A life fit for the big screen
by Julia Stewart
Grant Cogswell lives life large. So large, so outrageously at times, that a movie was made about him. Released last year, the movie recounts Grant’s underdog run for city council in Seattle, Washington, where he remains a folk hero. Grant has been at turns a cab driver, civic crusader, music reviewer, poet, novelist, journalist, movie writer, movie subject, and now small business owner.
These days, we find Grant quietly running a bookstore upstairs in the American Legion building in the hip Condesa district of Mexico City. However, things may start heating up a bit again for Grant. Last year saw the release of his book The Dream of the Cold War: Poems 1998-2008. This year, his bookstore has been listed in the 2013 edition of the Lonely Planet travel guide. And an interview with Grant just appeared in the June issue of Forbes Mexico.
Q: You are quite well known in Seattle, Washington, first for co-spearheading a successful monorail referendum in 1997 (which later was defeated) and then running for City Council in 2001 (and losing by a respectably small margin). Does this fame translate at all to Mexico City?
Customers from Seattle remember me. Nobody else knows or cares or even have context for what happened in Seattle, which is a blessing of the highest order.
Q: In the recent Forbes Mexico article, it says that Mexico saved your life. In what way?
The great vibe of people here, the climate, the healthier lifestyle (if you stay away from panques and refrescos*). So generous and open and engaged in living. When you’ve had childhood trauma, and ‘issues’ and come from a relatively ‘cold’ country, these things are completely necessary.
[*pound cake and soft drinks.]
Q: It’s not very often that Hollywood makes a movie with A-list actors about a part of a person’s
life. The 2012 film Grassroots was made about part of your life. How was it received? What did your family think about someone making a movie about you? Do you think you’ll ever do anything again that someone would make into a film?
The movie sank like a stone. I don’t exactly have family in the States, per se; my brother and my partner and her folks kind of just stared, openmouthed. Like my best friend, they know me, and they weren’t overly impressed, which is the appropriate reaction, I think.
What I’m doing now isn’t exactly dramatic. I think if 9/11 hadn’t happened right before the election I lost, there’d be no movie, I’d still be in Seattle politics and wondering what the hell happened to my life. All is for the best.
Q: In one interview you stated that you felt like you “trashed your youth” and that time spent as an activist in Seattle “wasn’t any fun at all.” The campaign manager for your Seattle city council race and the author of the book on which the movie was made, Phil Campbell, said nothing was accomplished by the campaign. With such an outcome, what would you advise other young activists to do differently?
I should just shut up in front of young activists, because the cynicism and false progressive stance of Seattle burnt out my hope for that place. Young activists need to have hope to do what they can do. Nothing was accomplished by the campaign except it ended up putting about a hundred grand in publishing and movie rights in Phil Campbell’s pocket, so you’d think he’d be the last to say nothing came of it! The real winner here is him.
Q: Your city council campaign was underscored by the belief that public transport could “set a city apart.” You were driven by the belief that Seattle had a chance to avert some of the more unattractive configurations and growth patterns of many other large American cities. On the public transport and livability scale, how do you see Mexico City faring? What makes it work (if you think it does)?
Mexico City is a splendid place to live. The public transit is overcrowded, but incredibly efficient. It seems higher density would help eliminate some of the horrifically long commutes many people have to endure, but this is a city still understandably nervous in tall buildings.
Q: If you could make a set of five rules for all cities to live by, what would they be?
1. Build for people, not cars. 2. Don’t make hoops to jump through for small businesses. If someone wants to sell sandwiches they made on a blanket, don’t shut that down with a bunch of paperwork. Let it thrive or fail. 3. Ban liability. You break your neck on a step, it was your fault for not looking where you put your feet. The city can’t be built to make your life perfectly safe. 4. Plant trees everywhere possible. 5. Don’t sell naming rights to corporations. That’s really the death of the connection between place and culture.
Q: There is a great mini-clip about the movie Grassroots with you and the real-life city council incumbent Richard McIver in which you say: “I’m here to make art, make friends, make love, and let other people handle policy.” (To which McIver laughs and replies: “All right!”) What are you in Mexico for?
All of the above.
Q: One magazine article on you is titled “The Man Who Loved Seattle Too Much.” Do you have any such feelings for Mexico City, or any other place in the world for that matter?
I think I love Mexico City far more deeply than I ever did Seattle, because I love it for what it really is instead of a dream of what I can make it into.
Q: Did you really ever run around Seattle in a polar bear costume, as seen in the movie? Have you ever considered a costume for Mexico, like a big taco or something, and what would make you threaten to wear it?
A big taco? I would never dress up as a big taco. I woolgathered out loud at meetings of the transportation committee about wearing a polar bear costume if I won until they stopped making policy that advanced climate change. I should make shit up out loud more often, I guess, because that polar bear ended up on a movie poster.
Q: You co-wrote the screenplay for a 2007 horror film Cthulhu, based on the 1926 short story “The Call of Cthulhu” by American writer H. P. Lovecraft. Do you have plans to write more screenplays, and if yes, what about?
I actually have two more completed screenplays I’d love to see made. One about Ukrainian internet brides, the other about the last year of John Keats’ life, set in the contemporary U.S. I love screenwriting; it’s just so hard to ‘finish’, that is, to get the movie made. If one of those got produced or if I had the chance to work with my brother on something – he’s a way better screenwriter than I ever was – I might get back into it. Right now I’m surprising myself by writing fiction for the first time in almost twenty years.
Q: Tori Spelling was in Cthulhu, Jason Biggs (American Pie) was in Grassroots, as was Joel David Moore (Avatar), Cobie Smulders (How I Met Your Mother), Cedric the Entertainer, Tom Arnold, and others. Did you get to meet any of these actors?
I met them all, but got to know Tori best. She’s an amazing woman, extremely intelligent and funny with a great heart, and completely in on the joke that is her fame.
Q: You were a populist activist two decades prior to the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Do you still believe that one person can change the system? Can you point to any good examples of this in Mexico (or America)?
One person, if they are visionary enough, and ready for – or forced into – total self-sacrifice, can do a lot. I think Julian Assange and Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden have really done some things we won’t see the end of soon, and been great heroes for truth against power. I’m pretty impressed with ex-Mexico City mayor Marcelo Ebrard and the way he just pushed forward environmental initiatives without putting his finger to the wind. That guy will be president someday. I met him at a party, actually. Unfortunately the party had an open tequila bar and I was falling-down drunk.
Q: In several photos, you are wearing a white or black cowboy hat. What is the significance behind this?
I started wearing a hat with a brim because I was extremely sensitive to sun – because I was living in Seattle and Portland and wasn’t getting enough of it. I also kind of had to dress up to deal with the shame of hustling for money to make my silly, silly movie (Cthulhu, not Grassroots). I kind of look at that fat, coked-up fool with the goatee now and shake my head. Not my best period.
Q: Your bookstore is called Under the Volcano Books after a twentieth-century literary masterpiece of the same name by Malcolm Lowry. You have the pleasure of living within miles of the two volcanos featured in that book – Popocatépetl and Iztaccihuatl. Have you climbed either of these, and do you feel they are part of your present life?
Have I climbed them? Popo is erupting multiple times a day right now. The city is high and cold enough for me. I lack any desire to be at a higher altitude, so, no. They are pretty. Popo, from where I live, uncannily looks exactly like Rainier from downtown Seattle. A coincidence as meaningless and perfect as the world itself.
Q: You currently are the owner of the only all English-language bookstore in Mexico City, a metropolis creeping up on 20 million people, and the largest Spanish-speaking city in the world. What’s a day like at the Under the Volcano Books in DF?
Kind of quiet, with people coming in and out throughout the day. I don’t sell a lot of books, but enough to keep us going and get by. My mission is twofold, to give the city the resource of the books, and to open up writing time for myself. Sometimes, even, the second of these happens.
Q: You have noted that one of your goals with the bookstore is for Mexicans and Americans to learn about each other’s cultures beyond stereotypes; you have also found that the majority of your clients are Mexicans who want to read in English. If you were to recommend three books to these clients that you think would best help them to comprehend the modern American psyche , what would they be?
Hoo! Now we’re talking. Well, I think Cormac McCarthy’s recent work is nearly without parallel. My friend Daniel Gildark said he really considers Blood Meridian, No Country for Old Men and The Road a trilogy about the past, present and future of violence. Are they about Americans more than anyone else? A little, so I’ll throw those up there. I think Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is a good map of where the American psyche is right now, the part that doesn’t make the sad headlines. I gave that to my partner’s dad, and told him if he didn’t like the people in it, then he could rest assured that he really did not like gringos. I don’t think you can even talk about America without talking about the legacy of slavery, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved is probably the best book on that topic, as well as one of the very best books by anyone in English, ever.
Q: Do you still have the seal of Seattle tattooed on your arm? Do you have any other tattoos?
I’m not going to get a tattoo the size of my hand removed just because Seattle is full of idiots. That would hurt like hell. I have no other tattoos that I can talk about.
Q: Mexico Review, your international literary journal is reportedly being launching this year. When can we expect it? What will the format be, and will we be competing with you for magazine submissions?!
Mexico Review has been cancelled. This isn’t yet the capital of American literature in exile. I think it will be. I think in a decade you won’t be able to walk a half a block without hearing an American accent. But it’s still being discovered, for gringos. I find that writing – and reading – are solitary acts and that I do not enjoy attempts at ‘community’ in the context of a literary community that are other than the very most casual. Writers are difficult people, and of course they always want you to tell them you like their work. Most of what is written is bad. I don’t have any interest anymore in being the filter who has to pass that judgment to people. Self-published books are terrible, too. Have you ever read a good one? Leave me out of it, grumble, grumble. Life is short and I have too many books to read, and write.
To learn more about Grant’s store, check out: http://www.underthevolcanobooks.com
Photo by: Diane Grondin