Jess Walter believes that when you’ve got a sense of humor about life there’s always a way forward. That philosophy clearly relates to his work as a writer. While he may jest at his own ways and means of tackling his craft, there’s no doubt that he takes the art of writing seriously. For Walter, an important factor for the writer is the concept of time. Not just the immense tracts of time necessary to hone his craft, but the ways that a writer can manipulate time and even how time can change a writer.
Walter visits Hugo House on December 6th as part of our Word Works: Writers on Writing series to discuss how time works in fiction as well as the way time works on the writer. (His class is sold out, but you can still purchase tickets to the event!)
Talking of time, Walter graciously took the time to answer some of our questions. Read on and enjoy Walter’s playful and irreverent take on writing, including some answers about time and his formula for writing success.
Q: Your novel, Beautiful Ruins covered a time span of nearly 50 years. What are the challenges and the advantages of covering such a long time span?
I didn’t expect it to be such a wide span. I always knew one time period would be the early 1960s and the other would be “the present” but I’ll be damned if “the present” isn’t the most elusive thing. Originally I imagined a couple that reunited after thirty-five years but as the years ticked away, that became a couple that reunited after fifty. I ended up loving that wide scope of the novel, like I had known these people their whole lives.
Q: You mention in an interview for Kenyon Review that Beautiful Ruins took you fifteen years to write and rewrite. How do you know that you’ve spent enough time rewriting and that you have a piece ready for review by your publisher?
Haha, you used the word “know.” That’s a good one. You never really know anything and I probably could’ve worked on the novel forever. But when I finished a draft in 2011, I certainly felt like I had completed some movement that I had begun when I started writing it in 1997. The shape of the story (in this case, it’s a circular shape, as Dee and Pasquale end right where they began) had come to a satisfying place and all that was left was to fix all of those shit sentences and holes in logic and narrative.
Q: You mention in more than one interview that rather than a well-planned plot, you spend more time working on character and voice. How do your characters and their voice eventually help create the story?
I think of voice as the elemental piece of fiction writing. When I know how something sounds, then I have a pretty good idea what I want to do with it. It’s why I tinker with the beginnings of a book for months trying to get the sound right. For me, it’s like the opening riff of a song. The characters’ voices come more gradually, and eventually the characteristics and desires the writer has created for them combine with the obstacles in their way to create a kind of kinetic tension—if Billy loves Emily and Emily loves Billy’s roommate Chad and the roommates are having a party…well, something has to happen. Once there are questions in the air, I leave room for play: to have fun with the writing and I make sure to mess with expectations, especially my own.
Q: In what ways has your work as a journalist informed your fiction writing?
Quite a bit, I think. I love the sense of purpose of journalism, the tireless quest for facts and truth. I don’t think I’d be happy as a novelist who noodles around in my own past for stories. That can be a worthy subject for a writer, of course, but I was drawn to journalism because of an innate curiosity about the world around me and I think that training likely made me a more outward-looking novelist. I can’t imagine I’d ever write a Knausgaardian seven-volume fictionalized story of my life. (Book four: In which I dress as a pirate/cheerleader for my seventh Halloween.)
Q: You’re a successful writer who is self-taught. What advice would you give to other writers who don’t have creative writing degrees but are passionate about their writing?
There are all sorts of different things that might qualify as advice, but in the end, the only universal advice is to 1. read more and 2. write more. You can read the same books that are being taught at the best universities in the world. For free! All you need is a library card. When I was in my 20s I wanted an MFA but I could not afford it. I was so humbled by my sketchy bong-and-numchuk high school and college education that I read with an insecure competitive zeal designed to catch me up with my contemporaries. Read and write and don’t make excuses. I meet a lot of writers who complain that they don’t have time to read or write. Can you imagine a world-class runner who didn’t have time to run? I used to beat myself up pretty good in my journal: “Toughen up buttercup,” I’d say. “Read. Write. Read. Write. Lather, rinse, repeat.”