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Birnbaum V.

Jess Walter

Our man in Boston sits down with the author of The Financial Lives of the Poets to talk about his latest novel, how to survive in Hollywood, the ins and outs of contemporary publishing, and that unheralded Paris of the Northwest, Spokane.

Credit: Robert Birnbaum

Novelist Jess Walter, a proud son of Spokane, Wash., belongs to an increasingly rare literary species—an author of six novels, the best known being The Financial Lives of the Poets, without the benefit of a college writing program. Instead, Walter brings an abiding passion and freshness to his chosen profession that is exhibited to wonderful results in his newest novel, Beautiful Ruins

The response to Beautiful Ruins has been justifiably exuberant. Highly regarded novelist Richard Russo writes, “Why mince words? Beautiful Ruins is an absolute masterpiece.” As a novel that covers over 50 years with a handful of major characters, it is fertile ground for the wide-ranging conversation that follows. Walter and I chat about Spokane, the history of his attempts to write Beautiful Ruins, mystery novels, Hollywood, the Witness Protection Program, Judith Regan, making movies, Don Winslow’s The Power of The Dog, and the proverbial “much more.”

This was my first conversation with Jess Walter but undoubtedly not my last.

 

Robert Birnbaum: You’ll sign a baseball. And then an agreement that you will never sign another baseball.

Jess Walter: Really? All right.

RB: We want to appreciate the value of my son’s autographed baseball collection.

JW: That’s great—this will be my first baseball.

RB: That’s true of many people.

JW: I have signed a breast before.

RB: Really—were you a musician?

JW: It was just a talk. I think it was a lark, but I was more than happy to do it.

RB: How big was the breast?

JW: The part I saw was pretty substantial. I didn’t see the whole thing. It was just across the top.

RB: Permanent?

JW: Yeah, it was a Sharpie of some kind—some are washable. She thought it would be funny. I signed her friend’s book. I think she was surprised that I said yes.

RB: And here I thought writing was such a mild and uneventful profession.

JW: It tends to be. That’s why the breast and now the baseball will stand out. Two landmarks.

RB: When your son tells someone his name, what’s the first thing they say?

JW: In Spokane a few people know that his dad’s a writer. I don’t think anyone pays much attention.

RB: My son’s name is Cuba—I have observed all his life that he will say his name and people will first say, “Huh?”

It’s so funny when you go out on book tour. I always feel a little like I am testifying before a Senate committee. I always think of that key Watergate question: What did you know and when did you know it?

JW: Yeah, right.

RB: So I am surmising that they are not believing what they heard.

JW: My son’s name is Alec.

RB: Who is Brooklyn?

JW: Brooklyn is my daughter.

RB: You called a girl Brooklyn?

JW: I did, yeah.

RB: So what’s the reaction?

JW: I was a dad at 19 before I’d been on an airplane, before I had ever been east of Wyoming. I had never been to Brooklyn, and my girlfriend at the time thought it was a neat name, and I remember—

RB: You mean the child’s mother? You could refer to her as such.

JW: I was a teenage pregnancy statistic. We were married for a brief time. Now we are very amicable. And Brooklyn now has her master’s degree from the University of Montana, in English. She’s 26—a great kid.

RB: Where is she?

JW: In Montana, Missoula. She is an adjunct, teaching there. I do remember an editor in New York saying, “Did you know Brooklyn? Did you like it there?” I answered, “No, we had never been there. It was just a name we picked.” And then she asked what year was it. I told her, 1985. She said, “You were aware Brooklyn was a slum, weren’t you?” “No, I just thought it was a nice name.” But now I see that name—

RB: What does your daughter think?

JW: Every kid wants to be Debbie or Steve when they are young. They want a really common name. And they hit an age when they are happier with it. It’s probably like you said about childhood; you don’t give it second thought.

RB: I think Cuba has always been fine with it, and now he’s such a likable kid.

JW: It’s a great name. My other two kids are 12 and 15 and we did not name them Yonkers and Staten Island—they’re Ava and Alec. Have you read T.J. English’s book, Havana Nocturne?

RB: It’s about the mob in Cuba—I know of it.

JW: I have never been to Cuba, but it seemed to capture the feel of the place. He’s great. I really like his stuff. He covers the Whitey Bulger kinds of stories.

RB: It’s great when a good reporter and writer digs out a story and fills it in.

JW: I like what he does, at least in that book, which is rooting it to the place—make it more than just the salacious details. It really becomes endemic of the time and the place.

RB: I like biographies that do that—who cares what the subject ate for breakfast as a child?

JW: Yeah, set it in the world. Exactly.

RB: Beautiful Ruins would not be a story that one would just stumble on.

JW: (laughs)

RB: It’s complicated. And you manage to cover a wide time frame—close to 50 years. Was the decision to write this novel just what came to you after your last novel, The Financial Lives of the Poets?

JW: No, no. It’s so funny when you go out on book tour. I always feel a little like I am testifying before a Senate committee. I always think of that key Watergate question: What did you know and when did you know it? Because tracing the root, especially of a book like this, is so many blind alleys, and it was a maze to write it. I started in 1997. It was the second novel I attempted—I had another failed novel. I was in Italy. My mom was dying of cancer. We went to the Cinque Terra. I invented this little town, and in my mind it would be a sort of book, a kind of magical realist story in which nobody could die of cancer there. So this young woman would arrive there, about my mother’s age. This young man was there. I was writing organically so I didn’t really know who those people were. And I wrote until I ran out of gas, as young writers often do. I set it down, I wrote another book. Picked it up and set it down and wrote another book. And this happened five times.

RB: When you did this, did you add to it?

JW: I would start from the beginning. I would tear it all the way. I would think, Here’s what I did wrong, and I would write until I ran out of gas. I’d finished a draft of it in 2008, and I knew it wasn’t right. By then it had grown to cover Hollywood and these ideas of art and fame. And the characters had become so rich and alive to me, and the expanse of their lives had become enough that I wanted to capture it in some way. That made sense, but also took into consideration all that I was learning as I was growing up. I am sort of self-taught as a novelist, and so I don’t think I had the chops in 1997 to finish a book that took place in so many times, that had so many characters. So 2008 I finished a draft. I read it and realized it wasn’t quite there. I gave it to a good friend of mine who is an English professor and he said, “It’s really not quite there.” So I started writing The Financial Lives of the Poets almost as a palate-cleanser, to get the taste of this book out of my mouth, to write something quick and straightforward, with one character that takes place in a short amount of time, four days. And I work that way. Right now I am working on two novels and finishing up a book of short stories. I can work on two or two different things, and if I have any superpower, that’s it. I can shift from one thing to another and that way hopefully avoid writer’s block.

RB: The characters came alive for you—you’ve lived with them a long time. So now the book is done, now what?

JW: It’s funny that I phrased it that way. It’s one of my pet peeves when authors say that. One of the problems when I first tried to write this book, I fell for the old writer’s trick—you create these characters and they act on their own. When I do that my characters tend to watch a lot of TV.

RB: (laughs)

JW: Open another beer. They act a little bit like my brother. They don’t engage in the dramatic narrative that I would like them to. So, especially in this book, much of the novel is a kind of architecture, trying to figure out, Where does this piece go? What happened to these people over that amount of time? But during that time, especially when you set a book down and come back to it, there they are. You don’t have to create them. You know them a little more. And now you infuse them with the things you’ve been feeling and thinking about. And so when—the characters Dee and Pasquale were alive to me in that sense since 1997, and yet I didn’t quite know them. I would find out things about them. I’ve lived in Spokane my whole life. Spokane, Wash.

RB: There’s another Spokane?

JW: There is another Spokane. I only say “Washington” because some people won’t know where the one Spokane is. But to have lived in the same place my whole life—it’s not surprising then that Pasquale is infused with this desire to go out into a larger world. So those kinds of things would work their way in to the characters. And it was a slow process. At no point when I would give up on the book would I think, Well, I’ll come back and finish this. I would think what every writer does. Which is, That one is probably just not going to work. Maybe I’ll salvage some bit of it for something else. So when I finished that draft in 2008 and then wrote Financial Lives, I took nine months away from it, almost a year, which is hard to tell young writers because it seems as if you go away from it you won’t be able to reanimate it. I heard a painter one time say, “I can go back to a painting as long as the paint hasn’t dried.” And writers, a lot of times you go back to it and the paint is dry. You can’t make your flowers into trees.

RB: I remember Frank Conroy telling me he lost the first draft to a long novel and so he wrote it again. And years later he found the lost draft and it was not much different than the one he rewrote.

JW: Close and better. I think the same process happens when you step away. When I would go back to it I could see the flaws as clearly as if they were drawing mistakes, perspective mistakes. What I saw were the flaws. Again, this is subject to layers of subjectivity, gone forever. So every time I would go back to the beginning. Not a sentence exists from the 1997 version, I’m sure. I doubt there is even a sentence from the 2008 version.

I heard a painter one time say, “I can go back to a painting as long as the paint hasn’t dried.” And writers, a lot of times you go back to it and the paint is dry. You can’t make your flowers into trees.

RB: Was Richard Burton in the story originally?

JW: Cleopatra was in it from about 2002. I’d had my first experiences in Hollywood. When you come up with a beginning that catches you in that way, you’re asking yourself, “Who are these people?” When I realized she was an actress the next thing was, “What’s she doing in Italy?” So I read some biographies and histories of 20th Century Fox, which had an incredible description of the disaster that was Cleopatra. When I got to that part about Burton and Taylor having this affair, and 20th Century Fox worried that it was going to ruin the film, and them realizing that it would help it break even: I felt, Oh my God, this is the birth of every reality show, of every kind of Paris Hilton kind of sex tape fame idea we have. That it doesn’t matter if you screw up: It matters that your name is in the papers. That was around 2002. So I started researching Burton. First, I didn’t know he would work his way in to the novel. He sort of hovered—

RB: Then why would Dee come to this isolated place?

JW: When I start writing, often I will just have a vision. I’ll write to that vision and then I figure it out. I think every writer has all these knobs on their stereo, treble and bass and balance. And for me, the two that I pay the most attention to are character and thematics. Characters invested with some sort of [pauses, searching] ache, some humanity and drive. They want something. Often they are haunted by their inability to get by.

RB: That’s one of the pleasures of reading this book. The characters are sympathetic—even Dean, who is a schmuck.

JW: When I wrote his chapter [Dean’s memoir]—this doesn’t get mentioned as much as it should, but fiction writing is an act of empathy. And when I wrote in his voice, I thought, he believes he is doing the best for people.

RB: It’s hard to read a story where the writer doesn’t like his characters.

JW: I think people will assume that that means that the characters can’t be flawed. And to me it’s the opposite; they need to be flawed. The difference is we can tell an author who condescends to his characters, who gives them these flaws but treats them as if they are beneath him or her in some way. I think of that as a male characteristic of authors. I don’t know why. And it’s not.

RB: You want to view women as maternal and empathetic.

JW: Maybe, right.

RB: The character Bender, when did he get added to the cast?

JW: He was along pretty early. And I didn’t know who he was and he came about for this very odd reason. I had invented this sixth village, Porto Vergogna; it takes place in the Cinque Terra, and so I invented a sixth village, Port of Shame. It was playful and fun and if you have been to Italy there is not a lot of understatement. It’s a big brash macho culture. The words “Hotel Adequate View” made me laugh every time I thought of it, so I needed a reason for why the hotel was called the Hotel Adequate View. And I imagined some American writer holding forth on the topic of inflation in the currency of language, and how hyperbole was going to be the death of us all, how everything could not be the most beautiful view. So that became Alvis Bender. He changed over time. He was a big brash travel writer for a while. For a while he was a wine writer.

RB: And then he became an automobile dealer.

JW: Yeah. Who couldn’t write.

RB: Do you think he couldn’t write? The one chapter he wrote (you wrote) was pretty good. And that was a very sweet part of the story. That the one chapter was all that was needed to tell that particular story.

JW: Imagine, again, you have been writing this book and you have invented this guy and he has written this chapter and that’s all he can do. And you are writing a book, which at that point you don’t know if you’ll ever finish. So I felt very much Bender, like in my inability to make more of this except for this great beginning I had.

RB: About 15 years in the making. Now that you are done with it, are you done with it? There can’t really be a sequel. Some writers are writing prequels—Don Winslow, Edward Falco. (laughs)

JW: It’s part of a tetralogy—no. When I am finished with a novel I tend to think those characters—this was the arc of their lives, especially this book, which really is shaped by their entire lives. It has a sweep that my other books don’t. The way I always thought of this book was that I was carrying these characters around in my hands, gently. And they went through such hard times. I have a writing journal where I write my ideas, and in that journal I tend to focus on the very small, really small details, and try to step back and get a larger picture. So for The Financial Lives of the Poets I wrote, “This is that part of the roller coaster where you are right on the top, when you meet and then it’s all a descent. I want to end the novel in a descent.” So that was the shape for me. In this one I felt like I was gently carrying these characters, and then I wrote, “In the last chapter I want to just throw them out on the table and have everything spill out in this flood of the present, of the moment.”

Every writer has all these knobs on their stereo, treble and bass and balance. For me, the two that I pay the most attention to are character and thematics.

RB: It is a lovely ending.

JW: So in that way I felt like I was done with them. I carried them for 15 years now they are free. Those metaphors or shapes are so helpful in my journal because they allow me to step back.

RB: I have read some of your other novels—Citizen Vince and Land of the Blind. I have always like that Erasmus quote [“In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king”—ed.]. I was surprised to see that you wrote two novels using Caroline Mabry.

JW: Kind of. I was a dad very young and I started working at a newspaper; I always wanted to be a novelist but had no training whatsoever. And I was writing a lot of failed attempts at fiction. For seven years I sent out short stories and got them all rejected. I used to call them “manila boomerangs.” I would send out the manila envelope and they would come flying back. So I tried to write Beautiful Ruins and couldn’t quite get around it. And so I wrote my first published novel, Over Tumbled Graves—I told myself I needed to teach myself how to write a novel and in a form that I can get my arms around, and so I chose the crime novel. It’s not your typical crime novel. The whole novel is structured like The Waste Land. It’s filled with homages to that poem. It’s like an English grad student with his hands on a serial killer. Land of the Blind was my second book. I wanted to wrap a coming-of-age story up with some procedural elements. At that time, I am still feeling like I am teaching myself how to do this one book at a time. And that one, it was kind of thrilling, to feel like you are getting better and you are learning and that you are able to do things.

RB: One of the reasons genre fiction is looked down upon is because there are so many series. Phillip Kerr mentioned to me that even the good writers, like Raymond Chandler, tend to write one or two too many.

JW: I think the market can ruin many a great writer. And I like crime fiction. I like good crime fiction. And to write a book a year—now authors are writing two books a year.

RB: James Patterson must be like Damien Hirst. Does he write all his own stuff?

JW: I won’t deign to speak for any other writer. But I know I couldn’t publish a book a year and have them be that great.

RB: Elmore Leonard comes out with about a book a year.

JW: He hits for about as high an average as anyone. But I wait and see if one sounds like one of the good Leonard books. His lower bars are still pretty high. There are some readers for whom—and I remember encountering this when my first few books came out and were called crime novels—they would say, “Well I knew who did it on page seven. “

RB: (laughs)

JW: And so for some readers, and it’s not many, it’s more like a crossword puzzle they are hoping to solve. There can be those economic pressures to produce more and make more. That said, there are great crime novels—I think of novels by Richard Price, who in Clockers managed to write a social novel wedded with a crime novel that is brilliant.

RB: I liked Samaritan.

JW: It was good too.

RB: Colin Harrison writes literary crime novels.

JW: He’s great. Laura Lippman had a book a couple of years ago—What the Dead Know—that I thought was brilliant. Megan Abbott writes some amazing stuff. Ken Bruen, the Irish writer, a kind of noir Irish poetry. There are a number of crime writers whose work I really like.

RB: But there is still a crime fiction ghetto.

JW: But it’s an opposite ghetto—they make all the money.

RB: (laughs)

JW: Look at the bestseller list. It’s not full of literary fiction.

RB: You get the respect and they get the cash.

JW: Over time the really great stuff—James Cain, there are a lot of places that teach Cain and Chandler and Hammett, not out of deference to pick one crime novelist, but because that stuff influenced writing as much as anything. Camus wrote The Stranger to try to mimic what he loved about The Postman Always Rings Twice. That had such a huge effect. So the stuff will weigh out.

RB: Have you read Georges Simenon?

JW: I haven’t, but I’ve heard good things.

RB: Me neither. He wrote 200 or 300 books.

JW: As a reader I have always had a problem with the series. Because after the 10th murder, don’t you stop going to that library—even if the librarian can solve the crime?

RB: I find the writing gets lazy and predictable. Chandler didn’t wear Marlowe out but came close. I mentioned him before, Philip Kerr does fine with a Nazi-era Berlin homicide detective.

JW: He does, but those novels feel bigger. They talk about a time and a place. They don’t feel formulaic. Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer—that was just such a great opening.

RB: Then he came out with a few more and put Harry Bosch together with him in at least one novel. I thought The Poet was the best thing I read by him, and then, of course a few years later he has a sequel to it.

JW: When I see a series I want to know the one I need to read. And a lot of readers aren’t that way. And again, anyone who gets people to read their books—I don’t think you can fake those things. If, with no one looking, you were to make a list of the 10 books you loved the most, that’s the wheelhouse you’ll arrive at. I’d put a Vonnegut on there, One Hundred Years of Solitude. I might put The White Album by Joan Didion. I don’t know what else I’d put, but you could find the DNA of the things I am trying to do as a novelist. Anyway, with Land of the Blind it was an accidental sequel. I was writing the story of this guy and I had this idea of a confession, a reverse confession. Every crime novel starts with the body; what if instead you have the killer and you have to find the body?

RB: That’s the one I read. But when I noticed that the woman cop was in a previous novel, I also noted that she was not central to the story.

JW: I feel like for me, the characters have a book. And my other characters recur. Alan Dupree shows up in a couple of novels and then has a bigger role in Citizen Vince. Vince from Citizen Vince shows up in a really brief cameo in The Financial Lives of Poets. Almost just a walk-on.

RB: Is this like William Kennedy’s Albany books?

JW: I love those.

RB: You could be the glorifier of Spokane.

JW: This will break me of that. I love Kennedy. I would put Ironweed on my list. And The Flaming Corsage. I love what he did. Because I am from that place I imagine a bigger fictional world and go as many other places as I can.

RB: So what’s next?

JW: A book of short stories coming out next year—not the rejected ones. And I am working on two novels. I don’t know which one will take over. The one that I am furthest along on is a comic novel—

RB: These others weren’t?

JW: Yeah, I didn’t mean to say that part. I grew up in the West on a family cattle ranch. I have never written about that, so it’s about a guy who grows up on a suburban cattle ranch.

RB: Did you live in Hollywood?

JW: My first book was made into a CBS miniseries, The Siege at Ruby Ridge. And for a kid who had never been anywhere it just swept over me. I worked on the script a little bit, but it was another screenwriter. It was a fascinating process to see, but I wanted to learn to write scripts in case they came for any of my books again. I wanted to be able to take a shot at that. So I taught myself to write scripts, read a bunch of books on screenwriting. Sold a couple. They weren’t made. And then I just adapted The Financial Lives of the Poets. And it’s going into production supposedly in November.

RB: Who’s in the cast?

JW: Jack Black. And Michael Winterbottom, the British director, is directing, and they are filling out the rest of the cast. They are in pre-pre-production.

RB: It’s a film that requires no special effects or car chases—

JW: It’s an indie film, low-budget.

RB: Acting and storytelling?

JW: I hope. That’s the script I wrote. We’ll see. So in that time I had some Hollywood dealings. For me, it was really more about the idea of the place. I didn’t put many of my own stories in. Although I have had a couple of producers that worked with [them] call me and ask if they could have some of my reality TV show ideas.

I wanted to be a literary novelist. I wanted my name to be up there—that was my dream. And I thought, You can’t get there from where I am. You can’t get there from Spokane.

RB: (laughs)

JW: I said, “You do realize you are playing right into the satire?” And the guy said, “I am totally aware of that.” (both laugh) Hookbook was the idea he really wanted. I told him he could have it.

RB: You may regret giving it away.

JW: Yeah, my movie will gross $11. I will be watching Hookbook on reruns.

RB: Anyway, you’ve not been tempted to live somewhere else?

JW: I never said that.

RB: What’s it like living in Spokane?

JW: It’s a very different place. It’s a great place, it’s resurgent. Any place that you grow up and then you don’t leave—you grow up on the left bank of Paris and you think, Oh, what a provincial shithole this is. But being a dad so young, and having to put myself through college, and then work at a newspaper to support a child from the time I was 19 until I was 28. That’s the time you normally leave—I couldn’t afford to. The first in my family to go to college. People tended to stick around and a get a job in the aluminum plant.

RB: You worked a newspaper for a long time—why did you need to go to school?

JW: Yeah, well—

RB: There’s your education.

JW: It turned out to be. The guy who wrote Land of the Blind was at a different place then I am at now. We talked before about not having perspective on your childhood. You can’t have perspective on the things that you don’t have, either. In Citizen Vince there is a nakedly autobiographical scene of Vince sitting in Union Square watching NYU students, thinking, What do they have I that I don’t have? Is it breeding? Is there something I’ll never have? I wanted to get to that place. I wanted to be a literary novelist. I wanted my name to be up there—that was my dream. And I thought, You can’t get there from where I am. You can’t get there from Spokane. But back to the question of Spokane—since then the downtown is revitalized. It has this booming art and writing scene. And music scene. My kids are in great schools. We have a great house. We have a great life there. I travel so much and there was a moment when I woke up and realized: It’s kind of a gift to be from someplace and to have roots there and a connection there. I spend time in Hollywood tinkering with things and on the road and I kind of don’t mind being from there now.

RB: How close were you to Ruby Ridge?

JW: It was just over the border in Idaho, about an hour and a half. That’s how I ended up covering it for my newspaper. My daughter is about three hours away in Missoula, which is a gorgeous place.

RB: How far from the Canadian border?

JW: An hour and 20 minutes. There are three ski hills that my son and I can be on within an hour from my front door. There is a river that goes just below my house that has the best fly-fishing hole. It is an incredible place for nature. And like a lot of cities where downtown real estate suddenly gets cheap, the artists can actually afford the artists’ lofts. It’s a little isolated, still. There is a part of me that, if all my ships come in, I may have a place in Spokane and a place somewhere else. But that would have to be a lot of ships.

RB: I am reading that Rust Belt cities are being revitalized also.

JW: Spokane has more in common with Rust Belt cities than the classic Pacific Northwest cities—Vancouver, Portland, Seattle. In that I-5 corridor, those are boom/bust towns. And they have great booms. Spokane tends to be steady—always looking for the next big thing. It’s poorer. It’s more blue-collar.

RB: What did you say, there was a big aluminum plant?

JW: Yeah, my dad worked for Kaiser Aluminum, which had a huge plant there. It was mining and timber money and they needed banks—so it’s also a drain for all that surrounding area in Idaho and Montana. It was kind of a fascinating city when Dashiell Hammett went there as a Pinkerton, because all the miners would come there on the weekends. It was filled with brothels. Brothels and flophouse hotels. So the downtown still has these great old buildings that now have painters and funky downtown folk living in them. And like a city like Pittsburgh, its second life is becoming more interesting.

RB: There is something to be said for originality—

JW: And authenticity.

RB: But not when it’s so, so easily manufactured.

JW: I remember going to Seattle when I was young and we would go to these bars where fishermen hung out. Now they’re not there. And the thing I’ve always liked about Spokane is that it’s authentic. I can still go to a diner that’s a diner. I can still go to some blue-collar places. There are parts of it—the worst thing my dad can say about anything, and I don’t even think he knows what it means, is “yuppie.” “Oh, that place has gone yuppie,” which to him means that they have raised the prices $2 for no good reason. Whatever that authenticity is, going back to a 1950s nostalgia—which I am not saying is better—is what it was.

RB: This quest for authenticity also becomes silly to the point of losing meaning.

JW: Well, that raises the impulse to satirize in fiction—to draw attention to the absurdities that underline them a little bit, and let them go.

RB: Have you thought of writing a political novel? Do you pay attention?

JW: Oh yeah, I am very political. To me Citizen Vince was a political novel, from the consumer’s point of view.

RB: Vince turned out to be unflinchingly moral.

JW: I knew a couple of guys in the Witness Protection Program—I discovered them in Spokane. That’s how the novel came about. Spokane is a place where they send people in that program.

RB: There’s no mob there?

JW: Part of the book explains the process, which is to look for a place that is big enough where they can blend in. Spokane had a big Italian and Irish community, because of the railroad, and all these jobs so you could blend in. You could open an Italian restaurant or pizza place and no one would think twice. And there was a federal office there. And no organized crime. You couldn’t fall back in with the goodfellas again.

RB: No drugs?

JW: Oh no, there is everything. There wasn’t their brand of organized crime. All crime has similar organizations.

RB: Chinese gangs? Or Guatemalan gangs?

JW: Like every city, Spokane has immigrant populations, but when I created Vince I knew he couldn’t be the sort of—he had to have a depth that most mobsters don’t. I gave it to one of the mafia guys when I was done and had him read it. He said, “I was at a game at Gotti’s place on Mott Street and you fuckin’ nailed that. I thought I was fuckin’ there. You got the language. You got everything. That’s just what a wildcard Gotti was. I loved it. And those are my complaints about Spokane: The women are ugly and the pizza is horrible. My only fuckin’ question is, why would that mook care about voting.” (both laugh) “Well, Angelo, that’s kind of the whole novel.” For that book to be interesting to me and be a political novel, I had to make that kind of displacement that could open you up in a way.

RB: Vince was pretty much against type all the way through.

JW: He was. I always saw him as an affiliated guy, a kind of tagger-on, hanger-on, and that’s how Ray dismisses him. Ray is disappointed to find out this guy isn’t even anybody. So that was the only way I could make him—I couldn’t make him a connected guy and still have him care about architecture and voting. Again, the neighborhood I grew up in, I had four buddies and I am the only one who graduated from high school. So what if I hadn’t? What if I had fallen in—what if instead of growing up in Spokane it had been some neighborhood in New York? We all knew those guys we were friends with them at a certain age. For me it was to send that guy on that path and then see where he ended up.

RB: How long has Cal Morgan been your editor?

JW: He was my editor when he was at ReganBooks. My first novel came out in 2001. The Zero was the first one to come out in paperback at Harper Perennial.

RB: Was that one of the first post-9/11 novels?

JW: I was at Ground Zero doing a ghostwriting job for Bernard Kerik.

RB: (laughs)

JW: So that’s how that novel came about—from the things I witnessed.

RB: Before or after his fall from grace?

JW: Oh, before. My publisher was Judith Regan, and she said, “You should work on this book,” and I was trying to write Citizen Vince and trying get to know New York cops for that stretch of the book. She said, “I just signed a New York cop, come help him with his autobiography.” I said, “I don’t want to do a ghostwriting job.” And she said, “No, he has pages. You’re a glorified editor.” So I came in, met him, and happened to arrive five days after. You asked if I was political. The book is very political, very much about the invasion of Iraq, and so it is very much a response to felling like my country had gone insane. I had gone a little insane with it. So it’s a much more allegorical novel. I am also the proudest of it because structurally it does things I hadn’t tried before.

RB: I lost my copy on an airplane.

JW: I’ll have Cal send you another one. We use them as coasters at my house.

RB: (laughs) In one of your books you acknowledge Judith Regan, who by reputation is something of a madwoman.

JW: Um, Judith used to say, to her credit, “If I were a man I’d be a character. Because I am woman they call me a bitch.” Judith was my first-ever publisher. She always told me, “Just write what ever you want. Don’t worry about the market. You’re an incredibly talented writer, you write what you want and I’ll find a way to get in print.”

RB: That’s very commendable.

JW: For a young writer, right.

RB: For any writer.

JW: So that’s my personal loyalty to her. I also think she was very shrewd. Brilliant about what the culture wanted.

RB: I don’t think she did television well.

JW: Right. The other thing people might find surprising about Judith, I think she is one of the people with the most integrity—in dealing with me and telling the truth as she saw it. That doesn’t mean that she couldn’t be difficult.

RB: What are the burdens of dealing with the book business—you have five or six novels now?

JW: Six novels and one nonfiction book.

RB: Is a lot asked of you outside the writing?

JW: I have had the kind of career they say you aren’t supposed to have anymore, [sales] growing with each book, and working with the same editor, and this book may hit the bestseller list. But for the most part my books sell steadily. The Financial Lives of the Poets sold as many copies six months after it came out as it did when it first came out. My books tend the gain readers over time. So publishing has been—

RB: “Bery, bery good to you.”

JW: Kind to me in a very naturalistic, easy way. I was not a prodigy, but at the same time my books have always been reviewed well. Being a finalist for the National Book Award brought some attention, and then I have always gotten the attention that makes me feel humbled and incredible fortunate. And for the business, by the time I finish a novel I am ready to talk about it. Fifteen years is a long time to carry this around. Because I have had to teach myself how to do this and march my way through, when people want to talk about my book I am excited. It’s kind of an honor.

I’m still this kid—I see a plane fly over my house and I think, I get to be on that soon.

RB: What about the sheer hard work of travel? The horrors of flying?

JW: You should look at my schedule. My book tour ends and then I start doing events. I love to travel. In the fall I am doing five book festivals and seven or eight universities, and if a bookstore wants me and I can get there, I’ll try. I am fascinated by the stuff. It’s turned out to be my life’s work. And I enjoy and don’t take any part of it for granted. And to even get a book tour now is not easy.

RB: I haven’t noticed a diminution of authors coming through Boston. Less bookstores, of course.

JW: You are probably seeing more writers from the East Coast. More regional tours.

RB: Probably.

JW: I’ve been to Paris, Italy, and the UK as an author. And Belgium. I would never have been to Europe—in the place I grew up you didn’t spend the summer in Europe; you got to go to Montana sometimes. I’m still this kid—I see a plane fly over my house and I think, I get to be on that soon.

RB: How many languages for Beautiful Ruins?

JW: Sold in three so far. Citizen Vince is 21 or 22. Some of the others are 14 and 15.

RB: What about the movie of Beautiful Ruins?

JW: Yeah, it’s always possible. It’s got some challenges. It’s a period piece and takes place over such a large span, and Hollywood tends not to like films that are self-referential. But that said, I have had a little bit of interest so far. It takes so long for that process—Citizen Vince was almost a film three times. Rick Russo wrote an amazing script for it. He had a producer—Rick has been supportive every step of the way.

RB: He’s a really good guy.

JW: Oh, he is such a good guy and such an amazing author. At one point I had wanted to adapt Citizen Vince, because I first thought of the story as a film. I tried to write it as a script, and when the producers optioned it they said, “Well, we want Russo to do it.” The way I looked at it—you have a kid, you see these things as a kid—you have a choice of your kid going to Richard Russo University or Jess Walter Community College. But that has come so close and they are never dead. They can take 10 to 12 years to make it the screen. Financial Lives has actually had a pretty smooth path, and it will be three or four years.

RB: I thought the trick was to find a young star, Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt, and convince him that he is the protagonist of the novel.

JW: The studio system, which is what we think of as “Hollywood,” is in such a strange position that if it doesn’t appeal to a 19-year-old boy they are not going to make it.

RB: (laughs) Right.

JW: But because of that, this undercurrent of indie films is coming back. And so there is a lot of room for your $5-million to $10-million movie.

RB: John Sayles says even if you get a film made the problem is the competition for screens in the country. There are limited amounts.

JW: Here’s what they did with The Financial Lives of the Poets, which is an $8-million movie: They presold all the foreign rights; they’ll sell it to one of the premium cable channels.

RB: So they get the back end covered.

JW: I don’t do this, but there is someone penciling out that if Jack Black is in it and Michael Winterbottom, who has an indie reputation, makes it, we get it on this number of screens and sell it in these 10 countries and sell at a premium channel, [and] we are guaranteed X. So here’s your budget. And if we film it here, where they have tax breaks—so somebody is penciling all that out. Thankfully it’s not me. My math doesn’t go that high.

RB: [John] Sayles is saying it is getting harder and harder for him. The problem is getting screens, getting exhibited.

JW: What’s the last movie you went to?

RB: A Separation. I have a theater nearby that shows those kinds of films. But Sayles’s latest, Amigo, didn’t screen there, or as far as I know anywhere in Boston.

JW: And there is more competition for those screens that show those films—in Spokane for years the art house cinema was closed, so your choices were the new Transformers movie. Every once in a while I would get fed up and say, “If we don’t get an art house cinema, I’m leaving,” and then it would open. And here’s the problem if it’s going to be available [on Netflix or cable] in three weeks: Most adults are patient; kids aren’t.

RB: Explain the phenomenon of why, when Apple releases a product, there are long lines?

JW: I don’t know. That may be a generation beyond me.

RB: I remember when the Beatles or the Stones or a big group released an album, people would line up outside stores, waiting for hours.

JW: Technology is our rock and roll, in a way. It’s sad. It probably has the transformative power but it doesn’t have the whiff of rebellion.

RB: It more has the stench of institutionalized conformity.

JW: Mechanization.

RB: Am I dreaming? Is Rick Russo doing a sequel to Nobody’s Fool? Did I imagine this?

JW: I think you did.

RB: Imagine it?

JW: No, you read it somewhere. I think he is. It’s not his next book. He has a memoir coming out.

RB: If it were someone else I’d scoff. Don Winslow just did a sequel to Savages. And by the way, his The Power of the Dog was a tremendous book.

JW: Yes, yes. The funny thing is we equate popularity with value and yet we know better. Other wise Nora Roberts would have the Nobel Prize. And Fifty Shades of Grey would be—but I think if people have read Winslow they know that The Power of the Dog is a great book.

RB: The Stone film is coming and out and The Kings of Cool has come out, so I search-engined and I did not find one major review of The Power of the Dog.

JW: My introduction to him was at the Seattle Mystery Bookshop. I walked in and they put it in my hand and they said, “You have to read this.” To have enough books out now that people have their favorite. They will say, “It’s good, but it’s no X.” And it’s not always the same X. If I am at a grad program it’s going to be The Zero. If I am in my hometown it’s going to be Citizen Vince. If it’s somewhere else it’ll be Beautiful Ruins. There are those uptown problems, and the problem of being compared to yourself is a very good problem to have.

RB: Here’s another new wrinkle—Winslow wrote a Trevanian book. Edward Falco wrote a Godfather prequel, and Ace Atkins wrote a Robert Parker/Spenser novel. I don’t get why that makes sense. Did the Chandler reader want to read Robert Parker doing Chandler?

JW: I suppose some portion of it does. It’s probably an homage to the writers that informed them. I remember the Kilgore Trout novel that came out—Venus on the Half Shell, by Philip José Farmer. At the time Vonnegut was crushed by it, because he was so easy to mimic. I’d say it might be the fifth best Vonnegut novel, or not far off. It’s a fine line between homage, parody, and consumer opportunism.

RB: Maybe your next move ought to be a self-parody.

JW: Too easy. I do it every day.

RB: How does your family look upon you as a writer, on what you do?

JW: All my kids share a love of reading. Everyone thinks his or her kids are brilliant. But my kids are brilliant. My older daughter—we always shared books, talked about which books to read. So close in every way but especially in that way. She went to India to do relief work one summer. I was so proud of her, and my ex- and current wife, we are all really close. She wanted just enough books that she could carry in her backpack—five paperback books that she could throw away when she was done. I packed them tightly in her bag and she went off and we didn’t hear from her for days. My wife and ex were grief-stricken, Oh, what’s happened? Finally she makes it to a phone and calls and reaches me. A scratchy line, “Hello, hello. Dad, it’s Brooklyn. I’m fine. I just finished One Hundred Years of Solitude and it’s so amazing.” And we talked about the book for the next two minutes. And the line goes dead. And I’m smiling, and my wife says, “How is she?” “She loves One Hundred Years of Solitude.” Both women wanted to kill me.

RB: I remember exactly where I was when I started to read that book in August of 1972.

JW: I read it in college. I would have a little break afternoons and my wife would go to class and then I would watch our baby. I would take her to the park and she would lie on my chest and nap and I read One Hundred Years of Solitude. So to have her call from India to say what a beautiful book it was—so I gave her Beautiful Ruins. This was a kid who now has gone to college and gotten her master’s. When she took a Melville survey I read Melville alongside her—she was doing the thing I had always dreamed of, going to grad school and studying these great books, you know? And she called and said, “[Beautiful Ruins] is the book I always wanted to read.” It melted my heart. My other kids are great readers too. My middle daughter is reading it now so I will get her appraisal when I get home. As a dad that’s Mickey Mantle stuff. It’s pretty great.

RB: Well, thank you.

JW: Thank you.

biopic

Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum