Winter Words series opens with ‘Beautiful Ruins’ author Jess Walter
December 9, 2014
Nothing is so terrifying as poverty, novelist Jess Walter has found. The author of the 2012 critical favorite and runaway bestseller, "Beautiful Ruins," followed that blockbuster with a collection of short stories, "We Live in Water," about the underclass in Spokane, Washington.
Walter realized, while reading one of the stories in Seattle recently, that poverty disturbs American readers in a way that sex, violence, drug abuse and uglier things simply cannot.
"They're not bothered by the meth use or the horrible parenting in the stories," he said in a recent interview, "it's always the poverty that terrifies them."
A Spokane native who aimed to write novels from childhood on, Walter, 49, honed his writing chops as a journalist. He began reporting for the Spokesman-Review at age 19, as a means of supporting a new child and young wife. His stories on the 1992 siege of Ruby Ridge earned him some national attention, and led to his first book, "Every Knee Shall Bow," a non-fiction chronicle of the incident.
After that, he persuaded his publisher to look at a novel he'd written, which became "Over Tumbled Graves," published in 2001.
Walter has mostly written fiction since then, with funny, unpredictable and timely novels that hold up a fictional mirror to our times. He tackled 9/11 in the National Book Award finalist "The Zero" (2006) and the Great Recession in "The Financial Lives of Poets" (2009).
"What I loved about journalism was you were doing something different everyday," he said. "You were researching, finding out about it, and then presenting it to the world, and that's very much the way I approach fiction."
The ability to drop into an unfamiliar world, take notes and find a compelling story has enabled Walter to put together an eclectic run of books, epitomized in the thematic swerve from the dispossessed in "We Live in Water" to "Beautiful Ruins," a satirical Hollywood novel that spans decades and continents. He's as unpredictable as a literary writer can be – the only through line in his career seems to be a wistful sense of humor, which endears him to readers no matter the subject matter.
"I like doing all kinds of things," he said, "and one of them is writing about poverty in the northwest, and one of them is writing about fame. It's funny to me that people see the stories [in 'We Live in Water'] as so much darker than 'Beautiful Ruins.' But behavior-wise, it's every bit as awful. … People talk about how romantic 'Beautiful Ruins' is and how dark these stories are, but if you were able to do a math problem showing the behavior, I don't think you'd find much of a difference."
The only actual difference, he notes, is poverty.
Walter's books have been well-received by critics, and have won him honors like the Edgar Allan Poe Award (for "Citizen Vince," in 2005) and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize (for "The Zero"), but topping the New York Times bestseller list with "Beautiful Ruins" was unexpected.
"I'm still stunned," he said. "If I knew it was going to be that popular, I wouldn't have spent 15 years on it. … I don't think too much, when I'm writing, about what the reactions will be, and I don't' see how a writer could ever finish a book if they did."
Above his writing desk, Walter keeps a handful of writing mantras to keep him on track. One of them says, "Write the next book you want to read," which keeps him from succumbing to the siren song of writing for critics or commercial success.
Walter, who opens the Winter Words author series Tuesday night at Paepcke Auditorium, is admittedly obsessive about his writing routine. He gets up before dawn, has a snack, writes for several hours, then goes out for a late morning "second breakfast," during which he reads over his morning work. He's nearly always juggling several projects at once — keeping different novels and stories moving forward simultaneously.
Currently, Walter said, he's at work on two novels — "one is romantic and cultural, and the other is historical and has lots of gun-fighting" — and polishing some unpublished short stories, which he said are also set in the northwest but different thematically from the "We Live in Water" material.
Walter is also currently working on the film version of "Beautiful Ruins." He wrote the screenplay with director Todd Field ("In the Bedroom," "Little Children") and remains in development.
"Everyone seems to like the script," Walter said. "So now it's about looking through the couch cushions and trying to find the $30 million we need to make it. … You can't write a satire of Hollywood and expect everything to go smoothly, but we'll see how it goes."
Winter Words is presented by Aspen Words, the literary nonprofit formerly known as the Aspen Writers' Foundation. The series continues with Natasha Trethewey (Jan. 6), George Packer (Feb. 10), Michael Lewis (March 12) and Ruth Ozeki (Apr. 14).