New York Times bestselling author makes stop in Juneau

Cover of "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet"

Cover of "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet"

New York Times bestselling author Jamie Ford will be coming to Juneau to speak on his award-winning novel “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.” It’s about Henry, a Chinese-American boy and his relationship with Keiko, a Japanese-American girl who is interned in Minidoka during World War Two.

The Empty Chair Project and the National Park Service will be funding Ford’s visit. Along with the National Park Service, The Empty Chair Project, which worked to get the Empty Chair Memorial set up to remember the Japanese-Americans taken from Juneau and sent to Minidoka during World War Two, will be buying multiple copies of Ford’s book to provide to local schools as well as purchase other fiction and non-fiction books for The Empty Chair Collection which will be available to schools.

[The Empty Chair and a hushed history: Remembering the Japanese Internment.]

While in Juneau, Ford will meet with a literature class and a creative writing class on Friday, May 6 at Thunder Mountain High School. Ford will do a public talk and book signing at the downtown Juneau Public Library on Saturday, May 7 from 4-6 p.m.

Before coming to Juneau, Ford did a quick Q&A with the Empire on what he hopes students will learn from his visit, the research he did on the Japanese-American internment for his book and the importance of remembering this tragic piece of history. 

Can you tell me about what you will be speaking on at Thunder Mountain High School and what you hope students will take away from the discussion?

Writing is a cool gig. It’s a strange career path but incredibly satisfying. I hope that comes across first and foremost, because the world needs more writers — Stephen King, J.K. Rowling and George R.R. Martin aren’t going to be around forever. The next generation of great novelists is out there. They just need to turn off the Xbox once in a while and daydream.

Can you elaborate on why it is important for youth to read and discuss the Japanese-American internment, especially in today’s social and political climate?

We all remember that Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin — that’s ingrained in the American psyche. But if we forget that piece of history, I don’t think we’re losing too much. But if we forget that we incarcerated 120,000 people, most of whom were U.S. citizens, then I think we’re somewhat diminished as a people. History is important, but some aspects of history are more important than others.

Keiko is sent to the Minidoka internment camp in your novel. Have you ever visited the place or known someone who was there?

I was invited to the annual Minidoka Reunion, which was an honor — it was educational, emotional and a lot of fun. Plus they had a karaoke night where all these former internees, now octogenarians, were singing “Don’t Fence Me In.”

How much of your novel is historical and how much of it is fiction?

I tend to make up the characters, but the world they’re immersed in, the struggles they face, those are based on historical events and circumstances. That being stated, there is one real character in the book: Oscar Holden. He was such an important part of Seattle’s musical history I had to weave him in.

When you first started writing your novel, did you expect it to turn out the way that it did?

I never dreamed that “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” would be read in schools — that’s been amazing and a tad surreal. It also was the number one book in Norway for four months (and read in high schools there). I can assure you, at no time while writing this book did I pause and think to myself, “Oh yeah, this book is going to rock in Oslo!”

Is there anything you learned while writing this book you didn’t know before, either academically or about yourself?

I had no idea that the Washington State Fairgrounds were once a temporary internment camp. I’d been there many times, saw concerts there, had these blissful memories on the site that had once been a place of misery for so many.

What was the most difficult aspect in writing “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet”?

The most challenging part was writing about something that had affected so many people — and many of those people are still alive. I had a reverence for the historicity of the Internment; I wanted to represent the experience and the injustice in the right way. I didn’t want to sermonize, I wanted to represent and let the readers form their own opinions. 

In a recent blog post, you talked about the whitewashing at the Oscars this year, and Hollywood’s hesitancy to make your book a movie without white, male leads. Is there a similar whitewashing in the publishing industry, or in your experience, comparatively, do you think it is more diverse?

There’s a similar problem in the publishing world. There have been books where the main character is black but the person on the cover is depicted as white. And a few years ago the headliners at Book Expo America were all white (except for Grumpy Cat). But the publishing world was quick to address the problem, whereas Hollywood is still cranking out whitewashed movies (“Airbender,” “Ghost in the Shell,” “Doctor Strange”).

To learn more about “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” and Ford’s other works, go to jamieford.com.

The Empire also recently interviewed Kirby Larson, the young adult, historical fiction writer of “Dash,” which is also about the Japanese-American internment. Larson is also being brought to Juneau by the Empty Chair Project and the National Park Service. Her interview can be found by clicking here: Q&A with historical fiction writer Kirby Larson, who’s coming to Juneau to talk about Japanese-American internment camps

• Contact Clara Miller at 523-2243 or at clara.miller@juneauempire.com.

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