Faces of SAL: Heather Kelley
October 1, 2020
By Rebecca Hoogs, SAL Associate Director
Heather Kelley has been coming to SAL, as she will tell you below, for most of SAL’s long history. But it has only been in the era of Summer Book Bingo that she emerged as a beloved figure in the SAL office. It began one September when we received a hand-drawn, hand-colored blackout bingo board in the mail. We were all astounded—who was this individual who had not only read 24 books in a summer but had also somehow distilled the essence of the book cover down to a tiny square? A square so tiny, mind you, that most of us have trouble even fitting in the name of the title. Who was this mystery reader/artist? We had to know more! We reached out, and well, the rest is, as they say, “History or Alternative History.”
Heather kept reading, and drawing, and coming to events, and along the way she started hosting a table at Words Matter, and fundraising for Writers in the Schools (WITS), and she also began volunteering in the office in support of the WITS team and the Public Programs team. On the WITS side, she helped read and organize the oodles of student work that comes in, and on the Public Programs side she helped me, the curator of the events, to make sure that each and every one of our presenters is a dynamic speaker.
Lots of research goes into the choice of whom we invite to speak. We are thinking about who’s high on the request-list from our audiences, who has never been to SAL before, whose work is most relevant at this moment. We are always seeking to offer a balance of genres, genders, ages, and viewpoints. We are committed to presenting at least 50% speakers who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color. We are thinking about the right fit for a certain series and a certain venue. We are thinking about our budget, of course.
And last but never least, we want to make sure that once they get on that stage, that they will deliver a sparkling, dynamic, thought-provoking lecture or reading. Even before COVID-19, it was impossible for me to travel everywhere to see everyone speak live, so Heather joined me in volunteering her time to confirm, via research, that a speaker was going to be a hit on the SAL stage. She has been an invaluable partner to me and to SAL over these last years, and we are so grateful for all the ways that she shows up for SAL.
Tell me your story of SAL—how did you become involved in SAL?
It would have been in the early ’90s. I was going to book readings at Elliott Bay Book Company, down in the downstairs, in Pioneer Square. I think actually, what happened is, I had had a starter-marriage, and I was newly separated, and so I was looking for things to do, and that’s when I first started subscribing.
I started then at the church, because my memory of the church is that I know I saw Barbara Kingsolver there. And I remember being up in the balcony, and it was packed, and she comes out to this thunderous applause. And she stands up there, her sweet self, and says, “In high school, I prayed to the popular.” It was just like, Oh, I love you. And I know I saw Salman Rushdie there, too, because it was during the Fatwa, and we got this email that was like, “If the word gets out, it’s going to be canceled, and if you’re bringing a guest, we need their driver’s license—” You know, all that sort of stuff.
Then in terms of getting involved, when I started to have a little bit more interaction with staff, that was through Summer Book Bingo. That first year, I got some crazy idea that, “Oh, I’ll just like draw the covers instead of just putting the words”—but that kind of started a little bit of back and forth [with SAL]. I started to actually get to know folks. And then, honestly, it was when the kids went to school, I needed to fill my time, and SAL was top of the list.
Tell me about your visual art and drawing background because your bingo boards are so amazing!
[Laughs] So I have a twin sister, who actually is a professional artist—she’s pretty spectacular. Her work is great. But as a twin, I remember distinctly at about junior high when she was saying, “I want to be an artist,” I was like, “I’m out. I gotta be different.”
I’m an expert dabbler. I’ve dabbled here and there—I’ve taken calligraphy classes and photography class, those kinds of things. I love to read, the covers are also amazing, too. So it’s kind of fun to sit there and try to look at the covers and pay attention to the typography, and also to see trends over time. Like, the floral book covers have been crazy the last few years.
What have you liked about getting to work on both the public program side and the WITS sid of the organization?
Well, they’ve been two very different experiences for me because one, with [WITS], I’m in-office and so that’s been lovely just to be in and be amongst all you beautiful minds and people, just to walk in and see what’s going on is lovely. In the WITS program, a lot of the work I was doing was either transcribing work that kids have done or reading authors that are coming in, trying to find works that could be applied to classroom discussions. It’s really cool to see the energy behind that program and to actually get a better idea of the volume of work that goes into organizing it all. Getting to read the kids’ work is probably the one of the most special things.
And then in terms of work for you, gosh, it’s been an amazing gift. I have been exposed to so many authors that I either didn’t know of at all, or had a little passing knowledge of so you can see here—[gestures to a big stack of to-be-read books behind her]—a lot of that is your fault. It’s been really fun just to listen to their lectures and to take the time to go do that. I normally might not have thought to stop and do that research and look for them, and I’ve just been blown away by so many of them.
But it is also pressure because it’s totally so subjective. How is it hitting me? Is it interesting to me in particular? It’s really hard for me when it’s anything more in sci-fi. It’s not a genre that I pay much attention to, or am very invested in. So I’m having a little bit of a harder time with those authors that I know are huge names in that world, but I’m like, this is like a little over my head.
What are you reading right now?
The two books I just finished are The Warmth of Other Suns because I want to get done before I got my copy of Caste. Isabel Wilkerson’s such a good writer, holy cow. To have 500 pages of history come alive like that. And then I just re-read Their Eyes Are Watching God, which I hadn’t read since the early ‘90s. And then I just started Zadie Smith’s new Intimations.
Were you always a reader when you were a kid?
Oh, yeah. I was the under-the-covers-with-the-flashlight kid, for sure. I would sit all day on the porch, reading a book, or maybe three books, during the summer.
What’s your hidden talent?
I’m a great book buyer. I spend far too much time reading about books, reading reviews of books, reading lists of books. And then I buy them.
And, what I do work hard to do is to appreciate people and let them know they’re appreciated. So, I love writing a note that is specific: here are the reasons why, here’s what I noticed. I have a huge drawer of cards and stationery, so I’m ever at the ready to send something off to someone.
Thank you, Heather!