Q&A: Novelist Jess Walter

When Jess Walter’s novel Beautiful Ruins became a best-seller last year, it came as a surprise, but it probably shouldn’t have. The book has all the markers of an irresistible read: a glamorous Italian locale, inside jokes about Hollywood, gossip about Elizabeth Taylor, addiction, sex, and a generosity of spirit often lacking in contemporary literature. Jumping back and forth between the present and the past, the novel is a madcap romp, film-industry satire, love story, and treatise on family all wrapped into one. Who wouldn’t want to read it?

It’s not like Walter’s previous novels have gone nowhere, of course. His 2009 book, The Financial Lives of Poets, was optioned by director Michael Winterbottom; his 2006 novel, The Zero, was a finalist for the National Book Award; and 2005’s Citizen Vince won an Edgar, the highest honor in mystery writing.

Walter’s back with his first collection of short stories, We Live in Water, and he’s making the long trek from Spokane, Wash., where he’s lived all his life, to visit Knoxville for a reading as part of the University of Tennessee’s Writers in the Library series. If you like books, this is not to be missed.

You’ve had an unconventional career as a literary novelist—no MFA, you’ve never lived in Brooklyn (even though your oldest daughter is named for the borough). Yet you not only get rave reviews from serious critics, but your books actually sell. Do you think the conventional path to becoming a so-called “literary” novelist is overrated?
It’s hard to say. I think generally if there’s a degree in something you’re interested in, you should pursue it—I believe in higher education. But as someone who grew up blue collar, I think there are still some class issues. You shouldn’t have to go to an Ivy League school to be a writer, you know? … Still, I don’t think there’s any way to publish or to get your work read that’s easy. It’s like asking someone the best way to crawl across the desert—you just have to crawl.

You started your career as a journalist. Did you always want to write fiction, though? Or did that desire develop later?
I always wanted to write books. I dreamed of it as a kid. But I was a dad at 19, and I had to support my child and my wife at the time, so I became a journalist. The idea of writing poetry on the beach was still really appealing, but I just couldn’t do it. And I was more interested in fiction, but there were nonfiction writers I loved, like Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson. I just wanted to be able to write great sentences like that. And I think being a journalist was helpful when I set out to write fiction. I look back at the novels I’ve written, and they’re fueled by curiosity. I think as a journalist I learned to write with curiosity and empathy, and that makes for good writing.

You recently released your first collection of short stories, after what, six novels and one book of nonfiction? Is that something you want to spend more time doing? Or were your publishers just wanting to rush something out to capitalize on the success of Beautiful Ruins?
I think anyone that rushes out short stories would be kind of foolish. It was just kind of a coincidence. I had a three-book deal with my publisher, and the third was for a book of short stories. … No one had any idea that Beautiful Ruins was going to do what it did. But it was gratifying after 25 years of writing short stories to finally have a collection published.

Your two most recent novels have been optioned for feature films, one by Michael Winterbottom and the other by Todd Field. Are they actually on a path to getting made? Have any casting decisions been finalized?
It’s so hard to tell. My very first book, about the stand-off at Ruby Ridge, was made into a TV miniseries, and that all happened really fast. But with Hollywood—I don’t know. … I can’t tell where the race ends or how you know if the race is over. But I wrote the script to Financial Lives of Poets, and I’m working on a script for Beautiful Ruins with the director, Todd Field, and he seems serious about it. He did In the Bedroom and Little Children, which were both adaptations of fiction, and that’s part of his process, co-writing the scripts. … I do hope a movie gets made, though. To me, it’s the dominant storytelling method of our time.

The Man Booker Prize just announced it would be opening entries to works written by American writers, and the National Book Award is now doing a long list before announcing the finalists next month, along with some other revisions to attempt to draw more attention to the award. Do you think these changes will increase the visibility of the awards and help sell more books? Or is the audience that cares about these things already too limited for it to matter?
I don’t know. I was a judge for the National Book Award, and I loved the process, and I was a finalist for it, and that was amazing. But reading literary fiction has never been a mass art. I’m all for democracy … but I think the last thing you want is an awards list that nearly mirrors the best-sellers list.

This has been a huge year for fiction, and half of the big fall books aren’t even out yet. What have you read lately that’s blown you away, and what are you most looking forward to opening up?
I can’t wait for the new book from Jhumpa Lahiri—I haven’t read it yet. … Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son was just stunning. David Gilbert’s & Sons is great. I haven’t cracked the Pynchon yet. … I think the one idea we have to give up on is the idea of reading everything.

Interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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