An Interview with Jamie Ford: The Intersection of History and Fiction
Jamie Ford can’t help but get history stuck in his fiction. His debut 2009 novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet became a bestseller, on the strength of its story of a Chinese-American boy in wartime Seattle. For his 2013 follow-up Songs of Willow Frost, he dipped even deeper into Washington history, stirring up a tale of abandoned sons and movie queens during the Great Depression.
Asked to present a new work at Humanities Washington’s Bedtime Stories fundraiser on October 17 in Spokane, Ford took this year’s Bump in the Night theme and ran with it … all the way back to Spokane near the start of World War I. Event attendees are in store for an intriguing tale!
“I started doing a little bit of research into some urban legends of the area, and one thing led to another, and I ended up writing another historical piece based on a little tiny bit of nonfiction,” Ford says with a laugh.
Ford became a designer and art director before turning completely to fiction. Raised in a Chinese-American family — his family name was legally changed from Chung by his immigrant great-grandfather — Ford grew increasingly fascinated with the West Coast Chinese experience. For instance, the protagonist of Hotel, Henry Lee, must wear a button that says “I am Chinese” to distinguish himself from the Japanese-American citizens being rounded up for internment. Ford’s own grandfather wore just such a button in the World War II years.
When not summoned back to Washington, he lives in Great Falls, Montana, where he’s at work on his third novel. As to the historical roots of that Bedtime Stories piece, “There was a very famous man, a very wealthy industrialist guy, who vanished in 1914. It’s kind of riffing on what happened to him.”
Humanities Washington: Your fiction to this point has been very Seattle-centric. What led you to settle in Great Falls?
Jamie Ford: I’ve been in Great Falls for fourteen years, I guess. I was actually in Hawaii for a couple of years, doing work related to Hawaii tourism, and I got recruited away to work on Montana tourism. That was the day job. But I really wanted to carve out part of my life so I’d have more time to write, and I could do that in Montana, where I don’t have any kind of commute.
I think Montana really suits me, because it’s where I want to be when I’m not sitting at my keyboard. I think I left Seattle in ’93 or something like that. And when I left, I was on Bainbridge Island, the housing thing was exploding, and people couldn’t afford to live on the island. I go back a lot, about eight or nine times a year — that’s where my family still is. I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to live there, but I’m on the board of a museum, I have all kinds of book things there, and it’s really easy to pop over.
HW: Is it easier to write about a place where you no longer live?
Ford: Totally. I’ve learned that writers write about what they lament. Ivan Doig grew up around where I live currently, and he’s lived in Seattle for many years, but all his books are set in Montana. I live in Montana and my books, including this third one, are based in Seattle. The first time I met Ivan in Portland, I thought when I shook his hand we’d have one of these Freaky Friday exchanges where we just jump into each other’s body. But people ask me when I am going to write about Montana and I don’t know if I ever will.
HW: Your stories include a lot of real-life buildings, clubs, and locales that existed in old Seattle. What are your sources for research?
Ford: A lot of useless digging, truly. I like history and I read a lot of nonfiction just for pleasure, and occasionally I’ll be working on a book or story and there’ll be a little thread of history. And you tug on it, and more, and more, and more comes unwound.
The book I’m working on now is about the first (Alaska-Yukon Pacific Exposition) World’s Fair that was held in Seattle in 1909. I [have always been] intrigued by that time period. The setting is now the University of Washington, and I’ve always wondered what it must’ve looked like. Just going through some research on the fair, there’s a mention of a boy who was raffled off in 1909. No one knows what ever happened to that kid — so that’s what the new book is about.
HW: Do you keep mementos from your historical studies?
Ford: Sometimes. Weird things will come up, and it’s not necessarily a historical item — there are other, stranger things. Like when I wrote Hotel and it had been out on the market for a while and sold quite a number of copies, I had a third cousin pop up who had my grandfather’s black belt. He just emailed me out of the blue with, “Hi, I’m so and so, we’re related like this, and forty years ago I was given this belt by your great aunt and I think it belongs more to you than it does to me.” Little things like that happen — doors open that never would’ve opened otherwise. The general research stuff, it’s never that sexy out of the context of a story, perhaps.
HW: On Twitter, you discovered school kids reading Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet for their school assignments. Some had complaints. What is the experience of instant criticism like?
Ford: I love it in two different fashions. Basically, Hotel gets read in a lot of schools and it’s on a lot of summer reading lists…so I get perverse pleasure out of growing up and becoming someone’s homework. I think that’s hilarious.
On the other side, there are tons of kids who absolutely love it, saying things like, “This is the first book I was forced to read that didn’t absolutely suck.” That’s a real compliment from a sixteen-year-old. That’s awesome.
I remember being in high school and having to read The Scarlet Letter and other books I couldn’t stand, but then I would discover something and say, “Holy crap, this was written just for me!” If I could just be that catalyst for a couple of high school students, that would be fantastic.