FIVE QUESTIONS WITH KNUTE BERGER
with William Pennington
Sometimes I feel I drift thru life, always searching for meaning. When I moved to seattle in 2008, not knowing anything about this area, i stumbled upon a copy of pUgetopolis at the old bailey coy bookstore on broadway. It was then that i felt i had discovered an underground seattle writer in touch with his sense of reason and self assuredness much in tact. While I have been writing since 2001, the here in Seattle project can be traced to influences like Knute, a seattle lifer and member of its exclusive fan club. his book, along with Tim Egan's the Good Rain, taught me what its like to be a Seattlite. I am lucky to have tracked him down and ask him a few questions
I love that you're a writer and a local historian. Is this where you want to be, or are you constantly trying to grow or reinvent yourself as a writer?
I carved out a cool beat at Crosscut and Seattle Magazine: I write about the places where history and politics meet. I try and shed light on: Who the hell are we?
When I started writing as “Mossback” in Seattle Weekly, I focused on politics. During the Crosscut years, I’ve explored more history. The well of untapped history here is very deep. I’ve been doing stories on things like our chain gangs, Nazis, a pro-slavery mayor and other painful things. I think that knowing about these is valuable, but often I wonder if I am like a house cat that brings home a dead mouse for its masters. Nice thought, but…yuk.
If I am reinventing myself at all, it’s that I increasingly find history more compelling that what’s happening at city hall. But I like to understand both.
What is the most underrated museum in the city? I feel the basement of the Panama Hotel gets my vote.
That’s a great choice. I love the glass floor. The Panama should be an official National Monument if you ask me. Maybe that’s a column idea! My favorite museum-nobody-goes-to is the Seattle Metropolitan Police Museum in Pioneer Square. Tells the history Seattle and King county cops—great images, artifacts. It’s an effort by really smart amateurs, but I love its honesty. They have weapons police used since the 19th century—including stuff like a real rubber hose they used to beat suspects with. It’s a fascinating lens to look at our history of crime, social evolution (or not), and the culture of policing.
Will there be a sequel to Pugetopolis? That was the first book I read when I moved here in 2009, and I feel it changed my life a little. So thank you for writing it.
Thanks for reading it. I’ve been mulling a sequel. A lot has happened since that book came out, there’s always more to say about Seattle.
Do you think Seattle will ever host, (or deserve to host) an Olympic Games?
No. We don’t even want a new basketball arena. I think we’re too smart to fall for the hype and the hassle—and the debt. Remember: We hosted the Goodwill Games back in 1990 and they were a flop. I don’t think we’ll host another world’s fair either.
Lastly, who are your top five Seattle (or Pacific NW) writers of all time? This can include journalists, novelists, poets, or even a homeless woman you met on the bus one time.
Top of the list would be Theodore Roethke. I was steeped in that school of Northwest poetry as a youth. His work captured the outer and inner murk with vivid imagery. The David Wagoner-edited posthumous volume of Roethke’s notebook fragments, “Straw for the Fire,” is a book I’ve carried with me for decades. “The Dance of the One-Legged Man” can still make me laugh and weep. He is our great tragic poetic figure.
Betty MacDonald would have to be on the list. Early feminist, punchy, funny, personal, complex. I love her book about living on Vashon Island, “Onions in the Stew,” which captures the struggle of trying to succeed/blend both city and country living—the Seattle dream, and its discontents. She was way ahead of her time—the more years pass, the more relevant she seems. Paula Becker has a new biography of MacDonald due out in September from UW Press. Can’t wait.
Tim Egan is a longtime friend. I look forward to every book and am stunned every time by his writing—no Seattle non-fiction writer is better at finding *the* story so consistently with complex subjects. He’s got a divining rod for narrative—all that Irish talent in a local boy. “The Good Rain” was a brilliant start, but he’s even better now. He’s a good columnist too. In the non-fiction genre, I would add that Erik Larson’s “Devil in the White City” is a terrific book—not only a fantastic true-crime story, but the best book ever written about a world’s fair. He’s at least a part-time Seattle guy. I would also sneak in a plug here for the best Seattle novel about my generation, David Guterson’s The Other, which is so dead on it reads like nonfiction to me.
Sherman Alexie is on the list for raw talent in every way: fiction, non-fiction, kid’s books, poetry, stand-up comedy, political commentary. He is just dazzling, a talent to envy. I love the way he needles Seattle liberals even while being one himself. He’s just a force.
It blows me a way that a book published in 1951, “Skid Road,” is still the best intro history of Seattle. Murray Morgan was so talented, a good writer with wit and humor—real intelligence. He could tweak the powers that be and you’d hardly notice because he was so deft. Even his “official” history of Century 21, which could have been dreary, tells the best story of how the fair came to be. No one reads it, though, because it looks like a boring 1960s coffee table book, but it’s Murray Morgan, folks! I worked with him on a project back in the ‘80s. A lovely man who could capture something well with a phrase, like a story he did for me on Tacoma when I was editor of Washington Magazine. He said some mornings you felt like you were “waking up inside the oyster.” Has anyone described a Northwest November better?
Crosscut the office is located at 40 Mercer Street, though Google Maps lists two other locations, one on 2nd Ave downtown, and the other in Pioneer Square. Either way, crosscut.com is all you need, really. While Knute writes for Crosscut, he in no way speaks for everyone there.
READ MORE FROM KNUTE BERGER HERE