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New Hire: Neal Bascomb found a community of writers in Seattle

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.

New Hire: Sarah Glidden doesn't believe in the Seattle freeze

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.