Today we have a very special treat. I'd like to welcome NTY Bestselling author (and long time blogging friend) Jamie Ford to celebrate his uber-successful debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. Let's hear it for Jamie! *applause*
I sat down with Jamie to dig into some of the powerful themes he explored in Hotel. But before I get to our interview (and invite you all to ask any burning questions you might have for Jamie), I want to introduce you to the world of Hotel.
In the midst of World War II, Henry Lee is a young Chinese boy living in Seattle's Chinatown. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Americans' feelings toward the Japanese are only dwarfed by the hatred of Henry's own father, who is haunted by the atrocities committed by Japanese in China. In these dark days, Henry's father forces him to wear an "I am Chinese" button to point out that he is an ally of America and not a Japanese "enemy." However, the button does nothing to stop the harassment and bullying in the American school his father forces him to attend.
When a young Japanese girl, Keiko, joins Henry in the American school, Henry finds his first true friend. Although Henry resists his growing feelings, he finally cannot deny to himself that he has fallen in love. But the world is falling down around Henry and Keiko. Japanese families are being arrested and sent to internment camps. Henry hides his betrayal of his father's wishes, but once discovered, he is disowned by the unyielding man.
One night Henry and Keiko are let into a jazz club by legendary performer Oscar Holden. It is a moment of perfection for them. Afterwards, when they learn that Oscar Holden has recorded the song he dedicated to them, this rare album becomes the symbol of everything that they lost in those terrible months and years after Keiko was taken away to the internment camps.
Without further ado, I bring you Jamie!
Jason: Hi Jamie! How are things this fine night?
Jamie: Things are lovely. Busy, which is always good.
:: I have a couple of thoughts to get started on with Hotel if you're ready.
Jamie: Ready when you are.
:: When I look at Henry, I see an abiding isolation, a fundamental lack of place, comfort, and acceptance. He is between worlds. American and Chinese. Youth and adulthood. Even his parents are beyond his reach. He can't communicate with them because his father insists he speak English even though neither of his parents understand it. I especially found it poignant that he was too Chinese to be accepted by the American kids, and too American to be accepted by the Chinese kids. Against this backdrop, the book to me is about the visceral desire for havens--places and people where Henry can feel safe and belong. Keiko is an obvious haven. One to fight for and protect. Did you also see jazz in this way? A cross-cultural haven where like-minded people could slip away from the mainstream and enjoy something almost secret?
Jamie: Hmmm...I hadn't seen Keiko as a haven per se, but that analysis does seem to fit. Henry is a kid burdened by parental and social abandonment to some degree. Keiko becomes his solace, his comfort. As far as the jazz elements, that really came out of the real history of the neighborhood, of South Jackson. Jazz was an amazing cultural bridge, that people of different backgrounds enjoyed. I love today's music, but it's much more fractious, dividing people into groups, rather than bringing groups together. I guess in a way, jazz, and certainly the physical clubs themselves were a haven....
:: That is such a memorable moment when Henry and Keiko speak to the man in the alley who turns out to be Oscar Holden. They get that precious time allowed to them in the club. Something they always treasure later. And on top of it, Oscar dedicates the piece "Alley Cat Strut" to them. But their escape that night is so fragile. The authorities raid the club and arrest the Japanese couples. The dark descent of the Japanese in Seattle begins that night.
:: Do you think that night becomes something of a touchstone? Does the search for the ultra-rare Oscar Holden album with their song years later stand for that deep desire to recapture that night?
Jamie: I think it does. That night was magical for the both of them, but also tragic and had a finality to it. In a way, that represents their relationship as teens. Just when they reached an emotional pinnacle, the bottom drops out, and they're separated...for a lifetime. I think most people have a vested interest in certain moments of the past, high points, with family, friends, love interests. Those moments pass by so quickly, leaving us longing to recapture that essence--even if just out of curiosity, or perhaps for some kind of emotional closure. That's why people get so worked up for class reunions.
:: Yes! Good point! What did Keiko do with that album she held in her keeping all those years?
Jamie: I think it was her piece of Camelot. I'm sure she hung on to it, treasured it, but recognized it was a slice of her past that she didn't think she could ever, or would ever, go back to. I think in the book, the record is still relatively scratch-free, unplayed, unfinished perhaps. I like to think that she didn't play it often, because she didn't want to tire of it, or ever let it get worn out, just to retain a little of its magic.
:: What would be a moment that she might have played it?
Jamie: Hmmm...great question. Perhaps when her father died? Or at a Minidoka reunion, which are now done each year. Maybe when she's feeling a bout of melancholy and just wants to wallow in those old emotions for a moment--the sweetness, not the emptiness.
:: Mmm, I like that. Do you think that first love is different than what comes later?
Jamie: Wow, that probably depends on the person. Some people have deep emotional wells that need to be filled, while others can have a great relationship based on intellectual pursuits, adventure, family, companionship, acts of service...the range of human dynamics is pretty broad. BUT, (I'm dodging your question here a bit), I think for most people that "first" love is weighted. It's like being a little baby eating creamed spinach and suddenly tastes chocolate for the first time--there's an emotional, sensory reaction that can be repeated, but never with the same uniqueness. In my overly emotive opinion, anyway.
:: I guess you can only experience something for the first time once. I can see an inherent purity there. I wonder if we're almost programmed to take that input. To hold that first love close. To bond hard. Later, we might learn to balance it. To be more realistic about love. But some of that rawness remains in the memory of the first. Clearly, Henry and Keiko imprinted on each other. In a way, the rest of their lives was somehow tinted by it.
Jamie: Imprinting is a very apt way to describe it. I think in many cases, that's accurate. Not necessarily a first kiss, first crush, first whatever, but being at an age where you're emotionally functional, but perhaps not entirely rational--and certainly not old and jaded. And then to have your breath completely taken away, is a big deal. Part of how it tinted the lives of Henry and Keiko is that their story was interrupted by war, and by the internment. Their story was really two acts of a three-act play...left unfinished.
:: Henry really did fight for his love of Keiko like an adult. I had a lot of respect for him because of that. Ultimately, he was over-matched by circumstances. But that leads me to my next question. Do you think Henry was a collaborator in his isolation and sadness?
Jamie: My first reaction was: no, not really. But in a way, perhaps he was. Specifically in his later years, as an adult, he really was a man that became comfortable living with his lament. I think he figured that he had maxed out his quota for happiness and there wasn't going to be another shot at it. I don't think collaborator is exactly the right word perhaps, but maybe willing victim. He accepted what life threw at him later in life, and found comfort in making the best of things.
:: A couple of things come to mind. He embraced his friend Sheldon and jazz as a child, yet he keeps that hidden from his parents. I'm not sure that Henry ever realizes how much of his parents' views limit and shape his behavior until Keiko's more fierce independence is there for comparison. Of course, Keiko has it easier with supportive and accepting parents, yet I tend to think she would be a bit more fierce when pushed. Also, when Henry loses Keiko, even when he learns how he's been wronged by his father, Henry accepts his position. It's like the train has left the station, and it's too late. I can see some of these things in Henry's control. The ultimate decision is his, even though he thinks he really has no choice but to protect others. In truth, he really does have a choice.
Jamie: Ah, soooo true. Someone once told me the tough decisions in life aren't between what's right and what's wrong, but between what's right and what's best. In Henry's case, he had committed himself to Ethel (after losing Keiko), and despite the machinations that deprived him of Keiko, he couldn't go back on that commitment. And that was also entrenched in a lot of family guilt, over his father's ailing health, and wanting to be a good son, even at a cost. A bit noble, but also tragic. And you're right, entirely his decision.
:: Is Henry's ultimate savior fate? Was it fate that finally removed those impediments and obligations and guilt? I suppose one has to be patient for fate to work. Hence, the return to Keiko late in life. Would you agree?
Jamie: Ah, love! Could thou and I with Fate conspire to grasp this sorry scheme of things entire! Don't recall who said that, sounds like Shakespeare, but I don't think it is. The truth is, Henry could have searched for his long lost love. During his marriage, after Ethel died, he could have gone after it. But he was on that fine line between bitterness and contentment, and fate did intervene a bit. And if you wait long enough, and keep your eyes open, those chances are there, I suppose. In Henry's case it was seeing Keiko's belongings at the Panama Hotel. But it could just as easily been something mentioned in the evening news about reparations to Japanese Americans, or hearings in Washington DC, all of those things were going on during the 80s. But, the hotel was there, based in fact...and eminently more poetic.
:: How do you feel about the life with Ethel versus the life with Keiko serving as bookends, before and after? Are they like two lives packed into one body in Henry? Or can they be brought together and seen as one seamless lifetime?
Jamie: I really see Henry as having one seamless life, with high points, low points, and various changes of emotional scenery. I think his life with Ethel and his life with Keiko were equally rewarding and based on different levels of maturity. And hopefully at the end of the book, that life continues...they both get their third act.
:: I hope so too. I think it has been earned many times over. In a way, I think Henry's son Marty was right. Henry has been formed somewhat by his father. Maybe not his prejudice and controlling nature, but in his sense of commitment and tradition and a certain flavor of right and wrong. I think Marty and his fiancée Samantha give Henry just enough of a hand to break out of those last vestiges of his father holding him back.
Jamie: From one generation to the next--an amazing evolutionary process!
:: Yes! Thanks so much for sitting down, Jamie. I've said it before, but it has been wonderful to see your voice hitting the world in such a big way. I look forward to many great novels from you.
Jamie: Thanks Jason! And to think this whole journey started with a certain contest....
:: Thanks!! Actually, I'm looking forward to opening my 11th contest soon. I hope to have you co-host one in the future. When your next novel hits the shelves.
Jamie: Yeah, I'd love to. Absolutely.
:: Have a great night. Stay in touch.
Jamie: You too, thanks again.
I know you're all on your way to buy Jamie's book if you haven't already. Do you have any questions for Jamie? If you've read the book, do you have any observations of your own?