Jess Walter is the award-winning author of eight books. His titles include Citizen Vince, The Zero, The Financial Lives of the Poets, Beautiful Ruins and We Live In Water, to name a few. He is a #1 New York Times bestseller, a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award, winner of an Edgar Allan Poe Award, and recognized by PEN/USA for both fiction and nonfiction. In this interview, Walter discusses his writing style, (which author-friend Jim Lynch describes as “standup tragedy”) and his beginning as a writer. An enormous thanks to Jess Walter for taking the time to talk with us.
A trend in some of your fiction (particularly Beautiful Ruins, but also in The Financial Lives of the Poets) is the overconfidence and painful reality check of aspiring artists. In The Financial Lives we have the disastrous Poetfolio.com and the pothead who wants to be a writer. In Beautiful Ruins there are a myriad of struggling and downtrodden actors, writers, and musicians. As a writer who’s found success, what interests you about the artist’s struggle?
Well, I certainly don’t think the puncturing of vanities and the crash of reality is exclusive to artists. And I certainly wouldn’t define myself as a “success” — I don’t know that any artist feels successful. I know that I don’t, at least most days, and I certainly didn’t when I was writing those two books. If anything, writing, like all art, teaches you that success is elusive and fleeting. There’s always another sentence to write, another story, another novel. I’ve always worked best when I’ve gotten satisfaction from the work itself, not from any response. A perfect word, a lovely sentence, and best of all—a fully shaped story—these are what I try to remind myself are the real rewards. I guess the artist’s struggle is the struggle of anyone trying to make the most of profound and honest moments as they’re slipping past.
In The Financial Lives of the Poets, Matt’s narration includes poetry. Do you write poetry? Was including it in the book a challenge?
I write a kind of poetry I would call “not very good poetry.” I made a calculated decision to have Matt be an even worse poet than I am (which was not as easy as it sounds), to allow him to riff and play around and not take it too seriously. Only three of the poems in the book are “mine” in that I wrote them for myself. The rest I wrote for the novel, for Matt. And I should probably stop apologizing for his poetry, because I’ve never had more fun writing.
Much of your fiction is grounded in the Pacific Northwest—Spokane, Sandpoint, Seattle, Portland. What about the Northwest inspires you and how does setting impact your work? Do you travel to other locations to develop a similar familiarity?
I love the Northwest. I suppose familiarity is the first reason. It’s the only place I’ve ever lived. But I also like the geography, the laidback people, and I love the end-of-the-road feeling of a lot of it. I do travel to other places, and feel like I could set a novel anywhere (I’ve also set novels in Hollywood and Italy, of course, and New York.) I also like the newness of the Northwest, how it’s always changing. Even Spokane, which was sort of downtrodden when I was a kid—now, it’s like Portland without the precious self-satisfaction, like Seattle without the traffic and obnoxious corporate wealth, like Paris without … okay, it’s not at all like Paris.
The characters in We Live in Water are in dead-end situations, headed for trouble. Though homelessness, addiction, and theft (for example) are universal conflicts, the setting feels essential. Do you think these stories could take place anywhere or does the Pacific Northwest propel these narratives?
I suppose the characters in We Live in Water are headed for trouble, but I feel like that’s kind of an imperative in fiction. And life. We’re all headed for trouble. I think the settings are certainly familiar to me, but I think those stories could occur anywhere. There is a tradition of dirty realism, I suppose, that leads a writer to think of Raymond Carver, who grew up in Yakima, but I also think his stories are also universal. I think the characters in We Live in Water are at least partially redeemed by humor, by that comic sense of the universe.
I find it so interesting that your story collection came out after your novels. In an industry that so often debuts a writer with a story collection, can you talk about your history with short stories vs. novels? Do you prefer one to the other? How do they occupy your creative brain differently?
I’m not sure writers debut with collections as much anymore. Either way, I think it’s smart to just write what you love to read, and not try to guess what editors might want (because they mostly just want you to go away and stop pestering them.) It’s not really an “industry” like, say, the auto industry; publishing is just smart people looking for good stuff. If you create strong work, and if you are relentless, eventually one of those people might fall in love with it. For me, it was novels that editors reacted to first. I couldn’t get most of my early short stories published, in part because they weren’t all that good. So I had already published a few novels when I had enough stories for a collection. Except for the duration of the dream, I don’t think that writing stories feels different than writing novels. It’s exploratory, built on sentences, slow going and then, when things go well, they start running downhill.
Your fiction shows so much diversity. You’ve written satire (The Financial Lives), mystery (Citizen Vince), and a literary romance of sorts in Beautiful Ruins. We Live in Water even includes a zombie story. When you’re starting out, which comes first: genre, or themes and characters?
Thank you. I’d say, for me, voice comes first. I hear the sound of it, and I work on that sound and then characters, situations, ideas come flooding in. Sometimes I’ll start with an idea, but I’m careful to never start with an agenda, or with the answer to some question. Fiction only works when it poses the question, so I generally try to figure out what a piece is asking. When I have the voice and the characters, it feels like I have the beginning of a piece; when the theme begins to emerge, I’m nearing the end. I don’t ever think about genre.
One of your spectacular talents as a writer, in my opinion, is a chameleon-like ability to slide in and out of different voices. Every chapter in Beautiful Ruins has a distinct voice. In We Live in Water, each of the characters is represented so clearly by their own narrative presence. What are your thoughts on developing voice for a story? How would you describe your own voice as a writer?
Thank you again. I really think the story often dictates its own terms, including the voice. Sometimes a story will feel like it requires noir, other times, a big expansive style. I do think I have my own distinctive voice as a writer—a bemused wistfulness maybe? (The nicest description of it came from a my friend, the novelist Jim Lynch, who once accused me of writing “standup tragedy”.) But I think inside that voice, the form and the style can be elastic. I certainly hope so.
Lastly, as a publication that focuses exclusively on new and emerging writers, what advice or anecdote about your trajectory with writing can you share with our readership? (Or, what was the best advice you ever received?)
I think every writer’s origin story should begin in failure. The first seven years I wrote two novels (I only finished one) and sent out a dozen or so short stories. Both novels were rejected (by the only agent I could get to read them) and I only got one story published, in my friend’s journal Yawp. After that, I got 25th place in a contest sponsored by Story Magazine, and I got a check for $25. The story didn’t even appear in the journal. My first seven years of writing fiction I had cleared a whopping $25, which would be about $3.57 a year except I had to pay $10 to enter the contest, so it’s actually $2.14 a year. If you will do something for $2.14 a year, you must really love it. I was a teenage father, a first generation college student, a working-class dolt with no MFA. If I can do this, anyone can.
Interviewed by Lauren Klepinger