Talking with Steve Toutonghi about all the work a book cover has to do

Next May, Seattle author Steve Toutonghi is publishing his second novel, Side Life, with Soho Press. Today, Toutonghi and Soho are exclusively sharing the book's cover with Seattle Review of Books readers. (That's it right up above this paragraph.) The novel — about a discouraged internet entrepreneur who takes a demeaning job as a housesitter in a billionaire's tech-haunted mansion — has to convey a lot of information in its cover: it has to look futuristic but not too distant, it has to convey the sense that it's a thriller, and it has to stand out from all the rest of the books that will be coming out next year. I talked with Toutonghi about the process of creating and choosing a cover for a book, and what kind of work he thinks a successful cover has to do. This interview has been lightly edited.

Our readers are very interested in the relationship between writers and the covers of their books. I think people tend to believe that authors have a lot of control over that process, but most of them don't. Tell us what the process was like for you. This is your second book, and it’s your second with Soho Press, right?

Yeah. I'll start with the last book, because I think it may have influenced how things went with this one. I really didn't have much of an idea of what to expect that first time. I received a proof of the cover and I loved it, and I wrote back to Soho that I loved it, and that was pretty much my degree of involvement in the cover design, which was fine with me.

With this one, when I received the cover file I thought it was just an incredibly smart interpretation of the content. I had some conversations with booksellers about the function of the cover in different contexts, and so I had a question I wanted to raise with the publisher, and I said, "What about this thing that I heard might be a concern for booksellers?" And then they took my concern into consideration.

And a couple weeks later they sent the new proof of the cover — it was same concept, but I had asked a question about the colors that were used, and they adjusted the color. So all in all, it was a very positive experience. Certainly, they listened to me, and they took it into account. But they, you know, started the design process and sort of walked through the initial context and all that stuff without me, I didn't have visibility into that. The things that I did get were really polished, professional, very smart takes on the content of the book.

So I was happy with the process, but I didn't have a lot of sort of early input into it, which was actually probably the right thing to do because they know what they're doing. Covers are really complex — they're doing a ton of work. The designers who work on them have worked on a lot of projects, and the people at my publishing house do a fantastic job. I'm more than happy to have the kind of experience that I had with them. It felt like a very, very much the right degree of influence for me.

Yeah, writers are not necessarily great at visual communication. Often I think what a writer senses a good cover might be is a little bit distorted. Are there any covers of books that are not your own that you really enjoy? And, conversely, are any covers that have always bugged you as a reader?

Honestly, you know, there's this whole kind of line of covers that are using conventions of genre. To me, they’re covers that seem cheesy or not all that interesting. But in a lot of cases the people building those covers are talking with an audience that I'm not really used to communicating with, so I don't know really what they're doing. I feel a little reluctant to pass judgment on them. I'll look at a cover and think, "well, I'm not super-excited about that," but that doesn't necessarily mean the designer didn't hit their marks or do the thing that they were trying to do.

Right, there's a common language in genre covers that fans understand. Your publisher Soho is in the mystery space, but their books don't look like the covers of a lot of mysteries and thrillers that are out there, right? Their books certainly don't look like the sort of thing that you think of when you think of Sue Grafton or, you know, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Yeah, I agree. I don't know if you've seen their Soho color map? They have a poster that they printed in 2016 where they had their mystery authors aligned by color. The point of the poster was showing that they had this large library of very high-quality mystery writers and their design process had resulted in enough similarity to show them as a library with a coherent visual identity. One of the ways that they're doing a really incredible job is through their focus on high-quality design and doing things right.

There’s a book that's coming out from Soho shortly, Sip by Brian Allen Carr. I think that's a beautiful cover. I love the way that the title is sort of partially obscured by the smoke, and I think it's very elegant and also a little threatening. Also if you read the synopsis it seems appropriate for the content. I haven't read the book, but -

[Reading the synopsis] “…the highly regimented life of those inside dome cities who are protected from natural light…,” OK. That makes sense.

And people drinking their shadows.

Yeah. That looks very appropriate, and in the hands of another publisher, I bet it would be more genre-y. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

Yeah, and I think if you want to go into action, they also have Robert Rapino's books. Those books have, I think, a really striking visual identity that's really clear and that speaks, I think to sort of the precision of the concept. The animals get smart and attack the humans and fight with each other. The covers really speak to the big-concept clarity of the world he's creating.

They're very sort of cool and futuristic.

Yeah, but isn't it interesting how it can be cool and futuristic, and also just a cat's face?

Yeah.

I like that. I love that. And then diverging from Soho, there's a lot of really cool things happening from Viking books. What they did with the redesign of the Murakami books — I think those are really cool.

They fit altogether in sort of a unified graphic, which is crazy, and the elements kinda spill off one cover and onto another.

I hadn't seen them like this all laid out together like that. Yeah, that’s kind of a dream for an author, right?

I think so.

When I started reading novels, there were the Vonnegut covers with the giant "V." They don't really have much of a graphical element on them, but that's how I read through Vonnegut. I would look for those books and find them and read them based on their covers.

That’s an interesting example, because I know exactly what you're talking about. My mind immediately calls up an image of them.

So bringing it back to your cover for a bit, you said you got some advice from a bookseller on the new cover. Can you talk a little bit about what the bookseller's input was?

I'm just going to talk generally about conversations I've had with booksellers about covers, and not specifically about the covers of my books. So, for example, I'm used to going to a bookstore and I'll see a cover — the spine of a cover, or the cover's facing on a shelf. Booksellers talked a lot about the cover existing on a table in the context of a bunch of other books, which was something I hadn't really thought very much about. And you know, the facing cover on a shelf is in a different context because it's likely to have spines on either side of it. And then, you know the spine is another context. But on the table, you want a cover that's going to pop a little bit, that's going to suggest that a person browsing the books on the table pause and pay attention. You want something that won't wash out.

One of the booksellers talked a lot about how he liked the covers to have some kind of internal color tension, so that it didn't rely on tension being established by books next to it. Because colors in the publishing industry sometimes move cyclically. So, a certain pallette becomes widely used, and then there's sort of a movement to another pallette.

Oh yeah, that's totally true. I think last year at this time bright yellow was in vogue — you would just go into a bookstore and there would happen to be like five bright yellow books on the front table at a bookstore. And it's not coordinated, obviously. Nobody wants their book to look like everyone else’s, but it's just one of those weird things that happens with fashion and design where people follow trends without even realizing it.

Yes, and so he was saying, “look, you're going to run the risk of that happening. So try and create some contrast on your cover, so that if you get into that situation you don't lose the browser's eye as they pass across the cover. I thought that was interesting.

It seems like there a lot of conversation about the degree of legibility — there's a tension between the legibility of the text and the freedom of graphic design that the designer feels that they can explore as a way to express the emotional content and emotional relationship with the book. I think that's really interesting — how the designer approaches the idea of legibility versus the emotional design.

Can you talk about where you think the cover of your new book resonates with the story?

The story has a note of urgency, but it is also set in a very familiar context. And so they did this really wonderful thing with the colors. The colors are kind of bright and they pop and the title is two really simple words, but they’re arranged in such a way that there's this nice tension. So I feel they did a really good job of connecting the design and the content of the story.

And then there's cats, which provide familiar context and are potentially comforting. But the cat in the story has a really specific role, and I think it's nicely reflected in the way that the cat appears on the cover.

I'm sort of at the edge of my seat to see what will this look like in the context of a table at a store.

Another thing that I like about that cover is the text is sort of large and bold, but also part of the overall composition in a nice way. So the cat and the colors become kinda abstract as you shrink down to Goodreads size. For me, I feel like it's successful at communicating that sense of tension and familiarity at the various sizes you’ll see the cover in. It's important to do that.

That hadn't even occurred to me: the different ways covers are presented these days. You've got to communicate the book’s contents on a table with a bunch of other objects. You have to communicate it as something that belongs on somebody's shelf at home, but you also have this postage stamp size that's got to grab people's attention on social media. That's a lot of levels.

It really is. There's so much going on. There are so many moving parts that as an author, it’s really useful to me to feel comfortable that I have people who are experts, who have experience, and who have a track record advocating for their concerns in the design process.

It's like this crazy, very complicated moving target, and it's amazing how many beautiful covers are out there, given all those constraints.

The Sunday Post for August 13, 2017

Each week, the Sunday Post highlights a few articles good for slow consumption over a cup of coffee (or tea, if that's your pleasure). Settle in for a while; we saved you a seat. You can also look through the archives.

"Ready Player One" is a terrible book and it will be a terrible movie

There’s nothing like a solid takedown, especially of a book that, apparently, many people disliked but were afraid to confess to disliking until the movie trailer came out. We could go deep here on how nerd culture became cool, and whether we’ve hit peak nerd and are ready for a nerd backlash, but maybe let’s just take this at face value: Ready Player One had the references, but not the heart, of Among Others. One round was enough.

Nearly every one of Ready Player One’s faults is a direct result of Cline’s authorial narcissism. The writing process appears to have begun with the question: What if the entire world revolved around me, and the specific video games and movies I like? The rest was assembled around that essential core. Cline is far from the first author to write a self-insert wish fulfillment narrative, but he may be the first to write one this lazy and self-indulgent.
At the heart of every restaurant

It’s a narrow line: spend a day in one of the lowest-paid and least-respected jobs in the food industry; write a shiny, self-deprecating-but-not-really, slice-of-life story; but don’t condescend or overwrite the reality of working your ass off for very little money in an environment where your colleagues may not even speak your language.

Food critic Tom Sietsema does a reasonable job with his recounting of a day as a dishwasher in a high-pressure restaurant kitchen, and there’s lot of interesting stuff about the job itself — and how the job is changing, thanks in part to successful chefs who got their start with their arms buried in suds. Here’s hoping equal salary goes along with the new titles and upgraded uniforms.

The median annual wage for the 500,000 or so dishwashers in the United States is about $20,000, up only $4,000 or so from just over a decade ago. But a few restaurants, including the French Laundry, give cleaners the stature of sous chefs and extend titles that capture the broad range of responsibilities.

“We don’t call them dishwashers, but porters,” says Keller, who got his start washing dishes in his mother’s restaurant, the late Bay & Surf in Laurel, Md. “We give them the same respect we give anyone else in the restaurant.” Indeed, the only difference between the embroidered uniforms worn by his chefs and his porters are the latter’s short sleeves.

The Front Row

This series of photographs of front-row fans, taken by documentary photographer Jessica Lehrman from the concert stage, are stellar: the human face (and body) burning with adrenaline, jubilation, awe, and fury. Look especially for the outliers in each image — the stone-faced security guard, the blue-lit skeptic, the man whose eyes drift from the star and meet the camera dead-on.

The front-row fans are willing to be crushed against a metal barricade, hundreds, maybe thousands of people swaying and pulsing behind them, all connected to the same rhythm.

There are weepers, Instagrammers, those who need to live-stream all their experiences.

The fanatics know every single word.

Nobody Knows What Lies Beneath New York City

There’s a surprising amount of romance in Bloomberg Businessweek’s soul — witness this piece by Greg Milner on NYC’s subterranean mirror. We’ve mapped the surface of the planet down to the last ripple and bump; maybe the final frontier is under our feet.

New York City’s daunting infrastructural labyrinth is like the “Here be dragons” decorating ancient maps. Underneath the 6,000 miles of asphalt and concrete road lie thousands of miles of water, sewer, gas, telecommunications, and electrical infrastructure. And let’s not forget the 500 miles of underground subway tracks or Con Edison’s 100-mile steam delivery system. In its entirety, it’s known to no one.
The Loveliest Living Fossil

An ode to the numero by type designer Jonathan Hoefler, a geeky piece that philosophizes about punctuation, reminisces over a few lost forms (the asterism!), and winds its way to a detailed exploration of the main character (pun intended). The internet is swarming with this kind of “inside look” from industry experts; here’s an enjoyable example based on real knowledge and obvious love for the subject.

At its leading edge, punctuation is volcanically active, giving shape to concepts that move far faster than words. Anyone communicating today has seen #topics and #themes and #categories identified this way, using a symbol that was intuitively understood and replicated even before it was first called a hashtag in 2007. The symbol and its meaning are now universally recognized, transcending even the locality of language, but their use is scarcely a decade old — an astounding accomplishment for a bit of lexical fluff, when you consider that the newfangled OMG was first recorded in 1917 (and in a letter to Winston Churchill, no less.)

Only a few days left in the Seattle Writing Prompts short story contest, judged by Matt Ruff

Normally, in this space, you'd find a Seattle Writing Prompt. Today we're pre-empting to bring you this reminder to enter our short story contest.

So, writers, take note: August 15 is the deadline for our short story contest. Tidy up your commas, tighten up your characters, and hit “send” by midnight Tuesday. We can’t wait to see what you’ve made.

We’ll pay $100 to publish the winning story — and run an interview with the author by co-founder Paul Constant the same week. Get your story in front of our readers, and get to tell your story to our readers. It's great exposure, and we're paying you to get it!

Really, a writing contest, on a book review site?

Yes. Seattle is home to fantastic writers, established and emerging, and we want to see your name on the site.

Every Saturday, we run the Seattle Writing Prompts: a column that explores a part of Seattle and offers prompts based on the city’s history, or mis-history. Rain City’s home to a million stories, and many of them are yours.

This is our first-ever story contest, and we don't publish fiction very often. Our judge is local writer Matt Ruff, author of Lovecraft Country — just listed as one of the finalists for the Washington State Book Awards.

How it works
  1. Look through our Seattle Writing Prompts archive and take inspiration from one of the prompts.

  2. Write a short story whose concept was sparked by the prompt. You don’t need to follow it exactly, but it would be nice to see where you began. Format is open — flash fiction and comics score just as high as longform. Surprise us.

  3. Submit your story, and let us know what prompt inspired it, by August 15, 2017. We’ll do an initial pass, then send them on to Matt Ruff. We’ll announce his pick here in early September.

  4. Send to submissions@seattlereviewofbooks.com, with the subject line “Seattle Writing Prompts Contest Entry.”

About our judge

Matt Ruff is the author of six novels; the most, recent, Lovecraft Country is a WSBA finalist and set to become a series on HBO, produced by Jordan Peele and JJ Abrams. Matt’s novel Set This House in Order was a Washington State Book Award winner in 2004.

Fine print

You’re selling us, essentially, first serial rights to your story. You retain full copyright to your work. There is no minimum or limit on word count, but we are looking for short stories instead of prose poems. You can be the arbiter of what that means to you. We consider comics short stories. We pay on publication. Interview will require you to meet with someone from the site for about 30 minutes, but that can be on Skype if you can’t do it in person. You do not need to live in Seattle to enter this contest, but we retain the right to weight stories with strong Seattle connections more heavily.

You may recall that Ivan Schneider — frequent contributor and friend of the Seattle Review of Books — in his interview with David Shields, talked about his delicious outsider theory on how Cervantes intended Don Quixote to have a talking dog character.

Schneider turned that theory into an academic paper titled "The Search for Dog in Cervantes", which was just published in the peer-reviewed Humanties journal, in their special "Animal Narratology" issue. You can read the whole thing online.

This Tuesday, August 15th, Ivan is hosting a private event at Mercer Street Books to celebrate the publication. If you would like to attend this memorable event, contact Ivan for an invitation. It sounds like it will be one for the ages.

The Help Desk: Downward dog-earing

Cienna Madrid is on vacation. Please enjoy this column from the 2015 Help Desk archives. And please remember to keep sending your questions! Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Ask her at advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

Is dog-earing the pages of a book morally, ethically, or spiritually wrong? What about underlining?

Brooke from Capitol Hill

Dear Brooke,

In a world where Ted Nugent, Donald Trump, and Mark Driscoll can all boast of being New York Times bestselling authors, I have a hard time labeling anything short of a ham sandwich wrapped in pages of the Koran as morally, ethically, or spiritually wrong (especially if the infidel sandwich is thrown its own ticker-tape parade in Mecca during Ramadan).

But I digress.

A good book should have a much longer lifespan than you and far more friends than could fit at your funeral. So yes, there is an etiquette to how you handle good books and this is it: Use pen only for inscriptions. If you want to underline or respond to select passages, do it in pencil so that when you’re dead, your loved ones can read your thoughts and then carefully erase them. If you highlight anything outside of a school textbook, you are a dick (even then, turning text an aggressively hard-to-read shade does not make it more knowable. Learn to take notes like a civilized person.)

Finally, don’t dog-ear pages. On the scale of infidel sandwiches, this gaffe is more upsetting than sacrilegious (think Jesus stumping for Subway’s new gluten-free tuna melt). Still, if you can’t find one old receipt, gum wrapper, divorce decree, etc. to mark your place in a book then you're about as useful as Trump's thoughts on the economy, Driscoll's thoughts on women, and Nugent's thoughts on everything else.

You’re welcome,

Cienna

The Glass Castle puts a Hollywood lie on a true story

"When it comes to my family," Jeannette Walls scolds her fiancee early in The Glass Castle, "let me do the lying, okay?" In this part of the film, Walls is portrayed by Brie Larsen as a steely gossip columnist, and the line is delivered with a forcefulness that makes it clear she's not kidding. It's an interesting line to begin the film with, because Castle is based on Walls's memoir of the same name, and it's one of those memoirs that feels too sensationalistic to be true.

Walls grew up in a nonconventional family: her brilliant alcoholic father kept them moving around the country, often to avoid arrest for some confrontation or another. Her mother was frequently oblivious to the danger surrounding her children. And her three siblings were raised without access to traditional education or financial security. Unlike some of the other too-crazy-to-be-true memoirs of its time, though — Running with Scissors, for example, was largely deflatedCastle seems to have withstood the scrutiny that came with its bestseller status. It's one of those horrible, bizarre stories that feels like a lie, but is actually true.

And now here comes Hollywood to blur the line between reality and fantasy. This adaptation of Castle deserves your respect, at least, for not giving the book the softball treatment. There are scenes of child endangerment in this movie that will make most adult viewers clench every muscle in their body. Jeanette's father Rex (Woody Harrelson, giving a half-brilliant, half-cliched performance) is a charming rogue and also a sloppy, violent drunk. The family is at once a coherent, loving unit and an abusive snowball of codependence, hurtling toward destruction.

I'm making it sound less entertaining than it is. For its first half, Castle is a breezy movie with some genuinely funny lines and two or three masterfully shot sequences. The film is structured along two timelines, with an adult Jeannette reflecting back on her life in flashbacks, and the screenplay does a decent job of slowly revealing the complexity of its characters over the distance of many scenes.

And the narrative is buoyed by some fantastic little character touches along the way. Rex fiddles with a doorknob while expounding in a grandiose monologue about all the unnecessary problems the Malevolent Doorknob Industry has unleashed on the world, and the moment feels perfect to the character and nicely underplayed. The child actors are terrific. For a few brief moments, it seems like the kind of movie that might get remembered at Oscar time.

Unfortunately, Castle can't sustain that momentum. The score is so treacly that it consistently undermines the film's emotional beats. Adult Jeannette's struggles are portrayed as too pat. The aging and de-aging of characters leaves a lot to be desired—Larson is not a convincing high schooler, and Harrelson looks too old to be young in early scenes and too young to be old in later scenes. And the movie is too quick to forgive some heinous actions that deserved more contemplation.

Still, Castle is better than its mid-August dumping ground release date would indicate. At least three scenes — an arm-wrestling match, a swimming lesson, and a domestic dispute that spins out of control — are perfect examples of how to effectively build and release tension. But the artificiality of some of the other scenes and the unevenness of Harrelson's and Larson's performances detracts from the book's central strength — the insistence that no matter how outrageous it gets, the story is the truth. At its heart, the film feels like a lie that glosses over something much more interesting.

Portrait Gallery: Danzy Senna

Each week, Christine Larsen creates a portrait of a new author for us. Have any favorites you’d love to see immortalized? Let us know

Monday August 14th: New People Reading

Danzy Senna is one of the very most interesting social writers the 21st century has yet to produce. Her long-awaited new novel, New People, is about a biracial couple who find themselves divided along lines that they don’t fully comprehend. Senna explodes American conceptions of class and race in ways that will make readers completely uncomfortable.

Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave., 624-6600, www.elliotbaybook.com. Free. All ages. 7 p.m.

Future Alternative Past: Present tense

Every month, Nisi Shawl presents us with news and updates from her perch overlooking the world of science-fiction, fantasy, and horror. You can also look through the archives of the column.

Conflict vs. tension

Something's got to happen. Who wants to read about happy characters dwelling contentedly in the land of status quo with no worries, no desires, no agendas? Paying customers prefer action. We authors love our characters (who are often facets of our own selves), but in pursuit of stories others will read we torture and provoke them, prod them, plumb their depths.

Conventional Western wisdom declares that at their heart, good stories are about conflict. In the U.S. we’re taught to categorize the types of conflict found in a story in simplistic terms: Man against Nature, Man against Society, Man against Man, and Man against Himself. (Note the gender specificity.) And writers are trained to satisfy readers with these closely educated tastes.

But I counsel my students to aim for a slightly different focus. Because conflict can be just as boring as its absence.

Consider the pitched battles of epic fantasy. Good fights evil, and unless we’re in the territory of grimdark authors like Joe Abercrombie, the outcome’s pretty much a foregone conclusion. Though epic battle is frequently deemed a Western trope, its use is by no means restricted to European inspired fantasies: despite my deep admiration for his short fiction, Ken Liu’s novel The Grace of Kings wore out my patience with its repetition of military scenarios well before I finished the book, and that was only the first volume of his Dandelion Dynasty trilogy. Battle after battle. War after war.

So what else is there? What keeps readers scrolling? I say it’s tension.

Kishōtenketsu, a traditional East Asian narrative structure explained in depth on the tumblr of still eating oranges, is one alternative. As Nils Odlun notes in the first article linked, in kishōtenketsu the author turns their focus from conflict to a different aspect of the story. Conflict may produce the tension necessary to attract and keep readers’ attention — there may be a struggle, complete with winners and losers — or there may be something else going on that dramatically changes what the characters and, through them, the audience, experience. The point is not the event depicted on the page but its effect.

Weirdly, my tension epiphany occurred as I watched the end of Doctor Zhivago. Yes, I know this is a deeply problematic movie, and not even SFFH — but I still managed to learn from it. As Omar Sharif chased Julie Christie through the streets of Moscow, dying of a heart attack before getting her to notice him, I was caught up in their story as never before. He had to reach her. He would never reach her. This gap between “What is” and “What must be” was the space where the spark of my imagination leapt to life. The arc it jumped.

Where else in fiction do I find these seductive lacunae? Lots of places. Karen Lord’s first novel, Redemption in Indigo, can be read as your standard conflict, but the djombi Lord’s heroine contests with for possession of the Chaos Stick is also, according to kishōtenketsu theory, the means of resolving the disequilibrium this prize’s presence creates. In other words, I find tension’s power there because I’m searching for it. I put it in my stories in hopes you’ll seek and see it or stumble across it or figure out somehow it’s there.

Recent books recently read

Looking at magic in unfamiliar ways, the emerging authors brought together in The New Voices of Fantasy (Tachyon) freshen up the genre’s much-sought sensawunda. Within these pages it’s everywhere: in amorous mobile skyscrapers, ravished tornado shelters, and blissfully ignorant anthropologists’ notebooks. Most effective are the tales of those whose difference could easily have disqualified them from inclusion in past authorial pantheons. The half-sulking, half-singing cadences of Sofia Samatar’s Hugo and Nebula Award-nominated “Selkie Stories Are for Losers” might not have made it into this newly formed canon because of her East African heritage, despite her academic status; the mazing reflections of Usman T. Malik’s British Fantasy Award-winner “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn” might have been brutally trimmed back or eliminated altogether, their South Asian cultural currency disregarded as valueless. But we’re all so much the richer for the strange, beautiful wealth to be found throughout this entire book.

The Punch Escrow (Inkshares) by software marketer Tal Klein also affords a novice’s take on established SFFH tropes. As numerous YouTube videos and late-night TV hosts have pointed out, our Star Trekkian concept of teleportation basically boils down to a traveler’s duplication followed by their murder. In 1995 James Patrick Kelly addressed teleportation’s ethical dilemmas in his Hugo winning novelette "Think Like a Dinosaur"; Klein’s revisitation features a narrator whose day job is being a professional smartass and who lards the text with breezy, confident-sounding footnotes full of quantum foam and peeing mosquitoes. Good fun.

So what’s a new voice? What’s an old one? Is there anything in-between? Daniel H. Wilson, author of The Clockwork Dynasty, already has beaucoup books out, including the awesome Robopocalypse and its sequel, Robogenesis, and my personal nonfiction favorite, Where’s My Jetpack? Clockwork’s steampunky cover promises brass gears and leather and lots of them, and readers looking for the Retrofuturism typically associated with these trappings won’t be disappointed. Much of the book’s action takes place in 18th- and 19th-century Europe, with forays into modern times and also, interestingly, into the distant past of the Chinese empire. One of the novel’s two viewpoint characters is (this is not a spoiler, trust me) a robot created millennia ago by vanished supermen. Wilson’s academic expertise is robotics, enabling him to make his references to the spinning, metal-impregnated ceramics animating these Ur-androids’ somehow credible. According to him robots have been with us always. Though new, they’re incredibly old. A neat trick in perspective and a pleasing one.

Couple of upcoming cons

The self-proclaimed largest SFFH convention in the whole freakin universe, Dragon Con, is also home to the Dragon Awards. Like Worldcon’s Hugos, the Dragon Awards are recent victims of Puppy voting manipulation schemes. Unlike the Hugos, award categories include both comics and graphic novels, and four separate game varieties. This wide spectrum of choices reflects the literature-plus orientation of Dragon Con, with its weighty emphasis on movies, cosplay, and a myriad other ways to interface with the unknown.

Another large, multifarious SFFH shindig, Archon, has historically taken place in St. Louis, MO. Its occupancy of a hotel in Collinsville, IL likely has more to do with negotiated stay rates and facility availability than the travel advisory issued by the NAACP, but this is still a good opportunity to support a forty-year-old institution without validating its home state’s troublingly oppressive legislation. Plus Seanan McGuire tops this year’s list of Guests of Honor, and plenty of swoony pros are sure to attend among the approximately 2000 others showing up.

Translation is not kale

Published August 10, 2017, at 11:00am

Anca L. Szilágyi reviews Elena Ferrante's The Days of Abandonment, Lise Tremblay's Mile End, Aglaja Veteranyi's Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta, Ana María Shua's Death as a Side Effect, and Esther Gerritsen's Craving.

Why aren't more books by women translated and available in English? Anca Szilágyi takes the hot air out of publishing industry excuses.

Read this review now

Thursday Comics Hangover: Scary stories to tell in the dark

You've gotta love a comics anthology built on a theme. There's something so conversational and warm and inquisitive about collections of short comics, particularly when they're all examining a particular idea from a wide variety of perspectives.

The 19th issue of Not My Small Diary — part of the My Small mini-empire created by Delaine Derry Green (the zine creator known best for her long-running series My Small Diary) — is an anthology of 43 autobiographical comics about unexplained events. As you might expect, the stories range from the outright supernatural (lots of ghost sightings) to the merely coincidental (immediately after having a dream about a mugger stealing $20 from them, a cartoonist is handed $20 by some random guy on the street.)

This particular issue of Not My Small Diary is loaded full of Seattle cartoonists including Noel Franklin, David Lasky, Kelly Froh, Donna Barr, Max Clotfelter, Colleen Frakes, Mark Campos, Ben Horak, and Roberta Gregory. It's with more than a little pride that I note that Seattle contributes some of the strongest pieces in the book, including Franklin's creepy crow story, Campos's short tale of the six words you'd least like to hear from thin air in the dead of night, and Frakes's account of the time she accidentally entered into a family's haunted living situation.

Ranging in tone from skepticism to avid believer, these comics combine to form a wide-ranging study of experiences and feelings about paranormal activities. It's kind of like a long sleepless night swapping stories around the campfire. Some of the stories are total bullshit; others feel a little too true for comfort. No matter where you stand on UFOs and ghost stories, you'll find something to appreciate here.

Your Week in Readings: The best literary events from August 9th - August 15th

Wednesday August 9th: The Grip of It Reading

Jac Jemc is one of the finest young(ish) visiting writers who read at the APRIL Festival. Tonight, she celebrates the release of her latest novel, a haunted house story with the exceptional title The Grip of It, with APRIL co-founder and Seattle author Tara Atkinson. Expect creepy fun and literary excellence. Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com . Free. All ages. 7 p.m.

Thursday August 10th: The Clockwork Dynasty Reading

Daniel H. Wilson’s novels about the robot uprising of the future, Robopocalypse and Robogenesis are two modern classics in the geeky sci-fi canon. His latest book, The Clockwork Dynasty, looks instead to the past, unveiling a secret society of robots who have changed the course of human history. Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com . Free. All ages. 7 p.m.

Friday August 11th: Earth as It Is Reading

In the new novel by Jan Maher, a young woman in the 1930s walks in on her husband as he’s trying on her lingerie. She leaves him. He leaves Texas behind to move to Chicago and finds a cross-dressing subculture. Will he be able to come to terms with his secret life? University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., 634-3400, http://www2.bookstore.washington.edu/. Free. All ages. 7 p.m.

Saturday, August 12th: Casino: A Palimpsest

See our Event of the Week column for more details. Frye Art Museum. 704 Terry Ave., 622-9250, http://fryemuseum.org. Free. All ages. 11 a.m.

Sunday August 13th: Secrets of the Weird Reading

Author Chad Stroup’s latest urban fantasy takes place on the streets of a town called Sweetsville, where a drug called Sweet Candy makes wishes come true. What do neo-Nazis and unlicensed surgeons and cults have to do with it? Look, you’ll have to read the damn book to find out.

University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., 634-3400, http://www2.bookstore.washington.edu/. Free. All ages. 7 p.m.

Monday August 14th: New People Reading

Danzy Senna is one of the very most interesting social writers the 21st century has yet to produce. Her long-awaited new novel, New People, is about a biracial couple who find themselves divided along lines that they don’t fully comprehend. Senna explodes American conceptions of class and race in ways that will make readers completely uncomfortable. Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com . Free. All ages. 7 p.m.

Tuesday August 15th: Capitol Hill History

If you’re the kind of person who learns more by doing and seeing, you should take David Williams’s most recent book, Seattle Walks: Discovering History and Nature in the City out on a stroll. In a time of relentless growth, it’s important to remember what came before. Tonight, Williams will talk with two board members of the new Capitol Hill Historical Society. Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com . Free. All ages. 7 p.m.

Unreal estate

Published August 09, 2017, at 11:41am

Paul Constant reviews Jac Jemc's The Grip of It.

Tonight, Chicago novelist Jac Jemc reads at Elliott Bay Book Company. Her latest novel is a haunted house story that will keep you turning pages until you die from lack of sleep.

Read this review now

Literary Event of the Week: Casino: A Palimpsest

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen Storme Webber read at Seattle literary events. In person, she is an explosion: her poetry is a performance with real drama to it, and the prose is meticulously crafted, as though carved into stone. If you just scanned literary calendar listings, you could make the mistake of believing Webber to be just another poet, endlessly anthologized in group readings around town.

But Webber has another side that you might not see if you only attend readings. Her poetry can’t be constrained to just the page or the stage. Webber is interested in pitting history against the present in complex ways, in giving voice to the people who have been steamrolled by the bureaucrats who approve the history books, in examining the way that stories get repeated and forgotten and intentionally erased.

In recent years, Webber has combined performance with prose and visual art in an experimental site-specific project called Noirish Lesbiana, an attempt to bring light to the forgotten lesbian culture in and around Pioneer Square in the 1960s. “The focus is on my lesbian-headed family of mixblood Alutiiq Natives, and the communities, struggles and strengths that shaped their lives,” Webber writes on her website. “I am the storyteller, the second generation Black Alutiiq Two Spirit daughterartist.”

This month, Webber unveils what might be her most ambitious project to date. At the Frye Art Museum, she’s headlining a show — her first work in a museum — titled Casino: A Palimpsest. Casino continues with the work that Noirish Lesbiana began: it’s a history of one of the first gay bars on the west coast, the Casino.

In the early days of the city, Pioneer Square was where the freaks and outsiders went to be left alone, and the Casino — located near 2nd Avenue, where you’ll find Sounders fans twirling their scarves these days — was where they went to feel a sense of belonging. Webber’s own family found stability at the Casino. And the stories that played out in that space have never been told to enraptured tourists on the Underground Tour. Through photographs and performances and writing and workshops during the life of the show, Webber will use Casino to rewrite the erased history of the Casino.

But the title of the show is a warning: a palimpsest is a piece of writing that has been recorded on the place where another piece of writing has been erased. Random parts of the original show through, interacting with the newer manuscript in complex ways. Webber is not promising to revive the past, whole and undiluted. Those stories have been wiped out. The best she can do is tell the story as best she can, and hope that echoes of those lost stories make themselves known in her work. What’s past is gone; we can’t resurrect history, we can only hope to collaborate with it.

The Second Coming

Published August 08, 2017, at 12:16pm

Paul Constant reviews Richard Chiem's You Private Person.

In 2013, Richard Chiem published a short story collection that was ahead of its time. Time’s up.

Read this review now

Book News Roundup: Get ready for Seattle Public Library's new website

  • By now, you've likely heard about some drama involving nerdy sci-fi festival GeekGirlCon. The best take on this was a long thread spotlighted by Ijeoma Oluo on Twitter:

Costume

I guess it’s easy to want to be                                black,
when everything is the new black,

shiny as LP spinning at 33 rpm
                in the hipster owned record store
                                on the formerly black block
                                                in the formerly black neighborhood

but do you know what comes back
around for        black? that needle scratch
leaves grooves
                                deep                as the river

don’t nobody want the old                black —
people want the Jimi Hendrix black,
the psychedelic star spangled banner by your own rules black

the sparkled glove, moonwalking, grammy winning black,
not the dark skin, big nose self hating                black

not the Jim Crow                black, segregation                black,
poll tax payin, separate but equal                black,

the happy smile shuffling tap dance black,
not the minstrel show, burnt cork black-face                black,
not the yessir boss                black,

not the whistle at a white girl
and end up cautionary tale                black

when black folks all around you fought
to gain a piece of the real estate
that’s been redlined
and sold off
and sold off
and sold off                for centuries

when the folks that lay claim
to its legacy got that shit on layaway,
but don’t ever get to put more than a bit
                of change down each month
                                and interest rates ain’t no joke
                                                cuz don’t nothing change

then I guess being                black
is like putting on a pair of snow pants
to brace against the cold when
you’re already fully dressed

and you just love your accessories,
                been sliding on                kimonos and                dashikis
                                and                headdresses and                dreadlocks
                                                for Halloween and theme parties

like characters
you can switch                in                and                out                of
like accents,

like a downpour
of a storm

except you get to decide
when it’s time to come in
and take shelter out of the rain

Seattle Public Library announced the finalists for this year's Washington State Book Awards. The list is very long, but some noteworthy finalists include:

  • In fiction, Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff and a reissue of Stories of Your Life and Others by Bellevue author Ted Chiang, which includes the story that was the basis for the great sci-fi film Arrival.

  • In poetry, Hardly War by Don Mee Choi and Blood Song by Michael Schmeltzer.

  • In biography, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West.

  • In non-fiction While the City Slept: A Love Lost to Violence and a Young Man's Descent into Madness by Eli Sanders.

Go read the whole list. The winners will be announced on Saturday, October 14th at the downtown library.

A refugee on two continents: from Sydney to Seattle

This week's glimpse between the covers of an upcoming book is courtesy of sponsor and local author Elizabeth C. Fowler. Fowler grew up in Australia as a Hungarian refugee, then immigrated to Seattle with her family, facing the challenge of discrimination on one continent and integration on the other. How she got from there to here — and grew from a lonely young girl into a talented physician with a passionate love for music and nature — is a story worth reading. And you can do just that, or at least get a taste; she's generously provided a full chapter of her memoir, Lonely Refugee, just for Seattle Review of Books readers.

Sponsors like Elizabeth Fowler make the Seattle Review of Books possible. Did you know you could sponsor us, as well? There are only two slots remaining in 2017, so move quickly to get your stories, or novel, or event in front of our passionate audience. Take a glance at our sponsorship information page for dates and details.

"We really are one of the top literary cities of the world." What to expect from this year's Seattle Urban Book Expo.

This morning, we interviewed J.L. Cheatham II about how he decided to be an author. The second half of this interview covers how he decided to launch the Seattle Urban Book Expo, and explains what people can expect from the second Seattle Urban Book Expo, which takes place on August 26th at Washington Hall.

So you just decided to throw a book expo without having any idea how to do that kind of thing.

It was kind of like an “if you build it, they will come” thing. So I connected with some people and got the space, and got everything going.

It turned out it was way more successful than I ever imagined. We had a total of eight authors including myself, a total of 250 people showed up to a space whose max capacity is 100. So there was this constant flow of activity. Everybody was having a good time with books, and I was like, "oh okay. We really are one of the top literary cities of the world. All right, cool."

Then the feedback afterwards was so humbling because everybody was like, “when's the next one?”

And now you’re having another one, on August 26th. Is it in the same spot?

No, it's at Washington Hall. It's from 1 to 5 pm. It's gonna be a party. That's the goal, I want a literary party.

Washington Hall is a great venue.

I love it. The staff is so…I feel like they're family now. I literally just pop up on them. I won't even announce myself, I just go over, knock on the door, they open the door for me, I'll just chill out, drink coffee, play dominoes, whatever. They've been great to me, everybody involved.

So, what can people expect this time?

Like I said, the goal is to have a literary party.

We've got 20 authors, we're gonna have four food vendors so people will have plenty to eat.

One of the things I noticed at the last one was people brought their kids, and I had nothing for kids. So this year I'm gonna have something called Juice and Paint, where there's a room in Washington Hall where kids go in and color, draw, write stories, and paint as the adults circulate the room and buy books and stuff like that.

Also, I have a face-painter too —that's gonna be outside near the food court. Well, I'm calling it the food court. It's really the parking lot, but I'm gonna turn it into an outdoor food court.

We’re gonna have music. I'm trying to keep people there. I want people to show up and stay for a bit. Nothing really starts a conversation than what type of literature you're into — especially when there's food and drinks involved. So that's the goal. Everybody can have a good time.

How did you get more than double the authors in two years? Did they come to you, or did you reach out to them?

I’m very heavy on social media. I promote everything all the time. Everybody was recommending this one because I think people remember [last year’s expo]. I was posting videos and pictures ot it and really highlighting how good of a time it was.

So I think people don't want to miss out on this one, because most likely, I'm only going to do this once a year. If you miss this one, you got to wait a whole other year for the next one to come.

Who are some of the writers that you think our readers should keep an eye out for this time? I know you love them all.

I love them all, but if I have to be selective, NyRee Ausler. She's doing a series called Retribution. I call it a romantic thriller. It really grabbed you from the first chapter.

Okay.

Also, Sharon Blake. I love her stories. She has a book called The Thought Detox. She has a very troubled past and she overcame it.

Who else? Key Porter does her comic book series called Shifters. Another author who I'm interested in meeting for the first time is Omari Amili. I love his background. I just love stories by people who triumph over hard times and they don't let their situations define them, you know what I mean?

And you’re doing an event at the library just before this?

Yep. So the week of the Expo, August 23rd, we're having an author Q&A at the Seattle Public Library, the central branch in downtown Seattle. I'm going to be hosting and we're going to have three authors show up, NyRee Ausler, Zachary Driver, and also a representative for Seattle Escribe named Kenneth Martinez.

We're pretty much going to open ourselves up for questions for people who are in attendance. This is really like an open house for people to know what the Seattle Book Expo is.

I feel like this is my coming-out party. A lot of people know like we're trying to create an institution, and to create a culture of cultivating these promising authors here who feel like they don't have an outlet to express themselves.

We also have another Q&A event with the King County Library at Renton Library. That's on the 25th, at 3:00 pm. We have five authors that are going to be there: Freddy McClain, Key Porter, Raseedah Roberson, Omari Amili, and Natasha Rivers. It will be kind of the same structure: talking about their experiences as writers, reading a few passages from their books. I want to give the opportunity for people to get to know the authors because on the day of the expo, it will be pleasant madness.

I love that, “pleasant madness.” Did the first expo work for you? Do you feel like you're getting your work out there now?

Yeah, I really do. After the expo, all this stuff started happening. The book signings in Barnes and Noble, the work I do with Amazon, all this other stuff. Also, one thing that's weird, but pleasantly weird, is that people are calling me and asking me questions like I'm some kind of expert, seeking my advice.

You mean like publishing questions?

Yeah, like, "Hey man, how'd you do this? When'd you do that?" I'm giving my input but I'm also like, "What? Wait a minute. When did I become an expert?" I was just struggling literally a year and a half ago but now they treat me like I'm some kind of self-publishing whiz or something. I say it jokingly, but it's humbling. I'm always willing to share my information as I go along with this journey. I’m still not a finished product myself, you know? There's still a lot of things I've got to learn too.

Seattle's a pretty segregated town in a lot of ways, and that’s also true of the literary community. Is there anything that you think this city can do better to bring more writers of color into the conversation? It's great that you're doing the Expo, but there are names that I've never heard of before. They're local authors and this is kind of like my thing and I should know them and I don't. Do you have any thoughts about how to bring everybody together a little more?

We all want an opportunity. We just want a chance to show our work. I think if Seattle works hard to create an opportunity for authors of color to want to showcase their work, then you'll start seeing a bigger number of them.

I think Seattle could do a better job with creating opportunities for authors of color to showcase their work and also act like that they care. There's definitely a voice in my community, and the Latino community, and the Asian community, and Native American/Polynesian community who are writers. They have something to say but they need an opportunity for people to listen. That's why I'm very happy with the partnerships that have come from this because everyone that I've met with actually genuinely cares about our voices.

We just need to cultivate this bubbling artistic atmosphere that's going on here in Seattle, you know?