Seattle Times theater critic Misha Berson interviews author Jamie Ford, whose best-selling, Seattle-set novel "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet" is being adapted by Book-It Repertory Theatre.
In the picturesque tearoom in Seattle’s historic Panama Hotel, a half-dozen middle-aged women heard Jamie Ford’s name and clustered excitedly around the novelist. Cameras and smartphones appeared. Photos and autographs were requested.
Ford graciously complied and chatted, happy to learn these were Cuban-born members of a far-flung book club that meets up in different cities. They came to this Nihonmachi (Japantown) spot as an homage to a favorite novel, Ford’s “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.”
“People have such strong feelings about the book,” Ford mused later, over tea.
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That has translated into strong sales for Ford’s story about the adolescent bond between Seattle youths Henry, a Chinese-American boy, and Keiko, a Japanese-American girl, in the early 1940s. According to the writer, over a million U.S. copies have been sold, plus foreign editions in 34 languages.
“My favorite bit of trivia is that it was a number-one book in Norway,” Ford reported. “I think people relate to the love story, and the historical aspect makes the romance less of a guilty pleasure.” Despite the bigotry, hardships and sorrows portrayed, the finale is hopeful, because “I like books that, at the end, a new story is beginning.”
“Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” enters a new chapter this week with the debut of a stage rendition by Book-It Repertory Theatre adapted by Annie Lareau (who earlier dramatized Willa Cather’s “My Antonia” for Book-It). It boasts an interracial cast, and will stick close (in Book-It style) to the dialogue, plot and prose of Ford’s work — and to its Seattle settings.
It’s terrain that Ford, now a Montana resident, knows intimately. The son of a Seattle-bred, Chinese-American father and a Caucasian mother, he grew up in Ashland, Ore. When he was 12, the family moved to Port Orchard.
In his teen years, Ford (whose surname was adopted by his Chinese great-grandfather, in admiration of famed outdoorsman William “Billy” Ford) got to know his grandparents and other Seattle relations better. He heard many family stories, including one about his father wearing an “I Am Chinese” button as a boy, so he wouldn’t be mistaken for Japanese during World War II — a time when Japanese Americans were interned by the U.S. government. Later employed as an advertising art director, Ford penned a vignette about a kid named Henry with that same button.
“I’d written a lot of short stories — and a novel, a terrible novel, everyone has one of those. But I hadn’t written about Asian Americans because I didn’t think anyone cared, which is weird in retrospect.”
His piece “I Am Chinese” was published in a small literary magazine. Time at a writers’ “boot camp” run by author Orson Scott Card inspired him to expand it.
The short story became a finalist for a Glimmer Train award, so Ford quit his day job to bone up on Asian communities in Seattle’s Chinatown International District for a larger work of fiction. “I’m a big fan of history, and researching things my family knew about was pleasurable and enjoyable, more like therapy than work,” he explained.
He found a lot of material at Seattle’s Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. And Jan Johnson, an artist who bought and spruced up the Panama Hotel in 1985, gave him access to photographs and other personal effects stored there by Japanese families for safekeeping as they headed off to internment camps. (Few ever returned to recover their possessions, some of which are on exhibit at the hotel.)
The Panama is a recurring locale in “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.” So are some now-defunct International District jazz spots frequented by a black musician who befriends Henry and Keiko, as their friendship deepens over parental objections.
Now writing his next novel, while he grapples with “the sophomore curse” facing many an author of a freshman best-seller, Ford has given his blessing to Book-It’s “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” but not “meddled in it.”
“I’m looking forward to seeing how they interpret it,” he said. “I have a reverence for theater, because it respects the written word.”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org