Leah Sottile in conversation with Amy Wilson
October 2019 · Digital Exchange · Published July 6, 2020
Leah Sottile is a freelance journalist whose features, profiles, investigations and essays have been featured by the Washington Post, The New York Times Magazine, Playboy, Outside, Vice and several others. She is the host of the two-time National Magazine Award-nominated podcast “Bundyville,” made in collaboration with Longreads and Oregon Public Broadcasting and named one of the best podcasts of 2018 by The Atlantic. She is an occasional fiction writer, a one-time comic strip author, and the former host of two very late-night heavy metal radio programs. Sottile’s essay “This Is Meant To Hurt You” appeared in Moss Volume Two in Summer 2016.
Amy Wilson, a poet and organizer from Oregon who serves as the Director of Outreach for Moss, interviewed Sottile in the fall of 2019.
Hi Leah! Thanks so much for doing this interview with us. Let’s start with the basics... what is your connection to the Pacific Northwest?
Hi Amy! Sure thing—thanks for asking me! The Pacific Northwest is my home. My family moved to a suburb outside of Portland, Oregon from New York when I was a little kid, and I don’t remember a ton about the East Coast. I have memories of my grandparents’ house, and going to New York City when I was really little… but that’s about the extent of it. It’s funny, now, when I go to New York, I get so anxious. Like, I can’t wait to leave. I need to be where I can see the sky, where I can literally disappear in the woods within minutes of my house. I like being alone. The Northwest has a way of embracing that need. Even when I’m in Portland or Seattle, I can be alone—like really alone—quickly, if I need to be.
When I was a kid, my parents were really obsessed with the Oregon Coast. Like, we’d go there all the time, just to walk on the beach and look at rocks and put our feet in the ocean, go eat fish and then drive home again. It’s funny, now, thinking about that, because I don’t see my folks as particularly wistful, overly meditative people. But I think those trips invoked in me that need to feel extremely small and insignificant on a regular basis in order to ground myself. The sheer size and power of the Pacific Ocean never gets less surprising to me. The opacity of the fog as it rolls in.
I feel most like myself when I am disappearing. When I’m driving through the Palouse, in Eastern Washington, and thinking about how that came to be because of an Ice Age flood, it helps me remember how fleeting my existence is. I am nothing compared to the land. When I am crossing the St John’s Bridge or the Marquam in Portland, I always say hello to the mountains—Hood, St. Helen’s, Adams on a good day—I go ‘hey, ladies, looking good today.’ I don’t do it to be some kind of hippie, I just seriously feel like those gigantic, ancient peaks are worthy of my acknowledgement. I’m living in Montana right now, which is technically not the Pacific Northwest, but just last week I saw the Mission Mountains for the first time and the sight of them brought me to tears. I feel like the appropriate response to these dramatic mountains or wide skies is to drop onto one’s knees and take it all in. Of course, I never do that, but I should.
That act of disappearing into the landscape helps me, in a way, disappear into myself—which is how I write best. I used to write for a newspaper and trying to actually get any writing done was impossible under fluorescent lights, with people walking by, interrupting.
I have a connection to the cities, too, of the Northwest—obviously, Portland, but I feel the same about Seattle, though I’ve never lived there. They’re totally different places in character, but the sound of car tires splashing through puddles is a sound of home for me. Portland, of course, has changed significantly since I was a kid there, and I’m not the kind of person to be like “everything was better before!” It’s got shiny new buildings, but it’s still a place for weird people and so I feel home there, even though I don’t live there right now.
It is amazing how sensory experiences form such a huge part of our experiences of place (your car tires splashing through puddles). When I think of my childhood in Portland, one of my strongest sense memories is a smell of wet, dusty paper of Powell’s on Burnside before the gentrification of the Pearl District.
I wouldn’t say that I’m an “everything was better before!” person per se, but I do get melancholy and sometimes angry about the changes I see in Portland every time I go back. Because I’ve been living outside of the Northwest for over ten years now, going back is a bit of a punctuated equilibrium experience. My experience of the timeline of Portland’s change is much different from that of people who have been living there throughout the process, so I try not to apply too much judgment.
What does it mean to you to say that Portland (or the NW more generally) is “a place for weird people”? Is “weird” a value-neutral term?
Oh yeah, believe me—I definitely won’t go eat at the restaurant that’s in the building that used to be La Luna when I was a teenager. I can’t sit there and eat brunch and act happy about the fact that I saw some of the most incredible bands play there, and now it’s a fucking brunch place. I just stay away. Even in the few months I’ve been away, I’ve seen news stories about some of my favorite places closing. Every time, I’m like is there no end to this?! It’s like watching the past get further and further in the rearview mirror. But I think there’s a lot of danger in nostalgia. So I try not to engage with it too much. Seeing a coffee shop or restaurant close is nothing like what some people have lost in Portland—whole neighborhoods, whole cultures displaced. That’s something to spend mental energy on.
I think Portland has a long history of being attractive to people who don’t feel accepted by other parts of society. I so rarely meet people in Portland now who are from there—everyone’s from the Midwest or from some crowded city. Everyone seems to be escaping somewhere else, for some reason. To pull the ripcord on your life and just go somewhere else, some-where far from home—I think there’s an inherent rebellion in that decision.
To your question about weird being a value-neutral term: that’s an interesting way of thinking about it. I think when I say “weird” in this context, I mean that I encounter a sense of openness about rejecting common societal norms. So, it’s a compliment. People are willing to tear up the book and start over—on their own lives, on the way they move around in society. There’s a reason that Portland stole the motto “Keep Portland Weird” from Austin, Texas. And I think people get scared sometimes that their rebelliousness will get paved over. They attach that to the city. So I think people are really wrestling with that identity. When Northwest Portland was all warehouses, it was cheaper for artists to live there, to reject capitalist values. But when developers and city officials decide to tear that all down, it forces people to make a choice. Will they dip a toe into a system that forces them to hang up that rebellion on a coathook, and participate in this “New Portland?” It’s a place that is very expensive, forcing people to participate in a more capitalistic system, a place that is for rich people. It’s a place that paves over historic black communities to make way for more housing for more rich people. Portlanders have to figure out how to fix these things.
What do you see as the defining qualities of the region?
I think there are definitely Northwest cliches that speak to some truth about the place: the whole coffee, Nirvana, bikes, protests. That’s the stuff I grew up around, and a lot of that culture formed me as a person. My friends and I were not the cool kids in high school, by high school terms. But when I look back at my teenage years, I realize now what we had was really unique and awesome, actually. We’d hang out at Coffee Time on Northwest 21st Avenue, then a much different neighborhood than it is now, and smoke cigarettes, or go smoke weed on the nearby school playground before going to a punk show. We had Powell’s at our disposal. We went to the Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Clinton Street Theater in our prom dresses. I’ve always felt pulled by the grittier side of life, and I think that’s one of the defining qualities of the Pacific Northwest: you’re close, at all times, to nature, but you’re just as close to gritty, rural culture, too.
That’s the thing that’s so weird about the west—there just aren’t a lot of cities. They’re super far apart, separated by mountain ranges and these vast spaces. So, if you work in a city, you’ve got to live near it—but the cities are just insanely expensive to live in. So you go further out, for cheaper housing, and collide really quickly with a brash, don’t-tread-on-me culture that defines the region more than coffee and Nirvana ever could. Outside of cities, you’ve got a lot of rural communities that only exist because of the timber industry, or mining, or ranching. So what’s interesting in places like Oregon and Washington are the completely progressive, anarchistic culture of the big cities, and the total juxtaposition with the rest of the communities in the state.
I feel lucky that I lived for a very long time in Spokane. Living there showed me another part of the Northwest—one that’s not quite Seattle/Portland and not quite rural. Where the big cities draw people from around the country to live in them, Spokane drew people away from farm towns. So the culture there is more authentic, I think, to what the west is really like. It’s been through some shit. Spokane can handle itself in a fight. It’s a body with stretch marks it can’t cover up, and living there when I did really formed a lot of who I am today. I give a lot less of a fuck about what people think of me. Spokane, as much as Portland, will always feel like my home.
We are fortunate as Moss to have a presence in Spokane thanks in part to our contributing editor Sharma Shields. We’ve published some really strong writers out of Spokane and have made a conscious effort to stay abreast of the literary world there. One thing I’ve heard about Spokane is that it is a stronghold of literary and artistic talent not out of chance but because the city has made deliberate choices to cultivate artistic community.
I’m interested in your point about the contrast between the big cities and the more rural communities of the Northwest. That’s something that’s simultaneously under-discussed about the region and maybe a bit of a trope. In reporting stories like Bundyville and Bundyville: The Remnant, how do you see that dynamic playing out? Are you ever surprised at a difference (or lack of difference) between urban and rural areas in the Northwest?
Funny story: the first time I ever met Sharma, we decided to meet on the #45 bus that goes down South Perry Street to downtown—which is the one and only time I’ve planned to meet someone in a moving vehicle. For the next couple of years, I got to be in a writing group with Sharma and I’ve never had someone read my work so closely, give such generous feedback and so much encouragement to keep writing. I’m always on the edge of quitting writing—like I’m always just threatening to be done with it. And I met Sharma and realized you don’t quit writing. You can’t, even if you want to. So you might as well just lean hard into who you are as a writer and then own it, like she does.
Yeah, the Northwest is a funny place because, frankly, there’s just not a hell of a lot out here. The cities are few and far between. The I-5 corridor through Washington and Oregon is kind of the carotid artery of the whole region: Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia, Vancouver, Portland, Salem, Eugene. And then I-90 cuts across the state—goes from Seattle to Boston. But beyond that are these gigantic land masses filled with towns. I love when I’m roaming around there are signs that say 140 MILES TO NEXT GAS. A few times I’ve been like ‘I’ve got a half-tank, I should be good’ and then a panic slowly sets in when you’ve gone too far to turn around, and you just hope to hell you can get all the way to that next stop. Because you definitely don’t have cell service.
My favorite thing to do on long reporting trips around the west is to stay in Airbnbs in people’s houses. I find I can actually ask people questions about where they live, and they’re excited to talk about their home to a curious stranger. Last year I was on a long trip and decided to stay in this older couple’s house way out on the Palouse. I have never in my life seen stars like they had out their back window. I knew, over breakfast, they were going to ask me about my work, and I was going to have to tell them I write about the cultural and political divides in America right now. And sure enough, they did. Turns out they knew people who went to the Malheur occupation. But we sat there over pancakes and talked for an hour about this divide we all see splitting the country wide open, and the need to fix it.That’s kind of the story behind Bundyville: I have this incessant need for me to have these conversations, even when they make me extremely uncomfortable. I feel like it’s my job as a reporter to use my privilege as a white woman to push these conversations forward, ask uncomfortable questions and provide information that society can use. But what I find in the rural parts of the West are people grappling just as hard with who we are as a country as people in cities—and sometimes even harder. The arguments aren’t the same as in cities, but they’re there. Very, very rarely do I hear bigoted views from everyday rural people. The ideas that drive the main characters in Bundyville are very much a minority—but I do think they propagate extremist ideas meant to capitalize on rural discontent, hoping to build a movement.
Speaking of those extremist ideas… since we started this conversation, there’s been national attention on a NW story that you and other local journalists (Jason Wilson for The Guardian, especially) have written on extensively: the far-right Christian evangelical formations for which WA State Rep Matt Shea has become a figurehead. This story challenges many national perceptions of the Northwest as a “hippie dippie” place, yet makes perfect sense in context of the region’s history and the lived experience of its residents. You are a working journalist, covering both regional and national stories. Do you think your Pacific Northwest background influences your approach to journalism? What do you make of the national reaction to Bundyville and to the Matt Shea story?
Absolutely. I have an approach to journalism that understands that people in rural western communities want to be left alone—and so do I. So I’m not going to helicopter in somewhere, hold a mic in someone’s face and ask them to tell me about the worst thing that ever happened in their life. Frankly, that’s just bad manners. I also know that people like being left alone for a reason. I know that because that’s how I am. So telling their stories takes time, thought, nuance.
I’m grateful for all the attention that’s been brought to my work through Bundyville and reporting on Shea. I’m not surprised people would be outraged about what has been reported on Shea, but I hope they realize he’s just one guy who represents one suburb. His beliefs, by my estimation, are not widely held.
I’ve said in other contexts that the prevailing political logic of the Northwest, when you boil it down, is “you can’t tell me what to do.” I absolutely agree with your observation that people in rural western communities want to be left alone, and would add that that often extends to urban and suburban environments in the Northwest as well. If you’ve heard of the “Seattle chill,” that strikes me as an example of a kind of self-induced isolation in an urban environment that is influenced by culture. In Portland, it’s very normal to say hello to a stranger that you encounter on a walking path, say, but there can also be a lack of genuine community and curiosity about the neighbors. In fact, even that concept of “curiosity about the neighbors” seems somehow contrary to Northwest-iness as I type it out.
I have my own theories about what this attitude is and where it comes from, but I’d be interested to hear yours…
Oh man, I have so many thoughts on this. I think places like Portland and Seattle are so far from the get-away-from-it-all roots that established the cities. They’re now places that are grappling with all the damage that has been done to make them the places they are—the displacement of native communities, historical racism, the absolute void of affordable housing. So when I hear about the Seattle chill or the Portland snubbery, I explain that as the behavior of people trying to exist in their own little bubbles, clapping their hands over their ears and avoiding the reality that for cities to actually function, they have to make room for people of all kinds. Not just rich, white people. They have to engage with their neighbor.
Maybe this is why I do like getting out into the rest of the West, as I like to call it. I find people to be much more real. They’re out there for a reason—oftentimes a personal reason. I have this pair of friends who are brilliant conceptual artists, and they live in an off-grid cabin in the middle of nowhere Idaho. They live there because they are too busy writing operas, building musical instruments and digging old poetry books out of library dumpsters to distract themselves from the buzz of city life. They see the flaws of the people around them, and they seek to make their community better with art.
I am very aware that they are the exception, and that the rural west is filled with people who also just want to be left the hell alone. Whereas my friends’ lifestyle comes from a place of optimism and hope for society, a lot of people don’t have that. They are fueled by something else. I think that leave-me-alone quality around the region seems to be borne out of the space itself. That somehow, being nearer to a mountain or further into a forest, we can find something out about ourselves that we wouldn’t be able to otherwise. That kind of self-looking—of mining deep into one’s own self—is inherently going to create its own bizarre culture.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Five.