A somewhat-serial visitor to our blog (Joan interviewed him here in 2009 after he appeared at the Crow Museum of Art, and Elizabeth shared his impending visit to Richardson Reads One Book in 2011 here), Jamie Ford once again graciously agreed to answer a few questions about his new book Songs of Willow Frost as he visits Dallas tomorrow night at Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas.
From his publisher:
Jamie Ford, New York Times bestselling author of the beloved Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, presents his much-anticipated second novel: Songs of Willow Frost.
Twelve-year-old William Eng, a Chinese American boy, has lived at Seattle’s Sacred Heart Orphanage ever since his mother’s listless body was carried away from their small apartment five years ago. On his birthday—or rather, the day the nuns designate as his birthday—William and the other orphans are taken to the historical Moore Theatre, where William glimpses an actress on the silver screen who goes by the name of Willow Frost. Struck by her features, William is convinced that the movie star is his mother, Liu Song.
Determined to find Willow and prove that his mother is still alive, William escapes from Sacred Heart with his friend Charlotte. The pair navigates the streets of Seattle, where they must not only survive but confront the mysteries of William’s past and his connection to the exotic film star. The story of Willow Frost, however, is far more complicated than the Hollywood fantasy William sees onscreen.
Shifting between the Great Depression and the 1920s, Songs of Willow Frost takes readers on an emotional journey of discovery. Jamie Ford’s sweeping novel will resonate with anyone who has ever longed for the comforts of family and a place to call home.
Advance praise for Songs of Willow Frost
“Ford is a first-rate novelist whose bestselling debut, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, was a joy to read. With his new book, he takes a great leap forward and demonstrates the uncanny ability to move me to tears.”—Pat Conroy, author of South of Broad
“This is a tender, powerful, and deeply satisfying story about the universal quest for love, forgiveness, belonging, and family. If you liked Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, you’re going to love Songs of Willow Frost.”—Lisa Genova, author of Still Alice
Welcome back, Jamie! We’re excited to get our hands on this new novel. How was the writing process for this book different from Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet given your touring schedule to promote the novel, cramped autograph hand, constant posing for photos, paparazzi and all?
The process was quite similar. About six months of research and then three months for the first draft—which is identical to Hotel. And like with Hotel, I didn’t show it to anyone until I was done, then it went to the Holy Trinity of my writing life: My wife, my agent, and then my editor.
You shared that when you wrote Hotel, you were actually writing another book at the time and stopped to tell the story of Henry and Keiko after writing a short story about them. Then you mentioned your next book was going to feature a Kamikaze pilot and yet now we have William and Willow. Is it poison to mention a book before it’s finished or do you think it’s just best to keep an open mind about what story needs to be told when?
I’m not really superstitious about these things, and I’ve always been fairly transparent about what I’m working on. People ask, so I share, and sometimes the subject of that discussion changes. I wrote Hotel and then was working on another book when William and Willow showed up and said, “Um, excuse me, but we really think you should tell OUR story next.” Who am I to argue with my imaginary friends?
Was there a particular event that inspired Songs of Willow Frost?
Not exactly an event, but a place, which has a minor role in the book and that’s the Wah Mee Club, which is the backroom gambling parlor in Chinatown where my grandparents met. My grandfather was a blackjack dealer and my grandmother was a coat-check girl. My research began around that place, during prohibition and the Great Depression. Once I had a better understanding of the place, time, the social dynamics of that era, I was able to wind up the characters of William and Willow and turn them loose.
I glimpse some similarities in the two novels—the Seattle setting, childhood friendships between a boy and girl, alternating time periods, the need for family connections. Do you think these storytelling elements speak to you for any particular reason?
I gravitate to young protagonists because that was the age when I first felt heartache—from that first crush, to losing friends, to seeing the cracks in the foundation of my parents’ marriage. And all of those complex emotional dynamics were introduced to me in and around Seattle—it’s an emotional well that I keep returning to, and will write about for at least one more novel. Then who knows, once I’ve exorcised my Seattle demons maybe I’ll be ready to move on to another city, another location. How’s Cleveland these days?
I'm not sure Cleveland has the same charm as Seattle, but who am I to judge? I wanted to share that I read Hotel with my book club and then with the book club I coordinate at a retirement village—thankfully we were able to find it in large print, audio AND in German (for one resident who prefers to read in her native language). I wish you could have been there to hear some of the stories they shared about the internment camps they witnessed. Has one experience in particular from a reader stayed with you? I’m sure you get emails and hear comments at book signings.
Wow, where do I begin? I was invited to the Minidoka Reunion (and I went, of course). That was incredible, and they even had a karaoke night where former internees sang "Don’t Fence Me In." Another special moment was receiving a handwritten letter from Monica Sone who wrote Nisei Daughter in 1953, the first book to really address the Japanese Internment. I happened to have a first edition hardback of Nisei Daughter (with dust jacket) and Monica, who was ninety-one at the time, didn’t have a copy in hardback. I was delighted to give her mine.
How generous of you to share that with her! Although I'm not at all surprised given the amazing trip you took with your family this summer. Do you see any of your adventures showing up in your writing anytime soon?
Those weeks in the bush village of Pommern (Tanzania) were amazing. And watching my kids work in the schools and the AIDS clinic––Wow, that was the proudest, happiest, most satisfying experience ever. I don’t think that trip will spill into my fiction anytime soon, but it definitely changed who I am and how I see the world. And my wife is going back in November with another nurse.
What a wonderful way to spend time with your kids. Thanks, Jamie, for stopping by the blog again!
Join us at Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas tomorrow night, September 19. The 7 p.m. presentation is free; a reception featuring Jamie is $30 (signed book included). Register for the reception at HPUMC.org (search for “Jamie Ford”).