel at Books by the Way — a book written for older women and partly set on Vashon.

“I don’t find a lot of contemporary novels about older women,” said Okimoto, 66. “I was very interested in writing for my own age group.”

She drew on her own experiences and those of people she knows while writing “The Love Ceiling,” a book she said is about “women and creativity — the pull a lot of women feel between the needs of their family and their creative self-expression.”

Instead of a glass ceiling, these women bump up against “the love ceiling.”

Okimoto, who’s now mostly retired, said she’s been blessed with a supportive family since her first flirtation with writing.

She wrote “My Mother is Not Married to My Father” shortly after her divorce because she wanted her daughters to read a book that related to their lives. But Okimoto struggled to have the young adult novel published, and after 17 rejections, would have given up if not for the support of her daughter, she said.

On her 18th attempt, the fledgling author succeeded — and the book was published by Putnam in 1978.

Okimoto had a successful foray into the highly competitive arena of children’s literature as well, and won several awards for her inventive and topical narratives. Still, when she first tried to break into the market, she was faced with rejection.

“One of my editors told me, ‘You have a better chance of playing first base for the Yankees than you do of being a published children’s book author,’” Okimoto said with a laugh.

“The Love Ceiling” faced similar hurdles in its early stages — and despite interest by several editors, the book was not chosen to be published.

“But I felt like there really could be some interest from older women in this novel and in the themes,” Okimoto said.

She decided to pursue independent publishing, and created the publishing company Endicott and Hughes Books to release “The Love Ceiling,” which is the first in a trilogy of adult novels, all set on Vashon. In its first printing, the independent publisher printed 2,000 copies.

The first readers of the novel have found it engaging and thought-provoking, and it has begun selling at Books by the Way and online.

“I think Jean is tackling an issue that’s really important and difficult ... because loving your family is paramount, but your relationship to your art is also vital,” said Juli Morser, who works at Books by the Way and encouraged Okimoto to publish “The Love Ceiling” independently.

Morser said Okimoto — a Midwesterner who made her way to Seattle, then Vashon — is “a very real person.”

“I think a lot of people on Vashon are going to enjoy the portrayal of the Island and of the people on the Island,” said Jenni Wilke, co-owner of Books by the Way. “It’s really a perfect summer book.”

A release party for “The Love Ceiling” will be held at 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 12, at Books by the Way. Book store co-owner Jenni Wilke will make Japanese appetizers and desserts, inspired by the cuisine of the novel. All publisher’s proceeds will be donated to the Vashon Maury Community Food Bank.

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