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.
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 second author is short story writer and novelist Richard Chiem.
I recommend The Passion According to G.H., by Clarice Lispector, for that weird strange someone in your life. It's about a maid who accidentally kills a cockroach, and then goes through a stunning and hellish existential dreamscape. Almost every sentence is some kind of dagger, and she reminds me of Kafka but deadlier. Not for all readers, but I dare you watch this interview with her and not pick up all her books right away:
This morning, Artist Trust announced that Seattle writer E. Lily Yu is the recipient of this year's Gar LaSalle Storyteller Award. This is a fairly new award in Washington State's arts scene, but it's a mighty one — it pays $10,000 to its winner, with no strings attached. In 2015, Anca L.Szilágyi was the first Gar LaSalle recipient, and that prize money seems to have paid off; her debut novel, Daughters of the Air, is launching tomorrow night at the Hotel Sorrento. Last year's winner was the novelist Peter Mountford, whose The Dismal Science is a sophomore novel that is so good it will make you renounce the very idea of a sophomore slump.
Both Szilágyi and Mountford are writers of literary fiction, but Yu has a different pedigree: while she's published in literary outlets like McSweeney's and Hazlitt, she's also appeared in science fiction and fantasy publications like Tor.com and Fantasy and Science Fiction. A Clarion West graduate, Yu has appeared in multiple annual best-of sci-fi anthologies. You can read some of her short work by following these links on her website.
If you're the last human being on earth who is still snooty about sci-fi, Yu might be the author to turn you around. Her prose is weird and beautiful and striking. She's a unique voice, she has published some beautiful fiction in the past, and she will undoubtedly produce great works in the years to come. You'll want to be a fan of her now so you can say you knew her before it was cool to be a fan of E. Lily Yu. Yu was kind enough to talk with me over email about winning the Gar LaSalle Storyteller Award; hopefully she'll do a longer interview with the Seattle Review of Books in the future.
Congratulations! What was your response when you were told you'd won this award?
Joy. Astonishment. Amusement and embarrassment over my lack of faith; the phone call was a bit of a divine I-told-you-so. Then a sudden and overwhelming sense of peace. I'd felt anxious the day before, and that all went away as if it had never existed. It'll come back, of course, all the colors and tones of the human experience do, but for right now there's just peace.
May I ask what you're planning to do with the prize money? Is it going toward living expenses, or is it devoted to a special project?
Buying time. I'm buying two months and ten days with it. And I'm spending that time right now.
Do you think of yourself as a Northwestern writer? Does your regional identity figure into your work on a thematic level?
This is home. It was not always home, it might not always be home—that's in God's hands—but right now it is home in the deepest way. Like blood. Like bone. It has and it is and it will appear in my work.
That said, I am many regions. Most of us are. One crosses whole countries between Fulton Street and Harlem, but who would call themselves a Bed-Stuy writer?
The previous two recipients of this award have been literary writers. Do you think it's significant that this time it's going to a writer whose work can be classified as genre fiction?
Not particularly, but I am not best placed to know. I came to Seattle years after it made a name for itself as a hub for both literary and speculative fiction, so the intermingling of the two communities seems to me to be the most natural thing in the world.
Does that distinction—the literary and the genre—mean anything to you?
As much as fences mean to flowers.
“The lives of Native women are not valued greatly in the Americas,” Arizona poet Natalie Diaz explains. This is not just a matter of feeling underappreciated; literal lives are at stake. “The rates of Native femicide in North and South America are astronomical, and also invisible in regard to mainstream media discussion.”
Part of the reason these lives are being snuffed out, Diaz says, is because Native women feel isolated and removed from the culture. “It is not often that we see positive and powerful representations and reflections of what is beautiful and strong and innovative about indigenous people, and especially indigenous women,” she writes in an email. With the help of the Hugo House and the Poetry Foundation, Diaz is working to celebrate Native women in the literary arts.
“I have been thinking a lot about the strong community of indigenous women artists and writers whose mentorship and friendship I have benefitted from greatly,” Diaz says. “I wanted to create a space where indigenous women's voices were regarded and value — to pay it forward in a way to some of the Elders whose work and friendships have made my own work possible.”
Now Diaz is ready to share that celebration with the world. It’s an ongoing program called Poetry Across the Nations, and it launches right here in Seattle in a multi-day celebration from December 6th to 8th. On Wednesday and Friday, Diaz will be hosting workshops for Native writers — find details at the Hugo House’s website — and on Thursday, December 7th, she’ll MC a reading of Native women poets at Fred Wildlife Refuge.
All are welcome at the Thursday night reading, which is free and will feature both Seattle readers and poets from across the country. The lineup is impressive: Celeste Adame, Laura Da’, Jennifer Foerster, Casandra Lopez, Sara Ortiz, and Cedar Sigo. Da’, Sigo, and Lopez have all been kicking ass at Seattle readings for quite some time; the three of them on a bill together should be practically lethal.
In the spring, Diaz will take Poetry Across the Nation on the road, with stops in South Dakota and Arizona already planned. But Seattle gets it first. If you’ve been outraged at the way Native voices have been silenced, ignored, and ridiculed by the Trump administration, here’s an opportunity for you to elevate and celebrate those voices. It’s up to all of us to witness Native women, to let them know that they’re seen, and welcomed, and appreciated.
Fred Wildlife Refuge, 128 Belmont Ave. E., 322-7030. http://www.hugohouse.org, 7:30 pm, free.
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 first author is novelist Anca Szilágyi.
This spring, I cackled all the way through Elaine Dundy's novel The Dud Avocado, the story of Sally Jay Gorce, a 21-year-old American in 1950s Paris who is a delightful hot mess. It's my kind of "beach read" (if I went to beaches) and should be a welcome reprieve from the darkest months.
Reza Aslan's new book God: A Human History is a remarkable document. It lays out the entirety of human's relationship with the divine, using athropological and archaeological documentation. From pantheism to ancestor worship to monotheism, Aslan examines the way that a concept of a higher power has evolved right alongside human civilization — and also helped shape our modern world. Aslan was in Seattle last week with Seattle Arts and Lectures. We spoke on the phone shortly after his arrival in Portland for the next reading on his tour. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
I’m an atheist but I've always been very fascinated with belief and the way that you approach this book. I thought it was really informative for the purposes of talking with people about faith — and not just religious faith. At my day job, I work in messaging and political economy. And I’ve found that when we talk about raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, for example, people would respond, 'well, you can’t pay $15 per hour because the market says they’re not worth $15 per hour.' The market is a creation of people, and other nations have much higher minimum wages than we do here in America so there’s proof that it can work, but once people offload it to this inhuman, unknowable force —this market — there’s a barrier. You hit a wall in your conversation, and it seems insurmountable. Has your work with so many different religions taught you anything about talking across that wall?
If you think of a faith as a kind of worldview then it's understandable why occasionally it becomes difficult to actually have conversations. This wall that you're talking about — essentially, you're talking about two different perspectives, two different points of view. And often it's not that you are arguing over the merits of some kind of point, but what you're really doing is talking about two different ways of seeing the world. And so those kinds of conflicts sometimes come naturally.
Part of what I try to do, not just with this book but most of my works, is to try to reframe the conversation and to redefine certain terms. For instance, you call yourself an atheist, which I imagine means that you don't believe in God. But I do think that in order to actually have a conversation with you, we'd have to first talk about what you even mean by God, because it's very likely that your definition of God and my definition of God are vastly different from each other — and so having that understanding would mean that you and I perhaps are much closer in our points of view than we actually thought that we were.
And particularly when you're talking about faith issues, we have this weird perception that we all mean the same thing when we use this most complex of words, and so often the arguments that we find ourselves having dissipate once we start with this fundamental question of 'what do you mean? What is your perspective?' That's something that I try to bring to all the work that I do.
One of the things that I really enjoyed about this book was the way you embrace the ambiguity of the anthropological record. I think about that hackneyed idea of what would happen if an alien anthropologist found our ruined civilization in the future and if they only had access to one site, it would change their understanding of our faith. If they found a church, they would imagine us as a monotheistic religious culture. If they found a multiplex, they might think that we were a pantheistic religion worshipping superheroes. And if they found Washington DC, they might think we were big into ancestor worship. Do you think about what you’re missing when you look back on the past?
It’s a fun game to play. The difference of course being that we are products of a written culture, and once you start writing things down, those things stay forever. When we're talking about religion, however, and particularly when we're talking about prehistoric religiosity, which is where my book begins, you are talking about a preliterate culture and so that makes it much more difficult to draw conclusions with any measure of certainty.
We do have an enormous amount of material evidence at our disposal when trying to talk about things like the origins of the religious experience. We have at our disposal temples and idols and the spectacularly painted caves that bear remarkable signs of ritualistic thinking. And so we can look at this material and we can give our best guess as to what it means and how it functions.
But before the advent of writing, we are essentially shooting in the dark. What we have going for us particularly in my field of religious studies is that we can combine the anthropological and archaeological data. We can use what we know about sociology in order to draw certain conclusions and we can make pretty good guesses. But in the end, they are guesses.
In the book, you refer to the advent of agriculture as a net negative for society, and I was wondering if I could ask you about that, and maybe your perspective on how that has shaped human history.
To begin with, this is now more or less the consensus view. The traditional view was that after tens of thousands of years as hunter-gatherers, we began to plant our food and domesticate animals as a means of ensuring a greater food supply, and that doing so resulted in more stable food supplies and also in more calories, more food. And that allowed us to actually settle down and then create civilization, and then, of course, history as we know it.
Well, unfortunately, that traditional view just doesn't hold up any longer to the archaeological evidence. First and foremost we now know that we human beings had settled for thousands of years before the rise of agriculture. So that upends the notion that we settled down because we started planting — now, it turns out that we settled down for quite some time before we ever thought to start planting. So that in and of itself had to have to shift the way that we even think about why we started planting.
And then secondly we now have ample evidence to indicate that far from creating a surplus of food, the agricultural revolution actually diminished our food supply — and quite dramatically. It provided far fewer calories, far less protein, and if that weren't enough, it actually introduced a whole host of ailments and diseases that were completely new to the human condition. The great Israeli historian Yuval Hariri has this great line where he says homo sapien skeletons were simply not evolutionarily designed for farming. That's just not what our bodies were meant to do. He refers to the agricultural revolution as history's greatest fraud.
Now this idea that the agricultural revolution was not an advantage to human beings raises a more fundamental question which is: why, then, why did we start doing it? Why did we start farming, knowing that a bad crop would result in the deaths of everybody in the village? Why did we start domesticating and penning animals, knowing that a disease in one of those animals would wipe out the entire herd and kill everybody in the village? Why did we do all of these things, when it required far more effort and work than hunting and gathering did, for far fewer calories? Why did we do it? It makes no sense.
There have been a number of attempts to answer that question, from environmental changes to the thinning or extinction of herds — none of which have been borne out by the evidence to date. One of the more innovative answers to that question happened to do with the institution of religion. And what I mean is, the movement from the prehistoric animism that fueled our ancient ancestors to the establishment of temples and institutionalized worship — it was the institutionalization of religion that led to the settlements, to the idea that we actually settled down and stopped wandering.
And then once we settled down, that that caused the slow move towards experimenting with agriculture and with domestication. Again, this is one of those things where we're giving our best guess. We're looking at the evidence that's available to us, and we're trying to interpret it as much as possible.
But I think that the reason that there is an enormous amount of enthusiasm for that particular interpretation of 'why agriculture?' is because all the other answers don't work. So much of what this is about is simply ticking off things that don't make any sense or that don't fit with the available data and seeing what's left.
We do know, of course, that the earliest experimentations with plants and the domestication of animals took place in southeastern Turkey and in the Levant area. These are the earliest examples of settled communities, and we also know that [these regions hosted] the earliest expression of institutionalized religion, and that those things really affected each other. And so the theory is that it was in fact the advent of hierarchical institutionalized temple-based religion that resulted in the need for the transition to agriculture, despite the fact that it was not a good bet on the part of humanity — that it did not lead in those first couple of thousand years to more food or a more stable supply.
And by the way, part of the reason why I think people even people who don't study religions gravitate toward this theory is that the one thing that we all know about religion is it makes you do things that aren't necessarily helpful. The thing about religion is that you do sometimes irrational things in the name of religion and the you know the agricultural transition was by all accounts any rational thing.
So in a way, religion also established the inequity that we still see today?
You know, the standard sociological answer to this is when we went from wandering to settled, being settled allowed for the accumulation of wealth and the disparity in society in a way that wandering would not allow. The nomadic lifestyle doesn't really allow for the accumulation of wealth, or the stratification of society. Settlement does. And if you think that settlement was a direct result of certain religious changes that took place, then yes, once again religion becomes the culprit for the sudden disparity in society.
I love your example in the book of the talking tree — the theory that we can accept one or two divergences from what we know, but that if you keep adding unbelievable ideas, you reach a breaking point.
This is a fascinating theory — and it is a theory, but it's a pretty good one. It was first developed by a cognitive anthropologist by the name of Pacal Boyer. And what he was trying to figure out was a simple question: Why do some religious beliefs stick and some don't?
Obviously, he's a scientist so the answer that is often given, which is ‘the ones that are true stick, and the ones that are false don't’ just doesn't work for him. And so he began to do these very interesting studies about how our brains actually hold onto information, and particularly when that information is anomalous in some way. Why do we hold on to it? How do we hold on to it? When do we get rid of it?
And what he discovered was exactly what you say — this thing that has been now dubbed the minimally counterintuitive concept. The basic theory is that when the mind is confronted with something that is only slightly abnormal, something that that essentially violates the core function or characteristic of a saying only slightly, there is something about the brain that holds on to that idea, that anomalous information much more so than if a thing is too anomalous.
So the example that I gave in the book is a tree that talks. A tree that talks is only slightly anomalous. It's the kind of thing that the brain holds onto and is more likely to pass on. But a tree that talks and also has the ability to be invisible and also can move from place to place — now you're violating far too many categories of the idea of a tree, and the brain simply doesn't have the ability to hold onto that. [Boyer] uses this cognitive theory to explain why some religious beliefs stick around and others do not. It’s a really fascinating idea.
Of course the thesis of my book, the point that I'm trying to make, is that of all these minimally counterintuitive concepts that have ever existed in human history, the one that is most successful is the idea of the superhuman — the human who is altered in some slight way. And that where our conception of the divine arose, is this notion of a person who has shifted in a slight way, is given a certain kind of power. That is an explanation for how this natural impulse towards transcendence — towards that which lies beyond the material realm — is something that is part of our cognitive process. It's who we are, it’s how our brains work: that natural impulse often becomes actualized or concretized in the form of a divine human, or a human who is divine, because of this minimally counter-intuitive concept that arises in our brain.
It seems to me to be an exaggeration of something that’s a standard part of the human experience. Your knowledge, your experiences, make you special — kind of a superhuman. That’s why we contacted your publicist for an interview and why we’re talking. Everyone does something special — you know, I make a pretty okay chili. So is this search for the supernatural a recognition of us as we are or is it a desire for more? Is it aspirational, or is it a reflection?
It’s a reflection, it's an innate compulsion. One thing that I make very clear in the book is that I'm not making an argument for the existence or nonexistence of God. That's not an argument I am interested in having — mainly because there is no proof either way.
What I am interested in is how we have expressed faith. It is deeply embedded in this cognitive impulse that you were referring to, this innate unconscious compulsion to humanize the divine — to essentially project one's own personality, one's own emotions one's own virtues and vices and strengths and weaknesses and biases and bigotries upon the divine.
What’s truly remarkable about this impulse, and why I think it's just a function of our brains, is that even atheists do this. When you say to someone who is a you know an atheist, who doesn't believe in God, studies show that when you ask that person to then describe what they mean by God, they do what believers do. They begin to describe a kind of divine version of themselves. They begin to talk about a divine personality who looks and feels and acts and thinks very much the way that they do. So it doesn't matter whether you're a believer or not, it doesn't matter whether you are aware of it or not. The fact of the matter is that most of us when we think of the idea of God, what we do is we think of a divine version of ourselves.
You have a few passages in the book where you write about soul, and I thought some of the passages seemed to be in conversation with Lesley Hazleton’s book on agnosticism, and I was curious if you had read it or if if that was something coincidental.
I have read Lesley's book — I think I actually even blurbed it — but no, that's not in in conversation with anyone. The issue is that we were born with this conception of substance dualism, this innate notion that there is a distinction between the body and mind. What that means, nobody knows — it doesn't prove God, it doesn't disprove God. It doesn't mean that we are believers and we have to learn to be unbelievers. We don't know what it means, but it is a fact, and studies have routinely pointed this out. So it must be part of again our cognitive impulses, must be just a thing that happens in our brains. What I'm interested in, is what that actually means and how and how to make sense of that.
Evolutionarily speaking, we don't have a good answer for the universal belief in what is come to be called the soul. You can call it what you want: you can call it the psyche if you want to, you can call it Brahma, you can call it whatever you want, but we all mean the same thing — this kind of spiritual essence, if you will. It's universal. It exists in all cultures, in all religions, and throughout all time. And we don't know why! There isn't a good reason to explain this innate sense. And so I go back to where I began the book, which is ultimately it's just a choice.
It’s a decision on the individual's part to give that fact some kind of meaning. And you could be someone who says ‘it's just an accident, just a meaningless cognitive blip.’ Or you could be someone who thinks that it's not just on purpose, but it's by design: it's who is how we are made it's who we are and we're supposed to have that that feeling, that sense of innate spiritual essence. We’re back where we started, right? It's up to you! There's no proof either way.
But I do think that at the very least coming to an understanding of these things is a good way to start a conversation between people, between believers and nonbelievers, and between believers of different religions.
This Saturday, a familiar face in Seattle literary circles makes a welcome return to the scene. In 2011, Margot Kahn, who was well-known in the community for her work as a youth creative writing program director at Hugo House, published her first book — an excellent biography titled Horses That Buck: The Story of Champion Bronc Rider Bill Smith. Saturday night at Elliott Bay Book Company, with the help of readers including Claudia Castro Luna, Kate Lebo, and Jane Wong, Kahn introduces her second book, an anthology she co-edited with Kelly McMasters titled This Is the Place: Women Writing About Home. Kahn talked with me on the phone this week about how the book came to be and what she's been up to in the time between books. The transcript of this interview has been lightly edited.
It’s been a few years since Horses That Buck came out. What have you been up to between then and now?
I've been mostly raising a small human being, and that has occupied a lot of time. I've also been doing some writing for a couple of freelance publications — Edible Seattle and a couple of other places.
How did the idea for this anthology come to you?
As I said, almost seven years ago I had a baby, and I found myself at home more than I thought I would be as a parent.
I don't really know what I was expecting. I guess in part I did expect that I was going to take a brief leave of absence from the Hugo House and then return. And when it was time for me to go back, the House was in a bit of a different place than when I left it. I look back on that and think I probably should have done it, but they were asking me to do even more than what I had been doing when I left and I just didn't feel like I could at that moment in time.
At that time, I don't think anybody at the House had had a baby, and part of what seemed overwhelming to me was, I didn't know where I was going to nurse, and I didn't think anybody was going to get what I was going through, and there were sort of no parameters put into place for someone having a kid, and I just didn't feel like I could advocate for myself and my time in that way.
So anyway, I stayed home and got to thinking. When I was growing up I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house. My grandparents had come to this country from Poland as World War II was getting started — they got out at basically the last possible moment. When I was with them when I was younger, I would always ask them to tell me stories about their growing-up years, and they had these wonderful, nostalgic, beautiful, fond memories. But also their stories of home were wrapped up with a lot of pain and they really only talked about home when I asked them to. I always carried that with me, and I really was always trying to understand what that must have been like for them, to leave a place that they loved so dearly to never go back, and to make a whole new life somewhere else.
And then fast-forward to my having a child and thinking about what making a home means — not just for myself but for someone else. And in between there was the general kind of moving about in one's 20s — or many people in their 20s, anyway — where, you know, it's one rental after another and kind of trying to decide where to live.
And then I was settling on a place that I felt good about, while not really totally understanding at the time that I was settling down. And then I was becoming a part of a community and buying a house and putting down roots somewhere, when that somewhere isn't the same place where my family is. At some point, it's like, “oh, wait! What have I done?”
All of those things sort of fed into my thinking about what makes a home. And every other perspective about homes that I read was really informative, and so this idea of an anthology, of a collection of voices of many different people grappling with the same idea, became really interesting to me.
The rule for anthologies is generally to make the theme as specific as possible. But this is a super wide-angle topic that goes in the opposite direction of that rule. But it works! Was it hard to get your contributors to stay on topic, or did people just immediately get what you were what you were going for with the theme?
I think people really did get what we were going for.
Where the work came was in whittling things down. That was really the hardest part. We wound up having a few pieces about moving around a lot, and we didn't want a few pieces about moving around a lot. We wound up getting a couple pieces about living in a very small space, and we had to choose one of them. We had a couple pieces about living in the West and sort of hardscrabble solitude and we had to choose one.
That’s the work I'd say came in in the curation. And we were very committed to having a diverse range of voices in every aspect we could think of, from age and geography and race and ethnicity to subject matter. All the things that we read were pretty amazing, and it was a question of which pieces are hanging together, and which pieces speak to each other.
Who belongs here? Who is welcome? Who is a part of this community?
Was the book always specifically related to women’s perspectives on the home?
It was, but we did grapple with that question. Kelly and I said to ourselves, and each other, "are we losing anything by not having men be a part of this? Are we perpetuating a stereotype that the woman's place is in the home? Are we marginalizing men in some way? Are we creating something that is not taking the dialogue in the direction that we can or should be going?"
Ultimately we what we came to is that traditionally and historically, the home has been seen as the domain of the woman. We wanted to address that — in this day and age, what does that mean for women? And in large part, we've been raised by our mothers and grandmothers — in fact, that is a thread that we saw throughout the book: mothers or grandmothers appear in almost every essay. And women's voices are still statistically not as represented [in publishing], so we wanted to have this place for women's voices to be heard, with [Seal Press,] a press that has been dedicated to publishing women's voices since 1976.
One interesting thing to both me and Kelly is that when we conceived of this book it was three years ago and we were really not thinking so much about politics. We were honestly thinking about own our own personal stories and wanting to hear other personal stories. And then it became a possibility that we were going to have a woman in the White House. It was going to be a whole new ballgame. And then suddenly that was not the case at all.
And so many of those issues come up in this book in some way, shape, or form. This thread of belonging, this sense of safety, and the longing that is at the heart of our assumptions or perceptions or being. That image of what home should be. And that feeling that we're seeking, and all the conversations we're having now on the national political stage, really boil down to the same questions: who belongs here? Who is welcome? Who is made to feel safe? Who is a part of this community?
What’s next for you? Another anthology?
I haven't thought about the next anthology, but I would be psyched to do one. I had so much fun working on this book. I never really thought that anthologies would be something that I would do, but having done it, it's like it's like the best kind of curation project — like organizing the best dinner party ever and inviting the most interesting, awesome people and having this fantastic conversation. So, yeah, I would do an anthology again for sure.
I'm thinking about doing another biography, actually. I said I would never do that again after the first one just because it took so long, and I got so involved in other people's lives, but there is somebody I'm interested in writing about.
And I also have started a novel that’s set in a community garden in Seattle. it’s about community and gentrification and gardening. I don't know if that's really going to happen, but that's sort of a fun side project.
Last month, New Zealand author Nic Low came to Seattle for almost two weeks as part of an ongoing native author exchange program facilitated by the Seattle City of Literature organization. As part of Lit Crawl, Low appeared onstage at the Hugo House with Seattle author Willie Fitzgerald. The morning after Lit Crawl, he met with me to share his thoughts about the trip, and how Christchurch and Seattle could grow together as literary cities. This interview, obviously, took place before Seattle was named a UNESCO City of Literature, but that designation makes Low's thoughts on a cultural exchange even more relevant.
So you've been here for ten days. What are your impressions? What has your visit to Seattle been like?
Well, I'm still on a good high from Lit Crawl last night. I'm always excited when a whole city comes out — whatever the event is, something that draws a whole lot of people out into the public space. Because writing often happens behind closed doors, publishing happens behind closed doors. It's not always a particularly public art form. So when you get something like Lit Crawl, it's really exciting.
I loved going to see [Claudia Castro Luna’s] Poetic Grid [presentation]. I loved hearing all the different poets read, and seeing the photographs and the maps correlated. I've been hiring the Spin bikes and also walking everywhere, to get a feel for the geography. So to then overlay that with poets’ impressions of that geography was really enriching. I enjoyed that a lot.
I also loved the Jack Straw Writers who were on before that. Really cool to see a - I was going to say a younger generation but that's not right, because they're really from all different generations. But the Jack Straw Fellows are doing some really exciting work.
We had a lovely catch-up with the Jack Straw Writers a couple of days ago, and they shared stories of what they're working on. I was super-impressed with the diversity of that group — a really broad range of perspectives: people writing about their personal experiences growing up; people writing about experiences of being native but not living on your home territory; people writing about sexual violence; people writing about a whole range of different topics, but all from really beautifully crafted points of view. I like getting down and soaking those kind of things up.
Another real highlight has been connecting with various different First Nations groups here, and sharing stories with them. I'm Ngāi Tahu — I'm Maori — and that's a very big part of who I am, what I write. So to hear some of the stories and the histories from people who've been here six, eight, ten thousand years is really exciting.
I went down to Tacoma for an event down there. They’re touring a totem pole around the Lummi Nation in solidarity with the fight against various fossil fuel projects. And I met a wonderful writer, Rena Priest, who's a Lummi woman, and she'd written a piece specifically for that occasion. Really great to connect across those cultural boundaries as well.
You also skipped up to Vancouver?
I did. It's a bit of a stupid way to organize a schedule, but it's entirely my fault from just saying “yes” to everything. I had an event in Vancouver not last night but the night before. And then I've got another event in Vancouver tomorrow. So I'm going back to Vancouver on the first plane tomorrow morning.
So you've been south, you haven't been all the way down to Portland, but you've been to Tacoma, you've been up to Vancouver. Does it feel like a region in your brief experience, or is the national border significant to you?
I sent a photograph back to my partner back in Australia at the point where we went across the border and we just had a view of ocean. And I sent her a message that said ‘Canada to the right, America to the left.’ It's just ocean! These lines are always mildly arbitrary, and I think the arbitrariness of that emerges when you are hanging out with First Nations people, whose territory boundaries have no relationship.
I mean, they obviously have a very important relationship to that national boundary now. But predating European settlement, the fluidity — or just the different tribal territories, and the overlap and the trade — seeing the shared knowledge between indigenous people up and down that coast? There's a real familiarity to that.
I've been watching the weather patterns very closely and seeing if I can get myself into the hills at all. We got one day hiking in the Cascades, which was lovely — you can sort of see that coastline, the consistent vegetation. I know, from the map and from photographs sort of what the geography looks like. But it's basically been raining the whole time —
Yeah, it has.
So we haven't seen so much of it.
It's appropriate. It's seasonally appropriate.
The book I'm working on, as you know from the talk last night, is the history of mountains in New Zealand. And I really was, and still am, keen to get up into the mountains as much as possible here. But my crampons haven't got much of a workout yet.
They're intense. I'm from the east coast — I'm from Maine, which is other corner — and the mountains here are much more impressive than they are there.
I did catch one glimpse of Rainier out there, sitting proud. It's like a magnet to me. I was like, 'I want to go there.' But it wasn't possible.
It's very impressive. And it’s a volcano, too, so in a lot of ways it could just as well be our death on the horizon. At some point we could be Pompeii.
Oh wow. A fossilized Seattle. Just everybody caught with their lattes in one hand, with their phones in their other hand.
Yeah. People of the future wouldn't be able to tell your fossil from a Seattleite, with the coffee cup in your hand.
No they wouldn't. And I think that is one of the interesting things. I travel a lot and you do, on the one hand, brace yourself for strangeness and difference, but on the other hand you often find similarity and connection.
There's such commonality in culture now. We read so much that comes out of America. There's such great cross-influence in terms of media, in terms of internet, in terms of the technologies that now guide our lives.
I’ve certainly been struck by the degree of homelessness here.
I guess also there are some differences. I’ve certainly been struck by the degree of homelessness here. That stands out like a sore thumb, and it has made me feel pretty uncomfortable. It's confronting. It's really confronting to see that level of poverty hard up against this level of wealth. I guess I'm used to that level of poverty in very poor countries, but not in the rich countries.
Yeah. It's gotten out of control in the last ten years. I mean, it's always been there, but it is something that this city has not been responsible in keeping up with.
Yeah. It's a whole another long and complicated conversation.
I'm certainly curious to know how those demographics have shifted, of who constitutes the homeless. Because you have your stereotypical people, and then I've seen a whole lot of people who don't fit the stereotype. I've seen lots of people who look like they might not have been on the streets for that long, or have come from a whole range of different backgrounds.
It's certainly eye-opening in that respect.
There’s a study that found when the average rent in a city increases by $100, the homelessness population increases by 15 percent.
Seriously? That's the correlation?
Yeah. So you are seeing people who you would not normally see as homeless, because they are not ordinarily homeless.
Gosh that's a thin line, $100. That's a very thin line.
Yeah. It is a very thin line. It is the first thing that a lot of visitors notice and we have to do something to help. But to bring it back to books: So Seattle has several sister cities. Reykjavik, is one, and we have a pretty good cultural exchange going with Reykjavik. What do you think that the relationship between Christchurch and Seattle could be or should be? What do you think we have to learn from each other? It's a big question, sorry.
It's a big question, but a couple of immediate things spring to mind. The first one is what we talked about before with the Seattle Poetic Grid. I can see the usefulness of that, obviously, in the context of the literary exchange. And to bring writers back on a regular basis, to be mapping each other's cities, to be providing outside viewpoints.
I really like the idea of locals learning from visitors, and visitors learning from locals. There was one poem in the Grid that was from someone who'd been in the city for 24 hours, and it was an observation of tents under a freeway. Interesting that that was what struck him, or her.
We've been talking about a few different potential models. One thing is perhaps to have writers go in pairs. Imagine that I come back next year and bring another writer with me, and we do a project. And then the next year, that other writer comes back and brings someone new with them in a kind of an iterative process, so that they can make introductions and show people around, and vice versa. So get Elissa [Washuta, who visited New Zealand as a Seattle author through this program last year] back to Christchurch and get her to bring someone with her, and just roll it on that way.
Another area that immediately springs to mind is our relationship with the outdoors. Christchurch is really an incredible gateway to the mountains. An hour’s drive, you're in the snow, you're on a ski field, you're strapping on your crampons, you're ready to go. A couple of hours and you're in the absolute heart of the Southern Alps. So mountain culture, rock climbing, mountain running, mountain biking — all these things that you guys love, are absolutely alive and well in Christchurch.
I suppose this is sort of the work that I've been doing. I've been doing so much around place and wilderness and outdoors, but from a cultural and literary point of view. I'd love to see some kind of program that combines taking people into the outdoors and exposing them to the literature of the outdoors.
Like a kind of mountain writing festival perhaps, that happens in Seattle one year and in Christchurch the next. And then maybe the events take place somewhere in the mountains, or maybe it's a series of trips with conversation while walking, writers out on the trail discussing various different ideas about place and belonging.
You've already mentioned that you’re working on a non-fiction book about mountains. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
I grew up in the mountains. In all of our spare time we got taken up what we call tramping, what you would call hiking. The Southern Alps were a really big part of my dad's youth. He's always loved the mountains, and so when we were old enough to carry our school bags up, we went. And that really runs in the family. My whole extended family on dad's side are very much mountain people, and I knew the stories and the histories.
On my mother’s side, we are Ngāi Tahu, and we are more often than not thought of as coastal people. I knew the histories in the stories of the plains and coasts, but I didn't really know what our associations were with the mountains.
So I wanted to write a book that put those two things in dialog, my European heritage of mountaineering and climbing and exploring, and my Maori heritage of — whatever that looked like. I didn't really know what that looked like. But I assumed that, because hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of those rivers, peaks, valleys — they're all named. So if they're named, people knew them, there would be stories associated with them. I set out to try and find what those stories were.
Fast-forward three years, and I would spend a very long time in those mountains. I've done 15 long-distance journeys though the Alps. I'm going to write about ten of them. They're the pre-European routes we used for trade, for exploration, for family visits, for warfare. There’s a lot of mythology, our creation stories. It’s very, very central to our sense of identity and place.
There's a lot of books out there that talk about wilderness. We have a great fascination with explorers. But often the people that were exploring had guides; more often than not, they were guided. The places that they were discovering were all known, they were named. They were celebrated in long and deep histories. So I want to bring some of those histories to the surface, and I'd like to write this book in a way that gets people excited about both sides of those histories, so that when they go out into the mountains they see that overlay. They know who was here, what they were doing and why, and they understand the names that are on the land.
Portland illustrator and cartoonist Daria Tessler is coming to the Short Run Comix & Arts Festival for the second time this year. She makes beautiful illustrations that feel like a blend of children’s book illustrations and 1970s countercultural comics. You can find her booth in the show and she’ll also be performing in The Midnight Variety Hour, described as an “active participatory performance” at the Vera Project at noon.
Are you bringing anything new to the show?
Yes, I have Accursed, a book of ancient curses that was lavishly published by Perfectly Acceptable Press earlier this year. It's a 4 color riso book with a snazzy letterpressed cover. I also hope to finish a last-minute minicomic. Plus I'll have a few new silkscreens.
Are there any artists you're excited to see at Short Run this year?
I'm really excited to meet an artist whose Instagram name is abrownrecluse, and whose real name is Jordan, who makes incredible stippled and layered drawings and minicomics. We plan to collaborate on a book project next year.
You've got a comic coming out from Fantagraphics next year! Do you see yourself moving away from minicomics and into the publishing side of things, or are you going to continue with a blend of self-produced and "professionally" published works?
I love hand-making books and printing small run publications using print methods other than offset printing. I'm sure I'll continue to work with those alternate types of bookmaking because they offer a different feel or mood and a special more personal art object. But working with a bigger publisher is great, you can create books that are more affordable to all kinds of readers and they get good distribution and you reach a larger audience. So both seem important to me.
Illustrator Taylor Wright Rushing was born and raised in Washington State. He moved to Austin for a year and then entered grad school in Madison, Wisconsin. We talked on the phone last week. You can find him at the Short Run Comix & Arts Festival this Saturday at Seattle Center.
Is this your first Short Run or have you been before?
This is my first one.
How did you become a Short Run exhibitor?
I applied originally for the Dash Grant that they offer. They're one of the few organizations that offers a grant for small publishers — whether it's for a zine or a comic book. I just couldn't believe all that they had to offer as such a small organization.
From there, I was offered a table at the festival and I just was so delighted. I'm from Washington originally, so it was totally a treat to have an excuse to come home and do something fun.
Have you done any shows like this before in your neck of the woods?
I've done a few small shows, but nothing of this scale. I'm pretty involved in the small press community here in Wisconsin. But, you know, I went to Evergreen, so coming from Washington, it’s like the zine capital of America. It's kind of a treat be able to come home and do something so huge. I didn't realize that Short Run is as big as it is.
It gets bigger every year. Are you bringing anything new to Short Run this year, any brand new stuff to show off?
I've got a bunch of stuff. I do a lot of independent research around the 78 RPM old country music and blues music scene and I do a lot of small stuff associated with that. I have three new zines that I've come out with this year that are specific to the independent research that I've done regarding different musicians that I love and listen to. I've got some posters and I've got some bandannas that I've made.
Is there anybody at Short Run that you're excited to meet this time?
To be honest with you, I'm so excited to meet everyone. There's just such a slew of totally badass illustrators and makers. The thing that I love so much about the zine and small-press community is that everyone can do it. So no matter who you are, whether you're a professional illustrator or graphic designer or if you're literally someone who just makes in your living room, that's what this community is for. I am just so excited to see the workshops, the performances — this is just a dream scenario for me. And to get to come home and see a lot of artists who I grew up looking at — it's a blast!
I was wondering if you had any advice for people who are going to a show for the first time and maybe have just made their first zine or mini-comic and are looking to show it off.
This is the ultimate question for me, because in my mind this stuff is meant for everyone. There's something so beautiful about the idea that you can make something in your living room and create it on a copy machine and make something that everyone can look at.
I'm so interested in folk culture, and that’s something that the zine community nurtures — everyone going out and doing something and being creative. Especially in this day and age, there's no one way to be good at drawing. You can make the most clunky, weirdest looking characters and they will be lionized as the greatest. That's what I love about this whole scene. That’s what it's all about. There's no one way to be good at anything, and there's a million ways to make beautiful mistakes. That's what this is all about.
Is there anything you want attendees of Short Run to know about you?
This is my first major thing and I am really at the beginning of my career as an illustrator/artist/whatever you want to call me. And it would be a real treat to get to meet some people and interact with people who want to engage in my work. I would be absolutely delighted and I really look forward to that.
The word I’ve most often applied to our October poet in residence, Kary Wayson, is “patience.” Wayson’s poetry feels deliberate and constructed in a way that the work of many Seattle poets does not. Every word is there for a reason, and if you were to extract even one syllable, the whole thing would crumble to a pile of typeface at the bottom of the page. In a literary scene that tends toward expressionistic and reactionary poetry, Wayson stands out as a contemplative figure.
And too, Wayson isn’t one of those poets who overwhelms with frequent appearances. Though she regularly teaches poetry classes at Hugo House, months and even years have passed without Wayson’s name appearing on the poster for a major reading. It doesn’t feel like she’ll just apply her time talent to any old event. She is a writer who does not produce a lot of work, who doesn’t overwhelm with her presence, and that makes her a refreshing rarity in 2017.
Ask Wayson about her poetic patience, though, and she’ll attribute it to more practical reasons. “I've always sort of worked the opposite hours of everybody else,” she explains. When she left school, she wanted to find a career that provided “the best money I could make for having the most amount of free time, which is in restaurants.” Wayson has waited tables for many years, and so the prime time for readings — nights and weekends — has been largely inaccessible to her.
Occasionally, Wayson tells me she wishes she could be more of a part of the scene. “Sometimes I feel, like, ‘I’ve got to change my life. I got to get a day job — a real job, where I can take time off of work and get paid for it and be a part of the literary community.’ And then other times it seems perfectly fine.”
As a writer, she’s very deliberate: poetry is an exacting quest for perfection. She uses the term “etched in stone” to describe her work. She describes her process as “a slow accretion” and says she wants to build something sturdy, something “that lasts” for years — generations.
Lately, she’s been reading the work of John Ashbery and Richard Wilbur. “I spent the morning exhuming this poem of [Wilbur’s]. Each syllable is chosen with care.” That’s important to her. “It’s almost an affront to me when the work is sloppy,” Wayson confesses. Poetry is “not just something that’s broken into lines. It’s something that has been labored over.”
But there’s another reason beyond perfectionism why Wayson hasn’t been reading her poetry in public. Until a couple months ago, she admits, “I hadn’t written anything for probably three years.”
This seems hard to believe. She hasn’t written anything at all? “I’ve done journaling and some little failed attempts, but, no. Really, nothing.”
Thankfully for us, the dry spell is over. “The writing is coming out now,” she says, relieved. “But it’s got these strangenesses,” she says. And she’s been doing work “letting strangeness of syntax, and strangeness of ideas, and strangeness of image stay there [in the poem] hopefully in a way that’s not just weird but achieves something.”
Is it appropriate to say that Wayson is working at giving up a little bit of control of her work? “Yeah!” She seems excited by the idea, “and it’s something that I don’t want to figure out because then it might go away. I want to support it.”
Wayson is now experimenting with techniques to bring weirdness to her work. She’ll copy pieces of her journal entries backwards, word-for-word, just to see what kind of juxtapositions that will draw out. She’ll then explore those unexpected connections in poetry.
So what’s next for her? “I have a manuscript that I've been shopping around that’s been a near-miss at some really nice presses for years,” she says. She hasn’t given up hope on that one — “I’m still working on that, and that will probably be the next thing that comes out” from her in book form.
And the new work is still coming strong. “I have something right now that I’m working on that feels like it will be a thing,” she says, and her enthusiasm for the work is palpable. “I’m not talking Rilke here,” she qualifies, “but for me, it’s something I can hang my hat on.”
Is that thrilling to feel, after such a long drought? “Yeah, it’s nice to know it’s there, and it’s nice to have been doing this for long enough now that I know to not press it,” Wayson says.
She’s learned that much of crafting a piece of writing, for her, “is doing it and then stopping and letting it be, and then going back and trying some more, and then probably fucking it up a little bit, and taking that back out.”
“It really all takes such a huge amount of time,” Wayson says. That’s not a complaint, coming from her. In fact, she sounds like she’s having fun.
Last week, Seattle cartoonist DW recommended a cartoonist who posts on Instagram under the pseudonym Seattle Walk Report. I’d never heard of her before, but when I looked her up I could easily understand why she was a favorite.
Seattle Walk Report’s cartoons track various data points from her walks through Seattle. She might count all the pumpkins she sees, or make a running tally of newspaper boxes, or notice that every single paneled parapet on the Montlake Bridge had its own spider web inside, or write little love notes to dogs she meets while walking around town. “I’ve been seeing a steady increase in sidewalk nachos,” she writes in one installment, “BUT WHERE ARE THEY COMING FROM?”
Seattle Walk Report responded quickly to a direct message, and she seemed happy to talk on the phone. The anonymity of her pseudonym isn’t iron clad: She identifies herself as in her late 20s and kindly offers her first name when I comment on how awkward it is to call another person “Seattle Walk Report.” But for reasons she explains in the interview, she finds the anonymity to be freeing.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
How did you get started? Did the walking come first and then the cartooning? Or did they happen at the same time?
Well, they're both intertwined. Like many walks, I think, it’s a long story, so I might ramble a little bit here.
I was born and raised in Seattle, and I've never lived anywhere else — even for a second. I don't know how to drive, and I've never learned. So I've always relied on walking, or buses, or the kindness of others to get around. The walking component was not something I found much joy in until very recently; it was just a means to an end for much of my life.
But something happened earlier this year, and the pure joy of long, winding, destinationless walks really hit me. It was kind of like —, you know in cartoons, when somebody gets hit by a piano, and they wake up and there's birds over their head and their teeth are piano keys? It was kind of like that. I woke up one morning, and it just felt like something was different. And I would wake up on a day off, and I would leave with no destination. And sometimes nine, ten hours later, I would come back, and that was just how I spent my day. It didn't even feel like a conscious decision. It was just my mind and my body telling me to get out there.
I thought I knew Seattle really well, having never lived anywhere else, but I can honestly say that before I started to take the time to slow down and take these walks, I really don't feel like I knew the half of it. Or the quarter of it. I still don't know that I do. Seattle's really started to unfold in a way that I hadn't seen before. Or maybe I hadn't taken the time to see it before — I'm not really sure.
Anyway, I've always been a person who draws, and when I was little my mom would say that I was born with a pencil in my hand; and I believed her literally until I was an embarrassing 10 or 11 years old. I thought, ‘wow, that's a really cute coincidence', and, ‘ouch, that must have hurt.’
I just crossed my legs.
But anything I've ever done artistically has really just been pretty much for myself — just art for art's sake. In high school, I would spend weeks or months working on some little, tiny minicomic just for myself. I'd complete it, and I'd smile, and I'd put it on my shelf, and I'd move on to the next thing. It was always for me and never really for anyone else.
I always imagined that I would die and the guy with the push broom who comes to clear out people's apartments who have died would find this shelf full of comics and books and all this crazy stuff that I had made that I had never shared with anybody. I imagined him with his push broom being like, ‘Whoa, this is some weird stuff.’
In addition to drawing, I've always really loved mundane data. Like the library has a subscription to a database called Statistica. It has a really great search functionality, so sometimes I'd just sit there and type in ‘Funions,’ and I'll see the average American household ate two or less bags of Funions in 2011. I just loved that kind of thing.
So walking really made me reconnect with Seattle, and reconnecting with Seattle made me walk. It was this really satisfying loop, and that was my first revelation. Then my second revelation came when I realized I could combine this love of walking with drawing and with data collection.
I thought it would be another one of those projects that I'd be happy to keep to myself, like some sort of journal or something. Because after a while the walks kind of all start to blur together. So I thought this would just be a fun way for me to remember these walks, and where I went, or what I saw on them, or how many crosswalks I crossed, or that kind of thing.
I decided one day to go out and just record what I see. I didn't have some deep goal in mind with it. And when I got home, I turned it into a drawing, and I wrote "Seattle Walk Report" at the top without thinking about it.
I closed my notebook that I had drawn it in, and I just felt this overwhelming sort of — it felt like there was something there that needed to be said about Seattle that wasn't being said. And for the first time with anything I've ever done, I really felt like this drawing needed to be somewhere for somebody else to connect with and see.
So I downloaded Instagram for the first time in my life, and I registered Seattle Walk Report. I posted it, not thinking anyone would ever see it or ever care, but wanting to know that it was there for people to see and care about if they felt like it.
It just went from there. The feedback loop grew stronger in terms of me walking to draw and drawing to walk in Seattle. It all just kind of wove together into this perfect little thing.
I didn't tell anyone I was going to do it. I didn't come up with a cute name first, and then try to figure it out. I just did it, and I didn't have a fully formed idea of what I was doing. I still don't. It's evolved so much. It was just born out of walking, and raised by walking, and will probably die by walking. Anyway, that's the long, winding story of it all.
That's fantastic. What do you think, specifically, about the evolution when you look back on the last four months, five months? How long has it been?
I think July 1st was when I started it. When I first started out, I felt this desire to use the knowledge that I have of Seattle's neighborhoods to impose my own ideas about what might unfold during that walk, instead of just letting the city be whatever it is that day. I would actively seek out certain things at the detriment of actually seeing what was there.
In one of my earliest ones, I knew I was going to be walking around in South Lake Union so I was like, ‘okay, I'll probably see closed sidewalks, and I'll probably see Starbucks cups on the ground, and I'll probably see some baby ducks.’ And so I went out to tally those things, since it seemed like I would probably find them there, and that's fine. But it was almost like I was writing a narrative and pigeon-holing the walk, or the place, before even setting out on it.
Once I let go of that sort of narrative, and just started to walk with no preconceived notions of what I would see, I think things just really started to pop off. Right around the time that I let go of that, people started commenting, ‘This one was really good.’ Or, like, ‘this has really gotten a lot better.’ Then I did start to put more effort into it, because before I would just do it over 15 minutes on my lunch break.
I actually just found out about you last week, because a cartoonist named DW who moved to Seattle just a few months ago recommended you as one of his favorite cartoonists.
That's so nice.
I've been doing long walks for a few years now, and I've written a little about it, and every once in a while I'll tweet while I'm out on a walk or something. And people have told me, "You should write a book about this." And I love walking, but the point of walking is to be sort of monotonous, right? It's literally one step in front of the other. But the way you handle it, I think, is really interesting.
It really speaks to me about the quotidian nature of walking, and just what it's like to go out on a walk and to observe at a very natural, very slow pace. Have your cartoons always been sort of like data collection or did you just start doing that with the walking?
There's always been kind of an element of that. I’ve always been interested in taking things that people think they know and adding some sort of new layer to it. I've found through this that there are other people out there doing this exact same thing in a different way, moreso than I realized.
Like the number of messages I've gotten from people who are like, ‘oh, my gosh, I thought I was the only person who always remembered my favorite dog I saw on a walk.’ Just that there are other people out there quietly doing this exact same thing in their heads. And that's pretty cool — to find that kind of quiet community out there, and kind of bring people together. I was not expecting the response to be what it was. I really thought I'd be playing to an audience of myself, just in as more public way than I normally do.
And so to have people resonate, to have it resonate with people, and have people message me and say, ‘you're my hero’ and ‘this has changed how I see Seattle’ — it just blows my mind a little bit.
So you have over 700 followers on Instagram. How did those numbers grow? It's been a relatively short time. Did you get everybody all at once or have there been little plateaus, or what?
It's been super, super steady from the beginning. Every day a couple more people. I haven't had one day where I wake up and see that I’ve gotten 100 people — nothing like that. I think people find it just by stumbling on it, or people hear about it from somebody else. It's been kind of a word of mouth thing.
There are people who know me really well who don't know that I'm doing this. There are people who I work with who follow me, and they don't know that I am this person I don't see myself as part of the Seattle comics community, because I've never met anybody in it or gone to any of the things that you're supposed to go to if you're part of that. But I have followed certain Seattle cartoonists that I stumble across [on Instagram], and then they'll follow me back and that kind of thing. So it's just been a steady sort of growth.
So, say you inspire somebody to walk, which I imagine has probably happened. Is there any walk that you would recommend as a particularly surprising one for people want to get a feel for Seattle as a walking city?
This might be a little bit long for the new walker, but I'd say give it a shot and see what happens: I really like the South Lake Union walk. I like walking around South Lake Union — starting near MOHAI and going the entire way around — because you get to see such a variety of things. It's a relatively flat walk. There's Gas Works along the way. There's Fremont. You get to go over bridges. You get to go under bridges. It's relatively quiet. There's nice views. Especially if somebody is new to the city in general, I really recommend that walk just to get a feel for the sort of sights there are to see around.
Discovery Park — for some reason, growing up I didn't spend a lot of time there, and so I've discovered it for the first time. I'd recommend either just walking to Discovery Park from wherever you are, or taking the bus there — driving there, whatever — and giving that a shot. Because that's another place that has a lot of variety, and beautiful views.
I'd also say to walk down Airport Way and see what happens. If you like interesting trash, and sights, you can achieve a good sort of rhythmic zen state on Airport Way.
There's also buses everywhere so you can take back if you get tired.
Yeah. And definitely on the South Lake Union walk, there's multiple points where you can just bail on it.
And there are public bathrooms at MOHAI, and again at Gas Works Park. Because bathrooms are a real concern on these long walks.
PCC in Fremont has bathrooms that they don't care if you use all day every day.
I'm sure they'll be pleased about you telling people that. But it's important! There aren't a lot of open restrooms. In October through April a lot of the public park bathrooms just close down. Because you obviously don't need to go to the bathroom from October to April.
Weirdly, even though you’re anonymous, I think that you're a really good ambassador for walking in the city. Even though you don’t use your name, the work feels really personal.
I think when I first really grasped on to what it was that I was doing, I realized that being mostly anonymous enhances my ability to be an invisible observer, and just to report out. I think that really strengthens the work.
If you were a walker, too, it's probably likely that we've stood at the same crosswalk or walked by each other. I think that's kind of like a cool, human thing. And I like being able to be amongst people at any time and have them not know who I am, or what I'm doing, even if they are one of the 720 people who know my work.
So I don't mind sharing certain things about myself or my comics, and people can certainly figure out a lot about me and what I care about through my comics. To know Seattle Walk Report is to know me pretty darn well. I don't know if readers would have a greater appreciation or understanding of Seattle Walk Report, if they knew my face, or my job, or my favorite Beatle, or whatever. I don't know. We'll see.
There is certainly anonymity to walking. Every once in a while I will see older versions of me out on the Interurban Trail and we’ll nod to each other, but generally, I don't recognize anyone. When I started doing this, I thought I was very much alone. I thought I was the only human being who has walked from Westwood Village in West Seattle to Shoreline, from city limits to city limits across the city diagonally, in a single day. But now I'm starting to realize that there is this culture out there. And hearing you talk about it certainly has helped solidify that there is a walking culture here. But it's a culture of people who like to be alone.
One of the first things people will say when I talk about my walks is, ‘oh, we should go walking together sometime.’ And it always makes me uncomfortable to respond ambivalently, but part of the reason I do these walks is to be alone. Has that happened to you too?
So many people have messaged me on Instagram saying, ‘we should go on a walk sometime.’ And I'm like, you have no idea how — first of all — how horrendous that would be for you.
If you want the worst time of your life, go on a walk with me. I'll just pop in my headphones, and get out my notebook, and ignore you for six hours. And you'll be exhausted, or you will have left hours ago, and I'm still walking, and I didn't even know you were gone.
I really appreciate people reaching out to me, but I do think it is such a solitary venture. Maybe sometime I can go on a walk with somebody where they go on a walk, and I go on a walk, and we're not together; and we just report back on what we saw, and that can be spending time together. That would be perfect situation for me.
Do you enjoy nature walks, too? I know you mentioned Discovery Park, but that's walkable from the city. Have you ever been the sort of person who's into hiking?
Not really. I'm definitely more of a city walker. I definitely appreciate the contrast, but I think I really like to fill out the map in my mind. I really like to think ‘there's no way I could get from Woodinville to the U District,’ and then go do it.
On Saturday, October 14th at 6 pm, the Fantagraphics Bookstore in Georgetown presents new work from three great young cartoonists. Denver’s Noah Van Sciver and Los Angeles cartoonist Joseph Remnant share the stage with a new-to-Seattle cartoonist who goes by the initials DW. Fantagraphics is releasing DW's very first book, a reproduction of a graph-paper sketchbook titled Mountebank.
DW is a serious and thoughtful young cartoonist who, in his spare time, co-founded and co-edits a comics anthology called Irene. He was kind enough to take a break from a visit to the east coast to talk to me on the phone about why he picked Seattle as a home, how he came to publish with Fantagraphics, and the responsibilities of being an editor of comics. This interview has been lightly edited.
When did you move to Seattle?
On July 7th. My friends, who drove me up, we left San Francisco on July 4th and we got to Seattle on July 7th.
How long were you in San Francisco before that?
Five years. I graduated from the Center for Cartoon Studies in 2012 and spent the rest of the summer in Vermont after that. On September 5th 2012 I flew out to the Bay Area and spent about eight months living in Oakland, and then moved over to San Francisco. So all told, it came out to almost exactly five years in the bay area.
Can I ask why you moved to Seattle?
I found San Francisco to be a very lonely place. It was a big problem for me there — connecting with people and feeling like I was part of a community, either on a personal level or as an artist trying to be amongst other cartoonists. I had given it my best shot for five years.
So it was partly running away from stuff there and just wanting to move onto something different, which I had been thinking about doing for quite a while at that point. But it was also about running towards something, because [Fantagraphics and I] had been working on [Mountebank]. That was about to come out about the time I made the decision to move to Seattle.
I already had several good friends who were cartoonists in Seattle and are part of a really rich, vibrant community. I checked with them to find out — I was like, ‘Is it still kicking? Is the cartoonist community still alive and well in Seattle?’ And they said, ‘Yes, it absolutely is. Better than ever. You should come for a visit it and see if you feel at home here.’
So I visited and then made the decision pretty much right then and there that I was going to give it a shot.
So Seattle does not have a reputation for being a warm and welcoming city to new visitors. I assume you probably heard to death about the Seattle freeze.
I think it should be called the San Francisco freeze.
I have heard about it, and I have not found it to be a part of my real-life experience in any way. I have found moving to Seattle to be an exciting, lovely, stimulating, warm experience. I feel really connected to the people. For the first time in a long time, I feel part of an artistic community, part of a healthy social world.
So I haven't had any problems with the Seattle freeze. I know it's legendary. You know I think as an East coast person, born and bred, I'm never going to feel completely at home on the west coast, which is part of the reason why I like living on the west coast. But I instantly felt connected to something in Seattle that I never felt in the Bay Area. It doesn't feel like work every day to feel connected to people, both on an artistic level and on a basic human social level. I've loved it so far.
Are there any cartoonists in the community who you want to especially highlight? Any cartoonists who were especially instrumental in your move?
Either before I moved here or who I’ve encountered since moving here or both?
Before, the two who were both my closest Seattle friends and are also two of the best cartoonists I know, are Ben Horak and James Stanton. Their work has been printed in the anthology that I edit. They’re both buddies of mine, and even if I wasn't close friends with them I would completely have nothing but good things to say about their cartoon abilities.
[Max] Clotfelter and [Tom] Van Deusen and Marie Hausauer — I didn’t know any of them personally... Oh, and Handa. Do you know Handa?
I don’t think so.
She's amazing. I was big fans of all their work before I moved here and now I'm becoming friends with all of them. I've had a chance to start to get to know all of them, and they're all really good people.
Probably my favorite Seattle cartoonist right now is Seattle Walk Report. Do you know her work on Instagram?
No! Seattle Walk Report? That sounds awesome!
Yeah, everybody should follow her.
Oh, and I forgot to say Marc Palm. Marc was the guy who helped me find a place to live, which was really important because I've become friends with all my roommates now. Marc, besides being a good cartoonist and a good guy, is such a pillar of the community.
As you well know, because you've been through all this with him, what he's accomplished recently with the left-handed drawing thing is something that is, to me, a major accomplishment for an artist. It's really inspiring the way he deals with adversity and adapts to his situation and turns it into something new. That ability to do that and make lemonade out of lemons is what I aspire to as an artist and a person. So Marc is a very important guy, both before I moved here and still to this day, as a friend and colleague.
So you went to the Center for Cartoon Studies, which basically means you are hardcore. That is not something you bumble into because you think you're going to maybe try this cartooning thing. You go there if you want to be a cartoonist for the rest of your life.
It's true. Yeah, it's like if you want to get your time's worth and money's worth out of it you have to be prepared to go hardcore with it — whatever that means for you as an individual. I think it would be pretty pointless to spend the money and the two years if you're not at least going to try to do it every day for the rest of your life, whether you have any intention of anybody seeing that work or not. So that's what I tried to do.
Have you always been a cartoonist, then?
On and off. I did it a lot when I was a kid. I've never stopped reading comics, my whole life. Especially newspaper comics. I've been really steeped in newspaper comics, from the time I could read. I was born in ‘83, and Calvin and Hobbes ran from ‘85 to ’95, so I was right in my formative years in that point where Watterson was also publishing a new Calvin and Hobbes in the newspaper every day. I would read the Philadelphia Inquirer comics page every day and always save Calvin and Hobbes for the last thing I read right before I left to go to school.
And I read super hero comics, graphic novels, and pretty much everything else. I read Maus when I was about 10. I was making a lot of comics and writing a lot of bad stories, and doodling all the time when I should have been focusing on schoolwork.
Then I drifted away from it. I never stopped, but [comics] got relegated to something I would do during class when I should have been paying attention to my teachers, or that I would toss off as a joke for friends. The main portion of my artistic energy went to other things like playing music, or making videos with friends. Things that entailed a more, by definition, social aspect because I think that's what I needed at the time.
When I was in my early 20's and I was working a nine-to-five job after graduating from college I found my way back to really making drawing an essential part of my life and started taking it seriously again. It was a few years after that I decided to go to grad school at CCS.
So how did you get involved with Fantagraphics?
Two years ago, I was coming up to Seattle to meet my mom because she was going to be there on business — this was when I was still living in San Francisco. It seemed like a natural thing to do to take time off of work and hang out in Seattle for a little while.
I figured since I was going to be in Seattle anyway I would see if I could pull some strings and try to get my foot in the door to just meet the people at Fantagraphics. I was really looking at it as a networking opportunity to try to get on their radar: let them know who I was, see if they had any constructive feedback about my work, put my work in front of their eyes.
And it turned out that they were interested in working on something together, so then we started to discuss what form would that take. I had some pretty strong feelings about that. They pushed back when appropriate, but they were very easy to work with and very supportive of my ideas for how this project should take shape.
What were some of your strong feelings?
[Mountebank] is a facsimile reproduction of an actual sketchbook that I maintained for about two years. Because of the way that I conceived of and structured the work in that book, which was extremely organized and regimented and followed a strict set of rules, I felt that the work had to be presented altogether in sequential order, in the original order that it appears in the actual sketchbook, and that the concepts of the presentation should be a facsimile — as close as possible to the feeling that you're holding the actual book in your hands. A few people have commented to me, and I don't think that they're wrong, that [sketchbook reproduction is] a bit of a played-out concept at this point. Maybe the market got a little saturated with that kind of presentation, but I just felt like that was the only way to do this.
Working in a sketchbook has a very particular meaning for me. It's my preferred method of working and it helps guide my work in the direction that want it to go. I think that presenting this particular body of work — both because the pages do have a relationship to one another and because of the way they look on the original sketchbook pages — I think it's important that you appreciate that this is all coming out of a sketchbook.
It's kind of like finding that place where this work represents an overlap between comics and the physical feeling of the intimacy of leafing through someone's sketchbook, or seeing something that they're giving you permission to see that they've been carrying around in their bag with them for two years and scribbling in during their lunch breaks.
Yeah, I think there's an interesting relationship between cartoonists and their sketchbooks and their broader body of work. Nobody can really deny that Robert Crumb’s sketchbooks, which Fantagraphics has reproduced, have become a central part of his work.
Right. I've heard through the grapevine that Crumb himself was really skeptical about that concept. He thought it was kind of a dumb idea. I don't know if I have that exactly right, but he wasn't really into that idea. And people love those, right? [His sketchbooks have] become a central aspect of his entire body of work now.
Yeah, and there are other cartoonists, like Seth for instance — I prefer his sketchbook stuff lately to the stuff that he’s more intensely rendered.
I can see that. I don't know if you'd agree with this, but I think with that with him, his most recent comics have gotten so designerly. Which, obviously, he's one of the most talented designers alive. But they're so designerly and so polished that you end up kind of responding to that more than the emotional content, or the narrative content. Whereas with the sketchbooks there's like these flashes of really powerful emotion or something that cut through a little more sharply.
I'm trying to create a space where the work in the sketchbooks is the finished work, or there is no finished work.
Yeah, and there's a lack of self-seriousness in his sketchbooks that I like in contrast with his other work. But somebody like Chris Ware, who is really into design — I like his sketchbooks, but they are not as significant as Crumb's or Seth's.
You know what? I totally agree with that formulation. I think you're right about that. Ware, I do like the finished work better.
It's very interesting that sketchbook art is becoming part of a cartoonist’s career and body of work.
I think you're right. And so with me, to jump ahead a little bit, I'm trying to create a space where the work in the sketchbooks is the finished work, or there is no finished work. Choosing to work in the sketchbook doesn't mean that this is supposed to be private, or unpolished —although it probably does allow me to get away with a lot of mistakes that I wouldn’t be happy with if I was doing it in a different context.
I think you’re the first cartoonist Fantagraphics has published who they've made the sketchbook before the “real” book.
You might be right about that. If that's the case, that was them being really amazing, thoughtful, cooperative, collaborators.
Is the book that I am holding in my hand, literally right now — is this basically the object that you brought in to Fantagraphics when you visited two years ago?
Yeah. I brought in about three or four sketchbooks to show them, including the one that you're holding right now. That was the one that I always had my eye on. Even at that point, I thought ‘I want this book to be presented by somebody, hopefully Fantagraphics, as a complete work.’
From the movement that I conceived the structure for that book, and designed the system that would guide the content and flow of the book, I had always envisioned that particular sketchbook as being a unified work that would hang together as one object.
So to answer your question more fully, if I were to hand you the original sketchbook, which I'd be happy to do sometime if we ever were to meet, and you were to place it alongside your copy and flip to the same page it would be virtually indistinguishable except by touch.
I can't triangulate your work by just having this one point to work with. Do you develop individual ideas in individual sketchbooks? Does your style differ depending on where you sketch?
I sort of change the channel depending on what sketchbook I'm in. There are different sketchbooks that serve different purposes, and represent different meanings or contexts for me. I always maintain at least one sketchbook where I do stuff I probably wouldn't necessarily ever print, or maybe even wouldn’t show to somebody — real raw. Just letting my ID roam around the page and morad around and see what it can catch. Then with Mountebank, which was the name of the sketchbook — you know, you have to name your sketchbooks — Mountebank was conceived as the opposite of that.
Even though it was in a sketchbook, I wanted it to be a unified body of work where you do go on this journey as you flip from one page to the next, and before I ever made a single mark on the first page, I conceived of the system that would guide the rules and the content and the structure of what criteria have to be met on every page, and the order in which the pages go. I drew up a whole matrix to tell me when I got to each page, which criteria and rules had to be honored on that page.
Then, I would have to respond to those rules I had set for myself in the context of where I was at that point in the book and create that page accordingly so I would have room to improvise and play around. Going straight to ink, as I do, but would also have to be mindful of those rules and build everything I was doing around those rules so that each individual page would stand on its own compositionally, but would fit into the larger structure of the piece by obeying the rules of the matrix.
It's a really impressive book. I intend to come back to and reinvestigate it. But it seems like there are a lot of layers going on here.
Yeah, and I hope that not knowing what they all are and not understanding all of the criteria would be part of the act of enjoying the work. I don't want you to have to know all that stuff in order to understand the book.
Yeah, but it does seem like there is a definite form of logic.
There's one in my head. I know exactly, in my head, how it works. But to me, all of that logic, and the system, is a jumping off point for how to get started making the work, and how to direct my energy within the process of making the work. But in my opinion, it’s absolutely not essential, or probably even interesting, to someone who just wants to flip to a page and enjoy looking at the pretty pictures. You know?
Towards the middle of the book I you embark on what feels like a real investigation into the idea of what a panel is and what a panel can do.
Totally! The panel thing is huge. That was a big thing for me. You put that really beautifully, too.
You could view the entire page as a single panel or you have the lines in there that can be seen as sort of breaking it up.
Right, and sometimes the panel borders are respected as blocking off each panel as the discrete area, and sometimes they're not. So sometimes the breaking up of things into panels could, at the same time, make you want to look at each panel and "read" each panel in sequence. And then at the same time it might make you want to step back and look at the larger composition, because certain aspects of the composition respect those panels and those panel borders, and then other aspects freely traverse [the panel borders] with no respect for them. So that hopefully the entire page would hang together as an entire composition while also being readable, as it were.
And then also I think you could also view each individual square on the graph paper as its own panel.
I think in some cases I got away from that as I went on. I think towards the end of the book it got sort of zoomed out a little, which you could also say that about the book itself. So I guess you could look at it in these units of individual squares, individual panels, individual pages — and at every one of those levels I'm always also thinking about the level above. So as I moved towards the culmination of the project and was trying to get to the page count that I wanted for the final submission, I think I was getting a little broader in scope and starting to think more like a designer and less like a cartoonist.
We literally had artists from every continent in the world, including Antarctica, in one comic anthology.
You are an editor of an anthology titled Irene, and I wanted to ask you about that. I've only interviewed a few people about editing comics. Generally they are very sort of blasé about editing in a way that literary editors are not. Like [Fantagraphics publisher] Gary Groth, for instance. He told me once that he did very little editing once the pages came in to him, because there's not much an editor can do with a drawn comics page, as opposed to working with text. I just want to ask you what it's like working on your book as an editor, and what kind of an editor you're like. I think that's a couple questions at once, sorry.
I can certainly answer the first part easily. In terms of working as an editor, I'm working alongside two of my closest friends in the whole world, and two of my favorite artists, Andy Warner and Dakota McFadzean. We are together editing and publishing this book that we co-founded, the three of us.
We're also designing the physical look of the book: we're doing the cover, the end pages, and the table of contents for every issue. We are talking to one another during the initial gearing-up phase for any given issue — who do we want to invite for this issue? We're all bringing different sensibilities to that, because we're three very different cartoonists in terms of styles, contexts, and communities that we work in. We're really close and we all respect and feed off of one another's work and respective aesthetics. But we're also all three of us connected to wildly different areas of cartooning as a medium.
So we're all feeding into this common stream, and then we're sifting through it: who do we want to invite, what overall aesthetic do we want to cultivate for a given issue, do we want more of one kind of artist over another?
Issue six, the most recent issue of Irene, we literally had artists from every continent in the world, including Antarctica, in one comic anthology. Which, we can't prove it, but we're pretty sure that's the first time that anybody's ever accomplished that with a comics anthology. We don't think anybody else has gone through the trouble to find cartoonists from Antarctica before.
So, there's that process of starting to put the issue together and conceiving of what it might be like. Then when the work starts to roll in, that's the most fun part. Because to echo Gary's comment on that — especially since we're asking people to be in this book and we're telling them up front that they have free reign once they've agreed to do it, to do whatever they see fit — we don't think we're in a position to push back and make changes or edits at that point. When they hand in the finished work we take what they've given us.
Along the way we have often had contributors who have asked us for editorial feedback while they're working on the project, and we love engaging with that and trying to be helpful with that where we can. But once the finished work has come in and we have all the work that we need to put an issue together the most fun part is the three of us getting together and debating the structure and sequence of the book. Like, ‘I really feel strongly that this particular story should be the opener because it will start off on a really strong note and it will set this or that tone for the book.’ Then choosing the last story is really fun. Every single issue we have one artist do all of the interstitials so that as you finish one story and begin the next there's a little breather page. We like to have one person do all of those interstitial breather pages for the whole issue. So that becomes this whole aesthetic consideration.
Yeah, and we're putting it together in this sequence that feels right for us and then the three of us are doing this sort of design and presentation for what the cover and end pages, and table of contents are going to look like and how they're going to create a functional house for all of those lovely comics.
As a translator, EJ Koh told me at her book launch party at the Hugo House last month, “there are many ways to use one word. In that sense, the words feel heavier to me” as a translator than they do as ‘just’ a poet. “They weigh heavier on my heart and in my mind.” She continued, “when I'm writing poetry in English, I think, ‘how can I make this word in English mean so many things? How can I manipulate it in that way?’”
Koh is a genius at manipulating the meanings of words: the poems in her debut collection, A Lesser Love are happy and sad and funny all at the same time. In some ways, her poems are a little like those plastic layers you used to find in old anatomy textbooks to illustrate the varied systems of the human body. Peel back a single layer and you’ll find something new underneath — a system that’s just as essential to the life of the organism as everything else.
Koh and I spoke briefly at the end of her reading. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation. (Many thanks to Hugo House programs assistant Kelsey Lacanilao for sharing her audio recording of the event.)
You've written a little bit about the act of translating poems from Korean to English with your parents. I was wondering if you could talk a about that.
So I'm not super, super fluent in Korean — I can do karaoke, but I'm not super fluent.
But I do translate Korean poetry, and I use the help of my father, who's been great. My dad gets the literal translation for me. I get to sit next to him and ask him the context because the literal is not enough. I also want to know for him being born at that time — let's say post-occupation or so — and so during the war, what was going on? What was the pop culture? What did that word mean then, not what does it mean now? So that's been really great.
It's also a sly way to get your dad to start reading poetry.
Also, the poet I translated is my mom's best friend from high school. Her name's Kim Myung Won. I found out about her because me and my mom and Kim Myung went to karaoke once. We got hammered. Then Kim Myung looks at me and she goes, ‘You know, I'm a poet.’
And I said, ‘What? Me too.’
My mom's hammered and she's like, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. You're both poets.’
And I'm saying, ‘Mom, why didn't you tell us sooner?’
Kim Myung was like, ‘Do you want some of my poems? Do you want to translate them?’
And I said, ‘Yeah. I do.’
It turns out some of her poems are pretty raunchy. And having to get the literal raunchy translation of them through my father was sometimes awkward because I'd be like, ‘Dad, this word means many things but does it mean this?’
And he's like, ‘It does, yeah, but more... it's dirtier."
And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’
So it's been great.
So you didn't do so many historical poems tonight, but you do write a lot about history.
I do. Yeah.
Do you ever find the past to be a confining subject? Or is it more of a liberating subject? Do you find your inspiration there?
I do talk about historical events, and I rewrite those poems again and again because there are so many different colors to the events themselves, and there's so many different perspectives, that I can go over them again and again.
It's not limiting. It’s just the opposite — almost like going back to revise and see a new sheen or, I guess in the Instagram culture it's like a new filter, to look at the things that happened.
I think it's such a wonderful well, and an abundant well. Every time you go back to an event, there is something we didn't know at the time that we do now. Rarely do we go back to apply what we know now to those events and say, ‘That's why. That's why these people felt this way. That's why they left their country, or that's why this has all happened and it has now accumulated to this.’
I think it's part of history to go back and revise, to revisit, to listen to the ghosts, to do your work. It’s part of culture.
Do you consider yourself to be a Seattle poet?
Yes. Oh my gosh! Yes.
How does Seattle represent itself in your work?
The last poem in my book is called, "Alki the Town of Dreams." I also have a poem called "Madrona." I have poems about places all over Seattle.
I've lived in San Jose. I've lived in Davis, and in Irvine, which is near L.A., and New York. I would travel here and there for fellowships and scholarships, but it didn't feel like home until I came to Seattle.
Seattle was sort of a pivotal moment where everything came together. Everything I could have wanted — the time to write, the space, the community, the creativity, the energy, the people. I am so happy to be a Seattle poet.
Franklin Foer’s World Without Mind is a must-read book of the fall season. Subtitled The Existential Threat of Big Tech, World is a full-frontal assault on the fallacious idea that the big four tech companies that shape our world — Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple — are benevolent firms that have the advancement of humanity in mind.
Foer smartly couches his polemic in memoir, relaying his experiences as a beloved editor of the New Republic. When the storied magazine was bought by a tech gadfly, its century-old dedication to the art of journalism and thoughtful opinion was discarded in favor of click-hungry content farming. Foer was fired, and the majority of his staff left with him in solidarity.
A lesser writer could seem like an aggrieved party in World, and Foer certainly does acknowledge that his pride was wounded in the aftermath of the New Republic’s Silicon Valley-styled meltdown. But instead he makes a compelling case for considered, intellectual thought in the public sphere, even as he rages against the slick digital robber barons who have consumed our attention in exchange for a few baubles of convenience.
Foer reads from World at Elliott Bay Book Company on Wednesday, September 27th at 7 pm. The event is free; no purchase is necessary. I hope you'll go hear him out. You’ll likely think a little differently about the urgings of the vibrating hunk of glass and steel in your pocket after the event.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of a phone conversation I had with Foer last week.
I assume you heard the news that Amazon recently announced that they're looking to found a second separate-but-equal headquarters in another city?
Now we're watching cities bow and scrape in the hopes of bringing Amazon to them. Tucson just sent a giant cactus to Amazon management, like some sort of a weird dowry or something. I was wondering if you had any advice for cities that might be trying to entice Amazon to set up in their city?
Let's just look at Amazon's track record when it comes to exploiting civil government. Part of its business model has been to fleece local municipalities — with its refusal to pay sales tax over time, or all the concessions that it extracts when it goes about setting a warehouse down.
I think the right metaphor is the sports stadiums that get built in cities, where owners come in and exploit civic pride and sense of civic purpose in order to get these fantastical deals for themselves, where cities empty their coffers in order to build these monumental facilities that teams then make money off of.
I just think it's sad. And part of the sadness is that we can see where this is going over the long run, which is that Amazon may bring jobs in the short term, but they really don't want those jobs over the long run. In the long run, when Amazon puts down a warehouse, it's going to automate it, so there are not going to be workers.
I wonder whether these cities are doing anything to remotely try to calculate the long-term economic benefit for themselves. I doubt it.
One of the things that I thought was especially interesting in this book was the writing about media, especially the parts that focused on your own experience. I left a publication soon after management installed [analytics software] Chartbeat because they devalued arts coverage after they learned that it wasn't as popular as they had assumed it was.
I've done a lot of thinking since then that maybe the original sin for the marriage between media and the internet was the decision by Google founders that a click on an ad was only worth a fraction of a cent. It's a system that doesn't allow for the fact that some clicks could be worth more to some advertisers than to others. It's very rigid. Do you think there's a way to change that discussion — to revalue the importance of writing as valued by advertising — or is the advertising model basically dead for media?
My sense is that the advertising model is kind of dead in the short term. I fundamentally agree with you that Google has deflated the advertising market as it exists now beyond any reasonable significance to media companies. We need to move on to something different.
My preference is to move to a subscription model, but I also think that it's possible that there's some form of advertising that hasn't been invented yet that could be more valuable than display advertising, and less corrupting than the native advertising that we've seen people moving towards over time. But I'm not smart enough to know what that is.
Do you think anyone's getting close to it? Do you see anybody doing things that you like?
What I like is the resurgence of subscription models. I like that the New York Times and the Washington Post seem to be selling subscriptions in some volume, re-acclimating people to the idea of having to pay for what they read.
But I also think that the subscription model as it exists now for digital journalism isn’t valuable on its own because the prices are set far too low. We're kind of in this place where everything has been deflated. The value of digital advertising has been deflated, the value of digital subscriptions has been deflated, and it's hard to see where exactly the fast-forward is.
One thing that I do think -
Sorry that I don't have the cheerful, optimistic solution for you.
It's okay. Nobody has those solutions, that's the thing. That's why it's important to keep thinking about it. But one thing that I do think the internet has done really well — and I don't know if it gets a lot of credit from people in the media on this — is to provide a platform for people who have never before had voices in the media.
I find it really difficult to argue for a return to the old gatekeeper model when there's now more representation in culture than ever before. Is there a way to reclaim institutional thought and consideration while still maintaining the representational progress we've seen in the last 10 years?
Yeah. That doesn't seem terribly difficult to me. I think that institutional journalism has responded to the internet, and also a shift in times, by being much more representative. I think that when it comes to a lot of these questions about new technology and old media, it's easy to slip into Manichean thought. The choice isn't between going back to the old media of the 1980s — which was stodgy, excessively white male, etc. — versus the status quo. I think we have the ability to do better on all fronts. I don't think that we need to abandon all the good aspects of change in order to respond to the bad aspects of change.
As you were collecting ideas for this book, where did you draw the line between reality and conspiracy theory, and between apathy and malevolence in the intent of these companies? It's very easy for me to get too wrapped up in this sort of good guy/bad guy paradigm, when the truth of their intent is much more complex. Is this something you've had to think about as you’ve put this book together? This is kind of a vague question and I'm very sorry — can you retrieve anything of value out of that?
I think you're saying that it's possible to look at what the tech companies do and come to the conclusion that they're highly malevolent, when in fact they may have a lot of ideas that could be caricatured as malevolent, but in fact are relatively benign. Is that what you're saying?
Yeah. That's a good, solid place to start for sure.
I would say that what makes these companies interesting is that they're idealistic and ambitious. I think one does need to take seriously their own self-description. I think that we need to treat them as not just money-making corporations, but treat them also as companies that have ambitions to change the world. Sometimes they're self-justifying ambitions. I think that [Facebook founder Mark] Zuckerberg does a lot of self-justifying, but in other instances I think that they're perfectly sincere in describing how they want to change the world.
[Calling it] a conspiracy makes it sound like people are sitting in a back room somewhere in Palo Alto devising a hidden plan. My point is that the plan isn't actually very hidden. I think that a lot of times these companies, for the most part, are very naked in describing what they're up to, so I don't really think it takes a whole lot of reading to go to the place I go when I'm describing them.
Do you worry when you put this book out that there's a chance that you might be pigeonholed in the role of the curmudgeon — like, CNN will call you to fill out a panel whenever they need someone to just complain about Big Tech?
Yeah, I've clearly cast myself as grandpa. I don't understand why that's a worry. Am I worried that I'm a token, is that what you’re asking?
The media tends to find value in people who say “no,” but they value them only if they say “no” in the same way again and again. I wonder if there's a possibility of you being typecast as the man who said “no.”
I feel like I'm just writing my opinion. Really I wasn't thinking about being on a CNN panel when I was writing about this book. I want my argument to be heard, so I'd probably go on a CNN panel, but really I live to write books and arguments, not to be on CNN panels, so that's what I think about most.
Do I worry about getting typecast as a curmudgeon? If that's your question, I clearly don't really worry about that because I wrote a book that can easily be described as curmudgeonly.
What has the response been like at your events? Is there anything that you think that people can expect coming out to your reading in Seattle?
One of the interesting things in the moment that we've arrived at is there's this concept that's become cliché in describing our politics, which is this concept of the Overton Window, which is when the discourse expands to include ideas that resided outside of the mainstream.
When I started working on this book, I felt like people looked at me weirdly, and they couldn't understand why I was going to be criticizing these companies in technology that people have so much affection for.
Over the last couple months, I happened to make an argument that lined up with a shift in thinking. In large part, I think the election started to change people's minds about Facebook, and then Amazon's purchase of Whole Foods elicited a lot of anxiety about Amazon's size, and etc.
One of the fascinating things is that there are a lot of people who I thought would hate my argument. I've just been surprised at the people who are either centrist or in finance — or even in Silicon Valley — who seem sympathetic to my argument. It feels like I thought I was going to be throwing a stone at the Overton Window, but instead, it feels like I'm just climbing through the Overton Window just as it's opening.