Earlier this month I was passing through Spokane, WA, the home of Beautiful Ruins author Jess Walter. Walter and I sat down and talked about his podcast with his friend and fellow author Sherman Alexie, Beautiful Ruins, and how he’d feel if someone made him into a character in their novel.
[Judy Oldfield]: Let’s talk about your podcast with Sherman Alexie, A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment. How did you decide to get into this new medium?
[Jess Walter]: The people asking for guests on Minnesota Public Radio asked Sherman if he’d be interested and he said, “I’d do it with my friend Jess”. It’s really haphazard and could fall apart at any time. We both like the tentative nature of it. One bad mood and either of us could kill it but we have so much fun. The thing we like the most is the live shows. We can feed off the energy of the crowd.
[JO]: Your friendship with Sherman goes back a really long way and that’s probably why the podcast feels so natural.
[JW]: We’ve known each other for 27-28 years and have developed a really close friendship over basketball and parenthood and writing and being from the place we’re from, where there aren’t a whole lot of writers. We can compare notes on things. It’s been great to have that friendship and then be able to share it with people. Because we do have a great time together, sometimes we laugh so hard we would think, “It’s a shame nobody gets to see this”.
[JO]: Do you feel like you’ve influenced each other’s writing?
[JW]: I can’t answer for him, but he’s definitely influenced mine. I think certainly in subtle ways. We both have very strong ideas about voice and form. Everything you read influences you. With friends sometimes its more, “I hope so and so likes this story” or “I hope Jess likes this novel”. So I think we influence each other more as friends than as literary influences.
[JO]: You’ve both spoken on your podcasts about what respect and love you have for each other as writers, which is sort of unique in the world of writing where you’re always looking at people a little sideways.
[JW]: One of the things I dislike about publishing now is that everyone has this idea that it’s a careerist thing. The, “I‘ve got to have this many followers and do this many things”. And it doesn’t take long before some writers begin to believe that someone else’s success affects them in some way. I have very little patience for that. If you’ve written a great book, you’ve written a great book. For me the entire enterprise ends there. It doesn’t matter how you promote it, it doesn’t matter if it was a bestseller, or won awards, the thing that you’ve created is what you get excited about and that’s what I’ve always loved about my conversations with Sherman. We talk about the thing itself. We don’t usually talk about the noise around it.
[JO]: Art is about more than your Twitter followers.
[JW]: Oh yeah, and there’s something about the way we measure everything, how we quantify everything that is, by nature, bad for art. And I think with books especially.
[JO]: How about audiobooks? That’s a new format.
[JW]: Or is it the oldest format? I mean when you think of The Iliad and The Odyssey writing comes from this oral form. I love to read my work aloud. I love to have readings. So to have a great audiobook come out of a piece of work, to me, is the most traditional form in some ways.
[JO]: Right. You get this great experience, but it’s not off the cuff—it’s still edited and finalized. I just saw this study that said that writing and speaking come from different parts of the brain, which makes sense to me, because I’m a far better writer than I am a speaker.
[JW]: But I think they’re linked in some way. A writer is always trying to find his voice, her voice. And my writing process is so tied into reading aloud; at the end of every day I read aloud what I’ve written. A lot of times I’ll find hitches in things. They’re different, certainly, and some books are better on the page. But I think those links are really interesting and that’s one of the things Sherman and I really like is reading our work and that process of hearing it out loud.
[JO]: You’ve said Beautiful Ruins is one of your only audiobooks that you can listen to comfortably.
[JW]: Yeah, it was always hard because actors would do a terrific job and other people would tell me how great they did, but when other actors would read my books it would always stop me cold. It would be simply phrasing something in a way I hadn’t heard it or reading dialogue in a way I hadn’t imagined it. A slight mispronunciation or something. Those things would always catch me and I would have to stop listening.
The analogy I use is it was like watching a video of someone making out with my wife. No matter how well they did it, it wasn’t going to seem right to me. But the minute I heard Eduardo’s spot on pronunciations and the subtleties he brings to the characters (not to mention Richard Burton, Joe the Irish music guy, and all the characters) . . . he seems to just embody them and it’s great when you hear a version of your book that adds to your own sense of it. And that’s what I think Eduardo did.
[JO]: Beautiful Ruins just has so many details in it. One of my very favorite moments is when the production assistant takes the “digital hit” of her phone. It resonated with me—not particularly in a good way—because I totally do that. You write a lot about technology and the interplay between technology and the modern world in Beautiful Ruins, and in The Financial Lives of the Poets. Is that something that creeps into your writing or something that you think about a lot?
[JW]: I do think about it a lot. I mean it is the profound change of our time. In the same way that the automobile, the Industrial Revolution, spears, and every technological advance [shifted culture] ours is this interpersonal communication. These devices we have come up with that begin as a way to enhance your life end up changing it. All of our lives are altered by the technology we carry around.
[JO]: You also write a lot about failure. Why is that? You’ve been nominated for a National Book Award, you’ve written six novels, you’ve been a New York Times Bestseller. Why is that something that still interests you?
[JW]: I remember watching The Smurfs, and a typical plot would be they decide to have a party and everyone shows up to the party and they all have a good time, which is great for a Smurfs episode but not so great for fiction. In general, fiction arises out of conflict and difficulty.
Every writer sees themselves as wanting and lacking. I don’t feel like I’ve produced the great book that I’ve set out to write. That’s what keeps me going as a writer. That fuel is the failure to have outdone this outlandish thing that you’ve set out to do. So I don’t think you have to scratch too far, for most writers, to find this idea of failure.
[JO]: In Beautiful Ruins, there are some things you’ve made up. Porto Vergogna is fictional but then there are also some real people and events like Cleopatra and obviously the Burton character. How do you decide which things to just create and which things to use from real life?
[JW]: It’s more inspiration than decision-making. If you think about novels, there’s a huge amount of the real world in them. People climb in cars; they don’t climb in bubble rolling machines that propel them down the street on their own thoughts.
[JO]: Not in literary fiction.
[JW]: Exactly! The place, the setting, tends to be real. We’re constantly bringing fiction to bear in the real world. Historical fiction uses real characters all the time. Abraham Lincoln wanders around in historical fiction all the time, and sometimes he kills vampires. You never quite know what your historical figures are going to do. So to me the process was not too much different than that.
I started with this woman arriving in Italy—at first I didn’t know who she was . . . then I decided she’s this beautiful actress. Then I had to find out what would an actress be doing in Italy and I stumbled upon Cleopatra being shot in Rome at that time. The story was so compelling and wild and I really committed to it when it touched something thematic (theme is what I often return to in my work). Thematically it really seemed as if this movie had invented a certain kind of fame that we live in this moment. I began imagining a studio hack who had invented fame, essentially. That seemed like such a worthy topic . . . I kind of fell in love with Richard Burton . . . Burton hovered over the novel like a talisman, as a character who had a choice between his talent and some outward kind of fame, some clearly easier, cheaper more seductive kind of thing that in the end, as Americans, we’ve all chosen. It can feel bold and audacious to be a character like Burton so I was thrilled to try and write those scenes and then I was afraid that he would never leave my book.
[JO]: Say 50 years from now there’s a novelist writing about the Pacific Northwest and you show up as a character. How would you feel?
[JW]: I worked pretty hard researching Burton and then honestly I threw that research away. You invent a fictional version of that character. I would be flattered if a novelist chose me. I mean, I’m a writer; we have such boring lives. Hopefully he would come up with something more interesting for me to do. Maybe some out-of-wedlock drama or blackout drunk event, that I don’t know about, to make the book interesting.
Beautiful Ruins is our Book of the Month, and on sale until the end of July. Get it now!