September 13, 2017

Jamie Ford

“Go ask your parents their deepest, darkest secrets. Who knows what you’ll find.”
Interview by
Jamie Ford, whose new novel, Love and Other Consolation Prizes, is based on a haunting historical event, answers our questions about fate, family secrets and the rewards of writing redemptive fiction.
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Inspired by a true story, Jamie Ford’s poignant new novel is framed by two world’s fairs held in Seattle—what the author calls the  “metaphorical rocks” of his powerful tale. At the first fair in 1909, a real-life raffle was held to give away an orphaned baby, an event that both haunted Ford and piqued his curiosity.

He imagines what might have happened to that child in Love and Other Consolation Prizes, a riveting story that moves from heartbreak and poverty in turn-of-the-century Southern China to Seattle’s glittering 1962 world’s fair, the Century 21 Expo. The fair's opening day triggers painful memories for one attendee—a man named Ernest Young, who recalls a time when he fell in love with two girls and muses, “The present is merely the past reassembled.”

We asked Ford, author of the 2009 bestseller Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, about fate, family secrets and the rewards of writing redemptive fiction.

Your novel was inspired by an incident in which a baby was raffled off at the 1909 Seattle world’s fair. How and when did you become aware of this event?
I remember watching a DVD in 2009 that was commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition, Seattle’s forgotten world’s fair. (I know, I have weird viewing pastimes). The program was narrated by the actor Tom Skerritt, who casually mentioned that a boy was raffled off and that his name was Ernest, and a newspaper clipping flashed onscreen that read “SOMEBODY WILL DRAW BABY AS PRIZE.” 

And just like that, I fell down the rabbit-hole. . . .

Even now, after reading the novel, it’s hard for me to believe that such a raffle happened in the U.S. just over a century ago. Were you similarly dumbstruck? What does this say about how much our culture has changed in the last century?
Ironically, at Seattle’s second world’s fair (in 1962), a vendor gave away poodles––which was criticized for being inhumane. So as the philosopher, Robert Zimmerman, sang, “The times they are a-changing.” 

And I wasn’t quite dumbstruck as much as consigned to the weirdness of history. Those early world’s fairs all had ethnographic exhibits, which were basically human zoos that featured “exotic” or indigenous people. The fact that a boy was raffled off seemed like an extension of that mindset.

Also, this didn’t just happen at world’s fairs. In the May 1920 issue of The Kiwanis Magazine there’s an article about the Asheville, North Carolina chapter: “One of their unique features was to auction off a real baby for adoption at a luncheon attended by the ladies.”

Strange days, indeed.

The description of 5-year-old Yung’s experiences aboard the ship to America are riveting and heartbreaking. Can you tell us a bit about how you researched this era and the activity of human smugglers?
While doing research at the Anacortes Maritime Museum near Seattle, I learned that smugglers Ben Ure and Lawrence “Pirate” Kelly made their fortunes transporting immigrants, tied in burlap bags so that if customs agents were to approach, their human cargo could easily be tossed overboard. The tidal currents would carry the bodies of these discarded immigrants to a place now known as Dead Man’s Bay. There are probably happy people having picnics on that beach as I write this, who have no idea how the place earned its name.

I also looked at oral histories of some of the first immigrants from Southern China (where my great-grandfather immigrated from). I was trying to figure out why someone would put themselves at such risk on the high seas. It turns out many of those men and women didn’t have a choice—they were sold.
 
You write of young Ernest and the raffle: “His fate had been decided by this simple piece of cardboard.” Where do you fall on the fate vs. random chance continuum? Do you think our individual destinies are fated or dependent on chance and luck?
The romantic in me desperately wants to believe in luck, or fate, or for lack of a better word—destiny. But the cynic in me worries that all of this is somewhat predetermined. You could argue that all human action is guided by external causality, which creates the narrow pathways in which we exist. When you’re bored and want to feel especially helpless, look up the philosophical idea of Determinism. Warning: It will break your brain.

“I’m not a bitter person in life. I don’t want to be a bitter author on the page. There’s no shame in happiness.”

Why did you choose to bookend your story with two world’s fairs, one in 1909 and the other in 1962? Do you see the fairs as turning points in Seattle’s history?
I love the symmetry of showcasing Seattle’s two world’s fairs. But also, the fairs were snapshots of how the city (and the U.S.) presented itself to the world at large. 

Both expositions focused on the latest technology, architecture, and what was happening in the arts. Both featured celebrities and politicians. But in looking at the fairgoers themselves, what amused them, what they celebrated, you get a marvelous anthropological glimpse at how we behaved. I guess you could say that both fairs were great for people-watching, even decades later.

You write of Ernest, “He suspected that everyone his age, of his vintage, had a backstory, a secret that they’d never shared.” Do you think such secrets are specific to his era and location? Or are they a broader part of the human experience?
Oh, no. We all have secrets. I certainly do. But we’re always followed by the next generation (often our own children) who are obsessed with the future, not the past. So these secrets stay hidden. 

I recently found out that my late mother had another child, who was given up for adoption. So I have a mystery sibling. I’ve heard that she’s a police officer in Vegas.

Go ask your parents their deepest, darkest secrets. Who knows what you’ll find.

How do you feel about Mrs. Irvine and how do you think readers will react to her character? Does she deserve any credit for trying to do what she thought was right?
I think she’s a product of her time. That is to say, she means well, but she’s lacking in empathy. Like many good, well-meaning people in life, their Achilles heel is an inability to embrace the complexity of others. People are qualitative, not quantitative. 

But, that’s just me. I’m a pretty emotive guy.

Your depiction of Gracie’s dementia is tender, even life-affirming. Do you have any family experience with this condition?
I saw this to some degree with my Yin Yin and Yeh Yeh—my Chinese grandparents. My grandfather took care of my grandmother for a decade as her health slowly declined. It takes special dedication, and tenderness, to be that kind of caregiver.

And then I experienced it first-hand as I cared for my mother in hospice. When you meet fear and dread with love, because that’s all you have left, it changes you.

Early Asian-American life is a poignant theme in your works, and you’ve been compared to other Asian-American authors such as Amy Tan. How do you see yourself fitting in (or not fitting in) to a growing canon of Asian-American authors?
I don’t know. Honestly, it’s not for me to decide, and I still have more books in me, so we’ll see what happens. I love historical fiction, but I’m open to all kinds of storytelling. Last year I published a few stories that were basically Asian-themed steampunk. And last week I had a crime noir tale published in an anthology. Oh, and I’m still working on a screenplay and a script for a graphic novel. Plus, there’s always a lot of really bad poetry leaking out of my brain.

Reviewers often remark that your books are hopeful or triumphant, an outlook that seems relatively rare in current fiction. Do you set out to write hopeful stories or do they develop organically as you write?
I love redemptive stories. Not necessarily ones with perfect happy endings, with rainbows and unicorns, but I like to at least have a jumping-off point where characters can continue their journeys—if only in the imagination of readers. 

It’s sad that stories of hope and redemption are sometimes seen as “less than literary,” as though every story needs to crush your soul to have creative merit.

I’ve never bought into that idea. I’m not a bitter person in life. I don’t want to be a bitter author on the page. There’s no shame in happiness.

Author photo by Alan Alabastro

 

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