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Interview: How Jess Walter became a bestselling author

Bestselling novelist Jess Walter (Beautiful Ruins) will speak at the Writers in Paradise conference at Eckerd College in January.
Bestselling novelist Jess Walter (Beautiful Ruins) will speak at the Writers in Paradise conference at Eckerd College in January.
Published Jan. 7, 2015

Bestselling novelist Jess Walter is looking forward to spending a few days at the Writers in Paradise conference at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg this month.

"It's so energizing to be around other writers. It's like renewing your vows," he says.

"Writers kind of spend a lot of time around civilians. People might love to read, but they don't know what it's like to spend seven hours a day in a room by yourself."

All those hours in rooms by himself have paid off for Walter. His 2012 novel, Beautiful Ruins, a decades- and continents-spanning epic romance and satire of celebrity, won both critical acclaim and bestseller status. His five earlier novels all did well, as did his latest book, the funny and poignant 2013 short story collection, We Live in Water. His first book, the nonfiction Ruby Ridge: The Truth and Tragedy of the Randy Weaver Family, became a television miniseries.

Walter, 49, will be the keynote speaker Saturday night at Writers in Paradise. "It's the second time they invited me, I think. A lot of writers have a kind of mutual admiration society. I'm a big fan of Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman, Sterling Watson, and I guess they like me, too." Lehane, an Eckerd alum famed for such novels as Mystic River and Shutter Island, and Watson, a novelist and former director of Eckerd's writing program, are co-founders of the conference, and crime fiction author Lippman is a frequent faculty member.

"Also," Walter says by phone from his home in Spokane, Wash., "it's about 4 degrees here, so Florida appealed."

Walter did not take the standard route to literary success, which these days generally means getting an MFA in creative writing. "I took the service entrance," he says.

"I came from a really blue-collar family, and I still live in my hometown, Spokane. I was a father at 19, so I had to be able to support myself.

"I started as a journalist, and I loved journalism. That was my MFA."

His first book was based on his reporting. For about 15 years, as he worked on writing fiction, he supported himself with long-form journalism, ghost writing and script writing.

"Then," he says, "the novels, like a kid you send out into the world, started sending back a little money."

Beautiful Ruins, the "kid" that has had the biggest success, took him the longest to finish — he wrote and re-wrote it over about 15 years, all the while working on other projects.

"I was pretty certain it was a failed piece, and I have several dozen of those in my desk drawers and my laptop," he says.

"But, I think because of my blue-collar background and journalism, I have no patience for writer's block. I know sometimes the answer comes to you while you're washing the dishes, when you engage a different part of your brain."

Walter would put the book away for as long as six months, he says. "I wrote four other novels while I worked on Beautiful Ruins. But when I came back to it, I would be amazed by how much my subconscious mind, or my barely conscious mind, had been chewing on it."

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The most important quality for a writer, he says, is resilience. Sometimes while teaching workshops he encounters people who "just want to have something written, to have a finished product." But for him, the joy of writing is engaging with the process — the writing itself.

"There's absolutely no plan. I just write the next thing I want to read."

Walter's work is notable for its diversity — it's hard to think of another writer who has both been a finalist for the National Book Award (for The Zero) and a winner of the Edgar, awarded by the Mystery Writers of America (for Citizen Vince).

"I probably take a little too much perverse pride in the fact that people say, 'Every book is different!' Publishers and agents will tell you that's a horrible idea. There's all this talk about branding oneself."

Right now, he's working on two books: "a novel that's kind of historical fiction, and another that's a big social novel with romantic undertones." He has "no idea" which one he'll finish first.

Although Walter has a website, a Twitter account and a podcast, he resists the idea that authors must have that kind of social media interaction with readers. "When anyone tells you a writer has to do anything other than write, they're lying."

Still, he's enthusiastic about the podcast, called A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment and available at infiniteguest.org/tiny-sense. Starting in August, he began recording the quirky, laid-back podcasts with his longtime friend and fellow author Sherman Alexie, winner of the National Book Award for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

The two men both grew up around Spokane. "Sherman lived in Wellpinit, on the Spokane Indian Reservation. My grandfather had a cattle ranch, where we lived for a while, in Springdale.

"Sherman and I were probably at the same basketball games and powwows and rodeos. But we didn't meet until I was 21, I think, and he was 20. We were both working at the Spokesman-Review. I was writing sports, and he was reviewing music."

The podcasts cover a range of subjects, from their current literary projects to sports and Hollywood. "It's like Sherman and me taping our phone calls, with a few guests."

But the fun of the podcasts hasn't sold Walter entirely on social media.

"My hope is that in 15 years we'll look back and see social media as a great big CB radio. 'Breaker, breaker' — remember when we all did that?"

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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