• Literature of the Upper Left: An Interview with Moss

    Connor Guy and Alex Davis-Lawrence grew up together in Seattle, Washington. Now they both live elsewhere: Connor works in publishing in New York, and Alex is a freelance filmmaker (among other things) in Los Angeles. In the summer of 2014, the two published the first issue of Moss, a literary journal of and for the Pacific Northwest. I grew up in Seattle too; my parents owned and operated a bookstore on a suburban island. On a trip back home, I discovered their journal. I was struck first by its design, then by its strong editorial vision.

    Moss’s mission is twofold: to bring writers from the area to the national stage, and to provide a locus for and record of the region’s literary scene. It publishes regularly online and once a year in print. 

    I reached out to Connor and Alex, and we spoke on the phone. We talked about their work, our hometown, and what the place has to offer and stands to lose, beyond Bezos and Schultz.

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    LEWIS PAGE: How did you two come up with the idea of starting Moss? What sparked the decisions?

    ALEX DAVIS-LAWRENCE: Connor and I have been friends since high school. A few years after college, we both ended up living in New York. He was working at a publishing house as an assistant editor, and I was working in video production at an ad agency. Moss essentially came into being during a happy hour on the Lower East Side, at a bar called, amusingly, Home Sweet Home. We were having drinks and sharing various gripes, and one particular frustration that rose to the fore was this feeling that the literary and intellectual culture in New York didn’t really take the Northwest seriously as a creative center. We wanted the people around us to see the Northwest as we did — which is to say, as a place that’s bursting with creative energy, with writers and artists creating meaningful, exciting and innovative work.

    CONNOR GUY:  Back then I had just started working in book publishing. Now I work exclusively on nonfiction, but at the time I was working at an imprint that did both fiction and nonfiction. So I’d been reading a lot of submissions for work and I was being generally exposed to the literary culture and institutions in New York. And I just felt that the Northwest was underrepresented. It wasn’t necessarily that writing with a regional focus was taken less seriously, but it wasn’t as visible.

    It was also that we…we missed home. We were both nostalgic for the place we’d grown up and we were seeking some kind of creative and emotional means of connecting with the region.

    ALEX DAVIS-LAWRENCE: Definitely. It was a combination of nostalgia for home and disillusionment with New York, perhaps. But also, as we started to dig deeper into the idea of creating a journal of Northwest writing, we came to realize that no one else was doing quite what we were aiming to do. There are a lot of journals that limit submissions by genre, or form, or subject, or theme, and there are some journals that emphasize a particular region as part of their mission — but there are very few that actually have a strict rule dictating that the writers they publish have to have a significant connection the region in question. Which I guess is just to say that from the start, we intended for Moss to be a very thesis-driven project. It’s about the Northwest and its merits, but also the idea that place is important to a writer’s work and identity, in and of itself.

    I know it’s a tricky balance between, on the one hand, saying that this literature from the Northwest has universal value and should be brought to the rest of the country, and then also saying that there is an inherent quality to Pacific Northwest literature. Without pigeonholing it, or saying everything has to conform, I’m curious if you do see any qualities or trends of literature from the region.

    CONNOR GUY: This is interesting, because that is actually a question we often pose to the writers we interview in Moss. We’ll begin by asking them about their lives and their craft and their work, but we usually pose at least one question to them asking: “How do you think the Northwest has shaped your work?” Or the same question you just asked: “Do you see any distinguishable qualities in writing from the region?” I would say there haven’t really been very many consistent answers. I don’t know if you can say that. I think that what we’re doing is interrogating the relationship between place and creative expression in a broad sense — rather than trying to nail down specific traits or qualities that Northwest writing might possess.

    Do you remember when you were sitting in the bar, what impressions at the time you had of Northwest literature—were there certain authors from the area or things you’d read or communities that you’d been a part of that you were thinking of? And then, over time, what revealed itself to you and what changed about your perception of the literary world of the Pacific Northwest?

    CONNOR GUY:  I think one thing that’s been great about this project is that we’ve had the opportunity to work with or publish, in one way or another, all these writers who we’d really admired from the beginning. So when we were sitting at that bar, I was thinking about books like Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist, which had come out around that time — it’s such a wonderful book, set in an extremely northwest landscape, about a man who has an orchard near Wenatchee — and it really has such an intense, beautifully rendered sense of place. Then fast forward several years and Amy Wilson, our director of outreach, was actually able to do an interview with Amanda Coplin. There are so many other examples like that — it’s really been incredible.

    ALEX DAVIS-LAWRENCE: Another part of what’s been exciting about it for us is the process of discovery. For example, one of my favorite books that I read last year was Daughters of the Air by Anca Szilágyi, a writer whose work I had never encountered prior to working on Moss. And while a lot of my favorite writers growing up were from the Northwest, whether it was Ursula Le Guin or Neal Stephenson or Ken Kesey — I didn’t grow up thinking of these people as Northwest writers. I mean, Ken Kesey is part of the high school canon, but he really was not presented to me as “a person from this region.” He was just a writer. I think there’s just such great joy in discovering that someone I already knew and loved has been from the Northwest all along. And this extends beyond writing. I think of the painter Mark Rothko, whose work I have always loved and found to be incredibly powerful. Growing up, I always kind of took it for granted that he was from New York — and obviously he has a deep relationship to New York, that’s where he settled, that place is of course a central part of him — but I also learned recently that the first place he lived in the United States was Portland. He grew up in Portland, he went to Lincoln High School, and his first solo show was at the Portland Art Museum. And I keep stumbling on things like this and wondering, “why isn’t that part of the narrative of our region?” And the deeper you look, the more you realize how many people of interest and influence have moved through the region over time, and also how much the standard historical narrative about the place (which basically goes: Gold Rush, then nothing, and then, fast forward to the rise of the tech companies and Portlandia, or whatever) leaves out just a phenomenal amount of history.

    Can you speak more to that lost history?

    CONNOR GUY:  I think the political history of the region, especially, is extremely underrepresented in schools’ history curriculum. One of my favorite pieces we’ve run was a republication of a short story from the 1930s, “Hills Around Centralia” by Robert Cantwell, a leftist writer from Aberdeen, Washington, who wrote extremely powerful political fiction. But the literature of the labor movement in that time, which Robert Cantwell writes about, has just been erased. Alongside the Robert Cantwell short story, we ran an interview that Alex did with the scholar T.V. Reed, who wrote a whole book about Cantwell, looking at how during the red scare his legacy was really expunged from the record because of his leftist political views. I think that’s a huge loss, not just for the Northwest, but for the literature of the country as a whole. Our reprint of that story “Hills Around Centralia” was actually the first time it had appeared — anywhere — since its original publication in 1935. And this is someone who was praised by Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald and one of the most promising writers of his generation.

    ALEX DAVIS-LAWRENCEAbsolutely. And even in terms of the writing happening in the Northwest today, I think we have to consciously fight against what I see as one of the biggest lies embedded in the rhetoric of this cultural moment, which is the idea that everything happening today is being preserved by default thanks to the internet, and that everything that happened before has been catalogued and uploaded somewhere online. But the reality is that things still get lost — both in terms of the context and history that give meaning to a piece of writing, and in terms of the writing itself. Sometimes it’s an active rewriting or erasure, similar to what happened in the case of Robert Cantwell, and sometimes it’s just the vagaries of time. Publications fold, archives get taken down, databases get corrupted. In many cases, things that seemed to have been permanently preserved on the internet are harder to find than something that was on paper in a library. So we really want part of the Moss mission to be a kind of reclaiming of the Northwest’s literary history, a documentation of that history, so that later people can better understand what was going on in this place at this time.

    You both grew up in Seattle, but both now live elsewhere. How has your perception of the place changed since you left?

    ALEX DAVIS-LAWRENCE: I think there’s a very clear reality in Seattle right now that the city has changed — and still is changing — very rapidly, thanks to the outsized impact of Amazon and tech money in general. I go back to Seattle a few times a year, and seeing the city in those intervals makes the change viscerally apparent. It’s hard to understate the impact of Amazon on the city; it employs something like 40,000 people in a city of 600,000 people. That’s just an insane portion of the population. I don’t know the latest statistics, but around 2017 I recall hearing that Amazon was renting like 20 percent of the office space in the whole city. And there are clear statistics and measurements showing how inequality has grown, how housing costs have diverged from incomes, and so on, but just anecdotally, you can feel it in the texture of the city.

    And one of the things that’s just insane to me is that Seattle is one of the wealthiest cities in the world right now, by a lot of metrics — prior to the passing of Paul Allen, three of the ten richest people in the world lived in Seattle at once. Yet, the arts organizations in the city struggle for funding. Public schools struggle for funding. And individual artists and writers — the younger, lower income creatives that really make a city vibrant — struggle to make rent, to make ends meet. To me, the most tangible cause of this is the lack of an income tax, which is something that almost everyone I speak to outside of Seattle is shocked to learn of, given the city’s reputation as a haven for progressive and liberal ideas. That’s something that needs to change. But I think it’s also just kind of a lack of imagination, and a lack of that sense of creative history and self-identity that we’ve discussed. For a fraction of a fraction of a percentage of the wealth of this city’s companies, we could fund thousands of creative projects — or at least protect the basic standards of housing, healthcare, public transportation, and public education that allow the arts to thrive.  

    I was wondering if you’ve had any interesting encounters with readers from outside the region. What have their reactions been?

    CONNOR GUY:  I mean, they tend to like it.

    That’s good!

    CONNOR GUY:  But they’re not as interested as people who are from the region. Even if we’re able to successfully cultivate a national audience, I think that on a certain level Moss will always be a publication built for and around a specific community. Others come to it for different reasons. Some literary agents I know here in New York, for example, have shown an interest in Moss as a way of finding talented new writers from the Northwest who are just starting their careers.

    ALEX DAVIS-LAWRENCE: I think that was always a conscious part of what we wanted to do. We were putting this showcase together with the idea that people from outside the region could see what the Northwest has to offer. But I think as time has gone on, we’ve come to see Moss as primarily by the Northwest, for the Northwest. I’m actually really happy with that, and I’m glad that that’s where the feeling is strongest. It’s about engaging with and supporting the community — in practical ways, like putting on events and paying Northwest writers for their work, but also by being a place where people can look and see what’s already happening all around them. That was kind of one of the original concepts behind the name Moss — moss is this lush, pervasive organism that grows in all kinds of conditions, all across the region, and it’s a beautiful thing. But when you’re in the Northwest, you don’t even think about it. And when you realize that it’s there, you suddenly realize that this beautiful thing is all around you — and that it’s been there all along.

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