Jess Walter likes to write.
Now 42, he’s been doing so professionally for some two decades, first as a journalist (for a while as a Spokesman-Review reporter), then as a nonfiction author and now as a novelist.
The author of four novels, three of which are set in Spokane, Walter has been rewarded both financially and critically. His most recent novel, 2006’s “The Zero,” was nominated for a National Book Award.
But it was his 2005 novel “Citizen Vince” that won Walter his first national award, the Edgar Allan Poe Award – given out by the Mystery Writers of America – for Best Novel.
And it is that novel that was chosen to be the 2007 selection for the community reading project called Spokane Is Reading. Beginning in 2002 with Kent Haruf’s novel “Plainsong,” Spokane Is Reading is marked both by book discussions and by readings given by the chosen author.
In advance of Walter’s talks on Thursday (1 p.m. at the North Spokane Library, 44 E. Hawthorne Road; 7 p.m. at the Masonic Temple, 1108 W. Riverside Ave.), the author talked about a variety of topics, from Sherman Alexie’s being nominated for his own National Book Award (in the category of Young People’s Literature for his novel “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian”) to what he most enjoys about meeting with the public to the potential casting of actor Billy Bob Thornton as the title character in “Citizen Vince.”
Following is an edited transcript of the interview, conducted on Wednesday – the morning the 2007 National Book Awards were announced – beginning with Walter’s impression of Alexie’s frame of mind:
Walter: He seems like he’s doing really well. I just talked to him this morning.
Webster: What all did he have to say?
JW: Last year I found out the day before that I had been nominated, so I had to kind of walk around with this secret. I guess they couldn’t track him down, so he had just found out. I had gotten an e-mail, because I guess I’m on the mailing list now, and I saw his name and I was just so thrilled. I called him and he said, “How did you find out? I just found out 10 minutes ago.” He seemed really excited. It was early and he was in Miami on a book tour, but he just seemed thrilled.
The cool thing is that I’m going to be there (at the National Book Award ceremonies, which will be held Nov. 14 in Manhattan) because they asked the previous year’s finalists to nominate someone for this 5 Under 35 reading, and this Ethiopian-American novelist Dinaw Mengestu wrote this stunning book (“The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears”). I nominated it and they chose it so I get to go two days before the awards and announce it, then go to the dinner and root for Sherman and just get to see Joan Didion, who I think is just so stunning. And watch Denis Johnson (“Tree of Smoke”) win the fiction prize, I guess.
DW: Yeah. I haven’t seen the wire story yet.
JW: Three Spokane guys in two years, though, that’s pretty impressive – if you can call Sherman a Spokane guy.
DW: Or Egan, too, for that matter. You, you’re the Spokane guy.
JW: Well, they both lived here. And I still think of Sherman as a Spokane guy, if you think of Spokane as a large region. And I still think of the tribe and of Spokane as part of the area.
DW: Well, also, he may do it only when he talks to audiences here, but he gets a whole lot of mileage about being from this area.
JW: And this is a novel set on the reservation and in Reardan. And it’s good. I loved it. You’re just always reminded to get back to the simple things and kind of tell the truth. It’s a really truthful book.
DW: Let’s talk a little bit about Spokane Is Reading. I suppose the one thing I wanted to ask you was about the value of a program like this. Down in Whitman County they have Everybody Is Reading, and they’re doing “The Deep Dark,” Gregg Olsen’s book about the Sunshine mine disaster. For Spokane Is Reading, this is the first one in which they’re featuring a local author.
JW: And that was the first question I asked. I said, “People can see me at the coffee shop or the bar or anytime they want. Do you really want to choose someone from around here?” And they said they did, that they thought people would connect with the book. And maybe in some way it broadens the reach of the thing because it’s not just people interested in books but also people interested in the place, too, in Spokane. It seems to have worked for them. I won’t know until next week when I’m there if anybody but relatives show up.
DW: They’ve had a really good range of books, from Orson Scott Card with “Ender’s Game” to Kent Haruf (“Plainsong”) and Charles Frazier (“Cold Mountain”) on the other end, and Susan Vreeland (“Girl in Hyacinth Blue”) and, uh, I can’t remember the other writer, the woman who did the Sherlock Holmes mystery (Laurie R. King, “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice”).
JW: And you know with a community-read program, it seems like it’d be great if it’s a great read. But it does seem like there has to be that other thing, which can be, as with the Frazier book, something that connects with so many different kinds of readers – historical fiction, and to have that great plot to it. Luckily I don’t have to worry about that stuff. I just have to show up and hopefully answer good questions.
DW: To that extent, then, probably of your books this may be the best one for them to have chosen because it is the most readable of the three Spokane novels and it doesn’t have that really dark underbelly of “The Zero.”
JW: I think the difficulty that a lot of people have with “The Zero” is that it’s allegorical and open-ended, and that is a tougher read for most people, especially in an age in which people are reading fewer and fewer books. I think a book like “Citizen Vince,” for me, is entertaining. It’s not work. And that, to me, seems like the right thing.
It’s funny, I now have gotten two or three letters from people who are in jail or who have been in jail. Because the book … well, it’s almost Capraesque in the way focuses on Vince’s redemption, you know. And just the other day my neighbor had a kid he knows who was in jail, and he wanted to give him the book. To me it does seem so dark and funny, but the fact that it has this little inspirational side, I think, kind of rescues it from the darkness of something like “The Zero.”
DW: The thing I like most about it was when you finally got to that first killing, you know, the guy getting shot in the head, it’s like it came out of nowhere. I mean, it’s all there. But it was shocking because you think, well, my feeling was, “Wow, there’s this light-hearted feel here, and damn, this is Elmore Leonardish the way he’s just thrown this at me.”
JW: The guy just slid off a chair.
DW: I know, but it was realistic, too.
JW: Well, thanks. That tonal thing is tough. I wondered about that as I was writing it. “What is the tone of this book?” Then I lapsed into Reagan and Carter, I thought, “What the HELL is the tone of this book?” I’ll be curious to see, too … a lot of people have trouble with violence. I had one friend of mine who I thought would really love the book, and that was the problem he had. He said, “That character Ray is just so violent. When he started to threaten that woman, I just couldn’t finish it.” You were 30 pages from the end, you know! So there is a bit of violence in it, and I guess that’s the science – think of trying to choose a book for an entire community, the qualities you want and then you ask yourself if you’re going to exclude any readers who don’t like this and don’t like that. I mean, what would you be left with, you know?
DW: I don’t think there’s any more shocking moment than at the end of “Cold Mountain.”
JW: And it’s so heartbreaking and wrenching at that moment. It’s funny, I had been working for years on one of those fiction manifestos. Usually (Jonathan) Franzen (author of “The Corrections”) writes one, and then somebody responds to his manifesto about what is wrong with fiction. And these things always tend to be so self-serving; they always end with the author sort of saying that what fiction needs is more work like mine (laughs). But I was thinking about those, and I came across one by Chekhov, and he was bemoaning writing during his time, and he wrote, “We just need to remember that it needs to be moving.” And he said, “After all, Shakespeare didn’t just summon the ghost of Hamlet’s father for nothing.” In the end, that is the thing. And you just never know if you got there or not. That’s the cool thing about getting a chance to go talk to some readers: They can tell you how they were moved or if they were moved. And something that one reader would just gloss over, like someone getting killed, would to someone else change the stakes of the book completely. That individual experience with readers, when you’re not out there one book tour acting like a shoe salesman, for an author that’s the cool thing about a program like this. You’re talking about people, and they’re talking about the book. You’re not trying to convince them that they need this because readers invest so much time in books, and they take it so personally, and their opinions are set in stone. It’s just really interesting.
DW: What is the film news at this point regarding “Citizen Vince”?
JW: Billy Bob Thornton has read it, and we’re waiting. The problem is that we’re still signing contracts, and they’re setting up a budget, talking to the studios. So we’re not that much further along, except that we have a script that everyone seems to like.
DW: Who wrote the script?
JW: (Richard) Russo (author of “Empire Falls”) wrote a script, and then I did a rewrite of it for Billy Bob, and we’re just waiting to hear, both from him and the studio.
DW: So you’re still in the talking phase.
JW: If it goes, it could go pretty fast. I heard one executive say something about March, but they’re also nowhere near that. I don’t know how much of that is newsworthy.
DW: I think people like it when there’s a name attached, no matter how tenuously. That’s certainly more interesting than the notion that you sold the rights for “The Zero” to somebody that nobody’s ever heard of (Warner Independent Pictures, which has set German filmmaker Christian Alvart to direct).
JW: That is the funny thing. There’s no movie until there’s a movie star. And that’s the other question that people always ask: “Who do you think should play it in the movie?” That always cracks me up because I just never think of that. It’s kind of the last thing that ever crosses my mind.
DW: Even so, you’ve got to have some sense of who the character is in your head when you’re writing it.
JW: Yeah, certainly, but…
DW: So do you just adjust that when somebody like Billy Bob comes along?
JW: If the check’s big enough (laughs). No, you know, I’ve never heard an actor who made sense for anything I’ve written. Because I’m not thinking about actors. I love movies when I don’t recognize any of the actors. They don’t bring any baggage. If I ran Hollywood, you’d start over every time. I think stars kill movies for me, a lot of the time. I love George Clooney, but there’s not a George Clooney character. I mean, do you make Vince a George Clooney character, or do you make him a Brad Pitt character?
So then it becomes can you adapt Vince to the Billy Bob Thornton character, and I think he’s got as much range as any actor I know. I think something little like the Coen Brothers movie “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” I just loved watching him in that. He just played that dead-pan barber with smoke seeping out of all of his pores, and I thought he was just stunning, you know? And even in movies … did you see “The Ice Harvest” by any chance?
JW: I just thought he was great in that. He’s just really natural. So, I couldn’t be happier because he seems like me to be an actor who can stretch and cover anything rather than be the kind of actor you have to change the story to accommodate.