This month’s guest reader is New York Times bestselling author Jamie Ford. His novels plunge readers into the Pacific Northwest of decades past, as experienced by characters whose Asian heritage was a source of personal strength, even as it sometimes divided them from society.
Inspired by a Superhero’s Death
What makes a writer? In Jamie Ford’s case, he had known he wanted to tell stories for a long time. In an interview with Bill Kenower for the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, he explained that reading about Jean Gray’s (Phoenix/Dark Phoenix) death as a young man in X-Men #137 turned him on to deeper stories and their potential impact. He wasn’t the only one. After X-Men #137, people sent funeral wreaths to Marvel Comics’ headquarters in New York City, mourning Jean Gray. “Suddenly, characters for me had souls… Those characters were unforgettable.” And certainly timeless, as Marvel’s continued popularity at the box office proves.
Still very much a fan of fantasy and science fiction—though trying to write in that genre didn’t work out for him—one of Jamie Ford’s favorite things is a manual typewriter (seen below) he purchased that belonged to science fiction grandmaster and friend Harlan Ellison.
An Unfinished First Novel
Before Jamie Ford became a bestselling author, he had a successful, award-winning career in advertising, both writing copy and working with visuals. Yet he knew he wanted to write fiction with memorable characters. His first novel, never published, he describes as a kind of course in learning his craft. For several years, he went back through the manuscript, rewriting three and a half drafts, before eventually deciding to move on with a different project, having felt he had outgrown the subject of that nascent work.
Mr. Ford had been taking writing classes and attending workshops often while continuing to work in advertising. His focus changed when his father died. It was then that he decided to use his writing to connect with his Asian-American roots. His great-grandfather, Min Chung, had immigrated to San Francisco in 1865. Min Chung took the name William Ford and pursued a mining dream in Nevada. Jamie Ford’s short stories started to embrace his family connections.
Bitter and Sweet
Jamie Ford’s first published book, which began as a short story, followed Asian-American family themes of loss and change and became a beloved bestseller. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet recreates Seattle in the 1940s. In a society gearing for war, Asian children lived with the barely veiled fears of the adults around them. Two 12-year-old children—Keiko, a Japanese-American girl, and Henry, a Chinese-American boy—attend a private school on scholarship where all the other students are white. Their parents hope this will give them a better education and make them fit in more with mainstream America. Young as they are, they steal each other’s hearts (as well as the readers’) as they explore Seattle together until Keiko is ordered to a Japanese internment camp. Many years later, circumstances force Henry, who has lived a full life—though not one without regrets—to relive his memories of their innocent, doomed love.
A Brittle Fame
The author revisited the difficulties Chinese-Americans faced in his next book. William Eng, living in a Depression-era Seattle orphanage, has only a few memories of his beautiful mother, who the nuns assure him died in a home for the insane. But William isn’t so sure. When a day out at the movies brings him directly into contact with her glamorous image on the silver screen, William becomes determined to find her. No matter what. Songs of Willow Frost conjures the elusive, shining Hollywood glory and its particularly high cost for minorities, such as Sessue Hayakawa, “Stepin Fetchit” (Lincoln Perry), and Anna May Wong.
A Raffle for a Boy?
Jamie Ford's most recent book is based on a true story. Love and Other Consolation Prizes brings us back to Seattle, this time for the 1909 World’s Fair. Chinese-born Ernest has already escaped two brutal destinies. Now considered an orphan, he is raffled off by a charitable organization in the naïve hope of finding him a good home. The good home he acquires is surely the charity organization’s worst nightmare. Years later, Ernest is considering how to answer his journalist daughter’s questions about his time at the World’s Fair, and so the story unfolds.
Love and Other Consolation Prizes is being released September 12.
Below are books Jamie Ford recommends to our readers:
These days I’m in a guys’ book club called Books & Brews, and each year we try to add at least one graphic novel to our middle-aged reading repertoire. This is my favorite and one I’m always pushing––a poignant graphic memoir about first love, and loss.
Darkly comic and masterfully written, this is one of those books that defies categorization. Like a richer, more textured version of Confederacy of Dunces, with a bit of Thomas McGuane and Tom Robbins thrown into the mix. It’s your classic, coming-of-age tale, like the journey of Holden Caufield, but in a warped, blue-collar Twilight Zone.
This book was banned from my high school library, which made me immediately want to find it and consume it. This was the first time that I realized books had the power to scare people—specifically parents. These were the same parents who had us kicked out of the library for playing Dungeons & Dragons after school. They said we were worshipping the devil. Because that’s where you do it, you know, at the library.
Do you remember the line from the movie Pretty Woman where Richard Gere says, "People's reaction to opera the first time they see it is very dramatic. They either love it or hate it. If they love it, they will always love it. If they don't, they may learn to appreciate it, but it will never become part of their soul." This book of poems is a part of my soul.
Pat once said, “The greatest gift a writer can ever receive is an unhappy childhood.” If you’ve ever read The Great Santini, My Losing Season, or The Prince of Tides, you’ll know that for Pat, growing up was Christmas every day. I discovered Santini as a teenager and it was salve for the scars my own father left on my psyche. Also available as an eBook.
Hillary is a dear friend and I must confess that I didn’t read this book when it came out. Sometimes author friends just don’t read each other’s book—it’s too intimate, like seeing each other in a state of undress. But, when I finally opened the pages of this haunting novel, I was swept away, enraged, heartbroken, and utterly beguiled. It’s not a surprise that this book will be hitting theaters soon and whispered among Oscar voters. Also available as an eBook, as a book club kit, and on audio CD.
In adding this book I’m betraying the sense of brokenness I felt as a young man. What can I say? Even as an adult I still love a beautiful, steaming cup of melancholy. This book shattered my heart and put the pieces back together again in better working condition.
The most memorable thing I read all of last year was this (massively award-winning) short story by Ken Liu (who is a once-in-a-generation talent). The Paper Menagerie beautifully encapsulates the hopeful, sacrificial dynamic between a parent and child.
Another self-revelatory read, this is one of those profound novels that changes the way we remember those closest to us—the way we loved them, or the way we took them hopelessly for granted. You have to be a certain age to fully appreciate this book. (And you get extra credit for having lost a parent). Also available as an eBook, in large print, as a book club kit, and on audio CD.
Before the current trend of dystopian, post-apocalyptic books for young adults, there were The Tripods. I read this series in the 5th grade and the poignant, sacrificial ending has haunted me ever since.