Not With a Bang, But a Whimper
After two years, Hugo House needs a new executive director. Again.
"I'm Lyall Bush, programs and education manager and soon to be executive director of Hugo House." This was as much of an announcement as was ever offered to the public when Lyall Bush took his new job at Richard Hugo House, and it was offered almost offhandedly in the course of introducing Matthew Stadler at a reading. Christopher Frizzelle, in a February 2006 edition of The Stranger, commented that Bush was almost "shy" about the announcement, which was "slipped in sideways... like it isn't big news."
If that announcement was painfully understated, Bush's departure from Hugo House is even more so: On September 11, rumors of Bush and Hugo House parting ways spread through Seattle's literary community with the speed usually reserved for an apocalyptic plague outbreak in a thriller. The Stranger sent e-mails to Hugo House and promptly received confirmation from Brian McGuigan, Hugo House's program associate: "Yes, it's true; Lyall is no longer the executive director of Hugo House."
Even murkier are the reasons behind the change. Six weeks ago, Bush took a sudden and unexpected leave of absence from his position, which Matt Carvalho, the president of Hugo House's board of trustees, described as "basically Hugo House's CEO." At the time of the leave, Bush was working with Wier Harman, the director of Town Hall, to put together a September 3 event starring Mike Daisey and Reggie Watts. Bush was supposed to introduce the pair, but Harman received a vague e-mail from Hugo House. "I was informed [Bush] was on leave and I was not told why," Harman says. "I just assumed he was dealing with a family problem." Harman was not told whether Bush would return in time for the event; he wound up introducing Daisey and Watts himself.
But Hugo House is currently shrouded under a mafialike code of omertà: Nobody is saying anything to anybody about Bush's departure. The silence has caused at least one major Seattle book critic—John Marshall, of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, according to McGuigan—to carpet bomb Hugo House with petulant phone calls ("I'm going to find out why he left anyway, so you might as well tell me") and outraged e-mails. Speculation about Bush's departure is rampant and leaning toward the lurid, but Bush and the Hugo House board are restraining themselves to curt declarations of pride in past achievements and wishing each other well in future endeavors.
During that 2006 reading, Stadler announced Bush was "going to make something" of Hugo House that "we can't even imagine." The Bush years at Hugo House may not have been as mythical as all that, but there were some solid gains for the city. "Instead of this thing where you float in a famous author from South Africa like [J. M.] Coetzee to semi-insult Seattle audiences with his wisdom," Bush sniffed to Frizzelle, "what about Stacey Levine going up onstage with Aimee Bender? On a theme?" The Hugo House's readings series drastically improved, bringing authors such as Greil Marcus, Rick Moody, Michelle Tea, and Charles D'Ambrosio to town to read new work—Bush even placed on this paper's 2006 Genius Awards shortlist for improving the Hugo House's reading series.
But Bush also made embarrassing missteps at those readings. Bush would read his own work at those star-studded events, casting himself as an unbilled extra reader. At a March 23 reading titled "Answered Prayers and Other Tragedies," with a full complement of authors including Sherman Alexie, Tea, and Stranger writer David Schmader already scheduled to perform, Bush read for 15 minutes to an impatient crowd about how "answered prayers" were like "warm doughnuts."
"Lyall certainly has his own style," Carvalho says in reference to Bush choosing to read his own work before other readers, "and I'd expect his replacement to do things differently."
Hugo House under Bush's leadership looks drastically different from the Hugo House of his predecessor, cofounder Frances McCue. Matt Briggs, who was a Hugo House writer in residence during the beginning of Bush's tenure, says: "Lyall pretty much tossed out a lot of the fuzzy social, community activism, and accessibility stuff and began to put in place a more standard, programmed literary structure." Ron Starr, on his blog Library of Babel, claims that the poets at Floating Bridge Press and The Raven Chronicles were railroaded out of Hugo House for more profitable tenants. Starr blames Bush.
Around the same time, Hugo House ended its support of the experimental SubText reading series, which relocated to Wallingford, and closed its Books to Prisoners program.
Briggs critiques Bush for changing Hugo House from "a community-owned organization" to "a corporate enterprise that gave merit-based gifts... I remember him telling me he wanted to make it more in the image of Seattle Arts & Lectures. Local writers need another Seattle Arts & Lectures about as much as we need another Barnes & Noble." Briggs has his suspicions about what happened: "The fact that [Bush] left without a party means he isn't leaving because he wants to leave," he says.
Hugo House's 2008 to 2009 season—which includes appearances by Bender, Alexie, Vikram Chandra, and Laura Veirs—has already been planned; Carvhalo and McGuigan insist nothing about Bush's departure will change those readings. Carvalho says an interim executive director will be announced "in the next two weeks," and McGuigan says that Hugo House will then embark on "a national search" for Bush's replacement.