EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was originally published on September 1, 2017.
Writing a second chapter to his own life, Jamie Ford found more than success with fiction. He discovered his own family’s forgotten history.
“That’s something I never expected,” said Ford, the best-selling author of such novels as “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” and “Songs of Willow Frost.” “Cousins I never knew found me on Facebook. In San Francisco, there’s a whole wing of my family; I had only a vague idea they existed. We connected and it reconnected me with my family’s history.
“Like, I never knew that my grandfather worked in Hollywood; he was an extra in more than 300 films. My cousin sent me his photo album and here were all these autographed photos – Clark Gable, Betty Davis, Gregory Peck. There’s my grandfather as a Mongolian soldier in ‘Shanghai Express,’ right next to Marlene Dietrich. It was awesome.”
Rediscovered history populates Ford’s novels, too. That includes his latest, “Love and Other Consolation Prizes” (Ballantine Books, 320 pages, $28), due out Sept. 12. Ford will discuss that novel and other works at The Sacramento Bee Book Club on Sept. 13. Tickets are now available.
“Love and Other Consolation Prizes” mines familiar ground for Ford, whose father was Chinese-American. The book returns the author to his hometown of Seattle and allows him to explore a real-life incident at the 1909 World’s Fair, when a half-Chinese orphan was raffled as a prize.
“I found it in a newspaper clipping,” Ford said. “That first World’s Fair had all these oddities. In the newspaper story, the mention of the boy was a throwaway line right before ‘cotton candy was invented.’ At the fair, they gave away something every day. One day, it was a milking cow. Another, it was copper ingots. Then on Washington Children’s Day, they gave away a child, an orphan from the Washington Receiving Home.”
No one knew what happened to that prize or who won. Records from the receiving home were lost years ago. All Ford could find was the boy’s name: Ernest.
But from that kernel, Ford grew an outrageous and heart-felt adventure. In his novel, the winning ticket belongs to a flamboyant madam of a high-class brothel and Ernest becomes her new houseboy.
The brothel was real, Ford notes. Its former building now houses a men’s rescue mission in Seattle’s historic Pioneer Square.
“The shelter has a free dental clinic in the basement,” he said. “When they did renovations, they uncovered a whole wall of hand-painted wallpaper from the brothel. They preserved it under glass. Here is this really cool history, just beneath the surface. That’s Seattle in a nutshell.”
Seattle and another almost forgotten chapter of history also form the backdrop for “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” Ford’s 2009 debut novel that put his literary star on the rise. Set during World War II, that tale centers on the romance of a Chinese-American boy and a Japanese-American girl whose family is sent to an internment camp.
“ ‘Hotel’ was just published in Persian,” Ford said. “That makes 35 languages now. Its success has allowed me to pursue other books and do all sorts of things. I just finished a screenplay.”
Before “Hotel” changed his career trajectory, Ford, now 49, had been a publicist for Hawaii tourism in Oahu. He moved to Montana to promote that state’s tourism and also concentrate on his writing in a place with fewer distractions.
“In Montana, I have the whole winter to write,” he said. “I assumed I’d keep doing the writing thing for a couple of years, then go back to working. But I’ve been a full-time writer now for eight years.”
Ford lives with his wife, Leesha, a delivery room nurse. The couple have six children (four girls, two boys) in a blended “Brady Bunch” family; only five years separates the youngest (18) from oldest (23).
“We had years of household teenage insanity,” Ford said. “I was living in an estrogen holding tank with so many girls. But the last child just left for college, so we are now empty nesters.”
Ford said he spends countless hours researching fine details for his books, frequently returning to Seattle.
“There’s a truth in the fiction,” he said. “About 98.9 percent of the time when I’m writing a chapter, I’ve done all the research. I probably over-research; I like everything to be accurate. I might be making it all up, but I want to make it real in my mind.”
Those studied details add authenticity and depth to the writing. What 1930s radio show did a character listen to? What wowed the crowds at a long-forgotten World’s Fair? What color was the brothel’s wallpaper?
“Those little details are like a collected secret,” Ford said. “The readers are in on that secret. Maybe someday, I’ll do an annotated version of ‘Hotel’ with all those connections revealed.”
Ford describes himself as a “sentimental person” and that disposition has compelled his heart and head to keep returning to one age and place: a 12-year-old boy in Seattle.
“All three of my novels have a 12-year-old boy,” he said. “That includes ‘Hotel’ and ‘Songs of Willow Frost’ plus the new book. They’re my Seattle coming-of-age trilogy. That’s really a reflection of my own childhood. There’s a time – you may be 8 or 14 or 12 – when your perspective suddenly changes. You start seeing the world with the eyes of an adult instead of a child.
“I remember that moment for me so clearly, and yes I was 12. One day, everything was simple and clear cut. The next day, life sucked. The world is really complicated and confusing, not simple at all. There’s something very powerful about that transitional moment.”
With the release of his latest novel, Ford said he looking forward to his 10-week, 37-stop book tour, which includes his visit to Sacramento.
“I’m just glad to have another book out in the world,” he said. “Writing is such a monastic occupation. Getting out and meeting readers is a chance to interact. This is fun for everybody.”
Bee Book Club Welcomes Jamie Ford
Novelist Jamie Ford will appear for The Sacramento Bee Book Club at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 13, in The Hive at The Sacramento Bee, 2100 Q St., Sacramento.
Tickets to the event are $20 for seven-day-a-week subscribers, $10 for students and $25 for general admission. Buy tickets at www.sacbee.com/events. Doors open at 5:15 p.m. Parking is free. Barnes & Noble will be on site, selling “Love and Other Consolation Prizes” (Ballantine Books, 320 pages, $28) for 30 percent off the list price.
All proceeds benefit The Bee’s News In Education program, bringing news and information to more than 20,000 students in the region.
“Love and Other Consolation Prizes” also will be offered for a 30 percent Bee Book Club discount through Sept. 13 at these bookstores: in the Sacramento area at the five Barnes & Nobles, Avid Reader at the Tower, Underground Books, Time Tested Books and Sac State’s Hornet Bookstore; in Davis at Avid Reader; in El Dorado Hills at Face in a Book; and in Grass Valley at The Bookseller. Mention the Bee Book Club to get the discount.