Jason Schmidt's first triumph as a writer was at Garfield High School, when another kid offered him five bucks for a scenario he made up in debate class. He wrote sci-fi and other genre fiction in college, first at Western Washington University and later at the University of Washington. Rosina Lippi, a creative writing professor at Western, encouraged him and became his mentor. When he finished the manuscript of his first novel, about Seattle in the 1980s, Lippi introduced him to her agent. Publishers reacted positively to the manuscript, but several of them were more interested in the one-page bio attached to it.
Schmidt, born in 1972, was raised by a single father he describes as an impoverished hippie redneck, who was busted for dealing coke when Schmidt was 3. The news that his father had contracted HIV aggravated preexisting psychological conditions, making both of their lives a deranged nightmare. Schmidt and his father were on the move between Oregon, California, and Washington, taking odd jobs and living on government assistance with an eclectic, often dangerous assortment of people and animals until his father's death from AIDS at the age of 40.
Joy Peskin at Farrar, Straus and Giroux was particularly adamant that Schmidt should write a memoir. "She had a vision of what she wanted to do with the book, and I was exactly angry enough after our conversation to pick up the project," said Schmidt. "There are kids out there who have had experiences like mine, but there's no one talking about this outsider life. There was one show on TV about a single dad when I was a kid, The Courtship of Eddie's Father, and my life was nothing like that. There was nothing I could relate to. I came out of that conversation with Joy ready to go."
Schmidt's father was severely physically abusive and addicted to a variety of drugs. He also spent three-quarters of his short life in the closet. Yet, Schmidt says, his dad provided him with indispensable moral lessons that helped forge his outsider perspective. Writing the memoir was partly an attempt to comprehend his dad and his childhood's many contradictions. "The people who died during the AIDS crisis were human," he said. "They were complicated. My dad shouldn't have had to be a good person to get social justice, for people to care he was dying of this horrible wasting illness. We can only care about the fact people are fucked over by turning them into saints. We should care because fucking people over is wrong."
The 400-page narrative progresses (with you in tow, I devoured it in three days) at a seemingly impossible speed, somewhere between a fireworks display and a school bus plunging over a bridge. While immersed in his often-painful memories—every location glazed by a patina of desperation and dread—Schmidt offers countless reminders of how reductive history and memory can be: the extreme difficulty of accurately remembering any event, the subjectivity of truth. In addition to being a literary delight, List functions as a historical document, providing a plausible account of the clusterfuck of societal problems that led to the AIDS epidemic in 1980s Seattle. "Nearly everyone I knew at 13 was gone by the time I was 21," Schmidt told me.
The prosperity narrative of early-'90s Seattle is ripe for romanticizing. Buildings empty since the Boeing layoffs suddenly contained music venues, bars and cafes, and artists drawn by the city's beauty and affordability. List describes the city as it was—the crime, the poverty, the population of gay men wiped out by AIDS—and contextualizes the progress by foregrounding the struggles of people like Schmidt's dad. "He just could not catch a fucking break," said Schmidt. "He would get up, take two steps, and something heavy would land on him."
Last week, I met Schmidt at the Capitol Hill Bauhaus to talk about his book. I asked for his thoughts about Seattle's transformation over the past 30 years.
"I can get bitter about tech money and how it's homogenizing the culture here," said Schmidt, "but if it's not tech money, then there's no money, and then we're what, Detroit? It's not that tech people make too much money, it's that other people don't get paid enough. If people in a larger variety of professions—cooks, maintenance staff—could afford to live in the city, that would increase cultural diversity.
"The lament about gentrification dates people. For example, this neighborhood—in the late '80s and early '90s, Pike/Pine was car dealerships, bars, low-income housing. There were no coffee shops, public bathrooms, nothing here. The objection to the bro-dudes coming in, I get it—but most of what we're losing is '90s stuff that came in at the beginning of dot-com money. When I was in high school, you didn't go to this end of the hill much. It was weird when it became a destination. When Bauhaus opened, I thought, 'Finally, a place to have a coffee in this neighborhood!'
"My dream in high school was to buy one of these crappy old Craftsman houses on the hill and fill it with used books. There would be lots of crime, but I'd meet interesting people, and it would be just the way it was when I was a kid. It was after white flight, but before gentrification. Everything was just kind of frozen. When you're a kid, you think that's how things are. Looking back on it now, I see the city was just taking a deep breath before it screamed for 20 years.
"In '92, this friend of mine and I went to Mount St. Helens and stood on a ridge overlooking Spirit Lake. There are signs all over the place telling you not to go down there. Nothing was growing there. It was just pumice and ash as far as you could see. This thing happened that I had read about but had never experienced before, which was: I had no perspective on scale. It was like four fucking miles to the lake. The trees floating on the lake, which we thought were telephone-pole-size, were old growth. Huge. You never realize how big the city is, how fast it's going."