Veteran journalist and novelist Jess Walter is no stranger to accolades — his 2005 novel Citizen Vince received the Edgar Allen Poe Award and his 2006 book The Zero was a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the PEN Center Literary Award and L.A. Times Book Prize, to name just a few. But none of his books quite captivated America like his 2012 novel, Beautiful Ruins, which became a bestseller and was named one of the New York Times‘ 100 notable books of the year. Now, just when it seemed like all America wanted was BDSM erotica and a television lineup full of Drunk Midget House (a fictional Walter creation), Walter’s sweeping tale of love lost and found appeared on bookshelves to remind us of literature’s capacity to touch as well as to entertain.
After naming Walter one of our 20 Breakout Talents of 2012, Hollywood.com spoke with him about the decades (yes, multiple) he spent writing Beautiful Ruins, the power of language, his fascination with the Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor romance, and if he really thinks our country is doomed to create a show like Hunger (which, in Beautiful Ruins, puts eating disorder victims in a house together).
Hollywood.com: Did you know that this book would be received differently when you were writing it?
Jess Walter: Every book is so different almost in every way. It’s kind of a cliché among authors that you’re reinventing [your process] every time you’re doing it. The process of writing this one was so different, in part because I was working on it for 15 years. So off and on I would come in and out of it.
It’s funny, I never have any preconceived notion of what a book’s going to be or how it’s going to land or anything like that. You’re almost a slave to the idea. And so the whole time I was working on this, I was probably sort of stunned that it’s done as well as it has. Because I would explain it to people and how it’s about Hollywood and 1960s Italy and the Donner Party and Edinburgh, Scotland, and they would look at me like I was kind of insane. So I think I worried that it was probably too diffuse and elaborate, so I’ve been really pleasantly surprised. But I’ve also learned to not really have too many expectations about these kinds of things. You just write and hope for the best.
You mentioned you spent 15 years writing Beautiful Ruins. Why do you think it was so tricky to piece this book together?
Well, you know, it’s kind of funny, but I think what the book ended up being about — which is the span of someone’s life and heartbreak and regret and how we are, I think, made better by our failures — I needed 15 years of all that hell. I started the book when my mom was still alive, and she passed away. And I had two kids and watched them grow up, and watched my older daughter become an adult, and I had all sorts of failures and successes. I think the scope of the book almost required a little more living on my part. But I never thought that while I was working on it. Every time I quit working on it I assumed it was because the novel was just bad. I just thought it had failed somehow. I think one of the pleasant surprises of the book was, every time I came back to it, I could reanimate it, which isn’t always the case. A lot of times I walk away from something, I abandon it and the paint’s dry. I can’t manipulate it anymore, I can’t get it to do anything else. But it seemed like every time I went back to this book, Pasquale and Dee inspired me. They had more to say. When I started it I thought they would spend 40 years apart, 35 years apart, and by the time I finished it… If it had taken much longer, they would’ve died before I could’ve gotten them back together.
You’ve lived with these characters for so long, was it hard to let them go?
It’s always hard to let a novel go, but the characters from all my novels — that old saying that they become real, in a way they really don’t. More than anyone, I think the author is aware that they are a collection of your own kinks and narrative impulses. The hard thing to let go of with a book is being afraid that it’s not done, “It’s not ready! I haven’t finished it!” You know, maybe the Donner pitch needs to be a page shorter and maybe Claire’s boyfriend needs to get a better job. It’s more that you feel you haven’t done it justice. It isn’t as if the people have an impact on your life other than that you’re hauling them around trying to figure out what a satisfying narrative conclusion would be.
You mentioned the Donner pitch, which I thought was such a fun section. Did all these different structural and formatting devices evolve naturally? How did you decide to structure the book the way you did?
When I started working on the book, I had just started doing a little bit of work in Hollywood; I worked on a couple of scripts and I worked on an adaptation of my books and I was just so taken by, first of all, the whole pitching structure, which was so alienating to me as a novelist. It almost seemed like you would choose a writer not based on how they write, but by how they talk about writing. It’d be like choosing a doctor not based on him having experience but him being able to talk about being a doctor. So it always struck me as so interesting, and I would come away from pitches with this feeling of really — and in all of Hollywood — of feeling really disoriented. So I sort of wanted to capture that. And I was thinking about the least likely movie ever and I’ve always been fascinated by the Donner Party.
When I wrote that chapter, it was originally much much longer, and then I abandoned it for a while. But then I thought, “No, I always wanted a pitch in there.” I wanted to treat a movie pitch as if it was a form almost like a poem or a play or a short story or a novel. I’ve never seen a pitch written as a literary form before, and so, for a while, I toyed with having the pitch be for one of my books. And so, one of the worst chapters I wrote and abandoned was a really postmodern chapter in which I went in my own book and I pitched my novel The Zero to some producers who thought it was a bad idea. Thankfully, I abandoned that. But [the pitch chapter] had been around for a while, and it was really just trying to make it fit and not be indulgent, not take you too far away. The happy ending to it was that I had always envisioned it as a literary form, and then a literary magazine took that excerpt and published it as a standalone piece. And I actually read it, they had a big reading, and people just looked horrified — it’s such a grim story.
I read an interview where you said that, for you, starting this book was like Alvis rewriting his one chapter again and again. Was Alvis especially close to your heart as a character?
Probably not as close as Dee and Pasquale, honestly. Just because they’ve been with me so long. I was thinking about it, I was 31 when I met them, in a way, and 47 when I finished writing about them. But Alvis was — there are all sorts of surrogates you end up having in a novel and, you know, how he was stuck in a chapter, lounging around the Cinque Terre in his American writer decadence, that very much felt like who I got to be.
Alvis’ chapter and the sections where he pops up were some of my favorite parts of the novel.
Oh were they? Oh great, thanks. I liked it, too. It was hard having all those fragments and bits, because in each one I started out thinking, “Oh, maybe he’s not a good novelist.” And then I would find myself taken by the story or the play that Pat’s in at the end — at first, I thought it would just be this sort of self-indulgent personal piece, and then by the end I’m like, “I kind of want to see that play!” And Alvis was one of the things that, for me, it was so fulfilling to go back and finish out all those stories. Because I feel like I got to sort of finish Alvis’ story for him.
Do you ever think you’ll revisit any of these smaller characters or these smaller pieces?
I don’t know. I haven’t given it much thought. Usually when I finish a book, I kind of feel like the world closes to me. But there are a lot of recurring characters in my first four novels. For instance, Vince from Citizen Vince, which was my third novel, makes an appearance in my fifth novel. Just sort of a walk-on, almost. And I love authors who do that — Larry McMurtry is one — I love the way a minor character in another book will warrant his or her own book later. So I could see that happening. It isn’t anything that’s burning away at the keyboard right now.
The cynicism of Hollywood and this critique of the taste level of the American public comes up again and again in the book. I loved all the ideas for the terrible reality shows, like Hookbook, and Shane’s anorexia house show. How does that compare to your general feeling about the state of the general population’s taste these days?
It’s funny that it does seem cynical, I guess, and yet I think there’s a hopefulness in the book. The thing that sort of amused me when I was finished was realizing that Claire, for all of her good intentions, is really the cynic, and Michael Deane is really the hopeful one — he’s endlessly hopeful. And in some ways I feel like he’s almost he hero of the entire novel, because he doesn’t question the industry, he doesn’t turn up his nose at it. A lot of people blame Hollywood as if it’s a vacuum, and my point of the novel was always that it reflects ourselves back to us. It can’t be any more vacuous and empty than we are because we are feeding it. We’re the ones choosing by what we watch which of those TV shows and which movies [are made] — we choose the culture we get. It doesn’t come at us arbitrarily. So in some ways, I loved Michael’s acceptance of his own terms. And every novelist has to find a way somehow to realize that the thing that we do is not what most people want. What most people want is Drunk Midget House. But it was also just great fun writing that stuff.
Well, building off of that, you used language and your characters talked about language with such care in this book. The way you as an author presented your craft is like the opposite of Drunk Midget House. I loved the idea of the “Hotel Adequate View” and how Alvis teaches Pasquale’s father that you need to careful with your words. Is that something you think about as a writer? How conscious are your word choices, or does it just kind of flow from you?
For a writer, those are the musical notes. Most of those 15 years I spent on the novel were not spent sitting around imagining what the characters do, they were spent trying to hone the sentences and make them sound right to my ear — and they may not sound right to someone else’s. And especially, I think a book like this where you want to try to embrue meaning into everything the characters do and say, so you work hard on the dialogue. Really the joy of the whole process is working on all those lines. And I finish most days of writing by reading aloud what I’ve done just to hear the sound of it, to hear how it feels coming out of my mouth.
The other piece of this story we haven’t talked about yet is the Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton section. How did they find their way into your novel?
Really accidentally! It’s kind of crazy that this is sort of the winter of Burton, you know, with his diaries out and all this interest in him. Because when I first found myself venturing back to that story it seemed like almost a forgotten bit of Hollywood. But it came about basically because I knew that I wanted to write about the Cinque Terre during a time before it had become polluted with tourists like me. And then the other impulse I had originally was that the woman, Dee, would be a character about my mom’s age. So that put me sort of in the early ’60s. And I had watched a bunch of Fellini films and that just seemed like the most romantic period of any place, anywhere. I was just so taken by the Felliniesque aspect of Italy during that time.
But when I was doing research, trying to figure out what was going on there, I came across Cleopatra. And it was such a train wreck! I loved every detail: an agent getting shot in the groin by a producer, and Elizabeth Taylor nearly dying, and the affair, and the birth of the paparazzi, and all of it! And as I sort of incorporated it I had the epiphany that sort of shows up in the book, that this was a moment where we created modern celebrity. Fame and infamy cross, and it didn’t matter why you were famous. You were just famous. And it seemed like every sex tape in the world owed its origin to what had happened on the set of that film. So it felt like a thematic discovery before I ever was interested in the characters. And then the more I read about Burton the more I just became entranced by him. And never as much Elizabeth Taylor for some reason. I felt like we knew her, but Burton was someone that I just became more and more fascinated by. And he just sort of hovered over the novel like its ghost.
And people are still obsessed with the story! It was funny, I was going back through the book while everyone on my Twitter feed was talking about the Liz & Dick Lifetime movie.
I think there were more Twitter feeds about that than the election; it was crazy! It was the same thing, I don’t spend much time on Twitter, but when I hopped on, Patton Oswalt — who’s so entertaining — was going on and on about that movie. I didn’t watch a second of it. I did race to Richard Burton’s diaries, and was so pleased to see that there’s a gap during which my novel takes place which makes me think, “Oh, it’s still plausible.” There’s about a four-year gap, and it’s 1960-’64, so it fits perfectly in with the imagined Richard Burton that I’ve created.
I’m curious what you’ve read that you’ve loved this year.
Oh man, there’s so many good books this year! Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was remarkable. I so love it. And I like Lauren Groff’s Arcadia very much. Oh, I liked Dave Egger’s Hologram for the King. Boy there were so many! Richard Russo’s Elsewhere was a great memoir, Wiley Cash’s A Land More Kind Than Home was great. There were so many things that I read! It was kind of a crazy year. I just kept thinking, “That’s the best book I’ve read in a while!” Oh, Martin Amis’ new novel Lionel Asbo I thought was really hilarious. I don’t think I read a bad book this year.
What draws you to a book when you’re deciding what you’re going to read next?
I read sort of the same way I write, which is I want something completely different from the last thing I just finished. The novel I wrote before Beautiful Ruins was very straightforward and first person, none of the elaborate structure. And so usually when I finish a novel, let’s say I finished a tight first person novel, the next thing I want I want to be big and elaborate. And I’m drawn by reviews and word of mouth and all that stuff. But I think I read for escape less than most of the people I know. There’s always that moment when authors confront their readers and they realize what people often want is a great tale and to escape, and authors often want to drag you back into reality. But that’s why I think realistic fiction is where I tend to spend the most time.
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[Photo Credit: Hannah Assouline/Harper Collins]