Vacation reads tend to be light, fluffy, and forgotten. Not so with Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins. Sure, it’s got all the checkmarks to be a nice dockside coaster. Bright, colorful cover? Check. Sweeping romance? Yup. Comes recommend by your mom’s book club? Most definitely.
What gives Beautiful Ruins legs to carry itself past the pool and beyond the sunny months (and 70+ weeks on The New York Times best- seller list) is Walter’s ability to weave a romantic tale about old Hollywood glamour with all the dirty heartbreak included. Growing up in Spokane has fostered Walter’s sense of small-town realism. “I have a real love for underdogs and people who have to battle to get respect. I think that shows up in my work.”
When asked why he thinks Beautiful Ruins has resonated with so many people, Walter said, “It’s a story about love and aging. The way in which our lives become something dignified even if it’s not the dreams we’ve imagined. Also, it has a great cover.”
Walter’s other work certainly spans an array of topics. His first book, Ruby Ridge, was a nonfiction account of the 1992 shootout between the FBI and the Weaver family in Northern Idaho, and his 2013 collection of short stories, We Live in Water, tell stories of homelessness, zombies, con men, and horoscopes. His wide scope of writing material comes in part from starting as a journalist, but it also describes his own reading habits. “I tend to want to read all different kinds of things, and I try not to repeat myself. Reporters write outward looking, rather than just looking inward, so reporters don’t seem to write their life story over and over,” Walter said.
Last year, Walter teamed up with fellow Spokane-born writer Sherman Alexie to create the podcast “A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment.” The literary podcast showcases work in progress: their own and their guests’. “That’s been one of the difficult things for both Sherman and me. Sometimes we read things too early and it can feel like they’re published,” Walter said. “It can destroy your momentum.”
As difficult as revealing their unready work can be, what hasn’t lost momentum is their popularity. The duo is taking the show on the road at Bumbershoot in Seattle Labor Day weekend, and Walter will be at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey for a reading Sept. 30. Walter has a short story featured in The Best American Short Stories 2015 that will be released on Oct. 6. Alexie is the guest editor of The Best American Poetry 2015, out Sept. 6.
When the two writers aren’t perfecting their craft and making post-colonial jokes on their podcast, they work on their jump shots. They once played on a literary basketball team called the Spokane Dirty Realists with a few other writers and, like all true Spokanites, Walter has played in 24 Hoopfests. (He says he was glad to be alive after this year’s 106-degree weekend and being almost 50 years old.)
Walter is currently working on a few novels, some short stories, a couple of movie scripts, and, as always, his grocery list. One of those scripts he’s working on is for the film version of Beautiful Ruins, but he told us not to hold our breath for a movie anytime soon … “Hollywood is a fascinating place to work, but it’s so hard to get things made. I hope it’ll happen.” Us too, Mr. Walter. Us too.
You can see Walter live on Oct. 1 for the Jefferson County Library Huntingford Humanities Lecture at 6:30 p.m. The free event will be held at the Chimacum High School auditorium. Learn more.