When he's not editing the forward-thinking science/fiction magazine Scout.ai, Eliot Peper writes sci-fi novels. His latest, Bandwidth, is a neo-noir centered around a lobbyist who is nearly crushed under the massive weight of information overload. Peper talked with us about gender roles in noir fiction, where he looks for sci-fi inspiration, and how we're still wrestling with the ramifications of the internet. This interview has been lightly edited.
You’ve written a noir novel and you’re obviously a forward-thinking guy, and I’m curious how you approach writing this noir-ish hyper-masculine genre in a modern context. I think that you do have an interesting angle on it, but if I were to tell a reader to try a noir novel starring a character named Dag Calhoun I think some people might balk. You know what I mean?
Sure. It’s interesting writing Dag, because he’s the first straight male character that I’ve written as a single protagonist. I have one other book, Cumulus, where there were three point-of-view protagonists, and there was one other male character in that book. But Bandwidth was actually the first, and sort of interestingly, Bandwidth is part of a trilogy, but it’s not a linear trilogy.
So the second and third book all take place in the same universe, have a lot of the same cast, but they different protagonists and they have different narrative and character arcs. You can actually read each of the books independently if you wanted to. And so, it was an interesting learning experience for me getting comfortable writing Dag, which is sort of ironic given that I am a straight, white, male.
I am every category that would fit that genre in theory, but that’s actually not what most of my writing has been like to date. So it was interesting coming at it from that angle. And I actually had fun with it. Unfortunately, there’s a great example that I can’t give because it would be a spoiler. But I really did try to play with some of that stuff in the book.
Yeah, there’s a scene very early on where Dag’s led around by his erection, and it felt like you were very cued into the traps of the genre.
Yeah, and I think as you read on, you might find some fun psychological ones as well. And so I found that to be an interesting experience: it was a learning opportunity for me to try to be more aware of the cultural context that the story would fit into, and then it was also interesting because it was my first time doing it, so that was fun.
I didn’t actually approach writing Dag much differently than I’ve written other characters in the past. The first trilogy I ever wrote — the first book came out back in 2014 — had an African-American female protagonist, and one of those things that I heard from readers in that community was that the story spoke to them in part because it just like how anyone would look at the world. It wasn’t actually that specific. Her cultural background was not actually relevant to the story and it wasn’t a big deal basically in the context of the story — even though for other characters there were impacts.
But it was not a book about race, and I think that for readers sometimes that can be a positive thing. It’s not intended to be a book about masculinity, even though that is woven through the story and certainly relevant to its cultural context. I don’t know if that answered your question.
No, it did. I think it’s an issue that people who read my site would consider when browsing the cover copy and considering picking up the book.
Yeah, that’s true. And one thing I would say that might be relevant to those readers is that not limited to Dag’s gender identity or cultural background or anything like that.
What I find most interesting as a novelist is ambiguity, shades of gray where there’s a lot of conflict. So whenever I’m working on any kind of character, I’m always looking for that zone where their hopes and fears intersect, and the weird patches where they’re not actually sure about their own moral standing or certainty — where they’re not just charging in with this very, very clear sense of what is right and wrong. I’m much, much more interested in the nuance in the middle.
And that applies to Dag’s identity and it applies to his worldview. He’s not someone who has a really clear sense of moral superiority, and he’s sort of a conflicted protagonist. He’s not a hero right off the bat. And it also applies to the worldbuilding.
It’s funny because sometimes I hear from readers when they read Bandwidth, they’ll call it a dystopian novel. And what I find really interesting about that is that I did not think of it as a dystopian novel while writing it. There are certainly some dark things that happen in the world — some of the impacts of accelerated climate change and stuff like that are certainly dark — but there are actually some really beautiful and wonderful things about this future that we might not have imagined either. And so,
I always try to look for those shades of gray and that nuance, so I hope that even if the description makes you think that it’s a very straight up masculine noir story, that if you actually give it a read and take the story for a spin you might discover that there’s more complexity there than you might have guessed otherwise.
You’ve got a concept in the book called the Feed. Most people receive their media, their information in the form of a feed, which is like a gutter with information flowing through it in more or less chronological order. Were you picturing this sort of gutter of a feed when you were thinking about The Feed in this book? Do you think that we are trapped in this informational flow for the near future, this particular way of getting information?
Yeah, so I guess the way I think about it is that digital technology, computers, and computer networks have so vastly decreased the cost of storing and distributing and sharing and publishing information that information is now free. We take it for granted. We take Wikipedia for granted, we take Google for granted, we take all of these things for granted. And what that means is that compared to any other human at any other point in history, we walk around with all knowledge in our pockets at our beck and call.
And that can be very empowering in very obvious ways: your sink is broken, so you look on YouTube for this precise model and it will show you how to take it apart and fix it. But it also presents us with this new challenge that no one has ever had to face before, and that is, when you have this surfeit of information, how do you actually find the useful, relevant stuff? And we are currently at the very, very beginning point in history of ever having to improvise through solutions to that problem.
And so, some obvious examples of solutions that we are currently experimenting with are Google search, where you ask the internet a question and they have an algorithm that takes, I think, between three and four hundred independent variables to automatically calculate what the results should be for you. It’s not just ranked links, it is incredibly sophisticated.
If you use Gmail or similar large services, those services are now becoming algorithmic. You’ll probably notice that in your email inbox that things get automatically filtered into different categories like “promotions” or “social.” The algorithm can be useful because it becomes this filter that allows us to ignore the stuff that’s less important, or to categorize information for us in some way or another. And I think that there’s really no way to get around the fact that when you have all of this of information you need to be able to filter it.
Just as most Netflix viewers have experienced, when you go to watch Netflix a lot of the time you end up spending 45 minutes trying to decide what to watch, and you end up never really watching anything, right?
And that points to how bad we are at this. For all the news items about the power of Big Data and social media, this is a massive information problem that we are really only starting to come to grips with. And I think that there are so many really complex issues baked into how you filter information that we’ve never had to deal with before.
I don’t know if you’ve read much about bias baked into machine learning models, but there’s a great example in policing where you have a bunch of arrest records that show certain types of people are arrested more often than others. It doesn’t take into account that it actually might be reflective of a much greater systemic corruption and not just the fact those should be the people getting arrested.
There are so many decisions baked into that, that many of us don’t even realize are happening. So we experience the results of the feed, the architecture of those feeds is opaque to us. And I think that is a really big challenge that will be one of the big issues of this century. Because the media you consume, the information you access, shapes the way you see the world and shapes the decisions you make — both in your own life on a very personal level, like, “what Netflix show am I gonna watch?” and also, at a community level, even up to the level of the federal government: “what kinds of rules should we have about how people do things on the Internet?”
Yeah, so this is a question I think that probably every sci fi author gets asked a lot, but it seems like you’re cutting very close to the modern time with this book so I’m going to ask anyway: how do you write about the future without getting steamrolled by it?
Well, I very well might. Hopefully, my answer to this question will have somewhat of a halflife. We’ll see.
I think that science fiction is really about the present, not about the future. So if you read 1984, it was written in 1948. And I think it was written about 1948, and I think that the reason why it feels relevant in 2018 tells us more about 2018 than about George Orwell. Or I guess it tells us that he is an amazing novelist and an amazing observer of the human condition. But I think it speaks far more to the feeling of living in a society that is beyond our control and the paranoia that can come through that. It’s a great metaphor for state surveillance.
What I find interesting about science fiction as a reader is that it sort of transports me into this plausible alternative reality. And because it is an alternative reality, it actually gives my imagination more space because I’m not constantly questioning the veracity of the every fact. And then when I return, hopefully, it’s a very compelling and transformative experience. And so when I come back to my present reality, my own world view has shifted a bit so it actually helped me challenge the assumptions that I make every day when I look at the world. That’s what I get out of science fiction as a reader.
As a writer, I have no way to predict the future. If we were able to predict the future, it would be very, very boring, and science fiction would actually be totally useless. I think that the power of science fiction is that it can paint multiple different futures, and that by experiencing those very different futures then we’ll have more context for the decisions we make today.
But I have kind of a game that readers might want to try in their own lives just for fun, and writers might find it useful if they’re trying to write about the future. Rather than trying to read a trend report, or something like that, try to look for weird details in the present rather than having a thought experiment about the future.
So as an example, William Gibson has that famous quote, “the future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” And how can you find those pockets in the present day of future that has not yet been evenly distributed? So I’ll give you one example: Google’s chief economist, Hal Varian’s hot tip for predicting the future is to look at rich people, which initially sounds horribly Silicon Valley techno-libertarian, right?
But if you take it a step deeper, you can actually find that it’s a really useful. Who were the people that could afford to drive cars? Rich people. TWho are the first people to ride on trains? Rich people, because they were the only people who could afford them. If you look at the history of technology, rich people are almost always the earliest adopters because the new technology that has been developed is only accessible at that pricepoint early on, before it becomes mainstream.
So if you want to think about what might the world look like in 10 years, or in 20 years, one fun way to think about that is: what are things that only very rich people do today, and what if those things were things that everyone had access to all the time?
So that’s one fun way to do it. I would take that a level deeper and say, don’t just limit it to rich people. One of the communities that I like to learn from is hobbyists — people who do things for the intrinsic joy of doing the thing. They’re doing stuff just for fun, not for financial gain, not for fame or fortune. They’re doing it because they just get a lot of joy out of tinkering and screwing around with whatever their hobby is.
Often those communities also can turn out to be pockets of the future that has arrived early, because they’re so absorbed in whatever it is that they’re passionate about that they make these strides that nobody even realizes could be really transformative for our society as a whole until they’re much more widely distributed. A good example of that would actually be very, very, very early Silicon Valley, where you had a lot of people who were playing with computers. This is decades and decades and decades ago, basically for fun, right?
They would screw around and trade stuff with friends and trade ideas with friends. The way of thinking they developed has now come to be a huge part of the economy and of our of politics and of the things we use everyday. And so, if you are a science fiction writer and you want to try to tease out what might be an interesting scenario, try those two. Think about what rich people might be doing and what if everybody had access to it, and then think about what hobbyists might be doing and what if everybody was doing that all the time too.
That’s great. Both of those tests sort of apply to Apple, because Steve Jobs started out as a phone phreak, but then obviously the luxury computing component came into it later on in his career.
Yeah, absolutely. The third thing, I guess the closer, I would say, is that I read very widely. But the one genre that helps me think about the future most effectively is reading a lot of history. If anybody is interested in trying to think more flexibly about the future, I think that history is the best guide.
Just as with reading good science fiction, reading good history shows you in how many ways the world can change. The lives we live today are so fundamentally different than the lives of ancient Romans. In fact, my grandparents wouldn’t even understand what I call a job today. And they certainly wouldn’t understand the stuff that I use every day and how I’m able to communicate with people. We live in a world full of wonders and we’re so jaded because we use it all the time that it’s really easy to take everything for granted.
But if you read history and you really try to imagine yourself living in that era, you’ll very quickly think about how malleable our world is. Not just the technologies we use, but our cultural institutions, our political instructions, our daily life. It has changed a lot, and I find that thinking in those ways tends to relax the constraints that I have on my own thinking when I try to look forward.
Since 2008, Seattle nonprofit Books to Prisoners has been based out of the University Christian Church in the U District. "It's a nice space," Books to Prisoners vice president Andy Chan tells me. "It's about 900 square feet when you include our storage." From those cozy offices, Books to Prisoners has shipped thousands of books to prisons around Washington state and the rest of the country.
But now, Chan says, things are about to change. "Basically, like a lot of churches," he says, University Christian Church is "suffering from a decrease in congregation size, so they're making the hard decision to congregate with another church." That means the space the church provided for Books to Prisoners and other social service organizations is disappearing. Books to Prisoners has to find a new location in the next three months.
So now, Chan says, they need your help. If you know of any affordable office space for a great literary nonprofit, please let Books to Prisoners know. "What we're looking for is ideally 800 square feet," Chan explains. He's been with the organization since 1994, and "we've crammed into 600 square feet before," but "people are falling over each other and it's quite intimate." Additionally, a space that size "decreases the amount of storage you have," which means the organization's access to books is limited.
"We'd like a space that is somewhere close to transit because a lot of volunteers are on transit of some sort," Chan says. "Parking, so we can load and unload, would be helpful," along with a ramp or elevator if it's not on the first floor because Books to Prisoners is always "moving a lot of cartons of books," and if stairs are involved "people's backs are always going out."
"And an incredibly cheap rent would be helpful," Chan says. "Our expenses are about $50,000 per year," with only one paid part-time staffer. Books to Prisoners, he says, spends "$30,000 on postage" annually. A high rent would limit the books the organization could send out and "would be really difficult for us to manage." (You can find a full description of Books to Prisoners's office needs on their blog.)
Of course, if you don't have a lead on a new office, you can still help Books to Prisoners. You could donate your time as a volunteer, or you could support the organization financially. Today is Give Big, the Seattle Foundation's annual donation drive for local nonprofits, and Books to Prisoners is a part of the program.
Over the last few months, prisons have been in the news for adopting policies barring organizations from delivering books to inmates. In New York state, Governor Andrew Cuomo reversed one such policy after a massive public outcry.
Is Books to Prisoners encountering more of these kinds of anti-book policies? "Here's the thing," Chan says: "We deal with these kind of problems constantly. They come up in the news sometimes, but it's something we face every year because we ship to all 50 states. Just last week, the feds backed down from a sweeping change" that would have made it harder to ship books to inmates.
Washington state's prisons have vacillated between more and less permissive book-shipping policies. Penitentiaries in Walla Walla and Connell have occasionally banned used books. What could be the reason behind a used-book ban? Chan suggests that prisons run by private companies have a vested interest in making sure inmates buy new books from the commissary.
Clearly, there's more need than ever for Books for Prisoners. "Books help prisoners to be better people," Chan says. His message for Seattle Review of Books readers: "if they have interest in literacy, in books, in allowing people to learn and better themselves while they're in prison, we're a great charity to give to. We spend almost nothing on overhead."
"It's a constant fight to make sure people have access to something incredibly basic," Chan says. He believes completely in the mission: "please, somebody find me an argument for why it would be a terrible idea to give books to prisoners," he says. "I'd love to hear it."
"If you're ever introducing me at a party," our April Poet in Residence Jeanine Walker says, "introduce me as a poet." She ticks down the list of ways she's often described: "don't say I'm a musician, don't say I have a variety show, don't say I've written a novel. I'm a poet."
The risk of being described as a multihyphenate artist is real. Walker moved to Seattle a decade ago, and in the years since, she's insinuated herself into seemingly every aspect of our literary culture. Walker debuted on the local scene as the quick-witted host of the late, lamented Cheap Wine & Poetry and Cheap Beer & Prose reading series. She's the host and curator of the Mixed Bag variety show that until recently took place at the Royal Room in Columbia City and will likely relaunch at a new venue this fall. She's a musician, she's written a novel, and she's currently working on a novella-slash-album with her husband, Steve Mauer.
And Walker is an educator, too. She works with Seattle Arts and Lectures' amazing Writers in the Schools program, which teaches Seattle-area students to "discover and develop their authentic writing and performance voices."
She also coaches writers one-on-one, helping them develop their voice and shepherding them through the process of creating works of literature, from first draft through finished book. "I love coaching," she gushes. "I feel like that's my special gift. When I'm working with people, I think I'm able to read what someone is doing and notice what they might hope that their piece is going to do and then ask good questions to help them arrive at that conclusion." This isn't a one-way transaction: Walker greatly enjoys the deep dive into a person's work. One of her writers lives in New York and they regularly chat over Skype, Walker says, and "I've gotten to read his books, and it's a real privilege to get to know his characters."
But like Walker says: above all else, she's a poet. And she's not one of those stare-out-a-window-and-write-one-line-per-month kind of poets. No, Jeanine Walker writes. A lot. Every day. "I'm writing so many new poems that some of them won't ever be published," Walker says. Those unread poems are helpful, though, she says "because they helped me to get to the other ones," the ones that readers get to see.
One of the things I love most about Walker's poems is that they seem strongly built around a moment. Walker's poetry is immersive; she places you into a location and time with great economy, and then she wallops you with detail. Consider "Conversation," which begins "The rain pinched the glass/of the windowpane." You know the sounds that particular type of rain makes, you can feel the emotion that it brings to you. It's as vivid as an excellent haiku - in fewer syllables.
And in "At Night, Asleep," a gentle noise awakens the poet and her mind wanders. She thinks about her mother, about the need for our parents that never really dies. It's an atmospheric poem - a ghost story with a happy-ish ending - and the heart of the poem is a line that feels so specific that it's universal: "I mistook the sadness for beauty." Really, at one time in your life or another, haven't you mistaken sadness for beauty? Hasn't everyone?
Walker agrees with my assessment of her poems as largely built around very specific moments. "I am interested when I'm revising a poem that an image is as clear as it can be and that it's doing something." But she's not a narrative poet, exactly: "What's being made clear might not always make logical sense, or be linear, or even be clear."
This love of poetry came almost at the beginning. "I was writing stories when I was really little and I wrote my first poem in 7th grade," Walker says. In ninth grade, she found a mentor in a poetry teacher who encouraged her to write poetry for the rest of high school.
With Writers in the Schools, Walker is finding her own inspiration in the students. "The kids I'm working with now are second to fifth grade," she says. "I really see them as their own people, and their own poets." Walker says one of the girls in her class recently rhymed the word "enough-y" with "stuffy," and the delight of the pairing kept her going for days afterward.
All Walker's many talents and pastimes, ultimately, come back to the poetry. The performance, the coaching, the teaching, the prose all inform the poems. She's close to finishing a manuscript, and she's shopping individual poems around to different outlets. When I ask about her process, she shows me the wirebound notebook she's been filling with poetry. The handwriting starts legibly, but as the poems draw on, the writing becomes messier, more ecstatic as the poem pours out of her. Even without reading the poems, it's obvious that their writing was a biological imperative.
Walker affirms the urgency of the writing. "Without poetry," she says, smiling, "I would not be."
Alison Luhrs (left in the above photo) and Amalia Larson (right) regularly perform an improv show called Book Club, in which they play a pair of "shallow, well-off adults discussing a book supplied by the audience while consuming a massive amount of wine." Their next performance is this Sunday, April 22nd at 5:30 pm at the Pocket Theater. In this interview, they discuss the books that they've most loved to riff on, the books they most love in real life, and what you should expect from Book Club if you've never attended in improv show before.
This is such a great idea for a show-I imagine getting good audience suggestions is one of the most tricky things about improv, so it seems like the books must help to focus the show. Could you explain the premise in your own words? And did this show's premise evolve, or did it come to you fully-formed?
ALISON: Book Club is about extraordinarily priviliged, trend-obsessed people with zero self-awareness trying to use literature to relate to their lives. We get a book from the audience, and the premise of the show is that we are the only two members who remembered to show up to their monthly book club meeting. We then crack open a bottle of wine (dry and slammable is our go-to) and pretend we've read the book before reading passages out loud. The passages serve as a launching-off point for the characters to talk about their lives and occasionally have profound revelations about the way they see the world. The book provides us thematic direction that always gives the characters something new to connect with. The women we play are sometimes secret shoplifters, sometimes cheating on their husbands, sometimes falling in love with each other, sometimes addicted to painkillers, but always contain a secret depth. They're the kind of people who use acai bowls and soulcycle classes to show the world how put-together they are when everything is falling apart.
The show concept originally came from Amalia and I making fun of trend-obsessed mommy bloggers, which quickly devolved into us revealing tragic backstories for imaginary people we were just making fun of. Seattle's Improv scene is having a real explosion of experimental unscripted theatre right now, and we've been performing together for ten years, so the show felt like it would be fun!
AMALIA: Yeah, the show itself has evolved some and obviously the content is different every time, but the premise has pretty much always stayed the same. As we were starting to really get into it riffing on this idea, we discovered that there is basically endless material to be found within the archetype of these vapid, secretly desperate, moneyed women. We could throw these characters into a slice-of-life type setting with just a suggestion for an idea from the audience and there would be plenty to run with (or Zumba with, or Kegel with, pick your poison), but having the addition of the book from the audience keeps the surprises coming in real-time for us and gives us a device to build tension, break it, give a moment a button or an ally-oop, and even lovingly throw each other under the bus once in a while. We've got to stay on our toes after all.
I used to run the book clubs at Elliott Bay Book Company, and it seems as though "book club ladies" are a relatively easy target for mockery. There are a ton of easy book club jokes in pop culture-mean-spirited jokes about rich white ladies who drink a lot and can barely read, which doesn't reflect the reality of book clubs as I know them. You play with these expectations but you don't come from a place of superiority. How do you manage to avoid the cliches and find something worthwhile to investigate in your characters? Have your relationships with the characters changed over time?
ALISON: The best part about comedy is being able to trick an audience into caring about someone they were just laughing at. Flipping the power structure not just onstage, but between how the audience views the subject. Our women are wealthy, fixated on appearances, but at their core are desperate for meaning and connection. One of my favorite devices we use in the show is that we allow for one or two 'drops' -- moments when one of the characters will have an honest-to-god deep thought, only to be broken out of the trance a moment later by the other woman purposefully changing the subject. It's totally uplifting and deflating at the same time, and is born entirely out of a character choosing to be introspective for possibly the first time in their life, all thanks to whatever text they were just reading a passage from. We adore these characters, and I think we can mock their pretentions without mocking their personhood. All people are worthwhile, even the ones you avoid when you go to Whole Foods.
AMALIA: I feel like those clichés are a gift! Everyone knows exactly the type of people these characters are referring to which makes it so fun to use the known aspects of the stereotype as a spring board. Moments of shallowness or obliviousness that play directly into the stereotype make people laugh because they feel spot-on or eyeroll-inducingly familiar, but moments that truly break the clichés and reveal something of more substance are disarming specifically because they are unexpected from these characters you thought you knew so well a minute ago. When the armor is polished to perfection, it's that much more surprising to find the cracks. Being aware of where we're playing in relation to those edges, I would say, is a huge part of the fun. But at the end of the day, the most important part is that it all comes from a place of love rather than ridicule. These women care so earnestly about who and what they care about, that's where the humanity lies, but what they care so much about is, you know, designer yoga mats and who brought the best snacks to the peewee lacrosse championship, that's where the comedy lies.
Have you ever belonged to a real book club? What books do you like to read?
ALISON: I make fantasy games for a living, so staying up on my SFF is important. I subscribe to Uncanny Magazine for SFF short stories, and survive otherwise on a steady stream of Tor novels. All that magic and wonder can be a bit overwhelming at times, though, so I also try to dabble in nonfiction to cleanse the palette. I recently finished The Only Harmless Great Thing (which if you like alt history with radioactive elephants is a real gem) and am about halfway through I'll be Gone in the Dark, so I'm sort of all over the place with my reading list.
AMALIA: Honestly, I read almost exclusively nonfiction, I'm kind of a creature of habit like that. My favorites are usually either research-driven social science - most recently Bonk by Mary Roach and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, or personal essays and memoirs like Sloan Crosley and Augusten Burroughs and anything ever by any Sedaris. I try to keep up on the books my favorite comedy folks write too-the Oswalts and Poehlers and Martins of the world. It's good to have role models. And this show is the only book club I've ever been a part of so far, but I'd be down.
Do any books make repeat performances in the audience? Are there any books you maybe wish you could ban from the show, or that you've mined to the point of diminishing returns?
ALISON: We've never had a repeat book! We've done Starship Troopers, The Fish Won't Let Me Sleep, even a physics text originally written in Japanese and translated into English. With that last one we learned the hard way that academic texts don't necessarily make for funny passages.
AMALIA: I don't know though, we had that one really thick textbook from the seventies about family psychology and that was a pretty good one. I keep waiting for someone to bring in like a dictionary or a bible or phone book or something (they still do phone books, right?). I'm sure we'd make it work, but that would definitely be a curveball. It's more fun and we find weirder stuff when we just pick something arbitrarily and it turns out to be way out of left field.
What are some memorable books you've worked with? Is there a formula for choosing a good book to work with?
ALISON: The best ones are the weird ones. Fish Won't Let Me Sleep had a lot of passages about spawning patterns, which is just about the deepest well in comedy, so that was great.
AMALIA: Fish Won't Let Me Sleep, FOR SURE. I think if anything, the formula is just to not overthink it. If you just pick that random historical fiction novel your uncle gave you that one Christmas that you've never read, odds are good that's gonna be the real winner.
I recall being intimidated before I attended my first improv show. Do you have any advice for SRoB readers who are considering coming to your show who have maybe never attended an improv show before?
ALISON: There is nothing worse than invasive improv. Having a stranger demand you answer questions and possibly get onstage is THE WORST THING EVER, and it's okay to hate things that are invasive and terrible. A good performer will always ask, will never touch, and isn't going to bother you if you don't want to be bothered with. Volunteering a friend never works either -- that's always a cue for me to swoop up the obnoxious friend who did the pointing.
The good news is that you won't have to worry about that with our show! Seattle's please-don't-talk-to-me attitude applies to our improv scene, too, and the nice thing about improv in the Pacific Northwest is that in our theatrical community we like our shows to feel like plays (it's something that really sets our scene apart from the rest of the country). If we can make you forget we never memorized lines, we've succeeded. All you need to know if you see our show is that at the beginning we'll ask the audience if they would like to let us borrow a physical book for an hour. We'll collect the book, and then the show will start! And we'll never ask you a question again for the rest of the show! Hooray! A good rule of thumb in improv is that you don't need to yell unless someone on the stage asks the audience a question. We also recommend the audience buy some wine from the concession stand and drink along - it'll only make us funnier. Come expecting to watch a play, because that's what unscripted theatre is!
AMALIA: Yes to all of that so much. There is nothing worse than improv that tasks the audience with making the show funny or not. Being part of a show is great! Being part of a show against your will is awful. If you come to Book Club, you should feel kind of like you're just sitting in on a meeting of a real book club that just happens to be with the kind of people who know the difference between a decent fumé blanc and trash, and prioritize the health of their nail beds over real literary analysis or personal reflection. It's a really good time.
The last Saturday in this month, April 28th, is Independent Bookstore Day - a celebration of books and the small businesses that celebrate literary culture year round. We'll have a lot to say about Independent Bookstore Day over the course of the month, but we thought we'd begin the conversation by talking with two owners of smaller local bookstores - Jenny Cole of Burien's Page 2 Books, and Annie Carl of Bothell's Neverending Bookshop - about their plans for the day, what they've been reading, and why independent bookselling is so important to them.
Do you have anything special planned for Independent Bookstore Day?
We do. We always like to have authors come in the store, so that day we have three different authors.
And are those reading, or signings, or are they both?
They're signings, and they'll be working here in the store. Generally what we do - it's my favorite way to authors in - we just have a table set up with their books and information about them, and then they wander around and talk to customers about what they're reading, and about their books. It's just very relaxed, informal.
We will also have lots of giveaways that day. We've got a couple of tables set up with [advance reader copies], as well as book bags, books that we're giving away, some merchandise. So everybody that comes in and shops here will get a little something to take home with them.
What's a book you've read recently that you've loved?
The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater is one that I absolutely love. It's a true story - young adult. Our book club read it, and I think everybody in the book club really enjoyed it. It's kind of a shocking book in what it deals with, but it's so well written. It's been winning lots of awards.
Why do independent bookstores matter to you?
I think it's very important. We had somebody place an order the other day - she lives in Illinois, and called our store because she was getting a book for her granddaughter who lives here.
And she sent a note shortly after placing the order saying, "these are the reasons why I love shopping independent." She called in the order, she got the book that she wanted, we wrapped it for her, we talked to her about the purchase. It was more than pressing a button on a computer or calling a big warehouse where maybe the person that answers the phone doesn't read or doesn't know about the books.
I just think the experience that people have is so different in an independent book store - as it is for any small business. I love to frequent small businesses because you get the personal experience.
Do you have anything special planned for Independent Bookstore Day?
Since the shop is so small, doing like really big activities is not much of an option, so instead I've got authors lined up pretty much all day; Laurie Thompson, who's a children's book author, will be there from ten to noon; and then Paul Boulet who self-published his book The Serial Murders of Mars, will be there noon to two. Jeff J. Peters - who wrote Cathadeus, which is a fantasy novel - he'll be there two to four; and then my friend Rachel who is a self-published author also is going to be there four to six. She'll basically help us close up the day.
And then in addition to that, we're going to be stamping passports, ringing books, and we're going to have book trivia again this year. That's the one activity we had last year, and it went really, really well. We have prizes - posters, advance reader's copies, other bookish swag for Indie Bookstore Day.
What's a book you've read recently that you've loved?
I'm currently in the middle of In The Country by Mia Alvar. It's short stories about the Philippines. But before that I read a book called Fat: The Anthropology of an Obsession, and it's thirteen essays about what being fat means around the world. Twelve anthropologists and one fat activist - as she proclaims herself to be - wrote essays for the book, and it's stunning. It totally put my body image issues, and our current cultural body image issues, in perspective. And it's kind of outside of what I usually read; I usually read science fiction, fantasy, and lots of young adult and children's books. So this was kind of something new for me and I really, really enjoyed it.
Why do independent bookstores matter to you?
I've always been an independent bookseller. I started working as a bookseller when I was fifteen and I just - boy, it's such a loaded question and it's such an easy question and such a hard question all kind of wrapped into one.
Indie Bookstore Day for me is just a major celebration of bookstores and all of the marvelous things that we stand for -promoting free thought, promoting new ideas, promoting banned books, fighting censorship, promoting all of these different authors who maybe wouldn't have a platform if we weren't available to give them that platform.
Indie bookstores are still well-known for promoting our local community. I'm the only bookstore in a two- or three-mile radius, and so I have a solid customer base of people that can walk to my shop. They're families that walk down to the bookstore, and to the cafe to get some coffee, and that's what community bookstores are.
Those dollars that come into the shop go directly towards feeding my family and my child, and they also go toward the education process that we do at the store. We help people talk about why books are important to them - even if it's a science fiction novel or a fantasy novel, or a romance novel, it brings new ideas to them. It's more important to have a free-thinking society now more than ever, and I think indie book stores help keep our nation and our world free-thinking.
For me, being an indie bookseller and running an indie bookstore is really important to make sure that everyone has a chance to present their thoughts and ideas. Whether it's self-published or traditionally published, or whether you're coming into a bookstore and picking up a book you didn't think you were gonna read before - that's what I exist for.
It's definitely been more than six months since three Seattle independent presses - Mount Analogue, Cold Cube Press, and Gramma Poetry - took up residence in the XYZ Gallery in Pioneer Square to form a publishing house/bookstore/art gallery. But when I sit down to talk with Mount Analogue founder Colleen Louise Barry, she has trouble figuring out exactly how long the space has been open.
Cold Cube co-founder Aidan Fitzgerald does the math on his fingers. They've been running for eight months. Barry explodes: "Eight months! That both feels correct and incorrect."
What are some of their favorite events that have happened in the space so far? "The BDSM opera actually was a big surprise," Barry says, "because I sort of felt like this is either going to be an enormous failure or people are going to get it. The idea of charging people money for tickets kind of always freaked me out, but people were into it. So maybe we will do more stuff like that."
Fitzgerald reflects on a more recent event. "Colleen and I had a class of students come last week and check out Mount Analogue and the Cold Cube space and that was really, really fun." He enjoyed showing off the Risograph press and the bookmaking process. "We want to do more workshops," Fitzgerald says, "to teach people bookmaking and book design and, you know, why you have to have a title page and why page one starts on the right, and things like that." Additionally, he says, having the room to physically assemble the books is vital: "We're putting out a book a month and we wouldn't be able to do that without this space."
When I ask what the biggest challenge of operating a new space is, Barry doesn't even hesitate a second before blurting out "money." She laughs at her own answer. "Money, and also expectations - everything that you want to happen that maybe you can't make happen, or don't know how to make happen but wish you could. It's all part of having a physical space. It exists and takes up room, and that's a big responsibility."
Fitzgerald feels the responsibility, too. The space, he says, "legitimizes all of our operations and it also raises the bar for what we're doing and how we're doing."
There are some big changes in store for the last third of the first year in the space: Cold Cube and Mount Analogue are teaming up to take over Gramma. What does that mean for the future of the press?
"We're starting a monthly newsletter called The Monthly Gramma, which is a physical newsletter that's Risograph-printed by Cold Cube press," Barry explains. The newsletter is "designed by [Cold Cube co-founder] Michael [Heck], who's our lead designer. It's going to be mailed out, and it will have a bunch of really amazing shit on it." She's not kidding; the beta test of the newsletter is a beautifully printed broadsheet featuring a giant poem broadside on one side and then an array of material - poems, interviews, quotes, trivia, event information - artfully arranged on the other.
Barry says the Weekly Gramma email newsletter is getting an update, too: "we want to transform it into more of a magazine that has a lot of varied content including video work and criticism and poetry and visual work." (You can read an archive of the Weekly Gramma or sign up for the email on the press's website.)
So what's next for the physical space? On April 5th and 12th, Barry is hosting a performance by Jess Joy called "The Singing Mime", which she says is "more akin to modern dance then pantomime - more an expression of narrative through movement." The event includes spoken word and music and dance and a papier-mâché installation that's being built especially for the event.
Cold Cube is hosting its own event during Art Walk on the 5th. They'll be celebrating the publication of Behind Is Late, a book by Spanish artist Cynthia Alfonso. Fitzgerald calls it "a resonant poem-comic about anxiety and the fear of a tomorrow that is constantly happening today." Cold Cube will be showing prints from the book and an animated video project co-produced by Alfonso.
Fitzgerald says Behind Is Late "is one of the most, if not the most, Cold Cube book we've ever made, in that it's kind of a comic, it's kind of one long poem, and the pages themselves stand alone, like beautiful drawings." Fitzgerald says the book is "my conception of what art books and art comics can do. This can only be done in this form. You cannot make it into a movie, you cannot make it a song. It's beautiful because it's a book, which is what Michael [Heck] and I have really tried to make with Cold Cube."
The book, he says, is an "argument for books."
There's a lot more to come from the publishers: they're preparing a blockbuster quarterly reading series in conjunction with a few stalwart Seattle arts organizations that Barry says is intended to "get people in the seats that might not otherwise go to a poetry reading." (If the first lineup comes together as Barry promises, you will be attending this one.) And they're working with Vignettes to put together a citywide art project for May that incorporates public art and words and audience participation.
It's exhausting just hearing about their plans, but Barry and Fitzgerald seem ready to get to work. Sitting there at a large table in the Cold Cube offices, with two large Risograph printers ready to be put to service, they're in exactly the right place to make all their big ideas happen.
Our March Poet in Residence, Julene Tripp Weaver, is right now having a moment. This month, she's reading multiple times all over the region and her most recent poetry collection, Truth be bold — Serenading life & death in the age of AIDS was nominated for a Lambda Award. She's squeezing more activity into the month of March than most poets in Seattle manage to do in a year. But Weaver isn't an overnight success; she's been quietly putting out and reading quality work in Seattle for a couple of decades, and she'll keep writing and reading even when the spotlight moves to another poet for a while. Weaver was gracious enough to make some time to talk with us about her career, her moment, and what's next.
I've known you for more than 15 years now! You used to read at the open mic I hosted at Elliott Bay Book Company from 2002 to 2008. Even then, you seemed like a confident and talented poet.
When I lived in New York, I did readings. After moving west, because of the process of resettling and going back to school for my Masters, readings were not a priority. But I was writing - mostly in my journal. At a birthday party I attended, a biker made a statement: "If you're a biker you've got to ride." I translated that sentence to, "If you are a writer, you've got to read."
It was one of those light bulb moments, and I started reading publicly again in May 2002. Elliott Bay was my favorite venue because of your gracious hosing style: inclusive, supportive, fun, and welcoming to anyone who wanted to read. I appreciated that it was a full range of literature, not simply poetry, and that your venue in Pioneer Square created a community. The two highlights for me was the haiku challenge you sponsored and subsidized, and during intermissions when you read your writing. I met so many people I am still in touch with at those open mikes. Your nurturance of writers and independent bookstores is a gift you give to Seattle.
That's unbelievably nice of you. Thank you. Can you talk a little bit about your journey into poetry?
My undergraduate is in Creative Writing, with an emphasis on Poetry, from the City University of New York, I primarily chose Hunter College to study with Audre Lorde; but the City University of New York (CUNY) also gave me the opportunity to study at Brooklyn College with Joan Larkin. This was back in the early 80s and I was returning to school for writing because my early desire to write was squelched by family and circumstances. I had to leave home, and had a career as a laboratory technician for fourteen years. When I moved to Seattle, I went back to school for a Masters in Family Therapy, so my first years living here were full.
In 2016, Dustin Brookshire, a poet who edited a journal in Atlanta, invited me to write a piece about my writing history for his blog.
Your poetry seems, to me, to be inextricable from the work you did for many years as a medical HIV/AIDS case manager.
Do you think poetry helped you cope with what must have been a very difficult job?
Yes. I worked in AIDS services for 21 years, 18 of them as a case manager, and writing helped me with the work because any social work evokes secondary trauma, and writing is healing.
This job was a perfect fit because I was in a Family Therapy Master of Arts program at LIOS (Leadership Institute of Seattle), and was looking for work that was meaningful. I wanted to work with people living with HIV/AIDS because I knew I was positive. This job gave me an opportunity to serve a community I was part of and to learn as much as possible, which was one of my goals for self-preservation.
At Hunter, Professor Louise DeSalvo, PhD, became a strong mentor. Two of her books, Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives, and The Art of Slow Writing, document a psychological study by James Pennebaker, which show that writing heals trauma. In my private practice, I use writing as an assignment to create a new narrative, and to ease loss and grief. There are many interests I've pursued that inform my writing, self-healing, and therapy practice: dreams, body work, herbal and alternative medicine, which I use for myself and with others toward healing.
Do you think your job provided necessary inspiration as a poet?
The work provided a very rich field for persona poems, elegies, and to process emotions and experience. At that time, I was writing for the Health Corner Column, a newsletter for the Babes Network, a peer support organization for women, which I helped found. I wrote articles on how to support the immune system using prevention with food and herbs.
My first AIDS poem came to the page in a Continuum Movement Poetry in Motion Intensive in 1996. The AIDS poems flowed out of me after that intensive, so yes, my work inspired much writing. But I also write on other topics. My second book, No Father Can Save Her, is autobiographical, with many poems on growing up in New York City during the sexual revolution, interracial relationships, grief from the loss of my father, and mental illness.
I believe there are wells inside us to be uncovered. When my mother died last year, I wrote many mother poems; after I traveled to Istanbul I wrote about that experience, my poem "Istanbul Secrets" won 2nd Prize in the InterBoards June 2015 contest, judged blind by Lesley Wheeler; another poem was published this year in the Bosphorus Journal, an English language Turkish journal. Any experience provides fodder for a poet or writer.
Who do you like to read?
Reading has been one of my favorite indulgences since childhood. To make a list in different genres would be way too long, and miss too many good writers, so I'll just give a recent book or so in each category. There are so many excellent writers.
Poets: Most recent is Tara Hardy's book My, My, My, My, My. Before that I read Lana Hechtman Ayers, The Four Quarters, an homage to T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets; Tina Schumann's Requiem a Patrimony of Fugues; and Jesse Minkert's chapbook Rookland.
I'm working on a memoir and love to read about people's lives. I'm slowly reading Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature, edited by Meredith Maran. This is a topic I think about a lot with my recent book revealing my status for the first time publically. Also, David Wojnarowicz's Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, and Tom Hansen's American Junkie. Earlier, Elizabeth Alexander's The Light of the World, which was incredible.
For fiction, Kiese Laymon's Long Division; John Treat's The Rise and Fall of the Yellow House, set in Seattle about the early AIDS epidemic; I discovered Richard Wagamese when I visited a friend in Canada and read Ragged Company; I'm looking forward to Amber Dawn's new novel, Sodom Road Exit; and of course anything by Tom Spanbauer or the Dangerous Writers.
And for essays, Mary Ruefle's Madness, Rack, and Honey and Mary Gaitskill's Somebody with a Little Hammer.
In fall 2017, I read along with a class syllabus! Professor Patrick Horrigan taught my book in an English Honors class at Long Island University-Brooklyn. The class, "How to Survive a Plague: Art and Literature in the Age of AIDS," used David France's book, which I had already read. I am deeply honored that my book was taught alongside his. I met with the class through Skype for an hour and forty minutes to answer their 27 questions, which were sent to me in advance. After our time ended, they had more questions, so I responded with a letter. This semester he is teaching, "You Always Hurt the One You Love": A Survey on American Literature, and using individual poems from my book next to Walt Whitman poems written in 1865, when he nursed injured Civil War soldiers. My case management experience during the epidemic is comparable.
I read many books about HIV/AIDS and gay history. Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore's That's Revolting!: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation; Martin Duberman's Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, and the Battlefield of AIDS.
For psychology books: I have studied Sensorimotor Psychotherapy. A few authors I've read extensively are Pat Ogden, David Siegel, and Stan Tatkin.
I am active on Goodreads, recording and commenting on books. I mark as "to read" far more books than I'll ever have time to finish. It is a resource that helps me remember books and helps me focus. Like most readers, I have a pile of books waiting to be read and a constant urge to buy more. I've been using the library lately and have stopped cold turkey going to the Friends of the Library sales. With so many writer friends it is hard not to buy books.
You're having a very busy month this month! Can you tell us a little about what you're working on?
This past year I have been busy promoting my book, which came out in April 2017. I gave many readings including one in New York City at the Bureau of General Services-Queer Division, housed in the Lesbian and Gay Center, which is where the LIU professor heard me read. This month I had three readings: one a webinar for Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, one at Soul Food Books for the Ice Cream Anthology, and one at Open Books with Tara Hardy. On April 26th I will read in Portland, OR, at Another Read Through bookstore with Penelope Scambly Schott, and Christopher Luna. Later this summer, July 7th, I will host an Ice Cream Anthology reading at Poetry in the Park (Marymoor).
This year I sent my book out to contests, which has been expensive but fruitful. My book is a Finalist for the Bisexual Book Awards, and for the 30th Annual Lambda Literary Award. I'm heading east to attend these two gala events. As a native New Yorker, I'm always thrilled to go back east. Also, it is nominated for The Golden Crown Literary Society Awards.
Truth be bold is a beautiful book with good poetry and a stunning cover. The art is by Duane Kirby Jensen, whose art also graces my second book's cover. I'm grateful to have the perfect art to match my words on all three of my books.
I'm in two writing groups. One has been ongoing since 2003 after a Tom Spanbauer week at Haystack in Cannon Beach, Oregon. We bring prose pages for feedback, which we read out loud; and I am in a poetry critique dyad with a poet who was part of a long-term poetry group. The group dissolved when several members moved.
As my current book promotion energy shifts, I will work on my memoir and pull together another poetry manuscript from my body of published and unpublished poems, diving into the process to find the themes and arch that makes a book. So, I have two more books to develop.
Do you see a difference between the performance of poetry and the writing of poetry, or do you write the pieces to be read aloud?
Writing is a physical act, it is embodied, so I read my work out loud. Writing is meant to be voiced and heard. When I revise I read my poem out loud over and over to get the rhythm coming through that particular poem. After I did my first "Poetry in Motion" movement intensive I loved it so much I ran workshops for ten years including a series at Cancer Lifeline. So yes, writing poetry is connected to the verbal: in the workshops, breath and audible breath (sound) is used to alter our internal space and then see what evolves. It is hand-to-page work so the line and images are as important as the writing that comes because in is energy in the body that is moving.
Do you have any performance idols?
My performance idols are Patricia Smith, Anne Devere Smith, and Tara Hardy. I took a performance workshop with Tara at a Poetry in the Park years ago.
Before I left New York, an actor friend coached me in reading to an audience. I appreciate feedback to improve my readings, and believe writers needs oratory skills to do their work justice. I remember the first time I read at Elliott Bay you commented that I had reading skills. And I did. I do not take reading my work lightly because it is how the work is felt, people need to hear it and respond at a gut level. Audre Lorde would ask after someone read, "How do you feel?" I'm aware I can improve, I tend to have a low voice, so I prefer to read with a microphone.
Alan LaMont, the owner of Ballard's The Grumpy Old Man's Comics, Art, and Collectibles doesn't come across as a grumpy old man. He's downright chipper, in fact, and he's got the youthful vigor and charm of someone who's finally living a life he's been dreaming about for decades.
After years "working in corporate America" in Rochester New York and dreaming of the Pacific Northwest, LaMont finally moved to Seattle on Labor Day of 2017. He brought his enormous, high-quality comics collection - about 200 boxes - along with him, and he set about fulfilling another longtime dream: opening a comic shop/art gallery. LaMont has some experience working in a gallery, and he's attended comics conventions his whole life, but he'd never owned a space before. "I didn't want to work for a company anymore," LaMont says, "so I thought I'd combine the two things that I love." The store officially opened on the day after Thanksgiving.
LaMont is an artist. He paints as a hobby, but he has primarily worked in linocut art since he was 12. (A whole wall at Grumpy Old Man's Comics displays his work for sale.) He likes the way linocut changes his thought process: in order to create good prints "you have to think mirrored and positive-to-negative." It took him a long time to get into the mindset of a linocut artist, but now "I have a clear thought process."
That explains the gallery part, but why a comic book store? "I learned how to read on comics," LaMont explains. His grandmother was a teacher, and when she noticed his love of superhero cartoons, she bought him a batch of comics and helped him work through them. "She had me reading at four years of age," LaMont says. He's been reading comics ever since.
Grumpy Old Man's Comics is located right off Market Street. The shop is split into three distinct rooms. When you walk in, you're standing in the middle of the room with new and recent comics. To your left is a room of classic and collectible comics, ranging all the way back to the 1960s. And to the right is the gallery, with affordable prints and a rotating display of artists. The shop is an eager participant in both Ballard Art Walk, on the second Saturday of the month, and Ballard Night Out every third Thursday.
LaMont is thrilled with the response the comics side of the business has seen since he opened. When he started the shop, LaMont says, "I was thinking that probably the artwork side of it would be the easier sell of the two, and that it would take a while to get my comic book business built up. It's proven to be the opposite," he says. "The comics are already on the verge of carrying the business."
Grumpy Old Man's offers discounts of up to 30 percent for subscribers, and LaMont is developing a regular clientele. Some of the new subscribers are likely orphans of Seattle comics-shop attrition: Ballard hasn't had a comics shop since Arcane Comics moved to Shoreline a couple years ago, and downtown's Zanadu Comics closed last month.
LaMont wants curious Seattleites to know that Grumpy Old Man's is "a rather eclectic mix of things, not a typical comics store and not a typical art gallery." To draw in more new customers, the store is having a sizable back issue sale on Saturday, March 31st from 10 am to 6 pm. There's something for everyone in the shop: LaMont is creating a space where different styles of art - disparate styles that fifty years ago would have been dismissed as "low" and lauded as "high" - can live under the same roof.
Last week, Greenwood bookstore Couth Buzzard launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise $9,500 in order to keep the store going. Owner Theo Dzielak announced that the store needed the money to address "sharp increases in rent, license fees and taxes, supporting our employees with fair wages, the effects of new health and environmental regulations, the ongoing need to repair and replace aging equipment, and many other costs."
The store is now more than halfway to the goal. I called Dzielak to discuss the campaign and the Buzzard's future. "I'm happy with the way it's going," Dzielak tells me. Even though "it's not the easiest thing to do to ask for money," he admits, "we've been building community for a long time and I knew people would step up."
Finding items to sell for the fundraiser was easy, Dzielak says. "A number of local authors stepped forward and donated copies of their books: Peter Mountford, Nick Licata, and David Shields. I know a lot of local artists and they donated paintings and pottery - they all stepped forward and said 'how can we help?'"
Dzielak notes that sales at the Couth Buzzard increased last year, and continue to climb. The money from the GoFundMe will help the Buzzard invest back into the store to meet the customer demand. For years, Buzzard has carried a mixture of used and new books. Over the last few years, customers have gravitated more toward the new titles, and Dzielak intends to invest in a larger collection of new books to make his stock more relevant. Additionally, the funds will support "bringing new products to the café and support other advertising and increase the slate of events."
Owning a bookstore and community center, Dzielak says, is "an experiment every day." He's proud of the Buzzard's loaded events schedule, which includes book clubs, open mics, musical performances, and readings. This Saturday, the Buzzard is hosting a cabaret tribute to Ursula K. LeGuin featuring Scott Katz, Jeffrey Robert, Lydia Swartz, David Fewster, Matt Price, Arni Adler and Kathleen Tracy. Dzielak is also looking forward to the launch party for Sibyl James's new book Hard Goods & Hot Platters on March 22nd. The wide variety of events, Dzielak says, confirms that the Buzzard is "not just a bookstore. It's a community where art is made."
Love and Rockets co-creator Jaime Hernandez is a guest at Emerald City Comic Con this weekend, but he can't visit Seattle without a visit to his lifelong publisher, Fantagraphics Books. This Saturday at 7 pm, Hernandez will be signing books and talking with fans at a free event in the Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery in Georgetown to celebrate the release of a deluxe artist edition portfolio highlighting his creative process as a cartoonist.
Hernandez's latest Love and Rockets collection, Angels and Magpies, continues the story of the popular characters he's been writing and drawing since 1981, but it also brings something new to the equation. Hernandez spends an extended sequence in the book on a superhero adventure with all the trappings - spandex, capes, fistfights, creepy demons, powers, the works.
"The superhero story came about because we had changed formats," Hernandez tells me over the phone. "We changed the size of [Love and Rockets] and I needed to fill 50 pages in a year. I had never done it all at once, before," he said. The superhero comic was originally intended to be "just a side project," he says, but he worked it into the larger Love and Rockets story.
Hernandez's enthusiasm for the story is apparent on every single page of the book. "It kind of wrote itself," Hernandez says. "I was having a lot of fun. I guess you could say it was kind of a new approach."
When I ask if Gary Groth - Fantagraphics Books' publisher and an avowed hater of mainstream superhero comics - would have published these superhero strips back in the 1990s, when Groth was most avidly raging against the machine, Hernandez laughs. "I think he would, yeah," he says. Groth, Hernandez says, has always given Hernandez and his brother Gilbert a wide berth in their Love and Rockets work. Groth "doesn't step on our toes that way. If we do something a little oddball and he doesn't like it, I just don't hear from him for a couple years."
Is Hernandez content to keep working on Love and Rockets comics? I bring up Peter Bagge, a contemporary of the Hernandez brothers who has found a successful and surprising second act as a biographer of important women in history. Does Hernandez have any books that he'd like to work on outside of the world he's created?
"I prefer to stay in my little universe and help the characters grow old," he tells me. "If there's anything I want to tackle, it usually will fit in there. I'm getting older, you know, and I just want to see what happens with my characters. And so I concentrate on them as real people and try to figure out, 'okay, what are you going to be at 60?'"
Hernandez says he's fully committed to his characters, but he still experiences a lot of doubt as an artist. "Every issue I draw, I have to have a hate period in there where I can't get through it. I have to argue with myself: 'is this worth it? Is this worth everyone's time? Is this worth my time? Is this good art?' And part of me is going, 'no it ain't, old man.'"
In the end, Hernandez says, "I come to this compromise with the five people in my head and then I say, 'okay, it's good enough - or good enough for now."
"Next time I'll get it right," he says.
"I started writing poetry in eighth grade," our February Poet in Residence, Azura Tyabji, tells me over the phone. She'd always considered herself a writer - she wrote and assembled her own books as a child, and she participated in the school paper as soon as she could - but "I never really considered myself a poet." It was an assignment to read a poem in a student showcase that inspired her. She credits her language arts teachers for "validating that yes, what I was writing was, in fact, poetry, and that it deserved an audience."
Tyabji continued to write poetry, but a couple years after her first reading, she became involved with the local writing organization Youth Speaks, and then everything became clear. At first, she attended a poetry slam and she found the competitive atmosphere to be too intimidating to participate, "but then I went to an open mic and it was one of the most welcoming, beautiful, nurturing communities that I'd ever witnessed. And I decided I want to join this beautiful community and give back to it and be a part of it." She's been a part of Youth Speaks ever since.
Ask Tyabji what poets she's reading right now and she enthusiastically supplies a list of names. "Locally, Tara Hardy is someone that I've been reading again and again and again, and I just want to see Anastacia-Renee speak at the Seattle Public Library." The two poets inspire Tyabji as performers, as writers, and as people. "I'm just in awe of how they craft their imagery and I think that they both really have this whimsical style that I hope to learn from," she says. And she reads the work of Washington State Poet Laureate Claudia Castro Luna "whenever I want to be inspired to observe my city."
Nationally, Tyabji is a big fan of spoken word artist Olivia Gatwood, whose 2017 collection New American Best Friend is a big influence on her work. "She writes very intimately about girlhood - she writes about period panties, and she has a poem called 'Ode to my Bitch Face.' She's so bold in how she describes and prioritizes girls." From Gatwood, Tyabji is learning how to "uplift women and girls to fight against shame."
Tyabji is a writer on the verge of a big shift. She's graduating high school this June, and she's staying in Seattle for her gap year before heading to a college that is "probably out of state." Is she concerned about leaving her community behind? "I'll be really sad to let Youth Speaks Seattle go when it is my time to leave," she says. "But I know that the community here will keep growing and keep preserving itself and also find new paths, and I can always come back and visit."
She has no doubt that she'll be able to find a community of poets no matter where she goes. "What I've learned for myself is that I can't write poetry alone. I'm always absorbing what other people have taught me, and I think that's how we all work as poets: absorbing and is being influenced by each other," Tyabji says.
But no matter where she ends up, Tyabji knows where her roots are. "I consider myself a Seattle poet," she says. "Not just because I was born here and grew up here, but because I try to write about my city, especially with how it's changing, how it's being transformed into a city that's not necessarily friendly to the same people that have lived here for a long time," both through gentrification and institutional racism.
"But I'm trying to challenge myself to write about what I love about the city. Yesterday I just watched a poem by Laura 'Piece' Kelly called 'Central District.'," Tyabji says. "She writes so lovingly about her community in the Central District and about growing up in Seattle, and that's something I want to challenge myself to remember as well: although the city has so many things that it needs to work on, there is beauty in it as well."
Tyabji sets a lot of goals for herself. She wants to do writing residencies, and publish a chapbook, and learn how to teach poetry. She's currently starting to co-teach a class on slam poetry at her high school, and she says "I can't wait to see what I'll discover about my own work when I teach others."
When Tyabji reads her own work, she radiates an air of confidence that many poets twice her age will never be able to muster. What's her secret? "When I'm preparing to share a poem for the first time, I really sit down with what I have written and I read it over - in my head first and then out loud."
As her own first audience, she says, "I read the poem until I really am confident that this piece brings me joy." And it's important "when you're sharing your work with other people to go somewhere where you're surrounded by people that love you unconditionally. Find your community - even if it's small. I'm really blessed to have the Youth Speaks community, and we really give love to every poet."
Tyabji likes to remember that all poets have anxiety about their work. "We're never going to get to a point where we're not anxious, where we're a hundred percent confident about anything. I could choose to despair over that fact, or I can use it as a motivator," she says.
"I think it's great that I will never be perfect," Tyabji says. "I think I can learn so much from that. I can always keep challenging myself."
A little over a week ago, I moderated a panel on DIY culture for Literary Career Day at the Seattle Public Library downtown. The panel conversation was between myself, author Jeffrey Cheatham of the Seattle Urban Book Expo, and poet Rita Wirkala of Seattle Escribe, but many of the dozens of young aspiring authors in the room took part in the conversation, which covered a wide array of topics.
Cheatham talked about his surprising success with the first Urban Book Expo, and his current attempts to turn the festival into "an actual movement, a culture" that represents writers and readers of color in Seattle. Wirkala discussed her history as a writer and a publisher and a published poet, as well as her work with Escribe, which she describes as an organization featuring readings, "classes, and workshops for people who are writing" in the Seattle area.
Most of the questions centered around how they manged to build a community, and how they kept the community going once it got started. Wirkala said "I'm not very good at finding people, but people have found me" because she kept herself available as a publisher and a writer. Putting her name out and maintaining a presence in the city meant that like-minded could easily find her. As to maintaining the community, she attributes that to the "self-generated energy" created when "you find people who are on the same wavelength and you fit with them."
Cheatham said when he created the first Expo, he went on a listening tour. "I listened to potential clients, because they'll tell you what you're looking for when they go to events," and then he took it upon himself to "mold the show to fit what they wanted." And in order to more than double the size of the second Expo, he says he kept his ears open after the first one. "I just listened to my customers. They told me what they wanted."
Putting on an event is hard work, Cheatham notes, but if you listen and create a space, people "as human beings want to find something they can call their own and work together on." Everyone's looking for their people, and they're willing to work to keep their community together.
Those groups are important for writers and publishers, Wirkala agreed, because "when you write, or when you're engaging with work, you are too close to it as an idea. You always need somebody to help you" gain some distance from the work. "And you learn a lot from other people who are in the same field. That's really important," she added.
Earlier this month, Lisa Rosenblum had her first day on the job as the King County Library System Director. Rosenblum has worked in libraries across the country, but she’s taking the helm of an especially vibrant library system in KCLS.
King County Library System seems well-positioned for the future. Last year, digital reading platform Overdrive announced that King County led the nation in digital book checkouts, ahead of the systems for Los Angeles, New York, and even Seattle. In 2017, KCLS users checked out over four and a half million ebooks and digital audiobooks, but physical media hasn’t been left behind in the digital gold rush—over ten million visitors checked in to KCLS’s 49 branches, and they checked out some sixteen million non-digital-book items.
We talked on the phone with Rosenblum last week, to get a sense of where she’s from and what she wants to do at KCLS. The following transcript has been lightly edited.
What brought you into this line of work, and how you came to be interested in libraries? Do you have a librarian superhero origin story?
Well, I know you’re hoping for a romantic story, but I'm afraid mine came from a recession. I went to this fancy liberal arts school back east, called St. John's College, which is a great book school that gives you a liberal arts education in the most traditional sense — you study Ancient Greek, and you translate Sophocles, and you read the plays in the original language. It was an amazing education. But I got out during a time where there were no jobs, especially for overeducated liberal arts majors.
So, I started working. I got a job at a government contractor that provided library services to Army libraries. This was outside of Washington DC. Then, from there, I moved to Houston, married my husband, and got a job at Rice University, doing what we called, back then, cataloging. I knew from that point on that I never wanted to be a cataloger, because we had to file cards. I don't know how old you are, but I’m old enough to remember cards and card files.
Oh, sure. Yeah.
So, the big deal was, if you were good, you could drop your own cards. You know the little rods that went through the holes in the cards?
Well, when you did it correctly, you were allowed to pull out the little pole, have the cards drop down, and then the pole went through the hole in the bottom of the card, and that was it.
At Rice University, you were only allowed to do that if you never made a mistake filing. Well, in two years working there, I never could figure it out. I always had one or two mistakes, so I was never able to drop my own cards. So, long story short, I knew that this level of detail work was not my strong point.
So, fast-forward: we leave Houston, we're in California. Back then, California was hiring librarians without library degrees if they took tests, and I said, 'I'll never pass.' My husband encourages me: 'Oh, just take the test. Take the test.' So, I did, and I failed miserably on anything librarian-ish. But remember I told you I had that fancy liberal arts education? Well, I could match the author with the title of all these old Greek and Latin and Roman works, so I passed the test. Then I had an interview, and I got the job as a librarian.
I really loved it in the public library. This was before the internet. I really enjoyed helping people find answers, find information. This is back when these big reference books were behind us, and we could pull them down and find the answers to questions like, what was the average temperature in Prague in August? You just felt so empowered. I also was a youth librarian, and I did book talks. I'd go out to schools and talk about books in a very entertaining way, summarize them very dramatically.
So, I really learned to love the public library, and that's kind of how I got into it. It wasn't like I woke up one day and said, ‘I want to be a librarian.’ It wasn't that I met a librarian when I was in high school or when I was in elementary school and she made an impact. In fact, back then, librarians, I thought, were kind of mean. And they also would separate the children's areas from the adult's, so if you were a kid you were kind of isolated from things.
That's really how I got to be a librarian. From there, I progressively started to enjoy what I was doing. I worked for a big system, did basically everything in it, and then decided I wanted to be a director. I got a couple of different jobs as a director — including the last one as the director of the Brooklyn Public Library. Every time, I just really enjoyed what we do in our communities. I think that we really are very impactful and have done a great job in changing with what our community needs. The library I entered into more than 25 years ago is different than the one that we run now, but it's still the same. We still value books and reading and literacy, but we just do it in a different way, that's all.
So you mentioned Washington DC and Houston and California. Where are you from originally?
I originally was born in New Jersey, on the East Coast. Then, when I was 12, we moved to Virginia because my dad got a new job. Then, like the pioneers, I gradually made my way out west. I lived in California for most of my career, but I took up the opportunity to work for Brooklyn, because they recruited me.
So, I did that for two and a half years, and I decided that as much as I like New York, I'm a West Coast girl now.
And, of course, the King County Library System is known nationally as one of the best in the country.
I wanted to ask you what drew you to apply for the job at King County.
Well, first of all, King County has a national reputation of public support for libraries, and building beautiful libraries, and being really innovative. We were hearing about King County in California 20 years ago, when Bill Ptacek, the beloved leader of KCLS, had the insight to realize we were in the materials movement business. He knew we needed — this is back before digital — to be more efficient in how we move our materials around our system, and created that huge sorting machine in Preston. They've always been ahead of their time, and the community support for libraries is very desirable.
Plus, living here, this is a wonderful place. Or so I’ve heard. Because I've come at the worst of times, I'm told. It's dark when I go to work, it's dark when I leave. So I'm told this is a beautiful area, I just have to wait a couple of months.
Fortunately, I moved here from Brooklyn and not California. I think the change from California would have been too much for me, but I left in a blizzard from Brooklyn, so I’m used to variations in weather.
What are you reading right now?
Well, right now, I'm reading the classifieds to see where I can buy a condo here. I have to be honest with you, I have not been reading a lot since I moved here a week and a half ago. But, the last book I read was Manhattan Beach [by Jennifer Egan]. In Brooklyn, one of our libraries was in Manhattan Beach.I am very interested in reading regionally. I can't tell you what my favorite Seattle regional authors are, I'll be honest with you, but I'm looking forward to discovering them. The other nice thing about moving from Brooklyn to here is that New York City, in general, is a big reading community, and Seattle is too. So, it's great to go from one place to the other. People really like to read here.
Do you have people putting together a list of King County authors to check out, now that you're here?
Well, you know, I haven't asked them to do that. I've asked them to create a map of where all my libraries are. I'm starting there. But that's really a great idea.
I’ll be a patron and ask for a list of the 10 best books I should start reading to learn about Seattle.
Oh, man. If you'd like to come back and share that experience, I would love to talk to you about that, too. That sounds great. I know you haven't been to all of the libraries yet, are there any of the libraries that you think are especially nice in the King County region?
It's like asking who's my favorite child. Let me just say this: I'm very interested in the Skykomish library, the one that I can't get to in the winter.
I'm interested in that one because, first of all, it's in a beautiful area of the state, but, also, it really represents how important a rural library is to a community. It's got limited hours, but it's important that it's out there, that it's open for people. So, that's sort of my adventure library.
I'm starting to visit libraries this week. We're putting in a new maker space area in Bellevue, so that's going to be fun to go to in the next couple of weeks. We're basically creating a space where teens can create things. There'll be laser printers, and there'll be maker machines, and all sorts of stuff.
Oh, and I want to go to Vashon because I think it's so cool I have to take a ferry to get to one of my libraries.
So, yes, I'm looking forward to those, but those are kind of the cool adventure libraries. But, in general, I can't pick a favorite because the design of our libraries here is really amazing. Just the light — the recognition that it gets dark [in this part of the world] and just having all the light, even under the shelving, so that everything is so bright when you come in. It's very thoughtful. Our voters supported us to build new libraries and to renovate the existing ones, and I think we gave them a good bang for the buck here.
Do you have any priorities for your first few months at King County other than visiting the libraries?
Visiting, certainly. As I visit, I’ll be meeting with the staff. Also learning about the board, and working with the board.
And, of course, it's all about the budget — understanding the budget process, and really looking at the budget. How do we spend our money? What could we be doing differently? Just all the sort of basic stuff you do when you start a job.
I also said to the staff today, ‘when I'm visiting your libraries, I want the full King County experience. So where are the best coffee shops, the bakeries near where you are? Where would you go to lunch?’ I love to learn about the neighborhoods where our libraries are too, because they're all very different.
It just occurred to me that the Literary Lions fundraiser for the King County Library System Foundation is coming up in March. Are you going to be at that? Can people meet you there, if they attend the dinner?
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I need to find a dress for that.
What have you learned in your meetings with the staff? You have some great librarians out there in the King County system — I know from experience. Is there anything that the staff has really impressed you with, or is there anything that you learned that surprised you?
Well, first of all, I think our librarians are wonderful, but I also think our support staff — the people behind them, the people that are on the floor, that aren't librarians, our circulation people — are great. I think what impresses me is their service philosophy. They really love working with the public and serving them in the way they need to, and in a changing way.
I had a meeting this morning with staff that is very interested in how we're serving our diverse communities. They're interested in social equity. They really keep abreast on what's current in the library field, and what makes the most sense here. They're passionate about what they do. They're very, very passionate about their love of the profession and serving the public.
This week, Cascadia Magazine officially published its first online issue. The nonprofit publication promises to cover all of the Cascadian bioregion, and they look to publish "quality journalism, personal essays, arts coverage, environmental reporting, fiction, poetry, and photography you won’t find anywhere else." I talked with the Seattle-based publisher of Cascadia, Andrew Engelson, about why he's starting a magazine in 2018, and what he hopes to do with the publication.
Why start a magazine now? What sort of niche are you filling that's not already being filled?
It feels like an important time to pay attention to quality writing, to something that requires a more time to reflect on than a Twitter post. After the election of 2016, like many of us, I thought long and hard about what I could do that would actually make a difference.
Plus, I’d recently returned to Seattle after living overseas for seven years. And I realized I identified more with Seattle and the Pacific Northwest than I do as being American. In the course of my obsessive reading of the news, I noticed there wasn’t a publication that treated the region as a whole. You’ve got plenty of city magazines and alt-weeklies, and a wonderful assortment of literary journals and presses—but nothing that looks at Cascadia as a single cultural entity.
Uh, didn't you get the memo that magazines are dead?
Yeah, I’ve been notorious in my career for ignoring big trends. Like that time I blew a chance to pursue a job at Amazon in 1997 when they had twelve employees.
But anyhow, I’m very aware that a ton of newspapers and online magazines have folded in the past few years. And the crazy thing is, I believe it’s an exciting time for writing and creative expression. You can do a lot with a small budget, which is why top-heavy media organizations are struggling. I’m optimistic because the Pacific Northwest has no shortage of great readers and talented writers—the trick is finding a financially sustainable way to connect them.
What are you looking for in submissions?
I’m for an eclectic mix: my only standards are that something be well-written and explore an important issue in some depth. I’ve started working with freelance journalists on stories that have a longer shelf life than what you’d normally find at the dailies and alt-weeklies. In terms of essays and fiction—it shouldn’t be too long, and have a sense of urgency and timeliness. As for poetry I’m not committed to any particular style; just that it connects readers in some way to the intensity of experience. Also, I’m committed to seeking out a variety of voices, whether it’s writers who are women, LGBTQ, indigenous, or people of color. Plus I’m interested in hearing from people who live in rural areas or who aren’t from the upper middle class.
What does Cascadia mean to you? The term has been embraced by a bunch of different groups. What are you trying to say with the name?
For me, Cascadia is a bioregion that stretches from Northern California to Southeast Alaska, from the coasts of Washington and Oregon to the mountains of Idaho. It’s a region of 15 million people from many different cultures and experiences. I’m really interested in communicating across that border on the 49th parallel — I find it amazing that people in Seattle know more about the politics and artistic culture of New York City than they do about Vancouver, a city just three hours to the north—and vice-versa. There are a lot of issues that we share in common—the environment being one obvious example. If you have an oil spill in Anacortes, it’s going to effect salmon runs in the Fraser River. As for the Cascadia movement, I’m not especially interested in any sort of political independence, but rather connecting people across an arbitrary boundary.
If they like what they see when they visit your site, what should readers do if they want to support you?
Well, first, we’d love readers to read what we publish. Second, sign up for our free newsletter, Cascadia Daily, which curates news and culture from across the region, and where we’ll let people know when new pieces are published on Cascadia Magazine. And if you like what we’re doing, by all means please go to the website and make a donation. If we want nice things, it’s up to us to financially support the people who create them.
Image from the C&P Coffee Company website.
For the entirety of its four-year existence, the Words West Literary series has been housed out of an independent West Seattle coffee shop called the C&P Coffee Company. Words West cofounder Susan Rich tells me over the phone that “C&P was the obvious place for us to hold these events because it's the heart of the community of West Seattle —not just the literary community, but the music community, the political activism community, the small business community.”
“That place is [Words West’s] heart,” Rich says, “so it has been really upsetting to get the news.” For 15 years, C&P has operated out of a cozy house on California Avenue; earlier this month, C&P’s landlords put the property on the market for 1.2 million dollars. The owners of the coffee shop were taken by surprise by this development, and they have started a GoFundMe to raise the down payment.
Rich says that C&P has been a “fantastic,” generous host for the series, graciously housing a bookshelf full of books from every author who has attended a Words West reading through the years. So now Words West is trying to return the favor. At tonight’s event, Words West will be collecting donations to add to C&P’s GoFundMe campaign.
“Once a neighborhood loses it soul, it's impossible to get it back again.”
“[C&P owners] Pete and Cam [Moores] have given so much of themselves to their neighbors,” Rich says. They’ve raised money for neighbors who lost their homes to fire, and Rich says that in addition to the readings and live music and community conversations, C&P has hosted “weddings, birthday parties, funerals and book launches.” For a neighborhood-specific reading series like Words West, which bills itself as a celebration of West Seattle literature, Rich says protecting C&P is more than just the right thing to do—it’s a call to arms. “Once a neighborhood loses it soul, it's impossible to get it back again,” she tells me.
Tonight’s very special Words West reading features Seattle-area librarian, literacy advocate, and novelist Nancy Pearl. Rich says she paired Pearl with another venerable Seattle literary figure: “Susan Landgraf is a poet, and a fiction writer, and a former journalist” who has recently become a published author for the first time. Rich can’t contain the wonder in her voice when she talks about Landgraf: “Without giving away her exact age, she's over 70 and she's publishing her first full book of poems and then a book of writing exercises. So, you know, 70 is the new 30.”
What should people who haven’t attended Words West before come to expect from the series if they show up tonight? “Okay, so I'm biased, but I do believe it's the best reading series in the city,” Rich says. The format is a little different from your standard reading: “We do what's called a living anthology, where instead of one writer reading her work and then going to the next writer, we ask them to, in some way, go back and forth between their work.” It’s a more “collaborative” approach, putting the authors in conversation rather than keeping them in silos. Tonight’s theme is on New Year’s resolutions, kept and broken.
You don’t have to be a West Seattleite to attend Words West, Rich says. “I think sometimes people are a little afraid of getting to West Seattle, and I'll say that there's a [RapidRide C Line] bus stop directly in front of C&P Coffee from downtown. It's really accessible.” Seattle is one of the only cities in the country — maybe the only city in the country — that can sustain reading series in every one of its neighborhoods. But for those readings to thrive, they need independent places like C&P Coffee Company to house them, to give them a place to live. I hope you’ll consider supporting C&P’s GoFundMe if you can.
Seattle author Laurie Frankel's novel This Is How It Always Is was one of my very favorite novels of last year. It's the gentle and big-hearted story of a mother who slowly realizes that her child is transgender, and the publisher made no secret of the fact that the story features at least some roots in reality: Frankel is the mother of a girl who was labeled a boy at birth. On Tuesday, January 23rd, Frankel is celebrating the paperback launch of This Is How It Always Is at the Seattle Public Library downtown. She was kind enough to talk to us about what an author experiences when her hardcover book becomes a paperback. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our phone conversation.
So, I just wanted to say first that I really love the book. And I especially love the way that it grew on me — the way that it just sort of stuck with me, and the experience of reading it grew in my mind long after I put the book down. And that doesn't always happen. I was wondering, for you as a writer, did the experience of writing this book feel different than other things you may have written in the past?
First of all, thank you so much — I appreciate it. And you know, I think they all feel different from one another. The primary emotion whilse writing a novel is dread. It is for me, in any case. And then this miracle happens in between the second and third revisions, where you realize this is going to come together.
It wasn't clear to me where this book was going when I started it. So that was a surprise. The way in which this story was going to overlap with my family's story was not clear to me going in. And, so, as that became clear as time went on, all of these other senses of dread came along with that first sense of dread.
Was this the most that you had used your own life in your writing?
In an obvious way, yes, for sure. I think that it's probably always true that novels have a good bit of their author's lives in them.
And I also think that these characters are not people I know — except for having spent a lot of time with them because I made them up. There are so many kids in this book, and I have only the one. That's such an enormous difference that I'm not wrong in feeling very removed from it — feeling that it was very made up.
And now it’s coming out in paperback. What is that experience like for an author? Does it feel like you're going through the publication process all over again?
Yes, that is exactly what it is like. The hardcover release is such a whirlwind. And I was on book tour on and off for nearly a year, so I was traveling a lot. I wasn't thinking about a paperback release at all.
But paperbacks are so different in the way they release it, and what your publisher does for it, and what they want you to do for it. Because this is likely to go out to a whole new audience, you have to prepare for all of that too.
Can you talk a little bit more about the differences between paperback and hardcover releases? I know you said there are different audiences, but I wonder if there are other differences. I think our readers might be interested in hearing about those.
Sure, totally. As you know, with hardcover releases, the focus is on getting reviews and placing articles in various publications to go along with the launch — to try to get the word out. Also, any kind of a tour is going to happen with the hardcover. And so, I've been doing all of that. And all of that is and has been really wonderful.
However, book clubs — almost across the board — have a rule that they only choose books that are in paperback. And I totally get that, because hardcover books are twice as much money as paperbacks if you're buying them from your local independent bookstore — God love you. This is a huge difference.
It’s a big difference in readership, because people who come to the hardcover events usually know something about [the book] and they sought it out. And people who come for the paperback are much more likely to have, say, seen it on a table in the bookstore and picked it up. Because doing that when the book is $30 is totally different than when the book is $14.
Or, they're in a book club and the book club picked the book. Or, they remember having seen it a year ago when it came out in the first place, and so, now here it is in front of them and they’re like, “oh yeah, sure, maybe I'll give that a shot.” So, it's much more likely that readers are coming to it without necessarily knowing what it's about, or having chosen to engage with that topic. And that's a whole different ball game.
I understand that not everything is drawn from your life, but the novel is in part uniquely based on your experience, and that was a part of the public discussion around the novel. I was wondering if you got a particularly personal response from readers — if readers responded in a different way?
Yes. I have gotten a lot — a lot, a lot — of email from parents who said, “wow, me too.” Lots of people who said, “thanks for writing about this, I thought I was the only one.” Lots of adults who said “wow, my experience was really different than this, and I'm really glad to hear that it's changing.” So that was all really great.
I also got a not insignificant amount of hate mail and death threats and that sort of thing. I suppose to speak to your last question, that’s part of my concern about what's upcoming. The hardcover was unlikely to fall into your hands if you weren't ready and eager to hear about what it was about.
And with the paperback, there’s that anxiety: okay, here we go again. And the paperback is opening up to a new audience, and that's so wonderful in so many ways. But there’s also this kernel of okay, who's going to write and yell at me now, and knowing what it feels like to get those emails in your inbox in the morning.
So are you working on something new now? Or are you still coasting on the high of publication?
Oh, Lord, no.
I didn't think so. But I always expect somebody to say "yes, I've just been relaxing nonstop" at some point, when I ask that question.
That's so funny. No, no. That high is such a complicated thing. No, I'm writing the next novel. I think I couldn't not be writing the next novel, at this point. I would be losing my mind if I were still thinking about a novel that is already in the can, and that I can't do anything about. So instead, I'm staying sane by quickly drafting the next one.
What does it mean to represent a city, or a state, through poetry? To me, the role of poet laureate always felt like it would be too much responsibility. Writing a book of poetry is one thing, but to represent the varying perspectives of a community through poetry seems like a daunting task of representation. Seattle poet Shin Yu Pai talked to me over the phone last month about her tenure as Redmond's Poet Laureate — what she learned, her successes and failures, and what she thinks her legacy might be. To learn more about Shin Yu Pai, including samples of her work and upcoming events, visit her website. She reads next at Elliott Bay Book Company on Saturday, January 13th.(Photo of Shin Yu Pai at the "Heyday" video unveiling by James McDaniel.)
You're one of the most thoughtful poets in the Northwest, and I was wondering if your term as Poet Laureate of Redmond provided you with any insights into what being a poet laureate, what representing a city as a poet, means to you. What did the experience teach you?
I learned a lot about what the work of doing public art is like, and what skills are involved in doing that. I worked collaboratively with individual artists and designers, and even companies. Working on a larger scale — working with a community or city — was a new kind of experience for me, and I found that there were different kinds of skills that needed to be brought forward in my own work and ways of managing projects that I needed to be more flexible with: scopes of projects, timelines, and so on.
Those are the things that, over time, informed the way that I went about the work. I made certain pieces knowing what kind of iterative processes they might need to go through before they could be presented or shared. Those were good lessons for me, because for a work to really reflect a community — and for a work to be conversation and collaboration — those things take more time, and a lot of back and forth.
A lot of your work in this project has involved nature. I’m thinking of the leaves and your animated poem “Heyday,” about the Redmond history of logging. You know, nature is probably not in the top three things that a Seattleite thinks of when you ask them about Redmond.
So Seattleites probably think of Microsoft and rocket technology when they think of Redmond. And those things are absolutely true, and they're stereotypes, too. They've still got farmland [in Redmond,] and there's still parts of it that feel very unspoiled to me.
For me, exploring Redmond became this exercise in really wanting to see what the city is: its history, its place. Certainly there's the city — the contemporary technology and what makes it the place that it is now. But I wanted to very much ground that with the physical geography of what Redmond is.
And that’s what drew me to the bike trails, and really interpreting the history and what the city is known for in terms of its archeological significance, alongside famous residents and contemporary people who were important to this city. That was a very intentional gesture, looking up historical records to really look at the past of Redmond, and bring it alive and animate it.
I didn't really have many thoughts about Redmond when I moved here because I don't drive, so I almost never made it out there. But then I started walking, and I wound up walking to Redmond a lot, and I really dig it. I like all the bike trails, and then as I've learned more about it I like what I’m learning. The mayor has been very progressive, and very interested in making the city ready for transit, in a way that other communities outside of Seattle haven't really done. And politically, of course, there's Manka Dhingra, who’s just turned Washington state’s legislature blue for the first time in a while. It’s interesting to me that you don’t live in Redmond but you’re representing Redmond. What was your exploration of the city like?
Yeah, so, it's been a series of visits. Usually they’re built around exploring a certain site. The Heron Rookery was one place that I harvested leaves from, and the Farrel-McWhirter Farm Park. And I also explored the organizations that are there. I've had a couple of really great partners in the Redmond Public Library, in VALA Eastside, in the Senior Center. It’s been a slow and gradual exploration from a distance.
I will admit, honestly, that I think that living here in Seattle — and I don't drive much either — it was a challenge to be more deeply immersed as a Poet Laureate. And I actually think that as they're looking for a new Laureate, they should probably consider somebody from the eastside.
But, I don't think that was necessarily a barrier or deterrent in eventually hitting my stride
One of the things that I did last year for National Poetry Month was to curate this celebration of poetry and song. And so, I brought together people like Jessika Kenney to perform traditional Persian and Middle Eastern music with a performer from Kirkland named Srivani Jade who sings Mira Bai poems.
And it was really exciting to see that the audiences that were coming out for some of these programs were quite different than what you would see at Seattle openings or Seattle readings. Redmond is a city that is very much made up of many immigrants from Southeast Asia, and it was really great to be able to draw some of those folks out with some of those things I'm trying to do.
You've always been a very collaborative artist, but it seems to me that the act of being a Laureate involves a sort of elevation of other artists. Was there a learning curve to finding people and to curating the Laureate experience?
Yeah, certainly in some of the technologically sophisticated projects I wanted to do. I collaborated with the textile artist, Maura Donegan, who is from the east side, on this poetry embroidery project that was a response to a hate crime that happened in Redmond. And it took me a while to find Maura, because I had sort of gone down this path of wanting to figure out a way to digitally fabricate the piece that I made that was basically an embroidered broadside in multiples. But that was a very complicated and expensive process, so ultimately I engaged Maura to just make me one big textile piece that she basically sewed herself.
It was a challenge to find her, and VALA Eastside really helped to direct me towards her. And, with this last piece that I'm doing — this video projection — it took time to figure out who had the technical knowledge. I needed to find a designer who could do animation, and then I needed to find somebody who could help me with the logistical specifications of projecting onto the side of a building at night. So, I've been really lucky through Seattle networks to know who those go-to people can be, to help me create that work.
So, the learning curve, I would say, was pretty steep. Because there are lots of people that I know in my creative network here, but I also felt like the particular projects that I was working on required a certain kind of sensibility.
I wanted to ask you specifically about the textile work, because I don't know if I have seen other Poets Laureate be that, sort of, immediate? It seemed, to me, to be a mix of poetry and visual art and journalism. What a Poet Laureate should do is console in times of tragedy and investigate what the tragedy means to the community. And that seems like, just such a unique moment and unique piece.
Yeah, I'm really grateful that you asked about it. It's a piece that's important to me, and I wasn't able to share it or fabricate it for over a year.
So, I wrote the poem in early 2016 — I want to say in January or February of last year. It was this a crime that you may have heard about in Redmond. It involved a woman named Leona Coakley-Spring, who is a Black business owner and had this small consignment shop, which was called Rags to Riches.
She was running her business and there was a young man who came in, acted really suspiciously, said he wanted to consign some clothes with her. He ended up leaving, and he left behind a couple of garments in bags. And so when she went to look through them to try and identify if she could return the materials and garments to him, she wasn't quite sure what she was looking at. But when her adult son came and looked at the materials, what they discovered was that this young man had basically abandoned a Klu Klux Klan robe.
That was this really, really heavy thing. I remember reading about it in the news and being so shocked and appalled — that in this present day, so close to where I live, that this was happening.
And, you know, a KKK robe is a very potent symbol whether or not you're a black person or not.
And it's such a specific crime, with such a personal level of premeditation to it There’s such a weird intentionality to it. You know, you hear 'hate crime' and you think of, like, graffiti or something impersonal like that, but this feels so direct.
It was very threatening. It was very disturbing to me. It was this clear message of like, "Go back to where you come from." You know?
And so, it really demanded or called in me this reaction to express some sort of solidarity or compassion — some kind of response. And so I wrote this poem and I hoped to share it with the community at that time, but because this was under investigation and the poem included details of what had happened, the city determined that we couldn't share it with the public, because it was an active crime investigation. And that investigation went on for a few months, but ultimately they weren't able to track down the individual that left those items, and Ms. Coakley-Spring ended up closing her store, and the robe was somehow returned to her. I don't know if it was taken in as evidence for a time or if she always had it, but I read a story in the news about her burning it.
That was this really powerful moment too, because I had had this whole plan that I would try to connect with her and ask her if I could have the robe so that I could embroider it or do something with it, and use it as kind of the basis of the response that I wanted to make. And so that didn't work out.
I thought about an embroidered broadside, and that didn't work out budget-wise. And so then, we made the textile, and that was actually shown this summer at the So Bazaar Festival. I partnered with VALA Eastside, which is this gallery in Redmond, and we talked about the idea of putting together an interactive poetry embroidery booth. We wanted to use the broadside that Maura and I had made together as kind of an example of what people coming to the festival could do. They could sit down at this booth with embroidery hoops and cloth and thread and needles, and basically do embroideries themselves and come away with something that they could take home or feel proud of.
And so I curated language out of Redmond's Inclusion Resolution, and I also took language from poems by Elizabeth Alexander, who's a former Obama inaugural poet, and Langston Hughes and some others, that all dealt with inclusion and tolerance in some way. And then we basically mocked them up so that people coming to the booth could stitch those as kind of their sampler. The intention behind the booth was very much to engage regular citizens in this specific dialogue around inclusion.
On Thursday, December 14th, I interviewed author Matthew McIntosh at Elliott Bay Book Company about his remarkable sophomore novel, theMystery.doc. McIntosh is the kind of author who invites the word "reclusive." There are almost no photos of him online, and he has kept himself cloistered away for over a decade working on theMystery.doc. He doesn't take part in group readings, or offer freewheeling chats on Twitter, or have a Facebook page. In fact, the Elliott Bay event was the second of only two readings he did as a part of theMystery.doc's launch.
But McIntosh isn't antisocial or even a little bit chilly, the way you'd expect a so-called reclusive author to be. In fact, he's warm, and charming, and very open about his process. For this event, McIntosh read over a series of videos taken from the book in a 20-minute presentation that incorporated science fiction and spoken word and experimental fiction.
It was a unique performance to celebrate a unique book. theMystery.doc is a behemoth of a thing, a surprisingly readable postmodern novel that is set in the early 2000s but which spans centuries; a realistic book about the dawn of our modern technological age that is stridently, proudly, a book that exults in its page design and corporeality; a big, ambitious book that doesn't have any of the ego or swagger of the typical Big Books by young Franzen wannabes. The book is full of video stills and blank pages and codes and just about every visual trick you can imagine, but it doesn't feel flashy or gimmicky like, say, House of Leaves. Instead, it feels like a book about The Way We Live Right Now. What follows is an excerpt of our onstage conversation.
Since you started with this video, I wanted to ask a little bit about the way they were incorporated in the book as frames. The reader has to turn the page to see the next frame in the video. In your ideal, sort of impossible, version of the book, would somebody turn the page and find a video playing on the page? Or did you separate the frames individually as part of the reading experience?
My ideal version of the book actually turned out to be exactly what the book is. Even when we were doing the ebook — and the ebook by the way, comes free with hardback purchase — when my wife coded this ebook, we were talking about doing that, putting video in there. But that wouldn't really represent what the book is.
So that was a consideration, but I felt like I liked having the time. So much about the images in the book is about time, and so when you come to a scene, or come to a sequence of stills, for instance, there might be stills that will take you 10 to 20 pages to go through.
And so I wanted people to become immersed in the book. I want time to be an issue with them, so that their experience with time, and with that image itself, is part of the experience. I want them to stare at it as long as they want, and never to know what's coming next. If you were to incorporate video, readers would just watch it until it plays out, whereas if you take five stills, you can watch the progression of that time happening.
Video would be passive as well, and that would change the implications of reading and experiencing the book.
Exactly. So, for instance when — towards the end of the book — when the male character turns and runs, he does this in the guise of Jimmy Stewart. It was important in the first page of the sequence to show him sideways, looking and turning and running. The video was so fast that that first moment almost gets lost. So to have it in still form on a page, it’s almost like it’s eternal, in a sense, on that particular spread.
You kind of answered this a little bit, but there were other elements with and the number of blank pages between passages and images, for instance. When people write and draw comic books they worry a lot about the rhythm of the page, and what the reader sees on every page turn and things like that. Was that something you considered?
Absolutely. No question. No question. The design of the book took so long, and was so meticulously done. [My wife and I] had this thing we would call The Turn. And what that meant was on this particular spread, I want the reader to see this particular image. So that means sometimes you have to go back through the design of maybe 20 or 30 pages before it, to make sure that all the text is flowing at that particular rhythm to leave you at that moment where you turn and discover that image.
I wanted to have all of these turns to be surprises. And so every single spread was worked out meticulously — with rhythm, with timing, and with what the reader sees, and what they haven't yet seen.
What was interesting about this project was that every time that we ran up against something that we needed to change — it was never demanded about the text; It was usually running into permissions issues for certain [images] — it turned out better. And so throughout the project I became full of faith that any time I had to do something that was painful because this was the way it was supposed to be, I always had faith that it was going to turn out to be better. And I believe that it did, every time.
Also the book is full color inside, which I'm not sure would have even been technologically possible ten years ago at this scale. Was that a hill you were willing to die on?
Oh, yeah. It was understood. This was going to be in full color, and no edits. Which was a really ridiculous thing to ask. No one would ever do that! Publishing right now is really constrictive — especially with things that are going to cost money, because it's a hard environment to sell literature anyway. And this book costs — I believe it was probably five bucks a copy more than your average book. And yet we only have to sell it for 35 bucks, which is a pretty good deal. And you get a free ebook!
So we thought, ‘well, let's just see if Grove will do it. Grove published my first book without any edits. They were just awesome. And so I asked my agent to go ahead and send it to them, and she did, and when she called back she's like ‘he wants to publish it.’
And I said, ‘that's wonderful. Too bad he's not going to be able to because of the color.’
And she says, ‘he said “Of course we'll publish this in color! Obviously.”'
Every author I've talked to about Grove Atlantic is thrilled with them as a publisher. So I think you you you've got lucky on the first try.
There are big books, and then there are there are big books like this that feel like the author just like poured themselves into it entirely. Given the amount of time that it took to produce the book, and how much control you had over it, did you did you feel drained when you were done? Do you have anything anything left in you for a next project?
I hope so. I think it's going to be definitely different. The things that I've been working on now are a lot different. You can only do this kind of thing, once I think. It was such an immersive experience writing it. I basically did nothing else for 12 years — just worked and worked and worked on the book. And that was the only way to do it, I think.
Every Wednesday between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we're asking some of our favorite Seattle authors to recommend the books they're most excited to give as gifts this holiday. Our fourth author is childrens' book author and cartoonist Jessixa Bagley.
I'm happy to recommend my new favorite book, Louis Undercover by Fanny Britt, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault. I felt like this graphic novel punched me in the heart. This followup to Jane, the Fox, and Me is a story about a young boy navigating the intense darkness of his parents' recent separation while at he same time experiencing his first love. Both the heartbreaking writing and breathtaking artwork will emotionally level you. Remember to breathe.
Every Wednesday between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we're asking some of our favorite Seattle authors to recommend the books they're most excited to give as gifts this holiday. Our third author is novelist and cookbook author Bharti Kirchner.
All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer is at once a spy novel and a heartbreaking love story. It takes place, surprisingly, over a long dinner in a fancy restaurant at Carmel-by-the-Sea.