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Book geek, now an author, visits his old school

Jamie Ford, the author of
Jamie Ford, the author of 'Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet' who attended Marcus Whitman Junior High School in the 1980s, speaks in the school's library Tuesday morning with ninth-grade students who read his book in their Advanced Language Arts class.
— image credit: Tim Kelly/Staff photo

He used to play Dungeons and Dragons with his “book geek” friends in the junior high library at lunchtime.

Jamie Ford returned to the library at Marcus Whitman Junior High School on Tuesday, this time to discuss his best-selling novel and the craft of writing with students, some presumably book geeks themselves.

Students in Lisa Johnson’s ninth-grade Advanced Language Arts class read Ford’s book, “Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” but they didn’t know they’d be meeting the author when they gathered in the library Tuesday morning.

“I never thought I’d grow up and be somebody’s homework,” he quipped after he was introduced to the group, which also included students in Quest, the school’s gifted and talented program.

It was called Project Life when Ford, 44, attended Marcus Whitman, and his old instructor in the program, retired teacher Linda Munson, came to the school to welcome him back.

Funny story, though; when Munson read “Hotel” a few years ago, it didn’t click with her who the author was.

“I read his book, and loved his book,” she said, “but I didn’t know it was him.”

That’s because the author went by James Ford in his junior high years, since there was another student in his class named Jamie.

“The thing I remember about James is that he was always very analytical in his thinking,” Munson said. “He was reflective of everything that was happening around him.

“He was a great kid.”

Ford, a 1986 graduate of South Kitsap High School, was an eighth-grader when the new Marcus Whitman Junior High opened, and he recalled picking rocks out of the athletic field during P.E. and chunking them over the fence.

His novel, which was published in 2009 and made the New York Times best-seller list, tells the story of a Chinese boy and a Japanese girl who were junior high-age when they met in Seattle in the early 1940s. Their friendship and innocent love story is interrupted when her family is forced to go to an internment camp during World War II, and the story alternates between their youth and the 1980s when the discovery of long-lost Japanese belongings in a Seattle hotel basement prompts Henry Lee, a widower, to look for the girl he keenly remembers.

Ford, the son of a Chinese father and a white “Betty Crocker” mother (as he told the students), said his book evolved from a short story he wrote in 2006. His father, like the young Henry in the book and many other Chinese youngsters in the war years, wore an “I am Chinese” button to shield him from the discrimination suffered by Japanese people in America.

Karen Little, a counselor at Marcus Whitman and former Quest teacher who sent Ford a message on Twitter inviting him to visit his old school, has a personal connection to the historical events he writes about in his novel. Her parents were Japanese youths whose families were sent to Camp Harmony, an internment camp at a site that later became the Puyallup fairgrounds.

“My mom was exactly the age of the girl in the story,” Little said, and her dad was the 14-year-old school president at Renton Junior High.

When she was growing up, her parents never revealed to their children what they went through during the internment, Little said.

“They sometimes talked about remembering people from camp, and for 18 years I thought they were talking about summer camp,” she said. It was only during her senior year when a classmate did a report on the internment that Little realized her parents had been part of that history.

In his engaging discussion with the students Tuesday, Ford talked at length about the writing process.

“I won’t ask if there are any writers in the room, because I know there are,” he said.

The questions he got seemed to bear that out, as students asked him about how he does research for a book, how he creates characters, and even how he overcomes writer’s block.

Doing research, he said, is “almost archeological; you’re sifting through the dust and you find a bone, and a story develops.”

He likes history, and told the students the novel he’s working on now explores another chapter in Seattle’s past, when the prosperity of the 1920s collapsed into the Great Depression at the end of the decade. It’s a story about a Chinese woman who becomes a movie star and abandons her son.

He expects to finish the manuscript for the book — which doesn’t have a title yet — in a couple months, and hopes it will be published next year.

The success of “Hotel” vastly exceeded his expectations.

“The book kind of took on a life of its own,” he said, but it did allow him to take a leap of faith and become a full-time writer, leaving behind his “day job.”

Ford studied art and design in college, and after graduating he had a job for a couple years with Sound Publishing as creative director for the company’s Kitsap Group of newspapers, which includes the Port Orchard Independent.

He now lives in Great Falls, Mont., where he and his wife, Leesha, have a home populated by several teenagers in their blended family.

They met in Great Falls a few years ago — at a library, of course. They were both in a writers group, and she recalled hearing him read an excerpt from the “Hotel” manuscript, which he had just finished the night before.

Ford said they planned to get together during their visit to Port Orchard with one of his old school friends.

“I’m still really close to a group of friends who were in Project Life,” he said.

After the students went back to class Tuesday, Ford was asked what he thought made his debut novel such a success — it’s sold more than a million copies and recently was translated into Japanese, selling out its first print run in that country.

“Readers really like the love story,” he said, then added, “The historical context makes it less of a guilty pleasure.

“You can entertain readers, and take them by the hand and lead them through a chapter of history.”

 

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