In advance of Humanities Washington’s Bedtime Stories Spokane (Sept. 28) and Bedtime Stories Seattle (Oct. 12) galas, Spark magazine is conducting 5 Questions interviews with each of the talented Northwest authors featured at this year’s events. Today: Jess Walter. Previously: Kathleen Flenniken.
Check back during the next few weeks for interviews with Kim Barnes, Charles Johnson, Jim Lynch, Kevin O’Brien, Nancy Pearl, Shann Ray, Amy Wheeler and Nance Van Winckel.
Spokane native Jess Walter cut his teeth in newspaper journalism. His first books were nonfiction, including Every Knee Shall Bow: The Truth and Tragedy of Ruby Ridge and the Randy Weaver Family, which expanded on Walter’s own coverage of that historic standoff for The Spokesman-Review.
Since then the author has staked a formidable claim in fiction. His post-9/11 novel The Zero (2006) was nominated for a National Book Award. Like his prior novel Citizen Vince (2005) and the subsequent The Financial Lives of the Poets (2009), The Zero took square aim at American absurdities — some of them very dark.
Walter’s new novel, Beautiful Ruins, builds from his experience as a screenwriter, crafting his own works and adapting others for films. The book jaunts between two periods in American cinema: the Italian production of the 1963 mega-bomb Cleopatra; and the 2012 straits in which avaricious producer Michael Deane finds himself when he hits the downhill side of Hollywood power.
Walter emcees Humanities Washington’s Bedtime Stories Spokane, where he still lives, coming up Sept. 28.
YOU CAN GO
What: Bedtime Stories Spokane 2012
Where: The Skyline Ballroom of the Red Lion Hotel at the Park, 303 W. North River Drive, Spokane [Directions]
When: Friday, Sept. 28
Cost: A limited number of individual tickets are available for $75 each.
Note: For information on becoming a sponsor or purchasing a table for this event, contact Kari Dasher at (206) 682-1770 x103 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Humanities Washington: Aside from your fiction work, you got some attention last year with your “Statistical Abstract for My Home of Spokane, Washington” in McSweeney’s. Did that work start from the numerical data that you provide about the city, or from those moments from your life in Spokane that you wanted to share?
Jess Walter: That piece was really driven more by its form, looking for an interesting way to write about my relationship to my hometown. I always intended for that piece to start as a strict statistical abstract and then almost have the narrative leak into it, but it surprised me with the direction that it took — a story of bike thievery and what it means for a place to be your home.
HW: Porto Vergogna (in Beautiful Ruins) is a fictitous place, but the Italian setting must have required some research. What made you want to use that environment in a novel about Hollywood foibles?
Walter: My first impulse was to write about Italy after a trip there, and I decided the book should be set in 1962, when a village in the Cinque Terre cliffside villages would be less ruined by tourists (like me). Then I had to figure out the identity of the woman I’d imagined arriving in this small village and since I’d started doing some screenwriting in Hollywood, and wanted to write about that culture and my own ambitions, I made the woman an actress. The next question was what an actress might be doing in Italy in 1962 and that led me to Cleopatra. I tend to get led around by the nose by my interests and my research when I’m writing a novel.
HW: Michael Deane strikes me as the far side of What Makes Sammy Run? (the 1941 novel by Budd Schulberg chronicling a rags-to-riches story) – you follow the fall of the mogul instead of the rise. How did the idea come to you?
Walter: I was researching Cleopatra and felt as if its train-wreck scandal — the affair between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor —was some kind of landmark event in our cultural history, the moment infamy and fame crossed in some way and our own tabloid/reality TV culture was born. I wanted a character to be responsible for that. In short, I wanted to write an old-fashioned villain. Once I found Michael Deane’s voice, I saw he was a lot more complex, in some ways, the dark hero of the story, the one who makes it all possible, and I loved writing a chapter from his straight-ahead point-of-view, an entire chapter without a single comma.
HW: You’ve worked on screenplays for Hollywood productions. Have you encountered real-life Michael Deanes, Claire Silvers and so on?
Walter:I haven’t seen real-life Michael Deanes, no, but he certainly owes a debt to Robert Evans and to some other producers and studio bosses I researched. I have encountered characters more like Claire. It’s one of the fascinating things about Hollywood for me, the way almost everyone there imagined themselves getting into something artistic and creative, only to find themselves beholden to the appetites of a culture that wants crap-TV and derivative superhero movies. We think of Hollywood as casting its influence over us, but there’s an opposite effect, the demand out there driving otherwise creative people to make Adam Sandler movies.
HW: What is the goal of a satirical novel? Is it pointing out the painful ludicrousness of life in the hopes life will get less ludicrous?
Walter:Tough question. I don’t think I ever set out to write satire, just as I don’t think of myself as writing comedic or humorous fiction. I just write. I tend to think the world is a pretty humorous place and I like the way the comic intersects with the moving, the terrifying, the poignant. I like books that puncture our vanities and point out the absurdities of life. I like to write about systems and institutions that are in some way absurd, but in the end, it’s human nature you’re really writing about. These systems are devised by people and it’s people — characters — that you’re always writing about and any novel, satirical or otherwise, has to come back to the characters.