Aspen Summer Words: Novelist Jess Walter

Novelist Jess Walter will be on the "Living the Creative Life" public panel at Aspen Summer Words on Tuesday.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘Living the Creative Life,’ with Jess Walter, Dani Shapiro and Jericho Brown

Where: Aspen Summer Words, Belly Up Aspen

When: Tuesday, June 20, 6 p.m.

How much: $25

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office;

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 at an event in Seattle, 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 before an Aspen Winter Words talk in 2014, “it’s always the poverty that terrifies them.”

Walter is back in town this week, teaching a fiction workshop at Aspen Summer Words. He’ll be on a panel titled “Living the Creative Life” at Belly Up Aspen on Tuesday.

A Spokane native who aimed to write novels from childhood on, Walter, 51, 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.”