Paul Dorpat, Archivist of Seattle

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Picture it: Duvall, WA. April 28, 1968.

There’s a 500 pound piano, suspended by helicopter, over a woodpile surrounded by lit votives. Why? Why not?

After my meeting with Paul Dorpat at Ivar’s Salmon House and scratching a few microns into his reign as the historian of the Puget Sound Region, I imagine scenarios like “The Piano Drop”, the event that spawned the Sky River Rock Festival four months later, are liberally sprinkled throughout his life.

Dorpat has authored and contributed to more than a dozen books on Seattle history, co-founded and edited Helix, is the principal historian of History Link, and for more than 30 years, he’s written Seattle Now and Then, a visual diary of the city’s evolutionary ambitions, for the Seattle Times. Despite this, when I approach him for a meeting he assures me that I probably know more than he does. I suppose that’s how one acquires a granular knowledge of a place and its people, via constant vigilance for an unfamiliar perspective. I can reassure you Reader that I am in no danger of eclipsing Dorpat’s knowledge of Seattle anytime soon. In fact, the Cryptid Coterie series was inspired by his research.

That being said, don’t blame Dorpat for the fanciful liberties I’ve taken with history, the Yesler family tree, the personalities, motives, and habits of the Denny Party (the founding families of Seattle). ‘Tis fiction. “Minnie Gagle Yesler was involved in the death of Henry Yesler? But how?” he asked. Because Magic Paul. I explained that my novels also include cryptids and mythology so no, I have no proof the heirs to the Yesler legacy have lately met with mermaids aboard the defunct MV Kalakala. I also don’t have definitive proof they haven’t. Shrug.

Still, speculative fiction is not Dorpat’s wheelhouse so we focus on the various creative avenues his appetite for history have taken him down. In addition to being a living treasury of the past, he’s also created a photo series called Wallingford Walks, and he’s working on a novel about Ivar Haglund, famed restaurateur. We bond over the endless allure of just one more click on Wikipedia, the necessary neuroses of the writing process, and the things you want to change after you’ve released a book into the wild of the world. When I ask him about the differences in his approach to writing versus photography, he’s puzzled by my insistence that there’s a connection. I maintain that the storytelling in image composition shares DNA with writing, but because I’m not a photographer, perhaps not. Dorpat explained that anyone with a camera is a photographer. “I’m a Promiscuous Photographer, I can just drive down the street taking pictures of everything and anything.”

I rather like the idea of Promiscuous Creativity, and Dorpat seems an archetype of Promiscuous Curiosity, also a good thing. He’s a pioneer in the Seattle tradition of D-I-Y and committing to the life of the mind. His first volume of Seattle Now and Then, was self-published when he had no money, solely on the credit of his assurances to the publisher that it would sell well, and it did. According to him it was luck; there were no other amateur historians focusing on regional history to the exclusion of everything else, but his legacy is inspiring because you can’t be lucky if you’re not prepared to act on a benefactor’s leap of faith.

About “The Piano Drop” spectacle: Dorpat maintains that it wasn’t his idea, he was just the ringleader and promoter. His friends did all of the organizing. They merely wanted to hear what it would sound like when it landed. The helicopter pilot was fearful about the physics involved in hoisting and releasing the piano, but up they went. Dorpat wasn’t near the woodpile, he was further away, trying to keep people out of the drop zone. His unease grew the higher the piano went, and when it was released, “something in my gut or my heart just came up”, Dorpat gestured around his impressive snowy beard. The piano came down into the soft mud near the woodpile, with scarcely a sound. Because shrapnel is a thing, this was likely for the best, but considering the absurdity of the plan, the outcome of the event becomes outright hilarious.

My meeting with Dorpat was cut short by the growing noise of a busy lakeside restaurant on a beautiful day, and my powerful fear of evening Seattle traffic, but stay tuned for our rematch. Paul has promised to answer more questions than he asks next time. I don’t believe him, but I’m still looking forward to it.

For more from Paul Dorpat visit pauldorpat.com and check out his latest book, Tradition and Change on Seattle’s First Hill: Propriety, Profanity, Pills, and Preservation

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Our Novels Ourselves

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Writing is therapeutic. Sometimes I like writing about mermaids. Therefore, I have invented the Mermaid Self-Help genre, an exciting development in literature and mental health.

We all know that writers put observations about themselves and their world in their work. The challenge then becomes how to create authentic characters without sliding from forgivable Author Avatar to indigestible Mary Sue. Tangent: the best explanation I’ve ever read about why the Mary Sue template “works” is The Oatmeal’s take on Twilight. Good writing invites readers to connect with the authenticity of a character’s experience rather than the optics of the reader’s mirror image. The main pitfalls are confusing archetypes with default relatability and being oblivious to how much of your work is effortlessly you.

I’ll explain.

Mary Sue characters are directly connected to one of the fallacies against diversity in books. Able bodied readers who don’t kill people will connect with your down on her luck quadriplegic assassin (I have to write that now, tucking it into the idea file) just fine if you promise them a really good story and deliver. Sure it’s possible to give an Every Hero archetype a single feature that makes him so unique he is both familiar and totally novel from the outset, but considering the breadth of fiction ever printed it’s not plausible. Guy transforms into a robot dragon in space has probably been done already. Try harder, do better. I doubt J.K. Rowling consciously set out to make a Diverse Book, by creating Cormorant Strike, a veteran with a prosthetic limb, it was merely a side effect of expert character creation.

Taking my own advice, the Cryptid Coterie series was an act of therapy from the outset. When I started writing it, I was stuck in Seattle. The move I desperately wanted was not in my cards at the time, and it was my outlet for working through it. Toni Morrison said write the book you want to read, so I did.  Characterization is one of my strengths as a writer so while Tabitha is without a doubt my Author Avatar (but then so was her antagonist Irene) there are significant things that separate Tabitha from being a Mary Sue copy of me. Flaws were an integral part of Tabitha’s build. I didn’t want to write about the perfect, gold-hearted elemental that triumphed over the mean two-dimensional people. I wanted to create a living, breathing person and that meant obnoxious personality traits. Tabitha is a fair parody of myself at her age, in a wardrobe of self-awareness as well as wish fulfillment. Likewise Irene was Neutral Evil but also an exploration of aspects of myself. Dividing the chapters between them allowed for an antagonist with her own demented humanity that readers could identify with. The Villains we love to hate are successful because on some level, we understand them. We applaud them even.

When it came to being vulnerable in writing, I discovered that I was infusing my work with vulnerability without even trying. Every word comes from some nook deep inside the writer, how could it not be revealing? Blame shifting is difficult when it’s your name under the title. My magic happens when I can take the Reader to that same place inside themselves.

Go forth, and trope responsibly.

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Broken Wave Giveaway

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There are only 4 days left in the paperback Goodreads Giveaway for Broken Wave. Sign up here to win an autographed copy of my latest book. Psst, winning entrants also on my mailing list, will win an autographed copy of Girl Out of Water and Broken Wave.

Sophomore Shuffle

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“Drowning Salvation” by Matt Dangler

I am just winding up the engine that will launch Broken Wave, the second installment of the Cryptid Coterie series, available in ebook and paperback on June 24, 2014. A cover reveal is around the corner, I’m composing a timeline of all the good things, many of which I bungled during the release of Girl Out of Water. That release resembled juggling chainsaws with my feet, to casual observers. It was a pleasurable and terrifying experiment. I’ve learned a little bit. I’m the better-late-than-never indie author I’ve always wanted to be, and I’m giving it another go.

Naturally this would be the exact time my world yo-yoed with my daily routine to the point of vertigo.

In 72 hours I went from “I suppose I live in Seattle forever and always but it sure would be nice to leave.” to “I have three days to get on a plane to England to interview for a few really cool jobs.” to “Oh, I can only be sponsored for a visa if the position is on this list of jobs I’m not applying for?” It might have been easy for a normal person to maintain the flow of prep for a new novel in the face of an adventure deadline plus intriguing immigration but, I, am not of that kind.

I’ve never been the sort of person who had a home in the traditional sense. I spent all of my twenties wandering the United States, looking for someplace that felt right but I never found it. There were a few good attempts, but they each fizzled or exploded depending on how much dynamite I had on hand at the time. Like most people struggling against themselves, I didn’t make lasting progress until I committed to something that mattered to me in a way that nothing else could. For some it’s parenting, religion, or advocacy. For me it’s expressing myself via writing. Writing novels created that place I’d been looking for, the place where when I showed up, it had to let me in. Home.

Perspective and other diversions of the last few weeks make me think if I had gone off on this grand adventure of becoming an expat my production as an author would have suffered. Not because the new life would have been incompatible with a writing career, but because it would have shifted my focus of home away from the worlds I create for myself on the page, to an external location dependent upon bureaucracy, and establishing my credentials as someone who belongs.

My expat dreams shelved for the moment, but I continue to build. That home I searched for is here, and it wants to be burnished into a second novel. Stay tuned.

Giveaway Goodness

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Giveaway Goodness

Win a personalized paperback copy of Girl Out of Water! Sign up before February 28th on Goodreads.

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