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Songs of Willow Frost: A Novel Hardcover – September 10, 2013
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A Talk with Jamie Ford, Author of Songs of Willow Frost
Your debut Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet sold over 1.3 million copies, was on the New York Times bestseller list for over two years, won the Asian Pacific American Award for Literature, and was even transformed into a popular stage play. Why do you think it resonated so deeply with readers across the country? Are there any particularly memorable or surprising reactions that you’d like to share?
At its core, Hotel is a love story—or actually a love-lost-and-then-found story, which I think everyone can relate to on some level. There’s a reason why people try to lose 20 pounds before class reunions. There are just some people in our lives whom we love, and lose, and unfailingly long for. They orbit our hearts like Halley’s Comet, crossing into our universe only once, or if we’re lucky, twice in a lifetime.
Hotel also deals with race relations during an oft-forgotten period in US history. As a researcher and storyteller, I like turning over rocks and looking at the squishy things underneath. I think others do too.
As far as memorable reactions, here are three that immediately come to mind:
1) Being invited to the Minidoka Reunion (Minidoka was an internment camp outside Twin Falls, Idaho), where former internees had a karaoke night where they sang Don’t Fence Me In.
2) Going to Norway and speaking to high school students who were assigned the book, which was surreal.
3) A sansei (third generation Japanese American) woman sharing that she had read the book to her mother, a former internee, while she’d been in hospice, and that the book was the first time they’d talked about “camp.”
Hotel has been described as “a wartime-era Chinese-Japanese variation on Romeo and Juliet” (Seattle Times). In what ways is Songs of Willow Frost a different kind of love story, and why did you want to turn to this narrative next?
If I were to create a perfume, it would come in a cracked bottle and be called Abandonment. That’s how Songs of Willow Frost opens. It’s another love story—and while there are boy-meets-girl aspects to the tale, the real love story is about a mother and her son, and about how two people can be so close, yet so far away from each other, and ultimately so misunderstood. I don’t think we ever really understand our parents until they’re gone—at least that’s been my experience. William experiences that loss, and it affects him profoundly. But then he has something many of us don’t get—the opportunity to find his mother again, to see her through new eyes.
Willow breaks into the movie industry at a studio in Tacoma, WA. What was Washington’s role in early American film? Does it still bear the footprint of that era?
Before the film industry coalesced in Southern California, there were viable studios in unusual places, like Minnesota, Idaho, and even Tacoma, WA., where H.C. Weaver Productions has long been forgotten.
Early in the research process I called the Washington Film Office, and they told me the first film shot in Washington State was Tugboat Annie (1933). I’d read about movie crews on Mt. Rainier around 1924, so I knew the film office information was off. I kept digging and found press clippings which led to the H.C. Weaver production stage, which at the time was the third-largest freestanding film space in America (the larger two were in Hollywood).
H.C. Weaver produced three films, Hearts and Fists (1926), Eyes of the Totem (1927), and The Heart of the Yukon (1927). These silent films were tied up in distribution and unfortunately released when talkies were overtaking their silent predecessors. The studio closed its doors as the roaring 20s stopped roaring. The building was converted into an enormous dance hall, which burned to the ground in 1932. The films have all been lost, though the Tacoma Public Library has a wonderful collection of production shots by Gaston Lance, the studio’s art director.
You have said that Liu Song/Willow is also an amalgamation of your own mother and Chinese grandmother. Are there particular real-life experiences that work their way into your story, and what was it like to write with them in mind?
I come from a family of big families. Both of my Chinese grandparents had more siblings than you could count on one hand, yet my father was an only child. The reason for that is because my Chinese grandmother had a backroom “procedure” that left her unable to bear more children.
And yet my grandmother was fierce. She was an alpha-female at a time where it was perhaps culturally and socially unacceptable, but in America, as a U.S. citizen, she could become something different. That said, as a Chinese woman, she was still minority within a minority, and unable to receive proper medical care.
My mom on the other hand was Caucasian. But she was dirt-poor—so poor that when she became pregnant with my oldest sister, she could only dream of giving birth in an actual hospital. That dream went unfulfilled, as her husband at the time gambled away the money she’d saved for the delivery. But, like my grandmother, she picked herself up after every setback, after every sacrifice.
There are elements of both of them in Willow—in the kinds of challenges she faces, and the determination with which she faces them, and survives.
What do you hope readers take away from Songs of Willow Frost?
I hope they’re equally entertained and enlightened. I hope they value their time spent with Willow and William. And I hope they see growth in me as a writer. Is that too much to hope for? I mean, before the Beatles wrote Abbey Road they were singing, “She loves you, yeah-yeah-yeah.”
We all have to start somewhere.
More About the Author
His debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list and went on to win the 2010 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature. His work has been translated into 34 languages. Jamie is still holding out for Klingon (that's when you know you've made it).
Visit him at www.jamieford.com or on Twitter @jamieford.
Top Customer Reviews
Set in 1934 Seattle, Washington, the story opens on the day that twelve-year-old William Eng, along with all the other boys at Sacred Heart Orphanage, celebrate their birthday by going on an outing to a local movie theater. William is convinced that the woman he sees on screen is his mother, a mother he must find.
William's search for not only his mother, but for the truth, takes us on a journey that includes heartbreak, tragedy and hope. While I really enjoyed Ford's first novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, I loved this book! I can't wait to recommend it to my book club.
Speaking of book clubs, Ford has provided some excellent discussion questions at the end of the book.
Get it. Read it. Share it.
On an outing to Seattle's Moore Theatre, 12-year-old William Eng—the only Chinese-American orphan at Sacred Heart—is stunned to catch onscreen, the familiar face of well-admired actress and "Oriental beauty," Willow Frost, whom he, five years ago, knew by another name: mother.
Songs of Willow Frost is a sensationally crafted novel that follows William's search for his carefully buried roots, spurned by the kind of familial longing only known as a child's unconditional love, and the ghosts and demons of his mother's past that he discovers along the way. The narrative shifts between the Great Depression and the technological revolution of the early 1920s, offering both William's real, raw perspective of Chinese-American life, as well as Liu Song's shining voice—her invaluable song.
There are just so many things I loved about this book! It's distressing how I can't list them all off at the same time, but I'll begin with the characters. William's naïveté is tender, and will make your heart ache. At once hopeful and painfully mature, his narrative gives rich glimpses of what it must have been like to be an abandoned child during the Great Depression—who were dubbed "orphans" like he was, and were not at all uncommon during this time—and is so emotionally well rendered.Read more ›
It is 1934 and Seattle as well as the rest of the country is steeped in the uncertainty of the "great depression". William lives in the Sacred Heart Orphanage with an assortment of other children who, like William, live lives forever altered by time and circumstances. In reality, many of the residents of Sacred Heart are not truly orphans since their parents are still alive and William, after seeing a movie featuring an actress named Willow Frost, is sure that he is one of those with a living parent. With his best friend, a blind girl named Charlotte, he goes in search of the truth.
This is a multi-faceted tale with characters and relationships that are complex and fully developed. It takes the reader down a multitude of avenues as it explores the strength of the human spirit, the quest for love and hope, the limited opportunities of women and minorities (and minority women in particular), and what abandonment and desperation can force a person to do.
If you, like I, found Jamie Ford's first novel HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET a book to savor, you are certain to love THE SONGS OF WILLOW FROST with its cast of fallible but relatable human beings, whose actions are controlled by their circumstances and their culture. It makes the reader realize that in many respects we've come a long way since those "good old days" but, unfortunately, not so far in others.
What it was like to be a woman, Chinese and a single mother in America in the mid 1920s? Jamie Ford's heroine, Liu Song, would probably have said, "Not easy."
"Songs of Willow Frost" is Mr. Ford's second novel and it shares some elements with his first book, "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet." Both stories take place in Seattle. Like in "Hotel," in "Songs of Willow Frost," Mr. Ford also tells the story of another Chinese twelve-year-old boy, William Eng whose best friend is a girl, Charlotte. She is white but they're brought together by their misfit status among the orphans. He is the only Asian boy in the orphanage and she is blind. However, it is the story of his mother, Liu Song, that takes center stage in "Songs of Willow Frost," In the book, the author explores Liu Song's relationship with William, a relationship fraught with love, lies, sorrow and sacrifice.
I loved "Hotel" so I was surprised when "Songs of Willow Frost" did not move me as deeply as Mr. Ford's first book. In fact, in spite of the common elements in both stories, Mr. Ford's impeccable historical research, and his honesty in portraying cultural and social injustices of the times, I didn't feel drawn into the world of Liu Song or her rags-to-stardom story. Don't get me wrong. I did feel for her and the mistakes she made along the way to becoming the movie star, Willow Frost. And just reading about how she was forced to give up William would make any woman furious and also thankful for how far women's rights have come along since the 1920s.
I have to confess that I am not sure why I did not fully connect with this book. Maybe it was because it felt too "local" as it had to do with the movie and entertainment scene in Seattle.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Engaging story, magical reality. The perspective of the Chinese American is richly described. Loved the way actual history of Seattle and locations in Seattle were woven into the... Read morePublished 6 days ago by Amazon Customer
A pleasant read for someone that likes historical fiction, particularly about Seattle, Wa.Published 16 days ago by willpwr
I loved Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and this did not disappoint me. As a resident of Seattle, it was easy to follow the narrative and locations. Read morePublished 24 days ago by Ann-Marie Carlson
Good read about discrimination against Chinese in US. Painful to admit this was part of our history. We just substitute other prejudices as we move on through the years. Read morePublished 1 month ago by Phyl A.
Jamie Ford, author of The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, has written another novel steeped in Chinese-American Culture. Read morePublished 2 months ago by Anna O. Graeber