Jess Walter has always written short stories.
His first few — except the one he wrote for a writing contest and won $25 — didn’t make him a dime. But in the past decade, he’s published many of his short stories in magazines such as McSweeney’s, Harper’s, ESPN the Magazine and Playboy.
Now, the Spokane native and New York Times best-selling author is releasing his first collection of short stories. “We Live in Water” ($14.99, Harper Perennial) will be in bookstores Tuesday.
“I think I’m a more natural novelist, and that’s why it took six novels before I got a book of stories together,” Walter said recently over coffee in downtown Spokane. “I’ve always written (stories) and haven’t always published them because it’s really tough to get them into the market.
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“And when I get stuck on a novel and I can’t work on it anymore because I’m sick of it, I’ll switch over to a short story,” he added. “A novel is this big complex thing you’re trying to keep straight in your mind and organize. A story, sometimes I can write one in a week or two weeks. It’s nice to have something you can get to quickly.”
The baker’s dozen of stories are set in the Northwest with one foray (“The New Frontier”) into Las Vegas. The oldest story here, “We Live in Water,” was published in Playboy in 2007. “Can a Corn” dates from around the same time.
Walter looked through about 40 stories before selecting the works for this first collection, he said. Economic themes emerged that seemed to fit together, he said.
“And some I put in, like ‘Don’t Eat Cat,’ because I want (people) to be able to read them,” Walter said, referring to his tale of dystopian woe where drug-addled zombies fail miserably at serving up lattes at Starbucks. “It also kinda fit in, too, in some weird way.”
The collection has gotten glowing reviews so far.
“This is the first book of mine that’s gotten starred reviews from everything, which is kind of cool,” he said. “I was kind of leery. I still don’t know if I can write short stories. It’s like I’m getting permission to do it.”
While some critics have focused on the gloominess of the stories, Walter counters that he’s more interested in when his characters take first steps toward redemption.
“I honestly see most of the stories as redemptive and hopeful,” he said in a follow-up email.
He points to the book’s final piece, and his personal favorite, “A Statistical Abstract of My Hometown, Spokane, Washington,” as an example. The story is structured as a random collection of statistics about Spokane, interspersed with funny and heartbreaking anecdotes about bike theft, domestic abuse and poverty culled from Walter’s life.
“My ambivalence and love for Spokane play out in that. Some people say, ‘Oh this is a dark portrait of Spokane.’ But people who are from here get it,” he said. “For me it was about embracing my background and my hometown for what it was. We grew up lower middle class or blue collar … so that was the world we lived in, the schools we went to and the friends we had.”
The story originally appeared in McSweeney’s. After it was posted by the online magazine Byliner, it took off, with thousands of people linking to it, he said. After watching one of his stories go viral, he said with a laugh, “You kind of get the Internet at that point. ‘Oh, this is how it works.’ Writers tend not to think in terms of commerce. But in terms of people being drawn to it (your work), that was kind of wild to see.”
Walter admits he’s interested to see what technology can do for writers, especially writers of short fiction. It’s a format that seems well-suited to tablets and smartphones. You can read a short story, he said, while you wait to catch a bus or hang out in your doctor’s waiting room. “Don’t Eat Cat,” in fact was released last year as a digital single on Amazon.com, and was one of several stories that came preloaded on some smartphones.
“As terrified as I am for the things I love — publishers and bookstores and the whole world of publishing — it’s kind of thrilling to think that short stories, which were so hard to find a home for, might have a place to go and that something like a fake zombie story could be preloaded on a phone,” he said.
He reads nonfiction or short stories on his e-reader. “A novel I still want” — he reaches down to touch the books at his elbow — “I want to know what page I’m on. … I want to carry it around and I want the existence of it. When I look at the novels on my shelf, the physical part of it is very much a part of the experience of reading it.”
The only story written specifically for the book is “The Brakes,” which is the final chapter in a trio of very short stories about a guy named Tommy. Walter had selected “Can a Corn” and “Please” for “We Live in Water,” and said he “wanted to know what else happened to Tommy and I wanted a little bit more with his son, so I wrote the third one.”
“I love writing those short shorts because there’s a real edge to the words, to the language, and you’re in and out of them so fast.”
As he dived into his past work to put the collection together, Walter said he was “stunned and really encouraged” to see that his writing has improved. “Some of those stories from 1998 that in my mind were brilliant and The New Yorker whiffed on by not taking, I went back and read them and went, ‘No wonder they didn’t take it. It’s crap.’
“That was terribly encouraging and I hope that uphill climb continues.”
Now that “We Live in Water” is out, Walter is at work on whatever his next novel will be. There’s the suburban cattle-rancher book he’s been tinkering with, and another book that’s still “in utero.” And more short stories, of course.
But he’s actually not done with last year’s best-selling and acclaimed novel, “Beautiful Ruins.” He’ll head back out on the road this spring in support of the book’s paperback release.
“I seem to finish a novel like every three years, I would guess that if I don’t have a novel done in three years people will see me around town,” he said, “twitching like one of my meth users.”