Franklin Foer’s World Without Mind is a must-read book of the fall season. Subtitled The Existential Threat of Big Tech, World is a full-frontal assault on the fallacious idea that the big four tech companies that shape our world — Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple — are benevolent firms that have the advancement of humanity in mind.
Foer smartly couches his polemic in memoir, relaying his experiences as a beloved editor of the New Republic. When the storied magazine was bought by a tech gadfly, its century-old dedication to the art of journalism and thoughtful opinion was discarded in favor of click-hungry content farming. Foer was fired, and the majority of his staff left with him in solidarity.
A lesser writer could seem like an aggrieved party in World, and Foer certainly does acknowledge that his pride was wounded in the aftermath of the New Republic’s Silicon Valley-styled meltdown. But instead he makes a compelling case for considered, intellectual thought in the public sphere, even as he rages against the slick digital robber barons who have consumed our attention in exchange for a few baubles of convenience.
Foer reads from World at Elliott Bay Book Company on Wednesday, September 27th at 7 pm. The event is free; no purchase is necessary. I hope you'll go hear him out. You’ll likely think a little differently about the urgings of the vibrating hunk of glass and steel in your pocket after the event.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of a phone conversation I had with Foer last week.
I assume you heard the news that Amazon recently announced that they're looking to found a second separate-but-equal headquarters in another city?
Now we're watching cities bow and scrape in the hopes of bringing Amazon to them. Tucson just sent a giant cactus to Amazon management, like some sort of a weird dowry or something. I was wondering if you had any advice for cities that might be trying to entice Amazon to set up in their city?
Let's just look at Amazon's track record when it comes to exploiting civil government. Part of its business model has been to fleece local municipalities — with its refusal to pay sales tax over time, or all the concessions that it extracts when it goes about setting a warehouse down.
I think the right metaphor is the sports stadiums that get built in cities, where owners come in and exploit civic pride and sense of civic purpose in order to get these fantastical deals for themselves, where cities empty their coffers in order to build these monumental facilities that teams then make money off of.
I just think it's sad. And part of the sadness is that we can see where this is going over the long run, which is that Amazon may bring jobs in the short term, but they really don't want those jobs over the long run. In the long run, when Amazon puts down a warehouse, it's going to automate it, so there are not going to be workers.
I wonder whether these cities are doing anything to remotely try to calculate the long-term economic benefit for themselves. I doubt it.
One of the things that I thought was especially interesting in this book was the writing about media, especially the parts that focused on your own experience. I left a publication soon after management installed [analytics software] Chartbeat because they devalued arts coverage after they learned that it wasn't as popular as they had assumed it was.
I've done a lot of thinking since then that maybe the original sin for the marriage between media and the internet was the decision by Google founders that a click on an ad was only worth a fraction of a cent. It's a system that doesn't allow for the fact that some clicks could be worth more to some advertisers than to others. It's very rigid. Do you think there's a way to change that discussion — to revalue the importance of writing as valued by advertising — or is the advertising model basically dead for media?
My sense is that the advertising model is kind of dead in the short term. I fundamentally agree with you that Google has deflated the advertising market as it exists now beyond any reasonable significance to media companies. We need to move on to something different.
My preference is to move to a subscription model, but I also think that it's possible that there's some form of advertising that hasn't been invented yet that could be more valuable than display advertising, and less corrupting than the native advertising that we've seen people moving towards over time. But I'm not smart enough to know what that is.
Do you think anyone's getting close to it? Do you see anybody doing things that you like?
What I like is the resurgence of subscription models. I like that the New York Times and the Washington Post seem to be selling subscriptions in some volume, re-acclimating people to the idea of having to pay for what they read.
But I also think that the subscription model as it exists now for digital journalism isn’t valuable on its own because the prices are set far too low. We're kind of in this place where everything has been deflated. The value of digital advertising has been deflated, the value of digital subscriptions has been deflated, and it's hard to see where exactly the fast-forward is.
One thing that I do think -
Sorry that I don't have the cheerful, optimistic solution for you.
It's okay. Nobody has those solutions, that's the thing. That's why it's important to keep thinking about it. But one thing that I do think the internet has done really well — and I don't know if it gets a lot of credit from people in the media on this — is to provide a platform for people who have never before had voices in the media.
I find it really difficult to argue for a return to the old gatekeeper model when there's now more representation in culture than ever before. Is there a way to reclaim institutional thought and consideration while still maintaining the representational progress we've seen in the last 10 years?
Yeah. That doesn't seem terribly difficult to me. I think that institutional journalism has responded to the internet, and also a shift in times, by being much more representative. I think that when it comes to a lot of these questions about new technology and old media, it's easy to slip into Manichean thought. The choice isn't between going back to the old media of the 1980s — which was stodgy, excessively white male, etc. — versus the status quo. I think we have the ability to do better on all fronts. I don't think that we need to abandon all the good aspects of change in order to respond to the bad aspects of change.
As you were collecting ideas for this book, where did you draw the line between reality and conspiracy theory, and between apathy and malevolence in the intent of these companies? It's very easy for me to get too wrapped up in this sort of good guy/bad guy paradigm, when the truth of their intent is much more complex. Is this something you've had to think about as you’ve put this book together? This is kind of a vague question and I'm very sorry — can you retrieve anything of value out of that?
I think you're saying that it's possible to look at what the tech companies do and come to the conclusion that they're highly malevolent, when in fact they may have a lot of ideas that could be caricatured as malevolent, but in fact are relatively benign. Is that what you're saying?
Yeah. That's a good, solid place to start for sure.
I would say that what makes these companies interesting is that they're idealistic and ambitious. I think one does need to take seriously their own self-description. I think that we need to treat them as not just money-making corporations, but treat them also as companies that have ambitions to change the world. Sometimes they're self-justifying ambitions. I think that [Facebook founder Mark] Zuckerberg does a lot of self-justifying, but in other instances I think that they're perfectly sincere in describing how they want to change the world.
[Calling it] a conspiracy makes it sound like people are sitting in a back room somewhere in Palo Alto devising a hidden plan. My point is that the plan isn't actually very hidden. I think that a lot of times these companies, for the most part, are very naked in describing what they're up to, so I don't really think it takes a whole lot of reading to go to the place I go when I'm describing them.
Do you worry when you put this book out that there's a chance that you might be pigeonholed in the role of the curmudgeon — like, CNN will call you to fill out a panel whenever they need someone to just complain about Big Tech?
Yeah, I've clearly cast myself as grandpa. I don't understand why that's a worry. Am I worried that I'm a token, is that what you’re asking?
The media tends to find value in people who say “no,” but they value them only if they say “no” in the same way again and again. I wonder if there's a possibility of you being typecast as the man who said “no.”
I feel like I'm just writing my opinion. Really I wasn't thinking about being on a CNN panel when I was writing about this book. I want my argument to be heard, so I'd probably go on a CNN panel, but really I live to write books and arguments, not to be on CNN panels, so that's what I think about most.
Do I worry about getting typecast as a curmudgeon? If that's your question, I clearly don't really worry about that because I wrote a book that can easily be described as curmudgeonly.
What has the response been like at your events? Is there anything that you think that people can expect coming out to your reading in Seattle?
One of the interesting things in the moment that we've arrived at is there's this concept that's become cliché in describing our politics, which is this concept of the Overton Window, which is when the discourse expands to include ideas that resided outside of the mainstream.
When I started working on this book, I felt like people looked at me weirdly, and they couldn't understand why I was going to be criticizing these companies in technology that people have so much affection for.
Over the last couple months, I happened to make an argument that lined up with a shift in thinking. In large part, I think the election started to change people's minds about Facebook, and then Amazon's purchase of Whole Foods elicited a lot of anxiety about Amazon's size, and etc.
One of the fascinating things is that there are a lot of people who I thought would hate my argument. I've just been surprised at the people who are either centrist or in finance — or even in Silicon Valley — who seem sympathetic to my argument. It feels like I thought I was going to be throwing a stone at the Overton Window, but instead, it feels like I'm just climbing through the Overton Window just as it's opening.
From his Punch to Kill comics to his work organizing the dearly departed Intruder magazine, Marc Palm is one of the most active members of Seattle’s cartooning community. So when Palm announced on Facebook earlier this summer that he broke his right arm — his dominant arm, the arm that did all his drawing — the community responded with a visceral heartbreak: one of Seattle’s most prolific and enthusiastic cartoonists was going to be out of commission for the foreseeable future. But then Palm did something unexpected: he taught himself how to draw with his left hand. I talked to him in late August about his experiences.
Thank you for doing this. I’ve been following along on your journey on Facebook and I think it's really fascinating. Let me start with a couple of personal anecdotes. I want to get your impression of them.
First, I had a friend who was an artist in high school. His mother likes to tell the story that when he was a kid he used to walk around the house with his hands in oven mitts. He'd hold his hands in the oven mitts right up to his chest because he was so terrified that anything would happen to his hands.
He identified as an artist so much that it was like a fear for him. He felt like he’d have no identity without his art.
And then second, my grandmother was born a lefty. At her school they tied her left hand behind her back until she became right-handed, because they thought left-handedness was a weakness of character.
Is she alive?
She died, a long-time ago. But she had Alzheimer's, and she actually reverted to left-handedness toward the end there. I thought those two stories might give you an idea of what I was thinking about when I heard about your story.
Speaking of which, I want to shut up and hear your story. So to start at the beginning, you bought a skateboard, right?
Well, no. For the last couple of years I've been getting more and more interested in skateboarding. When I was 12, my parents got me a skateboard — a big clunker. Then they got me pads and helmet and all this other stuff to be safe. And I tooled around in my driveway, which was the smoothest surface I had. But even then, I didn't wear gloves. I didn't wear oven mitts walking around or whatever, but I was a very careful child.
I've been a very careful person my whole life, really. So when I was 12 I was like, ‘You know. I think I'm gonna hurt myself. I don't really want to do this.’ Skateboarding was just cool to watch. I was gonna be a fanboy of it.
But then in the last couple years I was just getting more and more into watching it, and admiring it and thinking, ‘Wow, this is cool. Maybe I should give this a shot.’ So, [Seattle cartoonist] Ben Horak said, ‘I got this board I picked up from somebody. I'm never gonna use it cause I'm too scared to hurt myself, if you want it.’
He hands me off this skateboard. And whoever had it before, they actually were a skater. The thing was pretty well ground up, and it worked well. I was kind of tooling around wherever I could.
A couple of other cartoonists and started skating. They were very encouraging like, ‘You're not gonna hurt yourself. Don't worry about it.’ So we'd go find flat surfaces — tennis courts or parking lots or whatever. We call it ‘skate dad parks.’
That's where, inevitably, it happened.
It was the big Gotham Asylum up on Beacon Hill — the hospital up there. We found this great parking lot. No one bothered us. So I was off on one side, and they were on the other, and I just made this turn and there were some rocks, and I just stopped the board. And then I just landed directly down on my wrist, and that's when I eventually broke a chunk off the ... I forget what that is. It's one of the long arm bones.
I had never broken a bone, and I tried my best to avoid it. Until picking up a skateboard.
It was the worst fear that I had. [When I started skating,] other people were like, ‘What if you break your drawing arm ?’ I’d say, ‘Yeah, I know, but it'll be fine.’ Then the worst case scenario happened.
Just to get some background: you're a fairly prolific artist. It seems like you must draw every day, right?
Yeah, I try to. It's definitely in my blood. And I've been doing it for thirty-plus years — just constantly producing and trying to do my best. But I'm not gonna kill myself over a broken arm. I just started going down the process of seeing if I could draw with my left.
My mom has a similar story to your grandmother’s. She was a lefty. She went to Catholic school, and they bound her left arm and forced her to go right. She eventually, grew out of it and went back to being a left-hander.
But while raising me she forced everything into my right hand. She was hoping that I wouldn't be a left-hander because she thinks it’s a curse. The world is right-handed, and she didn't want me to deal with the same problems she had. It's possible that I could have been a left-hander, had it just come naturally.
After you fell when did your thoughts turn to the fact that this was going to really screw up your drawing? How soon was it before you realized?
It wasn't like a big revelation, but it was definitely like, ‘Ugh, fuck. I broke my wrist. I can't draw.’ It was immediate and I tried not to be too bummed out about it. I was more annoyed that now I'm gonna be completely inconvenienced — I only have one hand. I work at the Fantagraphics warehouse and my job is lifting up packages and packing things and now I'm kind of wrecked on that.
I just thought I was gonna have to take a break. Which stinks, because I have a book that I'm working on, and hoping to have done by Short Run. I immediately just realized I had to try to figure something out.
What did that process look like?
Oddly enough, months ago — maybe even a year ago — I was having a little paranoid fantasy, wondering what would happen if I couldn't use my right arm — if it got cut off or I broke it. I was just fascinated with the idea of what my left arm can do that my right can't.
So I tried buttering my bread with my left, and I realized that these two hands had no idea what to do when they're faced with something the other hand usually does. My right hand didn't know how to hold the bread properly, and my left hand didn't know the subtleties of spreading with a certain amount of pressure without stabbing through the bread.
I played around with that. I'd started to be more efficient. I’d remind myself, ‘why don't I just grab the door handle with my left hand because that's where it's at instead of reaching all the way over from my right?’ I was already trying things with my left.’ I hadn't really tried to draw or anything, but I farted around and, like, tried to write my name with my left. It never went well.
So then, a couple days [after I broke my arm] I grabbed a big fat pencil, and I thought ‘maybe I can come up with a cute style,’ because normally my stuff's grotesque. I thought maybe I could actually draw cute things with my left hand.
So I was drawing dinosaurs just to start out. They did look kind of childish, and it was hard to have the control that I wanted. But I saw that I could do something, so I just needed to focus a little harder.
So I changed tools. I went to the smallest micron pen I have. It's a .005. I started going really small and I found that when I was doing details with my left hand, I had a lot of control. But if I made big gestures, or made big strokes, it would get all wiggly and I didn't have the kind of control I wanted.
Wow, that is the exact opposite of what I would figure would happen.
I had a bunch of people encouraging me to try drawing with my left hand. At first, it kind of annoyed me. I was like, ‘You know, this is kind of a cute, fun thing to post online, but it kind of hurts.’
So after I did those dinosaur drawings I put one up right away. I was like, ‘All right, here you go. Everyone that says I should draw with my left, here's the drawings. Fifty bucks, let's go. If you want to support me, put your money where your mouth is.’
‘Or keep your cute little comments to yourself.’ All right, yeah, I could draw with my left hand. So then I just started working on it. As far as being an artist, you're basically dealing with like problem solving: ‘I've got a picture in my head. I need to get it on paper. How do I do that?’
And what was fascinating to me about doing this, was my way of working doesn't come from my right hand. It’s not the hand that does it — it's my brain. I can visualize where things have to go. I've studied enough brush strokes and different techniques. I just needed to be able to get my left hand become a good tool, to get those lines to flow the way I want to.
So yeah, I took my time and really had to be patient and focus on the circle, where before, my right hand had been doing it for thirty close years. I was struggling to draw these little things. And I thought, ‘Wow, this is what it's like for like a normal person who doesn't know how to draw. I could see why they give up. This is hard!’
I realized that this is an enormous amount of work.
It basically was just working through it — figuring out how delicate I have to be, how hard do I want to press on this, what kind of style do I want?
Now I see it as really cool and fun. I'm kind of addicted to it.
Do you draw every day now with your left hand?
Yeah. I go to a coffee shop and sit there for an hour before work and just draw. And that was a great exercise. Every day, I sit there and pump out a new drawing.
And all the drawings I would be posting would take me two days or two mornings — an hour or less apiece. I even picked up speed as far as the amount of time I was working on them. I could do it faster and faster, and get more precise. It's interesting how it's an exponential growth of ability.
I feel my brain swelling.
Yeah, you really got good. I was following your story on Facebook and it seems like all of a sudden, you put up that drawing of of Vampirella, and I was like, ‘Holy shit.’ I don’t know how hard you are on your own work, but even you have to acknowledge that the difference is pretty impressive.
Oh no, that's the thing. It's weird because people come up and say, ‘Wow dude, you're drawing really well.’ And I share in their amazement: ‘Yeah, I know, right? These are really fucking good.’ And it's weird. I don't want to seem like I'm egotistical but I'm surprising the hell out of myself with this.
With that Vampirella one, I was sitting at home and just kind of sketching. I drew a different type of line. I had actually been trying to get to a point like that — I guess, like a looser style. It’s been hard to teach myself to get looser when I've been trying to get tighter and tighter for years. And so my left hand had that looseness that I was looking for.
It's just been really weird and awesome to see it happen. The big drawing that blew my mind that I was able to complete it and make it look as good as what I would do with my right hand was the one with two witches brewing up the bongwater soup.
I use a brush pen usually, but I pulled out a nib pen I hadn't used in years and it worked out great. It was like this cool new toy to play with and get different effects.
There's still a difference between your left-hand and right-hand style, though, right? You've gotten better, but you haven't gotten the same.
No, but I'm definitely getting closer, which I'm not sure like.
It's kind of fascinating — I talked to one of my other cartoonist buddies, Kalen Knowles. He said, ‘What if I told you I like these [left-handed drawings] a little bit more than your other stuff?’ And my girlfriend was getting close to saying that to me too.
It's weird to me because I've been working so hard to get a style that I can be comfortable with, and can produce well with my right hand, for so long. And now I'm coming up with this little bit more naïve, or raw, look with my left, and everybody's like, ‘Oh, I like that better.
It also looks more hand drawn. I guess that's what he was saying; it looks like it has a little bit more of a human hand to it.
And I think some people are drawn to that because it looks like something that they'd be able to do. I've had a couple of people say they like stuff that looks not too polished. If it's so polished and super hyper-realistic, they can't even understand it.
But if it looks like someone drew it, and there's mistakes and there's a wiggly line, then people get that. There must be something identifiable about it.
I've been trying to be cautious or kind of aware of how clean and how good my stuff looks, because I don't want it to look like it's made by a computer. I don't like a lot of digital art a lot of times. I see it as soulless. It's too clean, it's too nice.
So if [art drawn with my left hand is] a little rougher, or hand-drawn, or there's a mistake, that's cool. But I don't want my art to be full of mistakes. I look at a piece of my art and I see all my mistakes — I don't see how good it is. And I think that's the hardest thing for artists — liking your style, liking your little quirks, and all the strange things about it. Hopefully, your tastes match up with your audience.
So the cast is off, right?
Yeah, it came off yesterday. Thank God.
Have you been drawing a little bit? Have you had time to readjust to the right hand?
No, I’ve still got to go through some physical therapy. I have a new splint.
But I'm going to have to [get back into drawing with the right hand] because I've got to finish the vampire book I'm working on. I'm interested to see if my right hand has to learn to catch up now. Will I be able to jump back in? Or will my left hand now become the superior hand?
I'm looking forward to using the left hand to sketch out things, or do my rough pencils, because it has that looseness. And then I'll ink it with my right hand so that I can get a tighter look.
So you’re looking to use both hands in the future? Like, at the same time?
I'm not a gecko. I can't spread my eyes and look at two different drawings at the same time. Not yet. I may well try.
Maybe you just need a head injury.
Be kicked in the head by a mule.
Do you think you're going to finish the vampire book by the time Short Run happens on November 4th? Are people going to be able to see your latest stuff at your booth at Short Run?
Oh yeah, for sure. I have only a few pages left on the vampire book. It’s called The Fang and it's about a female vampire who has a job as an assassin of monsters.
I'm also thinking about coming up with a left-handed publication of some sort. Like the closest thing I'm ever going to do to an autobio comic, with photos, probably collages, and some sort of skate art. A photo of my skateboard, and x-rays from my hand, and then all my left-handed art. I think that's something I should definitely do.
I want to see if I can get, at the very least, a coffee shop to host a bunch of left-handed drawings.
Do you have a book out right now that you think is a perfect example of your right-handedness at its apex, before the accident? So that readers can do a before and after comparison?
Oh yeah. The Punch to Kills are the best I've done. And then, The Fang book is definitely the thing that I've been really excited about doing all this year. It definitely is looser than the Punch to Kills, I think, and a little bit more fun.
So, yeah, there should definitely be stuff for sale at Short Run, so you can look at what I did this way and that way. Choose your poison. Pick your hand.
Writing a historical romance novel involves a staggering amount of research. How corsets work, where to throw away that apple core, what kind of naughty words people would use to describe what they’ve done with or to their lovers. We all do the work, but few of us do it as thoroughly as Rose Lerner, whose vivid Lively St. Lemeston books center around the people and events of one small English town. The latest novella in the series, A Taste of Honey comes out September 12th. This interview has been lightly edited.
For the new folks, let's start with a brief introduction to your own romances and particular areas of expertise.
My name is Rose Lerner and I write historical romance, typically set during the English Regency (a flexibly defined time period but I stick to the technical 1811 to 1820). For my current small-town series I've researched politics, high and low, and women's participation therein; queer experiences; the Napoleonic wars; Jewish life; servants; and much more. I also caught Hamilton fever for a while there and devoured books about Hamilton and Burr, and I've got a Jewish Revolutionary War romance coming out in October in an anthology with Courtney Milan and Alyssa Cole.
Do you research before, during, or after you draft?
All of the above. An actor that I love, Nicholas Lea, once said in an interview that he has to make a lot of little decisions in the moment, and research helps him make those decisions. That's how I write. I have a broad idea of the plot when I start a book, but beyond that I pretty much get in character and feel out the story as I go. I research until the POV characters' world feels solid to me. Then I start writing. Sometimes I get stuck and can't continue a scene without information, and then I need to take a research break. Little things, like whether "bear hug" is an anachronism (it is, but I decided to use it anyway) or what the heroine would do with an apple core after she'd eaten the apple (toss it in the fireplace grate, probably), I usually leave a note for myself in the text and research during revisions.
Do you prefer primary or secondary sources, when you have the option?
I read almost entirely secondary sources. Primary sources are great but you have to sift through so much irrelevance! I'd much rather have a trusted middleman pick out the important stuff for me. Of course, how do you know when to trust a middleman? I do like my secondary sources to footnote heavily so I can confirm in the primary source myself if necessary. But can you really even trust a primary source? If it's Aaron Burr, absolutely not. The key, to me, is to read enough that you develop a bullshit meter of your own.
Are there special considerations or pitfalls when you're researching the kind of sex people had in the past?
The pitfall, I guess, is that people talked less openly about the sex they were having in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Which may not even be true! What I can tell you with confidence is that what they DID say was extensively and often irrevocably expurgated, if not by family members immediately after their death then by Victorian descendants. The partial or complete destruction of letters, journals, and memoirs by burning, cutting away, or inking out potentially embarrassing content was common, especially if the writer was queer and/or a woman.
But based on what we do know through erotic novels, pornographic art, and surviving primary sources, it seems like they were having more or less the same kinds of sex we have now: kinky, vanilla, queer, with sex toys, role-playing, using birth control, threesomes, polyamory, whatever. Specificity is important and sexuality is culturally constructed, but at the same time, 98 percent of the time if I hear someone say, “But people didn’t do that back then,” my bullshit meter goes off.
Sure, this masturbation club where new members had to present their dicks on a silver platter does seem a little — quaint. But even there — the details are weird and incomprehensible, but the spirit isn’t that unfamiliar, is it?
How do you approach the language in your sex scenes, considering that historical gap? Writing about queer or kinky sex set before the modern terms were developed, for instance, or the frequent romance-author lament that there are a million period-appropriate terms for the penis and almost none for the clitoris.
Well, I don't see this as much more of a problem for queer or kinky sex than any other kind, because the terminology for ALL sex has shifted enormously. I have finally given up on finding good period terms for oral sex, and if I feel like "pleasuring him with her mouth" is too coy in context, I just use "suck" even though it's first attested in reference to fellatio in 1928.
It’s a delicate balance. A huge part of the appeal of historical romance is a sense of otherness, of distance, of experiencing the world as it might have looked to someone 200 years ago. I try very hard to retain a sense of how my characters THINK, and in particular how they think about sex. I try to think about where they would have gotten their information about sex and what words they would or wouldn’t know or feel comfortable using. I used to hate “pearl” for clitoris and think it was unbearably precious, but I’ve finally given in (although when I’m writing a well-educated hero, I usually just say “clitoris”). Sometimes I’ll even purposely choose an older-sounding or obsolete word when a more modern one is available. For example, “to come” meaning to have an orgasm is attested from 1650, but I frequently opt for “to spend” instead, because I think it gives things a nice period atmosphere.
At the same time, in my opinion TOO much authenticity in a sex scene can be off-putting. I try hard to avoid anachronistic word usage (or at least, distractingly anachronistic word usage, or word usage that represents a shift in conceptualizing something). But about once a book, I give up and use “sex” with its modern meaning of sexual intercourse, simply because in that sentence I tried out “coupling,” “congress,” “bedsport,” “coitus,” etc. and hated the way all of them sounded.
If I wrote “he larked her,” the reader would be confused, and if I wrote “he larked between her breasts,” she’d probably get the point, but she’d laugh. I just don’t see the point of privileging this kind of academic accuracy over storytelling. It’s a sex scene, and it should be sexy.
More about the general vs. specific — how do you balance the broad general statistics ("most people of the time/place would have — ") with the specific examples and the outliers? ("A few exceptional people did — ")?
For something like, "Could my heroine have a front-lacing corset?" this is a pretty simple decision (she could, but probably wouldn't) and in the end, it really doesn't matter either way. I'd probably go with the more likely back-lacing option unless I had a strong story reason to want her corset to unlace in the front (she doesn't have anyone to help her get in or out of it in a particular scene, or I want to realize a specific sexy image).
But this can get pretty political. Whether your character is an outlier or not, you still have to ask yourself, “Why is this the story I am choosing to tell?“ The choice to tell an average story can be just as loaded as the choice to tell an exceptional one, and ”Well, it’s historically accurate“ is never a sufficient justification for anything. I’m sick of hearing, ”They were a product of their time," to justify some atrocious behavior in a historical figure. Literally everyone who has ever lived was or is a product of their time. That’s how time works.
History is not neutral or objective or absolute, any more than memory is. It is the compilation and interpretation of millions of stories. Just because one story has been told more than another, it isn’t necessarily truer. Just because one side of a story has been heard more than the other side, doesn’t make it the “more accurate” side.
An unloaded example: when Aaron Burr, in his old age, tells a friend an anecdote about something that happened between him and Alexander Hamilton fifty years earlier, and then ten years after that the friend writes it down, you shouldn’t take what you’re reading at face value as the truth. (That should be common sense, and yet I see those stories repeated as fact by reputable historians.)
When it comes to history, the same logic applies to basically everything: You have to have common sense. You have to keep an eye out for motivations and agendas, both in yourself and other people, because they’re always there.
You have to be aware of your own agenda. And you have a responsibility to think about whether your agenda hurts people. You have to ask, “Why is this the story that feels true to me?” and then, “Is that a good reason?"
I’ve noticed that my books with queer or Jewish main characters get labeled “anachronistic” in reviews more frequently than my other books, despite my knowing that I put a similar level of care and research into all of them.
Why are so many readers attached to the idea that the average Jewish person in the Regency led a tragic life? And even if you take that as fact (which I don’t), why are they attached to the idea that I should be telling that “average” story when a romance novel is, at heart, a wish-fulfillment fantasy? There were about thirty-one dukes in the UK during the Regency, out of a population of about 15 million (source). Meanwhile, the Jewish population in England in 1800 has been estimated at 15,000. I think my odds of finding real historical examples of young, attractive, happily married Jews are a little better than yours of finding young, attractive, happily married dukes! Yet I’ve never seen a book labeled anachronistic simply because the hero was a duke.
Like a lot of issues in romance, it's an amplification problem. A trope becomes popular and obscures the reality, or mistakes get repeated and then become "common knowledge" in the readership. Historical romance author Miranda Neville recently described the Regency romance as "a long game of telephone starting with [Georgette] Heyer — who is foundational, but also notorious for the classism and anti-Semitism of her books. How do you balance uprooting that negative tradition versus providing something more nourishing to your readers? I guess what I'm asking is how much you see your work opening up a neglected space in the past, versus creating a new tradition for future readers and authors?
I'm not sure I think about it in those terms. Based on my email inbox, I've inspired some other folks to start writing Jewish historical romances, and that makes me happier than just about anything. But I don't write with that in mind. I just write the stories I would want to read.
Genre conventions are there to guide the reader through the story. Following them is part of the bond of trust between writer and reader. I would never write a romance novel without an HEA [Happily Ever After], for example. But when a convention is just plain incorrect (or worse, unjust), then I think I actually owe it my readers NOT to follow it. What matters is not the fact of breaking a genre convention, but whether it’s done in a spirit of love and respect — for the genre, and for the reader.
I’ve read a LOT of Regency romance throughout my life and I have a lot of affection for its conventions, but at this point, if I know Heyer was wrong, I feel very comfortable ignoring her.
This isn’t what you’re asking, but it made me think of it — I once got a rather anti-Semitic review of True Pretenses that suggested, essentially, that in creating a positive portrayal of a Jewish man, I was fighting an uphill battle against the weight of anti-Semitic stereotypes in literature and necessarily closely engaging with those stereotypes as I made character choices. This, to me, is bizarre; it assumes that classic English novels and Georgette Heyer are the only literary traditions there are — and even beyond that, they are the only frame of experience I have to draw on!
In fact, I have not only read and seen many positive portrayals of Jewish men by modern Jewish authors and screenwriters, but I have also KNOWN NICE JEWISH MEN IN MY ACTUAL REAL LIFE. This is also true for plenty of my readers (although not, apparently, that one). While it’s nice to be genre-aware while writing genre fiction, and I absolutely adore playing with tropes like marriages of convenience, fake dating, Cit heiresses, starchy butlers, house parties etc. etc., the Regency romance genre is not the entire context readers are bringing to the table.
If I know something might confuse a reader because it’s not the commonly accepted “truth” of the past, I try to include a little more signposting and explanations. But I’m not going to write beady-eyed moneylenders with greasy sidecurls just because Georgette Heyer did.
If I could summarize all my thoughts about history in one sentence, it’s this: the truth matters.
The truth always matters.
But the past is composed of a million intertwining truths. “People in the Regency could have great sex” and “people in the Regency thought about sex differently than we do” are both true. “Anti-Semitism was rife among Christians in the Regency” and “there was plenty of intermarriage between Jews and Christians in the Regency” are both true. As a author of historical fiction, my job is to decide what the most important truth is at a particular moment.
Our August Poet in Residence, Daemond Arrindell, is having a fantastic year. He co-authored the world premiere of a theatrical adaptation of T. Geronimo Johnson’s novel Welcome to Braggsville at Book-It Repertory Theatre earlier this year to universal acclaim. And he was recently announced as the curator of the 2018 Jack Straw Writers program, which means he’ll select and guide a class of Seattle writers through the process of learning how to perform their writing more effectively. If you’d like to see Arrindell read, he’ll be performing at Sandbox Radio on August 28th, Poetry Bridge in West Seattle next month. This interview has been lightly edited.
First, I wanted to ask you about Your work adapting Welcome to Braggsville for Book-It Theatre. Is the theater something that you've always been interested in?
No. I kind of fell into the world of theater through Freehold. Freehold Theatre reached out to me over ten years ago because of my work in facilitating writing workshops. They have a program called The Engaged Theater Project and it's about bringing theater to culturally underserved populations. There are several different residencies that take place — one at the women's prison down in Purdy and another at the men's prison in Monroe.
The idea is Robin Lynn Smith, who's one of the founders of Freehold, was looking to host workshops at the women's prison to get the women writing about different ideas. She asked me if I could put something together. I put something together. She really liked it. Next thing I know, she has invited me to join the faculty of Freehold, teaching spoken word.
That's how I got into the theater world — by happenstance and by coincidence. And the overlap between spoken word and theater is strong writing, and bringing the craft of writing into life through the art of performance. Most spoken word pieces are essentially monologues — just storytelling in a different format.
Ten-plus years of essentially working in theater but not exactly being a theater artist has opened a lot of doors for me and brought me in touch with a lot of people who recognize that crafting performances in spoken word is very similar to the same skills and tactics used in the realm of theater.
Josh Aaseng, literary manager at Book-It, reached out to me in the spring of 2016, asking me if I would be interested in working with him on the adaptation of Welcome to Braggsville for a couple reasons — one, because of the work that I do in race and equity; and two, because I have experience in the theater and also experience with editing and poetry.
So, within the men's prison I work with a group of guys for a couple months in helping them to write all kinds of styles of poetry and performance. And then I take all of their writing and cut and paste it into one performance that is somewhat theater and somewhat poetry — not exactly either one, but a melding of the two.
That idea of working with writing that is already in existence and cutting and pasting it into something else that is something unto itself — that's very similar to what happens in adapting a book into a play. The experience that I've had actually set me up perfectly for what Josh wanted and needed me to do.
I've been to quite a few Book-It shows, and I think that Braggsville walked off the path of the book a little more than their other adaptations. Was that something that was intended from the very beginning?
It wasn't intended to stray, necessarily. But the question was how do we bring the essence of this story to the stage in a way that people are going to be able to understand it and relate to it, and really take something away from it? Because we're dealing with the issues of race and history, and both of those are very complex issues.
We've got a passionate and powerful story, but it's also being told in a way that's really different and that is not easy to read. When you’re reading a book that's not easy to read you can take your time with it. You can set it down. You can come back to it.
You don't have that [luxury] with a play, so a lot of [the adaptation process] was about how we take these ideas, and these concepts, and this story that's being told, and make it digestible, but while not necessarily making it easy. That was the challenge.
For example, there are these chapters within the book where the narration shifts from he, she, they to you, and it's like the narrator who is not an omniscient narrator shifts into this very intimate interrogation of the specific lead characters. We could have just made those into monologues for the play, but it would have been boring.
Because there's so much being said in a way that is visceral, we needed to be able to make that digestible and also powerful. We needed an audience to be able to take something away from it. Just a one-way monologue wouldn't have worked, and so that essentially is how we ended up creating the character of The Poet.
Yeah, okay. I don't want to give the impression that it strays from the book. I think it works very well with the themes of the book, but Book-It tends to be pretty literal in its adaptations.
Yeah, and from the get-go Josh and I were having conversations about how this is different. The book itself, it feels different than a lot of the things that Book-It had taken on. So, we knew that it was going to be different in a number of different ways.
We could go virtually anywhere from here, but I wanted to ask you about the inclusion of Charleena Lyles’s name into the play — what was the decision to include her like? When did it happen?
Well, we did the same with Philando Castile after the decision regarding his case had come down. The book came out in early 2015 and I felt like, in all honesty, if either one of those people had been murdered at the time that Geronimo had been writing the book, their names would have been included as well.
It wasn't about sensationalism. It felt urgent and necessary because it had just happened, and to remind the audience that what is being talked about isn't distant history, that these are things that are still going on. It felt necessary.
Was there any internal debate then about including them?
I honestly don't remember whether it was Josh's idea or mine. It may have even been a cast member's idea. We talked about it for a couple minutes, Josh and I, and there wasn't any debate. Again, the idea behind the play in itself is to make what's going on in this book real.
Live people talking about these issues in front of someone makes them more real, makes it more urgent. And I don't think there's anything more urgent in regards to these issues than someone having been murdered within a few days or within a few months of the play itself.
It kind of felt like in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen where she keeps updating the book in new editions with the names of Black people who have been killed. It was incredibly powerful. It's been a year then since you adapted Braggsville, more or less. Has that affected your work at all? Has that adaptation done anything to your writing, do you think?
That's really hard for me to say. I feel like I haven't had enough time to bet that perspective yet, mainly because it still feels present. But the realm of theater feels more open to me; I can say that.
The idea of one-person shows feels more accessible to me. The idea of writing for theater feels more accessible. But yeah, I don't know whether it's changed my writing yet other than the fact that it definitely lit a fire under me and the world seems even more open and accessible.
I know that this question always comes up, but I think it comes up because people are interested: Can you talk about the relationship between spoken word in your writing and in writing the poems on the page?
There isn't much, if any, difference to me. I personally believe that a story of any kind, regardless of the form, isn't finished until it's shared aloud. So almost everything that I write I'm intending to have read aloud at some point; I feel like that's part of its journey for me.
There are some poems that almost feel like they're meant to live on the page more than read aloud, but that usually comes after the writing and I'm looking back at it as opposed to while I'm writing it.
I tend to do more editing for the page or for the stage as opposed to writing for the page or for the stage.
It was just announced last week that you are curating the 2018 Jack Straw Writer's Program.
Yeah. I was a 2013 Jack Straw writer, but it feels like yesterday. I loved the experience. I loved my cohort, and Stephanie Kallos was our curator. She was definitely influential in regards to my writing.
I've always been a fan of Jack Straw's work — the oral storytelling aspect of taking stories in any form and getting them heard, getting them into other people's ears. Not just getting these stories written and existing on the page, but getting them to a place where they can be heard by others.
I definitely feel more comfortable with how to bring the performance aspect out of something than how to write something. That's my own insecurity and my own work that I still have to do as a writer as I'm continuing to grow, and as I continue to work within the realm of publishing, within the realm of the page itself.
When it comes to performance, bringing something that's written to life, I feel more than capable in assisting other writers — writers who are very well established on the page — helping them to figure out, how can I take this thing that is static on the page and make it into a living, breathing form of art?
Okay. Is there anything you're looking for in particular in these people who you're choosing for the program?
Not as of yet. This just happened a couple of weeks ago, so I haven't gotten that far yet. I think in general I'm looking for stories of any kind that really move me. I have a feeling that the stories, poems, etc., that are taking the political and making it personal, or taking the personal and making it political. Those stories in general tend to move me. Those stories are definitely going to catch my eye, but I definitely don't have a requirement or a recipe at this point for what I am looking for.
When you were talking about your writing being the thing that you were most insecure about — I don't know if insecure is the right word. I don't want to put words in your mouth…
Is that something that you are going to be focusing on personally as you move forward?
I continue to work on that, and that's where classes and writing fellowships come in handy. For me, I've found a lot of it comes to making the time for it. When I'm just focusing on my writing craft I tend to feel more secure with it. When I make the time just to focus on my craft as opposed to ‘I'm just going to pump out this poem,” I feel more secure with it.
Those are things that I'm consistently working on doing: some of it is setting aside the time and some of it is making time to read writers who are moving me, get exposed to new writers. Some of it is taking classes and workshops to continue to add to my toolbox, and some of it is making the time to just focus on the craft.
All right, so who are the writers who have been moving you lately?
Right now, Warsan Shire is one. She blew upsemi-recently as the poet behind a fair amount of the writing from Beyonce's Lemonade. I found out about her a couple years before that. She was at AWP when it was here in Seattle.
Ladan Osman is another one who I've been blown away by. I continue to be in awe of the two of them.
Other writers who are influencing me right now: T. Geronimo Johnson, Natalie Diaz, Ta Nehisi Coates, Douglas Kearney, Jamaal May, Patrick Rosal
It seems like you are very involved in the community, obviously, with your work with prisoners, and working with Jack Straw, and things. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your evolution as a citizen of poetry. Is this something that has always been important or do you feel as your stature has elevated in the community your commitment has grown as well?
I feel like I've always had it. It's just that the lens of how I'm helping has changed. I started out as working in social services, so I've always been a listener. I was a counselor for a long time, and it just slowly came about that as I was listening to people's stories and I was continuing to write my own, the opportunities to help people tell their stories in different ways started to present themselves.
Whether it was facilitating a workshop around writing, whether it was leading a workshop regarding youth empowerment, it still is helping people to tell their stories and being a witness to those stories. There's a saying, and I don't remember where it comes from, but listening is a transformative act. I, by listening, am changed, and so helping people to be able to tell their stories, it empowers me, and it changes me, and it helps me to grow.
Last week, the founders of the website Comics Mix launched a Kickstarter for an anthology titled MINE!: A Comics Collection to Benefit Planned Parenthood. The anthology is star-studded, featuring writers like Neil Gaiman and Gerard Way and artists including Becky Cloonan and Jamaica Dyer. The project must reach $50,000 by September 15th to be published, though it’s already off to a great start. We talked with Seattle-area cartooning/inking/writing powerhouse Jen Vaughn about how she got involved with the project and why she’s such a passionate Planned Parenthood advocate.
Could you explain in your own words what Mine! is?
It’s a comics anthology featuring some of the best and brightest and then me. These stories turn their focus on a woman's right to her own body, the decisions she makes with it and the continuing struggle for women, especially women of color, to hold their agency. The title is derived from that ideology — it's MINE, so keep your fucking hands off it.
There are a lot of big names in this anthology. Are there any creators you're especially excited to share a pair of covers with?
Gabby Rivera, of Juliet Takes a Breath and America (the comic); Cecil Castelucci who writes Shade the Changing Girl — I just met her, she's fantastic. Tee Franklin is another writer who I'm excited about. She Kickstarted her new comic Bingo Love, and I'm ready to put my eyes on that book. Maia Kobabe and I traded comics at San Diego Comicon, they wrote and drew this moving comic on recognizing fascism through memory and books. I'm very ready to see their collaboration for Mine! And of course, Sarah Winifred Searle — I've always admired her work. We were both tabling at MeCAF (Maine Comic Arts Festival) in Portland, Maine back in, oh geez, 2011? It feels like we've been doing a lot of growing and drawing alongside each other, miles away and pages apart, so I'm pumped to be in another book with her.
You're a really busy freelancer. Why did you choose to get involved with this particular project? What does Planned Parenthood mean to you?
It's excellent that my facade of being busy is working! The timing was right when editor and organizer Joe Corallo contacted me, and I've had this story kicking around for awhile. Planned Parenthood has done a lot for me over the last 15 years.
I spent some formative high school and college years in Texas, and it's a very hostile place. There was a student group, VOX/Voices for Choice, I volunteered with at the University of Texas. We basically passed out free condoms, dental dams, taught people how to use them (to undo some of that religious health class BS about it being easier to not use condoms), and how to contact your Senators and Reps about Plan B.
Because we were in Austin, we occasionally went to committee meetings or public forums for healthcare. The reps on the healthcare boards would usually be five “old gray-faced white dudes with two dollar haircuts” and one young Catholic Latinx man. It was infuriating. It IS infuriating. I made a lot of bad college art about sexuality back then.
Also, because my mom's an intense baker, I had access to candy molds so I made LOTS of penis, vagina and birth control pill chocolates with all sales going to our college group and Planned Parenthood. If I didn't know people were racist by then, I certainly did when people only wanted to buy white guy penis chocolates — like anyone likes the taste of white chocolate.
I'm writing and drawing a bit of a fantasy piece so I'm not ruining any plot points by telling you Planned Parenthood was there for me during my abortion. I'd spent a year volunteering with Lillith Fund, a helpline which supported women emotionally and helped come up with ideas to crowdfund their clandestine abortions. It was wild, what could a 20 year old do to help a 35 year old desparate not to have yet another child, but their husband wouldn't use condoms or birth control.
Planned Parenthood has also been there for me every year when I go my engine checked out — so affordable compared to other places — and including this year when terrifyingly, I found a lump in my breast. (I'm fine, for now, though we're all moving closer to death).
Do you think artists have a responsibility to be political citizens? Do you think Trump changed that dynamic for you?
Artists cannot help but be political citizens, although it depends on the type of art, honestly. My idea behind every new project is to try something new — sometimes it’s art-related, sometimes it's writing-related. Part of my new goals, probably since moving to Seattle, have been to help lift up other people's voices, especially women of color — not that I'm monied or famous or in any position of power. This means drawing other people's stories or collaborating, not just owning the entire project, because it's a reflection of our society.
When I was growing up in the 80s and 90s, it seems like comics tried to be apolitical. On the one side, you had corporate comics, which didn't stand up for anything, really. And on the alternative side, you had cartoonists like Dan Clowes and Chris Ware who didn't seem to be particularly political. (Of course there were cartoonists like Roberta Gregory who were fearless in portraying abortion as a reality, but even her comics seemed to walk up to a line and then stop, politically speaking.) Is that changing? Are American comics developing a social consciousness? Or do you disagree with my reading?
Hmm. I think there's a difference between gag comics/political comics that emotionally resonate immediately versus a graphic novel that can manipulate character development and create compassion within the reader.
Being political now in comics isn't necessarily writing about politics, but being more inclusive with the dynamics of everyone creating them. It's like editor Joe Hughes bringing in writer Nnedi Okorafor to Vertigo a few years back; it's Gene Luen Yang building an empire with First Second from American Born Chinese to Secret Coders AND encouraging kids to a summer reading program with Reading Without Walls bookmarks (they were VERY realistic in suggesting 3 books since not all kids loved the library as much as say, I did). It's Hope Nicholson creating The Secret Loves of Geek Girls book and the soon-to-be-released follow up at Dark Horse, The Secret Loves of Geeks, that includes all genders and genderqueer people. It's the company Black Mask printing a series written by a trans writer, Magdalene Visaggio, with trans characters, drawn by Mexico-based Eva Cabrera (if you haven't read Kim + Kim by now, just GO — get yourself to the bookstore or library).
But with that being said, the 'slow death' of newspapers, and especially staff cartoonists, has left a gap in the world — one that is being met online by many cartoonists, especially Matt Bors at The Nib, with Nomi Kane, Pia Guerra, Joey Allson Sayers, Maia Kobabe and more. The political cartoons once clipped and taped above the breakroom coffee pot or to the door of the bathroom are now shared via social media. It's amazing how technology changes and we still see the same behaviors. (I just said that with my best Neil deGrasse Tyson voice)
What else are you working on? How can our readers keep up with you?
I'm finishing up some SECRET comics and covers that should be announced soon. But you can still pre-order my other current Kickstarter project, Haunted Tales of Gothic Love, edited by Hope Nicholson. Mel Gillman wrote a delicious queer love story featuring gold miners and a ghost; it's been quite fun to draw and I'm very sure it will haunt readers.
I'm working on multiple projects with writer, Kat Kruger, including just turning in that application for the Georgetown Steam Plant graphic novel project!
Locals can see me at the Red Pencil Conference on September 23rd. I'll be tabling with Kat Kruger and on an editing panel with Kristy Valenti of Fantagraphics and mainstream artist Moritat. And in March of 2018, I'll be tabling at Emerald City Comicon!
Next May, Seattle author Steve Toutonghi is publishing his second novel, Side Life, with Soho Press. Today, Toutonghi and Soho are exclusively sharing the book's cover with Seattle Review of Books readers. (That's it right up above this paragraph.) The novel — about a discouraged internet entrepreneur who takes a demeaning job as a housesitter in a billionaire's tech-haunted mansion — has to convey a lot of information in its cover: it has to look futuristic but not too distant, it has to convey the sense that it's a thriller, and it has to stand out from all the rest of the books that will be coming out next year. I talked with Toutonghi about the process of creating and choosing a cover for a book, and what kind of work he thinks a successful cover has to do. This interview has been lightly edited.
Our readers are very interested in the relationship between writers and the covers of their books. I think people tend to believe that authors have a lot of control over that process, but most of them don't. Tell us what the process was like for you. This is your second book, and it’s your second with Soho Press, right?
Yeah. I'll start with the last book, because I think it may have influenced how things went with this one. I really didn't have much of an idea of what to expect that first time. I received a proof of the cover and I loved it, and I wrote back to Soho that I loved it, and that was pretty much my degree of involvement in the cover design, which was fine with me.
With this one, when I received the cover file I thought it was just an incredibly smart interpretation of the content. I had some conversations with booksellers about the function of the cover in different contexts, and so I had a question I wanted to raise with the publisher, and I said, "What about this thing that I heard might be a concern for booksellers?" And then they took my concern into consideration.
And a couple weeks later they sent the new proof of the cover — it was same concept, but I had asked a question about the colors that were used, and they adjusted the color. So all in all, it was a very positive experience. Certainly, they listened to me, and they took it into account. But they, you know, started the design process and sort of walked through the initial context and all that stuff without me, I didn't have visibility into that. The things that I did get were really polished, professional, very smart takes on the content of the book.
So I was happy with the process, but I didn't have a lot of sort of early input into it, which was actually probably the right thing to do because they know what they're doing. Covers are really complex — they're doing a ton of work. The designers who work on them have worked on a lot of projects, and the people at my publishing house do a fantastic job. I'm more than happy to have the kind of experience that I had with them. It felt like a very, very much the right degree of influence for me.
Yeah, writers are not necessarily great at visual communication. Often I think what a writer senses a good cover might be is a little bit distorted. Are there any covers of books that are not your own that you really enjoy? And, conversely, are any covers that have always bugged you as a reader?
Honestly, you know, there's this whole kind of line of covers that are using conventions of genre. To me, they’re covers that seem cheesy or not all that interesting. But in a lot of cases the people building those covers are talking with an audience that I'm not really used to communicating with, so I don't know really what they're doing. I feel a little reluctant to pass judgment on them. I'll look at a cover and think, "well, I'm not super-excited about that," but that doesn't necessarily mean the designer didn't hit their marks or do the thing that they were trying to do.
Right, there's a common language in genre covers that fans understand. Your publisher Soho is in the mystery space, but their books don't look like the covers of a lot of mysteries and thrillers that are out there, right? Their books certainly don't look like the sort of thing that you think of when you think of Sue Grafton or, you know, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Yeah, I agree. I don't know if you've seen their Soho color map? They have a poster that they printed in 2016 where they had their mystery authors aligned by color. The point of the poster was showing that they had this large library of very high-quality mystery writers and their design process had resulted in enough similarity to show them as a library with a coherent visual identity. One of the ways that they're doing a really incredible job is through their focus on high-quality design and doing things right.
There’s a book that's coming out from Soho shortly, Sip by Brian Allen Carr. I think that's a beautiful cover. I love the way that the title is sort of partially obscured by the smoke, and I think it's very elegant and also a little threatening. Also if you read the synopsis it seems appropriate for the content. I haven't read the book, but -
[Reading the synopsis] “…the highly regimented life of those inside dome cities who are protected from natural light…,” OK. That makes sense.
And people drinking their shadows.
Yeah. That looks very appropriate, and in the hands of another publisher, I bet it would be more genre-y. Not that there is anything wrong with that.
Yeah, and I think if you want to go into action, they also have Robert Rapino's books. Those books have, I think, a really striking visual identity that's really clear and that speaks, I think to sort of the precision of the concept. The animals get smart and attack the humans and fight with each other. The covers really speak to the big-concept clarity of the world he's creating.
They're very sort of cool and futuristic.
Yeah, but isn't it interesting how it can be cool and futuristic, and also just a cat's face?
I like that. I love that. And then diverging from Soho, there's a lot of really cool things happening from Viking books. What they did with the redesign of the Murakami books — I think those are really cool.
They fit altogether in sort of a unified graphic, which is crazy, and the elements kinda spill off one cover and onto another.
I hadn't seen them like this all laid out together like that. Yeah, that’s kind of a dream for an author, right?
I think so.
When I started reading novels, there were the Vonnegut covers with the giant "V." They don't really have much of a graphical element on them, but that's how I read through Vonnegut. I would look for those books and find them and read them based on their covers.
That’s an interesting example, because I know exactly what you're talking about. My mind immediately calls up an image of them.
So bringing it back to your cover for a bit, you said you got some advice from a bookseller on the new cover. Can you talk a little bit about what the bookseller's input was?
I'm just going to talk generally about conversations I've had with booksellers about covers, and not specifically about the covers of my books. So, for example, I'm used to going to a bookstore and I'll see a cover — the spine of a cover, or the cover's facing on a shelf. Booksellers talked a lot about the cover existing on a table in the context of a bunch of other books, which was something I hadn't really thought very much about. And you know, the facing cover on a shelf is in a different context because it's likely to have spines on either side of it. And then, you know the spine is another context. But on the table, you want a cover that's going to pop a little bit, that's going to suggest that a person browsing the books on the table pause and pay attention. You want something that won't wash out.
One of the booksellers talked a lot about how he liked the covers to have some kind of internal color tension, so that it didn't rely on tension being established by books next to it. Because colors in the publishing industry sometimes move cyclically. So, a certain pallette becomes widely used, and then there's sort of a movement to another pallette.
Oh yeah, that's totally true. I think last year at this time bright yellow was in vogue — you would just go into a bookstore and there would happen to be like five bright yellow books on the front table at a bookstore. And it's not coordinated, obviously. Nobody wants their book to look like everyone else’s, but it's just one of those weird things that happens with fashion and design where people follow trends without even realizing it.
Yes, and so he was saying, “look, you're going to run the risk of that happening. So try and create some contrast on your cover, so that if you get into that situation you don't lose the browser's eye as they pass across the cover. I thought that was interesting.
It seems like there a lot of conversation about the degree of legibility — there's a tension between the legibility of the text and the freedom of graphic design that the designer feels that they can explore as a way to express the emotional content and emotional relationship with the book. I think that's really interesting — how the designer approaches the idea of legibility versus the emotional design.
Can you talk about where you think the cover of your new book resonates with the story?
The story has a note of urgency, but it is also set in a very familiar context. And so they did this really wonderful thing with the colors. The colors are kind of bright and they pop and the title is two really simple words, but they’re arranged in such a way that there's this nice tension. So I feel they did a really good job of connecting the design and the content of the story.
And then there's cats, which provide familiar context and are potentially comforting. But the cat in the story has a really specific role, and I think it's nicely reflected in the way that the cat appears on the cover.
I'm sort of at the edge of my seat to see what will this look like in the context of a table at a store.
Another thing that I like about that cover is the text is sort of large and bold, but also part of the overall composition in a nice way. So the cat and the colors become kinda abstract as you shrink down to Goodreads size. For me, I feel like it's successful at communicating that sense of tension and familiarity at the various sizes you’ll see the cover in. It's important to do that.
That hadn't even occurred to me: the different ways covers are presented these days. You've got to communicate the book’s contents on a table with a bunch of other objects. You have to communicate it as something that belongs on somebody's shelf at home, but you also have this postage stamp size that's got to grab people's attention on social media. That's a lot of levels.
It really is. There's so much going on. There are so many moving parts that as an author, it’s really useful to me to feel comfortable that I have people who are experts, who have experience, and who have a track record advocating for their concerns in the design process.
It's like this crazy, very complicated moving target, and it's amazing how many beautiful covers are out there, given all those constraints.
This morning, we interviewed J.L. Cheatham II about how he decided to be an author. The second half of this interview covers how he decided to launch the Seattle Urban Book Expo, and explains what people can expect from the second Seattle Urban Book Expo, which takes place on August 26th at Washington Hall.
So you just decided to throw a book expo without having any idea how to do that kind of thing.
It was kind of like an “if you build it, they will come” thing. So I connected with some people and got the space, and got everything going.
It turned out it was way more successful than I ever imagined. We had a total of eight authors including myself, a total of 250 people showed up to a space whose max capacity is 100. So there was this constant flow of activity. Everybody was having a good time with books, and I was like, "oh okay. We really are one of the top literary cities of the world. All right, cool."
Then the feedback afterwards was so humbling because everybody was like, “when's the next one?”
And now you’re having another one, on August 26th. Is it in the same spot?
No, it's at Washington Hall. It's from 1 to 5 pm. It's gonna be a party. That's the goal, I want a literary party.
Washington Hall is a great venue.
I love it. The staff is so…I feel like they're family now. I literally just pop up on them. I won't even announce myself, I just go over, knock on the door, they open the door for me, I'll just chill out, drink coffee, play dominoes, whatever. They've been great to me, everybody involved.
So, what can people expect this time?
Like I said, the goal is to have a literary party.
We've got 20 authors, we're gonna have four food vendors so people will have plenty to eat.
One of the things I noticed at the last one was people brought their kids, and I had nothing for kids. So this year I'm gonna have something called Juice and Paint, where there's a room in Washington Hall where kids go in and color, draw, write stories, and paint as the adults circulate the room and buy books and stuff like that.
Also, I have a face-painter too —that's gonna be outside near the food court. Well, I'm calling it the food court. It's really the parking lot, but I'm gonna turn it into an outdoor food court.
We’re gonna have music. I'm trying to keep people there. I want people to show up and stay for a bit. Nothing really starts a conversation than what type of literature you're into — especially when there's food and drinks involved. So that's the goal. Everybody can have a good time.
How did you get more than double the authors in two years? Did they come to you, or did you reach out to them?
I’m very heavy on social media. I promote everything all the time. Everybody was recommending this one because I think people remember [last year’s expo]. I was posting videos and pictures ot it and really highlighting how good of a time it was.
So I think people don't want to miss out on this one, because most likely, I'm only going to do this once a year. If you miss this one, you got to wait a whole other year for the next one to come.
Who are some of the writers that you think our readers should keep an eye out for this time? I know you love them all.
I love them all, but if I have to be selective, NyRee Ausler. She's doing a series called Retribution. I call it a romantic thriller. It really grabbed you from the first chapter.
Also, Sharon Blake. I love her stories. She has a book called The Thought Detox. She has a very troubled past and she overcame it.
Who else? Key Porter does her comic book series called Shifters. Another author who I'm interested in meeting for the first time is Omari Amili. I love his background. I just love stories by people who triumph over hard times and they don't let their situations define them, you know what I mean?
And you’re doing an event at the library just before this?
Yep. So the week of the Expo, August 23rd, we're having an author Q&A at the Seattle Public Library, the central branch in downtown Seattle. I'm going to be hosting and we're going to have three authors show up, NyRee Ausler, Zachary Driver, and also a representative for Seattle Escribe named Kenneth Martinez.
We're pretty much going to open ourselves up for questions for people who are in attendance. This is really like an open house for people to know what the Seattle Book Expo is.
I feel like this is my coming-out party. A lot of people know like we're trying to create an institution, and to create a culture of cultivating these promising authors here who feel like they don't have an outlet to express themselves.
We also have another Q&A event with the King County Library at Renton Library. That's on the 25th, at 3:00 pm. We have five authors that are going to be there: Freddy McClain, Key Porter, Raseedah Roberson, Omari Amili, and Natasha Rivers. It will be kind of the same structure: talking about their experiences as writers, reading a few passages from their books. I want to give the opportunity for people to get to know the authors because on the day of the expo, it will be pleasant madness.
I love that, “pleasant madness.” Did the first expo work for you? Do you feel like you're getting your work out there now?
Yeah, I really do. After the expo, all this stuff started happening. The book signings in Barnes and Noble, the work I do with Amazon, all this other stuff. Also, one thing that's weird, but pleasantly weird, is that people are calling me and asking me questions like I'm some kind of expert, seeking my advice.
You mean like publishing questions?
Yeah, like, "Hey man, how'd you do this? When'd you do that?" I'm giving my input but I'm also like, "What? Wait a minute. When did I become an expert?" I was just struggling literally a year and a half ago but now they treat me like I'm some kind of self-publishing whiz or something. I say it jokingly, but it's humbling. I'm always willing to share my information as I go along with this journey. I’m still not a finished product myself, you know? There's still a lot of things I've got to learn too.
Seattle's a pretty segregated town in a lot of ways, and that’s also true of the literary community. Is there anything that you think this city can do better to bring more writers of color into the conversation? It's great that you're doing the Expo, but there are names that I've never heard of before. They're local authors and this is kind of like my thing and I should know them and I don't. Do you have any thoughts about how to bring everybody together a little more?
We all want an opportunity. We just want a chance to show our work. I think if Seattle works hard to create an opportunity for authors of color to want to showcase their work, then you'll start seeing a bigger number of them.
I think Seattle could do a better job with creating opportunities for authors of color to showcase their work and also act like that they care. There's definitely a voice in my community, and the Latino community, and the Asian community, and Native American/Polynesian community who are writers. They have something to say but they need an opportunity for people to listen. That's why I'm very happy with the partnerships that have come from this because everyone that I've met with actually genuinely cares about our voices.
We just need to cultivate this bubbling artistic atmosphere that's going on here in Seattle, you know?
On August 26th at Washington Hall, author J.L. Cheatham II will host his second Seattle Urban Book Expo — a big party to promote Seattle's many authors of color. I sat down with Cheatham last week to talk about how he became a writer and what inspired him to start the Seattle Urban Book Expo. We've divided this interview into two halves: this first part covers how Cheatham came to be an author, and the second half deals directly with the Book Expo.
So to start, you could talk a little bit about how you became an author?
It literally started when I was about five years old and I watched professional wrestling for the first time. Ric Flair was fighting a guy who was being cheered by people and then I realized, "Hey, he's a bad guy, and the other guy's a good guy." And then my dad used to get me comic books: Spider-Man, Batman, and Archies. I was heavy into Archie. I’d read them at dinner — a fork in one hand and the other hand turning pages. It grew from there. I wanted to be a storyteller. The fact that we're able to create a world that's fictional and get anyone to believe it — that's a powerful ability.
In elementary school, I would create comic book stories for homework assignments. As I got older, I was pushed more towards sports. I didn’t find anything that would cultivate my passion for writing. There was a lot of sports in my neighborhood so I would play football, baseball, things like that. When I got to college, I was hurt so badly that I couldn't go to bed. I couldn't sleep because my ribs were throbbing.
Then when I was watching TV, my favorite movie came on: The Lion King. And then I felt that little joy again, the way I did when I was a kid when I'd write stories. Following that, it was some B-rated movie with that guy, Lorenzo Lamas? He was, like, the leader of a vampire-stripper cult.
I literally was talking to my girlfriend at the time like, "I could write this. If this made it to TV, I could do this.” So as soon as I made that decision, I began losing interest in playing sports. I didn't want to play football that much anymore.
Then, I found out I was going to be a father and I decided that when my daughter sees me, she knows that her dad is pursuing his dream of being a writer. At first, I wanted to write movie scripts because after that whole Lorenzo Lamas movie, I thought I could do better. I wrote a couple of movie scripts, but I was having no luck whatsoever.
When my daughter turned four years old, she was into dinosaurs. She wanted a dinosaur book, so I was like, ‘Okay, cool. We'll go to the Barnes and Noble in Tukwila and look for a dinosaur book.’
When I got there and went to the kids section, I was looking around and something grabbed me: All the covers of the children's books, there were no black or brown faces. I looked at my daughter and I was like, "I'll write her a dinosaur book." And that's what my first book came from, The Family Jones and the Eggs of Rex. I literally had to learn how to write a book. I had to research story structure, manuscripts, self-publishing versus publishing.
I was scared to death. I didn't know what kind of world I was getting into. Copy-editors, proof-reading, theory. It took me a while, like five months, and then I wrote the manuscript, found a self-publishing company and found an illustrator.
I didn't know what was going to come. I didn't realize that I actually had to do some work. I thought you just published a book and it just magically flowed into people's homes, or stuff like that.
I was a bit discouraged because sales weren't going the way I wanted to, and I wasn't getting the attention I felt like I deserved. But then I asked myself, "Am I giving this a hundred percent?" Meaning, am I doing everything I can to promote my work? and I answered no. Then I asked myself, "Okay so how can you give this a hundred percent?" And I was like, "I have to go out and travel."
Literally a week later after I made that decision, I was approached by Stacey Robinson, who runs a book expo, in Toronto. And she invited me to come out there to market my book. Not only had I never been a part of an expo, I'd never been to Canada.
What was that like?
When I went out there, man, it blew my mind. Just the energy, the crowd, the music — everything. Literally when I got off the plane back to Seattle, all the energy just washed off me. My shoulders slumped and I was like, "aw man, what happened to all the festival feelings?”
I was like, "I need something like that for my city." Then when I started researching more, if there was a book expo, I couldn't find one. It was baffling to me that there'd never been an expo for black and brown writers. There's a lot of African-American culture in the city, so I was kind of shocked there had never been an actual book expo here.
So then I decided to do something like that.
Kelli Russell Agodon was the first poet we published on the Seattle Review of Books, and it was readily apparent that she was the right choice. Not only was her poem a note-perfect benediction for the site — it could be read as a meditation about the distance between storytellers and audience — but Agodon is such a significant figure in the Seattle-area poetry scene that her poem provided the site with instant credibility. Agodon has so many fans — of her poetry, of her publishing company, Two Sylvias Press, of her outspoken politics — and those fans pay close attention to everything she does. Agodon talked with me about all of this and much more. This interview has been lightly edited.
First I wanted to start by thanking you. When we were looking for a poet to kick off the site with that first week, Martin suggested you, and you were, I think, exactly the right poet to launch with, because you are such a terrific member of the community, you have an amazing group of friends and associates who listen to what you say and so really helped lead people to us, and so I just wanted to thank you for that.
Oh, good. That's really good to hear. Thank you. I was honored to be chosen.
I wanted to ask you about that community. You're so active on social media and people really care about what you say. Which is noteworthy because laypeople don't often associate poets with being social. Do you have to work at being social, or are you just naturally a people person?
I am so not a people person. I’m not an extrovert and I don’t like to be at parties. That's why I write — because I'm not so good at talking or socially interacting. People always say they're surprised to hear I'm an introvert, so I tend to be an introvert with extrovert tendencies, maybe.
I always try to just interact with the belief that everyone's just trying their best. It's nice to hear I do it well, because I don't necessarily feel that way.
I think you do, I think people really listen to what you have to say.
Oh, well thank you.
So you're a poet and a publisher. Are those two jobs related? Are you a publisher because you're a poet?
You know, I'm a publisher for a really strange reason. We accidentally started this press, Annette Spaulding-Convy and I. Back in — gosh, maybe 2008? — we were coming from an event in Seattle on the ferry and we had glasses of wine and we started talking about wanting to publish an anthology of women in poetry, but in ebook form.
She had just gotten a Kindle and I had gotten an iPad. At that time, there was no poetry on there — nothing contemporary. The poetry publishers were lagging behind, so we said, "Well, let's just do this and see what happens." We couldn't find anyone that could do an ebook, so we just did it ourselves.
And then another project came along. Jeannine Hall Gailey’s book went out of print, so now that we're a press we put her book back into print. And then, the next thing you know, we had a press.
It's completely different sides of my brain. I always told myself I had to be a poet first and then editor second. This year especially, I’ve had to make some balance changes to put more focus on my writing.
What does putting more focus on your writing look like? Is it just taking the time, or do you behave differently when you're thinking more of the writing?
Yes, I behave very differently. I'm in my head a lot more, running poems through my head, thinking about my manuscript. I see the world very differently when I'm in the space of a poet. But also taking time for like writing residencies. I'm applying for more things and also just reading more, waking up and instead of checking my email, I’ll go outside with a book of poems and start to read. Even if it's a busy day and I can only read three poems, that’s still three poems more than I would have read.
It's being more mindful, I think. Sometimes a job can take away from who you are as a writer. I had to quit a corporate job early on just because I had completely lost my poet self.
What is the story of you and poetry? Is it a love story, or a comedy, or a horror movie?
All of the above. I think in every poet's life you can have scenes like in horror movies. We used to get paper rejections in the mail and, like, the double-team rejection came in.
But I think I'm happiest when I'm writing and when I'm in that creative space. I would say right now it's probably a pretty boring Lifetime drama that nobody's watching. But I hope eventually it turns into something good — maybe an Oscar winner.
I love how you ran with that! So, have you always been a poet or is that something that you realized you can be later on in life?
Well, I've always been a writer, even as a kid. We got to do little electives as a second-grader, and I remember choosing creative writing and I remember [my teacher] liking my story about a purple giraffe, or something like that.
I was always a reader and I was always a writer. Then I went to UW and I was actually focusing on fiction, and then I took a class by Linda Bierds, a poetry class, and completely got turned on to poetry.
Are the poems that we're running on the site this month more recent poems, or are we in the back catalog while you come up with new poems?
No, you're running really recent poems. It was really nice that you were able to choose the ones that you felt worked best for you, because as a poet, probably my worst skill is I'm never sure what poems are the best, or that people respond best to.
I'm always shocked when a poem kinda goes viral or gets shared a lot, it's never the poem I think will take off.
I wanted to ask you about your poem “Downpour.” Martin and Dawn and I decided to run it on the 4th of July because we thought it felt like a political poem. I mean, first of all, running a poem titled “Downpour” on the 4th of July is kind of a statement too. But it feels very political to me. Is that an accurate read of it, you think?
Yeah, definitely. There's been a lot of new poems since November that have that edge or that slant. I think I, like many, just was kind of complacent. I was so active in the Bush years with Poets Against the War, and just ... and then, well, I don't know. A lot of those newer poems do tend to have more of a political or an activist leaning. You know what they say, every poem is political in some way.
As you said, you were active in the Bush years as a poet. Do you feel like there's a difference in the way that writers are responding now than they were during the Bush years?
A little bit differently. I mean, so many people feel under threat these days, so, just the poems that have been being written by so many people are just incredible. When you're writing poetry — just in writing in general — when there is tension in your work, it ups the game. Some amazing works of art have come out in the last, what is it been, in like eight months?
My God, I can’t even think of it…
Yeah, have we only been in this presidency for six months?
What do you think poems can contribute, politically speaking?
Well, they can help other people understand, or heal. I always think of Maggie Smith's "Good Bones." I wrote the little article for you guys about that poem going viral. I think a lot of people go to poetry in times of crisis, even though they may not realize that they're doing it.
I think just adding art anytime is a good thing. I think it's useful to people, When big things happen, and then you read a poem that completely states what you're feeling, even though you didn't know those were the words or the images or the metaphor for it, that’s powerful.
I do think that's why they're shared and why it is important. It does connect us. I go to books and poetry when I'm down.
Do you think of yourself as part of a tradition of Northwestern poetry?
I do. I was born in Seattle and I grew up in Seattle. In my corporate job, I was working in Redmond and then I realized it was killing my soul. So I quit and geographically changed my location to across the water. I ended up in Kingston, Washington, so I was a ferry ride away from my old life.
Yes, I do really feel like a Seattle poet. I mean, it's funny, I still consider myself a Seattle poet even though I don't live in the city. I think because I'm always there. I'm always on that ferry.
I do believe there’s a Seattle Renaissance. There's such a large poetry community that is so strong. I do feel like this is a really good place to be a writer.
Who, locally, do you like these days?
Well, Susan Rich and Martha Silano, and Jeannine Hall Gailey, Elizabeth Austen are definitely four favorites. Erin Malone, too. Jeannine Hall Gailey hasn't written a lot but she's always been one of my favorite poets. Of course Kathleen Flennniken, who is working on a book.
Is there anything about them that makes them Seattle poets, you think? Is there common thread?
Well, Susan, Martha, and Elizabeth and even Kathleen, they all have place. Seattle is all through their poems. If you read their books of poems, Martha's got a poem with Pagliacci Pizza, and you know, Susan Rich has poems on Alki. I feel like we're represented ... And Claudia Castro Luna did that beautiful thing where she was documenting poems in places, did you see that?
The Poetic Grid? Yeah.
Yeah. I love how poems are just woven in into our landscape, it's so Richard Hugo-esque.
It seems like you're pretty prolific, so far as poetry goes. You write a fair amount. Is that a correct assessment, do you think?
That's very correct.
Do you wind up publishing most things that you write or do you —
No. I write a lot, but I would say that 90 percent, 95 percent of my poems never make it out into the world — either because I'm continually revising them, or I decide I don't like them, or they just disappear. I have one Word file that's called "New Work," which has got a bazillion poems in it, and then I have one called "Completed Poems" and a document can move into completed but then I might think it's not completed and move it back.
I'm constantly writing, but I am a terrible submitter. I tell people to submit their work, I wrote a little essay that went viral: "Submit Like a Man," which is something that I noticed when I was working at Crab Creek Review — that we would ask poets to submit, and the majority of men responded within like a month or two months with work, and then women, we sometimes would hear from them six months later and a lot of times you'd never hear from them.
It's funny, 'cause I wrote that article, and I am absolutely terrible at submitting my work. I love to write, I don't like to submit. It's not even the rejections — it's just I get the joy in the writing, not in the publishing. It's always fun to get feedback and to hear what people think — you know, if they like your poem — but it's kind of a pain to submit your work.
Yeah, which to me, that's interesting because I think that it's pretty common for writers to hate to hustle their own works and to promote it, but as publisher, you've gotta hustle other people's work. Is that difficult for you?
It's really easy to hustle and promote other people's work. It's so much easier, because all the books at Two Sylvias Press that we have published and are publishing, we absolutely love. We love our poets and our writers, and we love their work, so it's really easy for us, for me, to share a poem.
It's a thousand times easier for me to contact Oprah Magazine with somebody else's book than for me to ever send my own book there. When you're trying to get somebody else's work into the world, you have no reservations.
But with my own work, I never contact reviewers and say, "Would you like to review my book?" And I don't know if it's a weird self-consciousness where you don't wanna feel like the used car salesman. But sharing my friends' work and poets I love, I do all the time without hesitation.
But it is interesting thinking about just the title of your essay: "Submit Like a Man." I wonder if there's a better system out there. Like, what would successfully submitting like a woman look like, you know? I don't know if there's an answer to that or if it's even a question, but it seems like mimicking mediocre men has not worked out that well for us as a society. I wonder if there's a way to go about it.
I don't know. I mean, I'm a perfect example of how not to submit. I have a 16-, almost 17-year-old daughter who doesn't seem to have a problem asking if she needs something, or for what she wants.
But I was a kid of the 70s, and I always knew that when if I came home and complained, "So-and-so was mean to me," the first question [from parents] was, "what did you do?" Like, "what did you do to cause that?" So, it always came back to: the problem is with yourself, as opposed to, you know, "hey, that guy's just a jerk."
I do think it's changing. The young women in my daughter's class, they're all go-getters and they're much more aware. In that respect, the internet has been excellent in helping young women see their worth.
Today the Seattle Review of Books celebrates its second birthday — two years of publishing original writing about books with a uniquely Seattle flavor. To honor the anniversary, the site’s co-founders met up in their favorite habitat, a Slack channel, for a wide-ranging conversation about the city, its writers and readers, and the future of book reviewing.
If you haven’t had the pleasure of joining a conversation with Paul Constant and Martin McClellan, I hope you enjoy the one below as much as I did. A relative newcomer to the site, I went in with a sheaf of notes and an immaculate interview plan. Ninety minutes later I staggered out, slightly stunned but delighted — and eager to see what Seattle’s most passionate book nerds take on next.
Congratulations! Two years, almost 200 reviews! And all sorts of interviews and notes. Probably thousands. Too many to count.
Paul: Thanks! These last two years seem to have gone by so fast.
Martin: It's a little more than 2,000 notes, interviews, columns, and such.
Paul: Sometimes I look at my author page and try to figure out how I found the time to write all that.
Martin: I can now confess I helped start the site just so I could read Paul's writing more. It was entirely selfish.
It’s an obvious place to start, which isn’t at all in the spirit of the site — but I love the story and you just gave me an opening, so let’s do it anyway. How did the Seattle Review of Books get launched?
Paul: I’ve told this story a few times, and it’s slightly different every time. I’d be curious to hear Martin’s version.
Martin: I actually was a big fan of Paul's writing at the Stranger. I ran into him a few times around town and we struck up a friendship. At the time I was working for a media company, so we had things in common other than loving books.
When he left the Stranger I sent a joke tweet his way that he should start the Seattle Review of Books. We met up to have dinner a bit later, and the joke got a bit more serious. I guess, as Al Franken puts it, I was kidding on the square.
Sitting there at Le Pichet I looked up the domain registry for seattlereviewofbooks.com, and was shocked to find that nobody had ever bought it. We jokingly made an agreement that we’d co-own the URL, and Paul handed me some cash. We shook hands, and I bought it.
We sat on it for a bit, kind of sending notes back and forth like "Well, if we did, what if we . . . ?" and to our immense pleasure (or, at least mine), all of our ideas were simpatico. So we talked more seriously, then each put some money in and defined what our roles would be, and started building the site you're reading now.
Paul: Yeah, my version of the story involves a car chase and some microfiche stashed into a hairbrush handle, but that’s about the gist of it.
I want to be clear, though: Martin came up with the name of the site, he built it with his own two hands, he designed it. Without him, the Seattle Review of Books wouldn’t exist. I’d probably have a Tumblr called “Paul’s Bookish Musings” or something like that and it would be red type on a black background and nobody would ever read it.
Beyond no one owning the name or the domain yet — what was the thing you were trying to make, that nobody else had made?
Martin: I would have read it. But I would have complained about the typography.
The thing, I think, that we both wanted was a place that celebrated writing and lit culture in Seattle as a primary thing. Not as an afterthought or a tie-in.
We both wanted a place that celebrated writing and lit culture in Seattle as a primary thing. Not as an afterthought or a tie-in.
Paul: Yeah, exactly.
After nearly two decades here, I know that Seattle is the best, most interesting literary city in the United States. At the same time, I was seeing nearly every outlet diminish or eliminate their books coverage.
Martin: I loved the way Paul always said it: that we wanted to reflect the average Seattle reader’s shelf. So, comics next to "serious" novels, next to fun reads next to poetry. Diverse, and geared towards the interest of a general reader.
Paul: Seattle has the best readers in the country, too, for sure.
Martin: For sure! And the most fun-loving book crowd. It's very open and accepting of everybody, and there's something happening every night.
Paul: You know, I don’t think I’ve talked about this with Martin, but I had a real anxiety that in twenty years someone would move to Seattle and start a publishing company and they’d not know about the rich history they were building on.
A lot of Seattle’s literary history is just missing. Unless you’re talking about Raymond Carver or Richard Hugo, a lot of those figures are starting to disappear into the mists of time.
I think something we’re doing here is making a record: This is what Seattle was like at this time. These are the people who made Seattle such a terrific place to live. These are the writers who maybe never scored a giant publishing contract but who were making incredible pieces of work. They existed, they mattered, and they added to this amazing continuum.
So sometimes I’m not even writing for the audience right now. I’m recording something for posterity.
Martin: When we were starting the site, I was talking to typographer John D. Berry, and he was telling me about publishing the Pacific Northwest Review of Books in the early seventies. That history is missing, there's so much still to capture!
Paul: Yeah, and there’s maybe one copy of that Review in Knute Berger’s basement.
Martin: I'll bet Knute Berger's basement is like the warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Ark. But every box is full of trees.
Paul: And Wheedle on the Needle merch.
Martin: And vintage Metro buses.
But, I want to turn the question around. Dawn: you were an early reader of the site. You saw it from the outside. What drew you in and kept you reading?
It was the inimitable and irrepressible personality of the site that made it stand out. So much of book reviewing is — it’s not fair to say it’s cookie-cutter, but it’s from a certain cloth.
I think it was one of your reviews, Martin, where you said “We like to say that a book review is the only type of review done in the method of the thing it is reviewing.”
Martin: That's one of Paul's lines. It's probable I stole it.
Regardless: the reviews I was reading on SRoB were interesting in and of themselves, as pieces of writing.
Martin: I'm glad to hear that. That was always important to us, that reviews be good pieces of writing that stand alone.
Paul: I mean, my dirty little secret is that I don’t read many other review sites. Because I find most book reviews to be awful.
Paul, I was trying to be diplomatic.
Martin: You may be surprised to learn that people who started a review site have strong feelings about reviews.
Paul: I don’t need some random dude on the internet to give me a Consumer Reports-style guide or a plot summary. I want them to contextualize the book and argue with the book and point out something I didn’t notice about the book.
I love books and I love talking about books. And I love writing about books. A lot of people don’t believe me when I say I’m not a failed novelist. I’m a reviewer. I’m a book person. I like to think and write about books. And I know I’m not alone.
People always think reviewers are bitter, failed fiction writers. And I guess a lot of them are. But they shouldn’t be writing reviews. They should be getting better at writing fiction.
Martin: So, I guess this is a good time to mention that I'm a novelist.
Not failed, is the key thing.
Martin: True! Not yet. I have that to look forward to. Us people who work in startups, we like failing. We've built a mythology around it.
Paul: And if I may contradict myself: I think novelists are some of the best book reviewers. I always use Colson Whitehead’s review of Richard Ford’s A Multitude of Sins as one of my favorite (and most deserved) literary takedowns of all time.
Martin: And didn't he get punched for it?
Paul: Ford spat on him at a party.
Martin: Even better!
Two years in: is this what you expected?
I mean, I was surprised and pleased by the outpouring of support that we received when we first announced. We were covered by most outlets in town: The Seattle Times, Seattle Magazine, Seattle Metropolitan, City Arts.
They didn’t have to do that. Technically, we’re their competitors.
Martin: That was very gratifying.
Paul: Yeah. It was a little like getting to read your obituary early.
So we were off to a much bigger start than I expected, which was great.
But these first few years, I knew, would be a real heads-down kind of do-the-work period. Make sure we have new stuff on the site every day. Remind people we’re here. Break news sometimes. But be on time, and have something interesting to say, and be as comprehensive as you can. A media outlet has to prove itself by showing up. You can’t have dead days. You can’t drop the ball.
So we’ve been reminding people that we’re here, and we’ve been trying to be good citizens. Good neighbors.
What does that mean? Other than keeping the music down after 10 p.m. and making sure your garbage cans aren’t in the street?
Paul: It means letting people know they can come to us when they need help. It means keeping an eye on the community and spreading the word when someone’s done something worth celebrating.
It means letting people know they can come to us, and expecting us to show up when they need us.
We’re a news site, but we’re also a community resource.
We might run negative reviews and write news stories that annoy people from time to time, but I don’t think anyone can doubt our commitment to books in general, and to Seattle in particular.
That’s the kind of work we’ve had to do in the first few years, and that we still need to do.
Martin: Yeah, we set the stage with what we have done.
With two years under our feet — and, it's worth saying, two profitable years thanks to our incredible sponsors — we're not a fly-by-night affair.
We are a written-by-night affair, however. Mostly.
Paul: I’m basically fused to my couch at this point. Though I’ve stopped falling asleep while typing in mid-sentence, which I take to mean I’m getting better at managing my time.
Martin: I want to talk a bit more about sponsorships for a minute. Because one of the frustrations of working on the web was terrible, terrible, terrible advertising. There is no reason that advertising needs to be terrible. We have a site about reading. Let's give people something to read.
Having a bright line between sponsorship and editorial content was important for us, but also that sponsorships were attractive, didn't riddle your computer with cookies and trackers and third-party nonsense. That we respected our readers as intelligent people who might actually like to find out about some books or events they're into.
Because of doing that, we've been able to sustain the site and pay poets to appear on the site every week, and hire writers.
So please do read our sponsorship each week. If you like them, great! If not, the only thing you've lost is a few minutes of your time. You might just discover a book you absolutely love.
I am curious about what, specifically, you’d like to do over the next few years. If this were the five-year anniversary interview, what would you want me to ask you about?
Martin: I don't want to promise anything specific; sometimes you can deliver on promises, and sometimes you can't. But here are a few things we hope to see: a more robust calendar, more events — like our book club — where we can get out and see people more original fiction on the site — we're running our first short story writing contest now.
Paul: I agree with your recent interview, Dawn, where you said you wanted to see more voices on the site. And that’s why I’m grateful to have you as our associate editor. I love working with new writers, but running a site in addition to a day job is a lot to do.
So to have you working with new voices is wonderful. Without new writers, we’re just kind of treading water. I hope all sorts of people will reach out with weird and fun pitches. Especially young writers who maybe don’t have a byline anywhere else. I’d like to see us become a place that sends new talent out into the world.
“Weird” is my favorite of the words you use to describe book reviews.
Paul: It’s vague, but you know a good, weird book review when you see it. It’s the kind of thing that makes readers say “you can’t do that in a book review . . . can you?”
Turns out, you can!
Martin: I think one of the things that we see a lot is people writing book reviews like they think book reviews should be. That's the wrong approach with us.
Paul: That’s one of the hardest things to do with new writers, is to untrain them from thinking that a book review has to be dull and formal and stuffy.
Or to let them know it’s okay to do what they wanted to do anyway.
Martin: Or that it has to talk about the book at all. Okay, maybe a little. But try us.
Martin: I can imagine reading an absolutely delightful review of a Jonathan Franzen book that doesn't talk about the book or the writer at all, for example.
Paul: Any review that doesn’t mention Jonathan Franzen is a delightful review!
Martin: I'm interested in the writer. What is it that the writer brings? Why are they the right person to write the review? How do they see the world through the lens of the book?
Give me an example.
Martin: Here are a few reviews that stand out (although I love every review we've run):
Arthur Wyatt's personal Brit-splaining of Judge Dredd and how he came to write for the comic, Doug Nufer's formal poem critique of The Drone Papers, Bonnie Rough's sensitive and lovely look at death with Abigail Thomas' What comes next and how to like it, just to name a few. Your review, Dawn, of Marie Kondo's book, is a review about people and hard things and coping.
None of them are conventional reviews, really. They don't open with a "here's a thought about the writer, here's a summary, here's a synopsis of what I just told you." They're explorations of the world of the writer through the book.
Paul: I also love Anna Minard’s nerdy (but canny!) love letter to Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
The thing I want to ask, that I’m not quite sure how to get at, is how the context for SRoB is changing — and how that affects your vision for the site. And by context I mean the Seattle literary world, and the environment for books, booksellers, and people who read and write about books.
Paul: That’s a good question. Though a lot of folks in the literary world here like to recall a halcyon time when the Seattle literary world was stable and ever-growing, the truth is that time never existed. Bookstores and venues are always opening and closing. Writers are coming to town, writers are leaving town. Things will be very different in five years, but that’s always the case.
I think our role is to reflect those changes, and mourn the people and institutions that fade from view, and to celebrate the new ones that rise up.
The city is suffering an affordability crisis right now, and though politicians have paid tremendous lip service to writers and other creative types, not much has actually been done to ensure that they can live here.
We should absolutely reflect that in the site.
And we do have the 800-pound gorilla of the publishing industry headquartered in South Lake Union, and we have to acknowledge that.
So we have to advocate for the city we want, in the face of all this prosperity and discomfort and squalor.
We have to advocate for the city we want, in the face of all this prosperity and discomfort and squalor.
Martin: I really, really wish Amazon had some competition in digital books. There is such a lack of innovation anywhere else in publishing in that space, it's disheartening.
Paul: Right! We have a “disruptor,” to use an awkward tech word, in the audio book space here in Seattle. Libro.fm is a local company that’s trying to bring independent bookstores in on the audio book sales front. I hope someone is doing similar work with ebooks, and I hope they’re based here in Seattle, too.
Martin: There's another aspect of the site I want to mention, and that's that we're completely independent. We're not built on another's publishing platform.
It's true that running a website is hard, and it's especially hard to make money, but we're also living in a time where publishing is easier than it has ever been in history. We want more people starting sites and publishing original content. We want more people, of all different backgrounds and views, making sites about books and what they love.
I hope to see many more people breaking out of those walled gardens and building their own worlds.
We want more people, of all different backgrounds and views, making sites about books and what they love.
Final question. And it’s an easy one. Pinky swear. No, wait. I have two. Clearly no respect for the pinky swear!
First: What should I have asked you that I didn’t?
Paul: Well, uh, I don’t know what you should’ve asked that you didn’t, but I know that I’d like to thank all our amazing columnists. I can’t believe that we get to publish the incredible Nisi Shawl on a regular basis! She’s one of the most exciting sci-fi novelists in the field today and she’s an upstanding figure in the Seattle sci-fi scene and she works with us? What the hell?
Martin: For sure, and we have a new column starting next week that I'm so excited about.
Paul: And Daneet Steffens’s mystery column is pure joy. She has such a deep love and understanding of the genre that it’s infectious. I learn so much from reading her column.
Christine Marie Larsen’s Portrait Gallery adds a much-needed visual element to the site, and it’s a fantastic way to celebrate local authors. Her work has been on the site since day one — we have the best 404 pages — and I think the color and life and energy she brings to her paintings is as much a guiding star for the site as any prose we’ve published.
Martin: Yes! Christine is so great. She's done about eighty original paintings for us, which is astounding. It makes me so happy to see her portrait every week, and I'm so grateful for her work.
Paul:And I’m sure we’ll have more terrific columns in the future (pitch us!).
But I especially have to get mushy and thank Cienna Madrid for being with us from the very beginning and writing the best damn advice column in the world.
Martin: Cienna Madrid is so damn funny.
Paul: SO funny. And sometimes she’s so mean that when she demonstrates real compassion it just knocks you on your ass. Getting her column in my inbox is a highlight of my week, every week. And she was writing for us back before anyone even knew this site existed.
So at the risk of sounding like I’m taking a victory lap or giving an Oscar speech, I just want to publicly gush over how lucky we are to have her.
Closing words for SRoB readers?
Paul: Thank you for reading! And thanks for sending in tips and questions and Facebook and Twitter comments. Your thoughts and opinions matter a great deal to us. This is your site, and we take your comments and criticisms really seriously. And we’re so grateful for all your support.
Martin: I want to echo Paul's thoughts, exactly. Putting this site together and working on it every day is a passion, and it's because we have such amazing readers. We love hearing from you, so write in and tell us what you think, what you want to see more of, what you want to see less of. We want to hear.
Thank you so much for reading. And if you see us out at an event, come up and say hello.
They look threatening but are actually quite nice.
Paul: I have resting glower face.
Martin: I have resting at-home face. Because I go out much less than Paul. But talk to me if you see me!
And with that, I think we can close. Yes?
Martin: ...and scene!
Karen Junker’s life has always been devoted to books. Though the tiny Washington town where she grew up, DuPont, didn’t have a library when she was young, “I loved reading more than anything.” One of her high school classmates was Robert Heinlein’s niece, and Junker clearly recalls her meeting with the sci-fi great to be a turning point in her life.
“Some people collect comics and baseball cards, and I collect meetings with famous authors,” Junker tells me on the phone, just before relaying an anecdote about accidentally bumping into George R. R. Martin. She’s about more than just the big names, though. Junker is well-connected in the literary community: she knows agents and editors and publishers and booksellers. And she admits that she’s “not afraid to call anyone and ask them for anything.”
Junker says she “likes to introduce people that will help other people.” One of her favorite things to do is to organize events that place a famous writer next to a lesser-known writer, creating the possibility to inexorably alter the course of a career. She’s organized conventions and a popular series of writing retreats called Writers Weekend and all sorts of other literary events.
Junker doesn’t believe in genre. She recalls a moment when she was younger that taught her not to look down her nose at someone for the kind of books they read: “I was working in a bookstore in West Seattle and I was helping a regular customer there and I said, ‘you seem like a really smart woman. Why do you read romance?’ She pretty much dressed me down. And rightfully so!” That customer turned out to be president of the local Romance Writers of America chapter, and she invited Junker to attend writing workshops. “It really opened up my mind and respect for that genre.”
After putting on some romance events, Junker started to branch out. She scored a rare appearance from sci-fi author Mercedes Lackey at a writing group, and then she started to expand her scope into a regular series of writing workshops. And now she’s expanding her scope event further with Readerfest, a free family-friendly book festival at Magnuson Park on Saturday, September 9th. Junker just started planning the festival five weeks ago, but she’s filed with Washington’s Secretary of State for nonprofit status and plans are proceeding at high speed. “I started making phone calls and people are getting on board,” she says. “We’re adding people and sponsors every day.”
“I’m a big fan of the writing community, especially in our region,” Junker tells me. “I started Readerfest because the Northwest Bookfest was so cool, and I feel that this is something I can do to organize a little tiny thing to build that back up again.” She admits to being “scared” by how quickly Readerfest is growing, but “I’ve done these for so long that if you get good people who you know can talk about what they do, I don’t have to manage that. It takes care of itself.”
Inclusivity is important to Junker. Readerfest will feature an indigenous arts tent, and there will be talks by local native artists. The festival will feature conversations about “cultural appropriation in literature, and race and gender representation in steampunk.” The festival does have more sci-fi authors on its slate than Northwest Bookfest, but Junker is looking to expand that slate as much as possible. “I have some poets, I have some non-fiction writers and some comics. We have spoken-word storytellers coming. We don’t have a lot of literary fiction writers yet.”
So what should you do if you want to participate in Readerfest? Junker says interested parties should email her if they’d like a table. The Readerfest site will be updated soon with information for volunteers and, as soon as the organization gets its nonprofit status approved, the ability to donate for future Readerfests.
In the end, Junker says, she just wants to put on an event that will connect people to books that they’ll love. “I just felt the need in the community for this kind of event — one that’s family-friendly but not exclusive of any genre. I’m a fan of all types of writing, and there’s a reader for everything,” she says.
Anastacia-Reneé is a poet who knows how to read her work — she takes control of an audience by refusing to conform to standardized modes of delivery. She reads about eating pussy in a roomful of straight people and indicts structural racism in white-dominated spaces. She throws her voice out into the room, but also pulls you in with a whisper or an aside. There is a fusion to her performance style that has obviously taken years to perfect — a commingling of spoken word, black radical oration, theatrical exposition, intergenerational storytelling, queer gossip, and academic training.
So perhaps it is surprising that Anastacia-Reneé’s first two full-length collections of poetry arrive now, at age 45 (a third, smaller volume — Answer(Me) — will follow later this year). But this is emblematic of how the barriers to publishing often function to keep out writers who don’t follow the rules.
Reading Anastacia-Reneé’s two major collections at once offers a rare syncretism. The books are stylistically different and yet thematically interlocked. The first, (v.), just out from local publisher Gramma Poetry, captures the impact of white supremacy on black women and girls — the fracturing of the psyche, the invasion of the spirit, and the plundering of the soul. Using a variety of forms, including alphabetical lists, free-verse, fairy tales, and narrative footnotes, Anastacia-Reneé moves through the contemporary and historical terrain of anti-black, anti-woman, and anti-child violence to unwind the damage.
On the surface, Forget It, just out from Black Radish Press, is a more narrative work, but it is a narrative that shows how narrative fails. Part dreamscape, part surrealist horror story, and part letter to self, Forget It shows how legacies of abuse break bodies and texts. Written in the internalized language of trauma — of sound, speech, error, and dismembered remembrance — Forget It shows how the pain of fitting a life together winds its way through the shock of everyday experience.
I’ll be joining Anastacia-Reneé for the Forget It book launch at Elliott Bay Book Company on July 25 (alongside Jane Wong and Shankar Narayan). In advance of the reading, I sat down with Anastacia-Reneé to talk about her two new poetry collections and the terrain they create together.
It was fun to read your work on the page for the first time — of course I’ve seen you read many times, but there’s a whole new level of textual depth that opens up when I see the ways you’ve arranged the words on the page. I wonder if you could talk about the texts that are inside and around and underneath other texts.
I grew up with reference books — the kind you could actually lug around, hold, flip pages and stare at — medical dictionaries, regular dictionaries, encyclopedias and maps. In my writing I like to mimic reference books and get the reader’s attention while talking about more than one thing or topic or subtopic — or, better still, a thing the reader isn't supposed to know but now knows. Or a thing I feel like the reader should infer but might not.
I was told a lot when I was younger to be quiet, or it was implied in the ‘70s and ‘80s that girls should not use their voices. The texts and subtexts are also a way for me to say fuck that, and use so many different mediums and modes of communicating that it takes the reader a long time to process it.
One thing that strikes me throughout both books is your insistence on indicting not just white supremacy, but its constituent parts — how histories of violence interact in everyday experience, from police brutality to internalized oppression, pop culture to intimate relationships.
I seek to indict, interrogate, and insert feelings of injustice. Sometimes I just want the reader to feel something — but the possibility that one could walk away from some of the pieces and feel ambivalent or apathetic is a hard coffee drink to swallow. My ultimate goal is not to sit the folks down in a chair and say “Look what you did”; I would, rather, like them to be walking down a journey and say, “Hmm, perhaps I need to change some things and take a look at a bigger picture.”
The texts are always fractured, and this allows us to see into both the ways creative expression forms and the mechanisms of the structural violence that you explore. When you play with words, it seems to me that you’re taking apart language to reveal the structures of feeling that produce meaning, but also setting them free to create new meanings. One poem that does this in particular is “DE[COLONIZE],” from (v.), where you reveal the colon inside colonization, which, if functioning properly, could release toxins instead of poisoning us all, right?
Yes! I wondered, though, if the readers would get it, or if they would put together more toxins. There were so many versions of this poem, and I almost didn’t put it in the book for fear of not executing it in the way I wanted it to read, be, and feel on the page.
I think it’s one of the clearest poems in the book — and, by never letting go of the ways that misogyny and sexual violence are tools of white supremacy, you offer an intersectional analysis in a deeply embodied way, especially in the poems about rape, where the feeling of dissociation is palpable.
This is important for me to talk about, but not in a preachy kind of way. I tried my best to talk about it in a creative way. Less academic essay, but with academic nuances. Also, some days there’s just no nice way to say, “Black women are dying, daily. Black people are dying, daily.”
In many of the poems you explore intergenerational trauma. In “MASTER TALE,” you show how the legacy of slavery plays out in the contemporary workplace.
“MASTER TALE” is actually part of a series that I first began working on when my art installation "The fabric of our lives" debuted at the Northwest African American Museum. The installation talked about the dirty laundry of systemic racism and oppression and the DNA legacy of the feeling of this oppression, which is sometimes felt but not seen right away by the naked eye — especially by white people. In one part of the installation I asked participants to write modern-day letters to current-day masters, at work or in the larger world. “MASTER TALE” is my take on that, and my letter.
I love your confessions: “I’m the creepy girl in all the scary movies.” Even though these are in a smaller font at the bottom of the pages, they are the movement that propels (v.) forward — and, set apart by the same (v.) of the title — they are the action, the verbs, but also, if we look at your constructed alphabet, we see words like ventricle, voice, vortex, void, vampire — and, nine times, vagina. Tell us about the (v.) of the title.
The (v.) is for whatever the reader wants it to mean. For me it means verb or vagina or both. I wanted to give the reader agency.
In both books, it seems to me like you are deliberately resisting closure — you’re making the reader face all the brutality and possibilities head-on. Was this your intention?
I don't think I was intentionally trying not to let the reader get closure, but I did want the reader to be faced with real shit. I wanted the readers to feel as trapped as some people do in the real world where presentation or privilege — or point of view, even — is not a choice.
It seems to me that black authors who are canonized within the white gaze are often required to offer redemption as a strategy for hope. Would you say that you are refusing this type of hope?
Yes, the kind of hope I am offering is "I hope you learn something." "I hope you become a better ally." "I hope you feel something."
I was wondering if Seattle would come up directly in these books, and when it does, in Forget It, it’s as a city of dog-walking and urban gardens and liberal amnesia, where “we begin to think people on drugs don’t need food & shelter & water.” Talk about this city.
Ah, this city. For me it truly is like a lover I love but at times am so ready to break up with. I want to tell Seattle do better, be better, and sometimes I want to say you are not better. On the days when I say you are not better, it's usually because someone who comes off as "progressive" or "fair" or "diversity-trained" ends up being a racist or sexist or just a complete idiot and not even admitting it because they are a "change-maker." I get frustrated with this city because we still have one of the highest rates of homelessness, and youth homelessness. I get frustrated with this city because it feels like it wants to be LA, with less meat and less sun. I want Seattle to be herself but better.
I have moved a lot, and Seattle is the longest place where I have lived as an adult. There are mountains and water, and I do like the rain — I am teased often because I do not celebrate when the sun comes out and I don't cry during winter about there being rain. And once I moved back here in 2012, Seattle was my sanctuary. My church with no pastors or pews.
When Tasmanian cartoonist Simon Hanselmann moved to Seattle, he instantly became one of the biggest cartoonists in town. His Fantagraphics comic Megahex attained the kind of critical and commercial success that a very small sampling of cartoonists manage to achieve in their careers. Hanselmann is a natural provocateur — in the span of a half-hour interview, he manages to say four or five things that could get him in trouble on social media if taken out of context – but he’s so cheerfully sarcastic about it that you can’t help but feel warmly toward him. Further, he’s such a fun interview that I barely noticed all the depressing stuff he lobbed at my head over the course of the conversation. We talked about illness, watercolor, the Hot Off the Press Book Fair at Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery this Saturday, and the problems with the Seattle comics scene. The following is a lightly edited transcription of our talk.
I don't want to take up too much of your time.
Thanks for that. I just did an interview with Dan Nadel from the Comics Journal last week and he just had no questions, no preparation. It was a shitstorm of rambling.
But the Comics Journal runs those novel-length interviews! I thought they would have tons of questions.
No, Dan's very lazy. There's stuff that got cut out of the interview where I talk to Dan about how shit the Comics Journal is now. He used to run Comic Comics, and then that merged with TCJ and combined they both became less than what they used to be. And he agreed: "Yes, it sucks. I'm terrible." But he cut that out of the interview. Anyway...
Well, we should definitely get that in this interview. You know, I was looking through your books and it just struck me for some reason: I was like, oh, holy shit, you're like a real cartoonist now. You've got three books from Fantagraphics! They're real, and they exist on bookshelves. Any idiot can get published, but you've been published three times so you’re at least a special kind of idiot.
Yeah, totally. Didn't totally screw it up.
I may have plateaued. Hopefully not.
They do make a chunky pile of books.
I look at my bookshelf, and I have books by Clowes and Burns and I have sort of a similar level of thickness going on. I've really been cranking this shit out. But really, it's still just battling to get work done and hating everything I do, trying to get better. And it normalizes the whole publishing thing.
Do you look through your old stuff? Some cartoonists don't.
Oh yeah. I do, I read all the reviews online. I read Amazon, GoodReads reviews. Probably shouldn't, but I do. There's valid criticism to be found, and people often pick up on things that I'm not picking up on. I think it's helpful to read the criticisms.
But yeah, I do look at my old stuff. Like for instance, I hate Megahex now. I just, feel all the older stuff, looking back on [work from] 2009, 2010 — it just looks horrible to me.
Is it just the craft of the drawing that you don't like about it?
It just looks bad to me, but people still like those books. I think a lot of people aren't aware I have other books after Megahex. It’s sort of become like: [TV announcer voice:] "Megahex: Available at Hot Topic." The popular cultural item.
Yeah, I can't stand it anymore. It's less mature than the other books. They're still all silly. I mean the new book's got a ridiculous big boner joke in it, it has pooping, and low-brow shenanigans.
I like the third book the most of the three. Some of the material in there is from like 2013 and it sort of collects of the dregs, the remnants with a bunch of new stuff. I think overall it's the strongest of the three. My personal preference.
Where do you feel like you grew the most in this book? What about your work is the strongest in this one?
Well, some of it is quite old. Some of it I drew before Megahex. It was in a book called Life Zone that Space Face put out. It's been out of print for a while, but I still like that material the most. I think Life Zone is my best book, those four stories worked well together.
So [One More Year] combines [Life Zone] with some of the Vice strips from last year. Some of them are terrible, but some of them I quite like. Really, it’s just a clearing-house kind of book. I wanted to get all of these out-of-print things together and it just kind of finishes off the trilogy.
Then, that's it — I'm moving on with Megg and Mogg, and it's gonna start progressing a lot more, with more forward momentum. It said in the back of Megahex, “To be concluded in Megg's Coven,” and then I never did that book. I've sorta been just putting it off. But now I'm finally going to start doing Megg's Coven, in which Owl has moved out, and everything progresses a bit more.
That was something I was going to ask you about. Do you think these Megg and Mogg stories are going to be your life's work, or a significant part of your life's work? Are these the characters you're going to follow, like Peter Bagge with his character Buddy Bradley?
I think so, yeah. I've been doing this for almost ten years now, which is terrifying. Next year, 2018, will be the ten-year anniversary of the first Megg and Mogg strip. It's gone by very quickly.
And this big Megg’s Coven project I'm planning will be minimum 400 pages, in European-style larger albums, hardbacks. One a year is my goal, starting next year.
So yeah, I've got plans for these characters. I've written very far ahead, like Werewolf Jones’s children — I know what happens to them, what they're like when they're teenagers, adults. There are still loose ends I have to sort of figure out. I'm still growing older and growing up, going through different phases.
Anyway, just how interesting could Megg and Mogg be when they're in their fifties? We'll see. It'll be the future then, so what kind of crazy technology will we have? It'll be about VR, and cyber-sex. It'll be amazing.
Yeah, there'll be camouflage pants that actually work — make our lower halves truly invisible.
Peter Bagge once said that Buddy Bradley was always 10 years behind him. is that something similar with you and Megg and Mogg, like they're at a place that is behind you in your development?
It's definitely predominately based on my times in Tasmania in my twenties — early to mid-twenties — hanging out in the Tasmanian noise and art scene, and all the shenanigans that happened. People in a small place, incestuously fucking each other's boyfriends and girlfriends, terrible alcohol problems, small-town pranks.
And then also my friend Grant [Gronewold], HTML Flowers, he's kind of like my co-writer. He and I get up to a lot of pretty cool shenanigans — or used to, before I moved to Seattle. So a lot of it's based on us doing horrible stupid things.
I'm in my mid-thirties now. I really shouldn't be climbing cranes, breaking into construction sites, and vomiting everywhere. We went to the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2015. It was terrible. Throwing glasses off balconies, really drunk, and we accidentally kicked Alan Cumming on a panel.
It was terrible, I think Alan Cumming was very upset.
Hold on, just to be clear: Alan Cumming the actor?
Yes. We were on a panel with Alan Cumming, for some reason. It was a weird festival — a very posh festival. The hotel was a five-star hotel. Grant vomited everywhere, it was quite terrible. We had just gotten back from Toronto, made a bunch of money — just throwing cash everywhere and just looking like rock star dickheads.
We're not really doing that anymore. I've moved to Seattle and I'm married and Grant has cystic fibrosis. It's kicking him in the balls, so he's in the hospital again. We’re both workaholics, so it must be really difficult for him, too.
I’m so sorry to hear that. To make an awkward transition, I know you get this a lot, but the coloring in your book is just amazing —
— I get the opposite also.
Really? That seems unbelievable. I was reading the book earlier this week and I was thinking to myself how different the impact of the strips would have if they didn't have that lightly washed-out watercolory feel to them. I kept trying to picture it with a gaudy digital overdone palette, and it just hit wrong.
Did you see the Free Comic Book Day Fantagraphics book?
It had flat computer colors and it was fine, but also it just looked dead and lifeless.
So yeah, I agree with you. I think there's something about that homestyle, mom-and-pop food coloring kind of washed out vibe. It doesn't look right with the computer colors.
I wish it did, because it would be much less laborious. But then I'd actually have to learn to use a computer. It’s nice of you to say, Paul, because I have heard people say, it’s bad coloring. It’s probably the thing I'm most proud of, in a way.
It’s such a significant part of your work. I'm a very bad comics critic because sometimes I will not even notice the color on a book at all. But it feels like such a significant part of your work. Some pages, you could almost take the lines out and you would still have the strip there. The emotional story would still be there. It's just really remarkable to me.
I'm working on a bunch of paintings right now. I’ve been doing sort of landscape paintings for an art show in October so this buoys my confidence while I'm painting. Thank you, Paul.
You’re welcome. I try not to gush in these interviews, because it always feels weird.
I do feel like a bad artist. I do look at my stuff and hate it. I do have a tendency to rush things.
I mean, I put a lot of work and a lot of time into things, but at the same time I'm barreling through them and just trying to desperately finish them. If I used computers, I could fix some of the mistakes through Photoshop but I kind of like that little mistakes are there.
But I have one chance — if I fuck up I cannot fix it. Because if I put whiteout or anything on a mistake, that will soak up the food coloring that I use for water coloring. So if I fuck up and make a mistake, I have to live with it.
And I kind of like that. Dangerous.
It must slow you down a little bit. I don't know much about physically working with materials but it sounds like watercolor takes a while for it to dry at least. Doesn't that change the rhythm of your work?
It dries quite quickly. I put an application down and it will dry in a minute or something, usually.
I don't do it page by page. I'll have a thirty-page strip and I'll go through and do all the fences, all the couches, all the bottles, all of Megg's faces, all of Megg's hair, the eyes, the cats. I use food coloring and it’s great — it's a certain Australian brand and it goes on really smooth, really flat.
Anyway, I've figured out the system over the years. It's laborious and horrible in the summer, particularly, because it's so hot and the watercolor dries really fucking quickly. You can see the steam coming off the page. I’ve got to be really quick.
Sometimes, I can't answer the phone, [Hanselmann’s wife] Jacq [Cohen]’s always like, "Simon, can you answer the door?" And I'm like "I can't — I'm in a paint hole."
That's my thing, paint holes, I'm always stuck painting, and if I stop it'll fuck the whole thing up and I'll have big streaks through it. When I'm painting I need reality to fuck off. I need to be in the zone.
Do you ever worry about the longevity of the physical work? Is the food coloring going to hold, or does it fade or get runny? Do you resell your work or anything like that, the originals?
Oh, I sell my originals like crazy yeah. Alvin Buenaventura was my art dealer. He worked with Clowes and Burns and with other amazing artists. He really got my prices up, and then he killed himself while owing me 10 grand. Which is unfortunate.
So I sell my artwork. But I do have pages from ten years ago made with the food coloring, and it's still just as bright as it was ten years ago. It seems to age quite well.
Okay, all right.
My prices are so high now, I sell a page for like two grand, but a lot of my fans are schlubby burnouts, they can't afford that. I kinda feel like an asshole moving over into this posh art realm. But I need to pay the bills, I have health care because I'm an American now.
Ha, ha. Joke’s on you!
Yeah I know. I move here and everything just falls to pieces. I really miss my free universal health care.
My mother’s quite sick now and she's just getting ambulances every day and they're nice and it's all free as it should be. I was saying to her, "bright side to this, Ma, is you're in Australia. If you were in America you'd just be fucked. You'd just owe a million dollars."
Like Grant, my best friend, he's from Chicago. But he moved to Australia for the health care, because he'd be dead now if he didn't move away.
Oh my god.
That's why it's so funny, that “America's like the greatest country in the world” talk. I'm like, “it's ... okay ... but it's pretty fucking shit, really." A bit dissatisfied with America.
But, anyway. I don't want to get deported. So, yay! Go Trump. I love America. Please don't let them beat me to death for being a crossdresser.
Oh my. That's a quote to take out of context! Kinda speaking about Trump, I was thinking about your Fantagraphics labelmate Matt Furie and Pepe the Frog and all that, and I was wondering: do you ever worry about Owl being co-opted by men’s rights activists or other terrible online people?
It could happen, there is a certain panel from Megahex with Werewolf Jones saying "It's going to get weird ... I'm going to make this weird." And that is re-blogged fucking everywhere. It has watermarks on it from meme people, I've seen it have like 300,000 notes on it on Tumblr, there's a rap album named after it, it's a low-level meme. It fucking gets around so easily someone could throw a Hitler mustache on it and it could end up a hate symbol.
But you can’t worry about that. For years the comedy page on 4Chan had a Megg and Mogg panel — a particularly offensive one that I never officially published. It involved rape. They put all these bits of paper with rape puns on Owl’s bedroom walls while he was out — just covered his room.
It could be offensive but at the time, 2008, it was like "ha-ha." But then I had several friends say "Look Simon, I was raped. This is not funny."
I didn't publish it in Megahex. It was in a mini-comic, but I left it out of the main stuff. The point of the comic was that Megg and Mogg were insensitive fucks. It succeeded, in a bad way.
I try not to worry about that stuff anymore — the censorship stuff. Most of my stuff is based on reality and real life things that have happened to me, so if someone complains it's like "Well, this is my experience. Sorry." It's not for everybody. Megg and Mogg are kind of horrible.
But who knows? The Internet's terrifying. Who knows what could happen? It's terrifying out there.
So next Saturday you're giving a presentation to celebrate the release of One More Year.
Yeah. I have it written on my hand, actually. My publisher said make sure to mention the thing on the 8th. So, yes! I do.
What a happy coincidence.
You've done your legwork, Paul.
Look at that! I know you're going to be at a place at a certain time.
More than Dan Nadel did.
I'm going to get that tattooed on me. Different cartoonists do different sorts of things when they project comics on a big screen: some people just put panels up and read the balloons, some people take the word balloons out. What do you do with your comic performance?
I'm pretty meat-and-potatoes really. I've seen all that bubble-taking-out stuff, which works quite well for Gabrielle Bell. She's great.
I use, first of all, single panels. I hate when people put up a whole page. That just subtracts all of the momentum from the reading. I cut out all the individual panels, and click through them, and do the voices, and try to keep it well-paced and lifelike. You want all the beats to hit.
I used to get audience members to do the voices. I'd say "I'll do Megg. Who will be my Werewolf Jones? Who will be my Mogg?" And it'd often work out quite well, people would have fun with that. There'd be some fuckups and it would be funny.
The thing I'm doing this Saturday is the drone story from One More Year. I assume you read it.
Yeah I did.
Yeah, I hope so, Paul. Nadel didn't.
I'm doing that story, and I'm doing both voices, and I have the musical element. I've got my keyboard, when they sing the songs [in the story] I sing the songs and play the music along with it. I've done it a few times and I've kind of enjoyed doing this one.
And I like that drone story. It's nice and depressing. I've done it two or three times now and people seem to have enjoyed it. I'm an entertainer, Paul.
So, yeah, I’m going to Hot Off the Press Book Fair at the Fantagraphics store in Georgetown on the 8th. I’ll be selling some zines there, and I guess [Fantagraphics Bookstore manager] Larry Reid will have me selling some books and I’ll be doing my little performance.
Nice. Who else do you know at the Fair?
I don't interact with the scene out here, with Seattle. I was actually trying to get a job at a Fanta store recently, like a Sunday job. I wanted to be the Sunday girl there, just to get me out of the house, doing something community-based. But they really didn't want me to work there. Thought it would be weird.
The thing I'm most excited about is Breakdown Press, which is a great British publisher. It's frustrating that the thing I'm most excited about at Hot Off the Press is a British thing.
I don't like the Seattle comics scene. It's okay, but it could be a hell of a lot fucking better. Melbourne had fucking great comic scene. There's some cool shit in Melbourne.
I think Seattle's kind of aggressive in a way. Gentlemen in flannels with beards just doing angry comics about being drunk. Short Run’s all right. I don't go to Dune or anything here, I'm too old to go to drawing nights now. That's a young man’s game — people figuring themselves out.
Okay. I think that’s all the questions I had for you.
We kept it focused! In the Nadel interview we didn't mention One More Year, and we did talk about it a bit in this interview. And we mentioned the Hot Off the Press event, so I think we've done it. We've done it, Paul!
Yup. Suck it, Comics Journal.
WSU Press just published the first book by Bellingham-based historian Candace Wellman. The full title gives you an idea of the topic: Peace Weavers: Uniting the Salish Coast Through Cross-Cultural Marriages. It's a book that follows the life stories of four indigenous women who married across cultural lines, making families with pioneer men.
While the fact of cross-cultural marriages was well known, the women in them were ignored, seen as appendages of the men, or cast in racial and gender stereotypes. It took a curious outsider to start questioning the assumptions of previous historians, and uncover what in retrospect is a seemingly obvious truth: these women had complex, rich lives, and their own stories to tell. Something more remarkable: Wellman uncovered pasts that none had bothered to look for. Outside of family histories, this is the first time their lives have been told.
By focusing on four women, Wellman was able to tell a rich story of life in 19th century Washington and investigate many heady topics that seem to be evergreen: the purpose of marriage, and what it means to marry outside of your race and culture.
I sat down and spent a nice morning with Wellman, who (in the strangest disclosure I've been impelled to write to date) is the mother of my first high school girlfriend. The transcript has been lightly edited.
This was an 18-year journey for you.
Every author I talk to, there's always that one spark that started them on the journey. In this case, a long journey with a lot of research for you. What was that initial spark?
I was a volunteer research assistant at the state archives in Bellingham, and one day a woman came in — she was from Montana, camper was out in the parking lot. She said, "My great-great grandmother was an Indian. Her name was Mary, and she was married to John Briggs here, and that's all we know about her. Will you help me find my family?" So we worked on her genealogy that day.
Six weeks later, another woman on vacation came in, and she said, "My great-great grandmother was an Indian, her name was Fanny. Would you help me find my family?" When we worked on her, I found that those two couples had been married together in the same house on the same day. That was the connection between those two couples. I thought that was really intriguing. Then I found a list of all the people who had been intermarried in the 1850s that was laying in this old historian, Howard Buswell's, files.
Then a newspaper reporter in Washington, DC, was referred to me for help on General Pickett and his Native wife. What I said to her was, "Everything that could be found out about her life was researched and published in the 1960s. There isn't any more." And she said, "Would you suspend that assumption and look again?" When I did, I found new information. So I said, "What else is out there about these other women that everyone thinks there's nothing out there about them?"
Suspending the assumption, as a starting point, is it looking at documents you've already looked at from a new point-of-view and looking for clues, or is it uncovering documents that you wouldn't have considered? Because you went to historical documents, you went to family documents, genealogical stuff. You had a wide variety of sources.
Huge variety of sources. It started off, I was going to write a two-year project about how the Native wives and the white wives lived together and helped each other in those very early years. As I worked, very quickly the white ladies, about whom we know a lot, became boring. And these other women became more fascinating, until I just decided to work on them. But one thing would lead to another. Like, I would take something that had been written about a husband, and I would just pick apart that paragraph and re-research everything. If it said "EC Fitzhugh went to Georgetown Law School," then I got hold of Georgetown and found out there was no law school at that time. It was a prep academy, which he got kicked out of.
If somebody said they went to West Point, then I checked with West Point and found out whether they did or they didn't. I just kept re-looking at everything. I started off with 22 women. Then I kept reducing it. If I couldn't keep the amount of information fairly even between husband and wife, then it had to go.
So the four women, was it kind of a natural evolution to whittle it down to the four women, or did you, at some point, have to pick between people you really wanted to write about, but maybe didn't have the time to, and these four women?
There are eight completed biographies. But the publisher wanted the book cut in half. Then I had to pick four. I looked for four that would give very different stories, very different looks at what was going on in the area, and what kind of lives they lived.
Can you talk a little bit about what marriages were like at that time in general? I think we carry a lot of 21st century assumptions about marriage backwards when we look at them. Or we have the historical assumptions that you talk about questioning. What was a day-to-day life like for a married couple in Whatcom County at that time?
That's the hardest thing to research, because men wrote about men's activities, and they didn't really write about what the women were doing. So it's very hard to pick and choose, and you have to look at what things were, in general. But what I found was that people keep saying that these cross-cultural marriages ... I actually had someone say to me, "But you don't think he really loved her, do you?" And they had been married for 30 years and had six children. There's an assumption that these men just sort of bought a girl to keep house, and be a sex partner, and have kids, and mend clothes. And that's not true. Because the families have their own agendas. You end up with two groups of women who are both in economic partnerships. The white women that came were not girls out of parlors in the middle of Boston. They were women who came west who could hold their own and be an economic partner.
On all the homesteads, whether the wife was a Native American, or whether she was white, they were all in charge of the gardens. They were in charge of the chickens. They made butter. They sold feathers. They sold butter. They worked just as hard as the mend did as an economic contributor; just at different tasks most of the time.
From 1854 to 1859, all the women who intermarried lived in one of three places: the mill, or mine settlements, or at Fort Bellingham. They had the company of many other women of both cultures. It appears that nearly all wives took boarders into their homes, which provided extra cash in a cash-poor economy. They housed, fed, nursed, and did laundry for working men.
You say "economic contributor," but also, in a sense, there was no other resource if you fell flat on something. You couldn't go to the store. There was no childcare. It wasn't —
Well, that's not completely true. Because the women took care of each other's kids. Even if they lived a mile apart, they were close friends. We didn't have doctors in this area until almost 1870, except for the military physician; the Army doctor at Fort Bellingham. Then, later on, he was clear over on San Juan Island. But he would come and help. Army doctors would run a private practice as well as their official practice, so they would help. But you had the Native women acting as midwives most of the time, and using Native medicines to help. You could also send for medicine to Victoria or down to Olympia. Seattle, in the early days, really wasn't anything. Everything was Olympia. It was, very much, the women had to help each other out here.
When you say early days, what's the —
The 1850s, 1860s, yeah. That's the period. But there might be one store, and that was it here. We went through a period where there were no stores here after the gold rush ended. Then the mine flooded and the mill burned down. Then there was nothing. So everything had to come from Victoria, or some other place. La Conner ended up with a little store.
Everybody was sort of living on the same level, for the most part. Struggling in little cabins, and then trying to build a house, and getting orchards in, and gardens in, and trying to find the crops that would go well here. Then you had the people that worked at the mine, had a little settlement, which could be dangerous with miners who were drinking on Friday night.
From what you know, then, what's the difference of life of being raised in a Native culture and living in — you talked about long houses, and some of the size of the long houses, then going to living in small cabins on pieces of land. Was there anything about that that you uncovered?
Well, the women talked about it being hard. It was really hard. However, one positive one was that when the families allied with these white county officials and military officers, the young women stayed pretty close to their families here. Because the custom, the Coast Salish custom, is to marry outside your village. So some young women would have been married clear up around Nanaimo and Duncan, BC, or much further south, and wouldn't have hardly seen their families, except perhaps yearly at a potlatch.
These girls were very close to home, so they saw their families all the time. That helped mentally. But they talked about loneliness; that it was lonely, when they were used to doing tasks together in the long house. The women would weave together and talk while they're taking care of the kids and stuff. All of the sudden, these young women are in charge of a cabin and children all by themselves.
And miles away sometimes. But closer, you say, than they may have been if they had married.
Closer than they might have been otherwise. That was a positive for the families; that they did get to see their mother on a regular basis, and their sisters and other relatives.
I think it's really interesting, you know, you talk again about assumptions that historians, or people reading about history, bring with them as they're reading about history. This book — it seems to me like it exists at an intersection of some really fascinating topics. I mean, first and foremost, the erasure of indigenous stories, but also diminishing of women's stories historically because they're told from a patriarchal point-of-view, or men are writing the histories. Also, the romanticizing of the American west, and the colonization of the west. Then, of course, the domination and kind of the decimation of existing cultures.
It's interesting because your book takes a more nuanced view on some of that. Which is not to say it ignores any of the truths that happened, but that kind of interweaving of cultures has been ... You know, I'd never heard of it before, obviously, and I think most people hadn't. Can you speak to that a little bit?
Yeah, well, this area up here in Bellingham was heavily dominated, about 90% of the marriages from the first 20 years from 1853 up until the early 1870s, about 90% of the marriages were cross-cultural. Then, when the history gets written, the women are gone for the most part. Other places were started by cross-cultural couples. I find a number of them in Washington. I know there's more that I don't have time to research. I believe they're all over the west; certainly Chicago, Detroit, Saint Louis, other towns like that, were started by cross-cultural communities.
Here it was so dominant because of the groups of men that came here; all these bachelors that came here and settled here. In other places, it might be just one or two couples. But the tip-off is always a community history that says, "The first white woman in town." Or, "The first white baby born here." That's the tip-off that there were cross-cultural couples there before. But people want the history to start with the all-American couples that have moved into the area. So they just ignored the others, wrote them out, failed to recognize contributions. I didn't expect to find this, but the longer I got into the research, the more I could see that this was going on everywhere. Just trying to find books to compare to my own for the book proposal, there wasn't anything out there, except over the border. Because there, they've written about the Hudson Bay company wives; fairly extensively. Although very few biographies that are wholly about the women. It's usually in conjunction to the male.
I think this went on everywhere, and it's just been pushed down in the name of the manifest destiny of America to conquer and own. I mentioned, like, in the Willamette Valley we talk about the Oregon Trail pioneers coming into this empty place waiting for them to settle. But when you go down to the Willamette Valley, you can go to Saint Paul, Oregon, and you find that they were fully engaged in building their brand-new, big, brick, Catholic church there in the middle of a farming community when those pioneers arrived with their wagons. It wasn't empty at all. There were communities; there were a number of communities. And big enough ones to have a brick church, not just a little shanty.
And some of the early communities here were Catholic, you mentioned. Is that correct?
And some of the indigenous cultures took on Catholicism?
Yes. They were the only missionaries that were out here to the Coast Salish. Most of the Coast Salish, at least in the upper Sound, or lower Sound around here, were converted in the 1840s. The Swinomish Reservation church is the oldest parish in the state of Washington, I believe. The one at Lummi Reservation may be the second oldest parish. It wasn't until the 1870s that you really saw an influx of the Protestant missionaries deciding to come in, and a population that came in that were all-white couples moving in as the homestead laws took effect, and there was ground that they could settle on, and making some inroads on Catholicism. But you find most of the tribes around are still heavily Catholic, and have taken back their own religion, their own spirituality too, sometimes combining the two together.
You've mentioned that you had to thread a needle a little bit, just because there's some, potentially, really explosive issues here as a white woman writing about Native women, especially. I would imagine there's some sensitivities that you go into the writing with. Can you talk to that a little bit?
Well, there's a lot of distrust, because of disrespect that has been shown to the grandmothers when they were written about, and distrust because of people coming in, perhaps to do a dissertation at a reservation and promising a book when they finished, and then nothing every materialized. This amounts to theft of intellectual property, and that's the way they feel about it.
I tried to go at it as if somebody came to my door and said, "I'm writing a book about your great grandmother. Please tell me everything you know." I would be going, "Whoa! Who are you? What are your intentions? What kind of a book are you writing?" So it takes a long period of developing personal ties. My mentors at Lummi Reservation, I met at the first public program I ever gave. They mentored me through this whole thing. Chief Tsi'li'xw has never had any problem telling me when I'm going down the wrong road, or I should never say something again, or, "That's not the way to say it." Or I'm being disrespectful, and teaching me all along, all these years.
Other people, I have one Nooksack woman friend who I met early on, and she told me, "Listen to your heart and their spirits will guide you." So I always go back to that sometimes when I get confused or don't know what I want to do. Then I sit and think, "What would those grandmothers think of what I'm writing, or how I'm phrasing things? What would they want me to say?"
Many times it seems like you are exposing stories that have been left out, or sometimes in family histories, but sometimes completely left out of the historical record. That is almost the premise of your book.
Right. And there's resentment because of that too; that they knew how fully partnered people were here. In the early days, the Lummis and the Nooksacks controlled the entire transportation system on the Sound; unless you caught an Army or a Navy steamer, or something else that was here very, very rarely. Like, once every two months, if you were lucky to catch it, you could go up the Sound on it.
So, if you wanted to move your household goods, if you wanted to take a little trip to Victoria, if you needed to go to Olympia for the legislature, you were going to hire a Native canoe of the proper size to take you where you needed to go. This has been completely left out of the history in favor of Captain Roeder building the first boat here, but it was not the first vessel here at all.
You talked about Roeder as well, and a hidden history there that ... Can you talk about that a little bit?
Well, the founder of Bellingham is considered to be Captain Henry Roeder, and his partner Russell Peabody, who had a number of businesses fail in California in the Gold Rush, and they came up here looking to start a mill. They received permission from the Lummi to start a mill at the little waterfall hill. The Lummis thought that this would be similar to the Hudson Bay Company arrangements where people weren't really permanent, they weren't building towns, they were cooperative businesses. That's not what Roeder and Peabody had in mind at all. The next thing the Lummis knew, there was a little town growing around the falls, and they were being told to stay out.
Roeder himself married a Native American woman from Lummi. But when his fiancée from Ohio was due to arrive, he sent this woman and their two children back to Lummi, where they died. For that, his reputation among the Lummi is very bad. I think people in town that know our history don't know why his reputation is so bad out there. But that's because they don't know about this marriage; this first marriage, because it was kept secret for 150 years.
You were a bookseller?
A little. Does being a bookseller teach you anything about, or did you learn anything about getting a book out there, or how to present it, or any marketing?
What did you learn?
That the spine of the book is extremely important, that you want a cover that catches people's eye immediately, that where they put the book in the store can make a great deal of difference. And booksellers like to talk to authors if you're not too pushy; if you don't bug them all the time. And if you can get booksellers to help sell your book, if you can get them interested in your book, they are your best advertisement.
My story is, when I was working at a bookstore here, was when Diana Gabaldon first wrote Outlander. Have you ever heard of that?
Oh, it's a TV series now.
Okay. So the booksellers didn't really know what to do with it. It's a little fantasy, it's a little time-travel, it is romance, it is historical fiction. She was a professor of biology when she started this, and it was big, and nobody had ever heard of her. But booksellers, like me, across the country, started pushing this book. For instance, a commercial fisherman came in one day and he said, "I'm going out on the water for four and a half months. I need a little library to read while I'm gone."
So I helped him assemble a library of things that men like. I talked to him about his interests. We put together some military stuff, fiction, and all kinds of stuff, some spy thrillers and stuff. Then, at the end, after we had about 10, 12 books, he said, "Now, what is the one book you want me to read that you know I won't?" And I said, Outlander, and he took it. And he came back in four and a half months later and said, "That was the best book I ever read." But that's how she became ... Then her second book went right to the top of the bestseller list, and all eight have been. But that's the effect a bookseller who likes your book can have on sales.
Oh, that's great.
Is there anything else that you wanted to say or mention that I didn't ask about?
Oh, yes. "Were they really married?" I always am confronted with this question, every single time I talk.
And there was some legal ... You wrote about this a little bit. One of the fascinating things is, I had this thought reading about some of the court cases that you had talked about in the early days, and realizing how we're not so far from that with gay marriage today, or same-sex marriage. That some of the conversations sounded very similar. But yes, please.
The marriage laws in the beginning had started in the 1850s. The first ones were boilerplate, based on other territories. Then they started fiddling with it, because most of the members of the legislature had Native wives, and those laws would have disinherited their children. They wanted their children to inherit whatever land or property they had. Then they started fiddling with this and putting amendments in to the point where at one ... But then they didn't want to legalize Native marriage either.
It just became this tangled mess so that at one point, it was illegal to marry a Native woman, and it was illegal not to marry your Native wife. They put up a $500 fine on any clergy or public official who would perform such a marriage. $500 then is about $5,000 today, and none of these people had that kind of money. The Catholic missionaries did not. Nobody had it. The Catholic's attitude was the same as it had been with the Hudson Bay Company; that you would marry because you presented yourself to the world as a married couple, and you considered yourself married, and that, whenever a priest would come by and you were ready to formalize it, that's when you did it. They were very understanding about the conditions that were going on.
But then, in the 1870s, when the Protestant ministers and all those white women moved in, they had standards; social standards. They did not consider Native women ladies. They had these ideas between ladies and women, and if you were common. They saw these old settlers, as they were always called, the old settlers, as fornicators, because they didn't have paper. But in this area in the early days, this was just how everybody got married. It was tribal custom marriage: an exchange of obligations and gifts between the husband and the woman's family, and you were married.
Then start the legal cases. They were politically connected. They charged a bunch of these men with fornication, and these men had been married for 20, 30 years, had a whole bunch of children, and it would have ruined them. I mean, they could have sent them to jail for this. Some of the people went and got married. Some of them got married with paper, church, or whatever. Some of them just went down to the courthouse and got a license so they had a piece of paper of some kind and said, "I'm not doing this." But when it got stopped, the prosecution stopped when Henry Barkhausen, who was a former county auditor and had been an election judge, and a highly respected man, he said, "I'm not doing it. I am not remarrying Julia. She has been my wife for all these years. We've got six kids, and I will not shame her by calling myself a fornicator."
Then it went to the chief justice of the territorial supreme court who came out with this beautiful treatise on the nature of marriage, that it has nothing to do with government or religion; that it is a contract between two people, and being a religious man, he went back to Adam and Eve. He said, "If you negate that marriage, then you must negate all contracts that have happened in the world since then." And, "There's all these other societies that don't use paper. Are you going to say that none of those people are married?" So this put it to rest. The prosecution stopped, and all of the tribal custom marriages were declared legal.
What year was that then?
1879, I think the decision came down. They started indicting them in '78. And '79, I believe is the date that —
Do you know, did they actually enforce the fines? Were there fines levied against?
Don't know. Because it was such a mess with this you-have-to-and-you-can't thing that nobody knew what was going on. I don't really know. I just know that it was a terrible legal mess, and people just quit paying attention to any of it for a long period, and continued to marry by tribal custom, and some people married with the county, or a priest, or a minister. But others just went ahead with the tribal custom marriages, because nobody could tell what they were supposed to do.
Charles Johnson has been one of the most influential members of Seattle’s writing community. He’s contributed to the community in a number of ways — as a professor at the University of Washington, as a writer, as a friend to writers. Johnson recently joined the writing and literacy nonprofit Seattle 7 Writers, which donates to literacy organizations and donates books to readers around the region in shelters, detention centers, food banks, and other locations where people have need of good literature.
On Saturday, June 24th, Johnson will be headlining a fundraising brunch for Seattle 7 Writers at the Mount Baker Community Center. Every table at the brunch will feature one local writer, so attendees will get close personal contact with writers including David Schmader, Donna Miscolta, Claire Dederer, Claudia Rowe, and more. I talked with Johnson about the brunch and what he’s been working on lately. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Your Wikipedia page says you're retired, and I think you're maybe one of the hardest-working retired men I've seen.
Oh, that's why you retire from teaching, so you can get your art on your schedule 24-7. Artists never retire, but college professors do. That's true.
And how has your retirement been?
Well, it's been very good. I retired [from the University of Washington] in 2009, and I have been working steadily on all kinds of projects. I've published five books in the last two years, and I'm just putting together now the manuscript for next year, which is a collection of stories. It'll be my third short story collection.
My editor at Scribner just went over it. She didn't really have anything she had to do in the way of editorial work, but she just went over the stories and sent them to me. And so I'm going over her comments and putting together a proper manuscript to get to her next week. It'll be published next May. The title is Night Hawks.
All one word?
I'm breaking it up into two words, "Night Hawks." That's the title story, which is a story I wrote about my 15-year friendship here in Seattle with August Wilson. We had really great eight-to-ten-hour dinner conversations at the old Broadway Bar and Grill, which is gone now, on Capitol Hill.
In December you published a book about creativity and writing. And I wanted to ask if, at this point in your career, if you're sort of taking your teaching wisdom out into the world and teaching sort of in a more informal space?
Well, that's an interesting way to put it. The Way of the Writer evolved out of a longer book called The Words and Wisdom of Charles Johnson, which was a year-long interview that poet Ethelbert Miller did with me on every subject under the sun. He asked me 400 questions about everything, and I answered 218, and a lot of them were about the craft of writing, because he's a poet and also a teacher of creative writing.
And then we looked at that, and a couple of people commented, who had seen Words and Wisdom, that there was a book here that could be developed on the craft of writing. And I agreed. It was all there. I simply had to maybe revisit and update the essays that I did in response to those questions. And then I added a couple of essays that I had written on the craft of writing over the years.
So this book is essentially a record of my experience for 33 years as a teacher of literary fiction. That's about half my life, actually, 33 years.
But I still do teach. I'm going to work with people at the Spirit Rock People of Color Buddhist Conference in September. And I'm going to do two sessions with their teachers talking about the Buddha, Dharma, and how you can serve your communities with Buddhist philosophy and practice.
Buddhism has been an ongoing theme in your work. Has your teaching shifted over into a more spiritual place since you formally retired?
I've always been a very spiritual person. I've always been a Buddhist practitioner — my entire, really, adult life. I didn't bring that into the classroom with me; I would leave it outside the door. But I think it's pretty well known that I'm a Buddhist practitioner.
And so, people ask me questions about that and I'm happy to respond. It's all total, together, you know. Art is mind, body and spirit, and they all reinforce each other and serve the creative process, I think.
You recently joined the Seattle 7 Writers. Can you talk about what you like about them?
I joined on the invitation of Garth Stein. And I met Garth because every year we do the Bedtime Stories fundraiser for Humanities Washington, and he is the MC. I've written a story for them for every year for 18 years; it'll be 19 years this fall.
I've seen some of them and they’re wonderful. And you always seem so eager to be there.
Oh yeah. I think it’s a great experience. You create something new and it serves a good cause — the programs at Humanities Washington. And the new story collection coming out, Night Hawks, all of those stories except one were written for Bedtime Stories. Ten of the 11 were written for that.
And in my previous book, Dr. King's Refrigerator, five of those stories were written for Bedtime Stories. After I do them for the event and read it, my agent places it somewhere, and then very often it gets an award or it's reprinted or anthologized. So for me, the Bedtime Stories event is a perfect stimulus.
And with regard to the very, very good MC [Stein], he invited me to join the group because I think he's doing good things. The group is doing good things with writers and readers in Seattle.
And can you give us a little preview of what you're going to talk about at the brunch?
I want to talk to Garth a little bit before I actually do it, but my hunch is that what I'll do is I may read bit of something from the last book, The Way of the Writer, and then engage whoever is present in a kind of spirited Q and A about the creative writing process.
And there will be writers at every table of the brunch spread throughout the room, so that'll make an interesting forum to talk about writing.
Last March, I went to the Tucson Festival of Books. I was on a panel with Colson Whitehead, and then I was on a panel with my UW colleague David Shields, and another guy who wrote a book called Thrill Me.
But the morning before that afternoon panel, I spoke to writers about writing using The Way of the Writer as my springboard. It was just real. It's a roomful of writers because it's a literary festival, so I'm pretty familiar with that group — what kind of questions writers can ask. They ask the best kind of questions because they are immersed in the creative process themselves.
Lately I've been asking writers about community. Throughout your career, you've had a terrific commitment to community. You work with Humanities Washington, and you just joined Seattle 7 Writers, and you're very generous with your time. I was wondering if you think that a writer does have an obligation to a community — or does it depend on the writer?
I think you hit it when you said it depends on the writer. Some people are very eager to interact with other writers — to understand what they do, to do things with other writers that are for good causes. Like Humanities Washington, for example. I mean, I enjoy helping other writers, particularly younger ones, get published and get awards and colleagues.
I'm working right now with philosopher George Yancy on a book that he's going to do on Buddhism and whiteness, a critical race theory. I just alerted a lot of friends that I have in the Buddhist community, or the Sangha, to what George was doing. And maybe they'll make a contribution to it and make the book even richer.
I talk about that in The Way of the Writer, probably in the introduction. We don't live in isolation. I think we live in a world of interconnectedness with others. We might feel isolated sometimes; writing's a very lonely activity. You're doing this by yourself, usually, right? In a little room somewhere or, I don't know, wherever people write.
And you kind of forget that it takes a lot of people to get a book out there. The writer writes it, but then there's the editor who gives a good critical eye to something the writer might have missed. And there's the publisher, right? And then there's the bookstores. It really is a network, as Martin Luther King would say, a network of mutuality, that brings a book into being.
I've always been conscious of that, and grateful, too, and thankful for the people who enable a book to become a public object after it leaves the hands of the author. And maybe other writers don't feel that way, but I do think we're all conscious of the fact that we were given something by others, and it's very good, if we can, to give back.
This weekend, the eighth annual Comics & Medicine Conference will take place in Seattle. Registration is full, but the conference also hosts a number of programs at the downtown branch of the Seattle Public Library that are free and open to the public. The conference is bringing local and international cartoonists together to discuss the many ways that narrative comics about medicine can inform, entertain, and inspire the general public. Last week, I talked on the phone with MK Czerwiec, a co-founder of the conference, about how she came to comics as a medical professional, and why she believes that health care is everyone's business. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Why comics and medicine? What makes those two things a good fit?
There are a lot of wonderful answers to that question, which is why we love having annual conferences — because people come from all over the world to tell us their answer. In general, it seems that comics have the power to convey important information in ways that people who are dealing with issues in health care and caregiving find appealing to absorb.
One example of how comics are used in medicine and why comics and health care go together is that there's a long history of public health messaging through comics because they're accessible. They can potentially transcend language barriers — the visual appeal. They can take a lot of information and make it kind of quick and well-organized.
It’s also a great patient education tool, but what we found too is that it's an incredibly powerful tool for patients to use as a form of reflection and for storytelling about their experiences of illness. And then it's an incredibly powerful experience to bear witness to those experiences and kind of have that empathy connection.
And comics are being used to teach in medical schools and nursing schools and across many different areas of education — in and outside of health care.
And how did you come to health care storytelling through comics?
I came to it really out of necessity. I was working as a nurse at the height of the AIDS crisis in Chicago, and I would come home and I just felt this huge chasm between my everyday life and my work life. I was having a lot of trouble making a bridge between those two things. And I also was really having a hard time processing all of these intense sufferings, experiences, and these lives that were kind of coming to an end before me.
I had tried [writing those experiences through] text alone and that worked a little bit — like keeping a journal. I sometimes had occasionally tried images alone — making memorial paintings and painting screens in memory of people who I cared about, just sort of the symbolic language to remind me of things that were important to me about them. And then, it got to a point where, after doing this for five or six years, each of those individual methods were failing.
It came down to one day when I had to figure out how to get all of that out of my head. When I showed up at work, my patients deserved for me to be present to them, not my own suffering. I sat down with a blank piece of paper and I drew just this picture of myself and wrote above it, "I feel miserable." And then I put a box around it, and then I put another box, and then I just found myself combining image and text in this sequential fashion.
And I didn't set out to do it, but what I had done was I made a comic. And the thing that was really surprising to me was that I found myself in a completely different place than when I started. Something about the process of making that comic was transformative for me. And I just kept using that as a tool, as a nurse, to cope with what I was bearing witness to, and I found that it was really helpful.
And when did your experiments become more formal?
I ended up going into the field of Medical Humanities and Bioethics, in part because I really wanted to study why it is that certain ways of telling stories can be so helpful to us when it comes to illness. And I wanted to inform my comics, because I continued to make comics, and I knew I wanted to continue to do that.
But I wanted them to be better, and I wanted to inform them with a lot of theory and thinking about story and illness and health care. When I was working as a nurse, I was doing comics as a way of being present to the now and being able to be there for my patients. When I went into the academic side and started looking at this with a critical eye, that was when I started thinking about all the possible applications.
And then, I came across a book while I was doing my Master's studies called Mom's Cancer, by Brian Fies. And it changed my way of thinking. I just thought, "Wow.”
I got in touch through the internet with a few people who were starting to think along the same lines. And that's where we are today.
That was around a time when comics were coming to be more accepted in academia generally. Did you get a lot of pushback when you were trying to put comics and medicine together?
No. Quite the opposite. I could tell that I was in a really supportive environment at Northwestern, where some of the people around me saw the potential even more than I do. They were very encouraging to pursue it and pursue it thoughtfully. I've actually been surprised how embraced we've been. The Journal of Internal Medicine now has a graphic medicine page, and that really blows my mind because that's such a traditional medical journal.
Seattle has a huge global health and public health community here — we have PATH and the Gates Foundation and all that. And we also have a strong comics community as well. Is that why you chose Seattle for this conference? Or was it just our time? Or did you throw a dart at a map?
No, all that was absolutely a part of it. We had been hearing from some great Seattle creators, Mita Mahato being one of them. She’s our on-the-ground organizer [for the Seattle conference] who's, of course, a PhD literature scholar who has used comics in her teaching and really got invested in graphic medicine. But then at the same time, she is just an astonishingly talented papercut artist and comics creator in working on her own narratives, and she's been really active in the community.
And of course Meredith Li-Vollmer at the Seattle King County Public Health Department has come to our conferences in the past and presented projects that she's done with David Lasky in the public health arena. And Ellen Forney has been a keynote for us. We had so many people we knew in Seattle. When a couple of them said, "we think that we could get the support here to do this," we were really excited.
The registration is sold out, but you have a lot of free and open components to the conference. Do you have any advice for somebody who is thinking about attending some of the free programming? Do you need to be a medical professional to get a lot out of this?
I think anyone who has an interest in stories and health care and the ways in which we could approach how we think about health care differently would get a lot out of this. I think they will be really excited about what's happening in the graphic medicine community.
The title of my graphic memoir that just came out recently is Taking Turns, and what that title refers to is this idea that we really all are people taking turns being sick, and the divide between provider and patient is an artificial one — a necessary one, but an artificial one — and I think that it's important to remember that we all have a stake in this. Not just providers, not just caregivers, but all of us. And so I absolutely think that the public is welcome, and I don't think there's any kind of information anyone would need to know about graphic medicine before they come.
All of our keynote addresses are open to the public, and a number of the sessions. I think people will be really excited about this just right off the street.
Do you find yourself focusing any more on the political side of health care because of the AHCA and Obamacare?
We absolutely focus on it. We chose the theme of “Access Points” [for this year's conference] partly to think about some of those things. Who gets care? Who gets what kind of care? And how is that changing in this current climate? The threat to that access is more acute than ever.
I like to think that graphic medicine draws on the deep traditions of comics as both coming from the underground and bearing witness to stigmatized truth, but also the political tradition. The long tradition of political comics is alive and well. And access to health care, and comics about access to health care, are a big part of that.
Ivan Schneider (far left) joined bestselling author and UW writing prof David Shields on his evening pedestrian commute two weeks ago. Judging by the evidence, their interview took a turn for the personal — but not the person you'd expect. Below is Schneider's follow-up email, thanking Shields for his time and recounting some of the ground they covered.
To: David Shields
From: Ivan Schneider
Date: June 1, 2017
Subj: Other People
Thank you for participating in our May 16 walk-and-talk interview for the Seattle Review of Books.
We covered a lot of ground — the University District, Wallingford, the aisles of Safeway — and many intriguing conversation topics as well. Yet on reflection, our talk was more about you interviewing me than me interviewing you.
To recap, you asked about my current project, an academic paper on my working hypothesis that Cervantes had initially intended to include a dog narrator in Don Quijote, and you found this to be a “preposterous” interpretative misprision akin to Charles Kinbote’s commentary on John Shade’s poem in Nabokov’s Pale Fire. I’m not offended in the least, mind you, as I am acutely aware of the apparent absurdity of my claim. It would be ridiculous enough for someone with my academic non-stature to offer a novel reinterpretation of a foundational 400-year-old text, let alone through some wild theory about a talking-dog narrator.
I recognize the potential humor in the situation. Imagine: Here’s an unaffiliated scholar-turned-autodidact, a close reader of Cervantes’ Spanish who can barely scrape together a single spoken Spanish sentence, who, despite being under no financial or professional compulsion to do so, takes up the challenge of conveying in academic prose a theory of such apparent incredibility as to defy belief. And then, to pursue publication in an academic journal, to seek recognition from the sober and serious-minded, to desire to become a published expert on talking dogs in literature — were that a disingenuous stance or an invented pose rather than a genuine scholarly interest, it would be a stunt of Andy Kaufman-esque proportions.
Sometimes I even question my own perception, that despite my extensive readings of literary theory, narratology, animal studies, and the literature of Golden Age Spain, I’m playing at wish fulfillment, delusions of grandeur, or just plain old delusions. Yet despite my inability to articulate myself convincingly during our meeting, I believe that when I put the arguments together in my upcoming paper, it will crystallize into a coherent and convincing brief worthy of scholarly attention. We also talked about my CV and my family, but enough about me.
Ours was the first interview I’ve done for the Seattle Review of Books, and I’m still trying to get the hang of the form. I would imagine that it’s easier to interview authors of fictional novels, as I would be able to ask basic questions about the nonfictional basis for the author’s fictional creations: “What inspired you to write this and that?” and “Tell me about your childhood.” But I can hardly ask you those questions, can I? It’s all there, already in print, anything I’d care to know, wrapped up in artfully arranged, bite-sized chunks.
Perhaps I should have asked you, the nonfiction writer, to spin me a fiction. You’d have to invent a character on the spot and conduct the interview entirely in that character’s voice. “You are in an imaginary world populated by fantastic creatures, where everything is not quite what it seems. Now, tell me what you see!” Ah yes, away from the comfort zone of self-guided self-revelation and into the zone of unbridled artistic creation, what mysteries might your subconscious reveal?
Or if that’s too loosey-goosey, perhaps a game of Dungeons & Dragons would have done the trick, using a subtle mix of choice (“What’s your race? What’s your alignment?”) and randomness (“Rolling 3d6 for charisma!”) to convey a sense of identification and attachment with a made-up character. Say it, David, say it aloud: “I am the Dwarven Warrior they call Cloudshallot, wielder of a +3 waraxe and possessor of the finest senses of stonecunning and darkvision this side of the Greypeak Mountains!”
Not your thing, I’m guessing.
In Other People: Takes and Mistakes, you open with a Philip Roth quote from the first chapter of American Pastoral (it’s a great epigraph), but then you tell me that you’re not at all interested in reading Roth’s work. Well, I just re-read that first chapter of American Pastoral, and I have to say that I think you’re missing the point — and missing the fun.
The narrator Nathan Zuckerman pauses in his account of his dinner with the Swede to ruminate on the difficulty of understanding other people without superficiality or shallowness or unreal expectations or overloads of bias, hope, or arrogance. To overcome this difficulty, Zuckerman suggests three possible alternatives:
Let’s consider this passage in context. By virtue of the fact that you hold a fictional novel in your hand, Roth has taken door number one. We can imagine Philip Roth writing American Pastoral having gone off and locked the door and sat secluded like the lonely writers do, etc. He is a summoner who believes in summoners. Meanwhile, Roth’s fictional alter-ego Zuckerman, also a writer, takes door number two, as do you. You’re always going to open door number two, correct? No soundproof cells, no word people for you. Nor would you just go along for the ride.
Yet there’s an unmistakable irony in your underscoring the limitations of “word people” based on the soliloquy of an actual word person. It’s like when people quote Hamlet in graduation speeches: “To thine own self be true.” Uh, yeah, that’s in Hamlet, but it’s spoken by Polonius, who’s a real gasbag and a phony, and so what’s his advice worth? Same thing here — if a word person downplays the value of word people as a means of understanding other people, you should question the source.
I also think you’re missing the fun that can be had from word people. An example, from Roth:
… the humiliation Jerry had brought upon himself in our junior year of high school when he attempted to win the heart of a strikingly unexceptional girl in our class who you wouldn’t have thought required a production to get her to kiss you.
As a Valentine present, Jerry made a coat for her out of hamster skins, a hundred and seventy-five hamster skins that he cured in the sun and then sewed together with a curved sewing needle pilfered from his father’s factory, where the idea dawned upon him.
Is this not a beautifully evocative picture of misguided desperation? Here we have a son unsuccessfully trying to employ his father’s tools and methods in a flamboyant attempt to achieve a prize that, in Zuckerman’s callous estimation, hardly merited the effort. With all the killing and hiding and wooing, it’s the stuff of epic poetry.
Anyway, I neither expect nor want you to give Roth your undivided attention. There are more than enough authors competing to become the next generation’s Philip Roth, to inherit his Zuckermanhood, which will happen when a conclave of Roth specialists gathers in an ornately appointed drawing room somewhere in Connecticut, the faithful waiting outside for the wafting scent of smoked whitefish to signal the election of a new Philip.
David, you’re a pillar of creative nonfiction in our community, and I greatly admire what you’ve done in expanding your range as a writer within the nonfiction genre as you continue to redefine it. And if anyone asks me, “Where should I start with this David Shields?” I would enthusiastically recommend Other People: Takes & Mistakes. Through reading it, and on the basis of our conversations, I feel that I’ve gotten to know you at a fairly profound level in a relatively short time. But then again, I’m sure I have it all wrong.
P.S. Here's a link to the video of my talk "The Search for Dog in Cervantes" — given to the Harvard Extension Alumni Association (starts at 31:50).
Last Tuesday, the Seattle area’s newest bookstore opened its doors. Located in Redmond Town Center, Brick & Mortar Books is a general-interest new bookstore that will carry up to 30,000 titles when its shelves are full. For the next month, Brick & Mortar will be in soft-opening mode as its team of booksellers learn the ins and outs of bookselling and meet their community. On the weekend of June 23rd and 24th, the store will host its official grand opening weekend.
Brick & Mortar co-owner Dan Ullom was kind enough to chat on the phone with us late on the evening of his store’s second full day of business. He sounded tired but happy, and eager to learn more about his newly chosen career. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation. To watch Brick & Mortar evolve and grow into its new space, you can follow the store on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Thank you so much for agreeing to talk. I'll try not to keep you on too long. I know you've had a bunch of long days. Can I ask, first of all, your title?
I'm one of three owners at Brick & Mortar Books. Actually, I should probably say four owners. We have three active owners — my mom, my dad, and I are all in the store every day. My wife, Heidi, is also an owner but she works at Seattle Children's Hospital. So far, every day she's also worked at the store, but she hasn't quit her day job.
Wow. So, it's a family affair.
It is. I have two kids and both of them worked in the store today. My son is an expert in breaking down boxes and my daughter is learning to shelve books.
May I ask how old they are?
My son is nine years old and my daughter is eleven.
I like that in your media appearances you talk fondly about the Borders Books and Music that used to be in Redmond. I think that would have been impossible fifteen years ago, for an independent book store owner to praise a chain bookseller like that.
Honestly, it's kind of funny. I taught for fifteen years and I suspect I would not have left teaching [for bookselling] had that Borders not gone out of business. It was just a community place — well-curated and fun. I know it was a loss for Redmond Town Center when that Borders went out.
That particular Borders did really well. The chain went out of business and, from my understanding, they were trying to keep a couple of successful stores alive and that was one of them. But I think in bankruptcy court, it's kind of an all or nothing thing, so they had to lose those stores, too.
We looked at a couple different sites, but here in Redmond Town Center, there was that community that's still missing Borders. It's funny — in the first two days, we had a ton of people come in and either clap or give us two thumbs up and tell us their story about missing Borders.
And right now, about a third of the shelves in our store are from that Borders.
Yeah. It took a lot of dusting and a lot of cleaning up, but they're holding books once again.
Where did you find those?
Redmond Town Center hadn't filled the void yet. They still had that spot that was open. The shelves were there and Steve Hansen, the guy that manages Redmond Town Center, said "if you open a bookstore, they're yours. You can have them."
That kind of leads into my next question, which was how Redmond Town Center has treated the store. I know an independently owned comic shop — the Comic Stop — rents there, so you're not the only independent business, but I don't think that people think of independent business when they think of that place.
I would say they should probably start thinking a little bit more of Redmond Town Center's independence. In the short time we've been there, they opened up The French Bakery. They have Sammamish owners, and I’ve hung out with them every day. I grab a coffee and hang out with Melanie and Kim.
The Comic Stop is great, too. My daughter learned to read at that comic shop. They're a big asset.
We also have Market Street Shoes that just went in. They're from Ballard, and you can go in there and you can talk to the owners, as well. They're an incredible store and they have really knowledgeable staff. Paint Away is a pottery studio and Hazel, the owner, you can see her there. There are a couple scattered throughout and just in the last couple of months that I've been there, they've added a few.
Do you have any bookselling experience?
In a sense, I do. I used to be a teacher. I taught fourth and fifth grade, and part of that job is convincing kids to read books that they should read and you'll know they love.
My mom was a librarian for Rachel Carson Elementary school in Sammamish, so she has that experience, as well. Weirdly enough, my dad has experience selling books but that was forty years ago. It may have been even longer than that — when he was maybe seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, he worked at a bookstore.
We know books. We didn't really know selling books and there's a lot for us to learn, still. But in the last two days, we've successfully sold books, so we're feeling good about ourselves. And we're definitely feeling good about Redmond Town Center and the community.
How do you go about opening up a bookstore with no experience? It's been done, obviously: The owners of Ada’s Technical Books on Capitol Hill had no experience at all selling books. What did you do? Did you read books on it or did you talk to booksellers?
We started by talking to people. Ada’s Technical Books is an amazing bookshop. One of the first things we did is we went to a bunch of bookshops and we talked to the owners and the people that worked there. [Ada’s co-owner] David [Hulton] was one of them — he told me, "you've got to carry these toys; you've got to carry this title. In your area, we really think these books will sell." I was like, "Wow, you're just giving me the trade secrets here."
I think the thing is, we all want to see each other succeed. I went to Village Books, and the owner of Village Books sat down with me for three or four hours and told me what the business was like and told me how to succeed. I went to Island Books and talked to people there. They're really helpful.
It really is a weird thing: I have a feeling if I was opening up a coffee shop, the other coffee shops wouldn't want to help me out. Maybe that's not true, but opening a bookstore is just such a unique, different thing.
One of the things I love to see is when a bookstore first opens, it gradually changes to fit the community, or the community shapes the bookstore. Can you see anything at this early date that you think your bookstore is going to change as it develops?
That's a really good question and there have been a couple of things already in just the two short days we've been open that we're looking at doing. We had a high interest in science fiction, graphic novels, and manga. [Before opening,] I didn't even know if we were really going to do manga. Not all those books have been ordered yet, we're still in the process, but I think we're going to double the size of those sections pretty quickly.
One of our employees, she's a science fiction expert. I was talking to a gentleman looking in the science fiction section and I said, “this is not my genre. I enjoy science fiction but I am not an expert. Turner is your expert, you'll want to talk to her." He ended up talking to Turner for half an hour. We ordered some books for him and he said, "I'll be back."
When we talk to people, we say, "what are the books that we don't carry that you'd like to see in the store?" We've read a lot of books, but we haven't read as much as the community. We don't want to try and make it like an algorithm.
We're going to have all the Stephen King books — they’re great; he's one of my favorite authors. But, we also have some authors that are a little less known — that our staff knows about and can talk about. Books that are equally as amazing, but maybe you didn't hear about them and maybe they didn't sell quite as well, but they should have.
You’re in your soft opening phase right now, and then you’re having a big weekend-long opening celebration the weekend of June 23rd and 24th. Are you going to have readings and events as the store progresses?
Yeah, that's something that we're working on all the time. We want to have author events and book clubs.
Something that I really want to do is we could get a couple people that are experts on sports books; we can have a panel and we can talk about that.
We are fortunate to live in an area with a high, high density of authors. We're working on a young adult panel right now that we're really excited about. We have a poet with three hundred thousand Instagram followers who's coming in a couple months, if all works out.
Is there anything that you really want the readers of the Seattle Review of Books to know about you?
We want to create a store that is a community store.
My dad reads three hundred books a year, I'm well-read, and my mom is a librarian, but we're learning in every part of this process. We just really want to find a way to keep the interest alive, keep the community alive, keep a group of people that can meet together and talk about books — learn about books that they had no idea even existed — and just have fun with literacy.
Of course, we are running this as a business and we want to make money, but none of us thought we're going to make more money leaving our jobs and opening a bookstore. We just really wanted to do something that we feel is close to our heart and we want to do something that we think our community needs. And it’s been great so far. We’ve had a couple teary-eyed moments in the first two days.
I'm really excited for you. It sounds like you're having a ball.
We are, yeah.
Our May poet-in-residence, Oliver de la Paz, is the first Seattle Review of Books-published poet who does not currently live in the Pacific Northwest. We wanted to spotlight him because for well over a decade, he was one of the best-respected writers in town — one of those rare selfless authors who would show up as a sign of support at book launch parties even when he wasn’t scheduled to read. You always get the sense from his work and his enthusiasm that de la Paz is honored to be a part of a community that is greater than he is.
De la Paz’s work is inquisitive and bold and formally strong, which is likely a reason why he is such a wonderful teacher of poetry: the thoughtfulness and intent he brings to his work is inspirational to young writers who have yet to formulate their own discipline. We talked on the phone last week about his origins, his technique, and what he misses about the Seattle area.
When did you leave Seattle?
I left in July 2016.
And how long were you a writer in Seattle?
Well, I actually lived in Bellingham, Washington, and the surrounding area from 2005 to 2016.
Whoops, yeah, sorry. Sometimes I use “Seattle” as a catch-all for the state and then Bellinghamsters and Spokaniacs get very mad at me ...
Spokaniacs? Is that really what they're called?
I don't believe so, no. I just made it up, but I'm going to stick with it. So for eleven years you were a really devoted member of the writing community. You were one of the most-liked poets in town, based on my conversations with other poets. And you left the area for a teaching job, correct?
Yeah, now I'm teaching at the College of the Holy Cross, which is in central Massachusetts.
I was wondering if you could maybe talk a little bit about what it’s been like moving across country, because you were so well-known in the region and well-loved in the community.
I'm a Northwesterner. I was raised in eastern Oregon, and I have a lot of family members who live in the Portland area. So Seattle was relatively close by, and we would sometimes meet up in Seattle. So I actually had a lot of family members living in or around the greater Northwest metropolitan hub.
And all of my children were born in Bellingham. As far as the poetry community is concerned, there were a number of close friendships that I made and that I still hold that were fostered by being in that I-5 corridor, and driving up and down the I-5 corridor to attend readings, or to be a participant in some of the readings. I miss that greatly. I miss the folks over there a tremendous amount. I had a community that was readily on hand in the Northwest.
And I'm in the process of building a community here. Really, it's just my family and I here, and most of my friends are in New York, so it's still a bit of a trek. I've been trying to reach out to folks and learn about the literary community here.
When I was in the Northwest, each moment, each reading, was a big event, and they were always quite well attended. It may be that I just don't know my way around the community [here] yet, but it feels like, because there's a very large concentration of writers and poets, it's a big pond and I'm a little fish. And in many ways, that's okay. I like that. I kind of like some of the anonymity that's going on here.
But I also miss — you know, it circles back to the community. I have a pretty strong poetry and writing community in the Northwest who I just profoundly miss.
Since we’re on the subject, can you talk about the importance of community, as a poet? Because a lot of people on the outside, I think, view writing as this sort of solitary at best — or misanthropic at worst — sort of lifestyle. And do you teach community to your writing students?
I believe art and the making of art is actually a collaborative exercise. I think that, you know, so much of the belief in writing is that it is indeed a solitary exercise. And part of that is true. Part of the endeavor of writing is being alone and delving deep within one’s own self.
But then there's that other part that, once the writing is done, in order to elevate it to the level of art, you have to celebrate it in the public sphere. And that is something that I'm trying to, you know, build back up for my own self here. But it was definitely something that was fully abundant in the Northwest, with that community of writers.
Communities are really, really essential, because there are ways that art can get lost if it's not performed or it's not shared in that public sphere, in that communal air.
I do want to add, Seattle is really, really fortunate to have a center like the Hugo House and the Jack Straw programs and Artist Trust and, of course, the Seattle Review of Books. There's some really great communities and networks for writers to get a handle on in the Northwest that I'm glad that I was able to take advantage of when I was there.
That first poem [published on the Seattle Review of Books in the first week of May], “Diaspora Sonnet,” that was a part of piece that was written in collaboration with Kundiman Fellows. Kundiman is an Asian-American literary arts organization that I have been a part of for quite some time now. And we were actually writing a number of these postcards and sending them out to each other; “Diaspora Sonnet” was one of the poems originally on a postcard.
The idea of community has been foundational to my pedagogy, my teaching. Part of the writing of art is also the celebration and elevation of art in the communal state, so that you are not just an artist, you are an artist-citizen. I find that family essential to the making of art.
And we're kind of moving backwards here, but I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your journey into poetry. Did you always know you were a poet, or is that something that came to you later in life?
When I started out in writing and letters, it was really by accident. My parents were immigrants — they immigrated from the Philippines in 1972. One of the first things that they did as new immigrants was they subscribed to Reader's Digest. And one of the benefits or perks of being a subscriber to Reader's Digest was you would get access to their book catalog.
And my father, who is pretty literate, and literary, and a reader, selected a whole bunch of books. And one of the books that he selected was The Selected Poems of Robert Penn Warren. Which is really bizarre.
I think that he picked Robert Penn Warren’s selected poems because All the King’s Men was sort of making a splash in the 70s and, you know, my father wanted to buy into that. That was my first poetry book, and it was bizarre. It was a very curious thing.
Flashing forward a little bit, I decided not to be a poet but to be a doctor. I was a pre-med student, and I was taking all these science classes at Loyola Marymount University. And you had to take classes in the humanities.
One of my classes was a poetry class, and I dug back into my memories of going through the Robert Penn Warren book and trying to experiment with poems on a typewriter. I wrote some poems for that class, and the teacher liked them and really encouraged me to keep writing. And eventually I got a minor in English, which ended up becoming a second major. And then I just decided, hey, this is what I wanted to do. This is what I wanted to pursue.
But honestly, I didn't really take it seriously until I was admitted into grad school for it — for the writing, for poetry. I just thought, “this is something to tide me over while I try to get into medical school, or while I pursue my degree in microbiology.”
Quite honestly, I was a scientist. I was deeply entrenched in the scientific field.
There’s obviously precedent with William Carlos Williams, as a doctor who's also a poet. Was that something you considered?
At the time, I had no idea. The weird thing is I was an EMT while I was writing, in Los Angeles County. And while I was an EMT, the LA riots happened. And so storefronts were getting burned out, and I had a horrible time, and it kind of turned me off to the whole endeavor.
I felt that I didn't have the temperament for the medical profession. And I think it was an extreme case, but it was just something that turned me off from it.
I just found I didn't have the temperament. I couldn't stomach it.
Wow. Sorry to do this, but circling back a minute, I don't think I realized that Robert Penn Warren wrote poetry. Can you tell me a little bit about what it was like? Did you like it? Do you like it now?
No. No, not at all.
It was really odd and folksy, and he did a lot of experimentation with lineation and line break. There's a lot of white space.
I honestly don't remember much of it. It left that strong of an impression on me. All I remember is the physical space of the poems on the page, and that was what I was trying to duplicate.
I was really interested in the dynamic quality of what a line break looks like, and what a typewriter can do, and what pushing back that carriage return does to my wellbeing. So it was more of a physical response than an actual aesthetic understanding or an intellectual understanding, if that makes sense.
Do you still write on a typewriter?
No, I don't. I’m one of those terrible people. I write everything on a word processor, and I don't even save old drafts. I used to. I used to be pretty compulsive about that, but I just stopped because I was creating so much clutter.
I was the last generation in my high school to learn how to type on a typewriter, and I kept one around for a while. And my writing is very different on a typewriter — more aggressive and clipped, I think in part because of the mechanical nature of the carriage return.
Yeah, it was something that hummed in the body. You type, then you reach that end of the line, and then you would take your right arm and just shove that thing over to the left, pushing it all the way back, and it would make that great sound. That was writing to me when I was growing up: physical, kinesthetic.
I don't have anything to duplicate the physical interaction with the typewriter now, other than I actually listen to a lot of music and I kind of zone out when I'm writing. That's kind of the closest thing that I can think of at this moment.
So do you listen to music with lyrics when you're writing?
No, no I can't. That would drive me crazy. I listen to the band Explosions in the Sky, and some others. I like a lot of lot of fuzzed-out stuff, and even classical jazz that has no lyrics and no speaking.
If there was speaking or the human voice [in the music], I think it would mess with what I was doing on the page — or I should say the screen, since I'm not using a typewriter.
I wanted to thank you for sharing your poems with our readers. I think that it's an interesting mix of poems. You've got the Prince elegy and the story problems — there's a lot of humor in there. Do you think that this sampling, these five weeks, are representative of your work? Or what would you want someone who doesn’t know your work to know about these pieces?
That's an interesting question. I honestly don't ever think of myself as a humorous writer, or that what I'm doing is humorous. Except for the Prince poem. I thought that I was being intentionally cheeky with that poem, even though I wanted to elegize him. That was a poem that I had written immediately after finding out that he had died.
The story problems were never intentionally humorous, although I do think that they can be smartly funny or taken ironically in some regard.
And as far as a representation of my work, I'm constantly shifting what I'm doing. Out of boredom, or out of an understanding that sometimes a project needs a different set of principles or guidelines to push forward.
The story problems are actually a way for me to solve a problem I found in a current manuscript that needed some type of interruption — to keep it from being so much of a one-note thing. So I tried to shift direction, there. And the Diaspora poems are closer to the type of lyrics that I like to write when I'm writing shorter pieces.
But honestly, I still can't pin down what it is that I do, because often what I'm doing is in response to stuff that I'm reading. I read a lot — constantly.
We talked about how writing takes place in the community. I believe in a community of writers. Every time I write, I'm constantly responding to work that I'm reading, and sometimes that changes the shape of what I'm writing.
Okay. That's very interesting to me, obviously, since I co-founded a book review site. And also because a lot of poets seem to find their groove and then stick to it, but I don't know if I can pin a distinctive style on you. So I feel like that's some interesting insight in that your writing is in a relationship with your reading life. Do you read broadly, or do you read along certain avenues, or do you just happen across books?
I will look at who's winning the NBCC and the Pulitzer and the National Book Awards. I'll look into all of those books and I'll read all of them.
But I'll also dig into Small Press Distribution, stuff that's maybe a little more edgy and more experimental. And a lot of times when I do that, when I dig into some of the more obscure or experimental works, I'm hunting to find a way to solve a problem that I'm encountering in my own work that is not solvable by conventional means. Just to see how other writers are approaching analogous issues of writing.
Do you read a lot of poetry or prose, or both?
I read a lot of poetry. I basically read at least a collection a week, if not more. I just read Lily Hoang’s A Bestiary, which was a collection of lyric essays. She makes use of a lot of white space, which is attractive to me. That was something that was exciting to me as a poet, seeing how a nonfiction writer tackles long forms.
I've read a lot of Maggie Nelson; Bluets in particular was something that I loved. I look for nonfiction folks who write lyric essays and that's the other thing that I've been reading.
But I do read quite a few novels, and I listen to a lot of books on tape. I just read The Underground Railroad by Whitehead. If I could show you my library — it's so crammed with stuff right now, and I'm reluctant to give any of it away.
How much of it came across the country with you?
Almost all of it, which is insane. I tried to have a thing at my house where I was giving away books, and nobody took anything of great note. They took maybe like 200 books, but that didn't put that much of a dent into my collection.
I have a lot of books. And so I basically hauled them all across country, and that was the bulk of my freight cost.
What are you working on now? Do you have a break from school from teaching?
I do, yeah. It's now summer.
Thank you. I'm so happy to have summer.
The story problems are part of a book project. It's a sequence of prose poems based on my son, who's on the autistic spectrum.
Part of what I'm attempting in that collection — the problem is, I'm trying to find a way to write about him, while allowing him the dignity of his selfhood. And that was one of the more difficult things to consider when I was writing these. For a long time, I was really reluctant to even start writing about it, but he gave me permission.
There's an allegory that's running through the book, but then I needed some type of interruption from the allegory to make it biographical. That's where some of these mathematical problems are coming in, and that's where the story problems come in.
Can I ask how old is your son is?
He's nine years old. And he is quite a dude. He's interested in science. He's a hell of a mathematician.
You know, he's a total iPad junkie and video game nerd, which is kind of my type of people. And he's genuinely interested in the world, which couldn't make me happier.
It's interesting to me that you say you're a video game person, because I would think that would get in the way of the reading. I had to make a conscious decision to not get into video games because I wanted more time for reading. So, I'm impressed that you can do both.
I can barely sustain it, Paul. I mean, I can really barely sustain it. But in the summer I'm good — really well behaved.
Is there anything that you wanted to express to the readers of this site?
No, except that I just miss the Northwest terribly, and I miss my colleagues and my friends. And I will be back in late July/early August for the Pacific Lutheran University low residency.
Okay. And are you doing any readings in that time?
Yeah, I think I'm going to be reading for PLU's faculty reading — I believe it's the first Tuesday of the residency.
Okay, please let me know when you confirm it, because I would like to let people know about it. I know that you are terribly missed here as well.
Thank you, Paul.
I've known Ksenia Anske for almost twenty years. We were both students at Cornish College of the Arts, studying design, at the close of the Twentieth Century. A Russian who came to design school after studying architecture in her home country, her approach to design was always engaged, probing, and driven.
We'd occasionally stay in touch, but I hadn't talked to her in years when I heard she was one of the first round of writers (along with Seattle writer Scott Berkun) to be awarded the Amtrak Residency.
Her absolutely direct, and no-holds-barred, approach to writing, publishing, and getting the word out to her more than forty-six thousand Twitter followers is both intense and, I think, irresistible. As is her brutal honesty about her motivations and the difficult spaces she works within.
The interview has been edited for clarity.
It keeps me accountable. You know, if you're just alone at home, and you say "okay, this didn't work" — then you can say "all right, fine. I'll just forget about it and walk away." But if you actually state it, there's this feeling of guilt if you don't do it — because so many people have seen it. You think "oh my god, tomorrow they'll ask me about it." I mean literally, it's accountability.
Also, these are my readers, and my friends. Which is true: as a writer, my readers are my friends. I don't really go out much, and I don't really socialize. I have all these people in my head, and I'm on my own. I like being alone, I like being in silence. So these are the people who are waiting, and they've been waiting for too long for this particular book, since I won the Amtrak Residency and started writing it on the train. That was last March. It's the first book out of my — what is it? eight or nine, or something, I don't remember the number — that took me over a year to write. And I just can't wait to be done with it, but I cannot ship product that's unfinished, you know? This is my product.
So by tweeting, first, I'm venting — so that somebody will pat me on the shoulder and say "hey, you're doing okay." It helps; it's like "all right, sorry, I just whined for five minutes, I've lost it, I'm good now."
And second, it's accountability to all these people who pre-ordered the book: "hey, look. I'm working on it. I haven't forgotten. I'm not giving up." Every day I get up in the morning, and I get my coffee, and I start fixing it. This scene — today was the fourth day I'm fixing it, the fourth time I'm writing it, because it just wasn't right. So I get frustrated. But after I talk about it, I feel better. It's like you go out and shout in the world, "I'm angry," and then you go, "I got this off my chest, thanks for listening, I'm happy now."
Some writers kind of go away and close the door of their room, and then it's a black box, and you don't hear anything until the book comes out. You're very vocal not only about the process of writing, but also about the stories behind what you write and why you're writing. You go to some pretty dark places, both in your fiction and when talking about it.
Yes. My entire writing career started with me wanting to commit suicide, which is a really dark topic. People usually don't like hearing about it, and people who have gone through it don't know how to talk about it — or sometimes are afraid to talk about it, because it's still not a topic to discuss freely. Also depression; any kind of a mental illness or any kind of disorder that touches or somehow affects your psychology.
Especially if you're an artist. You're supposed to be the starving artist — there's this image we all have about that artist who's a little bit crazy — but it's actually a really, really serious topic, and it's a really big problem. Most of us creators and artists come to creating art from a dark place — when we hit the wall in life and art saves us.
We find a way to take this ugliness and make it into something beautiful. Not everybody can do it, but those of us who can, feel happy. It stops eating you from the inside, and this is why I'm sharing so much because ... let's say I came from a place in my life where I really wanted to die, where you stand there and you hate yourself and your life so much that you want to part with it. And then something happens. In my case, it was my children. I thought about them, and I thought, "this is really selfish, this is actually really terrible," and then it wasn't about me anymore. I couldn't leave them alone, and I decided not to.
And in that moment, something shifted. I stopped being afraid of things that I usually would not talk about. Like you're saying: dark places and dark things. Well — the fear fell off, after I decided to live. It just didn't bother me anymore, all these little problems were non-problems. And sharing this experience was what pulled me out of it.
Also my therapist literally told me to journal. I would go through these horrible panic attacks, and she told me, "You're going to buy a journal; you're going to write yourself out of those." That's how my writing started. That's how my trilogy started. I still have that journal! It has skulls on it, very fitting. It's black and has got really disturbing things inside of it, and I'm going to save it, because that was my road to writing, that was my first step toward it. That's why I don't have any fear about it anymore. It's gone.
I'm imagining you were journaling about things that were happening. How did you go from journaling to processing those things through fiction?
You know, surprisingly, I have been doing that since I was very little. I grew up in a very violent household, and I was abused in a variety of ways. I tried to cope with it as a child by being very silent — that was one of my weapons against adults who hurt me: I would not talk. Sometimes I would not talk for weeks.
I had a crazy imagination, which also is very typical, although I didn't know it at the time. As a child, when the people who hurt you are relatives or people who are supposed to love you and protect you, you can't process it — that somebody like that would hurt you. As a child you can't survive. So what you do is you suppress it, and you replace the image of that person with, often, an animal — something that is dark and scary. Usually it's a dog or a wolf or a bear; some kind of entity, some kind of animal, that in your child's mind you can justify would have hurt you, eaten you, bitten off your leg.
In my family — apart from the darkness and the anger and the hurt and the pain, and everything that was in there for generations that created the environment I grew up in — in addition, the culture in Russia was very well read and very intellectual. My great-grandmother had this huge library of books in her room. I'd been reading since I was very small, since I was four.
That was my solution to all my problems, and that was my helper: it was the books. I couldn't ask the adults about what was happening to me, so I would go and read books ... and I read books that I was not supposed to read, I think, at that age. But also things were happening to me that were not supposed to happen to me at that age. So the books explained it to me. For example, in One Thousand and One Nights, there's one fairytale about a gorilla falling on a woman — basically, a gorilla having sex with the woman — and I remember that it explained everything to me. I thought: "Oh, okay, this is normal. Oh, so it's a gorilla."
When I went to therapy and started remembering what was happening to me, at first, I remembered something black and furry like a gorilla. Then it was a black man; and then it was a man who was painted in black paint; and after that: "It's my father."
It took me so many layers to get to it, because the truth was pretty horrendous. And this is why it's taking me so long to write this book. Because it's a book about a woman remembering her sexual abuse at the hands of her father — which she has blocked — while she is on a train, and every compartment on the train contains a memory that she has to fight to see. So this, what you're asking about — what's funny and also not funny and tragic — is what I've been doing since I was little.
I would create stories in my head to explain what was happening to me based on fiction. I made it into fiction, and that's how I survived it. Everything I'm writing right now is coming from my five-year-old brain, six-year-old brain, seven-year-old brain ... All these stories that I made up in my head to be content with life and to continue functioning as a child, and then later to continue functioning as an adult. And so it's really not fiction for me.
People keep asking me, "How do you get these ideas?" I tell them they're not really ideas, but nightmares. I wish I had less, but there's so many that I just have to get them out of me. Otherwise I cannot be happy and smiling every day; it's too much. It's like living in a world where you have a trapdoor into a dungeon that you have to go in every day, and there's scary shit down there. Like in the movie The Road, have you seen it?
No, I haven't seen it.
Well, you probably read the book.
If you watch the movie, there's this scene where they come up and find this house where people hold hostages. In the book, it made my skin crawl — but the film, it's amazing the way they did it. Now when people ask me [how I get my ideas], I tell them "just go watch that scene." That is what I have in my room.
And that is where I have to go every morning. It's horrible, but once I get through it and I come out — and it's 3 p.m. and I'm done writing — I'm this happy cat.
You know, I heard from someone once that horror writers are the happiest and the sweetest people in the world.
It's because they process all their stuff, all their bad feelings and fears.
Yeah! So what I'm doing every day now is really what I've been been doing since I was little. Except now I'm putting it into words.
You mentioned reading, and you're obviously a lifelong reader. You publish the books you're reading on your Instagram feed, and you're a pretty voracious reader, it seems. What have you been reading lately that has struck you or that you like?
I'm trying to read books on business and on writing and how to plot. And at the same time I'm trying to read fiction, novel writers who can teach me how to write novels. And also short stories; every morning before I start writing, I read a short story just to prime myself for a particular style. At the moment it's Petrushevskaya, I'm re-reading her short stories. This one is There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself.
What a title.
Yeah, very lovely. She has been not published for a long time, she basically has been banned from publishing her stories in Russia, although there's nothing political in there and nothing really to persecute. But the government didn't want people to know the real lives of real people. The horrendous, dark shit that they have to go through. And she wrote about it — there's no beautifying it, no prettifying it. It's pretty dark and it's very stark and very painful. But there's this humor in it, this survival, and I absolutely love it. Her style is very simple. It's kind of like a fairytale: "there once lived a woman and her neighbor woman had a little baby and she wanted to kill the baby." She gives me inspiration to stop trying to "write," and just tell my story.
Another one I've been reading lately — I met the artist Victoria Lomasko, and I'm reading a book of hers that's journalism with illustrations. She talks about Russian people and their everyday lives. People on the outskirts of society, the sex workers, the kids in juvenile prisons, the LGBT people, and so on. It's very enlightening, because some of these people — even I was not aware of how their lives are, and the conditions they live in.
And let's see ... this book just absolutely changed my plotting. It's called The Story Grid, by Sean Coyne. I recommend it to everyone, and if I had the money, I'd buy it for every writer, because it taught me — based on reading The Silence of the Lambs, which is one of my favorites — how to hack your manuscript, and how to shape it into something that has very distinct parts. There's so many ways of doing it; it's just that his particular formula works for me really, really well.
You have every single one of these books on hand right here with you?
Hold on, I have this one, I'm actually really enjoying this one, it's very beautiful — it's called The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier. It's a sort of apocalyptic novel about the world dying from a virus, but told from the perspective of the dead people, who don't really die until everybody who remembers them dies as well. So there's this in-between place. I'm enjoying it.
Next I'll be reading City Infernal by Edward Lee, which is supposedly this dark horror kind of a paperback book in America, which I haven't really read much. I mean, I love Stephen King, but this one has a bloodier kind of opening. Oh, here it is: "The man walks with difficulty down the street. The street sign reads ISCARIOT AVENUE. He is carrying a severed head on a stick, and the severed head talks. 'Can you spare any change?'"
I mean this is just perfect, this is my kind of stuff! I've seen all kinds of reviews of this, from one star — saying this is just awful, cheap horror — to five stars — saying 'this is great!' So I'm going to read this ... and god, I can talk to you about books for hours. I try to read about one hundred books a year, and this year, because of my editing, I don't think I'll hit the goal, but that's usually my goal.
You give all your books away for free on your website. And then you also sell bound copies. Why did you decide to give everything away for free?
Well, that goes back to the suicide and depression. My book literally saved my life, writing my first trilogy, so I vowed to give it away for free to anyone. Because it does talk about suicide, it talks about teenage suicide, in particular.
When I wrote my second book, Rosehead, people asked, "what are you going to do now?" And I said "What do you want?" And I had so many student readers who said, "I don't have money for books." So I said, "You can have it for free; it will all just even out." There's a donate button, and people occasionally donate; somebody recently donated $100. I was like, "Wow! That just paid for all of these free books that people downloaded."
But I also sell paperbacks, and I sell e-books on all kinds of sites. The idea is: you pay what you want, or you pay if you have money. Even on my website, you can choose to pay what you want. You can pay five dollars, which only covers the cost of the book. Or you can pay nine dollars, and I get four dollars and it pays for my team and for printing costs. Or you pay thirteen dollars, and I can pay my team, it covers my printing costs, and it also gives me another four dollars to invest into my growth as a business.
And you view this as an entrepreneur would, because you ran a company before you were writing?
Yeah, I had a start-up.
I know that's a story unto itself, but how did it change your approach to selling and marketing your books?
The selling idea itself, often people are afraid of it. They think that somehow it's getting into somebody's face and demanding money from them, and they're either shy or they're afraid. They think it's annoying, but that's actually not true. And that's what I learned from my start-up. It's really helping people, holding their hands, and people will be happy to pay you if you just have your shit together.
That's all it is. It's surprisingly easy, because there are so many businesses out there that don't do the smallest things: they don't say thank you, they don't do what they promised they'll do, they don't apologize if they screwed up. If you just behave like a human being, people will love you — they'll shower you with money, they'll come back to you.
Because it's so hard — I mean, life is so chaotic. We're bombarded with all this stuff, and people are constantly coming and going. So we come back to the brands that we trust, the businesses that we trust. We say, "these guys have been making my shoes for this many years, and at least they, when everything comes apart around me, will be there doing the shoes. Or if they are going to go bankrupt, because they always communicated with me honestly, they will tell me 'We're so sorry; we're screwed. But do not fret: we'll try to make your shoes.'"
It's the same with writing books. If you talk to people like a human being, saying "I'm sorry I screwed up" —
Here's an example. Today I was supposed to ship books to somebody who won them in my free giveaway, and another person in Canada. It was 2:15, and the post office closes at 3. I was writing; I usually stop writing at 2, but I looked and saw that was 2:15, and I said, "I'll write another 15 minutes. Half an hour is enough for me to walk or bike to the post office." Next thing I know, my son knocks on the door, says "Mum something something," and I look up and it's 2:45. I go "fuck," I jump up — I'm like, 15 minutes is just not enough, I have to change, pull on my biking shorts — then I realize that the box is too large, so I start running around. Finally I think "I can't do it," so I start composing an email in my head: "Hi, I'm so sorry, I got carried away into writing, I didn't ship the books."
And then my boyfriend shows up at 2:57, and I say "I can't do this," and he's like, "Get in the car, get in the car now. Grab your stuff." I jump in, and we get to the post office one minute late. Usually they close right on time. I run in ...
All of them know me, because I've brought them chocolate before. One lady typed in — it took her 30 minutes to type up all these books that I was sending to the Philippines and Pakistan, Iran, England, and — I can't remember, there's pockets of my readers all over the place — India. And so I said "Wow, you work so hard, I need to bring you chocolate." She kind of laughed it off, but I said "No, I'm dead serious." And next time I came, I brought them a box of chocolates. Now they call me the lady who brings chocolate.
So I ran in, I'm like, "I'm so sorry I'm late," and the boss started grumbling. So I said "Hey, but I brought you chocolate," and everybody was like "Yeah, yeah, this is the girl," and she goes, "Oh, that's fine; you can stay for as long as you want to." It's so cute, and I said "See? I paid for my overtime with chocolate."
But yeah — so I came home and I emailed, so happily, to my customers: "I shipped the books." This is a small business. Customer service is number one. I will go and die and hit my face on the ground, get bloody, but I will get those books to my readers against all odds, because they paid for them. I mean that's a miracle, somebody paid for my words, and they're going to spend their time reading them. That's great; it makes me ecstatic.
How do people mostly find you? Word of mouth?
Yeah. I also now have a big readership that suggests my books to friends; also on social media. For example, on Instagram: I send out these books to book readers, and Instagram has these book review Instagram accounts — most of them are kids, some of them are teenagers, some of them are over twenty. They're younger, and so they have these accounts where they read books and they review them, and somebody would just send me a message saying "I saw your book all over the place, all of my friends have it, can I have it too?" And that's how it goes. Or on Wattpad, one day on Twitter somebody asked me, "Are you going to put your books on Wattpad?" And I said, "What is Wattpad?" So I went and I looked and I thought "This is cool." I posted the book, and just this morning I woke up and I had 150 notifications. Why? I don't know! This is one of those things that I wish I knew ... all of a sudden everybody's reading Rosehead.
Yesterday was quiet. Somebody is always reading my books there, but sometimes it just goes boom. And that's why I'm starting to get my business sense together, because I really need to understand what makes those spikes, how to turn them into sales. I make sales when a new book comes out, because all of a sudden people are interested in the rest of my books — if they like this one, they purchase the rest of them. And then it goes down. So there's always a big spike [when I publish a new book], and I have to keep it going constantly to survive. At this moment I'm not supporting myself financially. It's in bursts. And my boyfriend is like, "I'm an investor, when you make those millions"; and I'm like, "yeah, I got you."
And you keep it kind of in the family. Your daughter does all of your book design, right?
She does. I remember when she was a baby, I taught her how to draw. This is what parents do to children: they're just raising them with this hidden agenda. And she laughs at this. Yeah, she's really good; she graduated from design school in Orange, California, and she does all of my book covers.
The best part about it that is we understand each other. I tell her, "Just do a blah blah blah," and she goes, "okay, I got it." I don't even have to explain — a couple hours later it's done.
We're going to change the Tube cover right now. She was traveling, so it was hard to find an image for her. I don't know if you've seen the discussion, but basically it looks like a nonfiction book, so I'm going to take feedback. This is one other reason that I share everything — I get raw feedback from people, and if eight people out of ten say the same thing, that helps me; it helps me write a better book, it helps me create a better product. So, yes, she does that, but then the rest of my team is all over the place. My editor and my proofreader, you know, formatter, and so on.
Anything that we didn't cover that you wanted to talk about?
Well, I'm excited because Tube is going to be done in about two months. Maybe it will take me a few read-throughs, but this is the final draft. I have decided that I could probably keep perfecting it forever, but I can't do it anymore.
What draft are you on now?
This is draft five. And I've never done this many before. Each draft is a complete rewrite; it's not just revising it, I scrub through from beginning to end. So when that book comes out, it's going to be very important. I'm very proud of it; I worked really hard on it, harder than on any of my other books.
It's my best writing so far, and it's also a really important story — like I said, about a woman remembering her sexual abuse. I tried to dramatize the process of remembering something when it's hidden so well in your child's mind inside of you that you're acting like a private investigator, literally going back into your past and reviewing it. And so it was really challenging, because she jumps from present to past constantly. I hope I did the job right. So I'm really excited about that — and after that I'm going to be writing my first thriller, The Dacha Murders.
Cool. And Tube was the one you wrote on the Amtrak residency?
Yeah, when I started that, it was just a goofy kind of idea. I actually didn't think I'd ever win. I just submitted this little paragraph. They ask "Why do you think you're going to win?" and I said something like "Because I'm going to write a book about trains." And then I won. And somehow, because I said that, when I got on the train, I had to do it, so it became a book about the train. But it changed very much from the original first draft.
All of my drafts are on my website. If people are curious, they can download them and compare. That is another reason why I put it up for free on my site — because when I started writing, I wished there was a resource like that where I could go and I could compare something — let's say The Da Vinci Code or one of Stephen King's books — if I could see the very first rough draft and compare it to the final one, that would really help me as a writer. But I could hardly find that information anywhere.
That's an approach to writing — sharing that stuff — that most writers would find horrifying.
Yeah ... and actually, there's another book I'm reading, by Kit Reed called Revision, if anybody is interested — in the back she has examples, because the book is about revision, they're manuscripts of the first draft and the final draft. But it's still not enough. So that's why I'm doing it — to give back to the community and also learn. People constantly send me feedback, so I get better.
Anything else you wanted to add?
Just send me coffee, coffee beans, my PO box address is on my website. Coffee beans will keep me going. If you want more books, send me more coffee.
Do you eat coffee beans while you write?
Yeah. Actually, I need an IV for that.