Two Montana novels, two adaptations for television or film announced in a single week.
Great Falls writer Jamie Ford's celebrated debut, "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet," is on its way to becoming a film. Missoulian Richard Fifield's first book, "The Flood Girls," could become a television series.
On Wednesday, it was announced that the option had been sold for Ford's book, a love story set against the backdrop of World War II internment camps. Producer Diane Quon acquired the film rights and brought with her Joseph Craig as producer. "Star Trek" legend and author George Takei will executive produce.
Talks about the project had been underway for a year. "It's kind of like giving birth," Ford said in a phone interview. "You've been pregnant for so long and finally have something you can share."
They anticipate that production will begin in 2018.
Ford's novel takes place in 1980s Seattle, when a Chinese-American named Henry Lee visits a shuttered hotel in the Japantown neighborhood. An item left by the Japanese-Americans rounded up by the U.S. government and held in internment camps stirs Lee's memories of a connection with a Japanese-American girl, Keiko Okabe, as a teenager decades earlier during wartime.
Kirkus Reviews called it, "(a) timely debut that not only reminds readers of a shameful episode in American history, but cautions us to examine the present and take heed we don’t repeat those injustices."
Ford, whose great-grandfather emigrated from China, said it's a story that needs to be told. It's one that now belongs to everyone, he said, especially "to those generations of Japanese-Americans who were sent to the camps" and their families and descendants.
More broadly, Ford said he believes the book's popularity can be attributed to the love story at its core. There are 2 million copies in print, according to his publisher. Translations have found wide audiences in Norway, Italy and other faraway places.
Ford and a succession of film agents had been working since 2010 to find the right team for the project.
His first agent told him that she doubted the book, whose protagonists are Japanese, Chinese and African-American, likely wouldn't get made at all in Hollywood.
"The world has slowly evolved and become more desirous of authenticity on-screen and I think that's a good thing," he said. "We're a long ways from back when Marlon Brando was dressing up as a Japanese guy on film."
Ford heard 15 to 20 proposals, some of which were merely a bad fit, and some that took unsettling liberties with his story.
He talked with one producer who wanted to entirely eliminate Henry, Ford's protagonist, and create a new, white character as Keiko's love interest. Another suggested taking the entire production to China, glossing over the vast difference between Japan and China, their cultures, and people.
With Quon, however, he said he found a producer who had "the best intentions for the book." He'd met Takei when the actor was wrapping up his musical, "Allegiance," which is also set during the WWII interment camp.
In a statement to Deadline, Takei said he was “captivated by Jamie Ford’s novel when I first read it and visualized a compelling film in my mind’s eye. I saw the drama of enduring love despite governmental racism, the passage of time and the vicissitude of life. What a wonderful film it would make. Now we are beginning the exciting adventure of making it happen.”
Ford will co-write the screenplay and is on his second draft. "There's a learning curve but it's a wonderful problem to figure out," he said. (He noted that he's willing to hand it over to the right screenwriter in the future.)
They hope to film in Washington and Idaho, in keeping with the book's settings.
Ford is on a book tour for his third novel, "Love and Other Consolation Prizes," which goes on sale Sept. 12 through Ballantine Books. The novel was inspired by a true story: Ford found an article in the Seattle Times about a baby given away at the 1909 World's Fair in Seattle. In his novel, a 12-year-old boy named Ernest Young, a half-Chinese orphan at a boarding school, is brought to the fair and raffled off. A madam at an upscale brothel "wins," and takes Ernest in. His coming-of-age in an unconventional family and environment develops into a "complex love story," according to Kirkus Reviews.
Ford will appear in Missoula for a reading and signing at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 17, at Fact & Fiction, 220 N. Higgins Ave. He also contributed a short story to "Montana Noir," an anthology of new crime fiction set in Big Sky Country that came out this week.
Fifield's debut, "The Flood Girls," has been optioned for development by two companies in tandem: Gina Rodriguez's I Can & I Will Productions and Drew Barrymore's Flower Films.
"I had always hoped that the right people would find it, and I couldn't have asked for a better result. Gina and Drew are adventurous and socially responsible producers," Fifield said in an email.
Rodriguez is best known for her title role as Jane Villanueva in The CW series "Jane the Virgin"; Barrymore's company has produced her own projects ("Charlies' Angels" and "The Santa Clarita Diet" on Netflix) and some cult films ("Donnie Darko.")
They've teamed with writer Corinne Brinkerhoff ("Jane the Virgin," "American Gothic") to produce a script for CBS Studios, and will ideally film a pilot episode. CBS Studios makes content for lots of platforms, Fifield said, including the television network, film studios, and streaming platforms.
Fifield said that when the team is happy with a spec script they'll begin shopping it around.
The Troy native graduated from Sarah Lawrence with a degree in creative writing. He'd spent about two decades in social work and hadn't written fiction in seven years when he cranked out the first draft of "The Flood Girls" in one stretch.
He drew on his small-town upbringing to create the setting of Quinn, a northwestern Montana town of 986 people. Rachel Flood, a recovering alcoholic, returns home after almost a decade to make amends with her bar-owner mother, her best friend, and an assortment of other colorful characters. She befriends Jake, a gay outsider teen with an interest in colorful fashion, and joins a softball team, the Flood Girls, who are aiming for a win.
While many books sentimentalize small-town Montana life, Fifield lovingly satirizes it with no shortage of vulgarity and heart. That tone found a wide audience, and the book was picked up for coveted placement in Target stores nationwide.
"The Flood Girls" was released in February 2016 on Simon & Schuster. Much to Fifield's delight, it included a jacket quote from one of his literary forebears and heroes, the late Jackie Collins: " 'The Flood Girls' is a wild and crazy debut novel by a talented young writer. Edgy and original, it's worth the trip."
He said he counts himself as a "lucky bastard" no matter what form the series might take. His contract includes a consulting role if it's developed into a series.
"I get to show up on set and make sure it's authentic to Montana and the era. More ranch dressing! More Black Hills Gold jewelry! Denim scrunchies on any actress with long hair!"
Fifield has been working on a few follow-up projects while living in the woods in the Eureka area the past year, he said, "unvarnishing" himself and embracing his newfound label as a "Montana writer."
"There are so many incredible people that call themselves Montanans, as diverse a group as any metropolitan area. I haven't grown a beard, but I've lived without plumbing for a year. As a high maintenance gay guy, I certainly needed the humility and perspective. I've fallen in love with this state all over again," he wrote.