To many, Jess Walter is the quintessential American author. Be it crime novels, satire, short stories, non-fiction or even a big sweeping quasi romance like his 2012 NYT #1 bestseller Beautiful Ruins, few can tell stories as darkly funny, observant and with characters as real and as enjoyably human as can Walter. He was kind enough to share some time with me recently to talk about his work and his life.
The Open Mic: You started out as a reporter for the Spokane Spokesman-Review. The newspaper industry can be brutal, which you showcased pretty well in The Financial Lives of the Poets. How did that job impact your career?
Walter: Newspapers were incredibly valuable in forming my sense of curiosity, my work ethic, even the idea that a novel should have a social or cultural purpose (and be about more than the artist’s sweet, sensitive soul.) Journalism remains a wonderful path to becoming an author, but the trouble in newspapers makes it more and more unlikely. Still, in my perfect world, one third of all MFA students would be summarily sent to a newsroom for a while. Memoirists would be put on the crime beat to see that other people experience pain, too. Poets would be assigned long investigative stories and fiction writers would all be sports writers for a while so they have to deal with forty-five minute deadlines.
The Open Mic: You’ve been remarkably successful across a very interesting breadth of genres: crime novels, satire, a somewhat romantic blockbuster, short stories and even non-fiction. How, if at all, does your approach change with each different genre?
Walter: I suppose the approach does differ, although when you’re in the midst of it, it’s words, sentences, paragraphs. Honestly, I think the story tells you what it requires. Despite the seeming variety of genres, I think most of my books have a similar quality, maybe a wistful, hopefully compassionate humor that, to me, is more important than what the story is about.
The Open Mic: We’ve seen so many artists for whom success is almost debilitating. Some taste success and then churn out basically the same thing over and over again. That definitely has not been the case for you. How do you keep yourself grounded and still focused on telling fresh, unique stories that are still commercially viable?
Walter: Ha! I don’t even know what commercially viable means. If I even think the words like “brand” or “commercially viable”, I have instructed my butler to come up from the crowded servant’s quarters and beat me with one of my many hand-made ivory and gold plated walking sticks. My butler then says things like, “Just write, jackass,” and “don’t think, meat,” and “write the next thing you want to read, dipshit.” Then, cured of any commercial impulses, I go back to writing sentences that make me happy. And my butler goes back to sorting my cuff link collection.
The Open Mic: You’ve noted that sometimes aspiring authors can get too wrapped up in crafting beautiful sentences at the expense of moving the story and narrative forward. Do you still ever struggle with this as well? If so, how do you bring yourself back to center?
Walter: Well, I guess I think it’s a delicate balance, not the same for every writer, not even the same from story to story. I’m constantly adjusting those dials, as I suppose every reader is. But it’s telling how few readers (at least the ones who aren’t also writers) ever say anything about “your sentences.” They tend to want a story. And when I’m just reading–while I love a great sentence–I’m with them.
The Open Mic: You come from a blue collar background, and you were also a father at 19. I can personally relate to both of those circumstances. I was a little older – my daughter was born when I was 23, and of course wouldn’t trade her or those years for anything in the universe, but I do reflect sometimes on how it colored my world from that point on. I remember thinking as I held her for the first time, “My God, now I’m totally responsible for this little human.” I was both terrified and totally blinded with love. In any case, so many of your characters are dealing with the repercussions of decisions they’ve made earlier in life. I hope this isn’t the most obvious question ever, but how much does your own story influence or work its way to some degree into your characters?
Walter: Wow, well, thirty of my fifty years have been spent as a parent, so I don’t know if I even remember what it was like, not being responsible for someone. Of course, mere procreation doesn’t inoculate us from selfishness, pettiness, narcissism. We all know parents who are assholes, but, for me at least, I do think it was transformative. But I can’t compare myself to the 19-year-old who was the last version of Just-Jess … And of course, children grow up to be fully formed human beings and that’s the remarkable thing — these brilliant, funny, generous people that I grew in my house are now the ones that I want to spend the most time with.
The Open Mic: Along those lines, while your characters are often severely flawed you always tell their stories with such compassion and dignity. Do you have any rules or guidelines you apply for yourself when you are crafting a character?
Walter: Hmm. I don’t have any rules, certainly. I think characters reveal themselves, and when their flaws come, as with real people, you feel sort of honored to have that knowledge about them, and you want to understand it, as fully as possible. I guess there could be a fictional golden rule–to treat characters as you would want to be treated as a fictional character, with understanding. But sometimes you have to beat the shit out of your characters, too, so — maybe forget that rule as well.
The Open Mic: Several of your stories takes place in and around Spokane, your hometown and the city where you still live. In many ways, you’ve made the city into something of a living, breathing character unto itself. What makes Spokane so special to you, and how does being there impact you and your writing?
Walter: Boy, at this point, fifty years in, I probably can’t separate Spokane from the rest of me. Like anything, my attitude about it changes all the time. For a long time, I considered myself limited by living here, but I feel like I can write about anywhere now, and I go places just to explore them in stories. And why Spokane is special to me … it’s like asking why your family is special to you. You could list off some attributes … but it’s just your family. And that’s this place for me.
The Open Mic: I’ve read seven of your books and honestly have loved all of them. But I have a real affinity for the two Caroline Mabry books (Land of the Blind and Over Tumbled Graves). Is there a chance we’ll see her pop up again in another novel?
Walter: Maybe. I’ve written pages with her in them, imagined her in different places in different books. I wrote several pages of her as an elementary school teacher at a really tough school — but I don’t know if she or I would be happy with that.
The Open Mic: Readers tend to know writers from the chronological order of their books. But you started writing Beautiful Ruins way back in in 1997, years before any of your other books came out. How much did that story change for you from then until the book came out to be a NYT #1 bestseller in 2012?
Walter: Oh boy, all of it changed. The first chapter (a woman arriving in a small village in the cliffs) existed in some form in 1997, but that’s about it. Pieces came into being over the years — a chapter here, a character there. I just read an interview done in 2007 (five years before I finished Beautiful Ruins) in which I said the last sentence I’d just written was “The only fisherman in the piazza was Lugo the promiscuous war hero.” Of course, that sentence doesn’t appear in the final book. You write something, save a bit, rewrite, lose it, start over. The novels I’m working on now are similarly tough for me to pin down.
Walter: Well, Truman Capote would likely be the best dinner companion, Harper Lee would be the kindest, I’m sure, but assuming I could pick the time to dine with them, I’d have to go with Hemingway at Le Dome in Paris, and hope that Man Ray and Henry Miller might wander in.