Jamie Ford: Blending culture and Seattle history

‘Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet’ author to speak in Edmonds
By Brian Soergel | Mar 08, 2018
Courtesy of: Jamie Ford Jamie Ford will speak in Edmonds on March 9.

Jamie Ford, with three novels set in Seattle, admits his experience with Edmonds begins and ends with catching the ferry.

But Ford has spoken in the area before, most recently in February 2013 when he packed Edmonds Community College’s Black Box Theatre for a reading and Q&A regarding his best-known novel, his 2009 debut called "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet."

The book was the college’s 2012-13 Edmonds CC Community Reads selection.

So when the New York Times bestselling author speaks Friday, March 9, at the Edmonds Library, he’ll be making his debut in a town known for its literary traditions and the annual Write on the Sound Writers Conference.

Ford’s appearance is part of the library’s new “After Hours” series. He will sign copies of his books, which also include “Songs of Willow Frost” and his latest, “Love and Other Consolation Prizes,” released in September.

Ford was amenable to shedding light on his writing process, seeing as how the city’s annual writers’ conference features a number of workshops for aspiring scribes.

“I start with a premise, and do a ton of research,” he said in a phone interview. “That can lead to a different story, or putting the story on steroids. New tangents will jump out, as will new characters.”

He hasn’t outlined any of his stories – so far.

“But I spend a lot of time on my entry point and exit point, and what I want the emotionality of the story to be like. And then I make up the juicy middle. And that’s what I’ve done for the last three books. But the next book I’m working on, I actually am outlining everything. I’m doing it to try something different.”

In fact, the author – raised in Seattle but now living with his wife and children in Great Falls, Montana – is not opposed to employing various methods to aid his creative process. During the interview, he broke off in the middle of a sentence.

He laughed as he explained the pause.

“I was looking at this wall where I have all these Post-it notes for a book I’m plotting out, and my wife has come along and added her own, funny Post-it notes sprinkled throughout. I just realized that.”

Write tight

Ford doesn’t underestimate the importance of revision and editing in the writing process.

“I edit as I go,” he said. “I don’t tend to write a vomit-on-the-page kind of draft, where you fill in the blanks later. I just can’t move on to the next chapter unless the previous chapter is really tight.”

As with any author skilled enough to have a publisher, Ford said he understands the importance of the editor, something writers can fail to grasp.

“There’s a bump in aspiring authors who think the editor will rewrite the book for them. And that’s not the case. You really have to write a tight, salient, clearly understandable draft. An editor takes something really polished, and makes it better. Some focus on the plot, some on the sentence level, and some in-between.”

Sometimes a first draft is just that, Ford said. An editor may tell a writer to turn it into a better draft.

“An editor keeps you from making a fool of yourself. With me, I overwrite sometimes, and my editor tells me to trust the reader – you don’t need to explain this three times.”

New book

Ford’s latest, “Love and Other Consolation Prizes,” is another of the author’s blending of love, assimilation and abandonment themes in coming-of-age stories set against a backdrop of a grittier Seattle, before gentrification and hipness.

The story is set during the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909, Seattle’s first world’s fair. Largely forgotten today and overshadowed by the 1962 World’s Fair, it took place at the University of Washington.

“Every time I dove into research, I would bump up against casual mentions that a 3-year-old boy was raffled off as a prize,” Ford said. “And it was infuriating, because there was never enough information.”

The author reimagines his take on the story, aging the boy to 12 years old. The boy – who is half-Chinese – is raffled off to the madam of a high-class brothel, where he makes friends with the madam’s precocious daughter and bold scullery maid.

“Love and Other Consolation Prizes,” while telling its story, also shows how Seattle – a city very much on the frontier – was home to a vibrant red-light district in Pioneer Square and points south that was intended to have the world’s largest brothel. That came to an end after Seattle’s anything-goes mayor, Hiram Gill, forced prostitutes to pay his police chief a monthly fee – among other indiscretions – which helped lead to Gill’s recall.

“The city was also colliding with the suffrage movement,” Ford said. “It just seemed like a culture at the crossroads.”

Popularity of “Hotel”

Ford, 49, is Chinese-American – his father is of Chinese ancestry, and his mother of European descent. His last name comes from his grandfather, Min Chung, who changed his name to Billy Min Chung Ford.

Jamie Ford debuted with the award-winning “The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” which centers on a Chinese-American boy, Henry Lee, and his relationship with a Japanese-American girl, Keiko Okabe, in the International District, before Keiko is sent to an internment camp during World War II.

The story also takes place 40 years later, where Henry is trying to reconnect with his grown son after Henry’s wife, Ethel, dies. The story concludes with a reunion between Henry and Kiko in New York City.

In addition to exploring lost love and familial themes, the book also is a love letter to Seattle’s International District. But it also joins David Guterson’s “Snow Falling on Cedars” in showing how the misguided internment of Japanese-American citizens affected people and families in the past and still among us today.

Ford said his research made it clear that there were many aspects of the internment that he didn’t fully understand. One reason why his story has resonated (it’s been translated into more than 30 languages), he feels, is that society in general today is hungry for stories about cultures that diverge from their own.

“If it were written in the ’50s, I don’t think there would have been a broadly Caucasian audience that really cared about the experiences of someone who’s different,” he said.

“Culturally, we’re moving into an area where people want to read a book about someone who is from Syria, for example, or has a different cultural, spiritual, historical context. We’re more of an open society now, and those avenues weren’t traveled for many decades.”

After Hours at the Library with Jamie Ford

Where: Edmonds Plaza Room, 650 Main St. (above the Edmonds Library)
When: 6:30 p.m. Friday, March 9. Edmonds Bookshop will be selling copies of Ford’s books.
Admission: Free
Information: 425-771-1933
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