Growing ‘Moss’

Moss, an online journal of Northwest prose edited by Connor Guy and Alex Davis-Lawrence, does many things that other journals don’t. It offers a forum for long-form fiction and nonfiction. It pays its writers substantially—$125 for each published piece. And, where place-based writing is often a buzzword, the journal provides an in-depth examination into what it means for writing to be “Northwestern.”

Guy and Davis-Lawrence, close friends from Seattle who met as freshmen at Garfield High School, didn’t begin the journal until they were both living and working in New York City. In many ways, their definition of Northwest writing is based in its opposition to mainstream publishing. After reading Moss’s newly-released third issue, which features the work of Seattle writers Rebecca Brown and Janie Miller, I exchanged emails with Davis-Lawrence to learn a bit more about the history of the journal, the origin of some of its current pieces, and the Seattle literary scene.

As a way of introducing Moss to those who may not be familiar, what compelled you and Connor to start the journal?
We’ve always seen the Northwest as a region of incredible creative vitality. We took it for granted that everyone else saw the Northwest in the same light, but were consistently surprised by how little creative recognition the Northwest seemed to get from people we met from elsewhere in the country. In the publishing industry in particular, there’s a lot of insularity in terms of who gets published and who gets read—for a variety of reasons, there’s a heavy bias in the industry towards people who live and work in mainstream publishing centers like New York. Even writers from the Northwest who have found broad success—Neal Stephenson, Ursula LeGuin, Sherman Alexie, Benjamin Percy and Jess Walter, among many others—aren’t often connected to the Northwest in most people’s minds.

Moss started as a project to help correct that bias—to help people outside of the Northwest see what they might be missing, and to help provide a platform for paying and supporting Northwest writers who might not have as many outlets as their counterparts in other parts of the country.

In your introduction to this issue, you write: “When were able to look around and see that such seminal writers lived and work where we live and work today, it not only strengthens our sense of identity but infuses our work with new purpose.” I’m curious if you have any thoughts about Seattle’s successes and failures in terms of makings its writers more visible.
An important part of understanding the creative culture of the Northwest is understanding it as an outsider culture, and any outsider culture inevitably carries with it a measure of invisibility. I find the Northwest’s cultural scene exciting precisely because the region is not focused on the same goals as cities like New York or Los Angeles. And in many ways, writing in Seattle is well supported. There are a lot of really exciting small magazines and presses that have appeared in Seattle in the last few years alone (like Spartan, Big Fiction, James Franco Review, Pharos Editions and Dock Street Press, to name a few), and organizations like the Seattle City of Literature are doing amazing work bringing attention to Seattle’s literary scene.

However, we’re currently undergoing a period of intense growth, both economically and in terms of population, and I have a lot of concerns about this growth suppressing what made Seattle special in the first place. Seattle has more to offer the world than tech, and there’s more to our cultural history than our role as the home of huge corporations like Amazon and Microsoft. I believe that the city should be doing more to support the affordability of its housing, the quality of its public transportation and the quality of its public schools. Creativity thrives in public spaces, and it’s disturbing to see that side of the city lose funding every year even as the city’s private wealth continues to grow.

How do you see Moss fitting in within Seattle’s literary world?
Moss is still a small entity in the grand scheme of things; our role is still developing. One thing that I do think Moss is contributing to the field is our commitment to the specific idea of a ‘Northwest’ writing identity. A lot of organizations here provide that implicitly, but I think labeling and presenting Northwest writing as Northwest writing provides something additional and important. Being ‘region-blind,’ so to speak, can end up reinforcing the cultural dominance of the financial centers of the publishing world, because it veils the fact that those centers are not actually universal and all-inclusive.

I hope that features like our long-form interviews and the re-publication of Robert Cantwell’s 1935 story “Hills Around Centralia” in our second issue can provide something distinct and exciting for people looking to connect more deeply to Northwest literature. We want Moss to be a place where editors, critics, scholars, readers and writers—both in the Northwest and around the country—can turn to get a sense of what’s going on in the Northwest writing scene today, and a sense of where today’s scene came from.

Issues of Moss are quite wide-ranging, while also seeming relatively cohesive and rooted. How do you approach this dichotomy from the editorial side?
What we aim for in each issue is balance. So we have a story like Jenn Blair’s “Packwood,” that feels very ‘Northwesty’ in a geographical sense and perhaps more traditional in its structure, and that’s balanced with a piece like Steven Moore’s “About the Days,” which takes place on the opposite side of the world and is highly non-traditional and experimental in its form. And while I think you can see resonance with Rebecca Brown’s body of work in both Miriam Cook’s “Your Best Bet” and Janie Miller’s “Snap the Whip,” our initial impetus for speaking with Rebecca was actually her work on Denise Levertov, because we saw ties to our effort in our second issue to help bring attention to a ‘lost’ Northwest writer, Robert Cantwell. So in a way, I think you hit our formula exactly on the head; we’re trying to be both wide-ranging and rooted, because we don’t want to explicitly define ‘Northwest writing’ as having a particular style or form. The consistent sense of difference and singularity is precisely what we find exciting about the Northwest’s creative culture.

One thing that we’re really excited about is that we’ve started work on publishing a print anthology of our first volume. It’s still in the preliminary stages and we have many, many things to work out, but our hope is that a print edition can be another way to share, promote and preserve the content we’ve put together, and to reach new readers both in the Northwest and elsewhere. To us, Moss is ultimately about the writers and the community, and the more platforms we can use to get their work into the world, the more successful I consider the journal to be.