An Interview with Ryan Boudinot Seattle, WA · April 2014 · Interviewed by Connor Guy
Ryan Boudinot is an acclaimed writer and a leading advocate for Northwest literature. His works of fiction include The Littlest Hitler, Misconception, and Blueprints of the Afterlife, which the New York Times called “bracingly weird,” praising its “fierce literary imagination,” and comparing Boudinot to William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, among others. A finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award and the PEN USA Literary Award, he has been a Hugo House writer-in-residence, a creative writing instructor at Goddard College’s MFA program, and a film critic for The Rumpus. His writing, remarkable for its striking inventiveness, audacious blurring of genres, and dark humor, has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Mississippi Review, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading.
Editor’s note: At the time of this interview, Boudinot had recently finished the process of preparing and submitting an application to make Seattle a UNESCO “City of Literature” and was serving as executive director of the nonprofit organization Seattle City of Literature, which he founded to manage that endeavor. Boudinot has since stepped down from the Seattle City of Literature Board of Directors, but the organization’s efforts are ongoing. Two books that were in progress at the time of this interview have since been published: Seattle City of Literature: Reflections from a Community of Writers, an anthology edited by Boudinot, and The Octopus Rises, a collection of Boudinot’s short stories.
I thought we might start with your campaign to make Seattle a UNESCO city of literature. What is it that makes Seattle an international city of literature? The only other U.S. city that currently has the designation is Iowa City, which is home to the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. What puts Seattle on that level?
Well first of all, one superficial reason is that Seattle is consistently ranked as one of the most literate cities in the United States. There’s a study through Central Connecticut State University that ranks the country’s most literate cities, and Seattle trades places from year to year with Minneapolis and Washington DC for the top spot. Since they’ve been doing this study Seattle has never fallen beneath number two.
And what does that really mean? Well, what it breaks down to is bookstores, education programs, publishers, nonprofits that support writers, and libraries; and in each of these categories, Seattle has a lot to show for itself. We have this incredible library system that we’ve approved bond measures for above and beyond what a typical city library system would have and we built this amazing Rem Koolhaas-designed Central Library ten years ago and have supported it through levies and public funding. We have nonprofit organizations that provide writers with opportunities to hone their craft—like Hugo House, which I believe is the second largest literary arts center in the United States.
So there are lots of people in Seattle doing work on behalf of books, on behalf of writers. We’re up here in the upper left-hand corner of the United States; we’re kind of an incubator for creative ideas. We saw it with the music industry in the early 90s, all the bands that came out of here, there was a community that was entertaining itself that then went on to entertain the world. And I think that writers in Seattle are on the cusp of a similar kind of renaissance. I keep learning about new writing workshops and writers’ groups and organizations in Seattle that I had never heard of before. This effort to get designated as a UNESCO city of literature is ultimately about giving everybody in this community a chance to work together and put Seattle on more of an international stage, to bring more attention to Seattle as a town for writers.
Okay, so I wanted to ask particularly about the publishers. When you hear about independent publishers in the United States in places other than New York, it’s always the ones in Minneapolis like Graywolf. What do you think it takes to get that kind of attention for the Seattle publishers?
Well, ultimately it just takes good books, right? But you know, Seattle publishing is really fascinating. As I was leading this effort to get recognized as a city of literature, I started focusing on what kind of publishing ecosystem there is in Seattle. And I decided, well, I’ve got to walk the walk, so I left my New York publisher and decided I’m only going to get published in Seattle now. I have two books coming out in 2015 through Seattle publishers. The first is a collection of stories that I’m doing with Fantagraphics.
Oh! Will they be illustrated?
No, they’re not going to be illustrated, but I hope to do some really cool stuff with typography and design. And then the other book is going to be an anthology about writers in Seattle, with contributors exploring the history and culture of writing in this town. And that will come out through Sasquatch Books.
So those are both with very different publishers, but they’re both doing amazing things in their respective areas. Fantagraphics kind of owns graphic novels. I’m just stunned by the quality of the work they’ve published. Sasquatch has been around for a long time, and they publish a lot of beautifully designed general interest titles and they’re wonderful people to work with. That’s another thing that I’ve found, too—I enjoy being able to have coffee with my editor whenever I want, you know? I can walk from my apartment to Sasquatch Books, I can sit down with Gary Luke and have a conversation over tea. That’s what I was missing having my work come out through New York publishers. What I really wanted was a more hands-on relationship. And I feel lucky that Seattle has publishers that are able and excited to publish my work. There are a bunch of others, too—Wave Books, Dark Coast Press; there’s some really cool publishing here.
If you’re a writer writing literary fiction in particular, there’s this assumption that your career has to go through Manhattan. So you get your agent in New York and then you get your publisher in New York. And that’s certainly what I did—I followed that path for three books.
You were with PJ Mark, right?
Yeah, with PJ, who’s a great guy, and who I really enjoyed working with. He stuck with me through some times when certain books were in doubt. He was very supportive and I appreciated his guidance. But it just was time for me to look closer to home, to try to grow something here. It’s much more exciting to me to try to build something new than to just go into a system that already exists. I think it’s more fun.
But that’s also a great challenge, right? Throughout the world, literary institutions like big publishing houses, agencies, larger nonprofits, etc. are clustered in cities like New York—so what does it take to build literary communities in other places?
I think the first step is taking stock of what you have. That was the beginning of this process for us. When you put your head up and look around, and see, ‘oh okay, we have all these independent bookstores, we have writers doing readings seven days a week, we have Seattle Arts and Lectures bringing authors from all over the world’—you assess the inventory, figure out what it is, and sort of wrap your arms around that. And once you do that, you start examining your assumptions about how a literary or cultural center should operate. And for me personally, I started to examine this assumption I had that I had to involve New York in my writing career. And New York’s great, et cetera et cetera. And I’ve had really good experiences working with publishers there and my former agent. But should a country the size of the United States have one city where writers send their work? Is that really what we... Is that... Really? You know what I mean? That seems absurd to me, especially when you’re trying to cover three times zones.
So why is that? Because the one thing that New York offers writers is validation. You can be from the Midwest or the West Coast, and you say ‘my book’s being published by such-and-such publisher from Manhattan,’ and it has some cachet to it. But there’s a gap between the cachet and the actual experience of writers. What I see happening over and over again is this: serious writers in Seattle send their work off to a New York agent and they get a publishing deal. I’ll run into them at Elliott Bay Book Company, they’ll share the news, and we’ll be excited about it, and then a year goes by and the book comes out, and they’re very excited around the publication of the book. But then it comes time for the second book. And then suddenly the mood shifts dramatically, because the first book didn’t perform. They’re feeling like... they’re facing the reality of becoming a mid-list writer for a New York publisher, living in a city that’s three time zones away—which can be a pretty harrowing experience for a lot of people. And I think it’s easy for a publisher in Manhattan to put less emphasis on writers who don’t live there.
The other thing that’s happened—and this introduces a whole other ball of wax—is that Seattle gave the world Amazon. In full disclosure, I worked for Amazon for five years over two different periods. I was there from 1998 to 2000 when it was just a bookstore, doing customer service. And I worked there from 2004 to 2007 as an editor, on the DVD team primarily. There are debates about what it means and where it’s going, but Amazon completely upended the way that publishing works in the United States. I don’t think there’s any dispute about that. It was a disruptive technology that changed the business of publishing.
So Seattle has already affected the publishing industry on a corporate level. I think that Seattle can become a viable alternative to publishing in New York—a major publishing center in the United States, if not the world. The UNESCO City of Literature designation will open up opportunities for partnerships and collaborations with different cities around the world. That’s where I see things going: Seattle will become more and more important in the domestic publishing industry, but it will also become more and more a city to which writers and editors and agents from abroad will gravitate—they won’t just immediately think of Manhattan.
I want to go back to something you said a moment ago—you just mentioned, in the same breath, Amazon’s massive corporate influence on the publishing industry and the possibility of Seattle’s emergence as major publishing center. Do these go hand-in-hand? Is there any way that Amazon can bolster the independent publishing sector in Seattle or invigorate our literary culture here?
Well, here’s the problem with Amazon. It’s kind of one of those situations where if you’ve worked in a slaughterhouse and you’ve seen how the sausage gets made, you never want to eat sausage again. That old saying. So getting involved with Amazon involves taking on a lot of their baggage. There are a lot of questions about how Amazon operates its business. For starters, Amazon has a record of not supporting charitable or nonprofit organizations in Seattle. There’s a very limited number of dollars coming from Amazon that are supporting nonprofits here in town. Other companies and organizations like Microsoft, Boeing, and the Paul Allen Foundation contribute to the cultural life of the city. Amazon isn’t doing that nearly to the degree that these other companies are. So do you want to expend a lot of effort asking for money and support from Amazon that they really don’t even want to give?
The other issue is, there’s so much troubling news about how Amazon treats its workers. I was just reading the other day about the drivers who work for these third party delivery companies that Amazon uses—how they’re expected to pay for gas out of their own pocket and uniforms and the maintenance of their truck, and by the time you deduct all the expenses, they’re making very, very little.
And of course there was that great Mother Jones article a few years back about the warehouse workers—how they’re employed under really demeaning conditions. There’s a system that counts exactly how many seconds they’re late in tracking down each item, which they’re then punished for.
You know, the AWP conference was here a few weeks ago, and Amazon had a booth that was set up to highlight their publishing platform. And I walked up to one of the people at the booth and I said, ‘Hey, I want to make sure that when I order my Kindle, that the person who packed it in the distribution center didn’t take too many bathroom breaks. Do you have a way of making sure that the people in the distribution center aren’t slacking? Because that’s really important to me.’ And the representative got this look of terror, all the blood drained from her face, and then suddenly everyone in the booth fled. They all abandoned the booth! They have very thin skin about that stuff.
In general, how Amazon runs their business has been very troubling to a lot of people. I don’t run into very many friends of Amazon. There are a lot of people who’ve worked there who’ve ended up with a bad taste in their mouth. By this point in their history Amazon has filled up a reservoir of bad blood in Seattle. They provide a lot of money in terms of the tax base and employing a lot of people, and real estate. They have a big footprint here, and that is certainly valuable to the economy of Seattle. If they were to leave it would be a big problem. But nobody I’ve met who doesn’t currently work there has really stepped forward to defend them. It’s fascinating. And having worked there twice... you know, I was in those conference rooms, listening to the way directors of departments were talking about how to go after vendors. I saw it. I saw how vicious it can be there... and arrogant, and smug. Amazon as a company... it’s kind of like giving an infant a Corvette and a lifetime supply of cocaine. [laughs] That’s their sort of corporate personality, because they were so successful from very early on. It was very exciting and very heady. And that I think will really contribute to the Achilles heel of the company. The smugness and arrogance and bullying behavior of Amazon is unfortunate.
And you know, as someone who worked there, I really wanted to see them succeed. And I still do! I just want to see them succeed on different terms. They’ve provided a really good thing for a lot of people—you’re able to find any book that’s in print, no matter where you live. It’s just unfortunate that they had to get there by behaving the way they do toward their employees, their vendors, and their competition, and by gaming the tax codes of every place they operate.
Absolutely. Now I thought we might end by talking a bit about your creative process. How do you even begin to map out an enormous and complex story like Blueprints of the Afterlife? It seems like a lot to keep track of, and yet part of what makes it so great is the precision with which things are interconnected.
The connections happen in two phases: one, subconsciously during the first draft, and then through revision. I don’t map anything out, I don’t use an outline, I don’t know where I’m going most of the time. And there are a lot of blind alleys that I go down that I’ll end up cutting. I sort of vomit out the first draft, then go over it and see what’s there—and the things that are most interesting to me are the things that I’m unaware of at the time, the subtextual elements that I start to recognize in revision. Then once the material is all dumped out in the first draft, then I start making connections. And the middle drafts are really about doing things like consolidating characters, or giving characters things to do that consolidate other parts of the story, or tying things together in a way that’s more deliberate than it was in the first pass.
But I don’t figure it all out ahead of time. I just start with an idea and sort of follow it for a while and see where it goes. And sometimes it doesn’t go anywhere, or goes in a direction that I end up abandoning, but at least that gives me a better sense of the parameters. I get a better feeling for the borders of it. And that’s kind of how it worked with Blueprints—all that connective tissue stuff happens in revision.
So if all that came later, what was the sort of initial impetus for Blueprints?
The first idea I had was: I imagined a guy walking across this field and coming across a dead body. And then the cops come and take the body away, and then he’s walking through the next day and the body shows up again. And if this body kept appearing, what would that be like? That was just interesting to me.
And then I was also thinking about... you know these theories about different kinds of intelligence? I thought, what if you had a character who had off-the-charts emotional intelligence, but was really stupid in terms of every other kind of intelligence? And then I had other ideas for other characters and I would just sort of follow each of them for a little while. The interviews with Luke were kind of based, structurally, on a Murakami book, Kafka on the Shore, where there are these interspersed interviews in the form of a transcribed document—I really liked the way that worked tonally. And that kind of became the spine of the novel, and then all the other characters from the future sort of became like organs attached to the spine. But every book I try to write is different. The novel before that was very much a Ping-Pong match between two narrative voices. But I don’t plan out anything, I just kind of go.
A main plot element in Blueprints is the construction of an exact replica of Manhattan where Bainbridge island is now, in the Puget Sound near Seattle, because the real Manhattan has been destroyed in an apocalyptic war. This was interesting to me in particular because I’m from Seattle, I live in New York now, and I used to spend a lot of time on Bainbridge when I was younger. To see all these places that have figured in my life, together, on the page—it was kind of surreal. And I wonder, was it like that for you also? Were you perhaps expressing in some way your feelings about Seattle and New York and your position between them as a writer who lives in one place and is published in another?
I’ve wondered that! I wonder if I was thinking ‘yeah, just bring New York over here, that would make it so much easier.’ And I guess the element in the book about building a replica of Manhattan in the Puget Sound arose out of two ideas. One being that when you ask people from Bainbridge how big Bainbridge is, they say ‘oh, it’s about the size of Manhattan.’ And the other is that when Seattle was founded, one of the first names for the city that they entertained was ‘New York Alki.’ And ‘Alki’ is Chinook for ‘by and by,’ meaning that one day we’ll be as big as New York. So these two ideas kind of came together and I thought, ‘well, okay, what if Seattle literally became New York?’ ‘So where would it be?’ ‘Well, obviously it would be on Bainbridge because Bainbridge is the size of Manhattan.’
So I was working on this idea and then that Charlie Kaufmann movie, Synecdoche, New York came out. He was doing something kind of similar, recreating parts of New York within a warehouse. I was initially worried that they had taken the idea before I could get to it, but in the end it was really different. I still think about that movie from time to time, and watch it about once a year. I was thinking recently about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Caden character, how late in the movie he adopts the persona of a cleaning lady. And this notion that there is no such thing as a minor character, how every person is the star of his or her own life’s narrative. Synecdoche may have more influence on what I’m writing now than Blueprints. For the past few years I’ve been interested in writing about the kinds of people one tends not to find in fiction. The overweight woman working behind the bar at a bowling alley. People who are uncool, or who go to church, or who are old or don’t have sexual relationships. When I was 22 I was interested in writing about heroin addicts who hold up liquor stores and watch French New Wave movies. Now I’m interested in the inner lives of the people who work at Safeway.
My last question is about science fiction. I’ve read some of your writing that’s not science fiction at all, and loved it. But then I read Blueprints, which I think is really 100 percent science fiction, and it seems like you’ve really hit your stride. Some people see the label of science fiction as limiting. How do you feel about that? Do you see yourself as a science fiction writer?
It’s really a shelving problem more than anything. I guess what I like about science fiction as a genre is the wildness and risk-taking of the ideas. What I tend not to like about it is that the prose often seems really pedestrian to me. The sentences aren’t as beautiful as I want sentences to be. The thing I love about literary fiction is the attention to language, the attention to emotional complexity.
When I was in grad school I was reading John Cheever and Raymond Carver—lots of American realism. And lots of international work, too—I wanted to stretch out and read writers from other cultures. And what I found was that in other places, particularly in Eastern Europe, the border between literary fiction and science fiction isn’t nearly as segregated as it is in the United States. So you can have writers like Italo Calvino or Dino Buzzati—and then Latin America, of course—you have Marquez, Borges, Mutis. You know, Borges, you could call him a science fiction writer in a lot of ways. But there’s not a hang-up about it internationally. And some writers in the United States have been able to cross back and forth. Jonathan Lethem has done a really good job of being able to bridge that gap. Kelly Link, too.
I think we call fiction literary when it emphasizes language and emotion. With Blueprints, I wanted it to be just... fun. That was the pinnacle of my ambition for it. Sometimes the real reason you’re writing a book is so that other people will think you’re really cool or admire you. Then you go down a dangerous path where you start writing in a way that you perceive as being worthy of admiration, as opposed to writing something where you can’t wait to write the next chapter because you’re having so much fun. That’s what I’m looking to do. I had a great time writing that book, and whether it’s called science fiction or not, I don’t really care. The world we live in is becoming more and more science fiction-y all the time, so it’s going to become realism before you know it.
Originally published in Moss: Volume One.