To get an idea of the genius behind Jess Walter, follow him on Twitter, where you’ll find treasures like: “I once saw, in a used book store, a book I’d signed and given to a friend. I bought it and gave it to him again. ‘Last time,’ I said.” Fortunately, Walter goes beyond the 140 character limitations and has authored seven critically-acclaimed books. Ruby Ridge, his one nonfiction title, was made into a mini-series starring Laura Dern and Randy Quaid. His 2006 novel, The Zero, was a finalist for the National Book Award and a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award winner. The latest in Walter’s oeuvre is Beautiful Ruins, which Richard Russo called an “absolute masterpiece.” Set against the backdrop of the filming of Cleopatra in 1962, the novel trails the lives of people broken and healed by relationships as they weave and vine around each other throughout the years. The book is thoroughly steeped in the friction that occurred on set and off during the making of the movie. Walter’s love of film is apparent in this book, and we wanted to learn what drew him to this particular Hollywood calamity, what his own experience is with Tinseltown, and how he comes up with such hilariously offensive insults. He took some time to talk with Lindsey while he was, appropriately enough, in L.A.
JW: My brother and I are big roast fans. I had a roast for his 40th birthday. I remember how much fun that was and how much fun it is to mock people you love. I saw the relationship between Pasquale & Orenzio as this sort of endearing friendship and wanted to have them say these awful things to each other. The tricky thing was trying to come up with insults that had a direct Italian translation. Eventually I gave that up and decided to go with “shit-smoker” whether there was a direct translation or not.
LM: Nice. I was talking with my coworker about the book and he was telling me that he and his girlfriend read books out loud to each other. He said that Beautiful Ruins was one he started reading on his own, but when he got to that exchange between Pasquale and Orenzio, he had to read it to his girlfriend. Apparently she took the book from him because she then wanted to read it. And then he had to wait until she was done to finish it.
JW: I love stories like that. I’m glad I could bring that couple closer with my Italian profanity.
JW: No, not really. My wife is Italian and when we went to Italy I sort of fell in love with the culture. It seems kind of audacious to write about a culture I don’t know that well, but when something seems kind of dangerous and that I shouldn’t do it, I’m drawn to it. It seemed like a great writing challenge.
LM: Did going to Italy spark wanting to write a book that was set there?
JW: Yeah, the first time I went there was in 1997 and that’s when this book started as a little germ in my head. My mom was dying of cancer, and I envisioned this woman arriving in this small town where no one could die of cancer. I thought there was going to be some sort of magical realism in the book, but there wasn’t really enough to hold that idea. Instead I had this guy Pasquale and I had this woman Dee. I didn’t know really who they were and, as often happens, they grew so far away from who they were originally. I fell upon “Cleopatra” and got fascinated by my research in that. Each little bit would sort of come to me in that way. I’d also been in and out of Hollywood and taught myself how to pitch while there, so I thought, ‘Oh, I gotta write about pitch. How am I going to incorporate that?’ I worked on this book for 15 years off and on. I’d work on it a little bit, then step away. I think as a younger writer I assumed that if you couldn’t finish something it wasn’t going to ever finish. So this was kind of a great experience to go back to it and find myself taken by the characters and to try to find those connections.
LM: It actually sounds like the character of Alvis Bender, each year returning to Italy in the hopes of finishing his book.
JW: Yeah, I think my inability to finish this book found its way into his book. The same with when I was trying to pitch a movie. It’s reminiscent of the character of Claire and her hopes for Hollywood, even in the face of it constantly disappointing her.
LM: What is your experience with Hollywood?
JW: Oh, not much. My first book, which was a nonfiction book about Ruby Ridge, was made into a mini-series. Since then I’ve written a couple of scripts with a writing partner and nothing’s come of them. I tried to get Citizen Vince made into a movie for a few years, but that kinda fell through. Honestly, though, I haven’t had a bad experience with Hollywood. I’ve sort of been in and out of that town since ’96, and I’ve never fully committed to it. I’ll pop down and do a little work, but what I love really is writing novels.
LM: You mentioned being drawn in by Cleopatra. Why did you decide to include that in the book?
JW: First it was as simple as what’s going on in Italy in 1962, when some of the book takes place. I started reading about Cleopatra and the production of it and it was so fascinating. I was watching the movie, and there are two ladies in waiting next to Cleopatra who are supposed to be Egyptian, and one of them is blond! That’s when I started to think that the character of Dee could be cast as that blond lady in waiting. I was also fascinated by Richard Burton, this drunk reprobate. The research was very fun. As a novelist, you’ll often turn yourself loose in one direction and usually it doesn’t work out. There are whole sections of this novel that didn’t work. Readers don’t see all the dead ends when a novel comes out, especially after 15 years. The ones that last are the ones that I was able to find some connective tissue back to the story itself, which is that of these ruined lives who are committed to telling stories of themselves.
LM: There were many moments where I was reading the dialogue in Beautiful Ruins and the conversation would be interrupted by the description of a gesture made by one of the characters or something that was going on in the room. I’d find myself suddenly snapped out of the conversation, as though I had been caught eavesdropping. The dialogue in the book is so natural sounding.
JW: Thanks, I’ve always gotten nice reviews about my dialogue, and I’ve never known what exactly that means. I feel like dialogue in books often aren’t really what people sound like when spoken. It’s more artful, so to hear that is very rewarding.
LM: Alvis Bender, the writer in Beautiful Ruins, has a habit when he’s writing of drinking a glass of wine every time he finishes a page of his book. Is that a little reminiscent of your own writing style?
JW: Yeah, this book would never have been finished. I think every writer has their superstitions. I wake up every morning and sit down at the desk to start writing at 5:30 am. I eat a cookie and drink a 20oz latte. I’ve been doing it for years. I wake up now with this sort of Pavlovian desire for a cookie. It’s great for writer’s block, because if I don’t write, I don’t get the cookie.
LM: Ha! That’s perfect. So what book do you try to push on people every chance you get?
JW: Wow, that is so hard! For years it was Cloud Atlas, which has a similar kind of broad storytelling. I love that book. Recently I’ve really liked Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. The short stories of Tobias Wolff. There’s a book called Skippy Dies, which was a really fun read. We all have a trinity of writers who birthed us and for me it was always Kurt Vonnegut and Joan Didion and Ken Kesey. I’m always pushing their books on people. When I get that question I want to send people to some worthy book that needs more attention. Percival Everett’s novel Erasure is a classic that they’ll be studying 30 years from now, but most people don’t know it. There are some amazing poets, so I feel like this is my moment to say, ‘Go read some Robert Wrigley!’
LM: I just picked up Kim Barnes’ In the Kingdom of Men and saw that you blurbed it. The first couple pages absolutely blew me away.
JW: Isn’t that a great opening? This book is really different. Most of her books are set in the Northwest, but this one has such an epic feel about it. She writes such beautiful sentences, and this one has thrills and adventures. It really is great.
LM: All right, final question. What’s the one question you’ve never been asked that you wish someone would just ask you already?
JW: [laughs] Hmmm, the one question? No one ever asks me where I got my clothes, and I think that’s a bad sign. They come from thrift stores, mostly.
LM: You’re in the book business. We all shop at thrift stores.
JW: And not the good ones either.
Lindsey McGuirk is Village Books’ Digital Marketing & Publishing Coordinator. She also handles the store’s online marketing and works with authors to get their books published on the print-on-demand Espresso Book Machine.