Interview with Jess Walter

Posted on December 12, 2013 at 6:00 am

by Ellen Peters

Local Spokane author Jess Walter is a former National Book Award finalist and winner of the Edgar Allan Poe Award, as well as the author of six novels and one nonfiction book. Recently, I had the pleasure to interview Mr. Walter about his life and his writing.

Ellen Peters: What’s the one question no one asks you that you wish they would? How would you reply?
Jess Walter: “How would you like this million dollars?” And I would answer: in coffee.

EP: Author Chris Cleave said that he was a big fan of yours. Have any new authors caught your interest?
JW: That was very nice of Chris. He’s really talented. My wife said he gave a wonderful reading [at Spokane Is Reading 2012]. I wish I’d been here to see him. There are so many great young writers that I’ve read this year: Lauren Groff, Wiley Cash, Ben Lerner, Sheila Heti … my favorite novel this year was probably “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” by Ben Fountain, although Ben isn’t really “new” … it’s his second book, but his first novel.

EP: One of the things I loved about “Citizen Vince” was how vividly you brought to life Spokane in 1980. How important is setting to your novels?
JW: Thank you. It really depends on the novel. Sometimes setting is very important, as with “Citizen Vince.” Other times, as in “The Financial Lives of the Poets” the setting is more general, more universal. One thing I’ve realized is that every book is different. In February, I have a book of short stories coming out, all of which are set in the northwest, about half in Spokane.

EP: Speaking of Spokane, when you’re not writing, what do enjoy doing around town? Any favorite restaurants or things to do for entertainment?
JW: I wake up really early and write and there’s nothing I love more than walking along the river on the far west end of the city after a morning of writing. I also like to have “second breakfast” and there are so many great restaurants and coffee shops where I do that, Boots, Atticus, Indaba, Sante, Central Foods, Taste (I could go on and on.) I love skiing with my son, seeing movies and plays with my wife and daughter (my oldest daughter lives in another great city, Missoula) and going to readings, listening to music, having a drink or two in the many great bars.

EP: The cover art for Beautiful Ruins is great! What would you like readers to know about this story?
JW: Thanks. I like the cover very much. Beautiful Ruins is a simple story with a complex structure, I guess–the story of a man who meets a woman in Italy in the 1960s and is so haunted by that, it changes the course of his life and he sets out to find her almost fifty years later.

EP: For those who weren’t aware, earlier in your writing career you were a reporter for the Spokesman-Review. Has that background informed your writing or helped in your research?
JW: I think being a reporter helps in many ways, as you say, with research, but more with a general curiosity about the world. Reporters understand how systems work, how government and law enforcement and education and all these things work together. And writing for a daily newspaper gave me “chops,” like a piano player taking requests in a bar. Except writers don’t get tips in our cocktail glasses.

EP: Bonus question: The Beatles or the Rolling Stones?
JW: Too hard. I’d have to say both …

Jess Walter’s work has been translated into more than 20 languages and his essays, short fiction, criticism and journalism have been widely published. You can find his work in Best American Short Stories, Best American Non-required Reading, Harper’s, Esquire, McSweeney’s, Byliner, Playboy, ESPN the Magazine, Details and many others.

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