Jim Lynch Revisits the 1962 Seattle World's Fair in 'Truth Like The Sun'
If you live in, or near, Seattle – or have paid attention to news items anywhere in the USA – then you’ll know that this year marks the Fiftieth Anniversary of the World’s Fair. To fully understand what that means, you have to look back at what Seattle was before 1962: an isolated backwater that struggled to attract international attention, out on limb at the Canadian end of America. Whatever you think of the decision to paint the top of the Space Needle a fetching shade of ‘gold’, the Fair’s impact has made Seattle the dynamic city it is today.
Thankfully you don’t have to sweat over history books to rediscover the vibe of ’62 – because author Jim Lynch has done it for you. Lynch’s latest book, Truth Like The Sun, may be fiction, but it’s so firmly rooted in historical fact that you can almost feel what it was like to set foot in the Fair that changed the Emerald City forever. Even the fictionalized elements of the story are deftly chosen to highlight the sense of excitement and innovation that surrounded the Fair, including the visits by dignitaries and celebrities such as JFK, LBJ… and, yes, Elvis.
Truth Like The Sun switches between 1962 and 2001, as an enterprising young journalist starts to uncover the scandals behind the Fair, the city, and a new mayoral candidate who played pivotal roles in the development of both. There are thriller elements to the narrative, but Lynch is careful to keep us engaged with the characters as much as the plot, weaving the two timelines together in an intricate web. It manages to be not just an exciting page-turner, but also a glimpse into Seattle’s gloriously murky past – and a love letter to the city itself.
We caught up with Jim Lynch shortly after the publication of Truth Like The Sun, to ask him about his story, his research, and the bittersweet love affair with Seattle.
Dan Coxon: Your first two novels were set around Puget Sound, but for this latest you’ve not only set it in Seattle – it is, in many ways, a book about the city. What attracted you to a Seattle narrative? What kind of pull does the city have for you personally?
Jim Lynch: I wanted to write a very urban novel, and Seattle is the big city I know best. I grew up near it, went to the University of Washington, then wrote about it years later as a journalist for the Portland Oregonian. I’m enchanted by its relatively brief history and its ambitious storyline.
DC: Truth Like The Sun is packed with historical fact, so much so that it’s sometimes hard to see where the truth ends and the fiction begins. How did you go about researching the book? Any favorite facts that didn’t make it into the novel?
JL: I read everything that’d been written about the fair, browsed the artifacts from the expo and dove into the archives, including the interviews and memoirs of the men who ran the fair. But ultimately, this novel like any novel, needed to be fully imagined. So I veered from fact and history for the good of the novel/story whenever it suited my needs. That said, the world’s fair portion of the novel holds pretty closely to what really happened. There were all sorts of bizarre facts that didn’t make it in, such as people diving for pearls at the fair and all the logistics involved in erecting the Space Needle in such a hurry.
DC: I know you’ve worked as a journalist in the past. What made you decide to mine this experience for your third novel? How close is the book to your own experience as a journalist?
JL: I wanted the book to have some suspense and narrative momentum that could roll through two very different time periods in Seattle. And it seemed like a journalist assigned to look back at the fair and into the history of a mysterious legend, Roger Morgan, who bridged those two eras, had great potential. The scenes and situations are all invented, but the underlying tensions and difficulties and exhilaration of being a journalist investigating a politician are all rooted in my own experiences.
DC: You mix in plenty of historical figures in the novel, from Kennedy to Elvis. Are these depictions based upon historical facts? To what extent did you feel that you had a duty to accurately portray characters from the past?
JL: I had fun inventing dialogue with celebrities passing through the fair, but most of those exchanges were based on research. I listened to tapes of a profane LBJ talking off the cuff in the White House. I heard a thoughtful young Elvis Presley explaining himself to an interviewer. I tried to portray them the way I imagine they were, but I also took liberties to suit my thematic or comic needs of that moment in the book.
DC: What can we expect from you next? Will you be staying within the region for your next book too?
JL: I’m in the early stages of a novel about a big volatile family obsessed with sailing. It’s set in Seattle and Olympia so far… So yes, my next novel will be my fourth in western Washington.
DC: And finally… Much has changed in Seattle in the last fifty years, since the World’s Fair. What do you think makes Seattle unique? And what changes would you like to see in the next fifty?
JL: I think what sets Seattle apart is still the lush and dramatic landscape surrounding it. But it’s also the isolation of being way out in the northwest corner of the continent that I think gives its residents an independent streak. And with that streak comes a tendency to dream big. The Space Needle and the 1962 World’s Fair still symbolizes that audacious ambition that has allowed the city to become a global tech hub. The next 50 years? I’ve spent so much time thinking about 1962-2001 Seattle, I’m having enough troubles getting my arms around Seattle today. But I will say that I hope the city continues to become more cosmopolitan, with downtown sidewalks and shops and restaurants and bars increasingly more alive and festive and interesting and safe at night.
For more on Jim Lynch’s books, check out our interview during the tour for his previous novel, Border Songs.
Truth Like The Sun is available now from all good bookstores, and via the Random House website, priced $25.95.