What I Learned from Anthony Doerr

Depending on what study you go by, Seattle is the first or second most literate city in America. This is thanks in part to the number of wonderful independent bookstores and civic organizations who bring authors to read.

Last week, Elliott Bay Books partnered with Seattle Arts & Lectures to bring Anthony Doerr to speak. I attended and live-tweeted the lecture. Doerr, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, titled his talk, “Some Thoughts on Artistic Failure in 6 Parts.” Here are some of the highlights:

1.

Doerr once spent all day reworking one paragraph of All the Light We Cannot See. He researched each detail of the paragraph and thought about each sentence, only to cut it down to one small sentence.

2.

It can sometimes be more desirable to fail. That is to say, failure helps artists to play and explore the mysteries of life. If we are so hung up on success, we don’t take risks. Doerr quoted Ray Bradbury, saying “You only fail if you stop writing.” More broadly, we could apply this to any artistic or business endeavor. I was reminded of our first Book of the Month, Mindset, which says much of the same thing.

3.

Getting the facts right is so important to Doerr because he doesn’t want to lose a reader, or break their concentration on the story. He’ll take whole afternoons to make sure he has a word right in order to create a totally immersive experience.

4.

Doerr says he doesn’t have a satisfying answer for why he chose to make Marie-Laure blind in All the Light We Cannot See. Partly it is because his office is near a center for blind people in Boise, Idaho. But it is also because it was a challenge to write using other senses besides sight.

If you have the chance to see Anthony Doerr speak, jump on it! Until then, pick up All the Light We Cannot See!


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The Bookseller Chronicles: Third Place Books

There are two Third Place Books locations. The original sits in the middle of a large strip mall in the tiny suburb of Lake Forest Park just outside of Seattle. The second is a part of the Ravenna neighborhood in Seattle proper. Both bookstores strive to bring a unique experience to their customers, acting as a social gathering space as well as bookstores.

Earlier this week I sat down with Erin Ball at the Lake Forest Park location. We found a table in the The Commons, a gathering space attached to the bookstore. Around us people studied, read books, hung out, and drank coffee from the restaurant. The din was minimal, and we were able to have a great conversation among the crowd.

Erin has worked at both stores off and on since 2008, before, during, and after attending law school. She recently became the assistant manager at the Lake Forest Park location. When I asked her if this meant she has decided that bookselling is a better choice than pursuing law, she laughs and says, “at least for now.”

[Judy Oldfield] Could you tell me in your own words the philosophy behind the “Third Place” in Third Place Books?

[Erin Ball] The philosophy is that you need three places in life. You need 1. your home, 2. your work, and 3. your community space. And that’s what Third Place Books tries to do with The Commons and the restaurant. It’s a place for people to gather, to have meetings, to study, that sort of thing. The bookstore is the centerpiece. They tried to replicate that at the Ravenna location, just on a smaller scale.

[JO] What does the Third Place mean for you personally? This is both a place where you work and a community space. Do those lines blur for you?

[EB] It does. Especially when I was at the Ravenna store, because there’s a pub in the Ravenna store. A lot of my friends would come visit there. After work we’d meet, and that would become more of a community space for me. It really does blur the lines. It’s hard to remember that you’re at work sometimes.

[JO] So it blurs it in a good way then.

[EB] In a good way, yeah.

[JO] Do you find there’s a difference between the locations? The Ravenna location is urban, it’s very close to the University of Washington. This one, the Lake Forest Park store, is a little farther out. It’s still very close to Seattle, but it’s more suburban. It’s in a strip mall.

[EB] Yeah, it’s a totally different feeling. This store feels a lot more like a community center, because Lake Forest Park is so small and this is the town center. People gravitate here. It happens during windstorms when the power is out, people come here. When it’s hot, people come here. And Ravenna doesn’t have quite the same feel. We still have a lot of customers who come in multiple times a week. But it’s less of a sit-down gathering place.

[JO] Is the tenor of each store different then? Is the clientele and the books that they’re buying any different?

[EB] It’s strikingly different. Here at Lake Forest Park it’s a little more conservative. Especially politically. In Ravenna there are a lot of young families and a lot more experimental fiction. It’s really interesting to see how how much of one particular title each store will sell. It’s crazy.

[JO] And you do a lot of book events here. You had Jimmy Carter come.

[EB] Yes, we did. That was very exciting. It was one of our biggest events. A thousand people went through the signing line. It was really fun, actually. We closed the store and it was really great.

[JO] What keeps you motivated to come in every day, year in and year out?

[EB] I find bookstores to be incredibly rewarding. Especially independent bookstores. Especially bookstores that the community revolves around. I think they’re experiencing a resurgence, which is great. . . . Books are my passion.

[JO] What books do you find yourself recommending over and over?

[EB] What I recommend most is probably a book called Stoner by John Williams. It’s not what it sounds like. It’s about a man named William Stoner. He’s born into farming in the early 1900’s but he ends up going to college and studying literature. It’s really just a quiet novel about his life. It’s so well done, and so perfectly paced and it’s sad and not sad and just really beautiful. And I feel like it appeals to so many people.

[JO] I find that a lot of booksellers carve out their niche in the bookstore that they work in. Do you have a special part of the bookstore that you’re really proud of?

[EB] Well I run the blog. But what I’ve started more recently is the Grown-Up Storytime that we have at the Ravenna store. I think it’s my favorite thing that I do. It’s the third monday of every month. They meet at seven in the pub in a secret room. We drink and read outloud. It’s mostly me reading. It’s gotten a really nice core following and I really enjoy it.

[JO] So you’re reading short stories—published works, right?

[EB] Yeah, published works. It’s not a writing circle. Usually I’ll do a short story, an article, and maybe a piece from the Internet.

[JO] What else is important to you, as a bookseller?

[EB] Books about women and by women. They should be read more. Especially by men.

When I started here a lot of the guys just didn’t read women and that was startling. Like some guys had never read Jane Austen.

[JO] And that’s crazy! People don’t realize that Jane Austen is satire. So it’s not the happy story of a marriage or anything like that. Yeah, they have a happy ending, but I almost feel like those are just tacked on.

[EB] To keep your interest, I guess.

[JO] Yeah. I’ve reviewed Bad Feminist and Everything I Never Told You, and I interviewed Dolen Perkins-Valdez for Libro’s blog. Because those were the books I was excited about and wanted other people to be excited about them.

[EB] There’s a website I get a lot of my reading lists from, FlavorWire. And they do pretty good lists. But there was another one I was looking at about the 50 coolest authors and there were two women on there. Two.

[JO] BookRiot’s pretty good.

[EB]. Yeah.

[JO] What’s on your TBR list?

[EB] Gosh. There’s a Claire Vaye Watkins book (she wrote a book of short stories called Battleborn a couple years ago). She has a new novel coming out called Gold Fame Citrus, which I’m really excited about.

[JO] Yeah, I want to read that too.

[EB] Yeah, I have the advanced review copy, I just haven’t gotten to it. The new Patti Smith book, because Just Kids was amazing.

[JO] I saw her at Seattle Arts & Lectures when she was promoting that one. And it was fantastic.

[EB] She’s coming again. And I’d love to go. She’s great.


What’s your favorite indie bookstore? Let us know!

How Would You Describe Where’d You Go Bernadette?

Maria Semple discovers the importance in phrasing in her book trailer for Where’d You Go Bernadette. Semple travels to Seattle’s literary hubs in search of the perfect description for her quirky and comical novel set in the Emerald City itself.


How would you describe Where’d You Go Bernadette? Let us know in the comments!

9 Things That Bernadette Has Right About Seattle

Bernadette Fox, the central character in Maria Semple’s hilarious Where’d You Go, Bernadette, sulks in her house, becoming more and more reclusive, rather than facing reality. Bernadette’s hate for her adopted city is so great, that she hires an online personal assistant so she doesn’t have to leave her house.

And this city she hates? Seattle. And Seattle happens to be my city too. I went to the University of Washington (Go Dawgs!), and have lived in and around Seattle my whole life. Now, you might think that I’d rush to defend my fair town, but you know what? There’s a lot that Bernadette’ got right about old Sea-Town.


Greetings from sunny Seattle, where women are ‘gals,’ people are ‘folks,’ a little bit is a ‘skosh,’ if you’re tired you’re ‘logy,’ if something is slightly off it’s ‘hinky,’ you can’t sit Indian-style but you can sit ‘crisscross applesauce,’ when the sun comes out it’s never called ‘sun’ but always ‘sunshine,’ boyfriends and girlfriends are ‘partners,’ nobody swears but someone occasionally might ‘drop the f-bomb,’ you’re allowed to cough but only into your elbow, and any request, reasonable or unreasonable, is met with ‘no worries.’ Have I mentioned how much I hate it here?”

I don’t know about skosh or logy, but teachers really do instruct kids to sit “crisscross applesauce” and my wife and I tell our daughters to cough into their elbows. I don’t want them sneezing into their palms and spreading their germs everywhere! It’s just common sense.


. . . this dreary upper lefthand corner or the Lower Forty-eight.”

I prefer “Lower Alaska” myself. Unlike the East Coast, in which major cities are a short train ride away, the closest big cities to Seattle are Vancouver, B.C. and Portland, OR—a three- or four-hour car ride away. Try driving down to San Francisco and it’ll take a good 12 hours. But I kind of like this. It means that it takes a special kind of person to commit to living here. We Seattleites tell people the weather here is terrible in order to dissuade them from moving (though this doesn’t seem to be working).


Everything else is Craftsman. Turn-of-the-century Craftsman, beautifully restored Craftsman, reinterpretation of Craftsman, needs-some-love Craftsman, modern take on Craftsman. Its like a hypnotist put everyone from Seattle into a collective trance. You are getting sleepy, when you wake up you will want to live only in a Craftsman house, the year won’t matter to you, all that will matter is that the walls will be thick, the windows tiny, the rooms dark, the ceilings low, and it will be poorly situated on the lot.”

Head to Queen Anne, where Bernadette lives, or anywhere north of Lake Union, and it’s true that you’ll see row after row of craftsman bungalows, mostly built in the 1920s (one of our team members admits hers was built in 1926). But Bernadette hasn’t left her house in years, let alone her neighborhood. If she had, she might notice that there’s actually a lot of other cool architecture going on. So I guess you can say I “kinda” agree on this one.


Why does every beggar have a pit bull?”

Bernadette rants about the number of homeless people who own dogs in Seattle. It might seem like something made up as a metaphor for the state of something or other, but no. It’s 100% true. I used to work in downtown Seattle right by Westlake Center, and I have seen countless homeless people with dogs. Seattle is crazy about dogs. We have dog sitters, dog walkers, dog bakeries, and dog shampoo specialists. About once a year someone tries to ban pit bulls from the city, but that will never happen. The dog lovers (who are pretty much everyone) will never stand for it.


I’ve created logos, websites, and other design work for a lot of private schools in and around Seattle. The way Semple satirizes their grading system and mentality, trying to encourage children rather than challenge them, is spot-on. And at the end of that long slog towards high-school graduation? Ivy league. Only the best for our unique little snowflakes! (Though UW is a pretty good choice, if I do say so myself).


Take five-way intersections. The first time Bernadette commented on the abundance of of five-way intersections in Seattle, it seemed perfectly relevant. I hadn’t noticed it myself, but indeed there were many intersections with an extra street jutting out, and which required you to wait through an extra traffic light cycle.”

Not only are five-way intersections (of which Seattle has many) annoying, but if you’re easily distracted like me, they’re dangerous. Once when I was about 18-years old, I got into an accident on one near the University of Washington campus. I decline to say just what distracted me, but you can probably guess (hint: it rhymes with whirls).


Blessing, and help yourself to some chard.”

Rain for nine months out of the year, and drier than Tucson the other three, PNW gardeners face a challenge. But measly problems such as weather or latitude don’t seem to stop anyone. What grows particularly well—in abundance, in fact—are leafy greens. So much so that nobody knows what to do with all of it, and they have to push it off on others. But hey, at least its organic. And to a true Seattleite, that’s all that matters.


I needed to talk to Bernadette about her blackberry bushes, which are growing down her hill, under my fence, and invading my garden. I was forced to hire a specialist who said Bernadette’s blackberries are going to destroy the foundation of my house.”

Added to the extreme weather patterns, gardeners face another challenge: blackberries. These beasts are prickly, fast-growing, tangled webs of destruction. Like zombies, they are next to impossible to kill, and they just come back. If you’re into urban foraging, they’re pretty tasty come September though!


People are born here, they grow up here, they go to the University of Washington, they work here. Nobody has any desire to leave. You ask them ‘What is it again that you love so much about Seattle?’ and they answer, ‘We have everything. The mountains and the water.’ This is their explanation, the mountains and the water.”

Bernadette gets sick of people saying that Seattle doesn’t need anything more than what it already has: mountains and water. But it’s true! Seattle is perfect because it is beautiful. Once again, it takes a special kind of person to live here.

Honestly, these were just a few of the things that Bernadette gets right. The list could go on and on, including Subarus, gray hair, Microsoft acronyms, bicycles, parking downtown, the coconut pie from Lola, Dale Chihuly, the Seattle Freeze, North Face, Cliff Mass, and more. But I’ll leave you to discover those gems on your own. I’m off to go spend some time outdoors. Because that’s what we do here.


Find more to love and hate about Seattle in Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette