Although Jess Walter’s been churning out top-shelf fiction for almost a decade—he’s a National Book Award finalist and an Edgar Award winner, for Pete sake—I was turned on to his work fairly recently, when his fifth and most recent novel, The Financial Lives of the Poets, came out last year.
“Buzzed about” are words used so frequently in Book Land that they have lost their meaning, but Financial Lives was buzzed about so incessantly that it managed to attract the (generally deficient) attention of Yours Truly, who, at the time, had been living for a good five years under the contemporary-fiction rock so many bitterly unpublished novelists occupy.
Nick Hornby tweeted that Financial Lives was the funniest novel he’d read that year. Unsurprisingly, I found that Hornby was right. But it’s not just the humor, sidesplittingly LOLZ-infused though it is, that blew me away here. Walter’d managed to write a novel that was so current it seemed like it was written two hours ago, if not two hours from now. Twitter novels feel less immediate. And no amount of joviality and wit can adequately soften the blow of the grim realities he’s writing about. Financial Lives is, like the pot the protagonist Matt Prior smokes, some serious shit.
Reading backward through his catalog — and feeling like a dolt for having not been hip to him before now — I found that Financial Lives was no fluke. The Zero, 2006′s National Book Award finalist, is the best piece of “9/11″ fiction I’ve yet encountered, but classifying it as such does the book a disservice. Citizen Vince won the Edgar for best mystery novel in 2005, but to confine it to the “mystery” genre is misleading; how many mystery novels devote entire chapters to the interior monologues of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan? And Over Tumbled Graves and Land of the Blind, his first two novels, are much more than well-told tales of cops and criminals.
Walter is one of those novelists who defy, if not outright thumb their nose at, genre classification. Clearly “literary,” his work tends to revolve around law enforcement and crime, and thus tends to baffle those who seek to label fiction books.
“I think suspense should be like any other color in a writer’s palette,” he remarked in an interview with Playboy literary editor Alice Grace Lloyd. “I suppose I’m in the minority, but I think it’s crazy for ‘literary fiction’ to divorce itself from stories that are suspenseful, and assign anything with cops or spies or criminals to some genre ghetto…When the newspapers every day are filled with stories of surveillance, torture, and suicide bombings, I don’t think it’s in the novelist’s best interest to ignore these things or make them backdrops to some domestic story about middle-aged rich people coming to terms with their mortality (‘The parties that season were especially grim.’).”
Or this nugget from the “P.S.” section of Citizen Vince: “I find it odd that literary writers can go slumming in the genre ghettos, but the gate so rarely swings the other way. A few years ago, McSweeney’s did a couple of really cool anthologies with literary writers doing horror and detective stories, but where’s the anthology with Dean Koontz and James Patterson writing New Yorker-style stories in which a husband quietly seethes over his wife’s flirtation with her therapist?”
Instead of Patterson-as-Franzen, I’m pleased to present an interview with Jess Walter:
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G.O.: The first chapter of your first novel, Over Tumbled Graves, is set, appropriately, in Riverside State Park in Spokane, Washington, your hometown and current place of residence, a city you put on the literary map. Let’s clear this up once and for all: spo-CAN, or spo-CAIN?
J.W.: It’s Spo-CAN, after the Spokane Tribe, the interior Salish band displaced by missionaries and settlers onto a reservation a few miles north of the city. They referred to themselves as Spokan, which meant “Children of the Sun,” and the town was first named Spokan Falls but someone Frenched it up and dropped the “Falls” in the late 1800s.
From your descriptions in the various books, Spokane reminds me of Buffalo—second-largest city in the state; unappreciated and underrated; set in a place of great natural beauty, near a prominent waterfall; cool architecture; lots of snow; poised for a comeback. Ever been to Buffalo? I really like it.
Buffalo is a good call, although I’d argue Spokane has slightly better weather, and has already staged its comeback (but is too humble to realize it.) Spokane has classic second-city self-esteem issues; it lives in the shadow of Seattle, and is constantly waiting for external approval, for some up-scale chain to indicate that we’ve finally made it (If only we can get a Trader Joe’s …) I’ve taken to liking this second-city humility, its quick-to-please grounded ease, which, combined with the city’s natural beauty and matter-of-fact northwest funkiness (bike lanes everywhere!) have sparked a burgeoning art, music and writing scene. So maybe rather than Buffalo, Spokane will become Seattle’s Brooklyn.
Which character in the Jess Walter catalog is the closest to the real you? Besides Randy Weaver, I mean.
I love how Marilynn Robinson answered the question, Are any of these characters you? “Yes, all of them.” I feel like I’ve infected all of my characters with bits of my anxiety and world view. Matt Prior, from Financial Lives, and Clark Mason, from Land of the Blind, share some external qualities with me—I live in Matt’s house, for instance—but I think people sometimes focus too much on that stuff. I actually feel closer internally to Vince Camden and Brian Remy, especially Remy’s hapless good intentions and Vince’s sense that he may have been raised in the wrong world.
Speaking of Vince Camden, I’m convinced he cast his vote for Anderson. Am I right?
Yes. Or no. Or … I honestly imagined that I was turning my back when Vince voted for president, giving him the same privacy we’re all afforded. I get a lot of emails asking that question, and suggesting all three possibilities, that he voted for Reagan because John Gotti convinced him to and he’s at a crossroads in his life the way America was; that he voted for Anderson because he promised the woman out canvassing that he would and because he would reject both parties; and that he voted for Carter because his own journey—a kind of failed decency—mirrored that of Carter. When a woman argued about it with me at a reading once I said, “You know, I made the whole thing up so it can be whatever you and I think,” but this was a very unsettling answer for both of us.
Whose head was more fun to get inside, Jimmy Carter’s or Ronald Reagan’s?
Oh, Carter’s! I loved the idea that half the country thought Reagan was crazy and was going to lead us into a third world war and they STILL didn’t want Carter. That sort of complete rejection spoke to me … hell, as a novelist, it SANG to me … and I was fascinated by what that would mean to someone personally to be so roundly rejected. Reagan, on the other hand, was someone without much self-doubt … a tough character for a true doubt connoisseur like me to find much purchase in.
Elmore Leonard, in his rules for writing, says to leave out the parts that people skip. In The Zero, you do Leonard one better; you turn leaving parts out into a plot device. How did this idea develop? (The novelist in me wants to believe it was a clever way of avoiding writing transitions).
Ha! No. It was really a thematic device from the beginning, trying to find some way to indicate my country’s slippage from reality. I spent a few weeks at ground zero beginning five days after the attacks (same day the novel begins), and I kept asking myself, “How did we get HERE?” When I arrived home, I saw a sign at a furniture store, “God Bless America; New Furniture Arriving Every Day,” and I felt like I’d missed some national address in which the President said, Now we will all be crazy for a while. So I got the idea of skipping, losing the cause to my effects. I’ve written scripts and a lot of times, you’re looking for ways to truncate scenes, to get out as soon as you can. I knew it would start working when it started to feel not like a response to 9/11, but the way life feels like sometimes.
“The Zero” is what Ground Zero was called by municipal employees in the wake of 9/11. What was it like, to publish a novel about such a hot-button topic, just five years after the attacks?
Actually, I never heard anyone call Ground Zero the Zero. It was something I invented to create knowing shorthand that also contained distance from the real event.
You fooled me!
I was playing with the idea that what happened was “unspeakable,” that—at the time I wrote the novel—our reverence was such that just questioning our irrational, jingoistic reaction could get you all Dixie Chicked (the novel was published five years after, but I began working on it not long after the attacks). It’s obviously set in New York, but I never used the words New York, 9/11, World Trade Center, etc.
Right. Giuliani is never mentioned by name, nor is the since-disgraced police chief.
I did this to give the whole a dreamy inexactitude, to match Remy’s dissolution. I knew it was a tough topic, but I didn’t think of it as “hot-button” … I tend not to think at all of the reception as I’m writing. Writing is hard enough without trying to imagine what people will think of it.
The Financial Lives of the Poets is one of my favorite titles of all time—although when I first heard about it, I assumed it concerned Byron, Shelley, and an early-19th-century Ponzi scheme. What’s the story behind the title? How was it received?
So glad you like it, Greg. People seem to love it or hate it. Writers like it, but it’s tough for a lot of readers, for whom “poet” and “financial” are as alluring as “oral surgery” and “corporate tax code.” The title refers to Samuel Johnson’s The Lives of the English Poets (many of the characters are named after Johnson’s old English poets, like Matthew Prior) and my idea was that news reporters were the poets of the 20th century. I liked the ironic faux-seriousness of it, the Masterpiece Theater quality, and also the rhythm of it. People warned me it would be a tough sell, but once something gets named for me, it’s like changing a kid’s name. When a poet friend heard the title, he said, Well, I know how that one ends.
In The Financial Lives of the Poets, Matt Prior says that while he’s always loved the form, modern poetry leaves him cold. “MFA’d to irrelevance,” I think was the line, if memory serves. Does Matt’s opinion mirror yours? How do you feel about poetry? Who are your favorite poets?
I love poetry, although I do feel as if the move away from narrative toward “language poetry” has alienated non-practitioners and dullards like me. My favorite poets, off the top of my head: Emily Dickenson, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, James Tate, Pablo Neruda and Robert Hass. The northwest seems to me to have an inordinate number of great poets working now, including some of my friends, and there a couple of books of poetry I’m really excited about: Chris Howell’s Dreamless and Possible and Robert Wrigley’s new collection Beautiful Country.
Although there are some common themes from your earlier work—the presence of law enforcement, for one—The Financial Lives of the Poets, to me, represents a departure for you, Bob Dylan picking up an electric guitar. It’s the only story told in first person, for starters, and while crime is involved, it is not a crime novel. Do you see it as a turning point, or just a natural progression of your writing?
I can just about guarantee that’s the first time I’ve ever been compared to Dylan! I don’t think of it as a departure. I think people generally assume writers are working with more purpose than they really are. I really just write the next book I want to read. As for first person, my second novel, Land of the Blind, is mostly first-person, and a lot of the short stories I’ve published are domestic, comic or experimental. I write everything, and to me, voice is more important than plot … I’m just a writer, and when I’m all done I hope to have contaminated the whole damn bookstore.
On your website, you write haiku book reviews. What would the haiku review of The Financial Lives of the Poets look like?
You don’t own this book?
The fuck’s your fuckin’ problem
Don’t like to laugh, yo?
When I read The Financial Lives of the Poets, I thought to myself, “Wow, is this good. I want to write something like this.” Your novel was very much the inspiration for Fathermucker, my second book. What inspired you to write Financial Lives? (The Jess Walter fan in me wants to believe it was because you wanted to take it to Jonathan Franzen).
Wow, thanks so much, Greg. That’s really flattering and humbling. Honestly, the biggest inspiration was a phone call from an elderly reader who mistook 9/11 in The Zero for 7-Eleven. It seemed funny to me, and apt. So I was messing around with voice and just started with this riffing character inside a 7-Eleven. And I loved the voice. After that, it was the fastest book I’ve ever written; I just sort of let it go. I think we all carry around a thousand books every time we sit down to write, and I found myself echoing little bits of Ginsburg’s Howl (waiting in line at the 7-Eleven with the “starving and sorry, the paranoid, yawning with fear”) and the overheated self-reflection of Saul Bellow’s Herzog, but there were no literary axes to grind, I’m sorry to report. Like most writers, I think my loathing tends to be healthily self-directed.
Last question: what are you working on now? (Before you answer, I should point out that a formula for runaway bestsellerhood goes something like this: Washington State + vampires = $$$$$$).
Washington vampires? Please, give me some credit. I’m writing about zombies. I’m also pulling together short stories for a collection (and there actually is a zombie story in there, along with some crime things and more than a few boring old domestic lit’ry pieces.) I’m also working on the next novel, a big comic, epic romance set in Italy, Hollywood, Edinburgh, Scotland and Sandpoint, Idaho.