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Interview: September 13, 2013

Jamie Ford follows up his bestselling debut novel, HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET, with his second work of fiction, SONGS OF WILLOW FROST. William Eng, an orphan who becomes convinced that movie star Willow Frost is his mother, escapes from his orphanage with his friend Charlotte, and together they embark on an emotional journey of discovery. In this interview with’s Norah Piehl, Ford talks about why he decided to set his story in Seattle during the 1920s and 1930s, and the very personal reason he enjoys creating young characters on the brink of adolescence. He also opens up about the impact his childhood as a half-Chinese, half-Caucasian kid has on his work, and how writing about Chinese American history helps him take ownership of his own identity. Your first novel, HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET, was set in Seattle during the 1980s and 1940s; SONGS OF WILLOW FROST is set in the same city during the 1920s and 1930s. What drew you to write about this specific time and place?

Jamie Ford: The '20s and '30s are such a ripe, juicy time in the history of Seattle --- from prohibition, the after-effects of WWI and the flu pandemic, to the confluence of ethnicities, cultures and social classes. There’s so much packed into that time period, plus the Great Depression itself created such upheaval. It was as though you tipped over the chessboard of polite society and afterward everyone was trying to rearrange the pieces to their advantage.

Also, this was when my Chinese grandparents met in a backroom gambling parlor. My grandfather was a blackjack dealer and my grandmother was a coat-check girl. Man, if they could see me now…

BRC: What kind of research did you conduct to help bring this era to life?

JF: I love research! The process of digging in the past makes me feel like Howard Carter taking that first, fateful step into the treasure room of King Tut’s tomb. But instead of pith helmets and torches, I don white archival gloves and sink into the basement archives of the Wing Luke Asian Museum in Seattle, or the Museum of History and Industries, or the photo collections of the Tacoma Public Library. Or just the hoard of books, newspapers, magazines, maps and assorted ephemera that I collect to try and recreate the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of that time period.

Science fiction and fantasy authors spend considerable time on “world creation.” With historical fiction, it’s more like world excavation.

BRC: SONGS OF WILLOW FROST shows very vividly the kinds of prejudices --- by whites toward Chinese people in general, and by the Chinese toward actors and actresses --- that flourished during this time period. Were you surprised by the depth of these prejudices as you conducted your research?

JF: Yes and no. By that I mean I was aware of the Chinese Exclusion Act in the late 1800s and the “Chinatown War” in 1871 that resulted in the largest mass lynching in US history, so I had a broad understanding of the early manifestations of racial prejudice. But as a male author, I hadn’t considered the harsh reality of being a Chinese woman during those time periods: to not have a voice, to be regarded as a second-class citizen within an ethnic minority.

Starting Willow’s story shortly after the 19th Amendment passed seemed like the perfect time. Women could vote, the economy was booming, and there was a moment when all things seemed possible (at least for a little while).

BRC: What do you hope your readers will learn about the Chinese-American experience during this period?

JF: I hope they’ll learn something new --- it doesn’t matter what it is. And I hope they talk about that experience with others.

BRC: As a writer who's part Chinese yourself, does writing novels like SONGS OF WILLOW FROST and HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET help you feel more closely connected with that part of your heritage?

JF: Absolutely. As a half-Chinese kid with the last name Ford, I struggled with my own cultural identity. I never felt Chinese enough because I didn’t speak Cantonese like the rest of my relatives, but I didn’t feel Caucasian enough either --- I was perpetually stuck with one foot in both worlds. Writing about my Chinese heritage is a great way to take ownership of it.

BRC: As in your debut novel, you focus on characters --- William and Charlotte, in this case --- who are just on the verge of adolescence. What draws you to write about characters at this age?

JF: I was that age when I first had my heart broken --- from my first crush to moving to a new town and losing my friends to my parents’ tumultuous divorce. I relate well to being young and having your world turned inside out. 

BRC: The novel moves back and forth every several chapters between the Depression Era and the Prohibition Era. Did you write these sections separately, or did you alternate between the two narratives as you wrote?

JF: I always write in a linear way --- start to finish. It would be hard for me to write the narratives separately. It would be like trying to chisel a sculpture of a horse from two pieces of marble, hoping they’d fit together later.

BRC: William, the Chinese boy at the center of your novel, grows especially close to Charlotte, a blind girl at the same children's home. Why did you choose to have Charlotte's character be blind?

JF: The quick answer is that I found it to be really, really interesting. The long answer is that it’s a tip of the cap to the real Sacred Heart Orphanage in Seattle, which was founded by Mother Cabrini, who was later canonized as a saint. One of the miracles attributed to her (if you’re into that sort of thing) was returning sight to a blind girl.

BRC: Performing --- whether on the sidewalk, on stage, in operas, or in motion pictures --- plays a big role (pun fully intended) in this novel. What led you to focus on the idea of performance in the book's plot and themes?

JF: SONGS OF WILLOW FROST is basically a noble romantic tragedy. That concept seemed to mesh with the stage and performance aspects of the story, especially since tragedy was a common theme in the theater and early silent films. Now Hollywood is all about explosions and happy endings. These days, the tragedies in the entertainment industry all seem to be off-screen, in the personal lives of the performers.

BRC: Speaking of performances, I understand that HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET has been adapted for the stage in Seattle. Were you involved in that adaptation process? What did you think of the final product?

JF: Honestly, aside from the words in the book, I had very little involvement, except perhaps to be a cheerleader from the sidelines. They asked for input and that door was always open, but I didn’t want to be another cook in the kitchen adding more salt to the soup.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that I loved the cast, the director, the costume and set designers, even those handling the music and lighting --- they seemed like the perfect adoptive family for Henry & Keiko.

And I LOVED the performance. I thought HOTEL was an okay book, but it made for an AMAZING play. And audiences agreed as evidenced by the show’s run being extended, and all 39 shows sold out.

BRC: What other works --- either fiction or nonfiction --- would you recommend to readers who want to learn more about this era in Chinese-American history?

JF: AMERICAN BORN CHINESE by Gene Luen Yang is an amazing graphic novel and just happens to be a National Book Award finalist. It doesn’t deal specifically with Chinese-American history (it’s so good you’ll forgive me), but it does depict the concepts of assimilation, racial stereotyping, and the never-ending, ever-changing search for identity in a beautiful, magical way.

BRC: Do you plan to continue using Seattle as the setting for your novels? What are you working on now?

JF: For at least one more book. The book I’m working on now (currently untitled, so if you have a great title, let me know) is set between 1909 and 1959 --- between Seattle’s two world’s fairs. The book is based on the true story of a boy who was raffled off as a prize during the first world’s fair. Little is known about this child so I’ve taken it upon myself to tell his tale.

For books beyond this one, who knows? Maybe Seattle, maybe the Horsehead Nebula? You’ll have to wait and see.