Sunil Yapa moved to Seattle at 19. He spent his few years here mowing lawns for Magnolia Lawn Service, moved into a basement apartment in Wallingford in 1996, surviving on ramen noodles, Tom Robbins novels, and fine BC Kush. On the weekends, he'd tool around the neighborhoods and camp in the Cascades. He left for college and world travel, but something about this city seems to have stuck with him, because it became the setting for his debut novel.
Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist is told from the point of view of several characters involved in the WTO protests during the Battle in Seattle in 1999—including a few beat cops, two activists, a police chief named Bishop, and his son, Victor, a young man who begins the novel trying to make a buck selling weed to the protesters and winds up caught up in their fervor. Yapa combines cinematic imagery with sentences that escalate and escalate until a paragraph break knocks them down like an officer's baton.
The book just came out in paperback, and he'll be talking about it with Mark Baumgarten of the Seattle Weekly at Third Place Books Seward Park on Friday.
So you lost the whole first draft of this novel after someone stole your laptop in Chile?
Yes. I spent six years total writing the book. Two of those years were the "first book," as I call it, which was 604 pages.
You wrote it on the road?
I wrote the book while searching for places to be alone. At one point, someone lent me a converted goat shed on Sifnos. It was a residency thing, and it was five hours away on a slow boat from Athens. The island becomes a tourist destination in the summer. But in the winter, there was snow there and more sheep than people.
You didn't get lonely?
I got super lonely. But that was the point.
I fear I would descend into my own personal darkness.
That's what helped me write! I was there for four months. There were moments when I probably should have taken a break a couple months in. There was this—I had two friends who were beautiful Czech women. They were like, "Come see us in Prague, what's your problem?" And I said, "Of course!" But when I checked plane tickets from Athens to Prague, it said it would cost $1,500. So I told my friends I couldn't afford the ticket. They wrote back and told me I was lying, and that I was crazy, and to never contact them again. It wasn't until I left the island that I started thinking about it. And when I looked back into it, I realized I'd put in Athens, Georgia.
Wait—autofill fucked up your hot Czech threesome?
That's right. Instead, my mom flew over and we visited Istanbul. But I think at two months, I needed to have sex and be around people my age. Hanging out with my mom didn't fulfill any of that, but it was nice.
You're describing my nightmare.
But I like writing when I'm completely alone! I can indulge my eccentricities.
What are you into?
I just do weird things and not worry about someone interrupting me. I love Bob Dylan, and I would put on "Ring Them Bells"—which by the way is a three-minute song—really loud and listen to it all day long. And I would do that for a week!
And I remember I went through a period after the aborted Prague visit where I was crying every day—but not from sadness. It sounds absurd, but I was crying because of this over-artistic-sensitivity. I let myself go crazy, I think. I had been listening to this song I found moving over and over and over again, and I was standing out on the porch of my Greek goat shed, and the power went out, and the moon came up, and I thought "everything is so beautiful," and I started crying.
I started weeping. All that sounds crazy, but I think it works for me. You want the element of strangeness in the book. You want to know that the book came from a strange place.
The sentences in this book are really intense.
I wanted the sentences to sound a little unedited. A little bit like a lo-fi recording of a guitar turned up to 11 in some Seattle garage. I don't know why. There's the idea that content dictates form. And as I was writing, the loudness of the subject suggested the style. I know how to write quiet, short, decorative sentences, but that wasn't what seemed appropriate.
Did writing this book teach you anything about Seattle that you hadn't learned while you lived here?
I discovered all these activist subcultures. There's an archive in the basement of University of Washington called the WTO History Project, which includes photographs from the day, a box of VHS tapes that people had sent in, firsthand accounts. In some of the transcripts of that stuff, I heard the diversity of voices in Seattle—across race, across class. Solidarities were formed that we wouldn't normally anticipate. Teamsters with turtles. Corporations have this wonderful ability to piss everyone off. They create amazing solidarities.
Did writing the book increase your interest in global trade?
No. I don't have a whole lot invested in being a pundit, in being another talking head. I wrote a novel. I could have done the research and said something interesting about trade deals, but I wanted to write a novel.
So I wouldn't have seen you holding a "NO TPP" sign at the Democratic National Convention this year?
I do have strong views about trade deals and economic development, but they go way beyond a "NO TPP" sign. I do respect that work, though. I was at Standing Rock reservation last month, and I respect that kind of direct, reactionary, confrontational action. But I guess I'm more interested personally in political action that is proactive. Sort of not even political. Like an urban garden would be a more revolutionary thing to me than a sign.
You mean going off grid?
That's it! Not petitioning the politicians for change but finding new ways to live and relate to each other. But that's why I'm a novelist and not an activist. Sometimes I get depressed—we all do—around the presidential elections. And I get especially depressed when so much of our election goes into electing a president when the real problems we face as a society are day-to-day things. Do you really believe we're going to elect a presidential savior that's going to solve climate change? They didn't even mention it once at any of the three debates. CLIMATE CHANGE. Are you kidding me? We all waste our energy getting worked up about it. And yet, I'll read 10 Trump articles.
When you give readings, do people jump down your throat about misrepresenting scenes or facts for the sake of the story?
No! My absolute nightmare the entire six years I was writing this book was that I would get protested at a Seattle reading. I really was terrified that I was appropriating people's stories. The thing I realized is that no activist—no one who was there—was waiting around for me to tell their story. And this is not nonfiction, after all. It's a novel. It's a jumping-off point to talk about other things—to connect that moment in history 17 years ago to colonialism 200 years ago in South Asia and to police brutality this summer. I'm sure in the comments section of this article people will tear me apart, but that's what comment sections are for.