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Interview: September 14, 2017

Jamie Ford, whose debut novel HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET is being adapted into a film, returns with a new work of historical fiction. Inspired by a true story, LOVE AND OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES is about a boy whose life is transformed at Seattle’s 1909 World’s Fair. In this interview conducted by Carol Fitzgerald, the president and co-founder of The Book Report Network, Ford discusses his inspiration for the novel, the social issues that are explored here (specifically class in its many forms as an underlying theme), and his penchant for writing strong female characters. He also talks about his decision to add titles to his chapters, why his original title for the book, “The Consolation Prize,” had to be scrapped, his tendency to overdo it when it comes to his research, and what readers can look forward to seeing from him in the near future.

The Book Report Network: LOVE AND OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES is framed against a backdrop of two World’s Fairs --- the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909 and the Century 21 Exposition in 1962. In your Author’s Note, you mention that in the course of your research, you learned that there was a child named Ernest who was raffled off by the Washington Children’s Home Society in 1909. Tell us how you found this nugget and then realized that this was the story you wanted to write.

Jamie Ford: I was trying to sell one of my sullen, eye-rolling, selfie-taking teenagers to the circus, and figured there had to be some kind of legal precedent. Who knew that I would find one while looking at old newspaper articles about Seattle’s forgotten world’s fair in 1909? One particularly unsubtle headline read: “SOMEONE WILL WIN BABY AS PRIZE.”

As a researcher (and as a parent), it was hard to ignore.

TBRN: There are so many social issues that are explored in this book. Ernest’s life in China was filled with abject poverty, and the opening of the book, where his mother struggles to care for him and his baby sister, is sad and chilling. His mother says, “Only two kinds of people in China. The too rich and the too poor.” Class then only had to do with financial status. Then we also have people of color in Seattle, where there is strong prejudice against them. And then there are women like Madame Flora, who ran their illicit places like businesses, at a time when women typically were not working in management or powerful roles. I am seeing class in its many forms being an underlying theme in this book. Was that something intentional from the start, or did it happen along the way?

JF: The bits about social class were like nuts baked into a cookie. They aren’t the whole confection, but their essence affects the flavor. So I couldn’t write about 1909 without reflecting class structure because it was so endemic at the time. Also, this was just a few years before the sinking of the Titanic spotlighted how people on different rungs of the socio-economic ladder had fared in that disaster (with 61% of those in first-class surviving, compared to 24% in third-class).

Ironically, I’m writing this on a Delta flight, where I was just upgraded to the first-class cabin. So far there have been no icebergs.

TBRN: The brothel where Ernest lives is high class. The girls there have elocution lessons, as well as classwork and music. Their visit to the Fair was considered their “final exam on the intricacies of proper manners, decorum, restraint, and etiquette.” I assume that this kind of a high-class house was rare. Was it modeled on any that you researched?

JF: Madame Flora and the Tenderloin is based on Madame Lou Graham and her famous high-class brothel located at the Washington Court Building in Seattle’s Pioneer Square. That sporting parlor, once frequented by the mayor, the city council and the police chief, is now a men’s gospel mission. I stopped by recently for a tour, and there’s still a room with layers of hand-painted wallpaper from the early 1900s, winking at you from the past.

TBRN: One night at the brothel, Jewel’s virginity is auctioned off to the highest bidder with frenzied activity surrounding it. As Ernest watches, he remembers the feelings he had when he was auctioned away. Right before this scene at the Tenderloin, Ernest encounters Mrs. Irvine, who had brought him to the auction block at the Fair, along with a group known as “the Mothers of Virtue.” She encourages him to leave “the nightmare” that his life has become. Instead the police escort her away. He remembers his time in the home as not being “all good.” There’s a real exchange of power here, as well as a look at what is right vs. wrong and good vs. evil. As you were structuring the book between the stories in 1902, 1909 and 1962, were you looking at balancing the “power” as well?

JF: I always say that “the hardest choices in life aren’t between what’s right and what’s wrong, but between what’s right and what’s best.” This is one of those moments for Ernest. He makes a seemingly simple decision, but one that will forever alter the trajectory of his life. Fahn and Maisie are put to similar tests --- where it’s the forces of the outside world vs. personal agency. I think that’s what growing up is all about --- a series of crossroads, between the external and the internal. And they’re never black and white decisions.

TBRN: Juju, Ernest’s daughter, is a reporter/newspaperwoman who wants to unravel the story of the boy from the World’s Fair. Along the way, she learns something about her mother that is shocking. Her research clearly is as detailed as yours. Again we have a strong female character being explored in the next generation. What do you like about writing these bold female characters?

JF: I think it’s a reflection of my real life, as I’m surrounded by strong women --- my wife, Leesha, and our four daughters. Basically our house is an estrogen holding tank waiting to explode. In fact, this book is dedicated to my daughters. When they graduated from high school, I wanted to skip “Pomp and Circumstance” and play “Ride of the Valkyries.”

TBRN: I love that The Panama Hotel from HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET is layered into this book. Did you always know you would slide that into the story, or did it come up by happenstance?

JF: You know, I didn’t really plan on it, but since this tale is set in 1909 and that was when the Panama Hotel opened, it seemed like a natural, contemporaneous thing to do. Also, there’s a minor character, Dr. Luke, who appears in all three of my Seattle novels --- so it’s safe to say all three books occur in the same literary universe.

Dr. Luke was a real doctor, by the way. He served Seattle’s Chinatown for decades.

TBRN: You look here at neurosyphilis and the way it can mimic Alzheimer’s, which was so interesting. Can you tell us more about this?

JF: Plot-wise, I needed a disease that messes with memory. My wife, a biology major and nursing professor, suggested tertiary syphilis. (Thanks hon, for being an STD expert!)

I also remembered an episode of “House” where an 82-year-old woman had the same late-stage illness. It was treatable, but had damaged her cerebral cortex, so her personality changes (in this case, they were positive) had become permanent.

It sounded fascinating, for what was a fairly common disease at the time.

TBRN: Each of the chapters in the book is titled, which is something that not all authors do. These titles are so clever and made me think about what to expect I would be reading. Did you come up with these chapter titles as you wrote, or did you go back to do them later? Along these lines, was the book’s title always “Love and Other Consolation Prizes”?

JF: I add chapter titles as I’m writing, mainly to help orient myself as I’m scrolling through a 380-page document. I think there’s a certain utility in leaving them in. There’s a weird perception in the publishing world that chapter titles are somehow less literary. But there’s also a famous literary novel called THE KINDLY ONES, which is 900 pages with no paragraph breaks. So I take what is and what isn’t literary with a grain of salt.

My first book title was “The Consolation Prize,” but a quick Google search revealed that there are no less than 10 books of erotica with the same title.

So I either had to change my title or add a lot more sex scenes.

TBRN: I was surprised to see that there still are World’s Fairs held around the world. There is one in Kazakhstan this year and Dubai in 2020. I remember attending the World’s Fairs in New York (which I just learned was not an officially sanctioned one) and Montreal. Have you ever attended one?

JF: I haven’t. While I was in college in the late ’80s, the World’s Fair took place in Vancouver, British Columbia. I was a few hours away in Seattle, but I was a broke college student, so attending was beyond my economic means. Now that I think about it, I did make it to Vancouver twice in college, but to see U2 and David Bowie. No regrets.

TBRN: You clearly love research. Do you write while you research, or are the two tasks kept separate? Is there ever such a thing as too much research?

JF: I do 90% of my research before I start writing, and could probably use a research intervention because I tend to overdo it.

In my second novel,SONGS OF WILLOW FROST, I have this character, Sister Briganti, listening to Father Coughlin’s show on the radio. He was basically the Rush Limbaugh of the Depression. Sure, it would have been expedient to just make up a radio program as that detail isn’t germane to the plot, but I think historical fiction becomes real when you take the time to add all those details. Also, while on tour a woman came up to me and said, “I wrote my doctoral thesis on that show!” I live for those weird moments.

TBRN: HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET has sold more than two million copies. You have spoken about that book around the world --- at libraries, bookstores, women’s organizations and book groups. What are some common takeaways that have reverberated through those discussions? Has anything surprised you along the way?

JF: The greatest takeaway is that readers are readers, no matter their geography or social circumstances. I had inmates in a men’s prison in Washington ask me the same questions that a book club asked at a country club in Florida, which were the same questions posed by my Iranian editor.

It’s amazing how universal stories can be.

TBRN: As I was writing these questions, we learned that HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET is being adapted into a film, and we see you are co-writing the screenplay. Congratulations! What can you share with us about this news?

JF: I’m hoping we make it to the big screen, but either way I’m just trying to enjoy the journey. To meet George Takei, or spend time with various directors, has been like a master class in filmmaking. I’m enthralled by the process, but hyper-aware that my latest draft of the screenplay may ultimately be taken over by someone else, and I’m okay with that, as long as I get a front-row seat from which to keep learning.

TBRN: Can you share anything about what you are working on now, or are you still waiting for a story to come to you?

JF: The next book is a secret at the moment, though I’m well into the research and have traveled to the Seattle area to do interviews.

But another little project I’m working on is a pitch for a new Green Lantern to DC Comics. They have a new line of YA graphic novels, so I’m working on a little something. In the brightest day, in the blackest night, no deadline shall escape my sight…