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Songs of Willow Frost Reader’s Guide

By Jamie Ford

Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford

READERS GUIDE

A Conversation with Jamie Ford
 
Random  House  Reader’s Circle: Your first novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, has been described as “a wartime-era Chinese-Japanese variation on Romeo and Juliet”  (The Seattle Times). In what ways is Songs of Willow Frost a different kind of love story, and why did you want to turn to this narrative next?
 
Jamie Ford: If I were to create a perfume, it would come in a cracked bottle and  be called “Abandonment.” That’s how Songs of Willow Frost opens. It’s another love story—and while there are boy-meets- girl aspects to the tale, the real love story is about a mother and her son, and about how two people  can be so close yet so far away from each other, and ultimately so misunderstood. I don’t think we ever really understand our parents until they’re  gone—at least  that’s been my experience. William feels that loss, and it affects him profoundly.  But then he has something many of us don’t get—the opportunity to find his mother again, to see her through new eyes.
 
RHRC: William is on a birthday outing with the Sacred Heart Orphanage when he sees a film star whose face and voice remind him of his long-lost mother, Liu Song. What was the role of orphanages during the Great Depression? Why would he suspect that she is still alive?
 
JF: When I began researching orphanages during the Great Depression, I was blown away by how many orphans still had living parents  (because that sort of defies the definition of an orphan, right?).

What I discovered was that two thirds of the kids in Seattle’s orphanages had at least one parent still living. Parents who could no longer support  them would take their kids to places like the Sacred Heart Orphanage, or in a few tragic cases abandon their children in public buildings, knowing they would eventually be remanded  into state custody.  Author Wallace Stegner was one of these orphans. His mother left him and his brother at Sacred Heart—the orphanage featured in Songs of Willow Frost, which still stands today— and returned a year later.

So it’s not at all unusual for William to suspect  that his mother might be out there, somewhere. Whether that hope makes it easier or harder for him and his fellow children in the long run—that’s  the question.
 
RHRC: William has to venture into Depression-era Seattle in order to find her—and he travels there in a creative way. Did you always intend for William to escape from Sacred Heart in a bookmobile?
 
JF: Sometimes reality is too wonderful to be denied. In this case, Seattle’s  first bookmobile hit the streets in 1931 with six hundred books, and it actually visited Sacred Heart, so it became  the perfect getaway vehicle, both literally and metaphorically. Sadly, the Depression caught up  to  the  bookmobile, and the program was cut near the end of 1932.  (Has there ever been an era when libraries haven’t had their budgets cut?).  Bookmobile service resumed  in 1947.

RHRC: Based in part on the first Chinese American movie star Anna May Wong, Liu Song—or Willow Frost, as she comes to be known—stands at a nexus point between Chinese and American culture and identity, between generations, and between the deep history of traditional Chinese  theater and the newer landscape of American movie houses. What sorts of choices and challenges does she face as an Asian American woman navigating life in the 1920s and the early American film industry? To what extent does her path mirror and diverge from that of her mother’s?
 
JF: Anyone who is the child of immigrants eventually gets caught in a whirlpool of personal hopes, dreams, familial expectations, cultural mores, misconceptions, and at times, outright discrimination.

Willow comes from a culture that traditionally values women as mothers and little more—where  women were banned  from the theater, where  men performed female roles onstage, and women associated with this form of entertainment were seen as less than chaste. But she’s also American-born, with opportunities within her reach but forever beyond her  grasp.  She’s too American for her Chinese suitors, but to men in the U.S. she’s viewed as an oddity at best and an object of desire at worst.

By becoming Willow, Liu Song is able to achieve the unfulfilled dreams of her parents, who were actors on stage—especially her mother—but even as Willow she’s limited. Like Anna May Wong, she can never be more than an exotic extra, condemned to be the villainess or victim. She always dies in her films, and is unable to find love on screen as well as in real life. For Lui Song, the success of Willow comes at a steep price.
 
RHRC: Willow breaks into the movie industry at a studio in Tacoma, Washington. What was the state’s role in early American film? Does it still bear the footprint of that era?
 
JF: Before the film industry coalesced in Southern California, there were viable studios in unusual places like Minnesota, Idaho, and even Tacoma, where H.C. Weaver Productions has long been forgotten.

Early in the research process  I called the Washington Film Office, and they told me the first film shot in Washington State was Tugboat Annie (1933). I’d  read  about movie crews on Mt. Rainier around 1924, so I knew the film office information was off. I kept digging and found press clippings  that  led to the H.C. Weaver  production stage,  which  at the time was the third-largest freestanding film space in America (the larger two were in Hollywood).

H.C. Weaver produced three films, Hearts and Fists (1926), Eyes of the Totem (1927), and The Heart of the Yukon (1927). These silent films were tied up in distribution and unfortunately released when talkies were overtaking their silent predecessors. The studio closed its doors as the Roaring Twenties stopped roaring. The building was converted into an enormous dance hall, which burned to the ground in 1932. The films have all been lost, though the Tacoma Public  Library has a wonderful collection of production shots by Gaston Lance, the studio’s art director.
 
RHRC: Film is a constant artistic presence throughout the novel, but music—obviously—also runs through Songs of Willow Frost. What importance do you see music having for William and Liu Song? Did music play a role in your writing process?
 
JF: Liu Song is suffering in silence. In fact, women in general didn’t have a collective voice until the Nineteenth Amendment, when women were guaranteed the right to vote. So music is transcendent for Liu Song—it  literally and metaphorically becomes her voice. And because of that, because of her singing, William recognizes her.

As far as music playing a role in the writing process, I always try to write for all five senses,  so music becomes part of the tapestry  of storytelling—plus,  certain songs mark the time and echo the backstory of my characters. Like Irving Berlin’s “When I Lost You.”
 
RHRC: You have said that Liu Song/Willow is also an amalgamation of your own mother and Chinese grandmother. Are there particular real-life  experiences that  worked their way into your story, and what was it like to write with them in mind?

JF: I come from a family of big families.  Both of my Chinese  grandparents had more siblings than you could count on one hand, yet my father was an only child. The reason for that is because my Chinese grandmother had a backroom “procedure” that  left her unable to bear more children.

And yet my grandmother was fierce. She was an alpha female at a time when it was perhaps culturally and socially unacceptable, but in America, as a U.S. citizen, she could become something different. That said, as a Chinese woman, she was still a minority within a minority, and unable to receive proper medical care.

My  mom, on the other hand,  was Caucasian.  But she was dirt-poor—so poor that when she became pregnant  with my oldest sister, she  could only dream of giving  birth in an actual hospital. That dream went unfulfilled, as her husband  at the time gambled away the money she’d saved for the delivery. But, like my grandmother, she picked herself up after every setback, after every sacrifice.

There are elements of both of them  in Willow—in the kinds of challenges she faces, and the determination with which she faces them and survives.
 
RHRC: Songs of Willow Frost provides “the kind of ending readers always hope for, but seldom get” (The Dallas Morning News). What do you think is the secret to a great ending?
 
JF: I see storytelling as making a contract  with the reader. I’m promising a certain journey, and good or bad, happy or sad, I need to deliver in a satisfying way—completing the story. But I’m also a big fan of redemptive endings and the type of endings where it feels as though a new story is just beginning, one that belongs to the reader’s imagination.
 
RHRC: Your touring has taken you into a wide variety of venues— bookstores, libraries, literary festivals, community reads programs, walking tours, museums, Asian American organizations, ESL classes, high  schools and colleges, writing workshops with faculty and inner-city youth, even men’s and women’s prisons.  What are some of your favorite ways to connect with your fans both through and beyond events?
 
JF: I’m always up for unusual events, whether it’s meeting with a homeless book group or visiting a men’s medium security prison. But beyond that I thoroughly enjoy social media. The writing life is somewhat monastic, so it’s great to connect via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram—the usual suspects—and at jamieford.com, naturally.
 
RHRC: What do you hope readers take away from Songs of Willow Frost?
 
JF: I hope they’re equally entertained and enlightened. I hope they value their time spent with Willow and William. And I hope they see growth in me as a writer. Is that too much to hope for? I mean, before the Beatles wrote Abbey Road they were singing, “She loves you, yeah-yeah-yeah.”

We all have to start  somewhere.
 
RHRC: Your novels are so richly detailed and clearly evoke Seattle in different historical periods. What does your research process for each novel look like? How do you bring each era to life?
 
JF: I collect a lot of ephemera, which is a fancy way of saying I have a very messy office filled with old maps, newspapers, magazines, theater handbills, postcards, and even old high school yearbooks (it’s amazing what you can find on eBay).

But I also spend time in places like the Wing Luke Museum and the Museum of History  and Industry in Seattle. I get to put on the white archivist gloves and sift the historical sand, and every once in a while I’ll find a bone—some little obscure detail that will work its way into the story.
 
RHRC: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet sold over 1.3 million copies, was on the New York Times bestseller list for more than two years,  won the Asian Pacific American Award for Literature, and was even transformed into a popular stage play. Why do you think it resonated so deeply with readers across  the  country? Are there any particularly memorable or surprising reactions that you’d like to share?
 
JF: At its core, Hotel is a love story—or actually a love-lost-and-then-found story, which I think everyone can relate to on some level. There’s a reason why people try to lose twenty pounds before class reunions. There are just some people in our lives whom we love, and lose, and unfailingly long for. They orbit our hearts like Halley’s Comet, crossing into our universe only once, or if we’re lucky twice, in a lifetime.

Hotel
also deals with race relations during an oft-forgotten period in U.S. history. As a researcher and storyteller, I like turning over rocks and looking at the squishy things underneath. I think others do, too.
 
As far as memorable reactions, here are three that immediately come to mind:
 
1. Being invited to the Minidoka Reunion (Minidoka was an internment camp outside Twin Falls, Idaho), where former internees had a karaoke night and sang “Don’t Fence Me In.”
2. Going to Norway and speaking to high school students who were assigned the book, which was surreal.
3. A sansei (third-generation Japanese  American) woman  sharing that  she had  read the book to her mother, a former internee, while she’d been in hospice, and that the book was the first time they’d talked about “camp.”
 
RHRC: What’s next for Jamie Ford?

JF: I’m currently working  on a new novel about a boy who was raffled off at the 1909 World’s Fair in Seattle.

Oh, and I need a nap. I think I have one scheduled for next year.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. William’s life at Sacred Heart is, he feels, a hard one. Do you agree? In the long run, do the caregivers at Sacred Heart do more to help or harm their young wards?

2. The orphans at Sacred Heart share a collective “birthday,” one for boys and one for girls. What would it be like to celebrate such an event? Would it feel less special without a focus on the individual, or even more joyful to share it with a community?

3. On May 4, 1931, the first bookmobile hit the streets of Seattle, where it did indeed visit the historical Sacred Heart Orphanage (as well as Boeing Field). Why do you think there was such a need to bring the library to its patrons, rather than allowing those patrons to visit the library as they chose?

4. What qualities does Liu Song share with her mother? How are their lives similar or different?

5. Does Liu Song’s mother represent strength, weakness, or a little of both? Do you think she knew she was a second wife?

6. Why doesn’t Liu Song study Cantonese Opera instead of pursuing a career in film and stage?

7. What do you think happened to Mr. Butterfield after the loss of his music store? Personally and professionally, how would he react to Liu Song’s newfound fame as Willow?

8. Imagine that you are Liu Song and pregnant under her circumstances. What would you do? Who might you tell? And would you keep the baby?

9. The novel explores the subject of abandonment, whether by willful desertion or by circumstance. What forms does such abandonment take among contemporary families?

10. In the time period the novel is set in, economic and social classes were clearly defined, and while change was desired by some, it was feared by others. Do you think the time we live in today is more just and fair, or are we in fact worse off?

11. The social worker Mrs. Peterson represents an outside authority at a time when mothers had fewer rights to their children than fathers. When did that begin to change and why?

12. During the early years of the silent-film era, studios and production companies could be found in most states. So why had much of the film industry congregated in Hollywood a decade later?

13. What factors contributed to the eventual demise of the grand movie palaces of the 1920s and ’30s?

14. Willow always knew where her son was, so why didn’t she come back sooner, especially as she gained success?

15. Why does Willow die in all of her films?

16. How do you think Charlotte’s death impacted Sister Briganti?

17. In the end, Willow comes back for William. What do you think happened to them after the novel’s conclusion? What happened to her career?

18. Overall, do you think the story is one of hope and promise or suffering and sacrifice?

 
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