Jess Walter is the New York Times bestselling author of “Beautiful Ruins” and nine other books. His latest collection of short stories, “The Angel of Rome and Other Stories,” is the mark of a deeply talented writer who can capture the inner life of a twenty-something barista living in Bend, Oregon, a an older man watching the kids from his window in Spokane and an Italian actress reflecting on how she never got her dream role so persuasively and poignantly. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You seem to have a very innate sense of what a story needs to make a character’s world feel full and real within a limited number of pages. How is composing a short story different from writing a novel for you?
The initial impulse is very similar. You begin to see inside this world and you want to describe it. The comparison I sometimes make is that writing a short story is like going on a date and writing a novel is like having a relationship. For me, short stories are really fun and playful. I can say, what would that look like from a second person perspective? Or if a teacher was fed up with all these students throwing religion in his face? I try to have the best date possible. I try to make them lively and fun. With a novel, you are just adventuring. You have to meet the other person’s parents and find a vacation, and that’s so much more work. There is a playful side with short stories that differs for me.
In the first story, “Mr. Voice,” two of the characters meet at the 1974 World’s Fair in Spokane. In “Before You Blow,” the character works at an old Spokane pizzeria, Geno’s Fabulous Pizza. Desolation”, the characters take a walk in Manito Park. In “Drafting”, the characters have this lovely cathartic ride over Snoqualmie Pass and through the Columbia River Gorge. Your love for Washington, especially your hometown of Spokane , is so visceral in these stories. Tell me what role Spokane plays in your imagination.
Growing up, the geography of New York imprinted itself on me in the literature I read, especially “Catcher in the Rye.” I’ve always wanted to do this for the city I live in. I think as writers we mythologize those places where we don’t live. And I love creating a kind of Eastern Washington mythology. It’s one of my favorite things when people from other cities come to Spokane because they want to visit places from the books. I also love there. It’s an incredibly rich place to write and stage literature. I can still see Holden Caulfield’s Times Square, and I want readers to be able to see my Spokane that way.
You have already said in interviews that you identify as a working-class writer. How does your upbringing influence the stories you tell?
When you think of class in America, the big novel is always “The Great Gatsby”. When I read it, I thought it was just a book about the rich. I didn’t see anyone there that I know. It’s really rich, nouveau riche, extremely rich, barely rich. My father worked in an aluminum factory and I had to pay for my own college. I was a dad at 19. I think living in Spokane keeps you close to your working class roots, and for me that’s a really important thing. But to imagine then that it takes away some sophistication from the stories or suggests more raw emotions is more classism. The people I grew up with feel as deeply, think as brightly, and create art as deeply as anyone who attends an Ivy League school. They just do it in a world of Nissan Maximas and $110,000 homes.
Growing up in a small town where no one goes to college, I always thought the Ivy League people had something I didn’t have, other than money. But when you meet them, you find that’s not necessarily true.
It’s exactly that. You can have growing provincialism in a poor place. Than your world, the borders of your world can just be smaller. If you spend the summer in Barcelona, or whatever, your world is bigger. But I’ve met wealthy, successful people who are just as provincial in ways they don’t realize. Provincialism knows no class.
Something I love about your stories is that American quality they have. This all contrasts quite starkly with the last story, “The Way the World Ends”, which captures the anxiety of a climate scientist and, through the narrative, hits the reader with some pretty grim facts about global warming. Do you feel some sort of moral imperative as a writer to write climate fiction, or are you just representing the world you live in?
A bit of both. I don’t think you can ignore climate fiction. My kids are in their 20s and 30s and I’m really aware of the world they live in. But even this climate fiction story, which features a harsh world, ends with the word “hope.” You have to give them hope. It was really a way for me to look directly at what is a terrifying existential moment in our history and find a way to move on. Every time there’s a school shooting, we have to fight back against our cynicism and keep fighting for the right and good things. It wasn’t that long ago that Barack Obama couldn’t even be for gay marriage or he wouldn’t be elected president. How far have we gone? Even as the country has swung to the right, we have come so far. So this hope that I just wanted to apply to the most terribly scary thing I know. But it’s also a funny story too. I like having an outlier that feels like a very different type of story.
In “Fran’s Friend Has Cancer”, an elderly couple are in a restaurant talking about their loved ones in a bitter and funny way, and they notice a man with a notebook sitting in the next booth, writing down their conversation, almost word for word. word. Have you ever felt like this man?
Absolutely. This is the most meta story in the collection. There are all these different parts of the writing process, and sometimes you feel that ideal, like you created life. And then other times they look like they’re alive, but they’re only 3 inches tall and they can only do one thing. I was kind of toying with that idea. When I was a young writer, I used to write conversations. I really wanted to understand the way people talk, the way they really talk, not the way it’s portrayed in literature. So I wrote four different conversations at the same time.