Great Falls writer Jamie Ford’s third novel, "Love and Other Consolation Prizes," is loosely based on the true story of a young boy who was raffled off as “a healthy boy to a good home” during the 1909 World’s Fair in Seattle.
In Ford’s story, Ernest Young is a 12-year-old, half-Chinese charity student at a boarding school in Seattle. Sent away from starvation and poverty by his mother, he comes to Seattle after surviving not only the long sea voyage from China, but also an attempted murder on the lives of all the young boys on board. Young is the sole survivor. He takes his name from that of the policeman who pulled him nearly drowned from the frigid waters of Puget Sound. The winning raffle ticket belongs to the madam of a high end brothel in Seattle, where he goes to live.
"Consolation Prizes" is Young's story; the loves of his life that grow from his time as the brothel’s houseboy, and the defense and keeping of family secrets. The book’s narrative leaps back and forth in time between the days of the 1909 fair, and it’s aftermath, and the second Seattle World’s Fair, held in 1962. As an older man, Young finds himself trying to aid his ailing wife and her grapple with memory, while also trying to reconcile the life they left behind with the one they created.
Ford took time out from an expansive touring schedule to discuss his work.
Q: World’s Fairs used to be a huge deal, yet there hasn’t been one in the U.S. for 30 years. Were these two fairs something you wanted to base a story from, or were they just a byproduct of the particular idea you had about Ernest Young?
A: I really wanted to incorporate the World’s Fair first. I was always fascinated with the 1909 World’s Fair, because it was where the University of Washington is now, and it is really Seattle’s forgotten World’s Fair. As I was diving into that research I kept bumping into mention of this boy who was raffled off, and that was so compelling, so I really went down that rabbit hole.
Q: Well, and it’s dark too. There is grim stuff in the first third of your book, relating to slavery, indentured servitude, human trafficking, whatever you want to call it. That often seems like a little-known aspect of American history. This kind of thing wasn’t just a black-and-white issue, we were trafficking in everybody.
A: Yeah, that time period (1909) was a reflection of where we were as a society. People were coming into this country, basically being smuggled in de facto slaves, decades after the Emancipation Proclamation.
Q: I know it’s a slippery slope when one starts to talk about wanting to “educate” people with one’s work, but is that something in your mind, particularly as a mixed-race American as well, where you are thinking, “Well, here is my people’s story.”
A: Honestly, I don’t think of it that proactively. I like having Asian-American characters because it’s something that I relate to. In the back of my mind I’m aware there is an issue of representation, and that I’m helping to move that further down the road and that’s a good thing. But as far as larger historical themes, I go after them really because I’m curious about them myself, and I’m hoping that someone else wants to come along for the ride. I would probably write those books anyway if no one was reading them. I just enjoy the process and want to know more myself.
Q: You write richly-detailed historical fiction. Are you a history buff, and things trip your imagination and a story grows from that, or is it the story idea that comes first and leads to all the research?
A: When I’m writing historical things, I almost have a historical OCD, I overdo it. Especially this new book. I probably could have made up half of the historical details but I didn’t want to, I wanted everything to be real and accurate. For "Love and Other Consolation Prizes" I went really deep with historical details, and occasionally I bump into someone who just geeks out over those details. That makes me so happy. I kind of do it for those reasons. There is a scene in the book where this elegant dinner is being served and I’m highlighting what they’re serving, and as an “Easter egg” I used the menu from the last meal on the Titanic. I ran into a guy who told me, as soon as he saw a certain kind of potato dish, that he thought it was similar to what they served on the Titanic. When I told him it was, he was just over the moon with joy. I like hiding things like that for history geeks to find.
Q: At a time when fewer authors are out doing book tours, looking at your schedule, it seems you are touring enough for everybody. Is that something you embrace?
A: In addition to my publisher, who picked up about half the events, I have two speaking agents that I said no to a lot last year because I was so busy. This year, I had the book coming out, so I just said, yes, if it sounds interesting, let’s go do it. After saying yes all year, a couple months ago I looked at kind of the aggregate of it all and realized, holy cow, I’m living on the road. But these speaking engagements I view as part of my career. I have different talks for different venues; different talks for schools, say, versus various books and things.
Q: So you are doing things beyond just the usual “writer out selling their books” routine, right?
A: Yeah, I call it literary vaudeville. It’s 50 percent entertainment, 40 percent education, and 10 percent reading. I really don’t read much at all. I did an event in Minneapolis with Paula Poundstone, Tom Perrotta and Gabrielle Union — a fundraiser to raise money for the library system — and nobody read anything. Everyone just got up and did their thing to entertain the crowd.
When I do book events, I love it when people come to the event and say, “This is the first author event I went to and I can’t believe it, I had such a great time and I can’t wait to go to another one.” I don’t want to be a detriment to my craft by being a bad event.
Q: Do you embrace getting out in front of your audience, or would you prefer to be the reclusive genius sending out manuscripts from an undisclosed location?
A: No, I enjoy it. I enjoy singing karaoke even though I can’t sing. I have a good time in the same way I have fun doing book gigs. Most of my career, you know, my work habits are like the Unabomber. I’m in my hoodie in my office just banging at a keyboard. That’s 90 percent of my life, then every two years I get to have a new book and go out and support it and interact with humans. I get to spend working time in libraries and bookstores, which is where I like to spend time in my free time too. But I get to connect with readers and offer them something new, and that’s magic for me.