Jess Walter is the author of four novels -- The Zero, a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award, Citizen Vince, winner of the 2005 Edgar Award for best novel, Land of the Blind and Over Tumbled Graves, a 2001 New York Times notable book -- as well as the nonfiction book Every Knee Shall Bow(rereleased as Ruby Ridge), a finalist for the PEN Center West literary nonfiction award in 1996.
A career journalist, Walter also writes short stories, essays and screenplays. He was the co-author of Christopher Darden's 1996 bestseller In Contempt. His work has appeared in Details, Playboy, Newsweek, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe.
His books have been published in sixteen countries and fourteen languages. He lives with his wife Anne and children, Brooklyn, Ava and Alec in Spokane, Washington.
Biography courtesy of the author's official web site.
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Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Walter:
"I am one of the organizers of the largest outdoor basketball tournament in the world."
"I have been in one (1) independent movie for which I grew one (1) righteous mustache."
"I come from a family of failed cattle ranchers."
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In the fall of 2006, fiction finalist Jess Walter took some time to talk with us before the National Book Awards ceremony about his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
In seventh grade, with some vague sense that I wanted to be a writer, I crouched in the junior high school library stacks to see where my novels would
eventually be filed. It was right after someone named Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. So I grabbed a Vonnegut book, "Breakfast of Champions" and immediately fell in
love. He drew immature pictures of things like assholes (*) and went into his own book to "free" his characters. Because the style was so inviting and
so inventive and because the ideas were so basic and yet so profound, I read everything Vonnegut wrote. It was his books that made me want to spend my
life writing fiction.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
Again, please be thorough. The reasons are as important as the selections themselves.
It's tempting to name obscure and forgotten books to try to look more interesting and intelligent, but if I'm being honest, my all-time list looks like
a 200-level contemporary lit course:
One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez -- I read Marquez when my first child was born and I felt like a child again, completely transported by story.
The White Album, Joan Didion -- Didion's White Album was a perfect, dizzying evocation of a time and place.
Fools Crow, James Welch -- The greatest Western novel of all, because it's mythic without being a colonial lie.
The Stranger, Albert Camus
White Noise, Don Delillo -- White Noise is like a symphony of black humor and anxiety.
Disgrace, J. M. Coetzee -- Disgrace and The Stranger are icy cool, perfectly written.
Ironweed, William Kennedy -- Wrenching and true and captures a time when we didn't blame people for being poor.
Catch-22, Joseph Heller and Slaughterhouse-5, Kurt Vonnegut -- Besides being hilarious, [these] are the two greatest anti-war novels, and nothing is more noble than an anti-war novel.
The Postman Always Rings Twice, James Cain -- Postman is the best noir I know.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
Maria Full of Grace, The Sweet Hereafter, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Big Lebowski, Caddyshack, The Usual Suspects, The Royal Tennenbaums, Gallipoli. I like movies that are unexpected, that surprise me. And movies with fake gophers in them.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
I had a book club, and all we did was get drunk and make excuses for why we didn't read. That said, I'd love to have a book club to talk about David
Mitchell's incredible genre-blender, Cloud Atlas. The thematic structure of that book is like uncovering an equation that defines violence and
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Sometimes it seems like everyone is reading the same novel. I love to get unexpected books from authors I've been meaning to read. The last book gift I
got was a perfect example, the Australian writer Tim Winton's amazing linked story collection, The Turning. I might never have seen that book
otherwise and it's exceptional.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I write in the nude, suspended by wires from the ceiling. First I stencil the words, in French, on drywall, then I have a translator come just before I
tear the drywall down.... No, I pretty much drink a cup of coffee, write in my journal for a while, and then sit at a computer in my office and torture
the keys. My one saving grace as a writer is that, if I'm having trouble with the novel I'm writing, I write something else, a poem or a short story. I
try to avoid writer's block by always writing something.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on a multigenerational novel about two families and a suburban cattle ranch.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or
The first seven years that I wrote fiction, I sent out stories and a novel and made a total of $25. But that check for twenty-five bucks (from Story magazine) is still the most exciting piece of mail I've ever received. I never cashed it and stuck it to the wall with a tack.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Forget being "discovered." All you can do is write. If you write well enough, and are stubborn enough to embrace failure, and if you happen to fall
into the narrow categories that the book market recognizes, then you might make a little money. Otherwise, it's a struggle. A gorgeous struggle.
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