Way back in 2018, Seattle Review of Books co-founder Martin McClellan reviewed Jez Burrows's ambitious book of semi-found flash fiction, Dictionary Stories, praising Burrows for possessing "a mind that is always searching, always creative, always looking for an amusement or game." At the time, Burrows lived in San Francisco, but just last month, he moved to Seattle. As part of our ongoing New Hire series, which interviews new literary figures on their arrival in the Seattle area, I talked with Burrows on the phone last week. It was a weird time to move to the city, what with the whole global pandemic and all, but I found Burrows to be a charming and engaged conversationalist. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Thanks for making the time to talk. We do a regular interview feature here called New Hire where we talk to writers who've just moved to Seattle about their expectations and hopes. Obviously we've never done one under these circumstances, with the city under lockdown from coronavirus. So-
That was about to be my first question, if you had talked to anybody since everything has happened.
No, this is the first. I guess up top I would just like to ask where you're coming from, and why you moved to Seattle?
Sure. So, immediately I'm coming from San Francisco, which is where I've been for the past eight-ish years. But, as you can probably tell from the accent, I'm not necessarily a local. Before San Francisco I was in Edinburgh, Scotland and I'm originally from Devon in the southwest of England. But San Francisco was the one American city that I've spent my entire time in the US up until now, so Seattle is city number two.
I've figured out that I really like the west coast in general, and from the very first time that I visited Seattle — and I visited a lot over the years that I've lived in the US — when I stepped off the plane, I remember distinctly thinking, "Oh, this is British weather. This is what British weather feels like. This is very comfortable." There was something very environmental that spoke to me.
It just seemed like it was a welcoming place with some welcoming people. And I was also just very ready for a change from San Francisco in general.
When did you officially move here?
I got here on March 5th, so I think I had at least maybe five days of blissful — not ignorance because things were happening — but I was at least out in the world and shaking hands. Or there were a few [bumping] elbows [as a greeting] at that point; it was at a point where the elbow thing still felt a bit absurd, and now I feel vindicated. I think I had about five days of freedom and then straight into lockdown.
Are there any resources in Seattle, as a writer, that you're hoping to enjoy, if they ever reopen?
I had applied for residency at the Writer's Room at the Central Public Library, because [Seattle Review of Books co-founder] Martin [McClellan] had told me about it and suggested that it would be a good fit. I think I applied maybe five days before the public library system shut down.
And Hugo House as well. Every time I've glanced at their syllabus for past classes that they've done, or upcoming classes that they were going to do, I was always really struck by the breadth of what was going on and the people who were coming in to speak and to teach. So hopefully at some point in the future if and when they reopen, those are the two things I'd be very excited to finally gain access to.
So what sort of writing projects are you working on now?
The plan, before everything, was to start something as soon as I had moved. The project that I pitched to the Central Library, is kind of a story about a sectional group of artists, but it is told entirely through the sort of didactics and the wall texts from the museums where their art would have been displayed.
It's sort of about curation, and I'm just really interested in groups of artists in general. I saw this fantastic retrospective of the Bauhaus at the Barbican when I was in London several years ago and I was really struck by it. I've seen a lot of the Bauhaus work before — it's all very familiar — but what I loved in the exhibition was there was just a ton of ephemera: photographs of all of the members hanging out, correspondence between them, materials from the school, none of which I had ever seen and all of which put all of the work that I did know into a brand-new context. So I wanted to write about a history of art without actually showing you any of the art.
And that's ultimately probably still the project that I want to work on. But progress has basically stopped, I will say, for the time being, for multiple reasons. That's the next big thing on the horizon, hopefully.
It seems like your work has a lot to do with the intersection between graphics and text in interesting ways. It's not comics, but there's always something with that sort of frisson, that sort of energy between words and images.
That definitely resonates. You're right, it isn't quite a graphic novel. I'm trying to think of a good example. I think House of Leaves is always the one that comes up, but that is more to do with typographic layout than it is to do with images versus or with text. But that is a fascinating book in and of itself. Do you know Leanne Shapton? Are you familiar with her work?
Maybe if you give some titles I might, but not offhand, no.
Her most recent book was called Guestbook, and then there was another one called Swimming Studies, but the one that I really love is called... I'm going to look up the title because I love a massively overlong title. Okay, the full title is Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry.
It came out in 2009 and, to all intents and purposes, it looks like an auction catalog. So there's a lot of photography of objects kind of isolated on block color backgrounds and each of them has an auction number and then a description of the object and-
Oh my God, I reviewed this book when it came out. I know exactly what you're talking about. I love that book.
I adore that book. It's over a decade old now but I always mention it to people when I'm trying to think about books that do interesting things with text and image that aren't just one-to-one illustrations or something closer to a graphic novel. And the other thing that book really does wonderfully is it also references an existing format and then tells a novelistic kind of story through it, but in a really sly way.
And if there's another thing that I like playing with, apart from just images and text, it's forms — like borrowing the format of an auction catalog and then using it to tell a breakup story, essentially. I have referenced that book so, so many times to so many people. It's just a great one.
Not to get an army of angry internet people all over me or anything, but I think that's one of the things that didn't work for me with House of Leaves that I think did work really well with that book: was there was a constraint. There were rules to Shapton's book, whereas in House of Leaves, to me it felt like the visual aspect was coming out of nowhere. I think having a really good constraint and a solid set of rules is one of the most important things that people who do this sort of visual interaction don't often grasp.
Absolutely. Well, yeah, that's the hope anyway. With the artist book, originally the plan was for it to just be entirely wall texts. I love how rigid a constraint that is, but over time as I started drafting early attempts, I remembered that that kind of writing — that sort of curatorial art-speak — is really tiring to read at length.
And I'm not trying to make that kind of writing totally authentic. I want to introduce elements to it that will feel closer to prose but still feel like it's a curator talking to you about art. But I think I'm probably going to have to massage the constraint a little bit to also include descriptions of ephemera and correspondence between members. I still think that's a neat constraint. I hope it won't spiral out of control.
When you're writing, is the place where you are important to the writing, even if it doesn't figure into the book? When you're reading something that you've written, can you recall where you wrote it?
My first book proper, the Dictionary Stories book, was a hundred-plus very short-format fiction stories, and it is really wide-ranging in terms of where it is set. But when I can convince myself to look back at that book, which is hard, I do see links to my life in San Francisco. There was a story, inexplicably, that was happening in a Russian bath, which is solely because I had found a fantastic Russian bath in Hunters Point in San Francisco that I went to a lot.
There are tacit references to places in San Francisco or things that I would do in San Francisco a lot, but I don't really think they were for anybody else but me. I wasn't trying to evoke San Francisco.
I am curious, though, having just moved here, about the tone of Seattle as a city. I've been told about the Seattle Freeze, but I know a handful of people here who are all very lovely and very welcoming. But I don't yet have a sense for what it feels like to just be a person out in the city walking around, and what the mood of it is, and how it feels when you crest over a big hill or when the weather is at its best and when it's at its worst and how that feels, relative to San Francisco.
So I'm looking forward to seeing that, how and if that affects what I'm writing. But also it's probably quite likely that this next book is likely going to be set in London, so, again, it won't be a one-to-one reference. But, like I said, when the weather here is at its gloomiest it does feel like home, which is nice. So I may lean on that a lot.
Are there any bookstores that you've visited before that you're excited to get to once we can get to places again?
Pretty consistently, every time I've visited I've been to Elliott Bay. Which feels like the obvious answer, but it's obvious for a reason. It's a fantastic institution. A number of people have recommended — is it Twice Sold Tales?
Yep, that's a classic.
When I got here, I almost pulled the trigger on an apartment just as things got bad and did not, ultimately. I've ended up staying with friends in Queen Anne. But it is likely that I will end up somewhere in the Capitol Hill area.
What are some of your hopes for the city? As a writer, do you have any expectations of the city where you live? Do you think that Seattle can do anything to support you as a new resident of the city, as an artist?
Honestly, I think eight years in San Francisco is the longest I've been anywhere where I haven't grown up, and I never really planned to be there as long as I had. And though I left it still kind of liking it, I definitely felt like I didn't have any momentum anymore. Toward the end of my time there, I put much more energy into being nostalgic for things that I had done, as opposed to getting excited for things that I could do.
So really, anything that Seattle has that is different is going to be a blessing. And the nice thing is that I don't really know what exists yet. I'm a walker. I walked all around San Francisco and don't drive, and that's one of my favorite ways to explore a new place and to get a feel for it on the ground. Some of the most memorable moments, or inspiring moments, that I had in San Francisco were a result of long walks and discovering things that I had no idea existed.
So I think maybe this is a bad insight because it's just these are the sorts of things that any large city will provide, but Seattle was an intentional choice just because in my gut it felt like the right place to be, and enough of a difference from San Francisco that I needed.
And also it just has a different kind of natural environment. And I love a Redwood, but I've seen a lot of them. And I've been told there's a rainforest out here, so I've got to find that.
I think that answer makes it sound like I just kind of picked Seattle off of a map and there wasn't really anything specific that I liked. But it's more of just an openness and a trust in the few things that I have seen that have been good and inspiring and makes me feel kind of at home, away from home.