Jamie Ford conducted his interview with BookPage while crouched on the floor of the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, seeking good cell reception and a pocket of quiet. While he briefly worried he might look like a homeless person lying on the floor of an international airport, he more or less embraces the whirlwind that comes with life on the bestseller list.
“I’m grateful in all kinds of ways,” Ford says. “I could spend less time in airports and be happy, but it’s a good problem to have.”
The author of 2009’s fantastic debut Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (which has sold more than a million copies) is now beginning the road show to promote his second novel, Songs of Willow Frost, a similarly sadness-tinged story also set in historic Seattle. When we talked, he was on his way to speak at an Asian-Pacific American conference in Washington, D.C., but some of his favorite travels are more off the beaten path. He joined a discussion with a homeless book group in Madison, Wisconsin, and another group at a women’s prison in rural Washington state.
“Readers are readers,” he says, in a casual way that makes him sound less like a successful author and more like someone you’d want to have a beer with.
In the haunting Songs of Willow Frost, Ford tells the story of William Eng, a young Chinese-American orphan in 1930s Seattle, a time that was high on joblessness and low on hope. William lives in an orphanage run by strict nuns (were there any other kind then?) since his sick mother, Liu Song, was taken from their small Chinatown apartment. When the head nun takes a group of boys to see a movie, William is convinced the delicately beautiful actress on the screen is his mother.
“[S]he wasn’t just wearing makeup, she was Chinese like Anna May Wong, the only Oriental star he’d ever seen. Her distinctive looks and honeyed voice drew wolf whistles from the older boys, which drew reprimands from Sister Briganti, who cursed in Latin and Italian. But as William stared at the flickering screen, he was stunned silent, mouth agape, popcorn spilling. The singer was introduced as Willow Frost—a stage name, William almost said out loud, it had to be.”
“I gravitate toward stronger females. I married an alpha female and we’re raising alpha daughters.”
William runs away from the orphanage to find Willow Frost, who is performing in a series of concerts around the Pacific Northwest. When he catches up with her, he finds out the brutal truth about his past and what happened to his mother all those years ago.
Liu Song is a singularly strong character whose story lingers after the book ends. Ford doesn’t know any other kind of woman.
“I gravitate toward stronger females,” he says. “I married an alpha female, and we’re raising alpha daughters. My grandmother on my Caucasian side was a Southern woman who cussed like a sailor and chewed snuff.”
Ford’s father’s family is of Chinese heritage, and his paternal grandmother, Yin Yin, was so strong-willed, he says, that she renamed Ford’s cousin just because she wanted to.
“My cousin Stephanie didn’t know her name was Delores until she was 16 and went to get her driver’s license,” he says. “That was just Yin Yin.”
Ford and his wife have four daughters and two sons between them—“We’re a Brady Bunch family”—three of whom still live at home. He is, admittedly and happily, outnumbered by strong women.
“Once a month I go to the store and buy tampons and Ben & Jerry’s,” he says. “It’s my offering to the gods.”
The backdrop of show business in Songs of Willow Frost also comes from Ford’s own family. His grandfather was a Hollywood bit actor and martial arts instructor.
If William and Liu Song are the novel’s main characters, Seattle plays a close third. Ford paints an amazingly vivid picture of a long-gone place and time, a city that smelled of “seaweed drying on the mudflats of Puget Sound,” inhabited by men standing in line for free soup and bread. It is a lovingly and beautifully rendered portrait of his hometown (Ford lives in Montana now), but he isn’t blind to Seattle’s quirks and pretentions.
“The first things you think about—traffic, Starbucks, Amazon—are things that aren’t always great stuff,” he said. “It’s the land of Whole Foods and utility kilts. I shop at Whole Foods—I bring my own bags. They’re just made out of baby seal skins. I think it’s the most literate place in America, and it’s very polyethnic. But it’s also a city that’s freighted—it’s the passive-aggressive capital of America.”
Having set two novels in Seattle, he may branch out in the future so he doesn’t get pegged as a one-town guy.
“I don’t want to be like Woody Allen—every movie set in New York City,” he says.
In fact, he had another novel already written after Hotel on the Corner, but he ultimately shelved what he called “an angst-filled second novel that I was really second-guessing. It stirred my well of self-doubt.”
He decided it was filled with what he deems “performance writing”—writing for other writers or critics.
“That very inward-looking writing, I blanch when I see it,” he says. “No one needs to read a 14-page sentence. It seems indulgent to me, that black belt-level literary stuff. I just want to disappear into the story. Luckily, there’s room for all appetites.”
Ford is part of a men’s book group. If that sounds daunting for the other members, think again.
“I’m just one of the guys there. It’s better for all concerned,” he says. “Several of the guys are English literature majors and their reading taste is far above mine.”
Ford gathers himself as his flight time nears, cheerfully noting one small perk of spending time on the floor of an airport.
“I think I’ve collected $1.75 in change,” he said. “I’m halfway to a Starbucks.”