Earlier this month, Lisa Rosenblum had her first day on the job as the King County Library System Director. Rosenblum has worked in libraries across the country, but she’s taking the helm of an especially vibrant library system in KCLS.
King County Library System seems well-positioned for the future. Last year, digital reading platform Overdrive announced that King County led the nation in digital book checkouts, ahead of the systems for Los Angeles, New York, and even Seattle. In 2017, KCLS users checked out over four and a half million ebooks and digital audiobooks, but physical media hasn’t been left behind in the digital gold rush—over ten million visitors checked in to KCLS’s 49 branches, and they checked out some sixteen million non-digital-book items.
We talked on the phone with Rosenblum last week, to get a sense of where she’s from and what she wants to do at KCLS. The following transcript has been lightly edited.
What brought you into this line of work, and how you came to be interested in libraries? Do you have a librarian superhero origin story?
Well, I know you’re hoping for a romantic story, but I'm afraid mine came from a recession. I went to this fancy liberal arts school back east, called St. John's College, which is a great book school that gives you a liberal arts education in the most traditional sense — you study Ancient Greek, and you translate Sophocles, and you read the plays in the original language. It was an amazing education. But I got out during a time where there were no jobs, especially for overeducated liberal arts majors.
So, I started working. I got a job at a government contractor that provided library services to Army libraries. This was outside of Washington DC. Then, from there, I moved to Houston, married my husband, and got a job at Rice University, doing what we called, back then, cataloging. I knew from that point on that I never wanted to be a cataloger, because we had to file cards. I don't know how old you are, but I’m old enough to remember cards and card files.
Oh, sure. Yeah.
So, the big deal was, if you were good, you could drop your own cards. You know the little rods that went through the holes in the cards?
Well, when you did it correctly, you were allowed to pull out the little pole, have the cards drop down, and then the pole went through the hole in the bottom of the card, and that was it.
At Rice University, you were only allowed to do that if you never made a mistake filing. Well, in two years working there, I never could figure it out. I always had one or two mistakes, so I was never able to drop my own cards. So, long story short, I knew that this level of detail work was not my strong point.
So, fast-forward: we leave Houston, we're in California. Back then, California was hiring librarians without library degrees if they took tests, and I said, 'I'll never pass.' My husband encourages me: 'Oh, just take the test. Take the test.' So, I did, and I failed miserably on anything librarian-ish. But remember I told you I had that fancy liberal arts education? Well, I could match the author with the title of all these old Greek and Latin and Roman works, so I passed the test. Then I had an interview, and I got the job as a librarian.
I really loved it in the public library. This was before the internet. I really enjoyed helping people find answers, find information. This is back when these big reference books were behind us, and we could pull them down and find the answers to questions like, what was the average temperature in Prague in August? You just felt so empowered. I also was a youth librarian, and I did book talks. I'd go out to schools and talk about books in a very entertaining way, summarize them very dramatically.
So, I really learned to love the public library, and that's kind of how I got into it. It wasn't like I woke up one day and said, ‘I want to be a librarian.’ It wasn't that I met a librarian when I was in high school or when I was in elementary school and she made an impact. In fact, back then, librarians, I thought, were kind of mean. And they also would separate the children's areas from the adult's, so if you were a kid you were kind of isolated from things.
That's really how I got to be a librarian. From there, I progressively started to enjoy what I was doing. I worked for a big system, did basically everything in it, and then decided I wanted to be a director. I got a couple of different jobs as a director — including the last one as the director of the Brooklyn Public Library. Every time, I just really enjoyed what we do in our communities. I think that we really are very impactful and have done a great job in changing with what our community needs. The library I entered into more than 25 years ago is different than the one that we run now, but it's still the same. We still value books and reading and literacy, but we just do it in a different way, that's all.
So you mentioned Washington DC and Houston and California. Where are you from originally?
I originally was born in New Jersey, on the East Coast. Then, when I was 12, we moved to Virginia because my dad got a new job. Then, like the pioneers, I gradually made my way out west. I lived in California for most of my career, but I took up the opportunity to work for Brooklyn, because they recruited me.
So, I did that for two and a half years, and I decided that as much as I like New York, I'm a West Coast girl now.
And, of course, the King County Library System is known nationally as one of the best in the country.
I wanted to ask you what drew you to apply for the job at King County.
Well, first of all, King County has a national reputation of public support for libraries, and building beautiful libraries, and being really innovative. We were hearing about King County in California 20 years ago, when Bill Ptacek, the beloved leader of KCLS, had the insight to realize we were in the materials movement business. He knew we needed — this is back before digital — to be more efficient in how we move our materials around our system, and created that huge sorting machine in Preston. They've always been ahead of their time, and the community support for libraries is very desirable.
Plus, living here, this is a wonderful place. Or so I’ve heard. Because I've come at the worst of times, I'm told. It's dark when I go to work, it's dark when I leave. So I'm told this is a beautiful area, I just have to wait a couple of months.
Fortunately, I moved here from Brooklyn and not California. I think the change from California would have been too much for me, but I left in a blizzard from Brooklyn, so I’m used to variations in weather.
What are you reading right now?
Well, right now, I'm reading the classifieds to see where I can buy a condo here. I have to be honest with you, I have not been reading a lot since I moved here a week and a half ago. But, the last book I read was Manhattan Beach [by Jennifer Egan]. In Brooklyn, one of our libraries was in Manhattan Beach.I am very interested in reading regionally. I can't tell you what my favorite Seattle regional authors are, I'll be honest with you, but I'm looking forward to discovering them. The other nice thing about moving from Brooklyn to here is that New York City, in general, is a big reading community, and Seattle is too. So, it's great to go from one place to the other. People really like to read here.
Do you have people putting together a list of King County authors to check out, now that you're here?
Well, you know, I haven't asked them to do that. I've asked them to create a map of where all my libraries are. I'm starting there. But that's really a great idea.
I’ll be a patron and ask for a list of the 10 best books I should start reading to learn about Seattle.
Oh, man. If you'd like to come back and share that experience, I would love to talk to you about that, too. That sounds great. I know you haven't been to all of the libraries yet, are there any of the libraries that you think are especially nice in the King County region?
It's like asking who's my favorite child. Let me just say this: I'm very interested in the Skykomish library, the one that I can't get to in the winter.
I'm interested in that one because, first of all, it's in a beautiful area of the state, but, also, it really represents how important a rural library is to a community. It's got limited hours, but it's important that it's out there, that it's open for people. So, that's sort of my adventure library.
I'm starting to visit libraries this week. We're putting in a new maker space area in Bellevue, so that's going to be fun to go to in the next couple of weeks. We're basically creating a space where teens can create things. There'll be laser printers, and there'll be maker machines, and all sorts of stuff.
Oh, and I want to go to Vashon because I think it's so cool I have to take a ferry to get to one of my libraries.
So, yes, I'm looking forward to those, but those are kind of the cool adventure libraries. But, in general, I can't pick a favorite because the design of our libraries here is really amazing. Just the light — the recognition that it gets dark [in this part of the world] and just having all the light, even under the shelving, so that everything is so bright when you come in. It's very thoughtful. Our voters supported us to build new libraries and to renovate the existing ones, and I think we gave them a good bang for the buck here.
Do you have any priorities for your first few months at King County other than visiting the libraries?
Visiting, certainly. As I visit, I’ll be meeting with the staff. Also learning about the board, and working with the board.
And, of course, it's all about the budget — understanding the budget process, and really looking at the budget. How do we spend our money? What could we be doing differently? Just all the sort of basic stuff you do when you start a job.
I also said to the staff today, ‘when I'm visiting your libraries, I want the full King County experience. So where are the best coffee shops, the bakeries near where you are? Where would you go to lunch?’ I love to learn about the neighborhoods where our libraries are too, because they're all very different.
It just occurred to me that the Literary Lions fundraiser for the King County Library System Foundation is coming up in March. Are you going to be at that? Can people meet you there, if they attend the dinner?
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I need to find a dress for that.
What have you learned in your meetings with the staff? You have some great librarians out there in the King County system — I know from experience. Is there anything that the staff has really impressed you with, or is there anything that you learned that surprised you?
Well, first of all, I think our librarians are wonderful, but I also think our support staff — the people behind them, the people that are on the floor, that aren't librarians, our circulation people — are great. I think what impresses me is their service philosophy. They really love working with the public and serving them in the way they need to, and in a changing way.
I had a meeting this morning with staff that is very interested in how we're serving our diverse communities. They're interested in social equity. They really keep abreast on what's current in the library field, and what makes the most sense here. They're passionate about what they do. They're very, very passionate about their love of the profession and serving the public.
On Saturday, October 14th at 6 pm, the Fantagraphics Bookstore in Georgetown presents new work from three great young cartoonists. Denver’s Noah Van Sciver and Los Angeles cartoonist Joseph Remnant share the stage with a new-to-Seattle cartoonist who goes by the initials DW. Fantagraphics is releasing DW's very first book, a reproduction of a graph-paper sketchbook titled Mountebank.
DW is a serious and thoughtful young cartoonist who, in his spare time, co-founded and co-edits a comics anthology called Irene. He was kind enough to take a break from a visit to the east coast to talk to me on the phone about why he picked Seattle as a home, how he came to publish with Fantagraphics, and the responsibilities of being an editor of comics. This interview has been lightly edited.
When did you move to Seattle?
On July 7th. My friends, who drove me up, we left San Francisco on July 4th and we got to Seattle on July 7th.
How long were you in San Francisco before that?
Five years. I graduated from the Center for Cartoon Studies in 2012 and spent the rest of the summer in Vermont after that. On September 5th 2012 I flew out to the Bay Area and spent about eight months living in Oakland, and then moved over to San Francisco. So all told, it came out to almost exactly five years in the bay area.
Can I ask why you moved to Seattle?
I found San Francisco to be a very lonely place. It was a big problem for me there — connecting with people and feeling like I was part of a community, either on a personal level or as an artist trying to be amongst other cartoonists. I had given it my best shot for five years.
So it was partly running away from stuff there and just wanting to move onto something different, which I had been thinking about doing for quite a while at that point. But it was also about running towards something, because [Fantagraphics and I] had been working on [Mountebank]. That was about to come out about the time I made the decision to move to Seattle.
I already had several good friends who were cartoonists in Seattle and are part of a really rich, vibrant community. I checked with them to find out — I was like, ‘Is it still kicking? Is the cartoonist community still alive and well in Seattle?’ And they said, ‘Yes, it absolutely is. Better than ever. You should come for a visit it and see if you feel at home here.’
So I visited and then made the decision pretty much right then and there that I was going to give it a shot.
So Seattle does not have a reputation for being a warm and welcoming city to new visitors. I assume you probably heard to death about the Seattle freeze.
I think it should be called the San Francisco freeze.
I have heard about it, and I have not found it to be a part of my real-life experience in any way. I have found moving to Seattle to be an exciting, lovely, stimulating, warm experience. I feel really connected to the people. For the first time in a long time, I feel part of an artistic community, part of a healthy social world.
So I haven't had any problems with the Seattle freeze. I know it's legendary. You know I think as an East coast person, born and bred, I'm never going to feel completely at home on the west coast, which is part of the reason why I like living on the west coast. But I instantly felt connected to something in Seattle that I never felt in the Bay Area. It doesn't feel like work every day to feel connected to people, both on an artistic level and on a basic human social level. I've loved it so far.
Are there any cartoonists in the community who you want to especially highlight? Any cartoonists who were especially instrumental in your move?
Either before I moved here or who I’ve encountered since moving here or both?
Before, the two who were both my closest Seattle friends and are also two of the best cartoonists I know, are Ben Horak and James Stanton. Their work has been printed in the anthology that I edit. They’re both buddies of mine, and even if I wasn't close friends with them I would completely have nothing but good things to say about their cartoon abilities.
[Max] Clotfelter and [Tom] Van Deusen and Marie Hausauer — I didn’t know any of them personally... Oh, and Handa. Do you know Handa?
I don’t think so.
She's amazing. I was big fans of all their work before I moved here and now I'm becoming friends with all of them. I've had a chance to start to get to know all of them, and they're all really good people.
Probably my favorite Seattle cartoonist right now is Seattle Walk Report. Do you know her work on Instagram?
No! Seattle Walk Report? That sounds awesome!
Yeah, everybody should follow her.
Oh, and I forgot to say Marc Palm. Marc was the guy who helped me find a place to live, which was really important because I've become friends with all my roommates now. Marc, besides being a good cartoonist and a good guy, is such a pillar of the community.
As you well know, because you've been through all this with him, what he's accomplished recently with the left-handed drawing thing is something that is, to me, a major accomplishment for an artist. It's really inspiring the way he deals with adversity and adapts to his situation and turns it into something new. That ability to do that and make lemonade out of lemons is what I aspire to as an artist and a person. So Marc is a very important guy, both before I moved here and still to this day, as a friend and colleague.
So you went to the Center for Cartoon Studies, which basically means you are hardcore. That is not something you bumble into because you think you're going to maybe try this cartooning thing. You go there if you want to be a cartoonist for the rest of your life.
It's true. Yeah, it's like if you want to get your time's worth and money's worth out of it you have to be prepared to go hardcore with it — whatever that means for you as an individual. I think it would be pretty pointless to spend the money and the two years if you're not at least going to try to do it every day for the rest of your life, whether you have any intention of anybody seeing that work or not. So that's what I tried to do.
Have you always been a cartoonist, then?
On and off. I did it a lot when I was a kid. I've never stopped reading comics, my whole life. Especially newspaper comics. I've been really steeped in newspaper comics, from the time I could read. I was born in ‘83, and Calvin and Hobbes ran from ‘85 to ’95, so I was right in my formative years in that point where Watterson was also publishing a new Calvin and Hobbes in the newspaper every day. I would read the Philadelphia Inquirer comics page every day and always save Calvin and Hobbes for the last thing I read right before I left to go to school.
And I read super hero comics, graphic novels, and pretty much everything else. I read Maus when I was about 10. I was making a lot of comics and writing a lot of bad stories, and doodling all the time when I should have been focusing on schoolwork.
Then I drifted away from it. I never stopped, but [comics] got relegated to something I would do during class when I should have been paying attention to my teachers, or that I would toss off as a joke for friends. The main portion of my artistic energy went to other things like playing music, or making videos with friends. Things that entailed a more, by definition, social aspect because I think that's what I needed at the time.
When I was in my early 20's and I was working a nine-to-five job after graduating from college I found my way back to really making drawing an essential part of my life and started taking it seriously again. It was a few years after that I decided to go to grad school at CCS.
So how did you get involved with Fantagraphics?
Two years ago, I was coming up to Seattle to meet my mom because she was going to be there on business — this was when I was still living in San Francisco. It seemed like a natural thing to do to take time off of work and hang out in Seattle for a little while.
I figured since I was going to be in Seattle anyway I would see if I could pull some strings and try to get my foot in the door to just meet the people at Fantagraphics. I was really looking at it as a networking opportunity to try to get on their radar: let them know who I was, see if they had any constructive feedback about my work, put my work in front of their eyes.
And it turned out that they were interested in working on something together, so then we started to discuss what form would that take. I had some pretty strong feelings about that. They pushed back when appropriate, but they were very easy to work with and very supportive of my ideas for how this project should take shape.
What were some of your strong feelings?
[Mountebank] is a facsimile reproduction of an actual sketchbook that I maintained for about two years. Because of the way that I conceived of and structured the work in that book, which was extremely organized and regimented and followed a strict set of rules, I felt that the work had to be presented altogether in sequential order, in the original order that it appears in the actual sketchbook, and that the concepts of the presentation should be a facsimile — as close as possible to the feeling that you're holding the actual book in your hands. A few people have commented to me, and I don't think that they're wrong, that [sketchbook reproduction is] a bit of a played-out concept at this point. Maybe the market got a little saturated with that kind of presentation, but I just felt like that was the only way to do this.
Working in a sketchbook has a very particular meaning for me. It's my preferred method of working and it helps guide my work in the direction that want it to go. I think that presenting this particular body of work — both because the pages do have a relationship to one another and because of the way they look on the original sketchbook pages — I think it's important that you appreciate that this is all coming out of a sketchbook.
It's kind of like finding that place where this work represents an overlap between comics and the physical feeling of the intimacy of leafing through someone's sketchbook, or seeing something that they're giving you permission to see that they've been carrying around in their bag with them for two years and scribbling in during their lunch breaks.
Yeah, I think there's an interesting relationship between cartoonists and their sketchbooks and their broader body of work. Nobody can really deny that Robert Crumb’s sketchbooks, which Fantagraphics has reproduced, have become a central part of his work.
Right. I've heard through the grapevine that Crumb himself was really skeptical about that concept. He thought it was kind of a dumb idea. I don't know if I have that exactly right, but he wasn't really into that idea. And people love those, right? [His sketchbooks have] become a central aspect of his entire body of work now.
Yeah, and there are other cartoonists, like Seth for instance — I prefer his sketchbook stuff lately to the stuff that he’s more intensely rendered.
I can see that. I don't know if you'd agree with this, but I think with that with him, his most recent comics have gotten so designerly. Which, obviously, he's one of the most talented designers alive. But they're so designerly and so polished that you end up kind of responding to that more than the emotional content, or the narrative content. Whereas with the sketchbooks there's like these flashes of really powerful emotion or something that cut through a little more sharply.
I'm trying to create a space where the work in the sketchbooks is the finished work, or there is no finished work.
Yeah, and there's a lack of self-seriousness in his sketchbooks that I like in contrast with his other work. But somebody like Chris Ware, who is really into design — I like his sketchbooks, but they are not as significant as Crumb's or Seth's.
You know what? I totally agree with that formulation. I think you're right about that. Ware, I do like the finished work better.
It's very interesting that sketchbook art is becoming part of a cartoonist’s career and body of work.
I think you're right. And so with me, to jump ahead a little bit, I'm trying to create a space where the work in the sketchbooks is the finished work, or there is no finished work. Choosing to work in the sketchbook doesn't mean that this is supposed to be private, or unpolished —although it probably does allow me to get away with a lot of mistakes that I wouldn’t be happy with if I was doing it in a different context.
I think you’re the first cartoonist Fantagraphics has published who they've made the sketchbook before the “real” book.
You might be right about that. If that's the case, that was them being really amazing, thoughtful, cooperative, collaborators.
Is the book that I am holding in my hand, literally right now — is this basically the object that you brought in to Fantagraphics when you visited two years ago?
Yeah. I brought in about three or four sketchbooks to show them, including the one that you're holding right now. That was the one that I always had my eye on. Even at that point, I thought ‘I want this book to be presented by somebody, hopefully Fantagraphics, as a complete work.’
From the movement that I conceived the structure for that book, and designed the system that would guide the content and flow of the book, I had always envisioned that particular sketchbook as being a unified work that would hang together as one object.
So to answer your question more fully, if I were to hand you the original sketchbook, which I'd be happy to do sometime if we ever were to meet, and you were to place it alongside your copy and flip to the same page it would be virtually indistinguishable except by touch.
I can't triangulate your work by just having this one point to work with. Do you develop individual ideas in individual sketchbooks? Does your style differ depending on where you sketch?
I sort of change the channel depending on what sketchbook I'm in. There are different sketchbooks that serve different purposes, and represent different meanings or contexts for me. I always maintain at least one sketchbook where I do stuff I probably wouldn't necessarily ever print, or maybe even wouldn’t show to somebody — real raw. Just letting my ID roam around the page and morad around and see what it can catch. Then with Mountebank, which was the name of the sketchbook — you know, you have to name your sketchbooks — Mountebank was conceived as the opposite of that.
Even though it was in a sketchbook, I wanted it to be a unified body of work where you do go on this journey as you flip from one page to the next, and before I ever made a single mark on the first page, I conceived of the system that would guide the rules and the content and the structure of what criteria have to be met on every page, and the order in which the pages go. I drew up a whole matrix to tell me when I got to each page, which criteria and rules had to be honored on that page.
Then, I would have to respond to those rules I had set for myself in the context of where I was at that point in the book and create that page accordingly so I would have room to improvise and play around. Going straight to ink, as I do, but would also have to be mindful of those rules and build everything I was doing around those rules so that each individual page would stand on its own compositionally, but would fit into the larger structure of the piece by obeying the rules of the matrix.
It's a really impressive book. I intend to come back to and reinvestigate it. But it seems like there are a lot of layers going on here.
Yeah, and I hope that not knowing what they all are and not understanding all of the criteria would be part of the act of enjoying the work. I don't want you to have to know all that stuff in order to understand the book.
Yeah, but it does seem like there is a definite form of logic.
There's one in my head. I know exactly, in my head, how it works. But to me, all of that logic, and the system, is a jumping off point for how to get started making the work, and how to direct my energy within the process of making the work. But in my opinion, it’s absolutely not essential, or probably even interesting, to someone who just wants to flip to a page and enjoy looking at the pretty pictures. You know?
Towards the middle of the book I you embark on what feels like a real investigation into the idea of what a panel is and what a panel can do.
Totally! The panel thing is huge. That was a big thing for me. You put that really beautifully, too.
You could view the entire page as a single panel or you have the lines in there that can be seen as sort of breaking it up.
Right, and sometimes the panel borders are respected as blocking off each panel as the discrete area, and sometimes they're not. So sometimes the breaking up of things into panels could, at the same time, make you want to look at each panel and "read" each panel in sequence. And then at the same time it might make you want to step back and look at the larger composition, because certain aspects of the composition respect those panels and those panel borders, and then other aspects freely traverse [the panel borders] with no respect for them. So that hopefully the entire page would hang together as an entire composition while also being readable, as it were.
And then also I think you could also view each individual square on the graph paper as its own panel.
I think in some cases I got away from that as I went on. I think towards the end of the book it got sort of zoomed out a little, which you could also say that about the book itself. So I guess you could look at it in these units of individual squares, individual panels, individual pages — and at every one of those levels I'm always also thinking about the level above. So as I moved towards the culmination of the project and was trying to get to the page count that I wanted for the final submission, I think I was getting a little broader in scope and starting to think more like a designer and less like a cartoonist.
We literally had artists from every continent in the world, including Antarctica, in one comic anthology.
You are an editor of an anthology titled Irene, and I wanted to ask you about that. I've only interviewed a few people about editing comics. Generally they are very sort of blasé about editing in a way that literary editors are not. Like [Fantagraphics publisher] Gary Groth, for instance. He told me once that he did very little editing once the pages came in to him, because there's not much an editor can do with a drawn comics page, as opposed to working with text. I just want to ask you what it's like working on your book as an editor, and what kind of an editor you're like. I think that's a couple questions at once, sorry.
I can certainly answer the first part easily. In terms of working as an editor, I'm working alongside two of my closest friends in the whole world, and two of my favorite artists, Andy Warner and Dakota McFadzean. We are together editing and publishing this book that we co-founded, the three of us.
We're also designing the physical look of the book: we're doing the cover, the end pages, and the table of contents for every issue. We are talking to one another during the initial gearing-up phase for any given issue — who do we want to invite for this issue? We're all bringing different sensibilities to that, because we're three very different cartoonists in terms of styles, contexts, and communities that we work in. We're really close and we all respect and feed off of one another's work and respective aesthetics. But we're also all three of us connected to wildly different areas of cartooning as a medium.
So we're all feeding into this common stream, and then we're sifting through it: who do we want to invite, what overall aesthetic do we want to cultivate for a given issue, do we want more of one kind of artist over another?
Issue six, the most recent issue of Irene, we literally had artists from every continent in the world, including Antarctica, in one comic anthology. Which, we can't prove it, but we're pretty sure that's the first time that anybody's ever accomplished that with a comics anthology. We don't think anybody else has gone through the trouble to find cartoonists from Antarctica before.
So, there's that process of starting to put the issue together and conceiving of what it might be like. Then when the work starts to roll in, that's the most fun part. Because to echo Gary's comment on that — especially since we're asking people to be in this book and we're telling them up front that they have free reign once they've agreed to do it, to do whatever they see fit — we don't think we're in a position to push back and make changes or edits at that point. When they hand in the finished work we take what they've given us.
Along the way we have often had contributors who have asked us for editorial feedback while they're working on the project, and we love engaging with that and trying to be helpful with that where we can. But once the finished work has come in and we have all the work that we need to put an issue together the most fun part is the three of us getting together and debating the structure and sequence of the book. Like, ‘I really feel strongly that this particular story should be the opener because it will start off on a really strong note and it will set this or that tone for the book.’ Then choosing the last story is really fun. Every single issue we have one artist do all of the interstitials so that as you finish one story and begin the next there's a little breather page. We like to have one person do all of those interstitial breather pages for the whole issue. So that becomes this whole aesthetic consideration.
Yeah, and we're putting it together in this sequence that feels right for us and then the three of us are doing this sort of design and presentation for what the cover and end pages, and table of contents are going to look like and how they're going to create a functional house for all of those lovely comics.
For as long as Seattle has been a city, people have come to town and people have left town. The Seattle Review of Books has a recurring feature called Exit Interview, in which we talk with an author who recently left town about their Seattle experience. The natural pair to that feature is New Hire, an interview with an author who’s just arrived here. (If you have any suggestions for a subject of an upcoming Exit Interview or a New Hire, please drop us a line.) Our latest New Hire is historical nonfiction author Neal Bascomb. Bascomb's newest book, a Norwegian World War II espionage story called The Winter Fortress, will be published next week with a launch party at Hugo House on May 5th. We'll have more about Winter Fortress in the days to come, but for now enjoy this conversation with Bascomb about what his moving-to-Seattle experience has been like.)
When did you move to Seattle?
I moved to Seattle in August of 2015.
Where did you move from?
Philadelphia. We've been an East Coast family: New York first, and then Philadelphia the last fifteen years.
What brings you here?
We always wanted to live here. I went to Miami University, in Ohio, and a good contingent of my friends all moved to Seattle right after college. I've been coming out here every year for 20 years and loving it, but it didn't really make sense for me because I was in publishing. Because I was a book editor, a journalist, my work was really in New York.
We finally got to a point where we knew we wanted to make a decision between here and London. My wife used to be a book editor at Random House, that's how we met. She got offered a job at Amazon. We decided to move here versus London. It's been great; I love it. We have two young girls, and we love the skiing and the hiking, and the boating, and everything. I'm a full-time author, so if there's coffee shops, I'm usually pretty good, and clearly, there are a lot of coffee shops here. I’m right in my happy zone.
Twenty years ago, you probably would not have been able to live in Seattle and work in publishing as easily as you can now. Do you agree? You know, the publishing industry is still very centered around New York, but I'm finding more and more that authors are choosing to stay in Seattle, which is something that 20 years ago wasn’t possible.
Well, originally I'm from Missouri, so I moved east, to New York, to work at a publishing company. Back 20 years ago, the only place to work in a major publishing house was New York. I knew I always wanted to be a writer and author — New York was really the only way to do that. I was a journalist, too, and so most of the magazines and everything was New York-centric. But I got to a point where I could live anywhere.
I think the difference is 20 years ago, if I had moved out here, it would have been a loss in my career. Publishing was so New York-centric 20 years ago. Now, it's it feels much more diffuse. I feel like there's writer communities everywhere. I had a community in Philadelphia, and I'm certainly finding one here in Seattle. Since it's such a — not an isolated job, but a job where you're on your own a lot — it's nice to have a good community of writers, and I feel like Seattle has that in spades. With Hugo House, and just the number of writers that are here, it's a good place to be a writer.
It sounds like you got wise to Hugo House as a place to be pretty early on. A lot of writers, it takes them a while to discover the House as a resource.
It turns out, I bought my house from someone on the board of Hugo House. I think I was at Hugo House within a week of moving here. I met [Hugo House Executive Dirctor] Tree [Swenson], who's wonderful. I started a little writers' drinking club. I think it's important to have that community. It's small, but growing.
How did you get a hold of local writers? Because there's that Seattle freeze that everyone always talks about, and when you combine that with writers, who are normally antisocial, it seems like socializing might be a problem.
I feel like the Seattle freeze is seasonal. When we first got here, I didn't feel it at all: it’s August, it’s beautiful, people are outside, having outside parties and barbecues. I met a couple writers that way. As soon as winter hit, it was like the city was shut down.
Does it matter what the writers in your writing groups write? Does it help to have other writers of historical books around you?
No, and preferably not. [Laughs.] No — I mean there's novelists, and memoirists, and journalists, so it doesn't matter.
I'm sure Seattle has more popular historical authors than just these two, but off the top of my head, there's Tim Egan and Erik Larson, who have both written very popular and very good historical books. They tend to keep to themselves a little more than some of the other writers in the community. Is that a cultural thing? Do historical writers tend to bury themselves in their research, and not get out as much? Is that just a gross overgeneralization on my part?
You know, I can't speak for Tim or Erik. I met Tim, and he seems like a lovely guy. I'm buried for two years at a time doing research — typically traveling, typically aswim in paper. Perhaps it's that, more than anything else. And then when I'm not researching, I'm writing.
It is interesting that there are quite a few [authors of historical books in Seattle], including [Daniel James Brown, author of] The Boys In The Boat. Maybe we should start a subset: “The historical narrative nonfiction club.” We'd have to think of a catchy title.
Yeah, that doesn't acronym well. What surprised you the most about Seattle as a literary city when you moved here?
I'm not sure if it surprised me, but because I wasn't looking for it, but I will say that the access to the community of writers, whether it's Hugo House, or just book events, is huge. It just seems so much more accessible and welcoming than, let's say, New York, which can be cliquey. It just seems more down-to-earth here. It would be hard, I think, to go back.
Is there anything that you were surprised that we didn't have when you got here? Is there anything, say, in Philadelphia, in New York, that they have, that you think Seattle could really use?
University of Washington has a good library, but for my purposes, it's — gosh, I don't want to sound like I'm trashing the University of Washington. It's just the amount of books that they have just isn't at the par that you can find in New York or Philadelphia. For instance, in New York, if you can't find it at Columbia, you can find it at NYU. If you can't find it at NYU, then you can find it at the New York Public Library.
Here, the University of Washington is really the big university, and just by its sheer size, the stacks aren't as robust.
Yeah, and there hasn't been the time to develop the institutions, either. It's only a hundred-and-fifty years old.
Yeah, exactly. That's been one challenge, just in terms of the kinds of books that I write — by no means insurmountable.
Do you ever think of yourself as a Seattle writer, or does region come into it at all, given your subject matter? Do you think there's ever a time where you would see yourself as the Seattle writer?
Yeah. I mean, I lived in New York for I don't know how many years — over a decade. Philadelphia for six. I never considered myself a New York writer. I never considered myself a Philadelphia writer. I don't know if I'll consider myself a Seattle writer. I just consider myself a writer, because the types of books I write are just so all over the place, in terms of subject and location.
I would love to find a Pacific Northwest subject. That would be awesome. I'd love to try to really dig into culture here and the history. The way that I learn about a place through my books is so rich, because I spend so much time researching, that it'd be tremendous to find that here, in the town that I live in. If anyone has a great story, that's been untapped, I’d love to hear it. For instance, with The Boys On The Boat, which was wonderful, you learn so much about Seattle, and its history. To be able to find something, some story, set in the Northwest, would be great. Maybe that would make me a Seattle writer.
Did you read up on Seattle before you moved here, or did you do research before the move?
No. I had been coming here every year, or every other year, for so long that I felt like I knew it. Of course, that's not true — even though I've been out here over a dozen times, I didn't really get a sense of how much of a water city it is until I lived here. I didn't really get a sense of how hilly it was until I moved here.
One of the things I love about living here and writing is that I figure out a lot of my writing while running. I work through problems, or structure, or how I'm going to write something. Being outside really — for me, it helps. It's been one of the things I've loved so far in living here, just the sheer awesomeness of the outdoors. In Philadelphia, for instance, I ran the same path on the same river every day. Here, I can be in the woods in a second, hill running. Which I think has actually been good for my writing.
For as long as Seattle has been a city, people have come to town and people have left town. Earlier this year, the Seattle Review of Books introduced a feature called Exit Interview, in which we talk with an author who recently left town about their Seattle experience. The natural pair to that feature is New Hire, an interview with an author who’s just arrived here. (If you have any suggestions for a subject of an upcoming Exit Interview or a New Hire, please drop us a line.) Our second New Hire is cartoonist Sarah Glidden, who moved to Seattle last month. Her excellent first book, How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, is a conversational and honest account of Glidden’s birthright Israel trip, which challenged her progressive beliefs. Her next book about traveling the Middle East, titled Rolling Blackouts, will be published in fall of 2016 by Drawn & Quarterly. Glidden’s comics are exactly what good journalism should be: curious, transparent storytelling with strong perspective and a solid moral center.
What brings you to Seattle? Where are you coming from?
This move is a bit of a big deal for me, because for the past four years I've been semi-nomadic. I had moved from Brooklyn to Angoulême, France, for an artists residency in 2012, where I lived for a year. Then I met my current partner, Fran, at a comics festival in Colombia, and, after some more time living out of a suitcase, ended up living with him in his hometown of Buenos Aires, Argentina for a year and a half. We talked about moving to the US, but we weren't sure where to settle down.
For years, Seattle was always a city I considered moving to. Some of my closest friends when I was living in New York were this group of people from Seattle, and a bunch of them decided to move back in 2006 to start a non-profit journalism collective (now known as the Seattle Globalist). My mother and stepfather also moved to Vancouver, BC around the same time, so I started coming out to the Pacific Northwest for visits. Seattle started growing on me, especially its natural beauty. When Fran and I came out here for a visit together, he fell in love with it too, and we started talking seriously about moving here.
We considered some other cities, but in the end Seattle just felt right for us. We have friends here, my family is close by, it's green even in the winter. This is the first time since I moved to New York at the age of 22 that I’ve come to a new city with the intention of staying. It’s pretty exciting and also terrifying in a way.
What do you think Seattle can do for you as an author?
It can give me some space to think. This is a great city for taking walks, and walking is pretty important for me; it’s how I resolve writer’s block or even just get ideas. If I don’t have a space to do that, I can end up staying in my studio all day, which isn't very healthy. There are so many incredible spots within the city that feel like an escape to someone from the east coast: parks with incredible views of the mountains, giant trees, beaches...and these are things that I can visit without taking significant time out of my work.
I'm also excited to see what kind of work I can do here once I'm finished with my current book. I work in non-fiction, and usually the comics I make are inspired by the things around me that make me curious. I already have so many ideas for stories based on what I'm being exposed to in Seattle, issues that are unique to this city but that I also think would resonate with people anywhere.
What do you think you can contribute to Seattle's literary scene?
I’m really excited to get involved with the literary scene here in whatever way I can, although I don’t really know what that will look like yet. I’ve recently started teaching comics, and I would love to do more of that here.
I’m also just looking forward to meeting other writers, getting to know their work, going to events. I even signed up for a class at the Hugo House, though I really shouldn’t be doing that right now (I should be finishing my book!)
Seattle has a vibrant and fast-growing comics community. Can you talk about your experience with the community here? Were you already familiar with the scene?
The comics community here was definitely a factor when we decided to move here. I remember visiting the Fantagraphics store during my very first visit to Seattle and feeling like I was making a pilgrimage. I think I even had a friend take my picture in front of the shop window. I had just started making comics at that time and Fanta was putting out some of the work I loved the most, so the whole city felt a little more extraordinary because of that.
During my visits I started meeting other cartoonists who are based here and in Portland, and I started getting a real sense for how special the community was. I got to know Eroyn Franklin pretty well, and then watched from afar with admiration as she and Kelly Froh started Short Run and turned it into one of the most talked-about indie festivals in the country.
It didn't take long to get involved with the scene once I moved here. I've already taught a workshop through Short Run's Summer School series and I'll be helping out with the festival at the end of the month (you can find me helping out at the bake sale table). I'm pretty busy for the next couple of months, but after that I'd really love to get even more involved.
If you could add one feature to Seattle's artistic community, what would it be?
I don't really have an answer for this one! So far, I have everything I need here. I guess I wish public transportation were a little better so it would be easier to get to all the different neighborhoods where so many of the studios, galleries, event spaces, art supply shops are. But from talking to people who have lived here for a long time, its clear that the state of public transportation in Seattle is not a new gripe to have.
Has anything about life in Seattle surprised you so far?
People are incredibly friendly. I heard so much about the “Seattle freeze” before we moved here, and I had prepared myself for a kind of cold city. I was actually really nervous about that! If you're a person who loves people but you work from home, the interactions you have when you go to the grocery store or run errands start to become very important to you. New York is full of people who are ready to just start talking to strangers at the slightest provocation (to the extent that some people find it invasive and annoying) and I was sad to leave that behind. But people here seem to be very warm and genuine and happy to chat. I don't know where Seattle's chilly reputation comes from. Maybe its a defense to keep more people from moving here. It's also possible that I'll see a different side to the city once winter sets in. For now I'm still in the honeymoon phase of living here and its still sunny out, so I'll enjoy it while it lasts.