September 19, 2013 / 1:25 AM / in 4 years

Book Talk: Best-selling Jamie Ford on writing that second novel

TOKYO (Reuters) - Jamie Ford admits he was taken aback by the runaway success of his debut novel “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” and was sidetracked for a while on his next work by the self-consciousness this produced.

But an invitation to write a story for a literary event led to the tale of an orphan boy who thinks he sees his mother in a movie, which grew into “Songs of Willow Frost”, out last week.

Ford revisits historical Seattle in his story of William Eng, who travels through the Depression-era city in search of his mother Willow, whom he has not seen since she was carried half-dead out of their apartment when he was a child.

Ford spoke with Reuters about living up to a debut book that spent more than two years on the New York Times best seller list.

Q: How did you come up with the character of Willow?

A: She definitely took some time. I looked at that time period. I began with the orphanage and began with the character of William. This was coming 19 years after a flu epidemic and it seemed like a really volatile time. To place a Chinese woman here ... I guess I always sympathize with characters who are caught between worlds. I‘m half-Chinese. I either never feel Chinese enough or never feel Caucasian enough.

It just seemed as if there was a bunch of really interesting history and Willow was a great character to walk the reader through all that. Plus, the more I read about (actress) Anna May Wong, the more I felt for her being a Chinese woman who had dalliances with white men - producers, directors - but because of miscegenation laws she could never marry a Caucasian man and she was really shunned by a lot of the Chinese community.

Q: For this particular book, what were some of the difficulties of writing and what were the joys?

A: One of the difficulties was, you know, the second book. Just trusting my gut. That was hard. When I wrote “Hotel” nobody cared. When I wrote this one there was suddenly a high level of expectation. The joy was that I‘m happy writing. I love the process, I love the research. Occasionally something unexpected will happen and a new character will walk onto the stage. I’ll feel “Oh, I’ve made a new friend today”. My wife didn’t read the manuscript until it was completed but I remember telling her those moments when I really liked this character and I feel terrible for what I’ve done to this character. You engage with them. In my mind, my characters have immortal souls - they’re in some parallel universe, doing their thing. When they get to that point where they seem fully formed, it’s a very joyful moment.

Q: Did you expect “Hotel” to do as well as it did?

A: Yes, I expected it to be a tremendous success and I went out and bought a Porsche, knowing I could pay for it later. No, seriously, if I had sold 15,000 copies I would have been over the moon. My measure for success was to have someone buy it and like it that didn’t share my same last name.

Q: Did it make it harder to write “Willow”?

A: It did. You know, I wrote another book in the middle. I changed the process a little bit because I was a little wary. With “Hotel”, nobody saw it until it was done. But when I was 100 pages in I showed (the other book) to my wife and my agent and got a lot of feedback. I left the door open and there were a lot of cooks in the kitchen and I ended up rewriting it for about 18 months. It just got to a point where it was all scar tissue. But in the meantime I would turn in a draft and then I would be researching the next book, which was this book. Once I read a couple pages of what I thought might be a good beginning to this book at the Humanities Washington forum, I showed those 12 hastily scribbled pages to my editor. She loved them and she said, if you’d like to take a break from the other project and pursue this, go for it. And I did. It feels as if I vented all that angst in that other book.

Q: Any advice for aspiring writers?

A: When I have aspiring writers or students ask me for advice, I’ve told them to go to a garage sale, buy three really horrible out-of-print books, pay no more than a quarter apiece for them and force yourself to read them with a writer’s eye. By doing that, you’ll notice mistakes or quick, sloppy writing or whatever you notice. And you’ll notice that in your own writing. I found that if you think Michael Chabon is a brilliant writer and that all you read is Michael Chabon, when you try to write, it’s like trying to lose weight and only looking at beauty magazines. It’s really discouraging. That doesn’t mean you should read crap all the time but don’t try to play Mozart the first time you sit down at the piano. Start with scales.

Editing by John O'Callaghan

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