Reza Aslan's new book God: A Human History is a remarkable document. It lays out the entirety of human's relationship with the divine, using athropological and archaeological documentation. From pantheism to ancestor worship to monotheism, Aslan examines the way that a concept of a higher power has evolved right alongside human civilization — and also helped shape our modern world. Aslan was in Seattle last week with Seattle Arts and Lectures. We spoke on the phone shortly after his arrival in Portland for the next reading on his tour. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
I’m an atheist but I've always been very fascinated with belief and the way that you approach this book. I thought it was really informative for the purposes of talking with people about faith — and not just religious faith. At my day job, I work in messaging and political economy. And I’ve found that when we talk about raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, for example, people would respond, 'well, you can’t pay $15 per hour because the market says they’re not worth $15 per hour.' The market is a creation of people, and other nations have much higher minimum wages than we do here in America so there’s proof that it can work, but once people offload it to this inhuman, unknowable force —this market — there’s a barrier. You hit a wall in your conversation, and it seems insurmountable. Has your work with so many different religions taught you anything about talking across that wall?
If you think of a faith as a kind of worldview then it's understandable why occasionally it becomes difficult to actually have conversations. This wall that you're talking about — essentially, you're talking about two different perspectives, two different points of view. And often it's not that you are arguing over the merits of some kind of point, but what you're really doing is talking about two different ways of seeing the world. And so those kinds of conflicts sometimes come naturally.
Part of what I try to do, not just with this book but most of my works, is to try to reframe the conversation and to redefine certain terms. For instance, you call yourself an atheist, which I imagine means that you don't believe in God. But I do think that in order to actually have a conversation with you, we'd have to first talk about what you even mean by God, because it's very likely that your definition of God and my definition of God are vastly different from each other — and so having that understanding would mean that you and I perhaps are much closer in our points of view than we actually thought that we were.
And particularly when you're talking about faith issues, we have this weird perception that we all mean the same thing when we use this most complex of words, and so often the arguments that we find ourselves having dissipate once we start with this fundamental question of 'what do you mean? What is your perspective?' That's something that I try to bring to all the work that I do.
One of the things that I really enjoyed about this book was the way you embrace the ambiguity of the anthropological record. I think about that hackneyed idea of what would happen if an alien anthropologist found our ruined civilization in the future and if they only had access to one site, it would change their understanding of our faith. If they found a church, they would imagine us as a monotheistic religious culture. If they found a multiplex, they might think that we were a pantheistic religion worshipping superheroes. And if they found Washington DC, they might think we were big into ancestor worship. Do you think about what you’re missing when you look back on the past?
It’s a fun game to play. The difference of course being that we are products of a written culture, and once you start writing things down, those things stay forever. When we're talking about religion, however, and particularly when we're talking about prehistoric religiosity, which is where my book begins, you are talking about a preliterate culture and so that makes it much more difficult to draw conclusions with any measure of certainty.
We do have an enormous amount of material evidence at our disposal when trying to talk about things like the origins of the religious experience. We have at our disposal temples and idols and the spectacularly painted caves that bear remarkable signs of ritualistic thinking. And so we can look at this material and we can give our best guess as to what it means and how it functions.
But before the advent of writing, we are essentially shooting in the dark. What we have going for us particularly in my field of religious studies is that we can combine the anthropological and archaeological data. We can use what we know about sociology in order to draw certain conclusions and we can make pretty good guesses. But in the end, they are guesses.
In the book, you refer to the advent of agriculture as a net negative for society, and I was wondering if I could ask you about that, and maybe your perspective on how that has shaped human history.
To begin with, this is now more or less the consensus view. The traditional view was that after tens of thousands of years as hunter-gatherers, we began to plant our food and domesticate animals as a means of ensuring a greater food supply, and that doing so resulted in more stable food supplies and also in more calories, more food. And that allowed us to actually settle down and then create civilization, and then, of course, history as we know it.
Well, unfortunately, that traditional view just doesn't hold up any longer to the archaeological evidence. First and foremost we now know that we human beings had settled for thousands of years before the rise of agriculture. So that upends the notion that we settled down because we started planting — now, it turns out that we settled down for quite some time before we ever thought to start planting. So that in and of itself had to have to shift the way that we even think about why we started planting.
And then secondly we now have ample evidence to indicate that far from creating a surplus of food, the agricultural revolution actually diminished our food supply — and quite dramatically. It provided far fewer calories, far less protein, and if that weren't enough, it actually introduced a whole host of ailments and diseases that were completely new to the human condition. The great Israeli historian Yuval Hariri has this great line where he says homo sapien skeletons were simply not evolutionarily designed for farming. That's just not what our bodies were meant to do. He refers to the agricultural revolution as history's greatest fraud.
Now this idea that the agricultural revolution was not an advantage to human beings raises a more fundamental question which is: why, then, why did we start doing it? Why did we start farming, knowing that a bad crop would result in the deaths of everybody in the village? Why did we start domesticating and penning animals, knowing that a disease in one of those animals would wipe out the entire herd and kill everybody in the village? Why did we do all of these things, when it required far more effort and work than hunting and gathering did, for far fewer calories? Why did we do it? It makes no sense.
There have been a number of attempts to answer that question, from environmental changes to the thinning or extinction of herds — none of which have been borne out by the evidence to date. One of the more innovative answers to that question happened to do with the institution of religion. And what I mean is, the movement from the prehistoric animism that fueled our ancient ancestors to the establishment of temples and institutionalized worship — it was the institutionalization of religion that led to the settlements, to the idea that we actually settled down and stopped wandering.
And then once we settled down, that that caused the slow move towards experimenting with agriculture and with domestication. Again, this is one of those things where we're giving our best guess. We're looking at the evidence that's available to us, and we're trying to interpret it as much as possible.
But I think that the reason that there is an enormous amount of enthusiasm for that particular interpretation of 'why agriculture?' is because all the other answers don't work. So much of what this is about is simply ticking off things that don't make any sense or that don't fit with the available data and seeing what's left.
We do know, of course, that the earliest experimentations with plants and the domestication of animals took place in southeastern Turkey and in the Levant area. These are the earliest examples of settled communities, and we also know that [these regions hosted] the earliest expression of institutionalized religion, and that those things really affected each other. And so the theory is that it was in fact the advent of hierarchical institutionalized temple-based religion that resulted in the need for the transition to agriculture, despite the fact that it was not a good bet on the part of humanity — that it did not lead in those first couple of thousand years to more food or a more stable supply.
And by the way, part of the reason why I think people even people who don't study religions gravitate toward this theory is that the one thing that we all know about religion is it makes you do things that aren't necessarily helpful. The thing about religion is that you do sometimes irrational things in the name of religion and the you know the agricultural transition was by all accounts any rational thing.
So in a way, religion also established the inequity that we still see today?
You know, the standard sociological answer to this is when we went from wandering to settled, being settled allowed for the accumulation of wealth and the disparity in society in a way that wandering would not allow. The nomadic lifestyle doesn't really allow for the accumulation of wealth, or the stratification of society. Settlement does. And if you think that settlement was a direct result of certain religious changes that took place, then yes, once again religion becomes the culprit for the sudden disparity in society.
I love your example in the book of the talking tree — the theory that we can accept one or two divergences from what we know, but that if you keep adding unbelievable ideas, you reach a breaking point.
This is a fascinating theory — and it is a theory, but it's a pretty good one. It was first developed by a cognitive anthropologist by the name of Pacal Boyer. And what he was trying to figure out was a simple question: Why do some religious beliefs stick and some don't?
Obviously, he's a scientist so the answer that is often given, which is ‘the ones that are true stick, and the ones that are false don't’ just doesn't work for him. And so he began to do these very interesting studies about how our brains actually hold onto information, and particularly when that information is anomalous in some way. Why do we hold on to it? How do we hold on to it? When do we get rid of it?
And what he discovered was exactly what you say — this thing that has been now dubbed the minimally counterintuitive concept. The basic theory is that when the mind is confronted with something that is only slightly abnormal, something that that essentially violates the core function or characteristic of a saying only slightly, there is something about the brain that holds on to that idea, that anomalous information much more so than if a thing is too anomalous.
So the example that I gave in the book is a tree that talks. A tree that talks is only slightly anomalous. It's the kind of thing that the brain holds onto and is more likely to pass on. But a tree that talks and also has the ability to be invisible and also can move from place to place — now you're violating far too many categories of the idea of a tree, and the brain simply doesn't have the ability to hold onto that. [Boyer] uses this cognitive theory to explain why some religious beliefs stick around and others do not. It’s a really fascinating idea.
Of course the thesis of my book, the point that I'm trying to make, is that of all these minimally counterintuitive concepts that have ever existed in human history, the one that is most successful is the idea of the superhuman — the human who is altered in some slight way. And that where our conception of the divine arose, is this notion of a person who has shifted in a slight way, is given a certain kind of power. That is an explanation for how this natural impulse towards transcendence — towards that which lies beyond the material realm — is something that is part of our cognitive process. It's who we are, it’s how our brains work: that natural impulse often becomes actualized or concretized in the form of a divine human, or a human who is divine, because of this minimally counter-intuitive concept that arises in our brain.
It seems to me to be an exaggeration of something that’s a standard part of the human experience. Your knowledge, your experiences, make you special — kind of a superhuman. That’s why we contacted your publicist for an interview and why we’re talking. Everyone does something special — you know, I make a pretty okay chili. So is this search for the supernatural a recognition of us as we are or is it a desire for more? Is it aspirational, or is it a reflection?
It’s a reflection, it's an innate compulsion. One thing that I make very clear in the book is that I'm not making an argument for the existence or nonexistence of God. That's not an argument I am interested in having — mainly because there is no proof either way.
What I am interested in is how we have expressed faith. It is deeply embedded in this cognitive impulse that you were referring to, this innate unconscious compulsion to humanize the divine — to essentially project one's own personality, one's own emotions one's own virtues and vices and strengths and weaknesses and biases and bigotries upon the divine.
What’s truly remarkable about this impulse, and why I think it's just a function of our brains, is that even atheists do this. When you say to someone who is a you know an atheist, who doesn't believe in God, studies show that when you ask that person to then describe what they mean by God, they do what believers do. They begin to describe a kind of divine version of themselves. They begin to talk about a divine personality who looks and feels and acts and thinks very much the way that they do. So it doesn't matter whether you're a believer or not, it doesn't matter whether you are aware of it or not. The fact of the matter is that most of us when we think of the idea of God, what we do is we think of a divine version of ourselves.
You have a few passages in the book where you write about soul, and I thought some of the passages seemed to be in conversation with Lesley Hazleton’s book on agnosticism, and I was curious if you had read it or if if that was something coincidental.
I have read Lesley's book — I think I actually even blurbed it — but no, that's not in in conversation with anyone. The issue is that we were born with this conception of substance dualism, this innate notion that there is a distinction between the body and mind. What that means, nobody knows — it doesn't prove God, it doesn't disprove God. It doesn't mean that we are believers and we have to learn to be unbelievers. We don't know what it means, but it is a fact, and studies have routinely pointed this out. So it must be part of again our cognitive impulses, must be just a thing that happens in our brains. What I'm interested in, is what that actually means and how and how to make sense of that.
Evolutionarily speaking, we don't have a good answer for the universal belief in what is come to be called the soul. You can call it what you want: you can call it the psyche if you want to, you can call it Brahma, you can call it whatever you want, but we all mean the same thing — this kind of spiritual essence, if you will. It's universal. It exists in all cultures, in all religions, and throughout all time. And we don't know why! There isn't a good reason to explain this innate sense. And so I go back to where I began the book, which is ultimately it's just a choice.
It’s a decision on the individual's part to give that fact some kind of meaning. And you could be someone who says ‘it's just an accident, just a meaningless cognitive blip.’ Or you could be someone who thinks that it's not just on purpose, but it's by design: it's who is how we are made it's who we are and we're supposed to have that that feeling, that sense of innate spiritual essence. We’re back where we started, right? It's up to you! There's no proof either way.
But I do think that at the very least coming to an understanding of these things is a good way to start a conversation between people, between believers and nonbelievers, and between believers of different religions.
This Saturday, a familiar face in Seattle literary circles makes a welcome return to the scene. In 2011, Margot Kahn, who was well-known in the community for her work as a youth creative writing program director at Hugo House, published her first book — an excellent biography titled Horses That Buck: The Story of Champion Bronc Rider Bill Smith. Saturday night at Elliott Bay Book Company, with the help of readers including Claudia Castro Luna, Kate Lebo, and Jane Wong, Kahn introduces her second book, an anthology she co-edited with Kelly McMasters titled This Is the Place: Women Writing About Home. Kahn talked with me on the phone this week about how the book came to be and what she's been up to in the time between books. The transcript of this interview has been lightly edited.
It’s been a few years since Horses That Buck came out. What have you been up to between then and now?
I've been mostly raising a small human being, and that has occupied a lot of time. I've also been doing some writing for a couple of freelance publications — Edible Seattle and a couple of other places.
How did the idea for this anthology come to you?
As I said, almost seven years ago I had a baby, and I found myself at home more than I thought I would be as a parent.
I don't really know what I was expecting. I guess in part I did expect that I was going to take a brief leave of absence from the Hugo House and then return. And when it was time for me to go back, the House was in a bit of a different place than when I left it. I look back on that and think I probably should have done it, but they were asking me to do even more than what I had been doing when I left and I just didn't feel like I could at that moment in time.
At that time, I don't think anybody at the House had had a baby, and part of what seemed overwhelming to me was, I didn't know where I was going to nurse, and I didn't think anybody was going to get what I was going through, and there were sort of no parameters put into place for someone having a kid, and I just didn't feel like I could advocate for myself and my time in that way.
So anyway, I stayed home and got to thinking. When I was growing up I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house. My grandparents had come to this country from Poland as World War II was getting started — they got out at basically the last possible moment. When I was with them when I was younger, I would always ask them to tell me stories about their growing-up years, and they had these wonderful, nostalgic, beautiful, fond memories. But also their stories of home were wrapped up with a lot of pain and they really only talked about home when I asked them to. I always carried that with me, and I really was always trying to understand what that must have been like for them, to leave a place that they loved so dearly to never go back, and to make a whole new life somewhere else.
And then fast-forward to my having a child and thinking about what making a home means — not just for myself but for someone else. And in between there was the general kind of moving about in one's 20s — or many people in their 20s, anyway — where, you know, it's one rental after another and kind of trying to decide where to live.
And then I was settling on a place that I felt good about, while not really totally understanding at the time that I was settling down. And then I was becoming a part of a community and buying a house and putting down roots somewhere, when that somewhere isn't the same place where my family is. At some point, it's like, “oh, wait! What have I done?”
All of those things sort of fed into my thinking about what makes a home. And every other perspective about homes that I read was really informative, and so this idea of an anthology, of a collection of voices of many different people grappling with the same idea, became really interesting to me.
The rule for anthologies is generally to make the theme as specific as possible. But this is a super wide-angle topic that goes in the opposite direction of that rule. But it works! Was it hard to get your contributors to stay on topic, or did people just immediately get what you were what you were going for with the theme?
I think people really did get what we were going for.
Where the work came was in whittling things down. That was really the hardest part. We wound up having a few pieces about moving around a lot, and we didn't want a few pieces about moving around a lot. We wound up getting a couple pieces about living in a very small space, and we had to choose one of them. We had a couple pieces about living in the West and sort of hardscrabble solitude and we had to choose one.
That’s the work I'd say came in in the curation. And we were very committed to having a diverse range of voices in every aspect we could think of, from age and geography and race and ethnicity to subject matter. All the things that we read were pretty amazing, and it was a question of which pieces are hanging together, and which pieces speak to each other.
Who belongs here? Who is welcome? Who is a part of this community?
Was the book always specifically related to women’s perspectives on the home?
It was, but we did grapple with that question. Kelly and I said to ourselves, and each other, "are we losing anything by not having men be a part of this? Are we perpetuating a stereotype that the woman's place is in the home? Are we marginalizing men in some way? Are we creating something that is not taking the dialogue in the direction that we can or should be going?"
Ultimately we what we came to is that traditionally and historically, the home has been seen as the domain of the woman. We wanted to address that — in this day and age, what does that mean for women? And in large part, we've been raised by our mothers and grandmothers — in fact, that is a thread that we saw throughout the book: mothers or grandmothers appear in almost every essay. And women's voices are still statistically not as represented [in publishing], so we wanted to have this place for women's voices to be heard, with [Seal Press,] a press that has been dedicated to publishing women's voices since 1976.
One interesting thing to both me and Kelly is that when we conceived of this book it was three years ago and we were really not thinking so much about politics. We were honestly thinking about own our own personal stories and wanting to hear other personal stories. And then it became a possibility that we were going to have a woman in the White House. It was going to be a whole new ballgame. And then suddenly that was not the case at all.
And so many of those issues come up in this book in some way, shape, or form. This thread of belonging, this sense of safety, and the longing that is at the heart of our assumptions or perceptions or being. That image of what home should be. And that feeling that we're seeking, and all the conversations we're having now on the national political stage, really boil down to the same questions: who belongs here? Who is welcome? Who is made to feel safe? Who is a part of this community?
What’s next for you? Another anthology?
I haven't thought about the next anthology, but I would be psyched to do one. I had so much fun working on this book. I never really thought that anthologies would be something that I would do, but having done it, it's like it's like the best kind of curation project — like organizing the best dinner party ever and inviting the most interesting, awesome people and having this fantastic conversation. So, yeah, I would do an anthology again for sure.
I'm thinking about doing another biography, actually. I said I would never do that again after the first one just because it took so long, and I got so involved in other people's lives, but there is somebody I'm interested in writing about.
And I also have started a novel that’s set in a community garden in Seattle. it’s about community and gentrification and gardening. I don't know if that's really going to happen, but that's sort of a fun side project.
Last month, New Zealand author Nic Low came to Seattle for almost two weeks as part of an ongoing native author exchange program facilitated by the Seattle City of Literature organization. As part of Lit Crawl, Low appeared onstage at the Hugo House with Seattle author Willie Fitzgerald. The morning after Lit Crawl, he met with me to share his thoughts about the trip, and how Christchurch and Seattle could grow together as literary cities. This interview, obviously, took place before Seattle was named a UNESCO City of Literature, but that designation makes Low's thoughts on a cultural exchange even more relevant.
So you've been here for ten days. What are your impressions? What has your visit to Seattle been like?
Well, I'm still on a good high from Lit Crawl last night. I'm always excited when a whole city comes out — whatever the event is, something that draws a whole lot of people out into the public space. Because writing often happens behind closed doors, publishing happens behind closed doors. It's not always a particularly public art form. So when you get something like Lit Crawl, it's really exciting.
I loved going to see [Claudia Castro Luna’s] Poetic Grid [presentation]. I loved hearing all the different poets read, and seeing the photographs and the maps correlated. I've been hiring the Spin bikes and also walking everywhere, to get a feel for the geography. So to then overlay that with poets’ impressions of that geography was really enriching. I enjoyed that a lot.
I also loved the Jack Straw Writers who were on before that. Really cool to see a - I was going to say a younger generation but that's not right, because they're really from all different generations. But the Jack Straw Fellows are doing some really exciting work.
We had a lovely catch-up with the Jack Straw Writers a couple of days ago, and they shared stories of what they're working on. I was super-impressed with the diversity of that group — a really broad range of perspectives: people writing about their personal experiences growing up; people writing about experiences of being native but not living on your home territory; people writing about sexual violence; people writing about a whole range of different topics, but all from really beautifully crafted points of view. I like getting down and soaking those kind of things up.
Another real highlight has been connecting with various different First Nations groups here, and sharing stories with them. I'm Ngāi Tahu — I'm Maori — and that's a very big part of who I am, what I write. So to hear some of the stories and the histories from people who've been here six, eight, ten thousand years is really exciting.
I went down to Tacoma for an event down there. They’re touring a totem pole around the Lummi Nation in solidarity with the fight against various fossil fuel projects. And I met a wonderful writer, Rena Priest, who's a Lummi woman, and she'd written a piece specifically for that occasion. Really great to connect across those cultural boundaries as well.
You also skipped up to Vancouver?
I did. It's a bit of a stupid way to organize a schedule, but it's entirely my fault from just saying “yes” to everything. I had an event in Vancouver not last night but the night before. And then I've got another event in Vancouver tomorrow. So I'm going back to Vancouver on the first plane tomorrow morning.
So you've been south, you haven't been all the way down to Portland, but you've been to Tacoma, you've been up to Vancouver. Does it feel like a region in your brief experience, or is the national border significant to you?
I sent a photograph back to my partner back in Australia at the point where we went across the border and we just had a view of ocean. And I sent her a message that said ‘Canada to the right, America to the left.’ It's just ocean! These lines are always mildly arbitrary, and I think the arbitrariness of that emerges when you are hanging out with First Nations people, whose territory boundaries have no relationship.
I mean, they obviously have a very important relationship to that national boundary now. But predating European settlement, the fluidity — or just the different tribal territories, and the overlap and the trade — seeing the shared knowledge between indigenous people up and down that coast? There's a real familiarity to that.
I've been watching the weather patterns very closely and seeing if I can get myself into the hills at all. We got one day hiking in the Cascades, which was lovely — you can sort of see that coastline, the consistent vegetation. I know, from the map and from photographs sort of what the geography looks like. But it's basically been raining the whole time —
Yeah, it has.
So we haven't seen so much of it.
It's appropriate. It's seasonally appropriate.
The book I'm working on, as you know from the talk last night, is the history of mountains in New Zealand. And I really was, and still am, keen to get up into the mountains as much as possible here. But my crampons haven't got much of a workout yet.
They're intense. I'm from the east coast — I'm from Maine, which is other corner — and the mountains here are much more impressive than they are there.
I did catch one glimpse of Rainier out there, sitting proud. It's like a magnet to me. I was like, 'I want to go there.' But it wasn't possible.
It's very impressive. And it’s a volcano, too, so in a lot of ways it could just as well be our death on the horizon. At some point we could be Pompeii.
Oh wow. A fossilized Seattle. Just everybody caught with their lattes in one hand, with their phones in their other hand.
Yeah. People of the future wouldn't be able to tell your fossil from a Seattleite, with the coffee cup in your hand.
No they wouldn't. And I think that is one of the interesting things. I travel a lot and you do, on the one hand, brace yourself for strangeness and difference, but on the other hand you often find similarity and connection.
There's such commonality in culture now. We read so much that comes out of America. There's such great cross-influence in terms of media, in terms of internet, in terms of the technologies that now guide our lives.
I’ve certainly been struck by the degree of homelessness here.
I guess also there are some differences. I’ve certainly been struck by the degree of homelessness here. That stands out like a sore thumb, and it has made me feel pretty uncomfortable. It's confronting. It's really confronting to see that level of poverty hard up against this level of wealth. I guess I'm used to that level of poverty in very poor countries, but not in the rich countries.
Yeah. It's gotten out of control in the last ten years. I mean, it's always been there, but it is something that this city has not been responsible in keeping up with.
Yeah. It's a whole another long and complicated conversation.
I'm certainly curious to know how those demographics have shifted, of who constitutes the homeless. Because you have your stereotypical people, and then I've seen a whole lot of people who don't fit the stereotype. I've seen lots of people who look like they might not have been on the streets for that long, or have come from a whole range of different backgrounds.
It's certainly eye-opening in that respect.
There’s a study that found when the average rent in a city increases by $100, the homelessness population increases by 15 percent.
Seriously? That's the correlation?
Yeah. So you are seeing people who you would not normally see as homeless, because they are not ordinarily homeless.
Gosh that's a thin line, $100. That's a very thin line.
Yeah. It is a very thin line. It is the first thing that a lot of visitors notice and we have to do something to help. But to bring it back to books: So Seattle has several sister cities. Reykjavik, is one, and we have a pretty good cultural exchange going with Reykjavik. What do you think that the relationship between Christchurch and Seattle could be or should be? What do you think we have to learn from each other? It's a big question, sorry.
It's a big question, but a couple of immediate things spring to mind. The first one is what we talked about before with the Seattle Poetic Grid. I can see the usefulness of that, obviously, in the context of the literary exchange. And to bring writers back on a regular basis, to be mapping each other's cities, to be providing outside viewpoints.
I really like the idea of locals learning from visitors, and visitors learning from locals. There was one poem in the Grid that was from someone who'd been in the city for 24 hours, and it was an observation of tents under a freeway. Interesting that that was what struck him, or her.
We've been talking about a few different potential models. One thing is perhaps to have writers go in pairs. Imagine that I come back next year and bring another writer with me, and we do a project. And then the next year, that other writer comes back and brings someone new with them in a kind of an iterative process, so that they can make introductions and show people around, and vice versa. So get Elissa [Washuta, who visited New Zealand as a Seattle author through this program last year] back to Christchurch and get her to bring someone with her, and just roll it on that way.
Another area that immediately springs to mind is our relationship with the outdoors. Christchurch is really an incredible gateway to the mountains. An hour’s drive, you're in the snow, you're on a ski field, you're strapping on your crampons, you're ready to go. A couple of hours and you're in the absolute heart of the Southern Alps. So mountain culture, rock climbing, mountain running, mountain biking — all these things that you guys love, are absolutely alive and well in Christchurch.
I suppose this is sort of the work that I've been doing. I've been doing so much around place and wilderness and outdoors, but from a cultural and literary point of view. I'd love to see some kind of program that combines taking people into the outdoors and exposing them to the literature of the outdoors.
Like a kind of mountain writing festival perhaps, that happens in Seattle one year and in Christchurch the next. And then maybe the events take place somewhere in the mountains, or maybe it's a series of trips with conversation while walking, writers out on the trail discussing various different ideas about place and belonging.
You've already mentioned that you’re working on a non-fiction book about mountains. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
I grew up in the mountains. In all of our spare time we got taken up what we call tramping, what you would call hiking. The Southern Alps were a really big part of my dad's youth. He's always loved the mountains, and so when we were old enough to carry our school bags up, we went. And that really runs in the family. My whole extended family on dad's side are very much mountain people, and I knew the stories and the histories.
On my mother’s side, we are Ngāi Tahu, and we are more often than not thought of as coastal people. I knew the histories in the stories of the plains and coasts, but I didn't really know what our associations were with the mountains.
So I wanted to write a book that put those two things in dialog, my European heritage of mountaineering and climbing and exploring, and my Maori heritage of — whatever that looked like. I didn't really know what that looked like. But I assumed that, because hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of those rivers, peaks, valleys — they're all named. So if they're named, people knew them, there would be stories associated with them. I set out to try and find what those stories were.
Fast-forward three years, and I would spend a very long time in those mountains. I've done 15 long-distance journeys though the Alps. I'm going to write about ten of them. They're the pre-European routes we used for trade, for exploration, for family visits, for warfare. There’s a lot of mythology, our creation stories. It’s very, very central to our sense of identity and place.
There's a lot of books out there that talk about wilderness. We have a great fascination with explorers. But often the people that were exploring had guides; more often than not, they were guided. The places that they were discovering were all known, they were named. They were celebrated in long and deep histories. So I want to bring some of those histories to the surface, and I'd like to write this book in a way that gets people excited about both sides of those histories, so that when they go out into the mountains they see that overlay. They know who was here, what they were doing and why, and they understand the names that are on the land.
Portland illustrator and cartoonist Daria Tessler is coming to the Short Run Comix & Arts Festival for the second time this year. She makes beautiful illustrations that feel like a blend of children’s book illustrations and 1970s countercultural comics. You can find her booth in the show and she’ll also be performing in The Midnight Variety Hour, described as an “active participatory performance” at the Vera Project at noon.
Are you bringing anything new to the show?
Yes, I have Accursed, a book of ancient curses that was lavishly published by Perfectly Acceptable Press earlier this year. It's a 4 color riso book with a snazzy letterpressed cover. I also hope to finish a last-minute minicomic. Plus I'll have a few new silkscreens.
Are there any artists you're excited to see at Short Run this year?
I'm really excited to meet an artist whose Instagram name is abrownrecluse, and whose real name is Jordan, who makes incredible stippled and layered drawings and minicomics. We plan to collaborate on a book project next year.
You've got a comic coming out from Fantagraphics next year! Do you see yourself moving away from minicomics and into the publishing side of things, or are you going to continue with a blend of self-produced and "professionally" published works?
I love hand-making books and printing small run publications using print methods other than offset printing. I'm sure I'll continue to work with those alternate types of bookmaking because they offer a different feel or mood and a special more personal art object. But working with a bigger publisher is great, you can create books that are more affordable to all kinds of readers and they get good distribution and you reach a larger audience. So both seem important to me.
Illustrator Taylor Wright Rushing was born and raised in Washington State. He moved to Austin for a year and then entered grad school in Madison, Wisconsin. We talked on the phone last week. You can find him at the Short Run Comix & Arts Festival this Saturday at Seattle Center.
Is this your first Short Run or have you been before?
This is my first one.
How did you become a Short Run exhibitor?
I applied originally for the Dash Grant that they offer. They're one of the few organizations that offers a grant for small publishers — whether it's for a zine or a comic book. I just couldn't believe all that they had to offer as such a small organization.
From there, I was offered a table at the festival and I just was so delighted. I'm from Washington originally, so it was totally a treat to have an excuse to come home and do something fun.
Have you done any shows like this before in your neck of the woods?
I've done a few small shows, but nothing of this scale. I'm pretty involved in the small press community here in Wisconsin. But, you know, I went to Evergreen, so coming from Washington, it’s like the zine capital of America. It's kind of a treat be able to come home and do something so huge. I didn't realize that Short Run is as big as it is.
It gets bigger every year. Are you bringing anything new to Short Run this year, any brand new stuff to show off?
I've got a bunch of stuff. I do a lot of independent research around the 78 RPM old country music and blues music scene and I do a lot of small stuff associated with that. I have three new zines that I've come out with this year that are specific to the independent research that I've done regarding different musicians that I love and listen to. I've got some posters and I've got some bandannas that I've made.
Is there anybody at Short Run that you're excited to meet this time?
To be honest with you, I'm so excited to meet everyone. There's just such a slew of totally badass illustrators and makers. The thing that I love so much about the zine and small-press community is that everyone can do it. So no matter who you are, whether you're a professional illustrator or graphic designer or if you're literally someone who just makes in your living room, that's what this community is for. I am just so excited to see the workshops, the performances — this is just a dream scenario for me. And to get to come home and see a lot of artists who I grew up looking at — it's a blast!
I was wondering if you had any advice for people who are going to a show for the first time and maybe have just made their first zine or mini-comic and are looking to show it off.
This is the ultimate question for me, because in my mind this stuff is meant for everyone. There's something so beautiful about the idea that you can make something in your living room and create it on a copy machine and make something that everyone can look at.
I'm so interested in folk culture, and that’s something that the zine community nurtures — everyone going out and doing something and being creative. Especially in this day and age, there's no one way to be good at drawing. You can make the most clunky, weirdest looking characters and they will be lionized as the greatest. That's what I love about this whole scene. That’s what it's all about. There's no one way to be good at anything, and there's a million ways to make beautiful mistakes. That's what this is all about.
Is there anything you want attendees of Short Run to know about you?
This is my first major thing and I am really at the beginning of my career as an illustrator/artist/whatever you want to call me. And it would be a real treat to get to meet some people and interact with people who want to engage in my work. I would be absolutely delighted and I really look forward to that.
The word I’ve most often applied to our October poet in residence, Kary Wayson, is “patience.” Wayson’s poetry feels deliberate and constructed in a way that the work of many Seattle poets does not. Every word is there for a reason, and if you were to extract even one syllable, the whole thing would crumble to a pile of typeface at the bottom of the page. In a literary scene that tends toward expressionistic and reactionary poetry, Wayson stands out as a contemplative figure.
And too, Wayson isn’t one of those poets who overwhelms with frequent appearances. Though she regularly teaches poetry classes at Hugo House, months and even years have passed without Wayson’s name appearing on the poster for a major reading. It doesn’t feel like she’ll just apply her time talent to any old event. She is a writer who does not produce a lot of work, who doesn’t overwhelm with her presence, and that makes her a refreshing rarity in 2017.
Ask Wayson about her poetic patience, though, and she’ll attribute it to more practical reasons. “I've always sort of worked the opposite hours of everybody else,” she explains. When she left school, she wanted to find a career that provided “the best money I could make for having the most amount of free time, which is in restaurants.” Wayson has waited tables for many years, and so the prime time for readings — nights and weekends — has been largely inaccessible to her.
Occasionally, Wayson tells me she wishes she could be more of a part of the scene. “Sometimes I feel, like, ‘I’ve got to change my life. I got to get a day job — a real job, where I can take time off of work and get paid for it and be a part of the literary community.’ And then other times it seems perfectly fine.”
As a writer, she’s very deliberate: poetry is an exacting quest for perfection. She uses the term “etched in stone” to describe her work. She describes her process as “a slow accretion” and says she wants to build something sturdy, something “that lasts” for years — generations.
Lately, she’s been reading the work of John Ashbery and Richard Wilbur. “I spent the morning exhuming this poem of [Wilbur’s]. Each syllable is chosen with care.” That’s important to her. “It’s almost an affront to me when the work is sloppy,” Wayson confesses. Poetry is “not just something that’s broken into lines. It’s something that has been labored over.”
But there’s another reason beyond perfectionism why Wayson hasn’t been reading her poetry in public. Until a couple months ago, she admits, “I hadn’t written anything for probably three years.”
This seems hard to believe. She hasn’t written anything at all? “I’ve done journaling and some little failed attempts, but, no. Really, nothing.”
Thankfully for us, the dry spell is over. “The writing is coming out now,” she says, relieved. “But it’s got these strangenesses,” she says. And she’s been doing work “letting strangeness of syntax, and strangeness of ideas, and strangeness of image stay there [in the poem] hopefully in a way that’s not just weird but achieves something.”
Is it appropriate to say that Wayson is working at giving up a little bit of control of her work? “Yeah!” She seems excited by the idea, “and it’s something that I don’t want to figure out because then it might go away. I want to support it.”
Wayson is now experimenting with techniques to bring weirdness to her work. She’ll copy pieces of her journal entries backwards, word-for-word, just to see what kind of juxtapositions that will draw out. She’ll then explore those unexpected connections in poetry.
So what’s next for her? “I have a manuscript that I've been shopping around that’s been a near-miss at some really nice presses for years,” she says. She hasn’t given up hope on that one — “I’m still working on that, and that will probably be the next thing that comes out” from her in book form.
And the new work is still coming strong. “I have something right now that I’m working on that feels like it will be a thing,” she says, and her enthusiasm for the work is palpable. “I’m not talking Rilke here,” she qualifies, “but for me, it’s something I can hang my hat on.”
Is that thrilling to feel, after such a long drought? “Yeah, it’s nice to know it’s there, and it’s nice to have been doing this for long enough now that I know to not press it,” Wayson says.
She’s learned that much of crafting a piece of writing, for her, “is doing it and then stopping and letting it be, and then going back and trying some more, and then probably fucking it up a little bit, and taking that back out.”
“It really all takes such a huge amount of time,” Wayson says. That’s not a complaint, coming from her. In fact, she sounds like she’s having fun.
Last week, Seattle cartoonist DW recommended a cartoonist who posts on Instagram under the pseudonym Seattle Walk Report. I’d never heard of her before, but when I looked her up I could easily understand why she was a favorite.
Seattle Walk Report’s cartoons track various data points from her walks through Seattle. She might count all the pumpkins she sees, or make a running tally of newspaper boxes, or notice that every single paneled parapet on the Montlake Bridge had its own spider web inside, or write little love notes to dogs she meets while walking around town. “I’ve been seeing a steady increase in sidewalk nachos,” she writes in one installment, “BUT WHERE ARE THEY COMING FROM?”
Seattle Walk Report responded quickly to a direct message, and she seemed happy to talk on the phone. The anonymity of her pseudonym isn’t iron clad: She identifies herself as in her late 20s and kindly offers her first name when I comment on how awkward it is to call another person “Seattle Walk Report.” But for reasons she explains in the interview, she finds the anonymity to be freeing.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
How did you get started? Did the walking come first and then the cartooning? Or did they happen at the same time?
Well, they're both intertwined. Like many walks, I think, it’s a long story, so I might ramble a little bit here.
I was born and raised in Seattle, and I've never lived anywhere else — even for a second. I don't know how to drive, and I've never learned. So I've always relied on walking, or buses, or the kindness of others to get around. The walking component was not something I found much joy in until very recently; it was just a means to an end for much of my life.
But something happened earlier this year, and the pure joy of long, winding, destinationless walks really hit me. It was kind of like —, you know in cartoons, when somebody gets hit by a piano, and they wake up and there's birds over their head and their teeth are piano keys? It was kind of like that. I woke up one morning, and it just felt like something was different. And I would wake up on a day off, and I would leave with no destination. And sometimes nine, ten hours later, I would come back, and that was just how I spent my day. It didn't even feel like a conscious decision. It was just my mind and my body telling me to get out there.
I thought I knew Seattle really well, having never lived anywhere else, but I can honestly say that before I started to take the time to slow down and take these walks, I really don't feel like I knew the half of it. Or the quarter of it. I still don't know that I do. Seattle's really started to unfold in a way that I hadn't seen before. Or maybe I hadn't taken the time to see it before — I'm not really sure.
Anyway, I've always been a person who draws, and when I was little my mom would say that I was born with a pencil in my hand; and I believed her literally until I was an embarrassing 10 or 11 years old. I thought, ‘wow, that's a really cute coincidence', and, ‘ouch, that must have hurt.’
I just crossed my legs.
But anything I've ever done artistically has really just been pretty much for myself — just art for art's sake. In high school, I would spend weeks or months working on some little, tiny minicomic just for myself. I'd complete it, and I'd smile, and I'd put it on my shelf, and I'd move on to the next thing. It was always for me and never really for anyone else.
I always imagined that I would die and the guy with the push broom who comes to clear out people's apartments who have died would find this shelf full of comics and books and all this crazy stuff that I had made that I had never shared with anybody. I imagined him with his push broom being like, ‘Whoa, this is some weird stuff.’
In addition to drawing, I've always really loved mundane data. Like the library has a subscription to a database called Statistica. It has a really great search functionality, so sometimes I'd just sit there and type in ‘Funions,’ and I'll see the average American household ate two or less bags of Funions in 2011. I just loved that kind of thing.
So walking really made me reconnect with Seattle, and reconnecting with Seattle made me walk. It was this really satisfying loop, and that was my first revelation. Then my second revelation came when I realized I could combine this love of walking with drawing and with data collection.
I thought it would be another one of those projects that I'd be happy to keep to myself, like some sort of journal or something. Because after a while the walks kind of all start to blur together. So I thought this would just be a fun way for me to remember these walks, and where I went, or what I saw on them, or how many crosswalks I crossed, or that kind of thing.
I decided one day to go out and just record what I see. I didn't have some deep goal in mind with it. And when I got home, I turned it into a drawing, and I wrote "Seattle Walk Report" at the top without thinking about it.
I closed my notebook that I had drawn it in, and I just felt this overwhelming sort of — it felt like there was something there that needed to be said about Seattle that wasn't being said. And for the first time with anything I've ever done, I really felt like this drawing needed to be somewhere for somebody else to connect with and see.
So I downloaded Instagram for the first time in my life, and I registered Seattle Walk Report. I posted it, not thinking anyone would ever see it or ever care, but wanting to know that it was there for people to see and care about if they felt like it.
It just went from there. The feedback loop grew stronger in terms of me walking to draw and drawing to walk in Seattle. It all just kind of wove together into this perfect little thing.
I didn't tell anyone I was going to do it. I didn't come up with a cute name first, and then try to figure it out. I just did it, and I didn't have a fully formed idea of what I was doing. I still don't. It's evolved so much. It was just born out of walking, and raised by walking, and will probably die by walking. Anyway, that's the long, winding story of it all.
That's fantastic. What do you think, specifically, about the evolution when you look back on the last four months, five months? How long has it been?
I think July 1st was when I started it. When I first started out, I felt this desire to use the knowledge that I have of Seattle's neighborhoods to impose my own ideas about what might unfold during that walk, instead of just letting the city be whatever it is that day. I would actively seek out certain things at the detriment of actually seeing what was there.
In one of my earliest ones, I knew I was going to be walking around in South Lake Union so I was like, ‘okay, I'll probably see closed sidewalks, and I'll probably see Starbucks cups on the ground, and I'll probably see some baby ducks.’ And so I went out to tally those things, since it seemed like I would probably find them there, and that's fine. But it was almost like I was writing a narrative and pigeon-holing the walk, or the place, before even setting out on it.
Once I let go of that sort of narrative, and just started to walk with no preconceived notions of what I would see, I think things just really started to pop off. Right around the time that I let go of that, people started commenting, ‘This one was really good.’ Or, like, ‘this has really gotten a lot better.’ Then I did start to put more effort into it, because before I would just do it over 15 minutes on my lunch break.
I actually just found out about you last week, because a cartoonist named DW who moved to Seattle just a few months ago recommended you as one of his favorite cartoonists.
That's so nice.
I've been doing long walks for a few years now, and I've written a little about it, and every once in a while I'll tweet while I'm out on a walk or something. And people have told me, "You should write a book about this." And I love walking, but the point of walking is to be sort of monotonous, right? It's literally one step in front of the other. But the way you handle it, I think, is really interesting.
It really speaks to me about the quotidian nature of walking, and just what it's like to go out on a walk and to observe at a very natural, very slow pace. Have your cartoons always been sort of like data collection or did you just start doing that with the walking?
There's always been kind of an element of that. I’ve always been interested in taking things that people think they know and adding some sort of new layer to it. I've found through this that there are other people out there doing this exact same thing in a different way, moreso than I realized.
Like the number of messages I've gotten from people who are like, ‘oh, my gosh, I thought I was the only person who always remembered my favorite dog I saw on a walk.’ Just that there are other people out there quietly doing this exact same thing in their heads. And that's pretty cool — to find that kind of quiet community out there, and kind of bring people together. I was not expecting the response to be what it was. I really thought I'd be playing to an audience of myself, just in as more public way than I normally do.
And so to have people resonate, to have it resonate with people, and have people message me and say, ‘you're my hero’ and ‘this has changed how I see Seattle’ — it just blows my mind a little bit.
So you have over 700 followers on Instagram. How did those numbers grow? It's been a relatively short time. Did you get everybody all at once or have there been little plateaus, or what?
It's been super, super steady from the beginning. Every day a couple more people. I haven't had one day where I wake up and see that I’ve gotten 100 people — nothing like that. I think people find it just by stumbling on it, or people hear about it from somebody else. It's been kind of a word of mouth thing.
There are people who know me really well who don't know that I'm doing this. There are people who I work with who follow me, and they don't know that I am this person I don't see myself as part of the Seattle comics community, because I've never met anybody in it or gone to any of the things that you're supposed to go to if you're part of that. But I have followed certain Seattle cartoonists that I stumble across [on Instagram], and then they'll follow me back and that kind of thing. So it's just been a steady sort of growth.
So, say you inspire somebody to walk, which I imagine has probably happened. Is there any walk that you would recommend as a particularly surprising one for people want to get a feel for Seattle as a walking city?
This might be a little bit long for the new walker, but I'd say give it a shot and see what happens: I really like the South Lake Union walk. I like walking around South Lake Union — starting near MOHAI and going the entire way around — because you get to see such a variety of things. It's a relatively flat walk. There's Gas Works along the way. There's Fremont. You get to go over bridges. You get to go under bridges. It's relatively quiet. There's nice views. Especially if somebody is new to the city in general, I really recommend that walk just to get a feel for the sort of sights there are to see around.
Discovery Park — for some reason, growing up I didn't spend a lot of time there, and so I've discovered it for the first time. I'd recommend either just walking to Discovery Park from wherever you are, or taking the bus there — driving there, whatever — and giving that a shot. Because that's another place that has a lot of variety, and beautiful views.
I'd also say to walk down Airport Way and see what happens. If you like interesting trash, and sights, you can achieve a good sort of rhythmic zen state on Airport Way.
There's also buses everywhere so you can take back if you get tired.
Yeah. And definitely on the South Lake Union walk, there's multiple points where you can just bail on it.
And there are public bathrooms at MOHAI, and again at Gas Works Park. Because bathrooms are a real concern on these long walks.
PCC in Fremont has bathrooms that they don't care if you use all day every day.
I'm sure they'll be pleased about you telling people that. But it's important! There aren't a lot of open restrooms. In October through April a lot of the public park bathrooms just close down. Because you obviously don't need to go to the bathroom from October to April.
Weirdly, even though you’re anonymous, I think that you're a really good ambassador for walking in the city. Even though you don’t use your name, the work feels really personal.
I think when I first really grasped on to what it was that I was doing, I realized that being mostly anonymous enhances my ability to be an invisible observer, and just to report out. I think that really strengthens the work.
If you were a walker, too, it's probably likely that we've stood at the same crosswalk or walked by each other. I think that's kind of like a cool, human thing. And I like being able to be amongst people at any time and have them not know who I am, or what I'm doing, even if they are one of the 720 people who know my work.
So I don't mind sharing certain things about myself or my comics, and people can certainly figure out a lot about me and what I care about through my comics. To know Seattle Walk Report is to know me pretty darn well. I don't know if readers would have a greater appreciation or understanding of Seattle Walk Report, if they knew my face, or my job, or my favorite Beatle, or whatever. I don't know. We'll see.
There is certainly anonymity to walking. Every once in a while I will see older versions of me out on the Interurban Trail and we’ll nod to each other, but generally, I don't recognize anyone. When I started doing this, I thought I was very much alone. I thought I was the only human being who has walked from Westwood Village in West Seattle to Shoreline, from city limits to city limits across the city diagonally, in a single day. But now I'm starting to realize that there is this culture out there. And hearing you talk about it certainly has helped solidify that there is a walking culture here. But it's a culture of people who like to be alone.
One of the first things people will say when I talk about my walks is, ‘oh, we should go walking together sometime.’ And it always makes me uncomfortable to respond ambivalently, but part of the reason I do these walks is to be alone. Has that happened to you too?
So many people have messaged me on Instagram saying, ‘we should go on a walk sometime.’ And I'm like, you have no idea how — first of all — how horrendous that would be for you.
If you want the worst time of your life, go on a walk with me. I'll just pop in my headphones, and get out my notebook, and ignore you for six hours. And you'll be exhausted, or you will have left hours ago, and I'm still walking, and I didn't even know you were gone.
I really appreciate people reaching out to me, but I do think it is such a solitary venture. Maybe sometime I can go on a walk with somebody where they go on a walk, and I go on a walk, and we're not together; and we just report back on what we saw, and that can be spending time together. That would be perfect situation for me.
Do you enjoy nature walks, too? I know you mentioned Discovery Park, but that's walkable from the city. Have you ever been the sort of person who's into hiking?
Not really. I'm definitely more of a city walker. I definitely appreciate the contrast, but I think I really like to fill out the map in my mind. I really like to think ‘there's no way I could get from Woodinville to the U District,’ and then go do it.
On Saturday, October 14th at 6 pm, the Fantagraphics Bookstore in Georgetown presents new work from three great young cartoonists. Denver’s Noah Van Sciver and Los Angeles cartoonist Joseph Remnant share the stage with a new-to-Seattle cartoonist who goes by the initials DW. Fantagraphics is releasing DW's very first book, a reproduction of a graph-paper sketchbook titled Mountebank.
DW is a serious and thoughtful young cartoonist who, in his spare time, co-founded and co-edits a comics anthology called Irene. He was kind enough to take a break from a visit to the east coast to talk to me on the phone about why he picked Seattle as a home, how he came to publish with Fantagraphics, and the responsibilities of being an editor of comics. This interview has been lightly edited.
When did you move to Seattle?
On July 7th. My friends, who drove me up, we left San Francisco on July 4th and we got to Seattle on July 7th.
How long were you in San Francisco before that?
Five years. I graduated from the Center for Cartoon Studies in 2012 and spent the rest of the summer in Vermont after that. On September 5th 2012 I flew out to the Bay Area and spent about eight months living in Oakland, and then moved over to San Francisco. So all told, it came out to almost exactly five years in the bay area.
Can I ask why you moved to Seattle?
I found San Francisco to be a very lonely place. It was a big problem for me there — connecting with people and feeling like I was part of a community, either on a personal level or as an artist trying to be amongst other cartoonists. I had given it my best shot for five years.
So it was partly running away from stuff there and just wanting to move onto something different, which I had been thinking about doing for quite a while at that point. But it was also about running towards something, because [Fantagraphics and I] had been working on [Mountebank]. That was about to come out about the time I made the decision to move to Seattle.
I already had several good friends who were cartoonists in Seattle and are part of a really rich, vibrant community. I checked with them to find out — I was like, ‘Is it still kicking? Is the cartoonist community still alive and well in Seattle?’ And they said, ‘Yes, it absolutely is. Better than ever. You should come for a visit it and see if you feel at home here.’
So I visited and then made the decision pretty much right then and there that I was going to give it a shot.
So Seattle does not have a reputation for being a warm and welcoming city to new visitors. I assume you probably heard to death about the Seattle freeze.
I think it should be called the San Francisco freeze.
I have heard about it, and I have not found it to be a part of my real-life experience in any way. I have found moving to Seattle to be an exciting, lovely, stimulating, warm experience. I feel really connected to the people. For the first time in a long time, I feel part of an artistic community, part of a healthy social world.
So I haven't had any problems with the Seattle freeze. I know it's legendary. You know I think as an East coast person, born and bred, I'm never going to feel completely at home on the west coast, which is part of the reason why I like living on the west coast. But I instantly felt connected to something in Seattle that I never felt in the Bay Area. It doesn't feel like work every day to feel connected to people, both on an artistic level and on a basic human social level. I've loved it so far.
Are there any cartoonists in the community who you want to especially highlight? Any cartoonists who were especially instrumental in your move?
Either before I moved here or who I’ve encountered since moving here or both?
Before, the two who were both my closest Seattle friends and are also two of the best cartoonists I know, are Ben Horak and James Stanton. Their work has been printed in the anthology that I edit. They’re both buddies of mine, and even if I wasn't close friends with them I would completely have nothing but good things to say about their cartoon abilities.
[Max] Clotfelter and [Tom] Van Deusen and Marie Hausauer — I didn’t know any of them personally... Oh, and Handa. Do you know Handa?
I don’t think so.
She's amazing. I was big fans of all their work before I moved here and now I'm becoming friends with all of them. I've had a chance to start to get to know all of them, and they're all really good people.
Probably my favorite Seattle cartoonist right now is Seattle Walk Report. Do you know her work on Instagram?
No! Seattle Walk Report? That sounds awesome!
Yeah, everybody should follow her.
Oh, and I forgot to say Marc Palm. Marc was the guy who helped me find a place to live, which was really important because I've become friends with all my roommates now. Marc, besides being a good cartoonist and a good guy, is such a pillar of the community.
As you well know, because you've been through all this with him, what he's accomplished recently with the left-handed drawing thing is something that is, to me, a major accomplishment for an artist. It's really inspiring the way he deals with adversity and adapts to his situation and turns it into something new. That ability to do that and make lemonade out of lemons is what I aspire to as an artist and a person. So Marc is a very important guy, both before I moved here and still to this day, as a friend and colleague.
So you went to the Center for Cartoon Studies, which basically means you are hardcore. That is not something you bumble into because you think you're going to maybe try this cartooning thing. You go there if you want to be a cartoonist for the rest of your life.
It's true. Yeah, it's like if you want to get your time's worth and money's worth out of it you have to be prepared to go hardcore with it — whatever that means for you as an individual. I think it would be pretty pointless to spend the money and the two years if you're not at least going to try to do it every day for the rest of your life, whether you have any intention of anybody seeing that work or not. So that's what I tried to do.
Have you always been a cartoonist, then?
On and off. I did it a lot when I was a kid. I've never stopped reading comics, my whole life. Especially newspaper comics. I've been really steeped in newspaper comics, from the time I could read. I was born in ‘83, and Calvin and Hobbes ran from ‘85 to ’95, so I was right in my formative years in that point where Watterson was also publishing a new Calvin and Hobbes in the newspaper every day. I would read the Philadelphia Inquirer comics page every day and always save Calvin and Hobbes for the last thing I read right before I left to go to school.
And I read super hero comics, graphic novels, and pretty much everything else. I read Maus when I was about 10. I was making a lot of comics and writing a lot of bad stories, and doodling all the time when I should have been focusing on schoolwork.
Then I drifted away from it. I never stopped, but [comics] got relegated to something I would do during class when I should have been paying attention to my teachers, or that I would toss off as a joke for friends. The main portion of my artistic energy went to other things like playing music, or making videos with friends. Things that entailed a more, by definition, social aspect because I think that's what I needed at the time.
When I was in my early 20's and I was working a nine-to-five job after graduating from college I found my way back to really making drawing an essential part of my life and started taking it seriously again. It was a few years after that I decided to go to grad school at CCS.
So how did you get involved with Fantagraphics?
Two years ago, I was coming up to Seattle to meet my mom because she was going to be there on business — this was when I was still living in San Francisco. It seemed like a natural thing to do to take time off of work and hang out in Seattle for a little while.
I figured since I was going to be in Seattle anyway I would see if I could pull some strings and try to get my foot in the door to just meet the people at Fantagraphics. I was really looking at it as a networking opportunity to try to get on their radar: let them know who I was, see if they had any constructive feedback about my work, put my work in front of their eyes.
And it turned out that they were interested in working on something together, so then we started to discuss what form would that take. I had some pretty strong feelings about that. They pushed back when appropriate, but they were very easy to work with and very supportive of my ideas for how this project should take shape.
What were some of your strong feelings?
[Mountebank] is a facsimile reproduction of an actual sketchbook that I maintained for about two years. Because of the way that I conceived of and structured the work in that book, which was extremely organized and regimented and followed a strict set of rules, I felt that the work had to be presented altogether in sequential order, in the original order that it appears in the actual sketchbook, and that the concepts of the presentation should be a facsimile — as close as possible to the feeling that you're holding the actual book in your hands. A few people have commented to me, and I don't think that they're wrong, that [sketchbook reproduction is] a bit of a played-out concept at this point. Maybe the market got a little saturated with that kind of presentation, but I just felt like that was the only way to do this.
Working in a sketchbook has a very particular meaning for me. It's my preferred method of working and it helps guide my work in the direction that want it to go. I think that presenting this particular body of work — both because the pages do have a relationship to one another and because of the way they look on the original sketchbook pages — I think it's important that you appreciate that this is all coming out of a sketchbook.
It's kind of like finding that place where this work represents an overlap between comics and the physical feeling of the intimacy of leafing through someone's sketchbook, or seeing something that they're giving you permission to see that they've been carrying around in their bag with them for two years and scribbling in during their lunch breaks.
Yeah, I think there's an interesting relationship between cartoonists and their sketchbooks and their broader body of work. Nobody can really deny that Robert Crumb’s sketchbooks, which Fantagraphics has reproduced, have become a central part of his work.
Right. I've heard through the grapevine that Crumb himself was really skeptical about that concept. He thought it was kind of a dumb idea. I don't know if I have that exactly right, but he wasn't really into that idea. And people love those, right? [His sketchbooks have] become a central aspect of his entire body of work now.
Yeah, and there are other cartoonists, like Seth for instance — I prefer his sketchbook stuff lately to the stuff that he’s more intensely rendered.
I can see that. I don't know if you'd agree with this, but I think with that with him, his most recent comics have gotten so designerly. Which, obviously, he's one of the most talented designers alive. But they're so designerly and so polished that you end up kind of responding to that more than the emotional content, or the narrative content. Whereas with the sketchbooks there's like these flashes of really powerful emotion or something that cut through a little more sharply.
I'm trying to create a space where the work in the sketchbooks is the finished work, or there is no finished work.
Yeah, and there's a lack of self-seriousness in his sketchbooks that I like in contrast with his other work. But somebody like Chris Ware, who is really into design — I like his sketchbooks, but they are not as significant as Crumb's or Seth's.
You know what? I totally agree with that formulation. I think you're right about that. Ware, I do like the finished work better.
It's very interesting that sketchbook art is becoming part of a cartoonist’s career and body of work.
I think you're right. And so with me, to jump ahead a little bit, I'm trying to create a space where the work in the sketchbooks is the finished work, or there is no finished work. Choosing to work in the sketchbook doesn't mean that this is supposed to be private, or unpolished —although it probably does allow me to get away with a lot of mistakes that I wouldn’t be happy with if I was doing it in a different context.
I think you’re the first cartoonist Fantagraphics has published who they've made the sketchbook before the “real” book.
You might be right about that. If that's the case, that was them being really amazing, thoughtful, cooperative, collaborators.
Is the book that I am holding in my hand, literally right now — is this basically the object that you brought in to Fantagraphics when you visited two years ago?
Yeah. I brought in about three or four sketchbooks to show them, including the one that you're holding right now. That was the one that I always had my eye on. Even at that point, I thought ‘I want this book to be presented by somebody, hopefully Fantagraphics, as a complete work.’
From the movement that I conceived the structure for that book, and designed the system that would guide the content and flow of the book, I had always envisioned that particular sketchbook as being a unified work that would hang together as one object.
So to answer your question more fully, if I were to hand you the original sketchbook, which I'd be happy to do sometime if we ever were to meet, and you were to place it alongside your copy and flip to the same page it would be virtually indistinguishable except by touch.
I can't triangulate your work by just having this one point to work with. Do you develop individual ideas in individual sketchbooks? Does your style differ depending on where you sketch?
I sort of change the channel depending on what sketchbook I'm in. There are different sketchbooks that serve different purposes, and represent different meanings or contexts for me. I always maintain at least one sketchbook where I do stuff I probably wouldn't necessarily ever print, or maybe even wouldn’t show to somebody — real raw. Just letting my ID roam around the page and morad around and see what it can catch. Then with Mountebank, which was the name of the sketchbook — you know, you have to name your sketchbooks — Mountebank was conceived as the opposite of that.
Even though it was in a sketchbook, I wanted it to be a unified body of work where you do go on this journey as you flip from one page to the next, and before I ever made a single mark on the first page, I conceived of the system that would guide the rules and the content and the structure of what criteria have to be met on every page, and the order in which the pages go. I drew up a whole matrix to tell me when I got to each page, which criteria and rules had to be honored on that page.
Then, I would have to respond to those rules I had set for myself in the context of where I was at that point in the book and create that page accordingly so I would have room to improvise and play around. Going straight to ink, as I do, but would also have to be mindful of those rules and build everything I was doing around those rules so that each individual page would stand on its own compositionally, but would fit into the larger structure of the piece by obeying the rules of the matrix.
It's a really impressive book. I intend to come back to and reinvestigate it. But it seems like there are a lot of layers going on here.
Yeah, and I hope that not knowing what they all are and not understanding all of the criteria would be part of the act of enjoying the work. I don't want you to have to know all that stuff in order to understand the book.
Yeah, but it does seem like there is a definite form of logic.
There's one in my head. I know exactly, in my head, how it works. But to me, all of that logic, and the system, is a jumping off point for how to get started making the work, and how to direct my energy within the process of making the work. But in my opinion, it’s absolutely not essential, or probably even interesting, to someone who just wants to flip to a page and enjoy looking at the pretty pictures. You know?
Towards the middle of the book I you embark on what feels like a real investigation into the idea of what a panel is and what a panel can do.
Totally! The panel thing is huge. That was a big thing for me. You put that really beautifully, too.
You could view the entire page as a single panel or you have the lines in there that can be seen as sort of breaking it up.
Right, and sometimes the panel borders are respected as blocking off each panel as the discrete area, and sometimes they're not. So sometimes the breaking up of things into panels could, at the same time, make you want to look at each panel and "read" each panel in sequence. And then at the same time it might make you want to step back and look at the larger composition, because certain aspects of the composition respect those panels and those panel borders, and then other aspects freely traverse [the panel borders] with no respect for them. So that hopefully the entire page would hang together as an entire composition while also being readable, as it were.
And then also I think you could also view each individual square on the graph paper as its own panel.
I think in some cases I got away from that as I went on. I think towards the end of the book it got sort of zoomed out a little, which you could also say that about the book itself. So I guess you could look at it in these units of individual squares, individual panels, individual pages — and at every one of those levels I'm always also thinking about the level above. So as I moved towards the culmination of the project and was trying to get to the page count that I wanted for the final submission, I think I was getting a little broader in scope and starting to think more like a designer and less like a cartoonist.
We literally had artists from every continent in the world, including Antarctica, in one comic anthology.
You are an editor of an anthology titled Irene, and I wanted to ask you about that. I've only interviewed a few people about editing comics. Generally they are very sort of blasé about editing in a way that literary editors are not. Like [Fantagraphics publisher] Gary Groth, for instance. He told me once that he did very little editing once the pages came in to him, because there's not much an editor can do with a drawn comics page, as opposed to working with text. I just want to ask you what it's like working on your book as an editor, and what kind of an editor you're like. I think that's a couple questions at once, sorry.
I can certainly answer the first part easily. In terms of working as an editor, I'm working alongside two of my closest friends in the whole world, and two of my favorite artists, Andy Warner and Dakota McFadzean. We are together editing and publishing this book that we co-founded, the three of us.
We're also designing the physical look of the book: we're doing the cover, the end pages, and the table of contents for every issue. We are talking to one another during the initial gearing-up phase for any given issue — who do we want to invite for this issue? We're all bringing different sensibilities to that, because we're three very different cartoonists in terms of styles, contexts, and communities that we work in. We're really close and we all respect and feed off of one another's work and respective aesthetics. But we're also all three of us connected to wildly different areas of cartooning as a medium.
So we're all feeding into this common stream, and then we're sifting through it: who do we want to invite, what overall aesthetic do we want to cultivate for a given issue, do we want more of one kind of artist over another?
Issue six, the most recent issue of Irene, we literally had artists from every continent in the world, including Antarctica, in one comic anthology. Which, we can't prove it, but we're pretty sure that's the first time that anybody's ever accomplished that with a comics anthology. We don't think anybody else has gone through the trouble to find cartoonists from Antarctica before.
So, there's that process of starting to put the issue together and conceiving of what it might be like. Then when the work starts to roll in, that's the most fun part. Because to echo Gary's comment on that — especially since we're asking people to be in this book and we're telling them up front that they have free reign once they've agreed to do it, to do whatever they see fit — we don't think we're in a position to push back and make changes or edits at that point. When they hand in the finished work we take what they've given us.
Along the way we have often had contributors who have asked us for editorial feedback while they're working on the project, and we love engaging with that and trying to be helpful with that where we can. But once the finished work has come in and we have all the work that we need to put an issue together the most fun part is the three of us getting together and debating the structure and sequence of the book. Like, ‘I really feel strongly that this particular story should be the opener because it will start off on a really strong note and it will set this or that tone for the book.’ Then choosing the last story is really fun. Every single issue we have one artist do all of the interstitials so that as you finish one story and begin the next there's a little breather page. We like to have one person do all of those interstitial breather pages for the whole issue. So that becomes this whole aesthetic consideration.
Yeah, and we're putting it together in this sequence that feels right for us and then the three of us are doing this sort of design and presentation for what the cover and end pages, and table of contents are going to look like and how they're going to create a functional house for all of those lovely comics.
As a translator, EJ Koh told me at her book launch party at the Hugo House last month, “there are many ways to use one word. In that sense, the words feel heavier to me” as a translator than they do as ‘just’ a poet. “They weigh heavier on my heart and in my mind.” She continued, “when I'm writing poetry in English, I think, ‘how can I make this word in English mean so many things? How can I manipulate it in that way?’”
Koh is a genius at manipulating the meanings of words: the poems in her debut collection, A Lesser Love are happy and sad and funny all at the same time. In some ways, her poems are a little like those plastic layers you used to find in old anatomy textbooks to illustrate the varied systems of the human body. Peel back a single layer and you’ll find something new underneath — a system that’s just as essential to the life of the organism as everything else.
Koh and I spoke briefly at the end of her reading. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation. (Many thanks to Hugo House programs assistant Kelsey Lacanilao for sharing her audio recording of the event.)
You've written a little bit about the act of translating poems from Korean to English with your parents. I was wondering if you could talk a about that.
So I'm not super, super fluent in Korean — I can do karaoke, but I'm not super fluent.
But I do translate Korean poetry, and I use the help of my father, who's been great. My dad gets the literal translation for me. I get to sit next to him and ask him the context because the literal is not enough. I also want to know for him being born at that time — let's say post-occupation or so — and so during the war, what was going on? What was the pop culture? What did that word mean then, not what does it mean now? So that's been really great.
It's also a sly way to get your dad to start reading poetry.
Also, the poet I translated is my mom's best friend from high school. Her name's Kim Myung Won. I found out about her because me and my mom and Kim Myung went to karaoke once. We got hammered. Then Kim Myung looks at me and she goes, ‘You know, I'm a poet.’
And I said, ‘What? Me too.’
My mom's hammered and she's like, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. You're both poets.’
And I'm saying, ‘Mom, why didn't you tell us sooner?’
Kim Myung was like, ‘Do you want some of my poems? Do you want to translate them?’
And I said, ‘Yeah. I do.’
It turns out some of her poems are pretty raunchy. And having to get the literal raunchy translation of them through my father was sometimes awkward because I'd be like, ‘Dad, this word means many things but does it mean this?’
And he's like, ‘It does, yeah, but more... it's dirtier."
And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’
So it's been great.
So you didn't do so many historical poems tonight, but you do write a lot about history.
I do. Yeah.
Do you ever find the past to be a confining subject? Or is it more of a liberating subject? Do you find your inspiration there?
I do talk about historical events, and I rewrite those poems again and again because there are so many different colors to the events themselves, and there's so many different perspectives, that I can go over them again and again.
It's not limiting. It’s just the opposite — almost like going back to revise and see a new sheen or, I guess in the Instagram culture it's like a new filter, to look at the things that happened.
I think it's such a wonderful well, and an abundant well. Every time you go back to an event, there is something we didn't know at the time that we do now. Rarely do we go back to apply what we know now to those events and say, ‘That's why. That's why these people felt this way. That's why they left their country, or that's why this has all happened and it has now accumulated to this.’
I think it's part of history to go back and revise, to revisit, to listen to the ghosts, to do your work. It’s part of culture.
Do you consider yourself to be a Seattle poet?
Yes. Oh my gosh! Yes.
How does Seattle represent itself in your work?
The last poem in my book is called, "Alki the Town of Dreams." I also have a poem called "Madrona." I have poems about places all over Seattle.
I've lived in San Jose. I've lived in Davis, and in Irvine, which is near L.A., and New York. I would travel here and there for fellowships and scholarships, but it didn't feel like home until I came to Seattle.
Seattle was sort of a pivotal moment where everything came together. Everything I could have wanted — the time to write, the space, the community, the creativity, the energy, the people. I am so happy to be a Seattle poet.
Franklin Foer’s World Without Mind is a must-read book of the fall season. Subtitled The Existential Threat of Big Tech, World is a full-frontal assault on the fallacious idea that the big four tech companies that shape our world — Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple — are benevolent firms that have the advancement of humanity in mind.
Foer smartly couches his polemic in memoir, relaying his experiences as a beloved editor of the New Republic. When the storied magazine was bought by a tech gadfly, its century-old dedication to the art of journalism and thoughtful opinion was discarded in favor of click-hungry content farming. Foer was fired, and the majority of his staff left with him in solidarity.
A lesser writer could seem like an aggrieved party in World, and Foer certainly does acknowledge that his pride was wounded in the aftermath of the New Republic’s Silicon Valley-styled meltdown. But instead he makes a compelling case for considered, intellectual thought in the public sphere, even as he rages against the slick digital robber barons who have consumed our attention in exchange for a few baubles of convenience.
Foer reads from World at Elliott Bay Book Company on Wednesday, September 27th at 7 pm. The event is free; no purchase is necessary. I hope you'll go hear him out. You’ll likely think a little differently about the urgings of the vibrating hunk of glass and steel in your pocket after the event.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of a phone conversation I had with Foer last week.
I assume you heard the news that Amazon recently announced that they're looking to found a second separate-but-equal headquarters in another city?
Now we're watching cities bow and scrape in the hopes of bringing Amazon to them. Tucson just sent a giant cactus to Amazon management, like some sort of a weird dowry or something. I was wondering if you had any advice for cities that might be trying to entice Amazon to set up in their city?
Let's just look at Amazon's track record when it comes to exploiting civil government. Part of its business model has been to fleece local municipalities — with its refusal to pay sales tax over time, or all the concessions that it extracts when it goes about setting a warehouse down.
I think the right metaphor is the sports stadiums that get built in cities, where owners come in and exploit civic pride and sense of civic purpose in order to get these fantastical deals for themselves, where cities empty their coffers in order to build these monumental facilities that teams then make money off of.
I just think it's sad. And part of the sadness is that we can see where this is going over the long run, which is that Amazon may bring jobs in the short term, but they really don't want those jobs over the long run. In the long run, when Amazon puts down a warehouse, it's going to automate it, so there are not going to be workers.
I wonder whether these cities are doing anything to remotely try to calculate the long-term economic benefit for themselves. I doubt it.
One of the things that I thought was especially interesting in this book was the writing about media, especially the parts that focused on your own experience. I left a publication soon after management installed [analytics software] Chartbeat because they devalued arts coverage after they learned that it wasn't as popular as they had assumed it was.
I've done a lot of thinking since then that maybe the original sin for the marriage between media and the internet was the decision by Google founders that a click on an ad was only worth a fraction of a cent. It's a system that doesn't allow for the fact that some clicks could be worth more to some advertisers than to others. It's very rigid. Do you think there's a way to change that discussion — to revalue the importance of writing as valued by advertising — or is the advertising model basically dead for media?
My sense is that the advertising model is kind of dead in the short term. I fundamentally agree with you that Google has deflated the advertising market as it exists now beyond any reasonable significance to media companies. We need to move on to something different.
My preference is to move to a subscription model, but I also think that it's possible that there's some form of advertising that hasn't been invented yet that could be more valuable than display advertising, and less corrupting than the native advertising that we've seen people moving towards over time. But I'm not smart enough to know what that is.
Do you think anyone's getting close to it? Do you see anybody doing things that you like?
What I like is the resurgence of subscription models. I like that the New York Times and the Washington Post seem to be selling subscriptions in some volume, re-acclimating people to the idea of having to pay for what they read.
But I also think that the subscription model as it exists now for digital journalism isn’t valuable on its own because the prices are set far too low. We're kind of in this place where everything has been deflated. The value of digital advertising has been deflated, the value of digital subscriptions has been deflated, and it's hard to see where exactly the fast-forward is.
One thing that I do think -
Sorry that I don't have the cheerful, optimistic solution for you.
It's okay. Nobody has those solutions, that's the thing. That's why it's important to keep thinking about it. But one thing that I do think the internet has done really well — and I don't know if it gets a lot of credit from people in the media on this — is to provide a platform for people who have never before had voices in the media.
I find it really difficult to argue for a return to the old gatekeeper model when there's now more representation in culture than ever before. Is there a way to reclaim institutional thought and consideration while still maintaining the representational progress we've seen in the last 10 years?
Yeah. That doesn't seem terribly difficult to me. I think that institutional journalism has responded to the internet, and also a shift in times, by being much more representative. I think that when it comes to a lot of these questions about new technology and old media, it's easy to slip into Manichean thought. The choice isn't between going back to the old media of the 1980s — which was stodgy, excessively white male, etc. — versus the status quo. I think we have the ability to do better on all fronts. I don't think that we need to abandon all the good aspects of change in order to respond to the bad aspects of change.
As you were collecting ideas for this book, where did you draw the line between reality and conspiracy theory, and between apathy and malevolence in the intent of these companies? It's very easy for me to get too wrapped up in this sort of good guy/bad guy paradigm, when the truth of their intent is much more complex. Is this something you've had to think about as you’ve put this book together? This is kind of a vague question and I'm very sorry — can you retrieve anything of value out of that?
I think you're saying that it's possible to look at what the tech companies do and come to the conclusion that they're highly malevolent, when in fact they may have a lot of ideas that could be caricatured as malevolent, but in fact are relatively benign. Is that what you're saying?
Yeah. That's a good, solid place to start for sure.
I would say that what makes these companies interesting is that they're idealistic and ambitious. I think one does need to take seriously their own self-description. I think that we need to treat them as not just money-making corporations, but treat them also as companies that have ambitions to change the world. Sometimes they're self-justifying ambitions. I think that [Facebook founder Mark] Zuckerberg does a lot of self-justifying, but in other instances I think that they're perfectly sincere in describing how they want to change the world.
[Calling it] a conspiracy makes it sound like people are sitting in a back room somewhere in Palo Alto devising a hidden plan. My point is that the plan isn't actually very hidden. I think that a lot of times these companies, for the most part, are very naked in describing what they're up to, so I don't really think it takes a whole lot of reading to go to the place I go when I'm describing them.
Do you worry when you put this book out that there's a chance that you might be pigeonholed in the role of the curmudgeon — like, CNN will call you to fill out a panel whenever they need someone to just complain about Big Tech?
Yeah, I've clearly cast myself as grandpa. I don't understand why that's a worry. Am I worried that I'm a token, is that what you’re asking?
The media tends to find value in people who say “no,” but they value them only if they say “no” in the same way again and again. I wonder if there's a possibility of you being typecast as the man who said “no.”
I feel like I'm just writing my opinion. Really I wasn't thinking about being on a CNN panel when I was writing about this book. I want my argument to be heard, so I'd probably go on a CNN panel, but really I live to write books and arguments, not to be on CNN panels, so that's what I think about most.
Do I worry about getting typecast as a curmudgeon? If that's your question, I clearly don't really worry about that because I wrote a book that can easily be described as curmudgeonly.
What has the response been like at your events? Is there anything that you think that people can expect coming out to your reading in Seattle?
One of the interesting things in the moment that we've arrived at is there's this concept that's become cliché in describing our politics, which is this concept of the Overton Window, which is when the discourse expands to include ideas that resided outside of the mainstream.
When I started working on this book, I felt like people looked at me weirdly, and they couldn't understand why I was going to be criticizing these companies in technology that people have so much affection for.
Over the last couple months, I happened to make an argument that lined up with a shift in thinking. In large part, I think the election started to change people's minds about Facebook, and then Amazon's purchase of Whole Foods elicited a lot of anxiety about Amazon's size, and etc.
One of the fascinating things is that there are a lot of people who I thought would hate my argument. I've just been surprised at the people who are either centrist or in finance — or even in Silicon Valley — who seem sympathetic to my argument. It feels like I thought I was going to be throwing a stone at the Overton Window, but instead, it feels like I'm just climbing through the Overton Window just as it's opening.
From his Punch to Kill comics to his work organizing the dearly departed Intruder magazine, Marc Palm is one of the most active members of Seattle’s cartooning community. So when Palm announced on Facebook earlier this summer that he broke his right arm — his dominant arm, the arm that did all his drawing — the community responded with a visceral heartbreak: one of Seattle’s most prolific and enthusiastic cartoonists was going to be out of commission for the foreseeable future. But then Palm did something unexpected: he taught himself how to draw with his left hand. I talked to him in late August about his experiences.
Thank you for doing this. I’ve been following along on your journey on Facebook and I think it's really fascinating. Let me start with a couple of personal anecdotes. I want to get your impression of them.
First, I had a friend who was an artist in high school. His mother likes to tell the story that when he was a kid he used to walk around the house with his hands in oven mitts. He'd hold his hands in the oven mitts right up to his chest because he was so terrified that anything would happen to his hands.
He identified as an artist so much that it was like a fear for him. He felt like he’d have no identity without his art.
And then second, my grandmother was born a lefty. At her school they tied her left hand behind her back until she became right-handed, because they thought left-handedness was a weakness of character.
Is she alive?
She died, a long-time ago. But she had Alzheimer's, and she actually reverted to left-handedness toward the end there. I thought those two stories might give you an idea of what I was thinking about when I heard about your story.
Speaking of which, I want to shut up and hear your story. So to start at the beginning, you bought a skateboard, right?
Well, no. For the last couple of years I've been getting more and more interested in skateboarding. When I was 12, my parents got me a skateboard — a big clunker. Then they got me pads and helmet and all this other stuff to be safe. And I tooled around in my driveway, which was the smoothest surface I had. But even then, I didn't wear gloves. I didn't wear oven mitts walking around or whatever, but I was a very careful child.
I've been a very careful person my whole life, really. So when I was 12 I was like, ‘You know. I think I'm gonna hurt myself. I don't really want to do this.’ Skateboarding was just cool to watch. I was gonna be a fanboy of it.
But then in the last couple years I was just getting more and more into watching it, and admiring it and thinking, ‘Wow, this is cool. Maybe I should give this a shot.’ So, [Seattle cartoonist] Ben Horak said, ‘I got this board I picked up from somebody. I'm never gonna use it cause I'm too scared to hurt myself, if you want it.’
He hands me off this skateboard. And whoever had it before, they actually were a skater. The thing was pretty well ground up, and it worked well. I was kind of tooling around wherever I could.
A couple of other cartoonists and started skating. They were very encouraging like, ‘You're not gonna hurt yourself. Don't worry about it.’ So we'd go find flat surfaces — tennis courts or parking lots or whatever. We call it ‘skate dad parks.’
That's where, inevitably, it happened.
It was the big Gotham Asylum up on Beacon Hill — the hospital up there. We found this great parking lot. No one bothered us. So I was off on one side, and they were on the other, and I just made this turn and there were some rocks, and I just stopped the board. And then I just landed directly down on my wrist, and that's when I eventually broke a chunk off the ... I forget what that is. It's one of the long arm bones.
I had never broken a bone, and I tried my best to avoid it. Until picking up a skateboard.
It was the worst fear that I had. [When I started skating,] other people were like, ‘What if you break your drawing arm ?’ I’d say, ‘Yeah, I know, but it'll be fine.’ Then the worst case scenario happened.
Just to get some background: you're a fairly prolific artist. It seems like you must draw every day, right?
Yeah, I try to. It's definitely in my blood. And I've been doing it for thirty-plus years — just constantly producing and trying to do my best. But I'm not gonna kill myself over a broken arm. I just started going down the process of seeing if I could draw with my left.
My mom has a similar story to your grandmother’s. She was a lefty. She went to Catholic school, and they bound her left arm and forced her to go right. She eventually, grew out of it and went back to being a left-hander.
But while raising me she forced everything into my right hand. She was hoping that I wouldn't be a left-hander because she thinks it’s a curse. The world is right-handed, and she didn't want me to deal with the same problems she had. It's possible that I could have been a left-hander, had it just come naturally.
After you fell when did your thoughts turn to the fact that this was going to really screw up your drawing? How soon was it before you realized?
It wasn't like a big revelation, but it was definitely like, ‘Ugh, fuck. I broke my wrist. I can't draw.’ It was immediate and I tried not to be too bummed out about it. I was more annoyed that now I'm gonna be completely inconvenienced — I only have one hand. I work at the Fantagraphics warehouse and my job is lifting up packages and packing things and now I'm kind of wrecked on that.
I just thought I was gonna have to take a break. Which stinks, because I have a book that I'm working on, and hoping to have done by Short Run. I immediately just realized I had to try to figure something out.
What did that process look like?
Oddly enough, months ago — maybe even a year ago — I was having a little paranoid fantasy, wondering what would happen if I couldn't use my right arm — if it got cut off or I broke it. I was just fascinated with the idea of what my left arm can do that my right can't.
So I tried buttering my bread with my left, and I realized that these two hands had no idea what to do when they're faced with something the other hand usually does. My right hand didn't know how to hold the bread properly, and my left hand didn't know the subtleties of spreading with a certain amount of pressure without stabbing through the bread.
I played around with that. I'd started to be more efficient. I’d remind myself, ‘why don't I just grab the door handle with my left hand because that's where it's at instead of reaching all the way over from my right?’ I was already trying things with my left.’ I hadn't really tried to draw or anything, but I farted around and, like, tried to write my name with my left. It never went well.
So then, a couple days [after I broke my arm] I grabbed a big fat pencil, and I thought ‘maybe I can come up with a cute style,’ because normally my stuff's grotesque. I thought maybe I could actually draw cute things with my left hand.
So I was drawing dinosaurs just to start out. They did look kind of childish, and it was hard to have the control that I wanted. But I saw that I could do something, so I just needed to focus a little harder.
So I changed tools. I went to the smallest micron pen I have. It's a .005. I started going really small and I found that when I was doing details with my left hand, I had a lot of control. But if I made big gestures, or made big strokes, it would get all wiggly and I didn't have the kind of control I wanted.
Wow, that is the exact opposite of what I would figure would happen.
I had a bunch of people encouraging me to try drawing with my left hand. At first, it kind of annoyed me. I was like, ‘You know, this is kind of a cute, fun thing to post online, but it kind of hurts.’
So after I did those dinosaur drawings I put one up right away. I was like, ‘All right, here you go. Everyone that says I should draw with my left, here's the drawings. Fifty bucks, let's go. If you want to support me, put your money where your mouth is.’
‘Or keep your cute little comments to yourself.’ All right, yeah, I could draw with my left hand. So then I just started working on it. As far as being an artist, you're basically dealing with like problem solving: ‘I've got a picture in my head. I need to get it on paper. How do I do that?’
And what was fascinating to me about doing this, was my way of working doesn't come from my right hand. It’s not the hand that does it — it's my brain. I can visualize where things have to go. I've studied enough brush strokes and different techniques. I just needed to be able to get my left hand become a good tool, to get those lines to flow the way I want to.
So yeah, I took my time and really had to be patient and focus on the circle, where before, my right hand had been doing it for thirty close years. I was struggling to draw these little things. And I thought, ‘Wow, this is what it's like for like a normal person who doesn't know how to draw. I could see why they give up. This is hard!’
I realized that this is an enormous amount of work.
It basically was just working through it — figuring out how delicate I have to be, how hard do I want to press on this, what kind of style do I want?
Now I see it as really cool and fun. I'm kind of addicted to it.
Do you draw every day now with your left hand?
Yeah. I go to a coffee shop and sit there for an hour before work and just draw. And that was a great exercise. Every day, I sit there and pump out a new drawing.
And all the drawings I would be posting would take me two days or two mornings — an hour or less apiece. I even picked up speed as far as the amount of time I was working on them. I could do it faster and faster, and get more precise. It's interesting how it's an exponential growth of ability.
I feel my brain swelling.
Yeah, you really got good. I was following your story on Facebook and it seems like all of a sudden, you put up that drawing of of Vampirella, and I was like, ‘Holy shit.’ I don’t know how hard you are on your own work, but even you have to acknowledge that the difference is pretty impressive.
Oh no, that's the thing. It's weird because people come up and say, ‘Wow dude, you're drawing really well.’ And I share in their amazement: ‘Yeah, I know, right? These are really fucking good.’ And it's weird. I don't want to seem like I'm egotistical but I'm surprising the hell out of myself with this.
With that Vampirella one, I was sitting at home and just kind of sketching. I drew a different type of line. I had actually been trying to get to a point like that — I guess, like a looser style. It’s been hard to teach myself to get looser when I've been trying to get tighter and tighter for years. And so my left hand had that looseness that I was looking for.
It's just been really weird and awesome to see it happen. The big drawing that blew my mind that I was able to complete it and make it look as good as what I would do with my right hand was the one with two witches brewing up the bongwater soup.
I use a brush pen usually, but I pulled out a nib pen I hadn't used in years and it worked out great. It was like this cool new toy to play with and get different effects.
There's still a difference between your left-hand and right-hand style, though, right? You've gotten better, but you haven't gotten the same.
No, but I'm definitely getting closer, which I'm not sure like.
It's kind of fascinating — I talked to one of my other cartoonist buddies, Kalen Knowles. He said, ‘What if I told you I like these [left-handed drawings] a little bit more than your other stuff?’ And my girlfriend was getting close to saying that to me too.
It's weird to me because I've been working so hard to get a style that I can be comfortable with, and can produce well with my right hand, for so long. And now I'm coming up with this little bit more naïve, or raw, look with my left, and everybody's like, ‘Oh, I like that better.
It also looks more hand drawn. I guess that's what he was saying; it looks like it has a little bit more of a human hand to it.
And I think some people are drawn to that because it looks like something that they'd be able to do. I've had a couple of people say they like stuff that looks not too polished. If it's so polished and super hyper-realistic, they can't even understand it.
But if it looks like someone drew it, and there's mistakes and there's a wiggly line, then people get that. There must be something identifiable about it.
I've been trying to be cautious or kind of aware of how clean and how good my stuff looks, because I don't want it to look like it's made by a computer. I don't like a lot of digital art a lot of times. I see it as soulless. It's too clean, it's too nice.
So if [art drawn with my left hand is] a little rougher, or hand-drawn, or there's a mistake, that's cool. But I don't want my art to be full of mistakes. I look at a piece of my art and I see all my mistakes — I don't see how good it is. And I think that's the hardest thing for artists — liking your style, liking your little quirks, and all the strange things about it. Hopefully, your tastes match up with your audience.
So the cast is off, right?
Yeah, it came off yesterday. Thank God.
Have you been drawing a little bit? Have you had time to readjust to the right hand?
No, I’ve still got to go through some physical therapy. I have a new splint.
But I'm going to have to [get back into drawing with the right hand] because I've got to finish the vampire book I'm working on. I'm interested to see if my right hand has to learn to catch up now. Will I be able to jump back in? Or will my left hand now become the superior hand?
I'm looking forward to using the left hand to sketch out things, or do my rough pencils, because it has that looseness. And then I'll ink it with my right hand so that I can get a tighter look.
So you’re looking to use both hands in the future? Like, at the same time?
I'm not a gecko. I can't spread my eyes and look at two different drawings at the same time. Not yet. I may well try.
Maybe you just need a head injury.
Be kicked in the head by a mule.
Do you think you're going to finish the vampire book by the time Short Run happens on November 4th? Are people going to be able to see your latest stuff at your booth at Short Run?
Oh yeah, for sure. I have only a few pages left on the vampire book. It’s called The Fang and it's about a female vampire who has a job as an assassin of monsters.
I'm also thinking about coming up with a left-handed publication of some sort. Like the closest thing I'm ever going to do to an autobio comic, with photos, probably collages, and some sort of skate art. A photo of my skateboard, and x-rays from my hand, and then all my left-handed art. I think that's something I should definitely do.
I want to see if I can get, at the very least, a coffee shop to host a bunch of left-handed drawings.
Do you have a book out right now that you think is a perfect example of your right-handedness at its apex, before the accident? So that readers can do a before and after comparison?
Oh yeah. The Punch to Kills are the best I've done. And then, The Fang book is definitely the thing that I've been really excited about doing all this year. It definitely is looser than the Punch to Kills, I think, and a little bit more fun.
So, yeah, there should definitely be stuff for sale at Short Run, so you can look at what I did this way and that way. Choose your poison. Pick your hand.
Writing a historical romance novel involves a staggering amount of research. How corsets work, where to throw away that apple core, what kind of naughty words people would use to describe what they’ve done with or to their lovers. We all do the work, but few of us do it as thoroughly as Rose Lerner, whose vivid Lively St. Lemeston books center around the people and events of one small English town. The latest novella in the series, A Taste of Honey comes out September 12th. This interview has been lightly edited.
For the new folks, let's start with a brief introduction to your own romances and particular areas of expertise.
My name is Rose Lerner and I write historical romance, typically set during the English Regency (a flexibly defined time period but I stick to the technical 1811 to 1820). For my current small-town series I've researched politics, high and low, and women's participation therein; queer experiences; the Napoleonic wars; Jewish life; servants; and much more. I also caught Hamilton fever for a while there and devoured books about Hamilton and Burr, and I've got a Jewish Revolutionary War romance coming out in October in an anthology with Courtney Milan and Alyssa Cole.
Do you research before, during, or after you draft?
All of the above. An actor that I love, Nicholas Lea, once said in an interview that he has to make a lot of little decisions in the moment, and research helps him make those decisions. That's how I write. I have a broad idea of the plot when I start a book, but beyond that I pretty much get in character and feel out the story as I go. I research until the POV characters' world feels solid to me. Then I start writing. Sometimes I get stuck and can't continue a scene without information, and then I need to take a research break. Little things, like whether "bear hug" is an anachronism (it is, but I decided to use it anyway) or what the heroine would do with an apple core after she'd eaten the apple (toss it in the fireplace grate, probably), I usually leave a note for myself in the text and research during revisions.
Do you prefer primary or secondary sources, when you have the option?
I read almost entirely secondary sources. Primary sources are great but you have to sift through so much irrelevance! I'd much rather have a trusted middleman pick out the important stuff for me. Of course, how do you know when to trust a middleman? I do like my secondary sources to footnote heavily so I can confirm in the primary source myself if necessary. But can you really even trust a primary source? If it's Aaron Burr, absolutely not. The key, to me, is to read enough that you develop a bullshit meter of your own.
Are there special considerations or pitfalls when you're researching the kind of sex people had in the past?
The pitfall, I guess, is that people talked less openly about the sex they were having in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Which may not even be true! What I can tell you with confidence is that what they DID say was extensively and often irrevocably expurgated, if not by family members immediately after their death then by Victorian descendants. The partial or complete destruction of letters, journals, and memoirs by burning, cutting away, or inking out potentially embarrassing content was common, especially if the writer was queer and/or a woman.
But based on what we do know through erotic novels, pornographic art, and surviving primary sources, it seems like they were having more or less the same kinds of sex we have now: kinky, vanilla, queer, with sex toys, role-playing, using birth control, threesomes, polyamory, whatever. Specificity is important and sexuality is culturally constructed, but at the same time, 98 percent of the time if I hear someone say, “But people didn’t do that back then,” my bullshit meter goes off.
Sure, this masturbation club where new members had to present their dicks on a silver platter does seem a little — quaint. But even there — the details are weird and incomprehensible, but the spirit isn’t that unfamiliar, is it?
How do you approach the language in your sex scenes, considering that historical gap? Writing about queer or kinky sex set before the modern terms were developed, for instance, or the frequent romance-author lament that there are a million period-appropriate terms for the penis and almost none for the clitoris.
Well, I don't see this as much more of a problem for queer or kinky sex than any other kind, because the terminology for ALL sex has shifted enormously. I have finally given up on finding good period terms for oral sex, and if I feel like "pleasuring him with her mouth" is too coy in context, I just use "suck" even though it's first attested in reference to fellatio in 1928.
It’s a delicate balance. A huge part of the appeal of historical romance is a sense of otherness, of distance, of experiencing the world as it might have looked to someone 200 years ago. I try very hard to retain a sense of how my characters THINK, and in particular how they think about sex. I try to think about where they would have gotten their information about sex and what words they would or wouldn’t know or feel comfortable using. I used to hate “pearl” for clitoris and think it was unbearably precious, but I’ve finally given in (although when I’m writing a well-educated hero, I usually just say “clitoris”). Sometimes I’ll even purposely choose an older-sounding or obsolete word when a more modern one is available. For example, “to come” meaning to have an orgasm is attested from 1650, but I frequently opt for “to spend” instead, because I think it gives things a nice period atmosphere.
At the same time, in my opinion TOO much authenticity in a sex scene can be off-putting. I try hard to avoid anachronistic word usage (or at least, distractingly anachronistic word usage, or word usage that represents a shift in conceptualizing something). But about once a book, I give up and use “sex” with its modern meaning of sexual intercourse, simply because in that sentence I tried out “coupling,” “congress,” “bedsport,” “coitus,” etc. and hated the way all of them sounded.
If I wrote “he larked her,” the reader would be confused, and if I wrote “he larked between her breasts,” she’d probably get the point, but she’d laugh. I just don’t see the point of privileging this kind of academic accuracy over storytelling. It’s a sex scene, and it should be sexy.
More about the general vs. specific — how do you balance the broad general statistics ("most people of the time/place would have — ") with the specific examples and the outliers? ("A few exceptional people did — ")?
For something like, "Could my heroine have a front-lacing corset?" this is a pretty simple decision (she could, but probably wouldn't) and in the end, it really doesn't matter either way. I'd probably go with the more likely back-lacing option unless I had a strong story reason to want her corset to unlace in the front (she doesn't have anyone to help her get in or out of it in a particular scene, or I want to realize a specific sexy image).
But this can get pretty political. Whether your character is an outlier or not, you still have to ask yourself, “Why is this the story I am choosing to tell?“ The choice to tell an average story can be just as loaded as the choice to tell an exceptional one, and ”Well, it’s historically accurate“ is never a sufficient justification for anything. I’m sick of hearing, ”They were a product of their time," to justify some atrocious behavior in a historical figure. Literally everyone who has ever lived was or is a product of their time. That’s how time works.
History is not neutral or objective or absolute, any more than memory is. It is the compilation and interpretation of millions of stories. Just because one story has been told more than another, it isn’t necessarily truer. Just because one side of a story has been heard more than the other side, doesn’t make it the “more accurate” side.
An unloaded example: when Aaron Burr, in his old age, tells a friend an anecdote about something that happened between him and Alexander Hamilton fifty years earlier, and then ten years after that the friend writes it down, you shouldn’t take what you’re reading at face value as the truth. (That should be common sense, and yet I see those stories repeated as fact by reputable historians.)
When it comes to history, the same logic applies to basically everything: You have to have common sense. You have to keep an eye out for motivations and agendas, both in yourself and other people, because they’re always there.
You have to be aware of your own agenda. And you have a responsibility to think about whether your agenda hurts people. You have to ask, “Why is this the story that feels true to me?” and then, “Is that a good reason?"
I’ve noticed that my books with queer or Jewish main characters get labeled “anachronistic” in reviews more frequently than my other books, despite my knowing that I put a similar level of care and research into all of them.
Why are so many readers attached to the idea that the average Jewish person in the Regency led a tragic life? And even if you take that as fact (which I don’t), why are they attached to the idea that I should be telling that “average” story when a romance novel is, at heart, a wish-fulfillment fantasy? There were about thirty-one dukes in the UK during the Regency, out of a population of about 15 million (source). Meanwhile, the Jewish population in England in 1800 has been estimated at 15,000. I think my odds of finding real historical examples of young, attractive, happily married Jews are a little better than yours of finding young, attractive, happily married dukes! Yet I’ve never seen a book labeled anachronistic simply because the hero was a duke.
Like a lot of issues in romance, it's an amplification problem. A trope becomes popular and obscures the reality, or mistakes get repeated and then become "common knowledge" in the readership. Historical romance author Miranda Neville recently described the Regency romance as "a long game of telephone starting with [Georgette] Heyer — who is foundational, but also notorious for the classism and anti-Semitism of her books. How do you balance uprooting that negative tradition versus providing something more nourishing to your readers? I guess what I'm asking is how much you see your work opening up a neglected space in the past, versus creating a new tradition for future readers and authors?
I'm not sure I think about it in those terms. Based on my email inbox, I've inspired some other folks to start writing Jewish historical romances, and that makes me happier than just about anything. But I don't write with that in mind. I just write the stories I would want to read.
Genre conventions are there to guide the reader through the story. Following them is part of the bond of trust between writer and reader. I would never write a romance novel without an HEA [Happily Ever After], for example. But when a convention is just plain incorrect (or worse, unjust), then I think I actually owe it my readers NOT to follow it. What matters is not the fact of breaking a genre convention, but whether it’s done in a spirit of love and respect — for the genre, and for the reader.
I’ve read a LOT of Regency romance throughout my life and I have a lot of affection for its conventions, but at this point, if I know Heyer was wrong, I feel very comfortable ignoring her.
This isn’t what you’re asking, but it made me think of it — I once got a rather anti-Semitic review of True Pretenses that suggested, essentially, that in creating a positive portrayal of a Jewish man, I was fighting an uphill battle against the weight of anti-Semitic stereotypes in literature and necessarily closely engaging with those stereotypes as I made character choices. This, to me, is bizarre; it assumes that classic English novels and Georgette Heyer are the only literary traditions there are — and even beyond that, they are the only frame of experience I have to draw on!
In fact, I have not only read and seen many positive portrayals of Jewish men by modern Jewish authors and screenwriters, but I have also KNOWN NICE JEWISH MEN IN MY ACTUAL REAL LIFE. This is also true for plenty of my readers (although not, apparently, that one). While it’s nice to be genre-aware while writing genre fiction, and I absolutely adore playing with tropes like marriages of convenience, fake dating, Cit heiresses, starchy butlers, house parties etc. etc., the Regency romance genre is not the entire context readers are bringing to the table.
If I know something might confuse a reader because it’s not the commonly accepted “truth” of the past, I try to include a little more signposting and explanations. But I’m not going to write beady-eyed moneylenders with greasy sidecurls just because Georgette Heyer did.
If I could summarize all my thoughts about history in one sentence, it’s this: the truth matters.
The truth always matters.
But the past is composed of a million intertwining truths. “People in the Regency could have great sex” and “people in the Regency thought about sex differently than we do” are both true. “Anti-Semitism was rife among Christians in the Regency” and “there was plenty of intermarriage between Jews and Christians in the Regency” are both true. As a author of historical fiction, my job is to decide what the most important truth is at a particular moment.
Our August Poet in Residence, Daemond Arrindell, is having a fantastic year. He co-authored the world premiere of a theatrical adaptation of T. Geronimo Johnson’s novel Welcome to Braggsville at Book-It Repertory Theatre earlier this year to universal acclaim. And he was recently announced as the curator of the 2018 Jack Straw Writers program, which means he’ll select and guide a class of Seattle writers through the process of learning how to perform their writing more effectively. If you’d like to see Arrindell read, he’ll be performing at Sandbox Radio on August 28th, Poetry Bridge in West Seattle next month. This interview has been lightly edited.
First, I wanted to ask you about Your work adapting Welcome to Braggsville for Book-It Theatre. Is the theater something that you've always been interested in?
No. I kind of fell into the world of theater through Freehold. Freehold Theatre reached out to me over ten years ago because of my work in facilitating writing workshops. They have a program called The Engaged Theater Project and it's about bringing theater to culturally underserved populations. There are several different residencies that take place — one at the women's prison down in Purdy and another at the men's prison in Monroe.
The idea is Robin Lynn Smith, who's one of the founders of Freehold, was looking to host workshops at the women's prison to get the women writing about different ideas. She asked me if I could put something together. I put something together. She really liked it. Next thing I know, she has invited me to join the faculty of Freehold, teaching spoken word.
That's how I got into the theater world — by happenstance and by coincidence. And the overlap between spoken word and theater is strong writing, and bringing the craft of writing into life through the art of performance. Most spoken word pieces are essentially monologues — just storytelling in a different format.
Ten-plus years of essentially working in theater but not exactly being a theater artist has opened a lot of doors for me and brought me in touch with a lot of people who recognize that crafting performances in spoken word is very similar to the same skills and tactics used in the realm of theater.
Josh Aaseng, literary manager at Book-It, reached out to me in the spring of 2016, asking me if I would be interested in working with him on the adaptation of Welcome to Braggsville for a couple reasons — one, because of the work that I do in race and equity; and two, because I have experience in the theater and also experience with editing and poetry.
So, within the men's prison I work with a group of guys for a couple months in helping them to write all kinds of styles of poetry and performance. And then I take all of their writing and cut and paste it into one performance that is somewhat theater and somewhat poetry — not exactly either one, but a melding of the two.
That idea of working with writing that is already in existence and cutting and pasting it into something else that is something unto itself — that's very similar to what happens in adapting a book into a play. The experience that I've had actually set me up perfectly for what Josh wanted and needed me to do.
I've been to quite a few Book-It shows, and I think that Braggsville walked off the path of the book a little more than their other adaptations. Was that something that was intended from the very beginning?
It wasn't intended to stray, necessarily. But the question was how do we bring the essence of this story to the stage in a way that people are going to be able to understand it and relate to it, and really take something away from it? Because we're dealing with the issues of race and history, and both of those are very complex issues.
We've got a passionate and powerful story, but it's also being told in a way that's really different and that is not easy to read. When you’re reading a book that's not easy to read you can take your time with it. You can set it down. You can come back to it.
You don't have that [luxury] with a play, so a lot of [the adaptation process] was about how we take these ideas, and these concepts, and this story that's being told, and make it digestible, but while not necessarily making it easy. That was the challenge.
For example, there are these chapters within the book where the narration shifts from he, she, they to you, and it's like the narrator who is not an omniscient narrator shifts into this very intimate interrogation of the specific lead characters. We could have just made those into monologues for the play, but it would have been boring.
Because there's so much being said in a way that is visceral, we needed to be able to make that digestible and also powerful. We needed an audience to be able to take something away from it. Just a one-way monologue wouldn't have worked, and so that essentially is how we ended up creating the character of The Poet.
Yeah, okay. I don't want to give the impression that it strays from the book. I think it works very well with the themes of the book, but Book-It tends to be pretty literal in its adaptations.
Yeah, and from the get-go Josh and I were having conversations about how this is different. The book itself, it feels different than a lot of the things that Book-It had taken on. So, we knew that it was going to be different in a number of different ways.
We could go virtually anywhere from here, but I wanted to ask you about the inclusion of Charleena Lyles’s name into the play — what was the decision to include her like? When did it happen?
Well, we did the same with Philando Castile after the decision regarding his case had come down. The book came out in early 2015 and I felt like, in all honesty, if either one of those people had been murdered at the time that Geronimo had been writing the book, their names would have been included as well.
It wasn't about sensationalism. It felt urgent and necessary because it had just happened, and to remind the audience that what is being talked about isn't distant history, that these are things that are still going on. It felt necessary.
Was there any internal debate then about including them?
I honestly don't remember whether it was Josh's idea or mine. It may have even been a cast member's idea. We talked about it for a couple minutes, Josh and I, and there wasn't any debate. Again, the idea behind the play in itself is to make what's going on in this book real.
Live people talking about these issues in front of someone makes them more real, makes it more urgent. And I don't think there's anything more urgent in regards to these issues than someone having been murdered within a few days or within a few months of the play itself.
It kind of felt like in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen where she keeps updating the book in new editions with the names of Black people who have been killed. It was incredibly powerful. It's been a year then since you adapted Braggsville, more or less. Has that affected your work at all? Has that adaptation done anything to your writing, do you think?
That's really hard for me to say. I feel like I haven't had enough time to bet that perspective yet, mainly because it still feels present. But the realm of theater feels more open to me; I can say that.
The idea of one-person shows feels more accessible to me. The idea of writing for theater feels more accessible. But yeah, I don't know whether it's changed my writing yet other than the fact that it definitely lit a fire under me and the world seems even more open and accessible.
I know that this question always comes up, but I think it comes up because people are interested: Can you talk about the relationship between spoken word in your writing and in writing the poems on the page?
There isn't much, if any, difference to me. I personally believe that a story of any kind, regardless of the form, isn't finished until it's shared aloud. So almost everything that I write I'm intending to have read aloud at some point; I feel like that's part of its journey for me.
There are some poems that almost feel like they're meant to live on the page more than read aloud, but that usually comes after the writing and I'm looking back at it as opposed to while I'm writing it.
I tend to do more editing for the page or for the stage as opposed to writing for the page or for the stage.
It was just announced last week that you are curating the 2018 Jack Straw Writer's Program.
Yeah. I was a 2013 Jack Straw writer, but it feels like yesterday. I loved the experience. I loved my cohort, and Stephanie Kallos was our curator. She was definitely influential in regards to my writing.
I've always been a fan of Jack Straw's work — the oral storytelling aspect of taking stories in any form and getting them heard, getting them into other people's ears. Not just getting these stories written and existing on the page, but getting them to a place where they can be heard by others.
I definitely feel more comfortable with how to bring the performance aspect out of something than how to write something. That's my own insecurity and my own work that I still have to do as a writer as I'm continuing to grow, and as I continue to work within the realm of publishing, within the realm of the page itself.
When it comes to performance, bringing something that's written to life, I feel more than capable in assisting other writers — writers who are very well established on the page — helping them to figure out, how can I take this thing that is static on the page and make it into a living, breathing form of art?
Okay. Is there anything you're looking for in particular in these people who you're choosing for the program?
Not as of yet. This just happened a couple of weeks ago, so I haven't gotten that far yet. I think in general I'm looking for stories of any kind that really move me. I have a feeling that the stories, poems, etc., that are taking the political and making it personal, or taking the personal and making it political. Those stories in general tend to move me. Those stories are definitely going to catch my eye, but I definitely don't have a requirement or a recipe at this point for what I am looking for.
When you were talking about your writing being the thing that you were most insecure about — I don't know if insecure is the right word. I don't want to put words in your mouth…
Is that something that you are going to be focusing on personally as you move forward?
I continue to work on that, and that's where classes and writing fellowships come in handy. For me, I've found a lot of it comes to making the time for it. When I'm just focusing on my writing craft I tend to feel more secure with it. When I make the time just to focus on my craft as opposed to ‘I'm just going to pump out this poem,” I feel more secure with it.
Those are things that I'm consistently working on doing: some of it is setting aside the time and some of it is making time to read writers who are moving me, get exposed to new writers. Some of it is taking classes and workshops to continue to add to my toolbox, and some of it is making the time to just focus on the craft.
All right, so who are the writers who have been moving you lately?
Right now, Warsan Shire is one. She blew upsemi-recently as the poet behind a fair amount of the writing from Beyonce's Lemonade. I found out about her a couple years before that. She was at AWP when it was here in Seattle.
Ladan Osman is another one who I've been blown away by. I continue to be in awe of the two of them.
Other writers who are influencing me right now: T. Geronimo Johnson, Natalie Diaz, Ta Nehisi Coates, Douglas Kearney, Jamaal May, Patrick Rosal
It seems like you are very involved in the community, obviously, with your work with prisoners, and working with Jack Straw, and things. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your evolution as a citizen of poetry. Is this something that has always been important or do you feel as your stature has elevated in the community your commitment has grown as well?
I feel like I've always had it. It's just that the lens of how I'm helping has changed. I started out as working in social services, so I've always been a listener. I was a counselor for a long time, and it just slowly came about that as I was listening to people's stories and I was continuing to write my own, the opportunities to help people tell their stories in different ways started to present themselves.
Whether it was facilitating a workshop around writing, whether it was leading a workshop regarding youth empowerment, it still is helping people to tell their stories and being a witness to those stories. There's a saying, and I don't remember where it comes from, but listening is a transformative act. I, by listening, am changed, and so helping people to be able to tell their stories, it empowers me, and it changes me, and it helps me to grow.
Last week, the founders of the website Comics Mix launched a Kickstarter for an anthology titled MINE!: A Comics Collection to Benefit Planned Parenthood. The anthology is star-studded, featuring writers like Neil Gaiman and Gerard Way and artists including Becky Cloonan and Jamaica Dyer. The project must reach $50,000 by September 15th to be published, though it’s already off to a great start. We talked with Seattle-area cartooning/inking/writing powerhouse Jen Vaughn about how she got involved with the project and why she’s such a passionate Planned Parenthood advocate.
Could you explain in your own words what Mine! is?
It’s a comics anthology featuring some of the best and brightest and then me. These stories turn their focus on a woman's right to her own body, the decisions she makes with it and the continuing struggle for women, especially women of color, to hold their agency. The title is derived from that ideology — it's MINE, so keep your fucking hands off it.
There are a lot of big names in this anthology. Are there any creators you're especially excited to share a pair of covers with?
Gabby Rivera, of Juliet Takes a Breath and America (the comic); Cecil Castelucci who writes Shade the Changing Girl — I just met her, she's fantastic. Tee Franklin is another writer who I'm excited about. She Kickstarted her new comic Bingo Love, and I'm ready to put my eyes on that book. Maia Kobabe and I traded comics at San Diego Comicon, they wrote and drew this moving comic on recognizing fascism through memory and books. I'm very ready to see their collaboration for Mine! And of course, Sarah Winifred Searle — I've always admired her work. We were both tabling at MeCAF (Maine Comic Arts Festival) in Portland, Maine back in, oh geez, 2011? It feels like we've been doing a lot of growing and drawing alongside each other, miles away and pages apart, so I'm pumped to be in another book with her.
You're a really busy freelancer. Why did you choose to get involved with this particular project? What does Planned Parenthood mean to you?
It's excellent that my facade of being busy is working! The timing was right when editor and organizer Joe Corallo contacted me, and I've had this story kicking around for awhile. Planned Parenthood has done a lot for me over the last 15 years.
I spent some formative high school and college years in Texas, and it's a very hostile place. There was a student group, VOX/Voices for Choice, I volunteered with at the University of Texas. We basically passed out free condoms, dental dams, taught people how to use them (to undo some of that religious health class BS about it being easier to not use condoms), and how to contact your Senators and Reps about Plan B.
Because we were in Austin, we occasionally went to committee meetings or public forums for healthcare. The reps on the healthcare boards would usually be five “old gray-faced white dudes with two dollar haircuts” and one young Catholic Latinx man. It was infuriating. It IS infuriating. I made a lot of bad college art about sexuality back then.
Also, because my mom's an intense baker, I had access to candy molds so I made LOTS of penis, vagina and birth control pill chocolates with all sales going to our college group and Planned Parenthood. If I didn't know people were racist by then, I certainly did when people only wanted to buy white guy penis chocolates — like anyone likes the taste of white chocolate.
I'm writing and drawing a bit of a fantasy piece so I'm not ruining any plot points by telling you Planned Parenthood was there for me during my abortion. I'd spent a year volunteering with Lillith Fund, a helpline which supported women emotionally and helped come up with ideas to crowdfund their clandestine abortions. It was wild, what could a 20 year old do to help a 35 year old desparate not to have yet another child, but their husband wouldn't use condoms or birth control.
Planned Parenthood has also been there for me every year when I go my engine checked out — so affordable compared to other places — and including this year when terrifyingly, I found a lump in my breast. (I'm fine, for now, though we're all moving closer to death).
Do you think artists have a responsibility to be political citizens? Do you think Trump changed that dynamic for you?
Artists cannot help but be political citizens, although it depends on the type of art, honestly. My idea behind every new project is to try something new — sometimes it’s art-related, sometimes it's writing-related. Part of my new goals, probably since moving to Seattle, have been to help lift up other people's voices, especially women of color — not that I'm monied or famous or in any position of power. This means drawing other people's stories or collaborating, not just owning the entire project, because it's a reflection of our society.
When I was growing up in the 80s and 90s, it seems like comics tried to be apolitical. On the one side, you had corporate comics, which didn't stand up for anything, really. And on the alternative side, you had cartoonists like Dan Clowes and Chris Ware who didn't seem to be particularly political. (Of course there were cartoonists like Roberta Gregory who were fearless in portraying abortion as a reality, but even her comics seemed to walk up to a line and then stop, politically speaking.) Is that changing? Are American comics developing a social consciousness? Or do you disagree with my reading?
Hmm. I think there's a difference between gag comics/political comics that emotionally resonate immediately versus a graphic novel that can manipulate character development and create compassion within the reader.
Being political now in comics isn't necessarily writing about politics, but being more inclusive with the dynamics of everyone creating them. It's like editor Joe Hughes bringing in writer Nnedi Okorafor to Vertigo a few years back; it's Gene Luen Yang building an empire with First Second from American Born Chinese to Secret Coders AND encouraging kids to a summer reading program with Reading Without Walls bookmarks (they were VERY realistic in suggesting 3 books since not all kids loved the library as much as say, I did). It's Hope Nicholson creating The Secret Loves of Geek Girls book and the soon-to-be-released follow up at Dark Horse, The Secret Loves of Geeks, that includes all genders and genderqueer people. It's the company Black Mask printing a series written by a trans writer, Magdalene Visaggio, with trans characters, drawn by Mexico-based Eva Cabrera (if you haven't read Kim + Kim by now, just GO — get yourself to the bookstore or library).
But with that being said, the 'slow death' of newspapers, and especially staff cartoonists, has left a gap in the world — one that is being met online by many cartoonists, especially Matt Bors at The Nib, with Nomi Kane, Pia Guerra, Joey Allson Sayers, Maia Kobabe and more. The political cartoons once clipped and taped above the breakroom coffee pot or to the door of the bathroom are now shared via social media. It's amazing how technology changes and we still see the same behaviors. (I just said that with my best Neil deGrasse Tyson voice)
What else are you working on? How can our readers keep up with you?
I'm finishing up some SECRET comics and covers that should be announced soon. But you can still pre-order my other current Kickstarter project, Haunted Tales of Gothic Love, edited by Hope Nicholson. Mel Gillman wrote a delicious queer love story featuring gold miners and a ghost; it's been quite fun to draw and I'm very sure it will haunt readers.
I'm working on multiple projects with writer, Kat Kruger, including just turning in that application for the Georgetown Steam Plant graphic novel project!
Locals can see me at the Red Pencil Conference on September 23rd. I'll be tabling with Kat Kruger and on an editing panel with Kristy Valenti of Fantagraphics and mainstream artist Moritat. And in March of 2018, I'll be tabling at Emerald City Comicon!
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?
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.
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.
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?
On August 26th at Washington Hall, author J.L. Cheatham II will host his second Seattle Urban Book Expo — a big party to promote Seattle's many authors of color. I sat down with Cheatham last week to talk about how he became a writer and what inspired him to start the Seattle Urban Book Expo. We've divided this interview into two halves: this first part covers how Cheatham came to be an author, and the second half deals directly with the Book Expo.
So to start, you could talk a little bit about how you became an author?
It literally started when I was about five years old and I watched professional wrestling for the first time. Ric Flair was fighting a guy who was being cheered by people and then I realized, "Hey, he's a bad guy, and the other guy's a good guy." And then my dad used to get me comic books: Spider-Man, Batman, and Archies. I was heavy into Archie. I’d read them at dinner — a fork in one hand and the other hand turning pages. It grew from there. I wanted to be a storyteller. The fact that we're able to create a world that's fictional and get anyone to believe it — that's a powerful ability.
In elementary school, I would create comic book stories for homework assignments. As I got older, I was pushed more towards sports. I didn’t find anything that would cultivate my passion for writing. There was a lot of sports in my neighborhood so I would play football, baseball, things like that. When I got to college, I was hurt so badly that I couldn't go to bed. I couldn't sleep because my ribs were throbbing.
Then when I was watching TV, my favorite movie came on: The Lion King. And then I felt that little joy again, the way I did when I was a kid when I'd write stories. Following that, it was some B-rated movie with that guy, Lorenzo Lamas? He was, like, the leader of a vampire-stripper cult.
I literally was talking to my girlfriend at the time like, "I could write this. If this made it to TV, I could do this.” So as soon as I made that decision, I began losing interest in playing sports. I didn't want to play football that much anymore.
Then, I found out I was going to be a father and I decided that when my daughter sees me, she knows that her dad is pursuing his dream of being a writer. At first, I wanted to write movie scripts because after that whole Lorenzo Lamas movie, I thought I could do better. I wrote a couple of movie scripts, but I was having no luck whatsoever.
When my daughter turned four years old, she was into dinosaurs. She wanted a dinosaur book, so I was like, ‘Okay, cool. We'll go to the Barnes and Noble in Tukwila and look for a dinosaur book.’
When I got there and went to the kids section, I was looking around and something grabbed me: All the covers of the children's books, there were no black or brown faces. I looked at my daughter and I was like, "I'll write her a dinosaur book." And that's what my first book came from, The Family Jones and the Eggs of Rex. I literally had to learn how to write a book. I had to research story structure, manuscripts, self-publishing versus publishing.
I was scared to death. I didn't know what kind of world I was getting into. Copy-editors, proof-reading, theory. It took me a while, like five months, and then I wrote the manuscript, found a self-publishing company and found an illustrator.
I didn't know what was going to come. I didn't realize that I actually had to do some work. I thought you just published a book and it just magically flowed into people's homes, or stuff like that.
I was a bit discouraged because sales weren't going the way I wanted to, and I wasn't getting the attention I felt like I deserved. But then I asked myself, "Am I giving this a hundred percent?" Meaning, am I doing everything I can to promote my work? and I answered no. Then I asked myself, "Okay so how can you give this a hundred percent?" And I was like, "I have to go out and travel."
Literally a week later after I made that decision, I was approached by Stacey Robinson, who runs a book expo, in Toronto. And she invited me to come out there to market my book. Not only had I never been a part of an expo, I'd never been to Canada.
What was that like?
When I went out there, man, it blew my mind. Just the energy, the crowd, the music — everything. Literally when I got off the plane back to Seattle, all the energy just washed off me. My shoulders slumped and I was like, "aw man, what happened to all the festival feelings?”
I was like, "I need something like that for my city." Then when I started researching more, if there was a book expo, I couldn't find one. It was baffling to me that there'd never been an expo for black and brown writers. There's a lot of African-American culture in the city, so I was kind of shocked there had never been an actual book expo here.
So then I decided to do something like that.
Kelli Russell Agodon was the first poet we published on the Seattle Review of Books, and it was readily apparent that she was the right choice. Not only was her poem a note-perfect benediction for the site — it could be read as a meditation about the distance between storytellers and audience — but Agodon is such a significant figure in the Seattle-area poetry scene that her poem provided the site with instant credibility. Agodon has so many fans — of her poetry, of her publishing company, Two Sylvias Press, of her outspoken politics — and those fans pay close attention to everything she does. Agodon talked with me about all of this and much more. This interview has been lightly edited.
First I wanted to start by thanking you. When we were looking for a poet to kick off the site with that first week, Martin suggested you, and you were, I think, exactly the right poet to launch with, because you are such a terrific member of the community, you have an amazing group of friends and associates who listen to what you say and so really helped lead people to us, and so I just wanted to thank you for that.
Oh, good. That's really good to hear. Thank you. I was honored to be chosen.
I wanted to ask you about that community. You're so active on social media and people really care about what you say. Which is noteworthy because laypeople don't often associate poets with being social. Do you have to work at being social, or are you just naturally a people person?
I am so not a people person. I’m not an extrovert and I don’t like to be at parties. That's why I write — because I'm not so good at talking or socially interacting. People always say they're surprised to hear I'm an introvert, so I tend to be an introvert with extrovert tendencies, maybe.
I always try to just interact with the belief that everyone's just trying their best. It's nice to hear I do it well, because I don't necessarily feel that way.
I think you do, I think people really listen to what you have to say.
Oh, well thank you.
So you're a poet and a publisher. Are those two jobs related? Are you a publisher because you're a poet?
You know, I'm a publisher for a really strange reason. We accidentally started this press, Annette Spaulding-Convy and I. Back in — gosh, maybe 2008? — we were coming from an event in Seattle on the ferry and we had glasses of wine and we started talking about wanting to publish an anthology of women in poetry, but in ebook form.
She had just gotten a Kindle and I had gotten an iPad. At that time, there was no poetry on there — nothing contemporary. The poetry publishers were lagging behind, so we said, "Well, let's just do this and see what happens." We couldn't find anyone that could do an ebook, so we just did it ourselves.
And then another project came along. Jeannine Hall Gailey’s book went out of print, so now that we're a press we put her book back into print. And then, the next thing you know, we had a press.
It's completely different sides of my brain. I always told myself I had to be a poet first and then editor second. This year especially, I’ve had to make some balance changes to put more focus on my writing.
What does putting more focus on your writing look like? Is it just taking the time, or do you behave differently when you're thinking more of the writing?
Yes, I behave very differently. I'm in my head a lot more, running poems through my head, thinking about my manuscript. I see the world very differently when I'm in the space of a poet. But also taking time for like writing residencies. I'm applying for more things and also just reading more, waking up and instead of checking my email, I’ll go outside with a book of poems and start to read. Even if it's a busy day and I can only read three poems, that’s still three poems more than I would have read.
It's being more mindful, I think. Sometimes a job can take away from who you are as a writer. I had to quit a corporate job early on just because I had completely lost my poet self.
What is the story of you and poetry? Is it a love story, or a comedy, or a horror movie?
All of the above. I think in every poet's life you can have scenes like in horror movies. We used to get paper rejections in the mail and, like, the double-team rejection came in.
But I think I'm happiest when I'm writing and when I'm in that creative space. I would say right now it's probably a pretty boring Lifetime drama that nobody's watching. But I hope eventually it turns into something good — maybe an Oscar winner.
I love how you ran with that! So, have you always been a poet or is that something that you realized you can be later on in life?
Well, I've always been a writer, even as a kid. We got to do little electives as a second-grader, and I remember choosing creative writing and I remember [my teacher] liking my story about a purple giraffe, or something like that.
I was always a reader and I was always a writer. Then I went to UW and I was actually focusing on fiction, and then I took a class by Linda Bierds, a poetry class, and completely got turned on to poetry.
Are the poems that we're running on the site this month more recent poems, or are we in the back catalog while you come up with new poems?
No, you're running really recent poems. It was really nice that you were able to choose the ones that you felt worked best for you, because as a poet, probably my worst skill is I'm never sure what poems are the best, or that people respond best to.
I'm always shocked when a poem kinda goes viral or gets shared a lot, it's never the poem I think will take off.
I wanted to ask you about your poem “Downpour.” Martin and Dawn and I decided to run it on the 4th of July because we thought it felt like a political poem. I mean, first of all, running a poem titled “Downpour” on the 4th of July is kind of a statement too. But it feels very political to me. Is that an accurate read of it, you think?
Yeah, definitely. There's been a lot of new poems since November that have that edge or that slant. I think I, like many, just was kind of complacent. I was so active in the Bush years with Poets Against the War, and just ... and then, well, I don't know. A lot of those newer poems do tend to have more of a political or an activist leaning. You know what they say, every poem is political in some way.
As you said, you were active in the Bush years as a poet. Do you feel like there's a difference in the way that writers are responding now than they were during the Bush years?
A little bit differently. I mean, so many people feel under threat these days, so, just the poems that have been being written by so many people are just incredible. When you're writing poetry — just in writing in general — when there is tension in your work, it ups the game. Some amazing works of art have come out in the last, what is it been, in like eight months?
My God, I can’t even think of it…
Yeah, have we only been in this presidency for six months?
What do you think poems can contribute, politically speaking?
Well, they can help other people understand, or heal. I always think of Maggie Smith's "Good Bones." I wrote the little article for you guys about that poem going viral. I think a lot of people go to poetry in times of crisis, even though they may not realize that they're doing it.
I think just adding art anytime is a good thing. I think it's useful to people, When big things happen, and then you read a poem that completely states what you're feeling, even though you didn't know those were the words or the images or the metaphor for it, that’s powerful.
I do think that's why they're shared and why it is important. It does connect us. I go to books and poetry when I'm down.
Do you think of yourself as part of a tradition of Northwestern poetry?
I do. I was born in Seattle and I grew up in Seattle. In my corporate job, I was working in Redmond and then I realized it was killing my soul. So I quit and geographically changed my location to across the water. I ended up in Kingston, Washington, so I was a ferry ride away from my old life.
Yes, I do really feel like a Seattle poet. I mean, it's funny, I still consider myself a Seattle poet even though I don't live in the city. I think because I'm always there. I'm always on that ferry.
I do believe there’s a Seattle Renaissance. There's such a large poetry community that is so strong. I do feel like this is a really good place to be a writer.
Who, locally, do you like these days?
Well, Susan Rich and Martha Silano, and Jeannine Hall Gailey, Elizabeth Austen are definitely four favorites. Erin Malone, too. Jeannine Hall Gailey hasn't written a lot but she's always been one of my favorite poets. Of course Kathleen Flennniken, who is working on a book.
Is there anything about them that makes them Seattle poets, you think? Is there common thread?
Well, Susan, Martha, and Elizabeth and even Kathleen, they all have place. Seattle is all through their poems. If you read their books of poems, Martha's got a poem with Pagliacci Pizza, and you know, Susan Rich has poems on Alki. I feel like we're represented ... And Claudia Castro Luna did that beautiful thing where she was documenting poems in places, did you see that?
The Poetic Grid? Yeah.
Yeah. I love how poems are just woven in into our landscape, it's so Richard Hugo-esque.
It seems like you're pretty prolific, so far as poetry goes. You write a fair amount. Is that a correct assessment, do you think?
That's very correct.
Do you wind up publishing most things that you write or do you —
No. I write a lot, but I would say that 90 percent, 95 percent of my poems never make it out into the world — either because I'm continually revising them, or I decide I don't like them, or they just disappear. I have one Word file that's called "New Work," which has got a bazillion poems in it, and then I have one called "Completed Poems" and a document can move into completed but then I might think it's not completed and move it back.
I'm constantly writing, but I am a terrible submitter. I tell people to submit their work, I wrote a little essay that went viral: "Submit Like a Man," which is something that I noticed when I was working at Crab Creek Review — that we would ask poets to submit, and the majority of men responded within like a month or two months with work, and then women, we sometimes would hear from them six months later and a lot of times you'd never hear from them.
It's funny, 'cause I wrote that article, and I am absolutely terrible at submitting my work. I love to write, I don't like to submit. It's not even the rejections — it's just I get the joy in the writing, not in the publishing. It's always fun to get feedback and to hear what people think — you know, if they like your poem — but it's kind of a pain to submit your work.
Yeah, which to me, that's interesting because I think that it's pretty common for writers to hate to hustle their own works and to promote it, but as publisher, you've gotta hustle other people's work. Is that difficult for you?
It's really easy to hustle and promote other people's work. It's so much easier, because all the books at Two Sylvias Press that we have published and are publishing, we absolutely love. We love our poets and our writers, and we love their work, so it's really easy for us, for me, to share a poem.
It's a thousand times easier for me to contact Oprah Magazine with somebody else's book than for me to ever send my own book there. When you're trying to get somebody else's work into the world, you have no reservations.
But with my own work, I never contact reviewers and say, "Would you like to review my book?" And I don't know if it's a weird self-consciousness where you don't wanna feel like the used car salesman. But sharing my friends' work and poets I love, I do all the time without hesitation.
But it is interesting thinking about just the title of your essay: "Submit Like a Man." I wonder if there's a better system out there. Like, what would successfully submitting like a woman look like, you know? I don't know if there's an answer to that or if it's even a question, but it seems like mimicking mediocre men has not worked out that well for us as a society. I wonder if there's a way to go about it.
I don't know. I mean, I'm a perfect example of how not to submit. I have a 16-, almost 17-year-old daughter who doesn't seem to have a problem asking if she needs something, or for what she wants.
But I was a kid of the 70s, and I always knew that when if I came home and complained, "So-and-so was mean to me," the first question [from parents] was, "what did you do?" Like, "what did you do to cause that?" So, it always came back to: the problem is with yourself, as opposed to, you know, "hey, that guy's just a jerk."
I do think it's changing. The young women in my daughter's class, they're all go-getters and they're much more aware. In that respect, the internet has been excellent in helping young women see their worth.
Today the Seattle Review of Books celebrates its second birthday — two years of publishing original writing about books with a uniquely Seattle flavor. To honor the anniversary, the site’s co-founders met up in their favorite habitat, a Slack channel, for a wide-ranging conversation about the city, its writers and readers, and the future of book reviewing.
If you haven’t had the pleasure of joining a conversation with Paul Constant and Martin McClellan, I hope you enjoy the one below as much as I did. A relative newcomer to the site, I went in with a sheaf of notes and an immaculate interview plan. Ninety minutes later I staggered out, slightly stunned but delighted — and eager to see what Seattle’s most passionate book nerds take on next.
Congratulations! Two years, almost 200 reviews! And all sorts of interviews and notes. Probably thousands. Too many to count.
Paul: Thanks! These last two years seem to have gone by so fast.
Martin: It's a little more than 2,000 notes, interviews, columns, and such.
Paul: Sometimes I look at my author page and try to figure out how I found the time to write all that.
Martin: I can now confess I helped start the site just so I could read Paul's writing more. It was entirely selfish.
It’s an obvious place to start, which isn’t at all in the spirit of the site — but I love the story and you just gave me an opening, so let’s do it anyway. How did the Seattle Review of Books get launched?
Paul: I’ve told this story a few times, and it’s slightly different every time. I’d be curious to hear Martin’s version.
Martin: I actually was a big fan of Paul's writing at the Stranger. I ran into him a few times around town and we struck up a friendship. At the time I was working for a media company, so we had things in common other than loving books.
When he left the Stranger I sent a joke tweet his way that he should start the Seattle Review of Books. We met up to have dinner a bit later, and the joke got a bit more serious. I guess, as Al Franken puts it, I was kidding on the square.
Sitting there at Le Pichet I looked up the domain registry for seattlereviewofbooks.com, and was shocked to find that nobody had ever bought it. We jokingly made an agreement that we’d co-own the URL, and Paul handed me some cash. We shook hands, and I bought it.
We sat on it for a bit, kind of sending notes back and forth like "Well, if we did, what if we . . . ?" and to our immense pleasure (or, at least mine), all of our ideas were simpatico. So we talked more seriously, then each put some money in and defined what our roles would be, and started building the site you're reading now.
Paul: Yeah, my version of the story involves a car chase and some microfiche stashed into a hairbrush handle, but that’s about the gist of it.
I want to be clear, though: Martin came up with the name of the site, he built it with his own two hands, he designed it. Without him, the Seattle Review of Books wouldn’t exist. I’d probably have a Tumblr called “Paul’s Bookish Musings” or something like that and it would be red type on a black background and nobody would ever read it.
Beyond no one owning the name or the domain yet — what was the thing you were trying to make, that nobody else had made?
Martin: I would have read it. But I would have complained about the typography.
The thing, I think, that we both wanted was a place that celebrated writing and lit culture in Seattle as a primary thing. Not as an afterthought or a tie-in.
We both wanted a place that celebrated writing and lit culture in Seattle as a primary thing. Not as an afterthought or a tie-in.
Paul: Yeah, exactly.
After nearly two decades here, I know that Seattle is the best, most interesting literary city in the United States. At the same time, I was seeing nearly every outlet diminish or eliminate their books coverage.
Martin: I loved the way Paul always said it: that we wanted to reflect the average Seattle reader’s shelf. So, comics next to "serious" novels, next to fun reads next to poetry. Diverse, and geared towards the interest of a general reader.
Paul: Seattle has the best readers in the country, too, for sure.
Martin: For sure! And the most fun-loving book crowd. It's very open and accepting of everybody, and there's something happening every night.
Paul: You know, I don’t think I’ve talked about this with Martin, but I had a real anxiety that in twenty years someone would move to Seattle and start a publishing company and they’d not know about the rich history they were building on.
A lot of Seattle’s literary history is just missing. Unless you’re talking about Raymond Carver or Richard Hugo, a lot of those figures are starting to disappear into the mists of time.
I think something we’re doing here is making a record: This is what Seattle was like at this time. These are the people who made Seattle such a terrific place to live. These are the writers who maybe never scored a giant publishing contract but who were making incredible pieces of work. They existed, they mattered, and they added to this amazing continuum.
So sometimes I’m not even writing for the audience right now. I’m recording something for posterity.
Martin: When we were starting the site, I was talking to typographer John D. Berry, and he was telling me about publishing the Pacific Northwest Review of Books in the early seventies. That history is missing, there's so much still to capture!
Paul: Yeah, and there’s maybe one copy of that Review in Knute Berger’s basement.
Martin: I'll bet Knute Berger's basement is like the warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Ark. But every box is full of trees.
Paul: And Wheedle on the Needle merch.
Martin: And vintage Metro buses.
But, I want to turn the question around. Dawn: you were an early reader of the site. You saw it from the outside. What drew you in and kept you reading?
It was the inimitable and irrepressible personality of the site that made it stand out. So much of book reviewing is — it’s not fair to say it’s cookie-cutter, but it’s from a certain cloth.
I think it was one of your reviews, Martin, where you said “We like to say that a book review is the only type of review done in the method of the thing it is reviewing.”
Martin: That's one of Paul's lines. It's probable I stole it.
Regardless: the reviews I was reading on SRoB were interesting in and of themselves, as pieces of writing.
Martin: I'm glad to hear that. That was always important to us, that reviews be good pieces of writing that stand alone.
Paul: I mean, my dirty little secret is that I don’t read many other review sites. Because I find most book reviews to be awful.
Paul, I was trying to be diplomatic.
Martin: You may be surprised to learn that people who started a review site have strong feelings about reviews.
Paul: I don’t need some random dude on the internet to give me a Consumer Reports-style guide or a plot summary. I want them to contextualize the book and argue with the book and point out something I didn’t notice about the book.
I love books and I love talking about books. And I love writing about books. A lot of people don’t believe me when I say I’m not a failed novelist. I’m a reviewer. I’m a book person. I like to think and write about books. And I know I’m not alone.
People always think reviewers are bitter, failed fiction writers. And I guess a lot of them are. But they shouldn’t be writing reviews. They should be getting better at writing fiction.
Martin: So, I guess this is a good time to mention that I'm a novelist.
Not failed, is the key thing.
Martin: True! Not yet. I have that to look forward to. Us people who work in startups, we like failing. We've built a mythology around it.
Paul: And if I may contradict myself: I think novelists are some of the best book reviewers. I always use Colson Whitehead’s review of Richard Ford’s A Multitude of Sins as one of my favorite (and most deserved) literary takedowns of all time.
Martin: And didn't he get punched for it?
Paul: Ford spat on him at a party.
Martin: Even better!
Two years in: is this what you expected?
I mean, I was surprised and pleased by the outpouring of support that we received when we first announced. We were covered by most outlets in town: The Seattle Times, Seattle Magazine, Seattle Metropolitan, City Arts.
They didn’t have to do that. Technically, we’re their competitors.
Martin: That was very gratifying.
Paul: Yeah. It was a little like getting to read your obituary early.
So we were off to a much bigger start than I expected, which was great.
But these first few years, I knew, would be a real heads-down kind of do-the-work period. Make sure we have new stuff on the site every day. Remind people we’re here. Break news sometimes. But be on time, and have something interesting to say, and be as comprehensive as you can. A media outlet has to prove itself by showing up. You can’t have dead days. You can’t drop the ball.
So we’ve been reminding people that we’re here, and we’ve been trying to be good citizens. Good neighbors.
What does that mean? Other than keeping the music down after 10 p.m. and making sure your garbage cans aren’t in the street?
Paul: It means letting people know they can come to us when they need help. It means keeping an eye on the community and spreading the word when someone’s done something worth celebrating.
It means letting people know they can come to us, and expecting us to show up when they need us.
We’re a news site, but we’re also a community resource.
We might run negative reviews and write news stories that annoy people from time to time, but I don’t think anyone can doubt our commitment to books in general, and to Seattle in particular.
That’s the kind of work we’ve had to do in the first few years, and that we still need to do.
Martin: Yeah, we set the stage with what we have done.
With two years under our feet — and, it's worth saying, two profitable years thanks to our incredible sponsors — we're not a fly-by-night affair.
We are a written-by-night affair, however. Mostly.
Paul: I’m basically fused to my couch at this point. Though I’ve stopped falling asleep while typing in mid-sentence, which I take to mean I’m getting better at managing my time.
Martin: I want to talk a bit more about sponsorships for a minute. Because one of the frustrations of working on the web was terrible, terrible, terrible advertising. There is no reason that advertising needs to be terrible. We have a site about reading. Let's give people something to read.
Having a bright line between sponsorship and editorial content was important for us, but also that sponsorships were attractive, didn't riddle your computer with cookies and trackers and third-party nonsense. That we respected our readers as intelligent people who might actually like to find out about some books or events they're into.
Because of doing that, we've been able to sustain the site and pay poets to appear on the site every week, and hire writers.
So please do read our sponsorship each week. If you like them, great! If not, the only thing you've lost is a few minutes of your time. You might just discover a book you absolutely love.
I am curious about what, specifically, you’d like to do over the next few years. If this were the five-year anniversary interview, what would you want me to ask you about?
Martin: I don't want to promise anything specific; sometimes you can deliver on promises, and sometimes you can't. But here are a few things we hope to see: a more robust calendar, more events — like our book club — where we can get out and see people more original fiction on the site — we're running our first short story writing contest now.
Paul: I agree with your recent interview, Dawn, where you said you wanted to see more voices on the site. And that’s why I’m grateful to have you as our associate editor. I love working with new writers, but running a site in addition to a day job is a lot to do.
So to have you working with new voices is wonderful. Without new writers, we’re just kind of treading water. I hope all sorts of people will reach out with weird and fun pitches. Especially young writers who maybe don’t have a byline anywhere else. I’d like to see us become a place that sends new talent out into the world.
“Weird” is my favorite of the words you use to describe book reviews.
Paul: It’s vague, but you know a good, weird book review when you see it. It’s the kind of thing that makes readers say “you can’t do that in a book review . . . can you?”
Turns out, you can!
Martin: I think one of the things that we see a lot is people writing book reviews like they think book reviews should be. That's the wrong approach with us.
Paul: That’s one of the hardest things to do with new writers, is to untrain them from thinking that a book review has to be dull and formal and stuffy.
Or to let them know it’s okay to do what they wanted to do anyway.
Martin: Or that it has to talk about the book at all. Okay, maybe a little. But try us.
Martin: I can imagine reading an absolutely delightful review of a Jonathan Franzen book that doesn't talk about the book or the writer at all, for example.
Paul: Any review that doesn’t mention Jonathan Franzen is a delightful review!
Martin: I'm interested in the writer. What is it that the writer brings? Why are they the right person to write the review? How do they see the world through the lens of the book?
Give me an example.
Martin: Here are a few reviews that stand out (although I love every review we've run):
Arthur Wyatt's personal Brit-splaining of Judge Dredd and how he came to write for the comic, Doug Nufer's formal poem critique of The Drone Papers, Bonnie Rough's sensitive and lovely look at death with Abigail Thomas' What comes next and how to like it, just to name a few. Your review, Dawn, of Marie Kondo's book, is a review about people and hard things and coping.
None of them are conventional reviews, really. They don't open with a "here's a thought about the writer, here's a summary, here's a synopsis of what I just told you." They're explorations of the world of the writer through the book.
Paul: I also love Anna Minard’s nerdy (but canny!) love letter to Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
The thing I want to ask, that I’m not quite sure how to get at, is how the context for SRoB is changing — and how that affects your vision for the site. And by context I mean the Seattle literary world, and the environment for books, booksellers, and people who read and write about books.
Paul: That’s a good question. Though a lot of folks in the literary world here like to recall a halcyon time when the Seattle literary world was stable and ever-growing, the truth is that time never existed. Bookstores and venues are always opening and closing. Writers are coming to town, writers are leaving town. Things will be very different in five years, but that’s always the case.
I think our role is to reflect those changes, and mourn the people and institutions that fade from view, and to celebrate the new ones that rise up.
The city is suffering an affordability crisis right now, and though politicians have paid tremendous lip service to writers and other creative types, not much has actually been done to ensure that they can live here.
We should absolutely reflect that in the site.
And we do have the 800-pound gorilla of the publishing industry headquartered in South Lake Union, and we have to acknowledge that.
So we have to advocate for the city we want, in the face of all this prosperity and discomfort and squalor.
We have to advocate for the city we want, in the face of all this prosperity and discomfort and squalor.
Martin: I really, really wish Amazon had some competition in digital books. There is such a lack of innovation anywhere else in publishing in that space, it's disheartening.
Paul: Right! We have a “disruptor,” to use an awkward tech word, in the audio book space here in Seattle. Libro.fm is a local company that’s trying to bring independent bookstores in on the audio book sales front. I hope someone is doing similar work with ebooks, and I hope they’re based here in Seattle, too.
Martin: There's another aspect of the site I want to mention, and that's that we're completely independent. We're not built on another's publishing platform.
It's true that running a website is hard, and it's especially hard to make money, but we're also living in a time where publishing is easier than it has ever been in history. We want more people starting sites and publishing original content. We want more people, of all different backgrounds and views, making sites about books and what they love.
I hope to see many more people breaking out of those walled gardens and building their own worlds.
We want more people, of all different backgrounds and views, making sites about books and what they love.
Final question. And it’s an easy one. Pinky swear. No, wait. I have two. Clearly no respect for the pinky swear!
First: What should I have asked you that I didn’t?
Paul: Well, uh, I don’t know what you should’ve asked that you didn’t, but I know that I’d like to thank all our amazing columnists. I can’t believe that we get to publish the incredible Nisi Shawl on a regular basis! She’s one of the most exciting sci-fi novelists in the field today and she’s an upstanding figure in the Seattle sci-fi scene and she works with us? What the hell?
Martin: For sure, and we have a new column starting next week that I'm so excited about.
Paul: And Daneet Steffens’s mystery column is pure joy. She has such a deep love and understanding of the genre that it’s infectious. I learn so much from reading her column.
Christine Marie Larsen’s Portrait Gallery adds a much-needed visual element to the site, and it’s a fantastic way to celebrate local authors. Her work has been on the site since day one — we have the best 404 pages — and I think the color and life and energy she brings to her paintings is as much a guiding star for the site as any prose we’ve published.
Martin: Yes! Christine is so great. She's done about eighty original paintings for us, which is astounding. It makes me so happy to see her portrait every week, and I'm so grateful for her work.
Paul:And I’m sure we’ll have more terrific columns in the future (pitch us!).
But I especially have to get mushy and thank Cienna Madrid for being with us from the very beginning and writing the best damn advice column in the world.
Martin: Cienna Madrid is so damn funny.
Paul: SO funny. And sometimes she’s so mean that when she demonstrates real compassion it just knocks you on your ass. Getting her column in my inbox is a highlight of my week, every week. And she was writing for us back before anyone even knew this site existed.
So at the risk of sounding like I’m taking a victory lap or giving an Oscar speech, I just want to publicly gush over how lucky we are to have her.
Closing words for SRoB readers?
Paul: Thank you for reading! And thanks for sending in tips and questions and Facebook and Twitter comments. Your thoughts and opinions matter a great deal to us. This is your site, and we take your comments and criticisms really seriously. And we’re so grateful for all your support.
Martin: I want to echo Paul's thoughts, exactly. Putting this site together and working on it every day is a passion, and it's because we have such amazing readers. We love hearing from you, so write in and tell us what you think, what you want to see more of, what you want to see less of. We want to hear.
Thank you so much for reading. And if you see us out at an event, come up and say hello.
They look threatening but are actually quite nice.
Paul: I have resting glower face.
Martin: I have resting at-home face. Because I go out much less than Paul. But talk to me if you see me!
And with that, I think we can close. Yes?
Martin: ...and scene!
Karen Junker’s life has always been devoted to books. Though the tiny Washington town where she grew up, DuPont, didn’t have a library when she was young, “I loved reading more than anything.” One of her high school classmates was Robert Heinlein’s niece, and Junker clearly recalls her meeting with the sci-fi great to be a turning point in her life.
“Some people collect comics and baseball cards, and I collect meetings with famous authors,” Junker tells me on the phone, just before relaying an anecdote about accidentally bumping into George R. R. Martin. She’s about more than just the big names, though. Junker is well-connected in the literary community: she knows agents and editors and publishers and booksellers. And she admits that she’s “not afraid to call anyone and ask them for anything.”
Junker says she “likes to introduce people that will help other people.” One of her favorite things to do is to organize events that place a famous writer next to a lesser-known writer, creating the possibility to inexorably alter the course of a career. She’s organized conventions and a popular series of writing retreats called Writers Weekend and all sorts of other literary events.
Junker doesn’t believe in genre. She recalls a moment when she was younger that taught her not to look down her nose at someone for the kind of books they read: “I was working in a bookstore in West Seattle and I was helping a regular customer there and I said, ‘you seem like a really smart woman. Why do you read romance?’ She pretty much dressed me down. And rightfully so!” That customer turned out to be president of the local Romance Writers of America chapter, and she invited Junker to attend writing workshops. “It really opened up my mind and respect for that genre.”
After putting on some romance events, Junker started to branch out. She scored a rare appearance from sci-fi author Mercedes Lackey at a writing group, and then she started to expand her scope into a regular series of writing workshops. And now she’s expanding her scope event further with Readerfest, a free family-friendly book festival at Magnuson Park on Saturday, September 9th. Junker just started planning the festival five weeks ago, but she’s filed with Washington’s Secretary of State for nonprofit status and plans are proceeding at high speed. “I started making phone calls and people are getting on board,” she says. “We’re adding people and sponsors every day.”
“I’m a big fan of the writing community, especially in our region,” Junker tells me. “I started Readerfest because the Northwest Bookfest was so cool, and I feel that this is something I can do to organize a little tiny thing to build that back up again.” She admits to being “scared” by how quickly Readerfest is growing, but “I’ve done these for so long that if you get good people who you know can talk about what they do, I don’t have to manage that. It takes care of itself.”
Inclusivity is important to Junker. Readerfest will feature an indigenous arts tent, and there will be talks by local native artists. The festival will feature conversations about “cultural appropriation in literature, and race and gender representation in steampunk.” The festival does have more sci-fi authors on its slate than Northwest Bookfest, but Junker is looking to expand that slate as much as possible. “I have some poets, I have some non-fiction writers and some comics. We have spoken-word storytellers coming. We don’t have a lot of literary fiction writers yet.”
So what should you do if you want to participate in Readerfest? Junker says interested parties should email her if they’d like a table. The Readerfest site will be updated soon with information for volunteers and, as soon as the organization gets its nonprofit status approved, the ability to donate for future Readerfests.
In the end, Junker says, she just wants to put on an event that will connect people to books that they’ll love. “I just felt the need in the community for this kind of event — one that’s family-friendly but not exclusive of any genre. I’m a fan of all types of writing, and there’s a reader for everything,” she says.