Jess Walter, author of five books including The Zero, which has been nominated for this year’s National Book Award, graciously accepted the AS’s call last week, and filled me in on the wows and woes of being a professional writer. Father of Western senior Brooklyn Walter, humble and soft-spoken Jess Walter resides in Spokane, WA, where he writes from an office above his garage. His published books include The Zero, Citizen Vince, Land of the Blind, Over Tumbled Graves and a non-fiction book, Every Knee Shall Bow.
Katie Boody: How was that process, trying to get published?
Jess Walter: It’s always hard. But I mean people see a published author and they think they’ve had a lot of success but usually it means that they’ve tolerated a lot more failure. You tend not to get discouraged by rejection letters and people saying no to your novel ideas. Even the Ruby Ridge book [Every Knee Shall Bow], which was my first big break, got rejected for two years by every publishing company in New York. So you have to be really resilient and you just have to have almost a delusion that the thing you’re writing will get published some day against all other evidence. So I think that once you do that it’s a great career, it’s a great thing to do, a great art to practice.
KB: When did you first start writing novels?
JW: My first attempt at a novel, I was still in college, I was 19 or 20. I did what most writers do. You write what you know. And so the first thing that I started to write was about a kid who grew up very much the way I grew up and had friends very much like my friends that did things very much like I did. And it was okay but I’m really glad it never got published. And it’s still in my garage.
KB: You’ve only been published in the last ten years or so. So how does all this success feel?
JW: You know, writing is still the same every time, which is great, that no matter what happens it’s still sitting down and trying to imagine the words. No matter what happens it still doesn’t change what I do. With the last books I’ve been really lucky. Citizen Vince that came out in 2005 was the winner of the Edgar Allen Poe Award, which was a great honor. And this year’s book has been a final for the National Book Award, which is the biggest honor I could ask for, but the great thing is that nothing changes.
KB: Because it has become easier, the publishing process, are you afraid your work will become more formulaic or contrived?
JW: That’s something I really fight against. Each of my books has been very different. I’ve switched from non-fiction to kind of crime fiction to literary fiction, and I pride myself on never writing the same thing twice. I just read an interview with William Kennedy, who is one of my favorite authors, and he said in this interview that the temptation is to keep repeating something that is successful for you, but once you do that the game is over. So I think as long as I keep challenging myself and not repeating what I’ve done, and try to do something better and different and new, then hopefully I can avoid that pitfall.
KB: How does the writing process work for you?
JW: I start everyday by having a cup of coffee and writing in my journal. And I jot down details about just how I’m working. Sometimes if I have an idea for a line of dialogue or a little piece of description I’ll jot it down in the journal. The other day I was driving along these trees that had turned bright red and they looked like lit matches, so I would just jot in my journal “a row of trees like lit matches.” So, little bits and pieces like that I gather in my journal, and then I sit down and at the beginning of the week and I sort through what I’ve started and start writing new stuff usually on Tuesday. And I write and write and rewrite, I work in an office above my garage, and on a computer, and so much of the process is rewriting the sentences I’ve done over and over and over. By the time I publish I’ve been over each of these sentences a hundred, maybe a thousand times.
KB: How do you pull from a journalistic background in your writing?
JW: I do find it helpful. Most novelists now go through creative writing programs and get their Masters in Fine Arts in creative writing, which is a great way to go about it, but I think for me journalism was a better route because I learned a bit about the world, and I found out all these different stories. Especially if students go get their MFAs right after college, I don’t think they’ve lived enough to go out describing the world. So the novels end up being about just their personal experience, which is good, but I also think we need bigger novelists, we need social novelists, and we need people out there fishing for the big fish. And I think journalistic novelists, novelists with a newspaper background, I think it’s a really valuable way to go. But it’s much smaller than it used to be. You know, Hemmingway and so many other writers seemed to have come from a newspaper background but it’s fewer and fewer. And more and more novelists are coming through those MFA programs.
KB: What do you think the importance of social commentary is in fiction?
JW: I think it’s a little bit of a lost art. I think right now we’re in a place where, well I think it’s because so many students go through MFA programs and a lot of the writing is domestic and its more about people, which is good, but we have lost sort of that large social novel--the big book that told us how we lived and that maybe shot down our vanities and the things that we were doing wrong. There’s always people out there doing it. There’s still examples of it, but a novel that really captures what we’re like as a society not just as individuals--I think that that’s something that’s missing.
KB: I haven’t read The Zero, but I understand it has to do with the exploitation of 9/11 in the media. . .
JW: Well that’s part of it. . .hopefully its not as limited as that, but that’s part of it. I do think that our culture is so powerful right now that it gobbles everything up. Everything is turned into a sort of media moment and we define it in all these ways, that TV cameras tell us how to feel. And that sort of is one of the premises of the novels, that the entertainment industry is gobbling this thing up and regurgitating back to us as a history of heroism or a story of this or a story of that, when in fact it’s just what it is. It’s a tragedy that we’re not really getting over if we’re allowing the TV versions to become our reality. And I do think that, standing at Ground Zero, and the days afterward, I just couldn’t imagine that we would go back to the sort of empty culture that we had before. And to see us go back to it, to see people in such a hurry to get back to normal, and to see us right back where we started or maybe in a more shallow of a culture, was horribly disappointing to me.
KB: In what ways do you see literature, and creative works overall, counterbalancing the media and its huge influence?
JW: I don’t think any writer can go into it wondering about his role, you know, what his job is. His only job really is to write a story that attracts and makes sense. With that said, I think, novelists used to write more about these sorts of things. If you look in the past, we have a history of war novelists and anti-war novelists, or we have writers that went to war or battle and came back to tell us about the absurdities of war. Kurt Vonnegut is a good example, or Joseph Heller and Catch 22. I do think that those kind of novels serve a valuable purpose. I’m not sure with an all volunteer army and with it being mostly people who need money, we aren’t sending many college students off to war for instance--they won’t come back and write stories. You know, they’re garbage men, and farmers, and so I do wonder if there will be a great novel that comes out of the Iraq war that tells us about the absurdity. . .there certainly seems to be a shortage of those things from my vantage point. I do think that in general, novels can tell truth that newspapers and other media can’t. But with that said, I don’t know if it’s any novelists’, or any one novelist’s responsibility. It’s just something that the craft should lend itself to.
KB: How do you think literature is evolving such a media driven, and especially technological landscape?
JW: Well I think literature is being marginalized, somewhat. You know every year the percentage of people who have read a novel or a book of poems from the year before falls. So I don’t think that literature has the place it did when Hemmingway and Fitzgerald were writing, for instance. That said, more people are literate, more people are reading. They’re just reading Blogs or reading emails. I think the form has been antiquated and may be in its decline. But I still think there’s nothing as transformative as reading a novel. I think the novel still can matter.
KB: So you’ve been compared to Kafka and Vonnegut in other articles as well. How do you feel about such prestigious and complementary comparisons?
JW: The reviews, especially for The Zero have been great. It’s been really humbling. I was really excited to be compared to Kafka until I remembered that you have to be assigned to read Kafka; nobody goes and reads him on purpose. But I think what I set up to do with the novel was to show how fractured and displaced we are since September 11th. And to have Kafka or Heller or Vonnegut as comparisons is all you could ask for as a writer, that people are even mentioning your book in the same breath as these masters. These things happen and you just assume they happen to other people. You can’t imagine that they could happen to you.