• Kelly O
Lesley Hazleton doesn't know this, but she wrote the book that convinced me Seattle was the place I wanted to live. When I worked at Borders, I picked up an advance copy of her book Driving to Detroit. I'm not sure why I chose that book to read (cars usually bore me to tears) but I know why I loved it. She uses a simple memoir concept—Hazleton drives to Detroit for a big auto show and visits important car-related sites along the way—as a framework on which to hang big ideas about America, and the death of a parent, and inspiration, and grieving.

But the thing that most struck me about the book was the way Hazleton wrote about her adopted home of Seattle. Hazleton's Seattle was shabby but beautiful, a hopeful, flawed gem poking out of the most beautiful landscapes on Earth. It doesn't figure hugely in the book, but those few offhand peeks at the city were enough for me to confirm that I wanted to try my luck there. I especially loved the way she described her houseboat on South Lake Union; like Seattle, it was a home that maybe worked better in theory than in reality, but she was committed to making it home.

Thirteen years after reading that book, I was part of a team of Stranger staffers delivering a sheet cake to that very same houseboat. Hazleton informed us we were making a mistake. "It's too soon," she said, suggesting that her best work is still ahead of her. We assured her that while her upcoming books will no doubt be brilliant, her career is plenty genius enough already. Finally, she accepted it: "This is a good day," she said, "Philip Levine was named Poet Laureate, and now this." (Levine, she told us, is a true "working-class" poet, as well as a "mensch.") Hazleton addressed her cat: "You see that? You're living with a frickin' genius." The cat seemed unimpressed. As Hazleton posed for photos and we explained that she'd be a guest at our big Genius party on September 16th, she worried that she'd have to shift out of her "hermit" mode—she's deep in the process of researching and writing a biography of Mohammad—but she was looking forward to the celebration.

Hazelton's career is much more than Driving to Detroit, of course. The majority of her work explores the engine that runs the world: religion.

  • Kelly O
Hazleton has written books that explore the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (Jerusalem, Jerusalem: A Memoir of War and Peace, Passion and Politics), other ages-old divides that affect our world today (After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split) and biographies of religious figures (Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible's Harlot Queen, and Mary: A Flesh-and-Blood Biography of the Virgin Mother). She applies intellectual rigor and beautiful prose to them, wiping years of ignorance and disinformation from these symbols of worship and derision, introducing us to a more achingly human side. Her work is a perfect marriage between rigorous scholarship in search of truth and a heartfelt passion for the beauty of a good story. In other words, she's a frickin' genius.

You can come meet Hazleton at our Genius Awards party on September 16th. If you want to help support the Genius Awards, you can donate right here.