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Originally published September 9, 2013 at 5:05 AM | Page modified September 9, 2013 at 2:41 PM

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Jamie Ford writes about ‘a different world’ — 1920s-’30s Seattle

Seattle Times book editor

Meet the author

Jamie Ford

The author of “Songs of Willow Frost” will chat with readers and Seattle Times book editor Mary Ann Gwinn at noon Tuesday at seattletimes.com. He also appears at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle; $5 (206-652-4255 or townhallseattle.org).

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Lit Life

To understand how deep author Jamie Ford’s roots go in Seattle’s Chinatown International District, consider this: His grandfather was a croupier and blackjack dealer at the infamous Wah Mee club; his grandmother was a coat-check girl.

The Wah Mee is long gone, closed after a 1983 shooting there that left 13 people dead. But memories of the place survive, as does the surrounding neighborhood.

Ford mined the district’s history for his first book, the best-selling “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet”; it’s a key location for his new novel, “Songs of Willow Frost” (Ballantine), the story of a talented young Chinese woman and aspiring film star who must send her son to an orphanage in order to protect him.

Ford returns to Seattle this week to launch his book tour. He will take readers’ questions from noon to 1 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 10, in a live chat on The Seattle Times website, and will appear at 7:30 p.m., also Tuesday, at Town Hall Seattle.

In this Q&A, the Montana-based author answered some questions about the inspiration for “Willow Frost:”

Q: “Willow Frost” is set in 1920s and 1930s Seattle, a tough time for many people. What drew you to the city in that era?

A: I was attracted to that time period because that’s when my grandparents met each other. There was always a salacious underbelly to the ID; I was always intrigued by that.

Q: It also features the film industry as it moved from silent films to talkies, as well as minority actors’ difficulty in getting major roles.

A: I was fascinated by film stars of the era; Sessue Hayakawa, Stepin Fetchit (Lincoln Perry) , Anna May Wong. In silent films, it was OK if you didn’t speak English all that well.

Q: How did you get the idea for the story?

A: I wrote a 12-page short story and read it at a Humanities Washington “Bedtime Stories” dinner. It was a very serious piece ... but I could see that everybody’s forks were suspended at their mouths.

Q: I was surprised at the restrictions Willow and other Chinese Americans had to live with.

A: My grandfather said that when he was a kid, if you were Asian you had three jobs, restaurant, laundry or gambling. He broke that mold — he was a gambler, he went to Alaska. Chinese women couldn’t be admitted to area hospitals — I read in Ruby Chow’s biography that she could not be admitted to a Caucasian hospital (to give birth). If a woman married a foreigner, she could lose her citizenship.

Q: “Willow Frost” features many real-life Seattle historical spots, including the Sacred Heart Orphanage, where Willow places her son, William. Tell us about that place.

A: Sacred Heart Orphanage is now Villa Academy. Then, it was part of the footprint of institutions run by Mother Cabrini.

In orphanages, some kids had terrible experiences, others not so much. I stumbled on Wallace Stegner’s account of being there [briefly, when it was housed on Beacon Hill]. He didn’t have a pleasant experience ... I tried not to use a modern sensibility to condemn what went on. Different world, different rules. In retrospect, it’s fortunate that there were orphanages. At the time, there were so few social programs.

Q: As a historical novelist, what do you believe is your obligation to render history accurately?

A: I’m always cautious there. I don’t want to write with an agenda, to be the Oliver Stone of the literary world, to be historical with a spin. Of the things I think are important and germane, I try to be very observant. The little things, I try not to worry so much ... there’s a certain kind of reader, they get the spirit of the book, that’s what I’m going for.

Q: You write about Chinese opera in the book. Willow’s life does have a tragic, almost operatic arc. Were you conscious of that?

A: I did ... If I had to boil my career down to a statement, when I get asked what is it like to be a writer, I say that I get paid really well to break my own heart on a regular basis. I like the noble romantic tragedy, whether it’s in a book or on the film. I’m not sure if in an era hundreds of years ago, before the era of antidepressants, they were just more popular. ... You aspire to their nobility.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com. Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW's “Well Read,” discussing books with host Terry Tazioli (go to www.tvw.org/shows/well-read for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma.

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