Happy birthday, Seattle Review of Books! An interview with the co-founders

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?

Paul: Yes?

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.

Paul: Please!

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.

We use Facebook and Twitter to spread the word, but as we were coming out, there was a huge migration to Medium.com, and now publications are moving away from it.

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?

Paul: Yup.

Martin: ...and scene!