A transient hotel-turned-time capsule was the perfect springboard for Jamie Ford to make what some might have seen as a great leap backward – from steady-earning ad designer to uncertain-income fiction writer.
Now, riding the great leap forward of his first novel, “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” the 41-year-old Montana author is mulling a movie deal and cranking away at a second book as he and his wife, Leesha, rear their blended family of six children.
“She really was my first reader on ‘Hotel,’ ” Ford says. “Before that, I was taking chapters to this open mike night and reading them to really just a bunch of drunken poets.”
He still does readings, when he’s not doing book signings and interviews in New York, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles or Seattle – where most of the action in his book is set.
“Hotel,” the flashback, flash-forward love story of a Chinese boy and a Japanese girl during World War II and how they reconnect after a surprise discovery in 1986, came out in January. Within three months, the book was in its second printing and sales reported to Ford were about 40,000 to 45,000 copies – extraordinary for a new author, especially with little notice in major newspapers or magazines.
A prepublication review in Publisher’s Weekly dismissed “Hotel” as a “strained debut” and “disappointing read” with “numerous cultural cliches.”
But since then, the book has been recommended by Barnes & Noble, Borders, Costco and IndieBound, and rights have been sold in Chinese, German, Dutch, Italian and Portuguese. And there’s interest in a movie version, Ford says.
“It’s not an obvious Hollywood movie because there’s no major Caucasian character,” he says in an interview from his home in Great Falls.
Henry Lee and Keiko Okabe meet at age 12 as cafeteria workers at a private school where they are the only nonwhite students in 1942. It is months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States is at war.
Her parents, fully acculturated Americans, encourage the budding friendship. His, Chinese nationalists who communicate almost entirely in Cantonese but demand that their only child “speak your American,” stop talking to him when they learn of the relationship.
Aided and protected from racist bullies by Sheldon Thomas, a saxophone player who goes from daytime street musician to steady work at jazz nightclubs, and Mrs. Beatty, a chain-smoking, truck-driving, tenderhearted tyrant who runs the school lunchroom, Henry keeps seeing Keiko and her family after they are sent to a Japanese American internment camp. Shortly after he turns 13, he visits Keiko, only to part for 44 years.
Ford’s painstaking attention to real-life times, places and circumstance evokes the tumultuous wartime crosscurrents of fear, hope, ethnic tension, commercial greed and stubborn compassion, with enough power to sweep a reader through a fairly predictable plot and its sometimes unevenly drawn characters.
More than mere backdrop, the sights, sounds and smells of Seattle’s Chinatown and Nihonmachi (the Japanese quarter at the time), the nearby South Jackson Street jazz clubs where Quincy Jones and Ray Charles got their start, and the dancing-on-cars euphoria when World War II ends are harnessed in a spare, narrative style.
“I’m a self-taught writer, so I’m always sort of reluctant to talk about the craft of writing,” Ford says. “I’m sort of a minimalist. I think most people can connect the dots. … I like to set the scene minimally and then kind of let them complete the picture.”
James Mark Ford was born in Eureka, Calif., his father Chinese and mother white. His grandmother called him by the Chinese name Ja mei, hence the nickname.
His great-grandfather, Min Chung, adopted the name of a noted outdoorsman, William “Billy” Ford, after coming to the U.S. from Kaiping, China, at age 15 in 1865. Ford’s grandfather used the screen name George Chung as a movie extra in the 1950s and was a consultant for the 1970s television series “Kung Fu.”
Soon after Ford’s first birthday, the family settled in Ashland, Ore., then moved again when he was 12 and his father got a job at a Chinese restaurant in Port Orchard, across Puget Sound from Seattle, where his father’s family lived.
Ford earned an associate’s degree in design from the Art Institute of Seattle, spent three years as art director of a chain of weekly newspapers, then landed a job at Augustavo Burris Advertising Inc. in Seattle.
When he showed up for work on April 1, 1991, he was told the firm had lost a big client and would not be hiring him after all.
“April Fool’s Day. … Sadly, it wasn’t a joke,” he recalled in his blog.
After a few months of freelance ad work, Ford worked as an art director and collected an impressive number of advertising awards and honors. By then, he was thinking about fiction writing.
He started by riffing off the experience of his father, who, like Henry in the book, wore a button that read “I Am Chinese” as a child to avoid being mistaken for Japanese after Pearl Harbor. The resulting vignette, “I Am Chinese,” was published in the now-defunct Piccolata Review in 2006.
That year Ford went to Buena Vista, Va., for a writers boot camp run by science fiction author Orson Scott Card, who suggested he create “a noble romantic tragedy.” A reworked version of “I Am Chinese” was selected as a finalist for Glimmer Train’s 2006 short story award for new writers and wound up as a chapter in “Hotel.”
The next year he left advertising, figuring to return in two years if writing didn’t pan out.
The novel began coming together as Ford was researching the robbery and killing of 13 people in 1983 at Wah Mee, a Chinatown gambling den where his grandfather once worked. He stumbled onto an unrelated article about a discovery at the Panama Hotel, built as lodging for immigrant Japanese laborers in 1910.
As in “Hotel,” a woman bought the long-closed landmark in 1986 and found in the basement the personal effects – scrapbooks, kimonos, dolls, records, paintings and photographs – of 37 Japanese families who placed them in storage before being interned during the war and never returned.
“Hotel” has whetted Ford’s interest in the World War II era – “I love the period and I love the research” – and he’s eager to spin off some short stories featuring Sheldon Thomas, Mrs. Beatty and perhaps Keiko’s father.
For now, though, he’s about 300 pages into a second novel, tentatively dubbed “Whispers of a Thunder God,” a love story featuring a former kamikaze pilot seeking a noble death in the 1990s so his spirit can join that of his Formosan wife at a shrine in Tokyo.
Much of the action is again set in Seattle, and his wife is his first editor. Ford says she doesn’t hold back.
“She’s a writer herself,” he says. “She’s just wicked smart and she’s very honest about it.”
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