A Brief Interview with Jess Walter

Weston Cutter
July 16, 2012
Comments 2

I’ve written elsewhere about Jess Walter‘s ferociously great new novel Beautiful Ruins and so needn’t here go on and on too much (plus there’s a good chance you’ve seen either of the two NYTimes reviews of the book, each of which features the sort of praise anyone’d be thrilled with and by), but really, for real: get this book and read it promptly. You’re a fool to miss it. Mr. Walter recently assented to some emailed questions and the Q+A follows.

First, in the broadest possible sketchings, who are folks who’ve been ‘influential’ on you or your work (in any context: if you were deeply influenced by, say, Kirk Gibson’s homer in the ’88 World Series, that’d be awesome; this one’s almost always more fun when it’s not exclusively re: books)?

Outside books, I’m inspired by the Coen Brothers, whose genre collisions thrill me. I listen to music as I write and my playlist swings from old funk and R&B (William DeVaughn and the Delfonics), Bowie, Dylan, Steely Dan, lots of lyric-heavy alt-stuff (Beck, Jeff Tweedy, Richmond Fontaine, John Wesley Harding) … But mostly, honestly, I’m influenced by boring old writers; my holy trinity might be Vonnegut, Didion and DeLillo, but there would be a thousand saints: Laurence Sterne, James Cain, Fitzgerald, some Richards (Heller, Price, Powers, Russo), some metafictionists (Barthelme, Coover and Millhauser), some story writers (Gaitskill, Wolfe, Carver) Cormac McCarthy, Elmore Leonard, William Kennedy, my friend Sherman Alexie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, David Mitchell, Edward P. Jones and on and on I’d go if you’d let me …

This is as much a personal question as a polite one for public consumption: how much work do you torquing your plots, getting things in order? One of the real delicious aspects of your work was the unique thrill offered by narrative that’s been carefully planned by someone, an aspect I don’t necessarily believe’s super common at present (at least in some of the literary fiction I read). Is it a ton of work? Are there charts and graphs? Are there surprises en route?

Charts and graphs: that’s funny. I don’t ever think of plot that way, certainly not as some separate element from … writing. The story is just the story, all tied up in voice and language and characters. I think about what’s happening as I’m writing the sentences, I guess; it’s got to go somewhere or I’m bored. I sharpen the story as I’m sharpening the language and characters. “Beautiful Ruins” was written and rewritten and rewritten over parts of fifteen years; it was something of a puzzle to put together. There were plenty of false starts and bits that fell away (including a badly executed po-mo chapter in which I came into my own novel pitching a film.) I don’t really plan ahead, except in the sense that I try to write toward something happening every day (today, a guy accidentally shot his brother with a crossbow). I like to surprise myself. I don’t write drafts. I write until I’m stuck, then I move on to something else, and when I go back to it, I start at the very beginning to make it feel like a smooth, seamless surface. If I have any organizational secret, it’s not rushing things, and keeping a writing journal in which I try to comment on what I’m doing, make suggestions to myself, chide and encourage, try to float above the thing, see the shape and the themes as they’re emerging. I try to not be timid about what “happens” in a novel. One good thing about my journalism career was that I saw amazing, outrageous, unlikely things happen all the time. I covered cults and shootouts and congressional campaigns and murders and mob hits. Sometimes, we equate “realism” with some kind of daily grind. Presumably, I’m writing about these characters at this time because something happens to them that is remarkable … worth remarking upon. I remember reading One Hundred Years of Solitude and marveling at all that happened just in the first sentence. (Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.) There’s a whole novel in that sentence.

What’s the difference, for you as you’re writing each, between embarking on short stories or novels?

The embarking is always the same. Early to the desk. Fingers on the home keys. Coffee and a giant cookie. I don’t usually know where I’m going until I’ve got some pages. I have a thousand ideas for stories but I tend not to know much about them when I start, even whether it’s a story or a novel. The ideas tend to be pretty specific, but also open-ended (What if an Air Force survival instructor went to Las Vegas to rescue his step-sister from a life of prostitution) then I just write, figure out who these people are, why they’re doing what they’re doing. I think character is elemental; if you pay attention to the people, you’ll get the action right. I usually have three or four things going at once, a story or two, sometimes even two novels, and if I get stuck, I just jump over to the next one. I do this so I won’t leave the desk and I’ve found, over the years, that it makes me both more productive and less worried if something hits a wall (and everything always hits a wall.) I grew up in a very blue collar family and came at fiction through newspapers, so that daily work ethic is how I still approach writing. This doesn’t work, move to that, that doesn’t work, move to this. My dad worked for 40 years in an aluminum plant. I don’t think he ever got “aluminum block.” One grandfather was killed when a crane fell on him, the other when he was stretching fence on our family cattle ranch, so I’m not likely to ever complain that writing is hard work.

This one’s going to be mildly harder to articulate: you seem to be very intentional in your novels in addressing topical concerns: Beautiful Ruins is, as you wrote (in the press packet), “…a story about fame and how we all endeavor now to live our lives like movie stars, like celebrities, each of us an eager inner publicist managing our careers and our romances and our fragile self-images (our Facebook pages and Linked-In profiles).” I know The Financial Lives of Poets dealt with the implosion of the economy (only from reviews: I plan on reading the thing as soon as it gets here from Powells in a week). In the broadest possible way: how do you balance the demands of a novel between the impulse to make it specifically address something vs. letting it find its own way, become its own beast, regardless of what it ends up addressing? Is the duality false? I’ve not written anywhere near enough novels to even know, but I’m curious.

I suppose my journalism background has something to do with that impulse to capture what’s going on around me. But I also just love books that strike a thematic chord, books that are about something in that larger sense. It doesn’t have to be current, though; a book like The Known World blows up what we thought we knew about slavery, while using real facts in a kind of documentary overlay to what is a beautifully structured and written narrative. That kind of work just thrills me as a reader, and makes me want to go write something. I remember reading Resistance, Rebellion and Death by Camus and his exhortation to seek out “the wager of your generation” and this seems to be a good thing for a novelist to attempt. As for balancing those impulses against the demands of character and narrative … yes, I do try to let it become its own beast, but then, when I see the beast, I go back in to make it the hairiest damn beast I can. I think my writing journal again comes in handy there. I usually find the thematic strains when I go back and rewrite and then record them in my journal (With Beautiful Ruins, I wrote once, “Oh my god, this book is really about regret …”) and then in the revision, I sharpen those things, too. I probably fall back on those old writer tropes: that each book tells you what it needs and that writing is the process of discovery. But I find those things to be generally true, so it’s easy to cling to them.

Do you ever write poetry?

I write everything, short fiction, novels, nonfiction, scripts, essays, book reviews, journalism, humor, and yes, least successfully, poetry. I decided the protagonist of The Financial Lives of the Poets would be a bad poet (he’s actually a newspaper business writer) in part because I had no choice. The only two poems of his that I like were mine and existed before the book did: A Brief Political Manifesto and Dry Falls. The rest of that shit is all his. The writers I’m most intimidated by are the poets I’m friends with or have worked with: Robert Wrigley, Chris Howell, Nance Van Winkel, Dan Butterworth, Tod Marshall, Fleda Brown, Joseph Millar, Kwame Dawes, Dorianne Laux, David St John (again, on and on and …)

What’s the view out your window?

I work above my garage behind our house and I can see across our lawn to the back of our house (it’s a brick 1906 tudorish thing) and beyond to the Spokane River gorge, which is right out our front door, and across to the silhouette of Mt. Spokane. I get to work at dawn most mornings and see the sun rise. We live in a city, 10 minutes by bike from downtown, but because the river gorge is there, we’re on a kind of wildlife freeway, so at least once a week, I see some animal come up into our lawn—deer and coyotes and skunks and turkeys and eagles and, once, a scrawny, bedraggled moose that looked like he’d been on a six-week meth bender.

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