Guide to Seattle for AWPers Who've Never Been to Seattle Before
Hey, You. Yeah, You. Book Nerd. Forget the Literary Conference You Came to Town for and Spend Your Time Exploring the Most Literary City in the United Goddamned States of America Instead.
Welcome to Seattle, AWP attendees! Please do me a favor: Wherever you are right now—relaxing in your crappy hotel room after a long day, lost deep inside the institutional amnesia of the Washington State Convention Center—I want you to go outside. And then I want you to look around. It's beautiful, isn't it? Like any city, Seattle has its flaws (sorry about the public transportation, and try not to antagonize the police), but whenever things seem like they're wobbling out of control, you can step outside just about anywhere and in any kind of weather and you'll see something beautiful to give you perspective. We're surrounded by water and mountains, our city is shot through with bolts of lush greenways, and there are enough delights for pedestrians sprinkled throughout the city to make every neighborhood a worthy destination.
This is a landscape that's perfect for humans.
Part of the reason I moved to Seattle from the East Coast was for the rain and the clouds. There's nothing more annoying than the pang of guilt that comes unbidden when you choose to stay inside with a good book on a beautiful spring day. With its relentless cloud cover, Seattle minimizes the opportunity for that kind of guilt. In fact, it rewards people for reading and writing, which is part of the reason our city always hovers near the top of those (admittedly somewhat arbitrary) "most literate city" polls that circulate around the internet every year or so.
For such a young city, Seattle's character seemed to arrive fully formed, and it's a character that was created from literature. You can trace Seattle's modern literary history to 1947, when poet Theodore Roethke moved here from Michigan to teach at the University of Washington. ("There wasn't another poet within 500 miles" of Seattle when Roethke moved here, David Wagoner, another poet and UW professor, is fond of saying.) Roethke's poetry runs deep in the DNA of Seattle's literature. His poem "In a Dark Time" is a blueprint for everything that came later, with its ecstatic embrace of the melancholy. "What's madness but nobility of soul/At odds with circumstance," Roethke writes, and it's a line that's at once loaded with empathy and misanthropy. He's a poet in love with humanity, and at the same time, he's a person who deeply mistrusts people. Roethke exclaims in the same poem about a "steady storm of correspondences!" He sounds enthusiastic about all the words and people coming his way, but not so enthusiastic that he doesn't describe them as a "storm," something you seek shelter from. The poem reads like a biography of Seattle's famous passive-aggressiveness, of the "Seattle freeze" that all the guidebooks warn you about.
It's hard to say whether the landscape shaped the man or if the man shaped the landscape, but Roethke set the tone for Seattle literature with his dark and funny poetry, his raw appreciation for truth and prickliness. Whether the author has read him or not, you can find traces of Roethke in any book written by a Seattleite, from Still Life with Woodpecker to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian to Portrait of the Poet as an Engineer to the later works of Octavia Butler and August Wilson to Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette? The flavor of the city soaks through the page, becoming a secret protagonist hiding in the white spaces between the letters, peering out at the reader with a stare that is equal parts longing and accusation. The city is in the book and the book becomes the city.
Seattle is unwaveringly dedicated to books and to book culture. In these libertarian times where arts and culture programs are gleefully defunded by bottom-line-watching dimbulbs at every opportunity, Seattle consistently votes in favor of increasing library funding. We overwhelmingly came together to build beautiful libraries in every neighborhood, and to keep those branches open and funded even in the most depressing economic climate this generation has ever seen. We agreed to build what may well be the most beautiful library in the world, the Central Library downtown. Rem Koolhaas's glass-and-steel crouched sumo wrestler of a building has its quirks (be sure to visit the bright-red esophageal hell-tunnel in the heart of the building), but it's designed in such a way to place the entire building in service to the book, by laying out the entire Dewey Decimal System in a single ribbon, coiled in the center of the building. It's a highly intelligent building that bets on the future of the physical book's importance by allowing for easy expansion and recategorization of the stacks.
Unlike much of America, Seattle is a city that loves bookstores. The owners of some of our major bookstores are still blushing from what was their most profitable Christmas season ever—ever!—and we've even added bookstores since the Great Recession in 2008. The mecca for most literary tourists is the Elliott Bay Book Company, the biggest bookstore in town (and, full disclosure, the place where I worked for eight years before becoming the books editor of The Stranger). Tourists often audibly gasp when they walk in the front door, and they're heard to declare it the most beautiful bookstore they've ever seen as they exit. But Elliott Bay is only one of three anchoring bookstores in Seattle, with the century-old University Book Store (known for its enthusiastic staff and its staggeringly good science-fiction section) in the University District and Third Place Books (with its warm, welcoming community-center vibe) in Lake Forest Park to the north.
If you were to transplant any one of these three enormous bookstores to another American city, it would immediately become the cultural centerpiece of that city. But somehow all three thrive in Seattle, and we're still hungry enough for literature that we can sustain smaller neighborhood bookstores in just about every corner of the city. The new Queen Anne Book Company and the cozy Ravenna Third Place Books are perfect examples of what a neighborhood bookstore should be: small but well-curated general-interest bookstores with frequent events. We're home to one of just two poetry-only bookstores in the country (Open Books in Wallingford, which poets talk about in hushed, churchy tones). We've got an array of beautiful used bookstores, too—depending on your location, Mercer Street Books, Magus Books, Couth Buzzard, and Twice Sold Tales will introduce you to a book that you never would've found anywhere else.
Two newer bookstores demonstrate what the next generation of bookstores will be like, with their specialized inventory and their beautiful, multipurpose spaces. North Fremont's Book Larder is a cookbook store with a full kitchen, and it hosts local and internationally famous chefs for readings and for cooking presentations. And the newest bookstore in the city, Ada's Technical Books on Capitol Hill, is a beautiful repurposed house with an impressive array of science and engineering texts. Book Larder and Ada's demonstrate what Seattle loves best about bookstores: specialized expertise. Yes, you can find any title you want online, but you have to visit a bookstore to find someone who can tell you, from experience, which book is perfect for you and for your situation at just this very moment.
These bookstores also add something very important to Seattle: a thriving readings scene. We're home to events nearly every night of the year—while looking over The Stranger's literary calendar on any given weekday, you'll probably have to choose between four or five very promising readings spread over the city. And with rare exceptions, the highest you'll have to pay to attend those events is five bucks, and a vast majority are entirely free. Seattle has hosted everyone, from Haruki Murakami to David Foster Wallace to Joan Didion to Alice Munro. These readings and book signings and lectures happen in bookstores and churches and restaurants and beautiful venues like Town Hall and Fremont Abbey. And we've got a diverse young literary culture, too, hosting readings in bars and rock clubs all over the city, mixing music and performance art together with literature to see what happens. Literary organizations like Richard Hugo House, the poetry center SPLAB, the women's writing colony Hedgebrook, and Seattle Arts & Lectures host plenty more events and writing programs for aspiring authors, besides.
And Seattle is home to quite a few big-name, best-selling authors and leading American literary thinkers: Erik Larsen, Tom Robbins, Maria Semple, Neal Stephenson, Rebecca Brown, Sherman Alexie. (You'll often spot these people at the counters of local bookstores, buying ridiculously tall stacks of books that they chose at the recommendation of booksellers.) There's an impressive array of up-and-comers here, too, authors who have a few books to their names who'll likely join the aforementioned club soon: novelists Peter Mountford and Jonathan Evison; short-story authors Stacey Levine and Matthew Simmons; multidisciplinary writers Nicole Hardy and Karen Finneyfrock; sci-fi authors Matt Ruff, Nicola Griffith, and G. Willow Wilson; and an impressive array of gifted poets, including Ed Skoog, Maged Zaher, and Shin Yu Pai. And then there are the names that maybe don't get national play, but who gather ardent local followings, the sort of experimental writers who blaze trails for everyone else: Doug Nufer, Jeremy Springsteed, Paul Nelson, and a small army of poets you'll see once, at a bar, who blow your mind with a piece that doesn't sound like anyone else and who then disappear back to the audience, content to watch.
Honestly, Seattle could use more publishers, but we have at least one that ranks among the best in the world: Fantagraphics Books, publisher of Chris Ware, Charles Schulz, the Hernandez Brothers, Jim Woodring, Charles Burns, and any number of immortal cartoonists. In part because of Fantagraphics, Seattle has become home to some of the best cartoonists in the United States, including Peter Bagge, Roberta Gregory, Megan Kelso, Ellen Forney, and David Lasky. And it's home to a whole new generation of enthusiastic cartoonists who'll soon change the field, including Eroyn Franklin and Kelly Froh, whose four-year-old Short Run Small Press Festival is becoming one of the biggest events in the comics calendar year.
We could stay here all day, and I could grab your wrist tightly and enthuse at you about an eternally stretching list of names and things until my eyes pop out of my head and the front of your coat is wet with spittle. I've gone on too long already. But I just want to get across to you, literary person, that you are in a special place, a holy land. You are in a city that loves books more, and loves them more purely, than any other place I've ever been. Just look around and you'll believe me. This is a landscape that is perfect for readers, and writers, and books.