Twenty years ago you could hardly call our fair little burg a literary "universe." A small distant planet, perhaps: Tom Robbins, a handful of poets,

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The Seattle Literary Universe

Who's who in the local cosmos, and why

Twenty years ago you could hardly call our fair little burg a literary "universe." A small distant planet, perhaps: Tom Robbins, a handful of poets, and a running tab at the Blue Moon. Nowadays it's hard to tell who's in town, who's moving to town, and who's skipping town on the first eastbound freight (we so miss you, Mr. Helprin). So on the occasion of this weekend's Northwest Bookfest, which has become the region's premier literary festival even as it toddles towards infancy, we present a road map. Or rather, a sky map. Stealing a page from Esquire, whose editors created this particularly combustible form of argument starter in the early 1960s, we offer our view of the world of letters in Seattle, circa 1998. Are we wrongedy-wrong-wrong? Hell yes! You create the universe, you're bound to make a few mistakes: the platypus, "Bob," Prozac Nation. We're new at this; we're still learning. We left out your roommate the slam poet, your neighbor the science fiction genius, and of course the egregiously overlooked and masterful you. Too bad. Next year, kid. A few night-sky observations: No single writer or publisher dominates this town. There are national figures, but nobody whose presence blocks the sun. Copper Canyon Press, the little poetry house that continues to roar, is the closest Seattle comes to claiming a publisher of national stature. Copper Canyon's reputation is so strong that it's the city's premier house—and it's based in Port Townsend. That's what happens when you score a National Book Award and publish the likes of W.S. Merwin, Jim Harrison, Hayden Carruth, and Carolyn Kizer. Other publishers are steadily upping their literary stature, though. UW Press is scoring hits with fiction writers like Peter Bacho and reporter-historians like Shelby Scates. Sasquatch Books, with former Simon & Schuster editor Gary Luke aboard, is balancing its formerly guidebook-heavy list with literary nonfiction by David Laskin and even an epic poem by Jana Harris. In a town whose bookstores hold more influence than its book publishers, it's fitting that the one dominating figure in Seattle holds the title of bookseller. Rick Simonson is so valuable to the Elliott Bay Book Co. that some colleagues call him "the franchise." (C'mon, Rick—they mean it in a nice way.) You know the back story: Simonson built Elliott Bay's author readings series into the region's strongest, and along the way helped create the national book tour as we know it. He's got an open line to every publisher in New York—and he's talking to senior editors, not the publicity staff. When the Sonny Mehtas of the literary world slip into town, it's a safe bet they'll be parsing menus and swapping book talk with Simonson. A word about El Sol, the Red-Hot Center. Most of the fiery ones are there by virtue of their individual successes; this city's still too damn stoic to host any raging literary salons. One—Seattle Arts & Lectures executive director Matthew Brogan—is there by virtue of his position alone. His predecessor, Sherry Prowda, built Arts & Lectures into a literary powerhouse, and Brogan's past record at the Academy of American Poets makes him a safe bet to uphold the series' reputation as Seattle's hottest literary ticket. Others are there for their sheer energy and ubiquity around the scene: Nancy Pearl, director of the Washington Center for the Book at the Seattle Public Library, is the city's reigning Queen of Readers, its book-group doctor, and best-known radio critic. Rebecca Brown qualifies on two fronts, as author of the brilliant Gifts of the Body and the forthcoming The Dogs, and as an indefatigable teacher and champion of emerging writers at Richard Hugo House. Sherman Alexie is Sherman Alexie. Someday we will all work for him. The five other writers have achieved the kind of success that allows them to write pretty much whatever they damn well please. Jonathan Raban's Bad Land is an international success and last year's National Book Critic's Circle winner; David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars was such a smash that the entire book world took a deep breath when word got out that he was delaying the publication of the next novel; August Wilson ought to save everyone some trouble and start faxing his scripts directly to the Pulitzer committee; Charles Johnson continues to pile up the awards, his latest a MacArthur "genius" grant; and Rebecca Wells this year metamorphosed from Hardest Working Regional Writer to National Best-selling Author with Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. So, who'd we leave out?

 
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