Novel of Seattle fire explores city's underbelly

TOKYO Wed Jun 15, 2011 10:50am EDT

TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - After the great Seattle fire of 1889 sweeps through and destroys the city, two women from very different backgrounds form an uneasy alliance and set out on the road to a complicated revenge.

Their story, and the uninhibited world of the burlesque theater that is the backdrop of "City of Ash," are all shaped and shadowed by Seattle, a city that author Megan Chance feels has a bit of a dark side -- and one that until quite recently had only a relatively small presence in fiction compared to other U.S. cities.

"I think there's kind of an interesting underbelly to Seattle, and all the rain and the darkness and the being inside a lot only heightens that feeling," she said.

"For a very long time it was mostly that kind of place, a decadent, underbelly sort of place. It wasn't set up by the upper class, it was set up by the working class, and I think that has a lot to do with it as well."

Seattle itself is very nearly another character in the book, which tells the story of socialite Geneva and Beatrice, an actress, who struggles for center stage in a local theater until the Seattle conflagration -- set off when a pot of glue boiled over and caught fire -- throws them together.

Chance, who moved to Seattle from Ohio in childhood, said inspiration for the tale came to her after she accompanied her daughters on multiple school tours to the Seattle Underground, several passages and basements that were ground level before the fire and subsequent regrading of the city's downtown area.

"I just found myself fascinated by it -- not the fire so much, but the aftermath," she said.

"The interesting thing is that there aren't very many books written about the Seattle fire. In fact, I found only one, long out of print and actually no more than 100 pages."

Her search of primary sources led her to a local newspaper special edition and photographic archives that laid out the devastation. It also showed how much the city's appearance has changed, with streets regraded and vast swathes of former tide flats -- over by where the stadiums now are -- filled in.

Chance said it was fun to write about a city she has come to love, as well as raising the fictional profile of a place that, until recently, has been oddly absent from literature given its major contributions to modern life such as Microsoft and Boeing.

"I think, weirdly enough, there are a lot of contemporary mysteries set in Seattle -- I think it lends itself well to that setting - but not a lot of historical stuff," she said.

"Part of the reason for that is that the city itself wasn't really settled until the mid-19th century, and by that point in time, New York had been around for 200 years. So Seattle is relatively late coming to the table."

There was also the city's isolation. Chance feels a sense of this is still strong enough today that many people in the rest of the country don't have the same awareness of what life is really like, they way they might with places like New York.

But that may be starting to change, with Seattle becoming the setting for a number of mysteries, urban fantasies and, thanks to Chance, historical fiction.

"I think that Seattle is interesting because it's not ubiquitous," she said.

"Seattle is starting to reach a certain kind of maturity, in the way that Chicago and New York and New Orleans have done. There's a lot to say about Seattle -- more people are coming here, it's a bigger place, and it's a lot more metropolitan than it has ever been before."

(Reporting by Elaine Lies, editing by Paul Casciato)

(This story was corrected to fix the title of the novel in paragraph two)