Traverse City National Writers Series: Jamie Ford's first novel, 2009's Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, was a surprise New York Times bestseller, providing readers with a tender look at a unique period in American history. Besides national history, Hotel reflects some of novelist Jamie Ford's own family history as well, including his fascination with his home city of Seattle, his passion for jazz, and buried family secrets.
Now, in Ford's much anticipated followup, Songs of Willow Frost, the author tells an equally moving story of a Chinese-American orphan in Seattle during the Great Depression that critics have already called “tender" and "endearing"—adjectives Ford is perfectly comfortable with.
An Asian-American himself with family ties to Seattle’s Chinatown, Ford again artfully mines elements of his own history in Songs of Willow Frost. Set in Seattle in the 1920s and during the 1930s Depression, the book follows the journey of orphans William and Charlotte, who run away from the Sacred Heart Orphanage in Seattle to find the woman William believes is the mother he lost many years earlier. Like his first book, Songs of Willow Frost is a beautifully-told and deeply satisfying story about the universal quest for love, forgiveness, belonging, and family.
I'm thrilled to talk with Jamie Ford at the City Opera House in downtown Traverse City on Monday, September 30 to discuss his fascinating novels and approach to writing. The event begins at 7:00 p.m., with doors opening at 6:00 p.m. For ticket pricing and information, visit nationalwritersseries.org.
Q. In your phenomenal 2009 best seller, The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, the relationship between father and son is central to the narrative. Now, in Songs of Willow Frost, you focus on the relationship between mother and son. Was it your original intention to write novels about each parental relationship.
A. It wasn’t—especially with Hotel. The father and son dynamic just elbowed its way onto the stage (sometimes these things just happen and you go with it). But with Songs of Willow Frost, I did want to write a multi-layered story of complex relationships, of innocent affection, love and longing, and the delicate relationship of a mother and son, both struggling to fill the empty spaces in their hearts. It’s a theme from my own childhood. I always say that if I ever create a custom fragrance it would come in a cracked bottle and be called Abandonment.
Q. Your own background as a Chinese American has clearly been an enormous influence on your two novels. How aware were you while growing up of the struggles of your parents and grandparents, and what challenges did you experience while growing up.
A. I was blissfully ignorant, which is to say that I was a typically self-absorbed, angst-ridden teenager. But by the time I got to college I became aware of how good I had it and how much my parents and grandparents had struggled. I guess I had a bout of, um, what do you call it? Oh yeah—maturity. They didn’t face the kind of racism where you feared for your life, but they were marginalized in where they could live, what kind of occupations they could pursue, they could see The American Dream but could really only enjoy the leftovers. But still, they made the best of the worst of times, which perhaps is fundamentally American.
Q. In light of stories in the news recently of Chinese women undergoing surgery to become "less Asian," how do you think perception of Chinese Americans has changed or improved?
A. Argh—the plastic surgery thing. Honestly, that just creeps me out. Especially Asian pop stars that have those procedures and all end up with a homogenized, Valley of the Dolls look. I guess the fact that those elective surgeries are so common shows how far we’ve come but how little has changed. In fact, we just crowned a Miss America of Indian ancestry and the Internet exploded with an avalanche of racist tweets. Sadly, that kind of says it all.
Q. Your own creative life didn't start out as a novelist. Was becoming a writer always your creative objective? Or did you decide to become a writer later in life?
A. It happened later. As a kid I wanted to be Jack Kirby, or Stan Lee, or Steve Ditko—I wanted to be the next great comic artist. I was one of those Holden Caulfield type kids, brooding, with a sketchbook in hand. But I also wrote a lot of story ideas (and some epically bad poetry) in those sketchbooks. So I guess I’ve always been a writer, even when I didn’t think I was—if that makes sense? Later, after graduating from art school, and when I was working as a designer and art director, I was still writing on the side, just to have a creative sandbox that was all my own. Eventually, I moved into the sandbox.
Q. In Songs of Willow Frost, your protagonist is young William Eng who lives at the Sacred Heart Orphanage in Seattle The idea of orphanages, as in John Irving's Cider House Rules for example, are fascinating, often quite melancholy places. What drew you to the orphanage setting for Songs of Willow Frost?
A. It wasn’t the orphanages themselves, per se, but the idea that these were transitory orphans—kids with parents who had consigned them to places like Sacred Heart, with plans to return one day. That seemed even more heartbreaking to me—the thought of a parent being forced to give up their child was too interesting to ignore.
Q. From your research, how have orphanages of the 1930s changed or evolved to those of today?
A. Honestly, there are so many social programs built into today’s society that orphanages are almost a thing of the past. We have foster programs, receiving homes, guardian ad litems as advocates of children who can’t legally represent themselves, it’s a night and day difference. But the problem has evolved from one of economic abandonment to one of poor parenting—drug abuse, physical abuse, neglect, that kind of thing, which is equally sad (if not more so).
Q. Songs of Willow Frost features a number of current or former real-life Seattle historical locations—including the Sacred Heart Orphanage and Wah Mee Club. How important is it for you to be historically accurate when you feature real locations in your novels?
A. Since I’m writing fiction I might change small physical details (or make assumptions based on research), tweak geography slightly, do little things that propel the narrative, but I try to be 100% true to the spirit of the place.
Q. You have a large and—from the looks of your social media accounts—happy family. How has your own family influenced your decisions as a writer and storyteller.
A. The one question that has come up recently with Songs of Willow Frost has been, “how can a male author write women so well.” (Cue Jack Nicholson’s answer from As Good As It Gets). I think this is where my large family comes into play, because I have four daughters. Plus my wife is a woman. And I’m pretty sure my mother was a woman—so women surround me. Plus, with a big complicated family you gain an appreciation for big complicated family problems, which is what I love to write about.
Q. Music, movies, pop culture, television have clearly been an influence on you as a person. How do those subjects affect your writing, which has often been described as "wistful", "sentimental", and "heartfelt"?
A. The type of entertainment one consumes can be a mirror, reflecting the kind of person you are. It’s an interesting exercise in self-discovery. I looked at the movies I enjoyed most, the music I listen to, and there’s a sentimental aspect to it. That’s part of how I became comfortable as a writer—just accepting that I was a weird, sensitive, precocious kid, and allowing myself to be a weird, sensitive, precocious adult. I mean, I tear up at sad movies, sad books, sad … Burger King commercials … it’s just who I am.
Q. You grew up in Seattle, also the setting for your books. Where are your favorite places in the city?
A. They’re all in Chinatown: From the Panama Hotel, to the Four Seasons, a restaurant where I used to have dim sum on Sunday mornings with my grandparents. I also love the Kinokuniya Bookstore, the Mon Hei Bakery, and The Wing Luke Asian Museum. The place as a whole, the sights of old balconies, and flags, the smell of fish and BBQ, the sound of old men shuffling mahjong tiles, the ferry horns in the distance—it’s my favorite place, without a doubt.