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.
To read the entire interview