Having recently read and reviewed Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, I am thrilled to present this interview with the book's author, Jamie Ford.
1) Welcome, Jamie! Let's talk about the inspiration behind Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. I learned from the interview at the back of the book that this novel started out as a short story about the "I am Chinese" button that Henry Lee, the protagonist, wears, which was actually worn by your own father, who was 100% Chinese. This became the third chapter in your book. Is that your favorite chapter? You also have a chapter called, I Am Japanese. Did you plan that in advance? What or who else inspired you to write this novel?
JF: Hmmm . . . I probably don't have a favorite chapter in particular, but that one certainly feels like an old friend. As far as the chapter entitled, I Am Japanese, I was probably channeling a lifetime of people asking me if I was Korean, or Japanese, or Native American, or . . . Russian. Not sure how I'd be mistaken for Russian, but it's happened. Not a big deal really. I'm sure there are plenty of Finns mistaken for Swedes, and Scots mistaken for Irishman.
As far as inspiration, one taproot that I rarely talk about is my adoptive grandfather, James Eng--one of the finest people I've ever known. His relationship to my grandmother was very similar to Henry's relationship with his own wife--loyal and devoted, despite a lot of history that wasn't always perfect. Which is probably why I named Henry's wife Ethel, after my grandmother.
2) Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is told in the split narrative: past (1942, 1945) and present (1986). In the first chapter, it's 1986 and there's a large crowd at the Panama Hotel (a real hotel in Seattle and surviving landmark of Nihonmachi, Japantown) as the discovery of the belongings of thirty-seven Japanese families is announced. This really happened, and the belongings provide a time capsule of the war years. This discovery makes Henry remember his long lost love, and we remember how cruel this episode in American history was, when Japanese families in America were evacuated to internment camps. Do you think people today have forgotten about the Japanese internment, and has America made enough reparations?
JF: As far as reparations, I think so. But I wasn't personally affected so it's not really for me to say. But from a distance, and having done a lot of research, I think the redress--the apology itself--was worth more than any monetary payment. It allowed families that had avoided discussing these events to begin a dialog, with their children, with their friends and neighbors, which allowed for healing and closure.
But the other question, do I think people have forgotten? Sadly, yes. I've had scores of readers write in telling me that they never really knew much about the internment. I've had reviewers doubt the veracity of the internment experience as depicted. I even checked my daughter's 8th grade history book--which has two short paragraphs about the internment, in a book of 600+ pages.
But then again, I went to Marcus Whitman Junior High, and I have no recollection of who Marcus Whitman was or what he did, so America's forgetting their history is not limited to aspects of social justice.
3) In the book, Henry meets Keiko Okabe, a pretty Japanese girl with chestnut-brown eyes, at the all-white Rainier Elementary School. As the only Asians at Rainier, they are teased and taunted. Henry and Keiko forge a special friendship which turns into young love (they are only 12 when they meet). Was it difficult to write about such a young, "Romeo and Juliet" type of relationship? Does the fact that their association is forbidden by Henry's father make it more intense and appealing to Henry?
JF: Funny you should ask. I had one agent offer representation but only if I agreed to make Henry and Keiko eighteen, so they could, "Fully explore their relationship", as this agent put it. I just didn't want to go there. I wanted to retain a very simple innocence, it was easier and less complicated. It's not that I couldn't write a sweatier version of HOTEL, I just didn't think that approach was warranted. I wanted the love story to be all-consuming, not all consummating. Regarding the second question--for the reader, a cross-cultural love story is more intense and appealing, but for poor Henry, it was probably his worst nightmare. He fell in love with a girl, she just happened to be Japanese. I don't think he went out of his way to ruin his father's expectations, it was just a byproduct of assimilating into western society.
(It's a sweet love story precisely because of their innocence. And it's clear in your book that Henry doesn't set out to fall for a girl of the "wrong" nationality--it just happens.)
4) Music plays a prominent role in your book. Henry is obsessed with jazz music. He covers his school books with old jazz-club fliers, befriends a street musician, Sheldon Thomas, and loves the music of Oscar Holden, who's considered to be the patriarch of Seattle jazz. Is this part of the story autobiographical? If this novel were made into a movie, what songs would need to be included on the soundtrack?
JF: I always get asked if I'm a jazz aficionado, and I have to confess that I'm more of a blues-man--I love Taj Mahal and Buddy Guy. But for me, the jazz in HOTEL is emblematic of the passage of time. Of gentrification and loss. At one time South Jackson boasted 38 jazz clubs. There were orchestras, which shrunk into combos and quartets, then trios, and finally piano bars. Now, when most people think about Seattle jazz, they think about Kenny G, and that breaks my heart. If there were a movie soundtrack it'd need to be a Duke Ellington kind of arrangement, but sung by Erykah Badu, who I love and whose voice is a dead-ringer for Billie Holiday. And of course a few numbers sung by Oscar Holden's daughter, Grace, who still performs in Seattle.
(Shorter questions now!)
5) Obviously you did a lot of research for this book. How did you go about researching?
JF: The first thing I did was to buy a map of Seattle, circa 1939, off of eBay. I just needed to see what the place looked like, before the district was bumped south and before I-5 bisected the neighborhood Then I dove into all kinds of non-fiction books, spent time at the Wing Luke Asian Museum in Seattle, met with Doug Chin, a local historian. I got my feet dirty walking in the streets and alleys. I also spent hours in the basement of the Panama Hotel itself, which was a fascinating and humbling experience.
6) Any "secrets" or advice for aspiring writers?
JF: Brandon Sanderson said it best: Allow yourself to suck. You wouldn't sit down at the piano and expect to play Mozart, would you? Of course not, you sit down and plink away at Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star and work your way up. The same rules and expectations apply to writing. So many aspiring writers try to play Mozart right away and when they can't they throw up their hands and say, "I can't do it, I don't have any talent, I'm not a writer". Writing is a craft that needs to be learned and practiced. There are no wasted words. Keep writing.
7) Is there another book in the works? (Fingers crossed!)
JF: Nope, I'm done--nothing but ghostwriters for me from here on out. Okay, I might have another book in the works, and it might be called Whispers of a Thunder God, and it might be about a student conscript who becomes a kamikaze pilot, and it might be another love story, and it might happen to hit shelves in early 2011. Just sayin'.
And I might need to read it! Thank you so much for doing this interview, Jamie.
Special thanks to Lisa from TLC for helping to arrange this interview. For more interviews with Jamie, as well as reviews and giveaways of his book, visit the other stops on TLC's Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet book tour. To enter my giveaway for this novel, please visit my review.