Jess Walter will be joining us on Wednesday, January 26. He is the author of multiple novels, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2006, and has tough journalist roots. The Financial Lives of the Poets was just released in paperback. We spoke to Mr. Walter recently about how things are going these days.
Can you tell us about your experience of writing The Financial Lives of the Poets? Did it feel different than your other books did?
Sure, I’d say writing The Financial Lives of the Poets was different than the others, but then, each one is different from the last. I always think it will get easier, but each book is like writing your first one. With FLoP, I got Matt’s voice stuck in my head and just kept going. It was probably the shortest time I’ve ever worked on a novel, maybe seven months, once I got the voice and the general story down. It wasn’t easy–I don’t know that writing a novel could ever be easy–but it was more enjoyable, probably, because I kept making myself laugh.
Your name is interesting, by the way. Is Jess your given name? I can’t think of what it would be short for.
No, Jess isn’t short for anything. (“Jess me” as the old knock knock joke ends.) I’m named after my grandfather, who was named after his, so it’s an old family name that goes back a few generations of dirt farmers.
Do you know that you’re a great writer? As in, you’ll be remembered and you occasionally strut when thinking about this? Given all of the glowing reviews and general warmth out there? Or do you try to stay in some state of humility that keeps you a bit existentially uncomfortable and unsure?
Ha! First, thanks. I’m not sure how to answer a question like that. I guess I live in a perpetual state of easy, comfortable self-doubt. I’ve always believed that I could write but assumed that I haven’t done anything yet, and this keeps me waking up early and striving to write something great. Sometimes I’ll glance over and see the books on the shelf and think, Oh, right …
How do you write? Are you always a typist? Do you sometimes revert to longhand? I’ve become more interested in this aspect of writers as time goes on because I find that most people seem to type almost exclusively now–but I myself tend to produce completely different sentences when I write in longhand. It’s as though a different set of neurons is firing.
I do both. I think I’m always writing, because my mind is almost always engaged in the business of thinking about characters and sentences and stories. Like you, I like to write in longhand, but these are mostly notes, bits of dialogue, things that occur to me. I write in a journal most days and jot things on cocktail napkins and coffee shop receipts. But most of the real work is done at a keyboard, probably because of my journalism training. I can type faster than I can write longhand, and that’s the most important part, keeping up with the firing synapses.
How do your children change your writing–the way you think?
Children change everything, I’d guess. I’ve been a dad since I was 19, much longer than I wasn’t a father. My kids might disagree, but I’d argue it’s the one thing I was naturally good at. Having children changes everything about you. It’s like going from seeing in two dimensions to three. As a person, and a writer, having children allows you to see what it’s like to be truly selfless, so that your own desires seem secondary, or even petty. That can only be good for fiction-writing, which is a very empathetic pursuit.
Are you a reviser? Or a ruthless cutter? Or something else?
Yes, yes and yes. I revise every sentence I write, as I write it. (I just rewrote that sentence–which started as “Every sentence I write gets rewritten.”) Thankfully, I live in the age of computers or I’d have to have my own forest for all the paper I’d crumple. People talk about first drafts or second drafts, but I’m constantly revising, cutting, editing. Thankfully, I have to turn the things in every couple of years or I might just go on revising them forever.
I looked you up on IMDb, and your entry is quite funny–a documentary with William Shatner, and Spokane Basketball Player #3 in a movie called “The Basket.” You’re also writing the screenplay for The Zero–do you see more movie activities/crossovers in your future? And does some small part of you want to act?
I have worked on scripts from time to time. IMDb only lists those things that have been made, so there’s a little (awful) acting, a little writing. But I don’t love screenwriting the way I love writing fiction. I’d like to see a great movie come from Citizen Vince or The Zero or Financial Lives, but I can’t ever see working full time on screenwriting. As for acting, it’s probably telling that I’ve only got the one credit.
I’ve seen several pieces in which you review your peers’ works in various publications, and they make me think of something Ray Bradbury said, which was, “I’ve always believed that you should do very little reading in your own field once you’re into it. But at the start it’s good to know what everyone’s doing.” Do you think he has a point? Or do you like to try and read everything, even now? And what do you think that ultimately does to you, if anything?
I think it would be insane to not keep up on the writing going on around you. It’s how a writer develops his voice and aesthetic sense, by reading other authors. I read the way I breathe. I don’t really wonder what it’s doing for me, or how it might translate to my own writing. I read because if there is a great book out there, by God, I want to have devoured it. As far as reviewing, I think it’s kind of the responsibility of a writer to stay engaged in a conversation over what’s being done with your art.
Do you have a literary hero? Or, alternately, a muse?
My first literary hero was Kurt Vonnegut. After that, Joan Didion for a while, and Don DeLillo. And more recently, Jonathan Lethem and David Mitchell and Zadie Smith and… Writers tend to be a bit promiscuous with their affections–literary tramps.
What is your greatest fear? [This is kind of a James Lipton-y question.]
Power outage? Sanitation strike? Coffee shortage?
Is it terrifying to know that your JOB is full-time writer, or only wonderful?
I don’t think about it, I guess. I’ve been supporting myself since 1995, but I’ve had to do the same thing anyone does–much of what I write or do has been on assignment or in some other way not of my choosing. I write seven days a week and when my family goes on vacation, I get up at 6 a.m. and write. It’s not so much my job as my identity and when I had another full-time job, I still wrote fiction at night or in the morning.
Are you as funny in person as you are on the page?
Ha! Another impossible question to answer. But I CAN tell you that I am definitely taller in real life than I am on the page.
I often find myself talking to people who say, “I don’t read fiction,” and it surprises me less now than it used to, but it still breaks my heart. I do my best to explain how fiction has altered and improved my life, sometimes dramatically, but it often feels as though I’m one political leaning and they’re another, and there we stand. Even if we’re respectful about it, it feels as though we’re ultimately unwilling to travel over to the other side, and on both of our parts, these seem to be the kinds of biases that are planted early and deep — just as political biases often are. What do you say to people who tell you they don’t read fiction?
I know plenty of people who don’t read fiction. For some people, they can’t see the point–so much going on around them. I think it’s always been that way. The great thing about reading a novel is the way the reader’s involvement is so deep and personal. It’s like playing someone’s music–the reader has to play each of those notes in his or her own head. Some people just won’t hear that music. What can you do but celebrate the fact that you do, you hear it.
This may be kind of a chicken and egg question (that is, the answer is always and never), but how much do you think about yourself when you’re writing? Or your audience? Or is it all story thought? Does your writing help you figure out who you are, or do you already know?
Everything goes through my mind, all the time–anxieties, delusions, random facts, old girlfriend’s phone numbers. When I’m writing, though, I tend to be pretty focused on the words and the sound of the sentences and story that I’m trying to tell. Someone asked a bunch of writers once “Who do you write for?” and the answers were all over the place. Some people wrote for themselves, some for “the perfect reader,” some for their wife or their editor, but Don DeLillo gave the only proper answer… “I write for the page.” I think this is true. Everything you need is right there in front of you.