Jamie Ford made readers around the world weep with his sentimentally moving The Hotel At the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, his 2009 debut novel. Now hes about to do it again with Songs of Willow Frost.
Melancholy will always be my writing partner, and I will make a living by breaking my own heart on a regular basis, he writes in the authors note in Willow Frost.
You must be looking at the advance readers edition, because I cut that line for the (finished book). I didnt want to sound like a Debbie Downer, Ford said from his home in Montana. But when I think about it, I do write rather wrenching stories that move some people to tears.
Hotel was a global mega-hit, spending more than two years on the New York Times best-seller list, selling 1.3 million copies and capturing a long list of honors, including the Asian Pacific American Award for Literature (Ford is half-Chinese and half-Anglo).
Seattles Wing Luke Museum still offers a 90-minute Bitter and Sweet Tour that visits the neighborhoods the characters frequented. Also, the Book-It Repertory Theatre in Seattle, which specializes in adapting novels for the stage, featured a Hotel play for two months last fall.
It was a runaway hit, the highest-grossing play weve ever done, said Book-It marketing director Patricia Britton.
Could Willow Frost possibly make the 2014 schedule?
It wouldnt be out of the realm of possibility, she said.
Ford calls Hotel a love-lost-and-then-found story, the tale of a Chinese American boy and a Japanese American girl, set in the 1940s against the backdrop of the Japanese internment of World War II. Its historical fiction with more than a touch of Romeo and Juliet.
Now comes Fords much-anticipated second novel, the Bee Book Clubs choice for September. Theres every reason to believe Willow Frost will follow in the gilded footsteps of Hotel.
Set in Seattle in the 1920s and during the 1930s Depression, Willow Frost follows the journey of desperate orphans and fast friends William and Charlotte. On an orphanage-sponsored field trip to the Moore movie theater, William becomes convinced that one of the actresses on the screen is his supposedly deceased mother, Liu Song. The two children run away from the Sacred Heart Orphanage and take to the mean streets of Seattle in a quest to find the woman and the truth. Ultimately, its a story of love, loss, secrets and second chances, of discovery and self-fulfillment.
Hotel was a very Japanese story, and this is more of a Chinese story, Ford said. The books arent terribly autobiographical, but theyre definitely infused with familial angst. The fictitious Willow Frost is an amalgam of Fords Anglo mother, his Chinese grandmother and actress Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American film star, he said.
In both stories, Ford is writing about the cultural narrative of Asian America, he said. Both books move through time (via flashback) and touch on a lot of lesser-known historical and cultural issues. Im like an archaeologist sifting the sand and occasionally finding a bone. Its exciting.
One of those bones is the former Sacred Heart Orphanage.
Because of hard times in the Depression, parents would abandon their children in public buildings, knowing they would be remanded to state care for a better life, and hoped to come back and get them (when things improved), he said. (National Book Award-winning novelist) Wallace Stegner and his brother were two of those orphans at Sacred Heart.
Ford also researched the silent-film studios in Washington state that existed before moviemakers discovered the nice weather in L.A. One studio in Tacoma, Wash., had the third-largest stage in the country. It produced only three silent films, but they were lost when the company went under, he said.
Ford was born in Eureka and was a year old when the family moved to Ashland, Ore., and then to Port Orchard, Wash., across Puget Sound from Seattle, where the Chinese part of my family lived, he said. His great-grandfather, Min Chung, took the surname Ford when he immigrated to America from China in 1865.
My mom was born in Arkansas and was Betty Crocker white. She met my Chinese dad in California. He was in the merchant marine and had more tattoos than I could count. He ran a Chinese restaurant and taught martial arts. My dad and Bruce Lee were the only Chinese guys with white wives who I remember.
Growing up, Ford didnt think it was unusual to have a Chinese dad and a Caucasian mom, he said. But (adolescence) is a struggle for self-identity, and it gets very confusing when you add a cultural component.
These days, Ford, 45, lives outside of Great Falls, Mont., (Which I affectionately call Adequate Falls) with his wife, Leesha, a labor and delivery nurse, their combined brood of six teenagers, and three dogs.
Do the locals know theres an A-list novelist living in the blue-collar town?
They know me as my kids dad or as a neighbor, Ford said. Some of them will ask me, You ever going to self-publish that book youre working on? Great Falls is an unpretentious town, and I really enjoy that.
Ford holds a degree in art design from the Art Institutes of Seattle and worked for newspapers and ad agencies as an art director and graphics designer. Along the way, he attended the prestigious Squaw Valley Community of Writers and is a survivor of the literary boot camp led by groundbreaking sci-fi novelist Orson Scott Card.
I was always writing on the side, he said. I was working for a (design) firm in Hawaii and wanted to get back to the mainland. There was an opportunity here in Montana that would let me carve out more time to write.
Ford has said that his writing career didnt begin until after he wrote the eulogies for his parents funerals.
Id been trying to write for years, but I didnt have anything to write about because I hadnt been kicked around by life enough, he said. Then my parents were gone, and suddenly I had an emotional well to draw from. Because I write about emotional things, Ive become aware of what I call the Offramp to Crazy Town. (Southern novelist) Pat Conroy says the greatest gift a writer can receive is an unhappy childhood. Hes exorcising his personal demons in his books. Im not going that far, but I do have an appreciation for it.
Writers must have a regimen to actually get the work done. Whats Fords day like?
I do the writer thing from 6 or 7 in the morning till about 3 in the afternoon, he said. After that, Im kind of Mr. Mom I pick up dog poop in the backyard and drive the kids around.
Ford sees himself as more of a storyteller than a pure writer, he said. I dont have an MFA in creative writing. I just write the story as it wants to be told. I start with a beginning and an ending, and make up the juicy middle as I go. The ending is really important; it gives me a destination.
Jamie writes such emotionally vivid and cinematic stories, and Willow Frost has the same intensity as Hotel, said Jennifer Hershey, editor-in-chief of Ballantine-Bantam-Dell and Fords hands-on editor. Its got a sense of longing of a boy waiting for his mother to come and find him, and for him going in search of her. Its a different kind of love story.
Away from his writing room, Ford continues his never-ending quest to find decent dim sum at the few Asian restaurants in his part of Montana (If something doesnt have melted cheese on it, it confuses people) and occasionally hikes to the tops of nearby mountain peaks.
Im the lowest level of the peak-baggers, he said with a laugh. If I can do it in a day, thats good. Ive been lost up there, and its not fun.
This summer, the Ford family went to a village in Tanzania on a two-week mission, volunteering in health clinics and hospitals, a life-changing experience that recalibrated our brains.
We did it for all the right reasons, he said. But beneath that, we dont want our kids to grow up to (feel privileged). We want them to realize that a life of service is usually more satisfying than a life of consumption.
Ford is working on a third book, based on the true story of a boy who was raffled off at the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle.
His name was Ernie, and nobody knows who won him or what happened to him, Ford said. It seems so barbaric, but into the 1920s there were still orphan trains that would pick up street kids on the East Coast and stop at train depots (in the Midwest). Farmers would pick out a couple of kids to be indentured servants. It sounds crazy, but at the time it probably wasnt particularly cruel. It was an era of reformatories and poor farms.
It was getting late and Ford had to move on from our conversation. Any last thoughts?
I think stories should be about something, he said. Movies used to be about something, and I hope were moving into an era where mediums of entertainment are about more than just smashing robots.
Call The Bees Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbee.com