New Hire: Neal Bascomb found a community of writers in Seattle

For as long as Seattle has been a city, people have come to town and people have left town. The Seattle Review of Books has a recurring feature called Exit Interview, in which we talk with an author who recently left town about their Seattle experience. The natural pair to that feature is New Hire, an interview with an author who’s just arrived here. (If you have any suggestions for a subject of an upcoming Exit Interview or a New Hire, please drop us a line.) Our latest New Hire is historical nonfiction author Neal Bascomb. Bascomb's newest book, a Norwegian World War II espionage story called The Winter Fortress, will be published next week with a launch party at Hugo House on May 5th. We'll have more about Winter Fortress in the days to come, but for now enjoy this conversation with Bascomb about what his moving-to-Seattle experience has been like.)

When did you move to Seattle?

I moved to Seattle in August of 2015.

Where did you move from?

Philadelphia. We've been an East Coast family: New York first, and then Philadelphia the last fifteen years.

What brings you here?

We always wanted to live here. I went to Miami University, in Ohio, and a good contingent of my friends all moved to Seattle right after college. I've been coming out here every year for 20 years and loving it, but it didn't really make sense for me because I was in publishing. Because I was a book editor, a journalist, my work was really in New York.

We finally got to a point where we knew we wanted to make a decision between here and London. My wife used to be a book editor at Random House, that's how we met. She got offered a job at Amazon. We decided to move here versus London. It's been great; I love it. We have two young girls, and we love the skiing and the hiking, and the boating, and everything. I'm a full-time author, so if there's coffee shops, I'm usually pretty good, and clearly, there are a lot of coffee shops here. I’m right in my happy zone.

Twenty years ago, you probably would not have been able to live in Seattle and work in publishing as easily as you can now. Do you agree? You know, the publishing industry is still very centered around New York, but I'm finding more and more that authors are choosing to stay in Seattle, which is something that 20 years ago wasn’t possible.

Well, originally I'm from Missouri, so I moved east, to New York, to work at a publishing company. Back 20 years ago, the only place to work in a major publishing house was New York. I knew I always wanted to be a writer and author — New York was really the only way to do that. I was a journalist, too, and so most of the magazines and everything was New York-centric. But I got to a point where I could live anywhere.

I think the difference is 20 years ago, if I had moved out here, it would have been a loss in my career. Publishing was so New York-centric 20 years ago. Now, it's it feels much more diffuse. I feel like there's writer communities everywhere. I had a community in Philadelphia, and I'm certainly finding one here in Seattle. Since it's such a — not an isolated job, but a job where you're on your own a lot — it's nice to have a good community of writers, and I feel like Seattle has that in spades. With Hugo House, and just the number of writers that are here, it's a good place to be a writer.

It sounds like you got wise to Hugo House as a place to be pretty early on. A lot of writers, it takes them a while to discover the House as a resource.

It turns out, I bought my house from someone on the board of Hugo House. I think I was at Hugo House within a week of moving here. I met [Hugo House Executive Dirctor] Tree [Swenson], who's wonderful. I started a little writers' drinking club. I think it's important to have that community. It's small, but growing.

How did you get a hold of local writers? Because there's that Seattle freeze that everyone always talks about, and when you combine that with writers, who are normally antisocial, it seems like socializing might be a problem.

I feel like the Seattle freeze is seasonal. When we first got here, I didn't feel it at all: it’s August, it’s beautiful, people are outside, having outside parties and barbecues. I met a couple writers that way. As soon as winter hit, it was like the city was shut down.

Does it matter what the writers in your writing groups write? Does it help to have other writers of historical books around you?

No, and preferably not. [Laughs.] No — I mean there's novelists, and memoirists, and journalists, so it doesn't matter.

I'm sure Seattle has more popular historical authors than just these two, but off the top of my head, there's Tim Egan and Erik Larson, who have both written very popular and very good historical books. They tend to keep to themselves a little more than some of the other writers in the community. Is that a cultural thing? Do historical writers tend to bury themselves in their research, and not get out as much? Is that just a gross overgeneralization on my part?

You know, I can't speak for Tim or Erik. I met Tim, and he seems like a lovely guy. I'm buried for two years at a time doing research — typically traveling, typically aswim in paper. Perhaps it's that, more than anything else. And then when I'm not researching, I'm writing.

It is interesting that there are quite a few [authors of historical books in Seattle], including [Daniel James Brown, author of] The Boys In The Boat. Maybe we should start a subset: “The historical narrative nonfiction club.” We'd have to think of a catchy title.

Yeah, that doesn't acronym well. What surprised you the most about Seattle as a literary city when you moved here?

I'm not sure if it surprised me, but because I wasn't looking for it, but I will say that the access to the community of writers, whether it's Hugo House, or just book events, is huge. It just seems so much more accessible and welcoming than, let's say, New York, which can be cliquey. It just seems more down-to-earth here. It would be hard, I think, to go back.

Is there anything that you were surprised that we didn't have when you got here? Is there anything, say, in Philadelphia, in New York, that they have, that you think Seattle could really use?

University of Washington has a good library, but for my purposes, it's — gosh, I don't want to sound like I'm trashing the University of Washington. It's just the amount of books that they have just isn't at the par that you can find in New York or Philadelphia. For instance, in New York, if you can't find it at Columbia, you can find it at NYU. If you can't find it at NYU, then you can find it at the New York Public Library.

Here, the University of Washington is really the big university, and just by its sheer size, the stacks aren't as robust.

Yeah, and there hasn't been the time to develop the institutions, either. It's only a hundred-and-fifty years old.

Yeah, exactly. That's been one challenge, just in terms of the kinds of books that I write — by no means insurmountable.

Do you ever think of yourself as a Seattle writer, or does region come into it at all, given your subject matter? Do you think there's ever a time where you would see yourself as the Seattle writer?

Yeah. I mean, I lived in New York for I don't know how many years — over a decade. Philadelphia for six. I never considered myself a New York writer. I never considered myself a Philadelphia writer. I don't know if I'll consider myself a Seattle writer. I just consider myself a writer, because the types of books I write are just so all over the place, in terms of subject and location.

I would love to find a Pacific Northwest subject. That would be awesome. I'd love to try to really dig into culture here and the history. The way that I learn about a place through my books is so rich, because I spend so much time researching, that it'd be tremendous to find that here, in the town that I live in. If anyone has a great story, that's been untapped, I’d love to hear it. For instance, with The Boys On The Boat, which was wonderful, you learn so much about Seattle, and its history. To be able to find something, some story, set in the Northwest, would be great. Maybe that would make me a Seattle writer.

Did you read up on Seattle before you moved here, or did you do research before the move?

No. I had been coming here every year, or every other year, for so long that I felt like I knew it. Of course, that's not true — even though I've been out here over a dozen times, I didn't really get a sense of how much of a water city it is until I lived here. I didn't really get a sense of how hilly it was until I moved here.

One of the things I love about living here and writing is that I figure out a lot of my writing while running. I work through problems, or structure, or how I'm going to write something. Being outside really — for me, it helps. It's been one of the things I've loved so far in living here, just the sheer awesomeness of the outdoors. In Philadelphia, for instance, I ran the same path on the same river every day. Here, I can be in the woods in a second, hill running. Which I think has actually been good for my writing.