Interview: Author Jamie Ford
By: Melissa Slaughter
Jamie Ford’s debut novel Hotel on the Corner Of Bitter and Sweet was not just a National Bestseller and a widely recognized work of art, it also changed my life.
In 2002, I performed a production of Hotel in Seattle, WA at the Book-It Repertory Theatre. I was 24 years old, in my first union (read: professional and paid) show, and was immersed in an Asian-American community for the first time in my life. There’s a podcast recording of me telling the story of bursting into tears at our second rehearsal on the podcast RISK! Over the course of two months, I made connections, friends, and mentors that would shape my identity and my life as a whole. And there’s Jamie to thank for that.
To me, Jamie’s books about hope and love. Whether it's childhood crushes that last a lifetime, or a child’s love for their long-lost mother, Jamie always manages to find love and light in the dark. It’s easy to get bogged down in the sorrows of the world, but Jamie’s stories are refreshing. Truly, who else writes about love stories in Japanese Internment camps or about 1910’s orphanages and film stars? Just Jamie, making him a singular sensation.
Besides being a writer, he’s also a speaker, a philanthropist, a father, and a genuinely nice person. He was kind enough to speak with us about Hotel, his viral moment, and his new book Love and Other Consolation Prizes.
You have a fascinating family history. Can you tell us how you got the last name Ford, and what your childhood was like?
My great-grandfather came to the US in 1865. His name was Min Chung, but he later changed his name to William Ford. It’s like someone coming to this country from Pakistan and changing their name to Chuck Norris—it’s just a red-blooded American name. His son, George Ford, became an American citizen by birth (thank you, 14th Amendment) and the Chinese Fords have been here ever since. I’m proud to say that we’ve been here longer than Donald Trump’s family.
My childhood was…hmmm…a strange exercise in embracing and breaking stereotypes. I did grow up in a very Chinese-American household, as far as décor, and my dad ran a Chinese restaurant. He also taught martial arts on the side. So, it was a bit cliché, but my dad broke the norm when he married a Caucasian woman. Growing up, I didn’t realize how unusual that was for the time period. But in retrospect, it was quite remarkable, because the only two Chinese men I knew who had white wives were Bruce Lee and my dad.
What got you into writing, and what inspires your stories/characters? Has being Hapa influenced your writing? If so, how?
I was always a weird kid. I was an artsy kid. My parents sent me to Poetry Camp—that kind of thing—and they encouraged me to go to Art School, which I did. But I was always writing. I look back at my old sketchbooks from high-school and they’re filled with story ideas and the World’s Worst Teenage Love Poetry®. Seriously, take the worst songs from the Bay City Rollers, slow them down, and sprinkle them with crushed candy hearts and that’s what I was all about. It’s amazing that I ever managed to attain a non-imaginary girlfriend.
Inspiration-wise, I’m a big fan of lost history. Or more accurately, the history we tend to forget, or hide. So, I like to turn over those rocks and look at the squishy things underneath. Also, being Hapa, I’m always trying to reconcile my own identity. I like to explore the periods of assimilation by my own family. What was it like, to live in a redlined neighborhood? What was interracial marriage like before Loving vs. Virginia made it legal in 1967? If you look into your family’s past, your mind will be blown by what they had to endure.
All of your novels are period pieces in Seattle, WA. What is it about the history of Seattle that interests you so much?
I live in Montana now, but I really miss Seattle. Not the Seattle of today, because I’m there all the time. I miss the Seattle that I grew up in—the somewhat sketchy, derelict, pawn-shop and porn-theater filled Seattle, a thoroughly dirty, rainy, blue-collar paradise. But that Seattle died in the late 80s. It always reminds me of a song lyric by Jason Isbell that goes: “Daddy said the river will always bring you home, but the river can’t take me back in time, and Daddy’s dead and gone.” That’s how I feel about Seattle.
You and I met at the Book-It Repertory production of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. As an actor, it provided me with my first interaction with an Asian-American community, and it was a powerful to be telling my own family story through your lens. Now that you've began adapting Hotel as a play, an upcoming musical, and a movie, what has it been like for you as the writer to see your work adapted?
It’s been surreal.
First and foremost, that production at Book-It was AMAZING. You guys rocked it. And it made me aware of what representation might look like for Asian Americans, telling their stories to a large, mainstream audience.
The musical has been magical, honestly. When the producers sent me demo songs, I was so prepared to not like them. I love musicals and can be fairly critical. But I pressed PLAY and proceeded to ugly cry all over my keyboard. They nailed it––the music, the lyrics, and they’ve brought so much more to the story.
Movie-wise, I’m equally excited, but Hollywood is more problematic. I get the sense Hotel, as a film, is tied to the fortunes of Crazy Rich Asians, which comes out in August. If that film is fire at the box office, Hotel will be very viable. If Crazy Rich Asians tanks, it’s going to be an uphill struggle to produce a movie with a predominantly Asian cast. I hate that that’s the way the world is at the moment, because the movie John Carter lost $200 million dollars and last I checked they haven’t stopped making films with all-white casts.
I'm a huge nerd, and I know you are too. Please tell us more about your steampunk and superhero short stories!
Thanks for asking! Really, I just want to write all the things. So when a friend who is a science fiction author asked if I’d like to write about the end of the world, I said, “YES, I definitely want to write about that!” But I do like history, so my stories are Asian-themed steampunk set in Seattle. They’re in the Apocalypse Triptych, a three-volume anthology. I’ve also published some crime noir, and have stories coming out this fall, once is dystopian and the other middle-grade horror.
The superhero stuff appears in Secret Identities and Shattered, which was Asian American comic anthologies. Oh, and I do have a story in Last Night a Superhero Saved My Life, about Daredevil, Elektra, and losing my virginity. TMI?
Last year, a month after Trump was sworn as President of the United States, you were basically trolled at a high school, and they cheered for Japanese Internment. This same high school had an alumni caught on camera singing a racist chant at his fraternity SAE (he has since been expelled, but the fraternity has returned to the campus.) Can you tell us more about that, what the aftermath has been, what have you seen change in the year that's passed?
I was just talking about this to someone yesterday. It was a very nice place, but also a mono-culture. This is a neighborhood that didn’t have a black homeowner until 2003, so there are some old-school prejudices just beneath the surface and they happened to manifest the day I was there, and for a while after as kids were calling me a “chink” on my Facebook page. Now it’s just the occasional “Fuck You,” so it’s nice to see things have improved.
Your third novel, Love and Other Consolation Prizes, comes out soon. What can you tell us about that novel?
If you enjoyed Hotel, you’ll love this book. It’s based on a true story, about a boy who was raffled off at the 1909 World’s Fair in Seattle. It’s another multicultural story of love and loss. Oh, and it’s set in a brothel. So, there’s always that.
The last, most important question. Since we met in Seattle, where are your favorite places to eat in Seattle?
Ohhhh…all my favorite places are in the International District [writer’s note: International district encompasses Seattle’s Chinatown, Japantown, and Little Saigon], though I’m somewhat crushed because Phnom Penh close, which had amazing Cambodian food. Maneki is great if you like sushi served with a side of history and topped with nostalgia. House of Hong for Dim Sum. Kau Kau for BBQ. Bush Garden for Karaoke. Green Leaf for Vietnamese (though I’m always wondering how many people think it’s a weed dispensary). I’m also curious about The Knee-High Stocking Company, which is a speakeasy that serves Filipino food. Okay, now I’m really hungry. Where shall we go?
END OF INTERVIEW
Melissa has lived in all four time zones in the contiguous United States. A former actor in Seattle, WA, Melissa now resides in NYC as a content creator. She is the producer of the We're Not All Ninjas podcast, which she also hosts with fellow Hapa Mag writer, Alex Chester. Melissa also writes for online blogs Nerdophiles and The Nerds of Color. Find her @NotAllNinjasPod.