For Beautiful Ruins author Jess Walter, empathy is easy but autographing breasts is hard 

Resisting the Noise

Resisting the Noise

Jess Walter is more than a novelist, more than a poet, more than a journalist: He's that old-fashioned kind of author who can fairly call himself simply a writer. Walter writes novels (six of them so far), short stories (his first collection, We Live in Water, was released earlier this year), poems (he says he's written only two that he actually likes, although his fifth novel, The Financial Lives of the Poets, is full of them), journalism (criticism and features for the likes of Harper's and Esquire), narrative nonfiction (his first book, Ruby Ridge, is a work of investigative reporting), and screenplays (next up: the film version of his newest novel, Beautiful Ruins). Even as a novelist, Walter is not a hedgehog but a fox, moving agilely between genres, subjects and literary styles, always with his finger firmly on the pulse of the world: The Zero is his 9/11 novel; The Financial Lives of the Poets considers the world financial collapse in microcosm; Beautiful Ruins offers a hilarious send-up of reality television.

Among other things. In fact, Beautiful Ruins is itself a showcase for Walter's outrageous literary gifts in virtually every genre and style. Ultimately a tender love story about a provincial Italian boy and an aspiring American actress, the novel moves gracefully through both time and space, with settings that include contemporary Hollywood, the Cinque Terre region of postwar Italy, and a wild hopscotch from Rome to Edinburgh, Seattle, Portland, Ore., and remote regions of California and Idaho. Parts of this inimitably inventive novel are written in gorgeous, lush prose that might as well be poetry, while other sections are deployed in language that's witty, sly, dark, bitter, poignant, comic or coarse, depending on which character is featured and which form Walter uses to convey that bit of narrative. (In addition to the usual mechanisms of the novel, Beautiful Ruins includes sections of a memoir, a play, a movie pitch, and someone else's novel.) No wonder critics have been outdoing each other with superlatives like "a literary miracle" (NPR), a "high-wire feat of bravura storytelling" (The New York Times Book Review), and "a brilliant, madcap meditation on fate" (Kirkus Reviews). "Why mince words?" wrote Richard Russo: "Beautiful Ruins is an absolute masterpiece."

Walter answered questions via email in advance of his Wednesday, May 8, reading at Parnassus Books:

You're an immensely empathetic novelist: kind of like God, you seem to love all your characters, even the terribly flawed ones — maybe particularly the terribly flawed ones. True?

First, thank you. I identify with all kinds of people, and empathy is an important part of fiction but one we don't usually talk about, I think. Having made an art of various forms of failure, it may be that I am simply drawn to characters who struggle in deep surf. A story about a Connecticut banker who leaves work early, drives in his new leased BMW to the golf course where he shoots a 78, and then drives home to where his wife has just finished Pilates class, and they find out together that their son got into Yale (just like Pop! Happy day!) simply interests me less than the homeless guy panhandling to buy a three-month-late birthday present for his son in foster care. I'm not saying it's inherently less interesting to be rich and happy, but ... well, yes, actually, I guess I am saying that.

Recently The Daily Beast asked who you'd ring back from the dead and why, and you said, "Al Gore. I'd make him uninvent the Internet." (This was just before you admitted knowing that Al Gore is still alive.) I'm trying to guess what you have against the Internet, and it occurs to me that maybe the Internet is now doing to novelists what it earlier did to journalists, and that you might be imagining a day when you, too, are heading out at midnight to buy milk at the 7-Eleven like poor Matt Prior in The Financial Lives of the Poets. OK guess?

Not a bad guess, especially the 7-Eleven part, but, no, I'm not afraid the Internet will kill the novel. The novel is one tough sucker, and it adapts. No, while I am a book guy myself (prefer reading pages with a cover, and I covet and fetishize books), I don't believe the form is ultimately as important as the contents. What bothers me about the Internet is just the noise of it, the constant connectivity, the lack of mystery and enigma, the steady stream of emails, flat entertainments, cat videos and other distractions. It seems to me a particularly shallow, flat, fleeting, scattering, distracting medium. A novelist, especially, needs to disconnect from the world to write. Every writer is something of an expat, stepping out of the world to record his or her observations about it. This is hard to do when you're constantly checking your email, tweeting and updating your status. (Listen to me, I sound like I'm 90. You kids with your flashy interweb geegaws, get the hell off my lawn!)

If everyone starts buying ebooks, do you think more women will ask you to sign their breasts at bookstore events?

In a perfect world, yes. Although it's much harder to sign a breast than one imagines. Propriety aside, there is the question of what to do with one's other hand. (You can't hold the page down as you might when signing a book.) Unless you're a total creep, I think you end up signing more on the higher breastplate, closer to the clavicle. I have also signed arms, hands, a big fake tooth (a dental student), and my favorite: a series of assignment sheets from an English teacher, 20 students lined up to have me sign my name as proof they actually went to hear an author. I loved that teacher!

The Financial Lives of the Poets took only a few months to write; you worked, off and on, at Beautiful Ruins for 15 years. I'm guessing your other books took some time in between. Any sense now, eight books in, how long it'll be before we can hope for another one?

Yes, this is my gestation period: somewhere between nine months and 15 years. I just had a story collection, We Live in Water, come out this year, so I'm probably not going to make the nine months. I am working on a couple of novel-like things now, but it's early, and I'm not in a great hurry. If there's one thing I've learned it's that one should either drink brown booze or clear booze on any given night, but never both in the same night. ... No, wait, that's not what I've learned. What was it again? Oh right, patience. That's what I've learned. Patience. Also, the booze thing.

To read the full interview and more local book coverage, please visit, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.




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