I think I first heard about Jamie Ford’s new book “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter And Sweet” sometime last year from Oregon poet, Lawson Inada, who told me it took place in Seattle’s International District. I later found out Ford was living in Montana but had passed through Seattle and was part- Chinese American.
He told me the idea for the book was partially triggered by an event he read about in the papers about a woman at the Panama Hotel who discovered the basement where Japanese Americans had left their belongings in haste as they were ushered into the internment camps when WW II broke out. That incident suggested a story and so he begin to weave a tale of a romance between a young Chinese American boy and Japanese American girl set against the turbulent backdrop of a changing Seattle, set in the Chinatown/International District amidst a swirling
nightlife of jazz clubs and speakeasies.
Recently Doug Chin, fervent local Chinatown/ID historian and former IE Board President brought Ford’s book back to my attention. He said he tried to get a copy of the book from the Seattle Public Library downtown and found that there were over 350 people on the waiting list. I checked it out and discovered that this little book about a teenage romance in our neighborhood had become a bestseller of sorts, topping out on the list at the New York Times, translated in over 8 countries and currently a bestseller in Taiwan. I figured it was about time to sit down and catch up with the author and go over what had transpired in the year since the book’s been out. I caught up with Jamie Ford on the road on yet another leg of his endless book tour and here’s what he had to say.
Q: How do you explain the surging popularity of your book? Is it the story itself that fascinates people and the fact it’s a cross/cultural story that hasn’t really been told before?
A: Is it surging? Cool!! This is a shoot-from-the-hip analogy (but a true story): I have a friend that is a karaoke maniac. He has a killer voice, he can dance, he looks great, and he enters all these local karaoke contests and always comes in second—to the same person. This other guy walks in, doesn’t dance, and he just sings the same song every time, Faithfully, by Journey, and the crowd eats it up. I think a little of that is going on, in that HOTEL is a fairly traditional love story, something that most people can relate to. But it’s told through atypical characters. Also, for a lot of readers, I think the historical and cultural aspects make the book feel somewhat educational, and less of a guilty pleasure, which also helps its appeal to book groups—so I’m told.
Q: What experiences have you had touring the country and reading from the book? Have different audiences reacted in different ways?
A: It’s been interesting in that everyone seems to have a related story to share. Either directly as a sansei or yonsei son or daughter of someone directly affected by the Japanese Internment, or by people that had friends and neighbors affected. Even if their story is just, “I taught history in high school for 30 years and the internment was never in our text books,” those kind of stories. Everyone has an interesting angle or entry point into the events in the book, which I think is really cool. Audiences on the West Coast tend to have more people in attendance with direct experience, but everyone that understands the basic fundamentals of civil rights seems to be able to appreciate the book.
Q: Do they understand the whole concept of Asian Americans in other parts of America?
A: Well, there’s still a much older generation that lumps all Asian Americans under the banner of “Orientals”—but there’s no malice to the term, it’s just a generational thing (I think). Beyond that, I’ve been touring in fairly urban areas where there’s a healthy mix of ethnicities, so people seem fairly acclimated to at least the basics of Japanese and Chinese American cultures.
Q: What about the whole friction between Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans during World War II? Or the whole history of internment for Japanese Americans?
A: The old enmity between Japanese and Chinese communities does come as a surprise to most. The Internment, not so much, though the depth of that knowledge varies from “well-read”, to “I heard about it but had no clue.”
Q: Any plans to turn your book into a movie?
A: There have been a couple of offers on the film option, from some wonderful people, but we’re sitting tight for a while. We’re hoping that the wider circulation of the book through its trade paperback release will open a few more doors. Stay tuned.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: It’s a story about a failed kamikaze pilot, now in his 70s, who is still searching for a noble death, one that he believes will allow his spirit to be reunited with that of his late wife. It touches on some cultural flash points, like Japan’s eta (burakumin) communities, comfort women, and Yasukuni Shrine. The main characters are Japanese and Taiwanese. It’s another historical, multi-cultural love story.
Jamie Ford will return to Seattle on Oct. 20 to read from the book at the Panama Hotel in an event hosted by Kinokuniya Books. The reading is at 7 p.m. at 605 1/2 South Main. (206) 223-9242. Another reading on Oct. 21 is at Third Place Books at 17171 Bothell Way NW in Lake Forest Park. (206)223-9242.