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Original Essays

Cupid's Got a Hangover

by Jamie Ford
  1. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
    $10.50 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "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." Kirkus Reviews

    "[Ford] writes earnestly and cares for his characters, who consistently defy stereotype." Booklist

    "Jamie Ford's first novel explores the age-old conflicts between father and son, the beauty and sadness of what happened to Japanese Americans in the Seattle area during World War II, and the depths and longing of deep-heart love. An impressive, bitter, and sweet debut." Lisa See, bestselling author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

I'm such a sap. I admit it. Me. A total sucker for a good love story — and I can even tell you when it all began. I was nine years old, watching a '70s movie on NBC called James at 15. My given name is James, so I was vicariously interested in the story of one James Hunter, a precocious teen living in Oregon (where I was living at the time), who meets the girl of his dreams, played by Melissa Sue Anderson of Little House on the Prairie fame. And just after he wins her heart, he and his family up and move to Boston. Argh — I can still feel the pain and injustice of it all. Even at the tender age of nine, when his family slowly drove away and the credits began rolling, and that sad piano music kicked in, it brought tears to my eyes, and a punch in the shoulder from my brother.

Yes, I was a painfully sensitive lad. And, come to think of it, I've been that way ever since.

Take my first kiss for example. Age 16, with my first non-imaginary girlfriend — someone I was truly, madly, deeply in love with. Someone I had admired from afar for months. There we were, on her doorstep after homecoming, noses tilting in counter-rotations, the simplest of kisses, melting into each other in the cold Seattle night, then a starry-eyed goodbye.

I drove home that evening in my rusty '77 Honda Civic feeling like I was Alexander and I'd conquered the known world. In fact, when I went to work the next day as a busboy at a fancy seafood restaurant, I could not stop smiling. I grinned so much that the salty waitresses all began shouting, "Hey, look who lost the big V!" No one believed that I hadn't just lost my virginity. They thought I was being coy.

If only they knew.

Which is why my authorly maiden voyage, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, is unabashedly chock-full of your recommended daily allowance of heartfelt sentimentality and innocent affection. Themes of love and loss inspired by a movie I watched as a third grader. That movie, which I later found out had been written by the acclaimed Dan Wakefield, author of the '50s coming-of-age tale Going All the Way, became a short-lived TV series, praised by critics for its realism and sensitivity. Aspects I fought hard to maintain in my own book.

You'd be surprised at how many people couldn't understand that a novel could be a love story with only one real kiss. In fact, an agent I'd queried early on said, "I like the story, but you need to make the two main characters older — you know, like 17 or 18, so they can fully explore their relationship." As in, bow-chicka-wow-wow.

I blanched. Not that I couldn't write a sweatier version of Hotel. It's just that I kept thinking about classic love stories. I mean, would Casablanca be a better movie — would it be more entrenched in the firmament of cinema — if we saw a flashback of Rick and Ilsa making, as Shakespeare put it, the beast with two backs, in some Paris hotel? Would Gone with the Wind have been a more powerful love story if Rhett Butler had said, "Frankly my dear, I don't have a condom"?


In a society where fewer and fewer people actually read books, ostensibly because they're too busy donating two hours of their brain time to the latest installment of the Saw franchise, I think we're in need of a renaissance of innocence. Not a puritanical hysteria where we're putting fig leaves on Michelangelo's statue of David or anything, just a tiny cultural oasis from the noise of car crashes and blunt head trauma that's generally passed off as entertainment.

But then, I'm hopeless that way. I'm not James at 15. I'm James at 40.

Before my wife and I tied the knot, we attended one of those weekend retreats for the newly engaged. Keep in mind, we were much older than the other couples, already had kids, and consequently stood out like chaperones on prom night. This distinction was never more evident than when the host asked each couple to stand up and tell the story of how they met. Of the 20+ pairs, we were the only ones whose first meeting didn't involve Spring break* or Jell-O shooters. (Somewhere Cupid is passed out like Charles Bukowski next to an enormous vat of hillbilly moonshine).

And when the crowd of bleary-eyed, college-age, soon-to-be-newlyweds found out that my future wife and I had met at that hotbed of swinging singles activity — the Public Library — you should have heard the wave of "Ohhhhs" and "Ahhhhs." (Hey, stop laughing, Bat Girl was a librarian — and she was hot!)

There's just something about that unexpected moment, about first meetings and last goodbyes. Something sublime, something... universal.

So, Hotel is a throwback for me. To a time before relationships were spit out like sausage from that meat-grinder we call reality TV. Before MySpace and Facebook replaced notes passed in hallways. When quiet understatement spoke loudly. When crushes hurt and first loves were all-consuming, rather than all-consumating. I'd dodge the term old-fashioned but I'd embrace the term anachronistic — of just plain historical.

Because, as Paul McCartney once said, "You think that people would've had enough of silly love songs / I look around me and I see it isn't so..." Then again he later divorced his supermodel wife and was sued by her, so what does he know?

*In parts of Canada, Spring Break is called Reading Week, which just warms the cockles** of my heart.

**I have no idea what cockles are.

÷ ÷ ÷

An award-winning short-story writer, Jamie Ford is the great-grandson of Nevada mining pioneer Min Chung, who emigrated in 1865 from Kaiping, China, to San Francisco, where he adopted the Western name "Ford," thus confusing countless generations. spacer

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