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Seattle in photos

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Sculptures in Bloedel Reserve. #seattle #bainbridgeisland Gorgeous portrait in the visitors center at Bloedel Reserve. #seattle #bainbridgeisland
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Obligatory Space Needle shot. #seattle #landmarked Experience Music Project. #seattle #landmarked #gehry
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Wisdom from James McBride and Maria Semple

Over the weekend I had the pleasure of attending Books by the Banks, an awesome celebration of authors and books and reading and writing, put on annually by the local libraries and my favorite independent bookstore (Joseph-Beth, where Andy proposed).

Previous years have brought some amazing authors like Garth Stein, Jennifer Weiner, and Dennis Lehane. This year was no exception.


James McBride

Author of THE COLOR OF WATER, a memoir about growing up biracial, which I read in college and loved and identified with, despite a few obvious differences. His latest is THE GOOD LORD BIRD, “a novel of caricature” (as he calls it) about abolitionist John Brown.

  • “I just think it’s easier to get to people’s hearts when you make them laugh.”
  • He found it compelling to write about this time period because people were making “real choices that could get you killed.”
  • Regarding John Brown’s letter-writing in prison: “In those 6 weeks, he did more with his pen than he ever did with his broadsword or a gun.”
  • “Every story has several different sides, and the responsible writer tries to present multi-faceted characters so the readers can see [those sides].”
  • McBride says he’s not really an outliner but that he spends a lot of time on characters, because “characters create plot.”
  • He rewrote the foreword and first chapter of THE GOOD LORD BIRD many, many times. “Because you’re competing for readers’ attention in bookstores. It’s you or… EAT, PRAY, LOVE.”
  • Within the “first 2 or 3 chapters, you really have to engage the reader deeply.”
  • “Slavery in America enslaved us all.”
  • “We are all slaves to something.” (Social media and our cell phones were examples he gave, if I recall correctly.)
  • Regarding gentrification, not just of physical areas but also of society: “All these bumps and bruises of American life are being flattened out.” He indicated that he did not think it was necessarily better or worse, but that there was some color/flavor being lost to the smoothness.


Maria Semple

Former TV writer (for Arrested Development and Mad About You, among others) and now author of WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE, a comedic novel about an unhappy wife in Seattle. Confession: I only read this because my book club chose it, but I ended up loving Bernadette so much that I bought copies for each of the two friends who hosted me during my recent trip to Seattle.

  • To my surprise, Semple revealed that BERNADETTE is in many ways autobiographical. She gave up her successful career in LA to move to Seattle, and became deeply unhappy there. Instead of looking inward, she blamed the city and the people. When a friend told her that she was becoming “a menace to society,” she thought that was a delightful idea and decided to write about it.
  • “You’re not just a storyteller; you’re a story-withholder.” In other words, writers need to think about what they’re not revealing to the reader, as much as what they are.
  • When asked about the relationship between her screenwriting and her novel-writing, and what writers of each discipline can learn from the other, Semple said that in both, “Scenes are the building blocks of story-telling.”
  • Also: “I don’t think enough stuff happens” in fiction.
  • Sometimes she actually asks her students, “Do you know what action is?” (Presumably because they are turning in stories where people just sit and talk about their feelings.)
  • As a writer, “you want to be out living life, seeing things, and meeting people.” Otherwise you’ll have nothing to write about.
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My father, the architect

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One of the last things I did in Seattle was hunt down this building. It’s not hidden or anything; it sits plainly on the corner of Marion St. and 5th Ave. It’s got a little café in the ground floor. And a newsstand. But I didn’t know any of that when I set out to find it. All knew was what my father had told me over the phone. Vague memories from decades ago.

4th Ave. About 35 stories tall. Cross-hatching support beams that you can see from the outside. I think it’s brown with black windows. And it used to be owned by a bank.

Some of those things are true. Others are not.

The reason my dad wanted me to find this building is that he had been part of the team that designed it, back when he worked for a big architectural firm. He has always done that: pointed out bits of history that are interesting or important to him, thinking they’ll be interesting or important to everyone else too. Growing up I thought it was cool, then lame, then annoying, then endearing. Now that I’m an adult, I think it’s all of those things at once.

Scanning the skyline from the Bainbridge ferry and later the Seattle monorail, I saw a handful of possible candidates, including one that I desperately hoped was not his, because it looked like “some ugly federal building.” But upon closer inspection, none of them had the cross-hatching support beams that my dad swore would confirm his building’s identity. It was like a litmus test, or a birthmark.

Fueled by a sense of daughterly duty, I decided to reserve my last morning in Seattle for tracking down my dad’s building. The strap of my duffel bag dug into my shoulder as I hiked up and down the hills, certain that somehow I could find this thing. Certain that my dad’s role in the project would echo through the years and serve as a homing beacon for me to follow.

That did not happen.

In the end, it took another phone call to my dad — who now said that the building was white or silver, not brown, and that it had retail space at the bottom — with an assist from Google to figure out which building it was. But then, at long last, I found it. Better yet: I liked it.

Though it was built 30 years ago, it still looks modern. There is good attention to detail (at least from what I could see) and those cross-hatching beams are subtle, but nice. After taking it all in, I went inside — and I found myself hoping that I would have to sign in at a security desk, or at least that I would look lost enough for someone to ask me what I was doing there. And then I could say, “Oh, I’m here because my dad’s an architect. He designed this building.”

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Chihuly in photos

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More Chihuly. #seattle Have I mentioned: Chihuly? #seattle
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Author-friends and the Panama Hotel

First, some quick backstory:

  • Once upon a time, I saw HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET in a bookstore, saw that the author (Jamie) was coming to do a reading/signing, realized he was a fellow halfie, and decided to check it out. Bought the book and loved it. Friended Jamie on Twitter.
  • Fast forward a couple years, and Google launches their Hangouts feature, which lets you video chat with multiple people. Jamie starts hosting Wednesday Writer’s Hangouts. I join in and meet a bunch of cool peeps, including Aprilynne Pike, Ben L.J. Brooks, and Dustin Hansen.
  • Fast forward another year or so, to 2013, and I decide to visit Seattle over Labor Day. Jokingly, I tell Jamie, Ben, Aprilynne and Dustin that we should all meet up there. To my surprise, they agree. In fact, they book their hotels before I’ve even bought my plane tickets! Holy crap, this is really happening.

So about halfway through my Seattle trip, I took a break from sight-seeing to join this elite literary cadre for tea, pho, and a special tour of the Panama Hotel. The hotel’s owner (who knows and loves Jamie) even took us down to the sento — the only Japanese bath house in Seattle that’s still intact.

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It was pretty amazing to get a “VIP” look at this historic site — the hotel being where many Japanese families stowed their belongings during the WWII internment. And it was so fun to hang out with my author-friends in person. (Sadly Dustin had to cancel at the last minute, but he was there with us in spirit.) All four of them are further along the writer-path than I am — what with Jamie and Aprilynne being New York Times bestsellers (!!) and Ben and Dustin agented and on submission — so it’s inspiring and informative to hear them talk about their journeys. They’re so different from one another, and yet each one is driven by the same thing I feel in my own heart: A love of stories. A belief that words and what we say with them are important. A desire to share our imaginations with others.

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(Last photo yoinked from Jamie Ford.)

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