When debut novelist Jamie Ford wrote Hotel On The Corner Of Bitter And Sweet, he had little idea of the publishing success it would become.
Telling a deceptively simple story of unrequited love across the decades,Â Ford succeeds not only inÂ his storytelling, but also in the fascinating details he unearths of a troubled time in Seattle’s history. Hotel On The Corner Of Bitter And Sweet takes place both in the present day and during the War years, when Seattle’s Japanese residents were interned in heavily guarded camps in the name of national security. The historical details are both shocking and remarkably prescient of our current paranoia.
In our exclusive interview Jamie Ford talks about his inspiration, his experiences as a debut novelist, and his forthcoming sophomore novel.
Dan Coxon: What made Hotel such an essential story for you? Why did you feel that you had to tell this story, rather than any other?
Jamie Ford: I won’t dance around it – I wanted to shamelessly write a love story. Not a chest-heaving bodice-ripper where the damsel describes the hero’s turgid man-sword, but a noble romantic tragedy if you will. And the Japanese Internment seemed like a wonderfully complex backdrop, and a story that had never been told through the eyes of a Chinese character.
Personally, I also wanted to explore certain aspects of my own family history. Like the character of Henry, my father wore an ‘I Am Chinese’ button shortly after the bombings of Pearl Harbor because white kids thought he was Japanese and would throw rocks at him. And my grandfather used to talk about the jazz scene on South Jackson Street, which is no longer there. There were so many juicy avenues to explore.
DC: Were you surprised when Hotel received the widespread attention that it did? Did you envision it as primarily a Seattle story when you were writing it?
JF: I was gobsmacked. I still am. As I’m writing this Hotellet pÃ¥ hjÃ¸rnet av Bitter & SÃ¸t is the #1 book in Norway. Who knew that a love story about a Chinese boy and Japanese girl would be so popular in a land known for lutefisk? And it’s still bizarre to occasionally see a reader ‘in the wild’. I was swimming on Kauai and a woman was reading a copy of Hotel poolside. My wife urged me to go up and offer to sign her book, to which I completely chickened-out. Of course I was dripping wet and didn’t exactly have a pen stuffed in my board-shorts.
As far as Seattle as a locale, that was a must. Beyond the old maxim about writing what you know, or knowing what you write, I have a deep affection for that part of town. Some of it’s amazing, some of it’s ugly, but it’s still a part of me.
DC: You’ve mentioned before that you’ve written some short stories featuring the same characters. What made you decide to do this? Will we ever get to see them?
JF: Hotel was really my ‘training wheels’ novel. I consciously wrote it from only one character’s point-of-view (Henry Lee), even though that view is in two time periods, one as a young boy and one as an adult. It was like juggling with only one ball, I figured that if I kept the narrative simple I wouldn’t drop anything. But I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with the characters of Sheldon, Mrs. Beatty, Keiko, even Bud from Bud’s Jazz Records. I guess I wanted to give each of them a turn in the spotlight. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. Right now the plan is to put those stories together into a collection of some sort, possibly with a novellaâ€”the story of Henry’s four years in China.
DC: Given that Hotel was your first novel, what surprised you about the novel-writing process?
JF: Process-wise, I was surprised at how potent a little positive feedback can be. Hotel began as a short-story, but at a writers’ conference I met with an agent and an editorÂ who both encouraged me to turn that 30-page vignette into a novel. Up to that point I’d been writing in a vacuum, so that kind of encouragement and validation was narcotic. I left the conference, went home, unplugged the TV, and had a finished draft three months later. Beyond that the hardest part has been finding time to write between book events. I spent 100 nights on the road last year – that was definitely unexpected.
DC: And what have you learned from that experience?
JF: Umâ€¦that frequent fliers always get the exit row? I probably shouldn’t have said that. Now the Stasi from Delta Airlines is going to show up in a black van and take me away. Actually, what was painfully apparent is that general knowledge of the Japanese Internment wanes the further you drift from the West Coast. To the point where I was in Chicago and a woman came up to me and said, “I taught high school history for 30 years and we never mentioned the Internment.” It’s natural to have a blind-side to some less-than-pretty moments in our history, but c’mon – we locked up 110,000 people, the majority of which were American citizens. Academically, I think knowing that is more important than remembering who invented the cotton gin. (You just thought of Eli Whitney, didn’t you?).
DC: And finally… what can we expect to see from you next? Is there another book in the pipeline?
JF: Writing my second book was like giving birth to a nine-pound baby, sideways. But I finally delivered. My editor has the new manuscript as we speak. It’s another historical, multi-cultural love story, set in Seattle and Japan, tentatively titled Whispers Of A Thunder God. No release date yet, but I think we’re looking at late next summer, so stay tunedâ€¦
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