For many years if you attended a reading in Seattle, you'd have a pretty good chance of running into Kate Lebo there. The author of Pie School: Lessons in Fruit, Flour, and Butter and A Commonplace Book of Pie, Lebo is a poet and an essayist who's read on pretty much every stage in Seattle. But unlike a lot of writers who only show up when they're on the bill, she's always been a full participant in Seattle's literary scene, too. She goes to readings as an audience member and participates happily in group readings and festivals and the daily writing life of the city; all of which is a long way around saying that she always seemed like a lifer. So I was shocked when I heard that she'd moved out of town. Lebo was kind enough to agree to a conversation about why she left.
Where are you now? What are you doing?
I live in Spokane, Washington, but I moved there about six months ago. Before that, I was living in Vancouver Washington for two years. I did this kind of French exit from Seattle when my rent went up like crazy in the middle of a book project. I set up house in my parents house — actually my childhood bedroom — and set up a bunch of house gigs and tours and did things to try to only be home about half the time.
Now that I have my own great adult home in Spokane, I’m still touring about half the time. I’ve been trying to balance freelance work — teaching creative writing and writing things and teaching pie and doing events for the two cookbooks — that translate to paying my rent and getting to be free. I decided not to go the academic route and I decided not to go the Amazon route, but it’s left me vulnerable to the vicissitudes of a freelance life, which I’m sure you know is feast or famine. And Seattle became a place for me where the famines became too deep and the rents and the cost of living were too high for me to live there.
I didn’t want to go, because [Seattle is] where I came of age, and I’ve got such deep personal and professional and artistic ties there. I’m trying to keep them by appearing like I didn’t leave, like not telling people where, exactly, I am at any given time and just being in town a lot.
Why did you choose Spokane?
I fell in love and he works for Eastern [Washington University]. So it was a good choice for my personal life. And when I was looking at Spokane, I realized I can get a really cute apartment for exactly half what my rent was in Ballard, which is the last place I lived in Seattle. The cost of living is cheap. It feels a lot like Bellingham to me; I went to college in Bellingham, which is why I’m making that comparison.
People value the arts in Spokane, and they’re super-hungry for more, but they don’t get as many touring acts coming through as they do in Seattle. There’s not as much money here. There’s not nearly as much money as there is in Seattle and Portland. So that means it’s easy to live, in that I can be a freelancer, I can be an artist, and I can live like a real adult. It’s also a more emergent place where there’s less money being passed around for the creative things that you’re doing, and I think there’s a little more work to do in educating people that it’s valuable to spend your money on really good food, that it’s valuable to spend your money on art.
What I’m discovering is that because there’s less money there’s a lot of hunger and a lot of openness. It’s the kind of place where you can say “I want to do this thing,” and then you can go do it and then everyone shows up and they’re really excited that you’re there. It’s really cool how easy it is to make something happen.
What’s also funny to me was when I told people in Seattle I was going to Spokane, the responses were kind of formulaic: "why would you go there? I’ve been there and there’s nothing there." Most of the people who told me that hadn’t been there in ten years.
And then the other thing people said was, “maybe you can go start an art scene there.” Which was hilarious because they had this kind of pioneering attitude, assuming there’s nothing there already. There’s been a thriving art scene [in Spokane] for a while. Jess Walter’s there. There’s tons of writers: Kris Dinnison, Sharma Shields, Tod Marshall, Sam Ligon (my partner). There are three universities. WSU is building a medical school there.
It’s funny to me that it is a place that west-siders assume is backward and rural and small. It’s bigger than Tacoma, it’s educated. There’s a certain kind of east-west polarity that’s like US vs. Canada or Australia vs. New Zealand. The big dog has to have an underdog to reinforce their image of themselves, and what that creates is an ignorant assumption about a place that is actually pretty cool.
How would you describe Seattle’s literary culture?
I knew you were going to ask that question, and I don’t have a good quick answer. I moved to Seattle when I was 22 years old from Bellingham, and I knew that if I went to Hugo House, I would find my people. I’d find a place that would not only give me an education, but it would give me a community and an identity. I wanted that, I needed that, and I found that. That is a resource that is rare among cities. I owe a lot to it.
And what I saw over my decade in the city was a lot of different ways to participate — people feeling like outsiders and finding a way to create their own way to participate. I saw a lot of different people say, ”the place where I would be most excited to be a writer is missing, so I’m going to go make it.”
When you get to a smaller town, there’s a weekend where everything is happening and then there’s three weeks where nothing is happening, whereas there’s always something happening in Seattle. And I actually got to a place where I needed to hide from all the brilliant things going on [in Seattle] so I could do my work and be well and not suffer from burnouts constantly. So in some ways it’s been incredibly great to leave and be able to return on my own terms, in my car, for pleasure and business.
I think in Seattle when it doesn’t feel like there’s room for you, people elbow in and make room, and I like that and I admire it. I think there’s a competitive feeling and it’s used by a lot of different people in a lot of different ways.
Have you done that in Spokane? Did you try the Seattle approach and how was it received, if so?
I’ve been wary about trying a Seattle approach, which I would interpret to be showing up and saying, “hey I know all these cool writers you’ve never heard of so let me bring them in from the west side.” I’ve really been careful about not being a jerk like that. I hope.
It’s easier for me to imagine taking risks with business, with artistic ventures, in Spokane than it was in Seattle. I find that when I’m in a competitive environment I prefer to absorb and participate but not to lead. In Spokane, there’s more room in a way that for me personally feels open to leading and creating.
For example, I’m now teaming up with a sommelier and restaurant owner and a beloved bartender in Spokane to do a series of dinners with artists in unlikely locations around the inland Northwest. We’re going to have Alexandra Teague at our first one. It’s going to be awesome. And I wouldn’t imagine doing that in Seattle; not because I couldn’t — there’s brilliant cooks everywhere and there’s brilliant writers everywhere —but just because there’s already so much happening that it didn’t seem like whatever I would come up with in that way was really needed.
Did you feel supported in Seattle?
There’s two versions of that answer. One is unequivocally, deeply, yes. I loved working at Hugo House and finding a helping role that also educated me, about what it was to be in an artistic community, all the different ways to be an artist. One of the reasons I didn’t pursue an academic career was after Hugo House, it was just clear to me that there are so many ways to do it. It made it clear that I could go teach pie classes and do that instead of trying to go get a fancy fellowship.
A woman I knew through Hugo House who works for Amazon very kindly tried to recruit me when I graduated from UW. I didn’t take that job because it seemed to be cross-purposes to writing books, which I what I wanted to do. Saying no is a privilege, but it also leaves me vulnerable to the people who say yes. That’s the person who was able to rent my apartment when the rent went up by 50 percent six months later. I think about that choice. It was the right choice.
I don’t know if it’s the right word, but I felt disenfranchised — living in a city for that long and looking around and just knowing that I’m never going to own a piece of this place. With what I want to do, I will always be borrowing space, and that makes me vulnerable. Even though I participated in the cultural life of the city, and contributed for years, what I needed to succeed was participation in the financial life.
And so in that way, no. Not supportive. I don’t have a good answer for what the city is supposed to do about that. I was just reading an article in the New York Times about the Seattle Art Fair and how it happened and one of the reasons it happened is because the city is getting richer faster than anywhere else in the country.
It’s not your particular value as a person that’s going to bring you success, it’s the amount of resources that are available. I’m taking this course on the history of food right now and what you see over and over is that a population explodes and a people become complex not because they’re such a good people but because they’re geographically in a place that gives them more resources that allow them to grow. Seattle’s dealing with an embarrassment of riches.
Where are we going to live, so that we can make art in the city and have lives that are reasonable, that we have reasonable expectations for our lives, have some comfort? Can we make the choice to be artists and not live in abject poverty? I know being an artist isn’t going to be as comfortable as working at Amazon, but for me it was such a clear thing.
I chose to be an artist, I had to leave the city. There’s not a reasonable way for me to make a living and pay my way in Seattle. I needed to go to a smaller place.
[Before I left,] I was approached by the affordable housing association in Seattle and they had some options, but they not reasonable for me. They were still fifty percent more than what I’d been paying. I’m frustrated with the idea that artist housing is going to solve the problem of livable places for artists to live. It’s just another thing for us to compete for. A different person would respond differently to that, and elbow to the front of the line, but my response is just to leave.
Would you recommend Seattle to another writer? Say a young writer from Spokane approached you and told you they were thinking about moving to Seattle. What would you say?
Oh, yeah. You should leave wherever you’re from, for a little while, anyway.
Part of my decision is that I’m in my early thirties and I want to live my life differently than I did in my twenties. I’m not as good at living poor and living hard as I used to be.
I would also give people the advice to look to unlikely places in Washington and Oregon for really cool artistic communities that you wouldn’t expect to be there. I’ve been doing a ton of travel around Washington state. Even in Wenatchee — holy crap, talk about a place I had really dumb assumptions about — they have great restaurants and shops and a great artisan scene there. I’m not saying “move to Wenatchee,” but I’m saying keep your eyes peeled for places that have the resources and the people to help you get the things you want.