Exit Interview: Anca Szilagyi on overcoming Seattle's loneliness

For a while there, Anca Szilagyi was everywhere in Seattle. You may know her from The Furnace reading series, which she co-founded with writer Corinne Manning, or from her beautiful debut novel Daughters of the Air, or from Sugar, her tiny love letter to the Pike Place Market, or from her time as a Made at Hugo Fellow, or from that time she won the inaugural Gar LaSalle Storyteller Award. Earlier this year, after a decade of ubiquitousness, Szilagyi moved away from Seattle. I'm grateful that she took some time off from acclimating to her new home to discuss the city she left behind. The following conversation has been edited for clarity.

So, first off, where did you move and why?

My husband Michael and I moved to Chicago. We'd been in Seattle for about 10 years; we came out there so I could go to graduate school, and just stayed.

We enjoyed our time in Seattle, but the call to home just kept getting louder, I suppose. Home for me is New York, and home for him is Chicago, and so Chicago seemed like a good, affordable place for a writer and a public servant to settle in to next.

You still have some affiliations here in Seattle, though, right?

Yeah, thanks to the internet. I've been teaching online classes at Hugo House, and also doing manuscript consultations through them.

Your debut novel, Daughters of the Air, didn't have Seattle in it, but you did write Sugar, a wonderful little book about and set in the Pike Place Market. Do you think that Seattle is going to represent itself in your work as you move forward?

Oh yeah. I think coming to Seattle was helpful for me to finish my book set in New York. And there's Sugar and then a few other short stories I've written that are set in Seattle. There's a rough draft of a Seattle novel that's fermenting somewhere — I can't tell you when that'll be done, but it's definitely fermenting.

So what are you working on now?

I'm back to working on a novel set in the late medieval period in the Netherlands. The [Gar LaSalle] Storyteller Award allowed me to go there in 2016 to do a little research. I'm back to working on that now, that I'm getting my wits about me with this move.

Did anything about leaving Seattle surprise you? Did Seattle meet or exceed your expectations in any way?

I do think I grew a lot in the last 10 years. It was, in the end, an extremely supportive community, but it took some time.

If you had asked me in 2012, when I finished my MFA, I think I would've been surprised about how I would feel leaving — just the amount of support that I've gotten from Hugo House and Artist Trust and 4Culture. And the book launch for my novel at the Sorrento was such a special night — just such a full room of smiling, happy faces. Beautiful.

But it was definitely a little lonely at first. It just took some time to keep showing up and to make my way that way. I suppose I learned showing up helps.

Could you talk a little bit about the loneliness, what that means as a writer, specifically?

Coming into Seattle I did have the UW, so I was in that little enclave for two years. Coming out of that, I think that's where the loneliness set in. Even with Castalia, I was kind of a stranger at Hugo House, just showing up at events, and trying to introduce myself.

Things turned around when I met [Corinne Manning]. I think she was experiencing a similar thing. We decided to start The Furnace together, and I think that that helped a lot. We wanted The Furnace to be this welcoming space. We very purposefully invited people to read who were not reading all the time, and people who you wanted to spotlight and get to read an entire story rather than a little excerpt here or there. I think through that, that really set other things in motion to feel more a part of the literary community.

So making a space for yourself, and then doing the reaching out to readers, is what made the difference, you think?

I think it did — between that and then eventually getting a little institutional support from Hugo House through the Made at Hugo House Fellowship. I think those two things together helped a lot.

What's your advice for writers who are feeling that kind of deep loneliness?

If you're at a literary event saying hello to a stranger — even just introducing yourself, as hard as that can be — I think that could have made the difference for me in that little gap in time where things were lonely.