In February, fellow What Women Write blogger Julie Kibler invited me to join her at Jamie Ford's author talk and signing at Dallas’ Crow Collection of Asian Art. It was an intimate gathering for an as-yet unknown author, but I figured, if I didn’t like him, I’d get a peek at some fantastic art. Little did I know, the next month his novel would make the New York Times Bestseller list. As it happened, Jamie thoughtfully answered our questions and enthralled us with a short reading from his debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.
Since then, I’ve been reading his Bittersweet Blog and following him on Facebook. He’s a genuinely nice person and kindly agreed to answer some questions.
From his publisher:
In the opening pages of Jamie Ford’s stunning debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Henry Lee comes upon a crowd gathered outside the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle’s Japantown. It has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has made an incredible discovery: the belongings of Japanese families, left when they were rounded up and sent to internment camps during World War II. As Henry looks on, the owner opens a Japanese parasol.
This simple act takes old Henry Lee back to the 1940s, at the height of the war, when young Henry’s world is a jumble of confusion and excitement, and to his father, who is obsessed with the war in China and having Henry grow up American. While “scholarshipping” at the exclusive Rainier Elementary, where the white kids ignore him, Henry meets Keiko Okabe, a young Japanese American student. Amid the chaos of blackouts, curfews, and FBI raids, Henry and Keiko forge a bond of friendship–and innocent love–that transcends the long-standing prejudices of their Old World ancestors. And after Keiko and her family are swept up in the evacuations to the internment camps, she and Henry are left only with the hope that the war will end, and that their promise to each other will be kept.
Forty years later, Henry Lee is certain that the parasol belonged to Keiko. In the hotel’s dark dusty basement he begins looking for signs of the Okabe family’s belongings and for a long-lost object whose value he cannot begin to measure. Now a widower, Henry is still trying to find his voice–words that might explain the actions of his father; words that might bridge the gap between him and his modern, Chinese American son; words that might help him confront the choices he made many years ago.
Set during one of the most conflicted and volatile times in American history, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is an extraordinary story of commitment and enduring hope. In Henry and Keiko, Jamie Ford has created an unforgettable duo whose story teaches us of the power of forgiveness and the human heart.
Joan: Jamie, thanks for agreeing to answer a few questions here. Success has come quickly for you. If you weren’t such a nice guy—we might be stabbing pins into a Jamie Ford voodoo doll. What’s been the biggest surprise for you?
Jamie: Aside from someone actually paying me to write? Hmmm…let’s see, the most surprising moment would probably be a group of ESL students that were reading Hotel in their classroom—students from all over the world: Ethiopia, Sudan, Thailand, Iran, just to name a few. They could all relate to the challenge of trying to assimilate into another culture while retaining their unique identities. They also gave me these really cool hand-made cards, which were lovely.
Joan: That must have been a wonderful moment—knowing your book reached other cultures and touched them in such a way. Hotel is a moving novel—did you really write it in two months? If yes, stabbed voodoo doll will be mailed to you.
Jamie: Well, yes and no. (Hold onto that voodoo doll). I’d actually been researching 1940s Seattle for another book when I wrote the short story that would later become the Hotel. So I’d spent a lot of time––probably six months––researching and ruminating on the time period, the neighborhood, the jazz scene, etc. But when an editor read the short story and encouraged me to write the book, I wrote like a madman—about three months, with a week or two of non-writing in the middle where I flew to Seattle for more research, toured the Panama Hotel and met with historian Doug Chin.
Joan: Okay, we’ll save the voodoo doll for someone else. But what’s the latest on Hollywood? Are you negotiating a bit part into the contract? Will you write the screenplay?
Jamie: Hollywood is strange. Creatively, I’m sure there are incredible screenplays collecting dust while Dumb & Dumberer III gets made. Because of that I’m morbidly curious about the whole process (read: frightened). So far we’ve turned down two small offers on the film option. Both were intriguing, but not intriguing enough, I guess. Hotel is a difficult story to finance from a Hollywood perspective since the three main characters are Chinese, Japanese, and Black—not exactly a vehicle for your chisel-jawed Caucasian movie star, but we’re hoping that the success of Slumdog Millionaire has changed that mindset a bit. And no bit part for moi. I think the Hollywood version of that these days is an Executive Producer credit. I’d probably be better off with the walk-on. And as far as writing the screenplay, I love the control I have when writing novels. A screenplay on the other hand is like a sandbox where all the kids take turns getting dirty. I’m not sure I’d be able to share my toys in that environment.
Joan: I’m sure you’re right about the screenplays collecting dust. Executive Producer sounds good. No bit part, but at least you read your audio book, right?
Jamie: Oh, actually the audio version is read by actor Feodor Chin, but thanks—he has a far better voice than I do, trust me. Back in the day I think there was something sexy about having the author read, but then, some authors are terrible readers, so professional voice talent is used these days––a much better proposition than listening to some drunken, slurring, crowd-shy, Tourrette’s-addled writer who’s better off staying behind a keyboard. I listen to a LOT of audio books, and a great voice can make a book come alive. Mine would probably make dogs howl.
Joan: Hotel visits two time periods—something I’m writing as well. What was the biggest challenge for you? How much cutting and pasting did you do? Not as much as I’ve done, I’ll bet.
Jamie: Not so much really. I found that the narrative ebbed and flowed as my short-attention span waned. What was the question again?
Joan: Well, it worked. I couldn’t put your book down. It truly was a sweet love story. You’ve been fairly close-mouthed on your next book. What can you tell us about it?
Jamie: The juicy good news is that I’ve just agreed to a new contract with Random House, so my new book, tentatively titled WHISPERS OF A THUNDER GOD, is slated for release in early 2011. It’s about a failed Kamikaze pilot, now in his 70s who’s still searching for a noble death—one that will allow his spirit to be reunited with that of his late wife. It’s another historical, multi-cultural love story. Shhh…but don’t tell anyone.
Joan: I love it! But I don’t want to wait until 2011. I’ll never understand this crazy business. What advice can you give an aspiring author in this strange and uncertain publishing market? What do you think of the publishing industry’s current crisis?
Jamie: The best advice I can give to aspiring authors is this: Allow yourself a healthy margin for self-improvement. Keep writing. Consider everything to be good practice. You wouldn’t expect to sit down at a piano and play Mozart the first time. The same rule applies to writing. It just takes practice. As far as the publishing industry’s crisis, I think it’s rooted in an inward self-reflecting style of literary writing mistakenly aimed at other writers (and critics) rather than readers who are looking to be entertained and perhaps educated a bit. If publishers focused more on storytelling and less on performance writing, I think they wouldn’t be losing their battles with television and cinema.
Joan: Great advice and an interesting take on the industry. For self-improvement, do you have favorite books on writing? Tell us a little about Orson Scott Card’s boot camp. Did you have to run ten miles before breakfast?
Jamie: Scott Card’s Characters & Viewpoint was a godsend. It’s a terribly practical read, but really helped break some bad habits of mine leftover from writing for the camera. I stopped writing from the outside in and started writing from the inside out. And his Literary Boot Camp was amazing––and exhausting. With most writers conferences, you bring something you’ve already written, you workshop it, you sit through panels and basically hang out in some resort-like setting with a glass of merlot in your hand. At Boot Camp you start with a blank screen and you write. No show, all go. Then you go through a blood and guts workshop of those stories. It’s tough love at its finest. There were writers there who wrote 9,000-word short stories in two days that were AMAZING (and later published).
Joan: I’m not big on blood and guts, but I’d love to attend one day. You’ve traveled quite a bit since then. How many cities did you visit on your book tour? For your next book, imagine the budget is tight so you’re asked to sleep on friends’ sofas to save money. How many states can you visit if you employ this tactic?
Jamie: Hmmm…(counting)…I think I did 22 events in 16 cities. The funny thing is, I had friends (or relatives), in almost every city, which was fun but exhausting, because we usually ended up going out every night for dessert or a late dinner. And if I did the couch tour I’d probably have a place to rest my head in every city but Chicago. Hello, Chicago?
Joan: Our blog audience will want me to ask this question: How did you snag the wonderful Kristin Nelson as your agent? I love her blog, but I skip over the “what’s playing on the iPod right now.” If I don’t, the songs follow me around all day. And did you really turn down four New York agents?
Jamie: You know, honestly I think Kristin was surprised that I chose Kristin––because it seems that most newbie authors equate New York with success. But I’d always looked at Sandra Dijkstra in California as one of the premier agents in the industry, so the distance/geography thing was really a non-factor. In the end I did turn down those other agents, because Kristin truly understood the book, she understood what I wanted to do with my career, and she’s a well-respected up-and-comer in the industry. I describe her as “relentlessly nice.” She knows her stuff, and don’t be fooled, she’s a strong negotiator, but she doesn’t make you feel like you’ve been in a hockey fight afterwards. Plus she has an insanely diverse taste in music.
Joan: She sounds like a dream. Okay, what’s a question you’d love to answer but no one ever asks?
Jamie: “How did you get so strikingly handsome? Are you single? Is your wife here?” I keep waiting for stalkers, but they just don’t seem to show up at book events.
Thank you so much for joining us, Jamie. We wish you great success and will anxiously await your next novel. Readers, the paperback of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet will be out in October. And if you’d like to leave a comment here, we’ll enter you in a drawing for an autographed copy of the hardback. But hurry; we’ll only take entries from people who comment before midnight on Thursday, August 6, so check back on Friday to see if you’ve won. Be sure your comment links us to contact info for you or contact us at wwwtx6 (at) yahoo (dot) com. Also, unless you're willing to spring for postage, winner must live in the U.S.
UPDATE: The winner of the autographed book is C. I will email you today for your address. Thanks everyone!