May 28, 2015

Bestselling Author Jamie Ford: “When You Lose That Continuity, You Lose Something Greater”

“A silent character.” That’s how Jamie Ford, author of “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” describes the Panama Hotel, the titular National Treasure that grounds his bestselling novel. But the Panama is far from silent; it continues to bustle with tours and visitors, giving them a glimpse into Ford’s fictional world while also portraying the true and moving history of Japanese-American internment in the United States.

As both author and preservationist, Ford is in a unique position to comment on the significance of place in his well-known work. So we chatted with him to find out more – like why he chose to incorporate the hotel in his book in the first place, how it felt to introduce the hotel to an international audience, and why we should all aim to become part of a greater “story chain.”

Author Jamie Ford at the Panama Hotel (left), actress Stephanie Kim as Keiko and actor Jose Abaoag as Henry in Book-It Theatre's stage adaptation of Ford's novel "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet" (right).

When did you first learn about the Panama Hotel?

I was in college and I think some local northwest magazine mentioned the hotel and mentioned items that were in the basement at the time. I had walked outside of the hotel, but I’d never walked into the hotel or visited the Tea Room. I remember reading about it and thinking, “Ok, that’s an interesting bit of Washington history.” But I had no idea when I was writing the book that those items were still there in the basement.

What inspired you to use the Panama Hotel in your novel years later?

[“Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet”] began as a short story set in the 1940s and it had the characters of Henry and Keiko. I really wanted to give the story a redemptive ending, which is a literary way of saying a happy ending. [But] I couldn’t find a redemptive ending in the ‘40s, because people coming home from [an internment] camp wasn’t a happy ending; it was a quiet relief at best.

I knew I needed to jump to another time period, and the 1980s made sense for me because I’m a product of the ‘80s, I was in college during the ‘80s, and I remember the Panama Hotel from the ‘80s. So the hotel became a narrative bridge between the past and the present. The hotel really became a silent character in the book.

What about this period of history -- Japanese-American internment on American soil during World War -- spoke to you?

I love World War II history in general. It was an active engagement on a global scale, a time when so many different things were changing, especially in Seattle, an area that we think of now as having a large Asian population. We think of it as very diverse, very tolerant, but it wasn’t always so. It had very strict “whites only” neighborhoods up until the late 1960s. And because of those zoning laws, they created these neighborhoods like Chinatown, Japantown, the International District—neighborhoods where you had Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and African American people all living in close quarters.

I think that aspect of Seattle has been forgotten, let alone the greater trauma and tragedy of the internment where we rounded one group of minority population and shipped them off to camp. So much history related to that has been forgotten, from being omitted from textbooks to censoring these remarkable photographs from Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange in the camps. So there’s this hiccup in our history that went virtually unnoticed by the American population for decades.

I definitely think it’s fertile ground to explore in fiction. Academically, if it were a nonfiction book, it [might] not be so interesting or accessible to people. But I think fiction is a great way to take the reader’s hand and hold their hand and walk them through some difficult times in our history.

Can you walk me through the first time you went into the basement [of the Panama Hotel]?

I was about 80% finished with the book, and I had been itching to actually go in the basement. I’d been outside the hotel, into the Tea Room; I talked to the owner of the hotel [Jan Johnson], and she was really nice but was reluctant to let me go into the basement.

I kept pestering her to tour the basement and to tour the hotel. She was really busy, so it was easy to let me fall off the radar. Ultimately I flew to Seattle and camped out in the Tea Room. I sat there all day and she walked back and forth and talked to me. I wasn’t leaving, and at about 3:00 in the afternoon she finally comes up to me and says, “Well, I’d love to take you on a tour, but we do them for a minimum of eight people.” I said ok and paid for eight people right there and went on the tour by myself.

It was after we spent some time in the basement that she got a sense for what I was doing and what I was about. We ended up spending three hours in the basement talking. Once you get Jan to open up about these things, she’s very, very generous with her time and was very excited to talk about the history of the hotel, the history of the hotel’s connection to the internment, and the belongings in the basement and all the lost stories that are stored there.

I was very gentle. I didn’t go in with a camera; I didn’t want to go into the basement and start snapping photos. But I did bring a little sketchbook and I made little notes, little pictures that I could remember. So if I said in the book that there was a steamer trunk with the name Shimizu painted on it, that’s because there really was a steamer trunk with that name on it in the basement. I tried to be very true to what was there.

Panama Hotel owner Jan Johnson leading a tour of the oldest intact Japanese sento bath found in the basement of the hotel, with authors Ben Brooks and Aprilynne Pike.

The cast of Book-It Theatre's stage adaptation of "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet" runs through the script in the tea room of the Panama Hotel.

How familiar were you with historic preservation before writing the book? Has it made you more of an advocate or educator in any way?

As far as historic preservation, I had a vague sense of historic preservation, mainly connected to Carnegie Libraries from when I was a little kid.

Directly, in the years before I published the novel, I was a partner of a firm and we bought a 24,000-square-foot historic ice house in Great Falls, Montana. It was an original ice house from the 1910s/1920s, and we renovated it for our office. It was a great building with so much history, and you become the next person in the story chain of that building; you respect who built it, why they built it, and where the materials came from; and you have an awareness that you can’t build a building like that anymore, that we don’t build them like that anymore.

These become really important, sacred places, and as soon as you become part of that, you look around your community and you realize all the places that have been torn down over the last 50 years. And then it’s really heartbreaking as you look around and realize, wow, we’ve paved over our history and put up shoddy replacements by comparison. I think when you lose that continuity you lose something greater.

I’m really fond of the International District in Chinatown; I don’t want to see those buildings flattened and turned into Starbucks or condos or something like that. There are actual names and historical people there that I appreciate. I know their stories now, and I know when and why and how they built those buildings.

I’m about holding on to history. And I like writing historical fiction because I think it’s important to hold up that mirror to look at who we were then and who we are now.

Describe what it’s like for you to sit in the Tea Room at the Panama Hotel and watch tourists come in with your book in their hand. How does that affect you?

It is really surreal and really fun. It’s so strangely satisfying. Every time I fly into Seattle, I fly in on the same early morning flight, which inevitably gives me a couple of hours to hang at the Tea Room and have a cup of tea. And I always see locals or tourists wander through with the book in hand, wide-eyed, looking at things.

It’s interesting because the hotel is one of a number of buildings in Chinatown that I really love. I think these places are wonderful and to see other people suddenly appreciate them the way I do, it’s very connective. I don’t know exactly how to describe it -- it’s like being a fan of a certain type of food or a certain odd book or movie that might have a cult following, and then suddenly it explodes and has a wider audience. Then not only does it validate your conviction, but you’re happy that other people appreciate something that means so much to you.

When I wrote this book I didn’t think long term. I just thought about the words on page and the story I was creating. I didn’t think about any kind of legacy or history or future, and I didn’t pretend to think I was going to write this book that was going to bring tourists from Italy to Seattle to tour the hotel.

But when I’m sitting there, there’s definitely an awareness that I kind of get a moment where I’m allowed to hope my characters will live after me and that perhaps years from now people will remember Henry and Keiko and the Panama Hotel. They may not remember me, and that’s fine, but I try to make characters with immortal souls, and when I see people walking through the hotel and taking ownership of the next bit of the story, I feel like I’m getting closer to achieving that.

Learn more about author Jamie Ford and his work on his website,

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Julia Rocchi was the senior director of digital marketing at the National Trust. By day she wrangles content; by night (and weekends), she shops local, travels to story-rich places, and gawks at buildings.

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