NAFTA tour blog

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Mathew Stadler
Publication date: 
July 11, 2011
Wednesday, July 6, 2011

July 6, 2011, Seattle, WA: In many ways my big trip ended on Monday July 4th, when I took off from New York’s JFK and flew home to Portland. I hadn’t seen my kid in two weeks, and it was wonderful to arrive and head home from the airport with him. But one road date remained, and that was in Seattle, my old home town. My mother and brother still live there, so Mikko, my son, came with me, heading for a much-anticipated three days with his cousins. We stayed in the house where I grew up, where my mother and my brother and his children now live.

The launch dinner would be held in the penthouse of The Sorrento, a grand old hotel I had known in the early 1990s when I was a young novelist, recently returned home after ten years away (in New York and Holland). I’d spent some evenings in their bar, The Hunt Club, drinking with two poets. One was my old friend, Jan Wallace, a naturally gifted writer who had stayed in Seattle and wrote ad copy for the Bon Marche department store; the other was Denise Levertov, by then a legendary figure in American letters. Jan was Denise’s secretary. We drank. Denise spoke about whetever concerned her, and we drank some more. Jan was a superb listener. She could comment innocuously at precisely the right moment; whereas my version of listening involved frequent demonstrations of my understanding, usually in the form of anecdotes from my very thin store of experience. Denise waited patiently for me to finish, then went on with whatever concerned her. I thought I must be fascinating, and no one was ever rude enough to disabuse me of that conviction.

The Sorrento was glorious, even when faded, as it was then; but it has grown vibrant since I left, thanks to new owners and, more recently, the arrival of Michael Hebb. Hebb’s Portland restaurant empire collapsed, famously, under the weight of debts that some attributed to such extravagances as having a “writer in residence” (who, no doubt, ate and drank the highly regarded three-restaurant chain out of existence) and he had fled to Seattle where he built a new platform for the kinds of rich sociality he prefers. “The technology of the table,” as Michael calls it, found a wonderful home in the many public rooms of The Sorrento, where Michael initiated such programs as “Night School” and “Chamber v. Chamber,” pairing food, drink, music, and inquiry, often at a common table. Our launch dinner, centered on a conversation between me and musician John Roderick, was to be the next installment of Night School.

In stark contrast to New York’s Brooklyn Grange, the penthouse at the Sorrento was full of familiar faces. My mother and brother were there, alongside dozens of old friends from my many lives in Seattle. High School friends, fellow writers, an artist with whom I’m “in a band” (in quotes because our band is unnamed and has never rehearsed), old bosses, journalists, PS collaborators, plus the PS team from Portland, Patricia No and David Knowles, and their counterparts from Seattle’s Third Place Press, Vladimir Verano and Robert Sindelar.

The sense of homecoming reached its zenith when John Roderick played an opening welcome song, “Home on the Range,” and without hesitation the whole room joined in. My mother even sang the little-known second verse, along with Carlyn Syvanen and Steve Vause, three old Northwest “lefties” who know their folk songs and are not shy about singing. It was the perfect beginning to an evening marked by informality and the absense of any “fourth wall.” I read some scenes from the book and then Michael Hebb brought out the carne, pork and lamb grilled over an open flame and served on platters “in their own juice,” alongside fingerling potatoes and fresh corn. By the time Michael brought out the dessert — ripe doughnut peaches and freakish Mexican candies on sticks — the sun was sinking behind the jagged profile of the Olympic Mountains, visible to the west.

I love the Olympic Mountains. If age or poverty do not intercede to stop me, I’m going to write a novel in which the Olympic Mountains determine everything. I’ve been enchanted by the Olympics since I was a boy. Their abrupt, spectacular beauty; their modesty and compactness; the fact that no white man ever crossed the small range until 1907 and no indigenous tribes had ever presumed to dwell there (at least not in the lofty upper reaches where, according to the Elwah tribe, the dead moved from this world to the next through a hole in the sky). My own interludes living in a small cabin at Lake Dawn and, as a child, hiking the Elwah, the Hoh, and the Duckabush into the interior as far as we could go, laid the groundwork for a stretch of writing that I am determined to take on soon. On this night, as always, the sun over Seattle set into the Olympics; and we saw it from the penthouse of The Sorrento as bottles of tequila were set on the tables beside the peaches and crazy Mexican candies.

John Roderick was a newsstand clerk in my Seattle neighborhood in the 1990s, when I first moved back and began boring Denise Levertov and others with my passionately held, if completely unanchored, views about literature. John was always bemused by whatever I was up to, some of which he observed in the panoply of magazines that moved through Steve’s Broadway News, where he worked. John was also playing music. He had a group called the Bunn Family Players, and then another called Western State Hurricanes, which practiced in the shed behind a literary arts center, Richard Hugo House, where I sometimes taught classes. He was an exceptionally talented song writer, though I didn’t know that then.

John now plays as The Long Winters and he’s well known. In 2009 we ran into each other in Seattle, and he showed me the peculiar narrative he’d composed on Twitter, sending out hundreds of 140-character messages (exactly 140 characters, so that no one could “reTweet” them by adding “RT” to the message) comprising a world of sharply observed anecdotes concerning someone very much like John. It was like a novel, but fractured, episodic, and strangely poetic. John told me he wanted to collect the Tweets as a single book and then erase them from the Internet. And so Publication Studio published one year of John’s Tweets as a book called Electric Aphorisms. That December, he visited Portland with the Canadian singer, Kathleen Edwards, and the three of us staged a conversation over a sit-down dinner, served by Michael Hebb, for an audience of 40 or 50 people. The pleasure of that conversation, which focused on pop songs, Tweets, and literature, convinced me and John we should try another one.

John arrived ready to play cover songs on a grand piano, but the piano was in the other penthouse, as it turned out. He had a ukulele with him, and that sufficed. We talked about the book and my method of writing it. And then John played a cover of the Rolling Stones song “Sway.” Holding up the ukulele, he explained that you can’t force the instrument to do something that it’s not capable of; rather, you have to adapt the song so that the instrument can do its thing and yet still play the song. And then came his sweet, lilting evocation of the famously boozey “Sway.” It was beautiful, and completely a John Roderick song. What he had done was precisely analagous to the challenge I took on, trying to write LeCarré with my “instrument” (my own sentences and voice). I had to adapt the book, just as John adapted “Sway.” I had to turn it into the book that I was capable of writing. And so, by playing it, I transformed LeCarré’s original as completely as if I had written my own book. Which is what cover songs do — create an original out of the impulse to imitate.