I’ve always been super sentimental,” Jamie Ford says via Zoom, from his art-filled office in Great Falls, Mont., as his two dogs noisily play at his feet. “I was emo before emo was a term. There are literary writers who find love stories pedantic, but I’m not that person. I’ve tried writing stories that aren’t love stories, but they just want to be there, so I shamelessly lean into it.”
Ford is the author of three historical novels, including Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, his bestselling 2009 debut about a Chinese American widower looking back at the boyhood bond he forged in 1940s Seattle with a Japanese girl who was sent to an internment camp. His books, according to his publisher, Atria, have sold more than 1.8 million copies in the U.S. and have been translated into 35 languages.
Ford’s fourth novel, The Many Daughters of Afong Moy, is out in August and is his first book with Atria. The novel is also his first foray into speculative fiction. It concerns seven generations of women—all fictional descendants of Afong Moy, a real 19th-century figure, believed to be the first Chinese woman to come to America, who for years was exhibited at sideshows to paying crowds. In alternating chapters, Ford follows Afong Moy’s fictional descendants—among them a nurse serving with the Flying Tigers (a group of volunteer American pilots created to fight the Japanese invasion of China) in the 1940s and a Seattle poet in 2045—while exploring themes of inherited trauma, ancestral pain, and love.
“Historical fiction has always been my home base,” Ford says, “but I got bored there. I wanted to write speculative fiction. To blend the two in an enjoyable way, that was my goal.” But coming up with the right story wasn’t easy. “I was floundering in the worst possible way. To call it writers block would be generous.”
A creative breakthrough came in 2019 while Ford was researching epigenetics. “When it comes to genetics, we think of inherited traits—hair or eye color, things that are observable,” he explains. “But epigenetics has opened the discussion that we possibly inherit behavioral and psychological traits that impact how we react to pain, to other people, to love. My book is about inherited trauma, but it’s also redemptive and hopeful. I call it my epigenetic love story.”
Ford’s agent, Kristin Nelson, says, “If you look at any Jamie Ford book, there’s a love story at its core. That’s his brand. He embraces it. His writing has an emotional connective quality, and it transcends whatever genre he’s working in.”
Born in Eureka, Calif., in 1968, Ford grew up in Seattle, a creative kid who cried at movies. “What kind of a kid was I?” He smiles. “I can sum it up in one sentence: my parents sent me to poetry camp.” His mother was white, from the Ozarks, and his father was Chinese American. The surname Ford comes from his great-grandfather, mining pioneer Min Chung, who changed his name to William Ford after he arrived from China in 1865. “It’s like someone coming from Pakistan and changing his name to Chuck Norris,” Ford says. “It helped Americanize him to his neighbors, and it helped him buy property.”
Being Chinese American has deeply informed Ford’s work. “It wasn’t until my dad died, when I was 31, that I really felt disconnected with the Chinese side of my family,” he explains. “I dove into doing research, almost as therapy, to better understand my dad and grandfather, to deal with the regret of not having asked them enough questions when they were alive. Writing from a Chinese American perspective, not only am I exploring my history and sharing some perhaps untold stories but I’m feeling comfortable in my own skin, which took me decades to arrive at.”
Atria publisher Libby McGuire says, “A person’s desire for connection, and wanting to be known and understood—that’s the thread that runs through Jamie’s books. His new novel has a scope that’s beyond anything he’s written before. I see it as the next step in his career.”
Ford’s editor Lindsay Sagnette adds, “The book is a leap for Jamie in the best way. He spent a lot of time researching it, and the beauty is you can’t feel that—it’s not analytical or clinical. There’s nothing cool about Jamie. It’s all heart.”
“I’m a self-taught writer,” Ford says. “I have a two-year degree in design from the Art Institute of Seattle—a school that doesn’t exist anymore. I don’t have a literary MFA pedigree. I feel self-conscious at times, but I do have an understanding of who I am and what I’m capable of. I consider myself to be in the compassion creation business. I have no problem reading about car crashes and asteroid collisions, but those aren’t the stories I choose to tell.”
Ford’s wife, a nurse and educator, is his faithful—and tough—first reader. “She was reading Tom Clancy in third grade,” Ford says. “She’s a dynamic reader, and super honest. I need someone to tell me when it sucks. When she doesn’t read my stuff, I feel naked.”
The pair met at a library and wed in 2008—the second marriage for both. Between them, they have six kids from their first marriages. Now in their 20s, the kids include a tattoo artist and a musician. “We’re a Brady Bunch family,” Ford quips.
Ford has been living in Great Falls for over two decades. Temperatures can be brutal (it’s -22 ºF on the day of our talk), but he doesn’t mind. “I’m most productive when the weather’s cold. If I were near a beach I might be distracted.” It’s affordable, too. “It’s like living in the 1970s as far as cost of living. If I lived in the Bay Area, I’d have to give blood to buy shoes.”
When Ford was younger, he dreamed of writing full-time, and the success of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, which spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list, afforded him the opportunity. But having the financial means to write full-time didn’t make writing a great second book, and a third, less challenging.
“You would think, you had this big hit and everything’s easy, but it’s not,” Ford says. “If you climb Mt. Everest, the mountain doesn’t get shorter every time you climb it again. But when you accomplish something you weren’t sure you could accomplish, that feels good.”
As the conversation winds down, Ford gets an unexpected knock on the door. It’s his neighbor, returning one of his dogs, which escaped through a dog door. With his mischievous pet safely back inside, Ford considers what’s next. He’d like to try his hand at more speculative fiction, perhaps another story set over multiple time periods, with multiple points of view.
“If I’ve learned to juggle three flaming chainsaws, I want to learn to juggle four,” he says. “I may lose fingers, but I’ll give it a shot.”
Elaine Szewczyk’s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s and other publications. She’s the author of the novel I’m with Stupid.