For as long as Seattle has been a city, people have come to town and people have left town. Earlier this month, the Seattle Review of Books introduced a feature called Exit Interview, in which we talk with an author who recently left town about their Seattle experience. The natural pair to that feature is New Hire, an interview with an author who’s just arrived here. (If you have any suggestions for a subject of an upcoming Exit Interview or a New Hire, please drop us a line.) Our first New Hire is Lars Garvey Laing-Peterson, a writer of (among other things) literary criticism and assorted non-fiction who came to town and immediately became involved with Lit Crawl Seattle and the Hugo House.
What brings you to Seattle?
Two things, really, but they're connected. About five years ago, my best friend Alan moved out here. During my visits to see him, I noticed in Seattle some echoes of my years in Stockholm, Sweden, one of the happiest times of my life — the proximity to the water, the fact that both places are essentially cities of islands, the thriving arts and music scenes, all the people hanging out in parks on long summer days, the pines lining the highway, the attitudes and openness of the people I met (still have never experienced the "Seattle freeze"), even the entwined overpasses you see as you drive up the 5 from SeaTac into the city. I was visiting Seattle two or three times a year and couldn't quite shake my growing affection for the city. Alan sensed this and pushed pretty hard for me to move west.
It got to a point where I was running out of excuses why I was staying in the D.C. area. After eight years, I was feeling stagnant and suffocated in Northern Virginia, and D.C. was rapidly changing in ways that didn't appeal—parts of town that many folks were worried about walking in at night just a few years ago were suddenly becoming rows of luxury condos and upscale restaurants. I was starting to feel like Grover from Noah Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming, realizing that one thing had ended and not sure what to do next—and worse, I was 30, not in my early 20s, as Baumbach's characters were. I almost moved to New York City, but that fell apart, and I realized I was done with the east coast, for a while at least. I was born in New Jersey, spent time all along the eastern seaboard growing up, and had returned to the Mid-Atlantic after six years at boarding school in England and four in Sweden. After struggling to find a way to move back to Scandinavia, I eventually decided to move west — that all-too-American movement, desire. San Francisco had been the spot I thought I'd end up, as my father grew up there, but Seattle stole my heart.
What were you doing before you moved here?
After I finished my master's degree in English Literature at George Mason University, I went to work for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, first as the Registration Manager, and ending my two year tenure with them as their Events Manager. It seemed all too fitting that the first conference I worked was the Seattle one. That trip didn't hurt Seattle's chances of becoming my new home, especially after meeting so many incredible writers and artists. I was thrilled when a coast-to-coast ice storm grounded planes for two days after the conference, affording my then-girlfriend and I some more time here. Interestingly, though, it was actually the Minneapolis conference that opened up a lot of doors for me here in Seattle. By chance, Kristen Millares Young came to the help desk needing assistance with the book fair stage her event was going to be on, and after I got that all sorted out she gave me her card. She ended up introducing me to Brian McGuigan who invited me to join the planning committee for Lit Crawl Seattle. I also bumped into people from Hugo House, a few for the second time, and started volunteering there soon after the conference.
Do you have any hopes for your Seattle experience? (What do you think Seattle could do for you? What do you think you can do for Seattle?)
A lot of my early hopes have already come true. Really, I moved here to become a part of a creative scene again, to try to expand the cracks in the dam that's been holding back all these ideas and projects in my head for years, and now I'm finally writing instead of constantly outlining, working on music again, and am surrounded by some of the most talented people I've ever met. And as excited as I am to be part of this community, I'm more excited to help support it. I'm thrilled with the work we're doing at Lit Crawl Seattle, and am currently looking for a position with an organization that engages the community through the arts. After years of working on a massive, roving literary conference, I'm really looking forward to being an active part of a local scene, especially one that has treated me kindly ever since I moved here. Really hoping to soon be in a position to start giving back more than I can right now.
Has anyone offered you any advice about Seattle?
I've been told never to wear any of my 49ers jerseys or shirts anywhere near SoDo during game days. (Maybe this has stopped being the case ever since the 49ers completely fell apart in the offseason and will be lucky to finish third in the NFC West.)
But more seriously, I've been told to be patient with my professional aspirations, as Seattle is a city where "what you know" is important, but not as important as "who you know." And that's fine by me. I'm willing to put my time in. At the moment, I'm working any jobs that come up—dishwashing and food prep at some bars in Ballard, temp work some weeks, babysitting, anything that keeps the rent paid and the student loans people off my back. Feeling a bit like a less miserable, less alcoholic Factotum-era Henry Chinaski. Things eventually worked out for him, right? Right?
If you could define an ideal literary community, what would it be like?
I've answered this question many ways in the past, depending on the situation—at three in the morning after an MFA party when exhaustion and drink makes you feel philosophical, during the long haul and overstimulation that is the AWP conference, when discussing the differences between, say, a thriving music scene and a burgeoning literary one. I feel like the best answer I can give will be incomplete, one that I'll probably wish I could rework in the coming weeks. An entire text could be written about what goes into an ideal literary community, and a successful one would be written by someone far more intelligent than me.
At this moment, I feel like an ideal literary community is one that's all around you — not just as an idea, or convergence or ideas, or a group of individuals, but physically, too, as it is here in Seattle: the gorgeous library downtown, Hugo House and Artist Trust on the Hill, the wonderfully large number of arts organizations at work in the city, all the local and second-hand bookstores surviving in the shadow of Amazon, the numerous readings and classes and events going on all the time.
When it's all around you, there's a sense that it isn't going anywhere, that it won't disappear, and that you can make a contribution, you can add your verse. There's something anchoring about all of these halls of letters, of music, of art. As I'm sure many former grad students experienced, as I did, after graduation, your close-knit community suddenly becomes a diaspora-of-sorts. The center doesn't hold — people move home, get jobs in other cities, continue their studies at a PhD program in another state; your friends meet wonderful partners, get married (or form another lasting bond), think about starting families, have kids, etc. And that's wonderful, and there's a beauty in the ephemerality of those years where you were young, hungry, part of something special. But once it's gone, there's that distance, the difference between a friend critiquing your work in the booth of a dive bar and doing so over email — the realization that what once was no longer is. It makes me happy to walk to my current temp job downtown and pass the library on 4th and Madison, to walk home through Cal Anderson and remember there's a reading at Hugo House or Elliott Bay Book Company soon, or a cassette tape DJ night at Vermillion, that we have a Lit Crawl meeting coming up, that there's all of this creative energy, not just in the air, but manifested, being given homes, even if only for one night.
As important as I feel these anchoring forces are, I think literary communities fail if they aren't open and curious, and I'm thankful for the openness I've experienced in Seattle, for the curiosity this city has inspired in me. I'm looking forward to hopefully being part of an organization inspiring further curiousness, further discussions, and welcoming more people into this community, as I was welcomed in.