It’s what aspiring novelists dream of: Their first book finds a publisher, is released to acclaim and sells a ton of copies.
That is Jamie Ford’s story. His debut novel, “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” released in 2009, was a New York Times bestseller, won the 2010 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature and has been translated into 34 languages. (On his website, jamieford.com, Ford said he holds out hope that “Hotel” will be translated into Klingon. At that point, he wrote, he’ll know he’s made it.)
Ford spent his early childhood in Ashland, Ore., before his family relocated to Seattle when he was 12. He now lives in Great Falls, with his wife and children.
Ford will be at Auntie’s Bookstore in Spokane on Wednesday to read from his new book, “Songs of Willow Frost,” which is set in 1920s and Depression-era Seattle. It centers on William Eng, an orphan who goes to the movies and becomes convinced that one of the actresses he sees on screen, Willow Frost, is really his long-lost mother, Liu Song. He begins a journey to find her and discover the secrets of his own past.
As part of our occasional 5 Questions series with authors, we emailed with Ford about the pressures of following up a hit book and the inspiration he finds in the Pacific Northwest.
Q. Your first novel did exceptionally well. Was there much pressure, either internal or external, to follow up “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” with a bang?
A. I’m well versed in the philosophies of failure, so I wasn’t worried about that, per se. But the potential for grand, flying toward the sun, melting your wings and plummeting to Earth as a cautionary tale to others – that kind of public-spectacle failure was new to me. So yeah, there was a wee bit of pressure. (Here we go, once more unto the breach, dear friends …)
Q. Where did the idea for “Willow Frost” come from?
A. Research-wise I had been splashing around in Depression-era Seattle for a while. Because that was when my grandparents met at a back-room gambling parlor. My grandfather was a blackjack dealer and my grandmother was a coat-check girl. Now people meet on Match.com, which doesn’t seem nearly as interesting.
Q. What were the challenges in writing “Willow Frost”?
A. “Willow” was a concerted effort to write something that was, in places, terribly sad – a story of heartbreak, while everything else in my life was going so splendidly well. The dichotomy was quite daunting. It was all I could do to keep from prettying up the story with rainbows and unicorns.
Q. Your roots run deep in the Northwest. What is it about this place that inspires you in both your writing and your everyday life?
A. To me the Northwest is very pensive place. Partially it’s the weather, the dampness, the chill, the bundling up in sweaters and scarves, stepping on wet pinecones, the smell of wood-smoke – it’s a sensory place that lends itself to introspection. And part of it is the people. There’s a confluence of cultures and identities in the Northwest that can make you feel included one day and isolated the next. I love the kind of rich, beautiful melancholy that comes with all that, not just as a writer of fiction, but also as a person who likes to feel stuff.
Q. You live in Montana, yet in writing both novels you tapped into your previous life as a Seattleite. Any plans to write about Big Sky Country?
A. I think authors tend to write about what they lament – for me, that’s the Northwest. It’s funny because Ivan Doig grew up in central Montana, lives in Seattle, and writes about Big Sky Country. I’m the exact opposite. When I finally met him and shook his hand I thought we might have some kind of matter/anti-matter explosion.