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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Truly, who, at the time, had been living for a good five years under the contemporary-fiction rock so many bitterly unpublished novelists occupy.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:

 

 

*   *   *

 

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.

 

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Greg Olear GREG OLEAR is the Los Angeles Times bestselling author of the novels Totally Killer and Fathermucker and founding editor of The Weeklings.

38 Responses to “An Interview with Jess Walter”

  1. Irene Zion says:

    You are a good interviewer, Greggie!
    Nice job.

  2. jonathan evison says:

    . . . great coverage on one of the best and funniest american novelists working today . . .i’m gonna’ be talking about jess walter (citizen vince, in particular) on NPR in a couple of weeks! . . .

    • Greg Olear says:

      There sure are a lot of great writers in Washington State…Jess, you, Beaudoin, Dietz, off the top of my head. What’s in the water up there? Or maybe it’s that there’s stuff IN the water elsewhere…

      Thx for the comment, JE. Keep us posted re: the NPR chat.

  3. Judy Prince says:

    Excellent warm-up to the interview, Greg, and you asked the questions I’d’ve wanted answered if I’d known about Jess Walter and his books.

    Of all the fine selection of excerpts in the several boxes, this one, especially, appealed to my inner poet:

    “It’s amazing how this kind of language filters like an aquifer beneath the adult surfaces of the world, how everyone under thirty speaks the same subtle cultural language.”

    Glad you asked Walter about leaving out parts as a plot device, which led to his thought-provoking, jump-out response to his self-question re 9/11, ” . . . 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.”

    BTW, I, too, agree that the title _The Financial Lives of the Poets_ is wonderful.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Thanks, Judy. Being a poet, it’s no surprise you dig the title. You should read the book — there are several chapters that are long poems.

      • Judy Prince says:

        I couldn’t let it go, Greg. Had to buy the book. Also had, as always, to check out the customer reviewers on amazon.co.uk. Here’s a good meaty review:

        “4.0 out of 5 stars ‘What kind of man was I?’, 10 Aug 2010
        By William Rycroft “blogs @ Just William’s Luck” (Hertfordshire, UK) – See all my reviews
        (TOP 500 REVIEWER) (REAL NAME)

        The Financial Lives of the Poets (Paperback)

        Nick Hornby’s name is affixed to the cover of this comic novel with a nice quote (“It made me laugh more than any other book this year”) but Jess Walter will be thankful to Hornby for more than just a nice cover quote. Apparently after reading this book on a trip to the States Hornby forced a copy into the hands of Penguin’s head honcho and insisted that they publish it in the UK. His persistence has brought a wonderfully funny book to these shores, a novel about one man’s unique way of dealing with economic crisis and a hilarious antidote to the general malaise that permeates ‘the current financial climate’ and writer’s very serious responses to it.

        We meet the novel’s hero, Matthew Prior, already floundering in America’s recent economic meltdown having quit his job as a financial journalist to set up a website, poetfolio.com, offering financial news and advice…in blank verse. How that ever sounded like a good idea only he knows but with their mortgage now extended way over the actual value of the house and financial demands coming from all quarters he is unemployed, on the brink of bankruptcy, losing his house and maybe even his marriage too. His wife has been spending suspiciously large amounts of time on the computer and through a bit of snooping Prior discovers online chats with a high-school sweetheart. Walter has a great lightness and in a hilarious opening chapter a simple evening trip to the store to pick up milk for the kid’s cereal (‘it’s like nine dollars a gallon’) leads to a meeting with two stoners, Skeet and Jamie, Matthew’s first hit on a joint for many years (I want to make sure they haven’t done anything new to the pot. Oh, but they have!’), an impromptu party and a night of no sleep. Having scored some of this high quality weed and finding it easy to pass on to a colleague with a healthy profit, the financial journalist wakes up to the economics of drug selling (something familiar to anyone who’s watched the cult TV series Breaking Bad) and sees a way out of his financial troubles, and hopefully a way to lead his family back onto the tracks. All strictly within limits of course.

        “I’m only going to do this for a few months, just long enough to make some house payments and keep my kids in Catholic school. Then I’ll quit.”
        “Wait,” Ike lowers his head. “You’re selling pot to pay for Catholic school? Drugs for private school? That’s so Iran-Contra.”

        This is a comic novel though so Prior is hilariously ill-suited to the task and successive nights without sleep lead to increasing errors of judgement. As he gets himself more involved with his new spliff scheme he also begins to close in on the rival for his wife’s affections, and look after two boys and his ageing father. This last aspect is the one that allows Walter to add some pathos to his tale, Prior’s father having lost house, savings and all after a dalliance with a young stripper, but thankfully spared the pain of regret thanks to his creeping dementia. Carrying around his trusty remote control at all times, ever ready for the moment when The Rockford Files should be on, he cuts a sad figure totally unaware of his own failings even as his son flails around trying to atone for his own and getting himself in deeper and deeper as a result.

        The book contains several examples of Prior’s poetic musings, all very tongue in cheek, and several examples of his financial prowess.

        ‘I even had a popular investing column for a couple of years, although, in the interests of full disclosure, this was during the 1990′s, when you could’ve trained a puppy on the newspaper stock section and made twenty percent a year investing where his turds fell.’

        Walter manages to land some pretty hefty satirical blows along the way and pinpoint some very painful truths about our modern life and attitudes to money, work, home and family life. What it really delivers though is laugh after laugh and the fact that it adds something a little heart warming along the way all helps to make for a very satisfying read, perfect for what remains of the holidays.”
        ——————–

      • Judy Prince says:

        I couldn’t let it go, Greg. Had to buy the book. Also had, as always, to check out the customer reviewers on amazon.co.uk. Here’s a good meaty review:

        “4.0 out of 5 stars ‘What kind of man was I?’, 10 Aug 2010
        By William Rycroft “blogs @ Just William’s Luck” (Hertfordshire, UK) – See all my reviews
        (TOP 500 REVIEWER) (REAL NAME)

        The Financial Lives of the Poets (Paperback)

        Nick Hornby’s name is affixed to the cover of this comic novel with a nice quote (“It made me laugh more than any other book this year”) but Jess Walter will be thankful to Hornby for more than just a nice cover quote. Apparently after reading this book on a trip to the States Hornby forced a copy into the hands of Penguin’s head honcho and insisted that they publish it in the UK. His persistence has brought a wonderfully funny book to these shores, a novel about one man’s unique way of dealing with economic crisis and a hilarious antidote to the general malaise that permeates ‘the current financial climate’ and writer’s very serious responses to it.

        We meet the novel’s hero, Matthew Prior, already floundering in America’s recent economic meltdown having quit his job as a financial journalist to set up a website, poetfolio.com, offering financial news and advice…in blank verse. How that ever sounded like a good idea only he knows but with their mortgage now extended way over the actual value of the house and financial demands coming from all quarters he is unemployed, on the brink of bankruptcy, losing his house and maybe even his marriage too. His wife has been spending suspiciously large amounts of time on the computer and through a bit of snooping Prior discovers online chats with a high-school sweetheart. Walter has a great lightness and in a hilarious opening chapter a simple evening trip to the store to pick up milk for the kid’s cereal (‘it’s like nine dollars a gallon’) leads to a meeting with two stoners, Skeet and Jamie, Matthew’s first hit on a joint for many years (I want to make sure they haven’t done anything new to the pot. Oh, but they have!’), an impromptu party and a night of no sleep. Having scored some of this high quality weed and finding it easy to pass on to a colleague with a healthy profit, the financial journalist wakes up to the economics of drug selling (something familiar to anyone who’s watched the cult TV series Breaking Bad) and sees a way out of his financial troubles, and hopefully a way to lead his family back onto the tracks. All strictly within limits of course.

        “I’m only going to do this for a few months, just long enough to make some house payments and keep my kids in Catholic school. Then I’ll quit.”
        “Wait,” Ike lowers his head. “You’re selling pot to pay for Catholic school? Drugs for private school? That’s so Iran-Contra.”

        This is a comic novel though so Prior is hilariously ill-suited to the task and successive nights without sleep lead to increasing errors of judgement. As he gets himself more involved with his new spliff scheme he also begins to close in on the rival for his wife’s affections, and look after two boys and his ageing father. This last aspect is the one that allows Walter to add some pathos to his tale, Prior’s father having lost house, savings and all after a dalliance with a young stripper, but thankfully spared the pain of regret thanks to his creeping dementia. Carrying around his trusty remote control at all times, ever ready for the moment when The Rockford Files should be on, he cuts a sad figure totally unaware of his own failings even as his son flails around trying to atone for his own and getting himself in deeper and deeper as a result.

        The book contains several examples of Prior’s poetic musings, all very tongue in cheek, and several examples of his financial prowess.

        ‘I even had a popular investing column for a couple of years, although, in the interests of full disclosure, this was during the 1990′s, when you could’ve trained a puppy on the newspaper stock section and made twenty percent a year investing where his turds fell.’

        Walter manages to land some pretty hefty satirical blows along the way and pinpoint some very painful truths about our modern life and attitudes to money, work, home and family life. What it really delivers though is laugh after laugh and the fact that it adds something a little heart warming along the way all helps to make for a very satisfying read, perfect for what remains of the holidays.”
        ——————–

  4. Jessica Blau says:

    Great interview! Love the haiku and love Dixie Chicked as a verb. I’m going to use that someday!

  5. Great interview, and I appreciate the excerpts. I haven’t read his work, and now I will.

  6. Zara Potts says:

    What a fantastic interview.

    And you know – interviews are a terrifically hard form to get right. You did it just perfectly. Great questions that were answered in an entertaining and informative way.

    The Carter thing is really interesting to me. I just watched a Simon Schama doco on America and he was saying that the reason that Carter was so rejected was because he was the only president who had the nerve to tell the American people that they couldn’t have whatever they wanted, that they would have to cut back, tighten their belts, conserve. I never thought about it in that way.

    Thank you Greg and Jess
    For making me laugh and think
    I like to laugh, yo!

    • Greg Olear says:

      Thanks, Zara.

      Carter was also, in the Navy, a nuclear physicist. (The “peanut farmer” line in the bio, while true, suggests he’s something of a rube). We Americans detest thoughtful, intelligent leaders. We prefer speaking softly and carrying a big stick, and shooting first and asking questions (ie, “Um, dude, where ARE those WMDs?”) later.

  7. I read the first couple of paragraphs, remembered that Poets got a really good review in The Guardian, loaded it down and am now fifty pages in. I shall now read the rest of the article.

      • I do. I’ve only just read the rest of the interview, three weeks later. Mind you, that’s how I do most things; last night, while cleaning my teeth, I realised I should probably have called the zombie apocalypse essay I wrote a couple of months back How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Zomb. See, Mr. Walter says zombies are what’s happening right now.

        I read Poets. Proper good.

  8. jmblaine says:

    I saw this book around a time or two
    & thought for sure it was
    non-fiction.

    I’m usually a non-fiction only
    guy but you do a good job
    making this interesting.
    Plus, from a distance,
    this guy looks like a Dirty Work
    era Mick Jagger.

  9. Gloria Harrison says:

    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. <—— this is one of the most thoughtful testimonials I’ve ever read. It makes me want to leave work and read this book right now.

    Spokane has slightly better weather? Doesn’t it rain there, like, all the time? I’m in Portland. We’re near. I guess constant rain is better than snow… But that’s kind of like saying that being shot in the leg is slightly better than being knifed in the face. Anyway… At least Portland has a Trader Joe’s.

    …places that spark none of that romantic quality that young people believe will keep them from growing old. Wow. What a punch-in-the-gut line.

    The Financial Lives of the Poets really is a tremendous title.

    This is a fantastic interview, Greg. I now have even more to add to my to-read list. I feel like Burgess Meredith’s character in that Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last” – the only way I’m going to get all my reading done is if the world comes crashing down and that’s all that’s left to do. And when that day comes, I’ll read Walter’s entire library!

  10. Now holding down your position of TNB’s Dick Cavett with zero competition, Greg. Love the notion of the genre author flip in the intro-it’s so fucking true. No question in my mind it would be easier for Jim Thompson to write some Updike foppery for the <New Yorker than Rabbit could reach deep and pull off a chapter of The Grifters.

    • Greg Olear says:

      One always aspires to Cavetthood. Thanks, Sean.

      I think it’s similar to how comic actors can play serious roles more easily than “serious” actors can do comedy. Comedians get short shrift.

  11. Great interview, Greg. You have convinced me to put his latest book on my list for when I get to an English-speaking country.

    Loved this: “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.”

  12. Sara H says:

    I love Jess Walter’s books, and not just because I lived in Spokane for 7 years.

    For the record, No, it does not “rain all the time” in Spokane. It rains more than some places, but it’s certainly not “rainy,” except in the springtime and early bits of fall. And oh God yes does it have an inferiority complex, but that’s a rant for another time.

    Anyway, great interview.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Thanks, Sara.

      Based on my reading of his work, the main deficiency of Spokane is a dearth of good pizza joints.

      I appreciate the comment.

      • Sara H says:

        Well, I don’t know. There’s a great local pizza place called Pizza Rita, for your typical, greasy type pizza, and Benneditos is great for that middle line of bar food crossed with gourmet, and then a bunch of places that do specialty pizzas. But sometimes his writing is centered on Spokane of 10+ years ago, and that Spokane was a different place. In the 7 years I lived there, it’s made great strides in food and culture. It has its problems, of course, but it’s also got a lot of potential.

        If it matters any, I have my own review of The Financial Lives of Poets here where I draw some more Spokane parallels.

        Of course, it’s like depicting anywhere, isn’t it? There are people who assume that Montana (where I’m from and live again now) is all like A River Runs Through It, when it’s not. The state certainly has lots of hunting/fishing/ranching, but go to places like Missoula, and your first impression is not one of cowboys.

        • Greg Olear says:

          Nice review, Sara…interesting to read the stuff about the local paper. When I read FLOP (I love that it’s abbreviated that way), I’d not read the other books, so I didn’t peg Spokane as the setting…although I did make note of it being deliberately anywhere. And I love the “burrito” quote.

          I’m ripping the pizza thing from Vince Camden…a guy reared on the ‘za of NJ and Brooklyn can get a mite picky about such things (as I can attest). As an aside: the best pizza in NYC is made by Albanians, not Italians. It’s true, though it pains me to admit.

  13. In anticipation of this interview, I went and bought Walter’s The Financial Lives of the Poets this weekend. Somewhere, I know, Jamie, Skeet, and our 40-year-old protagonist are drinking nine-dollars-a-gallon milk, bummed Proposition 19 did not pass yesterday in Cali-forn-i-a. When I finish the book, I shall return.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Cool! Lemme know what you think!

      • Just finished it a couple of minutes ago….

        I can see why this was in the Best Books of 2009 post from this past December’s Nobby Awards, and why someone compared Steve Hely’s How I Became a Famous Novelist to Walter’s novel. The Financial Lives of the Poets is some seriously funny shit, and I mean “shit” in only a flattering way. It’s one of those books, like yours, I call a book that even people who don’t like to read will enjoy. That type of writing is always a winner in my opinion.

        I wish the protagonist, Matt Prior (aka Slippers), was a real guy I could hang out with — so long as he wasn’t carrying on his person 3 ounces of weed in a messenger bag. And Skeet and Jamie. From their entrance into the novel, comic gold, particularly their dialogue. I know people like that. I have friends like that from where I grew up. Ha.

        And Dave/Eddie who sounds like a NORML lawyer. And the fuck-stick shouting Lt. Reese and Randy the born-again good cop. And Chuck “lumber in his drawers” and Lisa. Monte and Chet. (Chet must be the ultimate douchebag name) You had a Chet in Totally Killer, right Greg? Even Ike and Ida Amin. This book has some many great characters and such a wonderful storyline. I could read this again, right now.

        Yeah, it’s funny. But it tackles a very serious situation in this country that many people are going through . . . still. The desperation. The inability to sustain one’s living. Jobs going under, particularly the newspaper business. Homes foreclosing. Marriages crumbling because, as they say, most divorces stem from financial instability and money woes.

        I’m definitely checking out more of Walter’s books. I wish I had read this sooner back when you recommended it to me when I interviewed you for the paper. Fantastic interview. What a pickup getting to talk to him for you I bet.

        Good stuff. Great stuff.

        • Greg Olear says:

          Chet! Yes, I did use Chet. I forgot about that. Good memory, man.

          I tend to go with Chad as the douchebag name; Chad is the FATHERMUCKER douchebag. (Funnily enough, I used to go with Brad, for various personal reasons, but Our Fearless Leader has succeeded in forever altering my feelings about that name.) My new favorite douchebag name is Gregg, with the extra G.

          Anyway, thanks, Jeffro.

  14. Simon Smithson says:

    One of my favourite things about TNB is the sheer number of new authors it exposes me to – even if I have to wince a little every time a new name surfaces, because I inevitable have to add another entry to my books to buy list, and my credit card, poor abused thing that it is, shivers like a fibre-lacking dog seeing the laxative bottle being brought down from the shelf again.

    This Jess Walter guy seems like he’d be my speed.

    He’s also, in a few paragraphs, inspired jealousy in me, which is always a nice way to start the day. It makes me work harder.

    Thanks for this, Greg.

  15. D.R. Haney says:

    Anderson. I’d forgotten all about Anderson. He was, I guess, the Ralph Nader of 1980, though I don’t believe anyone held him accountable for Reagan the way Nader was for Bush’s (controversial) victory in 2000.

    I don’t remember much about that election, but there’s a BBC series, The Century of the Self, which has a lot to say about why Reagan won. I can’t summarize as effectively as I’d like, but my impression was that a growing number of Americans were, for intents and purposes, sociopaths, made that way after years of grooming, and they voted accordingly. In other words, their refutation of Carter had less to do with his policies per se and more with their own (purely) selfish interests.

    But I’m sure I’m missing the point of the series, which I can’t recommend enough. It can seen on YouTube in its entirety, starting with:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dA89CBBOC0

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