Jess Walter: Write what you want to read

Walter's latest offering, "Beautiful Ruins," is the result of a novelist working at the height of his powers

Topics: The Nervous Breakdown, Books, Writers and Writing, Fiction,

Jess Walter: Write what you want to read
This article originally appeared on The Nervous Breakdown.

If there’s something  Jess Walter can’t do as a writer, I’ve yet to encounter it. He can craft plots for detective novels, wax poetic and profound on any number of topics, tackle topics from the election of 1980 to 9/11, and just plain crack you up. His last novel, “The Financial Lives of the Poets,” was riotously funny but also disturbingly serious, leaving me with knots in my stomach for days afterward (it also inspired my first TNB interview). “Beautiful Ruins,” his latest and perhaps his most ambitious offering, is, simply put, the result of a novelist working at the height of his powers.

The Nervous Breakdown

Jess was kind enough to answer some of my questions:

I’m curious about the first and only chapter of Bender’s (brilliant as advertised) book that appears in “Beautiful Ruins.”  Is that something you wrote separately and wanted to include, or did you write it specifically for Beautiful Ruins?  In other words, what came first, that story or the book?

The book came first. I started the novel that became Beautiful Ruins” so long ago (1997), and had so many different versions, that the order of things is hard to trace. Early on, through about 2001 or so, all I had was a single chapter or two (and then three) of Dee arriving in Pasquale’s town (very different from the final first chapter) and I couldn’t seem to get past those first chapters: a woman arrives in a small Italian town and meets this man, and she’s sick and uh, then … uh … uh … I didn’t know what happened next. I also had a problem: I’d named Pasquale’s pensione The Hotel Adequate View but this was such an un-Italian thing to do (false modesty, or really any modesty, not exactly being an Italian trait) so then I had to create a sly American who could name the hotel. At first, this Alvis Bender was a big blustery travel writer, but the book became more wistful over time, more about regret and unfulfilled dreams, and I realized Alvis might have my problem: an ambitious first chapter that he couldn’t get past. This haunted version of Alvis just fit better as the book formed in my imagination. Then my question was, What’s his story? And I’d just read a nonfiction book about black soldiers in Italy and so I imagined Alvis in that world, wrote it, rewrote it again in 2006 and 2009, and again …

Hollywood legend Michael Deane, who rises from PR guy extraordinaire to the aging producer of an odious web-cast dating program called Hookbook, rises to prominence by suggesting that the marketing of the film Cleopatra, which was hemorrhaging money, focus on the real-life Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor drama, rather than the movie itself.  You seem to suggest that the Cleopatra PR was the starting point of today’s reality-TV-based culture.  What gave you that idea?

The series of decisions that leads to something like that is so random. Basically, I’d been to the Cinque Terre in 1997 and fell in love with it, but wanted to write about it before it was rediscovered by tourists. My mom was dying of stomach cancer and had never gotten to see Italy and my first impulse was to show my mother this place I’d seen. So I imagined a young woman about her age arriving in this tiny village in the early 1960s. But I didn’t want to write about my mom, so the next question was, who is this woman? I’d started thinking about Fellini’s 1950s/60s Italy and the idea of fame, so she became an actress and the next question was What’s going on in Italy at that time that could involve an actress? That led me to “Cleopatra” being filmed in Rome, and my research fell into one this great hole: Cleopatra/Burton/Taylor, and the amazing discovery for me was that this film that was called the biggest boondoggle in Hollywood history had actually broken even or made a little money. And it was clear, to me anyway, why: this modern idea of fame/infamy. And this gave me the character of Deane–the inventor of all things Kardashian. By this time, I’d had three or four Italian chapters of what I called ’The Hotel Adequate View’, and it was maybe about 2004 or so, and the story really opened up at that point.

Richard Burton appears in the book, to great effect.  How much research did you do on him?  How many of his films had you seen, and did you watch after you decided to include him as a character?  I love that the title comes from the piece describing Burton on Dick Cavett (I watched the clips on YouTube…there are worse people to be on a boat off the coast of Italy with).

I always do a lot of research, immerse myself so that I believe it, then set the nonfiction aside and let it become fiction. So, yes, I read books and watched Burton films and interviews and, my favorite, old footage of him on stage (Burton’s “Hamlet”, in black and white, filmed from a distance with an unmoving camera, is stunning … you can’t believe the power coiled in that body and voice, especially when compared to the craggy old sot who appears in that Cavett interview). His relationship to his art (acting) and fame really hovered over the entire novel, over all the characters and their attempts to express themselves through novels and stories and music and plays and acting and painting. He was sort of a talisman for the book but I didn’t know if the chapter with him in it would make sense. I wrote and jettisoned so many chapters along the way (including Dee dying in the 1980s and even a po-mo chapter in which I entered my own book to pitch a film version of “The Zero … it was like crawling down a hall, finding a closed door, then backing up and trying another hall. But as soon as I wrote Burton, I felt like I was crawling in the right direction.

Oh, man, I’d LOVE to read that po-mo chapter. Can you put it as an Easter egg on your website or something? And speaking of movie pitches, Beautiful Ruins contains a healthy dose of Hollywood cynicism.  What is your own relationship to Hollywood?  Are there adaptations in the works?  Because I’d rather watch a film version of any of your books that another fucking superhero movie.

I think it contains both cynicism and hopefulness, which is my basic reaction to the place. It’s funny: the usual Hollywood portrayal is overly cynical, I think, which is kind of boring in the end and only half of the story. What I loved about Claire and Michael Deane is that she is the cynic and he, for all his cruel machinations, is endlessly hopeful. For me, movies and television are interesting because they are the dominant storytelling form of our time. My first love will always be fiction, and especially novels, but I’m a writer … I write poetry and essays and criticism and I’d love to write a whole play, and sometimes I even write scripts. My first book, about Ruby Ridge, was made into a miniseries on CBS in 1996, and since then, I’ve dabbled in Hollywood, pitched a few things, sold a couple of screenplays and a pilot that I wrote with a buddy from Spokane, flirted with seeing “Citizen Vince” as a film, and most recently, adapted “The Financial Lives of the Poets” as a script. It’s supposed to go into production as an indie film in November, with Michael Winterbottom directing and Jack Black starring. I’ve managed to work there just a little bit, but with really great people (the hopeful side) and my experiences have been just fine, but with cynical moments spliced in. That said, I think most Hollywood meetings are silly and I truly despise pitching. It’s insane to expect someone to come in and tell you the story before they’ve written it, and buying an idea from someone who can explain it rather than write it is like choosing a mechanic based on his ability to draw a picture of your car’s problem.

Readers of my first novel,“Totally Killer”—all seven of them—often compliment it by saying “Wow, this would be a great movie,” as if this is the highest praise a book can receive.  I’m sure you get this, too (see my previous question).  What are your feelings about that, the novel-as-protracted-film-treatment notion?

“Totally Killer” would make a totally killer movie.

You flatter me.

People sometimes ask who I would cast in my books and I never have any idea. I don’t think I could ever write a book thinking of it as a movie the whole time. This would be like building a house and filling it with furniture just so you could have blueprints. I did try to write “Citizen Vince” as a script before the novel, but it never really came around until I wrote it as fiction. And by then I’d thrown the script aside and didn’t really think of it. A novel, to me, is animating the story. A film can also animate the story, but it’s such a different kind of animation. I write novels because I love the form, because it’s my favorite kind of storytelling to encounter and to practice, because I want to create for readers the experience of reading that I’ve had reading novels–that complete immersion and emotional connection. I also love film, but it’s not really the writer’s medium. A great script is necessary–and I think people underestimate the importance of the screenwriter–but so many other things have to click into place for a great film: acting, directing, etc … I love the film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and I love the book “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” but they couldn’t be more different.

Well put. On your site, you do haiku reviews of books. Give me a haiku review of “Beautiful Ruins”.

Even in haiku

it’s probably bad form to

review your own book

Although Alan Dupree makes a cameo in “Beautiful Ruins,” this is the least—let me use the MFA term here—detective-y of your novels.  In fact, if I were to plot the percentage of “detective” in your books on a graph, we would see an overall decline.  Have you lost interest in the form, or are you just saving it up for a return to the genre to win another Edgar award?

Ha! Yes, it’s all part of a master plan that ends with me winning a daytime Emmy and being elected Sheriff of Boundary County, Idaho. No, I really don’t think about it that way. I just … write. I started the novel that became “Beautiful Ruins” before any of my published novels (I was also writing a novel about a single father) so if I’d finished one of those first first, then maybe “Over Tumbled Graves” would have been the departure. Back then, because my first book had been a nonfiction book, I remember being described as ”true crime specialist” Jess Walter and thinking, One book makes you a specialist? (Eat one lousy foot, they call you a cannibal.) But at the same time, I was writing domestic short stories and comic short stories and noirish fiction and comic fiction and essays and … well, everything. Now I’m kind of embarrassed that I ever spent time thinking about how people describe me. I think it’s healthiest and most productive to just write the next thing you want to read.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>