Message in a Bottle
Judy Bordeaux and the Joy of Authorship

It was 1979, and I was visiting my parents and watching TV with my dad. A new made-for-TV movie, All Quiet on the Western Front, came on starring Richard Thomas, the man who had played John-Boy on The Waltons. Together we watched the film begin: first a shot of the cover of the book and then a hand opening the book and in beautiful script autographing the book: “Erich Maria Remarque.”

My dad gasped. “I’ve seen that! I’ve seen that man write that name in a book!”

“What are you talking about?”

While the television went to commercials and then back to the movie, my dad shared with me his experience. It was as if he were remembering it for the first time in over forty years. He was a boy, working or playing on the family produce farm in what is now north Seattle. A well-dressed man approached him and asked him if he could get his father to change the flat tire on his car.

While my dad sat on the fence, my grandfather graciously changed the tire, and when the man tried to pay him, he refused the cash. My dad recalls watching the man open his trunk. It was full of books: copies of All Quiet on the Western Front. He took one out, and in beautiful script wrote, “Erich Maria Remarque.”

“I wonder whatever happened to the book?” my dad mused. My Swedish-immigrant grandmother didn’t have much time for reading with five young children, and her husband, my Japanese-immigrant grandfather, couldn’t read English. (And that history is a whole other story!)

My reaction that night in 1979? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a trunk full of your own books? Opening the back hatch of my car last week to take out some copies of my new book The House on Sylvia Street, I could answer. Yes, it is.

—Judy Bordeaux is the author of the recently published The House on Sylvia Street: 30 years, 300 Medically Fragile Foster Children, and a Whole Lot of Sock Monkeys, a nonfiction book of humor and hard truths shadowing one year in the life of a career foster mom and the seven medically fragile foster children and young adults in her house. She will be reading from and signing copies of her memoir at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 22nd at Island Books.

Iain [M.] Banks, 1954-2013: An Appreciation

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I am moved to put pen to paper to celebrate the peerless work and mourn the untimely death of my favorite author, Scottish novelist Iain Banks, who died on June 9th, two months after being diagnosed with cancer, and two weeks before the publication of what will now be his last novel, The Quarry.

imageIn an ironic twist that Banks himself would and did appreciate, The Quarry concerns events surrounding a middle-aged man dying of cancer. Banks had almost completed the book when he himself was diagnosed, and one has to assume that some of his own experience will be reflected in the completed manuscript. That, and the events which now surround its publication lend a grim poignancy to The Quarry for those of us who loved Iain Banks’ work. In a recent interview his own reaction, typically, was more sardonic: “I’ve really got to stop doing my research too late. This is really such a bad idea.”

imageBanks was a prolific writer, publishing an average of a book every year since his first, The Wasp Factory, arrived bathed in controversy in 1984 (the Irish Times melodramatically declared it “a work of unparalleled depravity”). I discovered him early and the arrival of each new novel has become a highlight of every year for most of my adult life. Until recently his books were published in the UK months earlier than the USA. Of course, I had them shipped.

Unusually, he enjoyed two separate, albeit occasionally overlapping, literary careers. The first, as Iain Banks, was in wildly original, mainstream, non-genre fiction and the second, as Iain M. Banks, was in science fiction. Both oeuvres are characterized by gleefully mordant wit, with a strong whiff of politics and a prose style which is almost conversational at times, but otherwise they are very different.

imageHis “mainstream” fiction encompasses a breathtaking variety of subject matter and extremes of human behavior: a family of psychopaths on a Scottish island (The Wasp Factory), a man in a coma dreaming of life on a giant city-bridge (The Bridge), a fake ‘70s rock ’n’ roll biography (Espedair Street), a Scottish family melodrama-mystery (The Crow Road). My personal favorite is Complicity, the bleak story of a drug-addled journalist investigating a series of bizarre and gruesome murders which seem linked to his exposés on politicians, businessmen, and arms dealers. Banks frequently wore his politics on his sleeve. At the same time there are similar themes woven into many of the books: outsiders, prodigal sons, human cruelty, Scotland and its landscapes, families and their secrets, and an affection for people and their foibles.

But Banks’ greatest creation lies in his science fiction books: The Culture. A galaxy-spanning utopian society, managed (not “ruled”) by astonishingly powerful sentient machines called “Minds,” who, despite their virtual omnipotence and desire to do the right thing, manage by turns to be smug, bickering, vain, and neurotic, and see many of their carefully planned interventions into other societies misfire. This is of course how excitement is built into the stories, but the whole enterprise is permeated with a profound sense of optimism. Despite all the failures and compromises, The Culture remains (almost uniquely) a utopia you ache to be a part of.

Banks was also fond of playing tricks with narrative structures. Complicity is written from two narrative viewpoints in the first and second person (the second person narrative being the voice of the murderer). Feersum Endjinn employs four narrators, one of whom is apparently dyslexic: “…we decided we otter go 2 c Mr Zoliparia in thi I-ball ov thi gargoyle Rosbrith.” Use Of Weapons is told as two interwoven narratives, one running forwards through time, the other backwards. Almost the entirety of Consider Phlebas, which introduces The Culture, is told from the point of view of their enemies.

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I am somewhat taken aback at the depth of emotion Banks’ death has stirred within me. But I am an inveterate reader, and when I recall the thrill of anticipation I felt every time the publication date of his next novel was announced, it isn’t so surprising after all. His books are so very good, and their arrival each year has been part of the rhythm of my life for so long. Two weeks from now I will buy a copy of The Quarry, and once I finish reading it, there will never, never be another. I feel as if I have lost a friend, a companion.

And I am not alone. Banks’ death has prompted an astonishing outpouring of grief from all over the world. A website set up by one of Banks’ friends when he announced his diagnosis in April now runs to almost 250 pages of comments left by well-wishers, which have now given way to thousands of messages of mourning and condolence.

imageI can do nothing better than conclude by urging you to find some Iain Banks and embark on one of the great joyrides in modern literature, led by one of its most distinctive and irreplaceable voices. The Crow Road is a good place to start on the mainstream fiction, or Complicity or The Wasp Factory for those with a stronger constitution. For science fiction devotees, I recommend any of the Culture novels, but especially The Player of Games, Use of Weapons, and Consider Phlebas.

imageIn 2003 Iain Banks wrote his only non-fiction book, Raw Spirit, which chronicles a road trip around Scotland to discover the “perfect dram” of Scotch single malt whisky (and typically finds time to excoriate Tony Blair and various other politicians along the way). If you spot someone in the Roanoke Inn this summer, hunched over a book and looking a bit lost, clutching a tumbler of Lagavulin, that’ll be me…

—Anthony Pooley is a British engineer and musician who has lived on Mercer Island since 2005. Iain Banks’ final novel, The Quarry, will be released in the US on June 25th.

Tom Baker’s Hunger

Though we’re booksellers first, last, and always, we do like to draw attention on occasion to the great music that we also offer in the store. Especially when that music relates in some way to literature, and even more so when it’s written and performed by a local artist. Tom Baker (not to be confused with the actor who played the fourth Doctor Who) is a composer and performer who’s worn many hats  as an integral part of Seattle’s new music scene since the mid-90s, co-founding Seattle EXperimental Opera (SEXO) and acting as the artistic director for the Seattle Composers’ Salon. He also taught composition for over a decade at the University of Washington before moving to Cornish College of the Arts, where he has just won the Teaching Excellence Award in their music department.

Baker has recorded many CDs as a solo artist and with various bands, but his latest operatic release, which you can find at our front counter, is Hunger, an “operatorio” that tells the tragic tale of the Donner Party through the eyes of Tamsen Donner, the matriarch of that ill-fated group of pioneers. It’s a moving combination of music and poetry that re-imagines an almost unbelievable story of struggle and survival.

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Island Books: Tell us about your musical background. At what point did you expand from performing into composing? Or were you creating your own music from the very beginning? Are there epic jazz odysseys or embarrassingly romantic pop songs that date from your high school years?

Tom Baker: I started playing the guitar at age five, after a mostly unsuccessful year on the accordion. Growing up in the southern deserts of Idaho, I played mostly bluegrass and country music until I was 12 or so, then I got an electric guitar (a red Univox hollow body guitar) and started a rock band. I learned to read music very early, and started writing songs at seven or eight. Our band was mostly interested in other groups’ music, but we did do a couple of my songs as well. As for embarrassing musical tastes, there are some photos of bands I was in, both high school and college, that will never see the light of day, but I can tell you that I had a serious case of Robert Plant hair. I think when they bring me an iPod in the retirement village and play the music of my synapse-building years, it will be a heavy dose of Journey, Van Halen and Kiss.

I moved away (but not too far) for college, and began a very unsuccessful academic career as a business major. I was still playing in bands, and happened to meet the guitar instructor at the college. We hit it off, and I became a classical guitar performance major. This required about a year of serious practice and long, long nights. But once I realized that one could actually make a life out of making music, I was all in. It was here that I started to listen to music more carefully and more closely, and began to understand the complexities of classical music and jazz, and what a limited palette I had worked with so far. I moved on to a Master’s degree in performance, and I thought that a classical guitar concert career was my future, but I began to work with a Cambodian/American composer named Chinary Ung, who changed my life and trajectory. I started to understand that a life as a performer, though possible, was not the most profound experience I could have musically. It was composing music, creating things where there was nothing before, that became my clear pathway to a musical life. I finished my performance degree, but it was composing that then took hold of my attention full-time. I still perform in various groups, but they are mostly vehicles for writing and exploring compositional ideas, even the more freely improvised groups.

IB: What do you call the kind of music you’re writing and playing as a solo artist and in your various bands? Different categories for each outlet? Are the labels, whatever they are, useful at all?

TB: If you were going to buy a Tom Baker Quartet CD at Silver Platters, you would probably find it in the Jazz section, or New-Jazz or Avant-Jazz if they have such a thing. My band Triptet would fall under the Electronic label, or maybe Free Jazz. My solo work is mostly electronic, probably in the experimental bin (which is usually half-off!!). I am unsure of labels for genres of music, I tend to see most music on a double continuum. Left to Right: Improvised to Composed. Top to Bottom (this one is harder): Popular to ? (Serious, Concert?). I try to find on this x-y axis the place where a certain music comes in, in my opinion, and then I have a reference for which listening “gear” I need to be in to enjoy/understand/appreciate it.

IB: The Donner Party would seem to be a rather morbid topic for an opera. How did you come to create Hunger? Did you dig through musty archives to do research or are there good capsule histories to read?

TB: I have been interested in the Donner Party since I was young. Growing up in the west, that story is part of the history curriculum in school. My dad would stop at the monument in Donner Pass when we would take car trips to California, and give his own spin on the gruesome tale. I saw a movie when I was 10 or 11, and it had a profound affect on my conception of this opera. I read all the books I could find on the subject, including diaries and historical accounts (often contradictory). When I understood that this story would be an opera, I found all sorts of resources. One of the descendants of George and Tamsen Donner came to the opening night show in Seattle.

I think the idea for the opera really began to get going when I found Tamsen Donner: A Woman’s Journey by Ruth Whitman. Whitman was a feminist poet who, in the 1970s, took a year-long car trip following the same route and time as the Donners and wrote a re-imagined journal in the voice of Tamsen Donner. The first time I read this book (part poetry, part diary, part songs) I knew I had found my libretto. And this story was the perfect vehicle for this opera, the second in a three-part cycle of operas about American women—more precisely, strong and independent women who find themselves in a horrible situation not entirely of their own making. It is the struggle and the human reaction to these situations where I find the drama for these works.

IB: Strains of traditional American folk tunes recur throughout the recording, but that’s just one small element of the whole. What other influences are at work here?

TB: Well, there is a strong influence of the American composer Charles Ives, whose music also contains strains of traditional American music. I think that there is an element of American Jazz in there as well. There are hymn settings, played on harmonium, which is kind of a small, portable pump-organ. The folk tunes that are woven into the work are also used as improvisatory material for the musicians in certain songs, which lends a kind of improvised feel to the whole piece. And all the performers are required to play harmonicas during the piece, again a nod to early American music. I would also cite the operas of Stravinsky, the music of George Crumb and Morton Feldman, the harmonic freedom of Arnold Schoenberg, and the stylized vocal music of Robert Ashley.

IB: Speaking of influences, I know you have some that are extra-musical. Could you say something about the role of books and writing on some of your other work? Any favorite books or authors that haven’t yet made an appearance in your music?

TB: I am often influenced by literature, not always directly (as in an opera or song) but sometimes on a more deeply formal level. I have begun a cycle of string quartets (there will be 11 in total) each of five movements. Each of these movements is inspired by a chapter from a book called Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. These magical descriptions of imaginary cities are so moving and poignant; I have tried to exploit their essence in a musical version. The book is also an “open work,” at least in its author’s conception, so that you can read it in any order, at any time. This will be the form when all 55 movements are complete as well—a quartet can choose to play the movements in any order. 

I love the writing of [Kazuo] Ishiguro and [Haruki] Murakami. The Unconsoled by Ishiguro is maybe my favorite piece of modern fiction (though I am kind of on an island with that choice, I think). I also love Richard Russo and the poetry of Margaret Atwood. And I am working my way this summer through David Foster Wallace (whose craftsmanship alone is enough to make any artist shudder).

IB: Be honest now: Has any success you’ve had in your career made you feel as good as you did when Marshawn Lynch ran for that touchdown against the Saints or Edgar Martinez hit his double against the Yankees?

TB: Those are both important moments for sure, especially because they are shared by a community of true believers. I have had some amazing things happen to me because I chose this life; sometimes I like to list them because it can be a hard and somewhat lonely path. I also have a file cabinet drawer full of rejection letters, which I for some reason keep. I like to hope that I can metaphorically hit .312 lifetime, with 309 homers and 514 doubles…Lord knows I won’t get close to that on the softball field.

—James

Welcome Guest Star Mary Jane Beaufrand

Mary Jane Beaufrand’s is a name many of you will recall fondly. She’s the author of the young adult novel Primavera, among other work, and a teacher of writing, but we know her best for her years behind the counter here at Island Books. We checked in with her just recently and asked her to share some memories and tell us what’s new.

—Miriam Landis

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Maybe it’s not fair, but the part that stands out most in my mind from my time on the staff at Island Books was the outbreak of the swine flu.

I used to go around the store, armed with a can of Orange Antibiotic Wipes and use them on every surface, until the place reeked and my coworkers complained, pretending to gag and demanding, “Somebody please! Open a window! MJ’s at it again!”

During that time, I finished working on my novel for young adults, Dark River. Which is ironic because I don’t recall the time as being dark at all. I remember the staff and customers as being the charming, welcoming types, with a wonderful sense of community.

Since then I’ve continued to write and teach writing to middle-school aged children. I love working with the age group because they have no shortage of imagination. They want to write about ninja academies. They want to write about being stranded in the wilderness with a hatchet and a pet wolf. They want to write about being a young but plucky heroine in a future where teens are forced to battle each other to the death.

I love being able to provide—in a classroom—what Island Books does in a store: a safe place to express yourself. Granted, at Island Books there was more talk about where to get a good cheeseburger and microbrew, but the principle applies. No one has to move it along. There’s no drive through.

The main difference between being a teacher and a children’s book specialist is that, as a teacher, I have a captive audience. And the first thing I always tell my students is this:

Before you can be a great writer, you have to be a great reader.

If you’re a parent and you’re reading this blog, you’ve already got your kids on the right path, not just to writing itself, but to finding a career that they’re passionate about.

The staff at IB can help your kids find books they need to get through the summer, but here are three I wanted to mention, two for kids, one for you, that you might not necessarily look for because there are no vampires or zombies. (Not that there’s anything wrong with those guys. Just wouldn’t wanna kiss ‘em):

The One and Only Ivan1) The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. A book for ages 8-12. Does anyone remember the real Ivan the Gorilla? The one kept in a 14x14 habitat in the BI Shopping Center in Tacoma? I picked this book up for my children thinking that it might have had something to do with the real Ivan, and it does. And, like with the story of the real Ivan, there are difficult spots, but it works out fine in the end. By far the best novel for middle grades this year.

2) Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. For teens. A historical novel about two girls in World War II, one of whom is a spy being forced to collaborate with the Nazis. The other? Let’s leave some mystery intact, shall we? It’s an especially good read if anyone in your family—you or your child—has been watching Downton Abbey.

Beautiful Ruins3) Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. For all ages. This is the first novel I’ve read in years that has truly blown me away. And how exciting is it that it’s by Washington State’s own Jess Walter? The novel begins the early 1960s with its hero, Pasquale, trying to “build a beach” in a small rocky fishing village to the south of Cinque Terre in Italy. Against this lush backdrop, and the filming of the movie Cleopatra, characters come together and break apart, make bad decisions (a tennis court on a rocky coast? What happens when the ball goes out?), but by the end, the very best manage to redeem themselves in unexpected ways. For a total hoot, check out the dialogue in the scene between Pasquale and Richard Burton, the actor, as they are driving up the Italian coast.

Hope you all have a good summer of reading and thanks for taking your business to such a great independent bookstore!

—Mary Jane Beaufrand

National Poetry Month Special: Welcome Guest Star Megan Snyder-Camp

The final entry in our special series in honor of National Poetry Month features a guest blogger, poet Megan Snyder-Camp. Her first collection, The Forest of Sure Things (2010), won the Tupelo Press/Crazyhorse First Book Award. She lives in Seattle, where she is the chair of First Book-Seattle.

Thanks for tuning in to the series, and don’t forget that in celebration of National Poetry Month, we’re running a poetry contest open to all ages. The contest ends April 30th, so enter soon.

—James

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This month I have been thinking about how, exactly, poetry fits into my days, especially since this year I didn’t even consider joining in NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month, where you write a poem a day). I consider myself a practicing writer, but I also have a four-year-old and two-year-old at home, and a new nonprofit chapter that lives under the dining room table. My experience of poetry is often in passing, often borrowed, often shelved. My “office” is the little cabinet that holds the printer. My goal for National Poetry Month was, I thought, feasibly low ball: to read one poem a day. That’s happened maybe twice.

Here’s how the week really went, and where the poetry fit:

Monday: While making dinner, thumbed through the April issue of Poetry. Found this beauty, by Vera Pavlova (tr. Steven Seymour):

Poetry should be written the way adultery is committed: on the run, on the sly, during the time not accounted for. And then you come home, as if nothing ever happened.

Tuesday: Volunteered at a large-scale children’s book distribution. Noticed that none of the books were poetry, and thought about how perilous many people’s introduction to poetry is: often in school, sometimes by a teacher who doesn’t much love it. I remember being taught that poetry was orange juice concentrate; prose was the jug. (which would you rather reach for?) Thankfully nowadays that image reminds me of the bright certainties in the poetry & art of Douglas Florian, one of my favorite childrens’ poets. Whom I still haven’t read to my own kids … what am I waiting for? Need to request his honeybee book at the library.

Wednesday: At a light, I looked up and saw what I thought was a seagull—white, high. But it was a long light and the bird never flapped, just spiraled lower until I could see a wide gray tail, thick body: a snowy owl! I’d heard about the irruption a while back but had given up looking. Almost wrecked the car. That night, waiting to meet a friend at a bar, I brought out my library copy of Susan Stewart’s Red Rover and found on page one:

THE OWL

I thought somehow a piece of cloth was tossed
into the night, a piece of cloth that flew

up, then across, beyond the window.
A tablecloth or handkerchief, a knot

somehow unfolding, folded, pushing through
the thickness of the dark. I thought somehow

a piece of cloth was lost beyond the line—
released, although it seemed as if a knot

still hung, unfolding. Some human hand could not
have thrown that high, or lent such force to cloth,

and yet I knew no god would mind a square
of air so small. And still it moved and still

… and then my friend walked in. Goodbye for now, serendipitous owl. At the table we talked about the donations my friend was helping secure for our nonprofit’s May 19th Read-A-Thon, where Martha Silano and Daemond Arrindell will be among the poets (and other folks) reading aloud the first books they loved as kids. One auction-headed gift: Heather McHugh’s beautiful and scary-looking copy of an old fairy tale, with a long and poetic inscription about falling in love with this book at the age of four.

Thursday: For a freelance gig, I got to research (and discover) Bulgarian poet Nikola Madzirov. Here’s him on translation, in an interview for the California Journal of Poetics:

There are many poems in which we can recognize ourselves without having written them, just as there are cities where we have imagined ourselves much earlier before we travel there. The translator is a silent deconstructor, a night guard of the bridges of difference and understanding.

Wow! Adding the title to my wish list. 

That night, I hosted a poetry reading for the very first time. Thanks to Lacey Jane Henson who runs the celebratory and always-packed Off Hours series, I had the pleasure of inviting three Seattle poets who work has served as a model and inspiration to me: Melinda Mueller, Christine Deavel, and Sarah Steinke. I hadn’t realized what an emotional experience it would be, beginning with my struggle to write intros that would be good enough, that would share some of what it was they’d each taught me and why I return to their work again and again. But finally, intros in pocket, the pure joy of hearing, one after another, those voices rise from the page with powerful new work. It was like a jukebox from heaven. The experience reminded me that I should make more time to let writers know when they move me—send an email, mail a note to the publisher. Or my resolution for 2012 (2013?): write a full-on review! Join the conversation.

Friday: Heard Sierra Nelson read at Open Books from I Take Back the Sponge Cake, her lovely new collaborative choose-your-own adventure poetry book. We got to vote on each page-turning. Awesome.

Saturday: Got a rejection from a long-shot journal; now to find somewhere else to send that batch. Worked on a grant application during kids’ nap. It’s not writing poetry, and not reading it either, but still, what I love about grant applications is how they can cover for prayer in a pinch: the work of having to articulate exactly what you want, what it would look like, why you need it so bad, to research the plane fare and look into museum hours. Fingers crossed.

Sunday: Stole another hour for the grant application. Packed brave & lovely Darcie Dennigan’s new book, Madame X, along for the ride, but still haven’t gotten to sink into it. Waiting. Impatient.

—Megan Snyder-Camp

Greater Seattle

We’re carrying a new CD here in the store that’s catching eyes at the counter with its sleek look. You can’t judge it just by the cover, though, which is why we’re providing some liner notes here. Greater Seattle is the product of area musician Igor Keller (who’s long been the voice behind the Hideous Belltown blog) performing under the name Longboat. It’s a collection of seventeen songs about Seattle-area neighborhoods and cities, all of which are honored by their inclusion even while they’re subjected to a healthy drubbing for their characteristic foibles. Mercer Island gets its comeuppance on track five, and we won’t tell you how except to say that it has something to do with what happens when income exceeds taste.

The album is wide-ranging in style, dabbling in everything from dance beats to the hard stuff, somewhat reminiscent of the diversity on Stephen Merritt’s 69 Love Songs. As such, there’s a little something for every taste on offer. While it’s much more than just a novelty record, it’s obviously a great souvenir for a visitor or a badge of pride for a native—one who has a good sense of humor about his or her hometown, anyway.

We recently conducted a brief interview with Keller via email.

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Island Books: Longboat—what’s up with that?

Igor Keller: Hey, every band needs a name—even if it’s just one guy. I wanted something as neutral as possible to keep preconceptions to a minimum. For example, you wouldn’t expect a band called Chainsaw Convention to sound like the Carpenters. With a name like Longboat, people don’t know what to expect. That’s a good thing. 

IB: What’s your musical background and how did you begin writing and recording your own work?

IK: I studied theory and composition at the UW for several years, but ultimately became a Russian major. At the time, I was more interested in traveling than making music. At about the same time, I became quite interested in jazz, especially in the tenor sax. I bought an old horn and eventually started gigging around town. The bottom fell out of live jazz in the mid-2000s, so I turned to classical music by writing the neo-baroque oratorio Mackris v. O’Reilly [based on the transcripts of the 2004 sexual harassment suit against political commentator Bill O’Reilly]. It was staged and recorded at Meany Hall in 2007. Following that I thought that film music would be a good idea. But it wasn’t, as everyone and their brother is trying to get into it. Finally, I figured that pop music would be the most fun. And it has been. Making Greater Seattle was one of the most positive musical experiences I’ve ever had. It’s my first pop album, but second album overall after Mackris v. O’Reilly

IB: What inspired the Greater Seattle CD? Did you conceive of an entire song cycle from the beginning or just start writing individual songs before realizing you had a whole suite on your hands?

IK: The whole thing started with “Bellevue.” After finishing that, I wanted to write a few songs for context and things got carried away. The next thing I knew, I had a full-blown concept album on my hands. All 17 tunes (15 originals and two covers) took just over two months to write. “Mercer Island” and “Edmonds” were finished last.   

IB: The cover art is really striking. Is that your work, or where did it come from?

IK: The concept was mine, but it was realized by a graphic artist named Pete Woychick. He did a great job, because I can’t draw. Even though the songs don’t delve too deeply into the Seattle memes of coffee/beer/computers/rain, I thought it would be good to show them on the cover. 

IB: Is the CD good-natured mockery or sharp satire, or a little of both?

IK: Just as I employ a lot of genres (funk, stadium rock, electronica, marching band, etc.) in these songs, I’ve tried to have different approaches to the subject matter. So yes, a little of both. For some of the tunes, say, “Belltown” and “Tacoma,” I’ve tried to delve a little deeper into what these places are. For example, to many Seattleites, Belltown is where all the bars are and that’s it. For me, it’s been home for many years and I wanted to convey the challenges involved in living here. And Tacoma has always seemed to me in a perpetual state of decline and I wanted to express a little empathy. Those are just two examples, but I put a lot of thought into these tunes. I hope it shows.  

IB: What else are you working on?

IK: I’m always writing music. The plan is to put out an album every year until the sun explodes or I run out of money. This next effort will just be songs—there won’t be an over-arching concept. But I’m always very enthusiastic about unusual subject matter, so each tune will definitely be out of the ordinary. At some point, there may be a Son of Greater Seattle, but that’s a ways down the road.

IB: Since you said you were a Russian major and this is for a bookstore blog, I guess I have to ask about favorite authors. Do you know Elif Batuman’s The Possessed?

IK: My favorite authors are Russians: Tolstoy, Gogol and Nabokov. There is a three-way tie for my all-time favorite book between War and Peace, Dead Souls and Lolita (with The Gift a close runner-up). My least favorite authors are also Russians: Bulgakov and Dostoevsky. I haven’t read The Possessed, but it looks fascinating. I find it extremely difficult to read while I’m writing music and I’m writing music all the time, but this fall I plan to give myself a break and catch up on my reading. I think I need to make room for The Possessed.

—James

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