FEATURE: The Path to Ruins, Burgeoning author Andrew Munz hunts down Jess Walter

By on January 20, 2015

BeautifulRuinsJackson Hole, Wyoming – Jess Walter’s primary memory of Jackson Hole is coming here with his family back in the 1980s and riding the Alpine Slide. Since then, his writing career has taken just as many turns and curves. After establishing a career as a journalist, Walter returns to Jackson on January 28 with six novels under his belt including the wildly acclaimed New York Times bestseller Beautiful Ruins.

As Teton County Library’s 2015 Page to the Podium speaker, Jess will be speaking on his writing process and what inspires him, as well as reading passages from his own works. His resume is as eclectic as a bookstore itself, writing poetry, mysteries, literary fiction, nonfiction and short stories.

This aspiring author had a phone conversation with Walter about his creativity and what makes his writer’s mind tick.

Andrew Munz: To start off, what compels you to write?

Jess Walter: Boy, you know, I think it’s habit. That’s part of it. I’ve been waking up every morning and writing for as long as I can remember. I was a journalist by training so a lot of it was just the compulsion to tell a story. The personal things that turn someone into a writer go all the way back to childhood and it’s really just about being a reader. I was a huge reader and you want to create those effects that books have on readers. If you love books, then you want to create them. That’s what gets me to the desk every morning.

Munz: What was the experience like to hold your own book for the first time?

JW: That’s still my very favorite part, when the book arrives in the mail and I carry it around and I put it on the bookshelf with other books. I walk it around the house and introduce it to all the others. It still feels thrilling and there aren’t a whole lot of ways to measure your impact, and that’s one – to have a book with your name on it. There’s also the part when you finish a book and the world is discovering it, and everyone gets to discover this thing you did. But you’re done with it. The book is dead to you when you finish it, and you work on something new, but everyone else just wants to talk about the other book. It’s almost like going over to your ex-girlfriend’s house while you’re dating someone else. I’m constantly onto the next novel, when I have to go out and talk about the one I finished.

Munz: I hope one day to get to that point. Right now with my own novel I feel like I’m just waiting to get rid of it so I can start something else.

JW: Yeah. I vacillate between thinking the thing I’ve done is brilliant and thinking it’s barely in English. I don’t think that feeling ever goes away.

Munz: Like you, I also studied journalism before jumping into the fiction world. What would you say is the relationship between a journalistic voice and a creative voice?

JW: The voice is entirely different. When you start working for any newspaper you sort of adopt whatever voice that newspaper has. You’re imparting information. When you’re writing fiction, everything is up in the air. The tense, past tense, present tense, first-person, third, second person, you can have it alternate. With a book like Beautiful Ruins, the reader gets to explore every point of view and tense. But yes [the voices] are different. I loved journalism. I thought it was an amazing way to find the things I’m interested in. The subjects, maybe less of my voice. Finding what it was I wanted to write about. The thing I love about being a journalist is that you’re looking out at the world. You’re not just sitting gazing at your own navel trying to understand yourself. You’re trying to understand the world.

Munz: Looking at your first book to your most recent book, how would you say you’ve grown as a writer?

jess walterJW: That’s so hard to measure in yourself. It’s a lot like watching yourself grow in any other way. You can’t take a pencil and mark on a wall where you’ve grown as a writer. You’re the one person who can’t see it because your eyes only see out, they don’t see in. I’ve probably gotten more confident. More confident in that the reader will come along in the things I’m interested in. More confident to let the narrative sort of unspool in a slower, more methodical way. To take chances and take risks. There’s a confidence with being an older writer that I appreciate. Sometimes I’ll look back and read my first nonfiction book and think, “Wow, that guy who wrote that worked so hard.” There’s some useful exuberance that you can take advantage of when you’re young, I look at each book that I finish and it feels like a pretty accurate representation of the best work I could do then. I feel like each book is in some way better.

Munz: Speaking about the difficulty looking inward, how much weight do you put into what other people think? How do reviews affect your writing?

JW: Obviously we’re trying to communicate; it’s what we’re doing, so we can’t exactly exist in a vacuum. Of course, all that stuff matters. I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve received good reviews. It feels great to have readers respond. But there’s another part of you that has to be working for some platonic idea of a novel. I always tell writers to have one, or five, or 10 books that they love whose effects hit them in some way, and that’s what you try to recreate. Of course you have to listen to people, but not everyone loves everything. Plenty of people don’t like my work. So in the end, you can only write to your own ideal. Everyone else, your mom, your wife, your friends, whatever their ideal grade of fiction is going to be different than yours. In the end you have to trust your own instincts. You don’t have anyone else’s.

Munz: Are there any books you’ve read recently that you’ve fallen in love with or wish you’d written?

JW: That happens to me every week. I just read a novel by Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation, which was just fantastic.

Munz: I just read that myself!

JW: I thought it was terrific. Just the economy with which she was able to do so much, and the humor was so great. I also finished a book of short stories called Bobcat by Rebecca Lee and Lorrie Moore’s collection of stories, Bark. I feel like almost every week I read something that strikes me that way and makes me amazed at how many different kinds of experiences you can have reading. So, you liked Dept. of Speculation?

Munz: So much! There was a woman I ran into who I was recommending the book to, and she kept asking me, “What is it about?” and I wanted to shout, “That’s not what matters!” It’s so much more than this idea of a compelling plot, because the plot of the book itself is fairly bare bones. I found that Offill’s sentences were just so readable. I ended up just sitting on my bed reading the whole book aloud. It’s one of those books I put down, and then look at my own writing and just groan.

JW: We are the only writer that can’t surprise ourselves. Someone else’s work is always going to seem so fresh and powerful, and our own work is going to seem stale and tired. Because it is stale and tired by the time we get it on the page. So I think that’s a really common thing. It’s like hearing your own voice on a tape recorder. Our writing voice can sound like that too, but to other people our work can be as fresh and powerful as Jenny Offill’s. I think a lot of readers come to books for story, but writers come to books for sentences. It can be a little frustrating when all people want to talk about is the lyrics, but you’re here for the music.

Munz: You are someone who seamlessly writes poetry, nonfiction, fiction, short stories, etc. What propels you to hone in on an idea, and say, “Yes, this is what I want to write about”?

JW: That’s a good question. This is going to sound a little trite, but really, I just write the next book I would want to read. I usually want to write something different than the last thing I’ve written. Right now I’m working on something historical, and the research is so interesting. I allow myself to follow my obsessions. I get obsessed with an idea and follow it down these rabbit holes. And it’s so fun. It might be the best part about being a writer.

Munz: When do you give up on an idea?

JW: Every day. About four times a day. I beat my head against the desk. Beautiful Ruins is a perfect example. People say, “Oh you wrote it in 14 years!” But really, I failed at it for 14 years and gave up six times, and every time I put it away, I never thought it’d become this bestseller in 10 years. My computer is littered with files that are failures that didn’t work for one reason or another.

Munz: I’m the same way. I think if I could publish a book called Great Chapter One Ideas, I’d have it made.

JW: That would be a great name for a collection. Starts.

Munz: Last question. Do you have any writing pet peeves?

JW: I used to joke that living in the West that there was a certain style of writing I would call horse porn. People would work so hard to describe the horses and the streams and the mountains and it would just bore me to tears. It really was like porn. The descriptions of the mane of a horse. Then there’s also the derivative of that which I call fly-fishing porn, which is the same kind of thing. As for my own work, I think it’s my inability to close a movement. You write this beautiful movement and you almost want the piece to close itself in a strong way. I’d joke and say when you start a piece it feels like you’re creating life, you feel endowed with some power. And then you look back at the life you created and it’s only two inches tall and can only do one thing. Like it can only walk backwards. The big vision you have as a writer can often end up as something so small and muted.

Munz: Well, Jess, thanks so much for speaking with me. We’re looking forward to you coming to Jackson.

JW: Me too. Maybe you can clear off the snow so I can go down the Alpine Slide.

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