Jess Walter is The New York Times-bestselling writer of “Beautiful Ruins” and nine other books. His newest short story collection, “The Angel of Rome and Other Stories,” is the mark of a profoundly talented writer who can capture the internal lives of a 20-something barista living in Bend, Oregon, an older man glaring at kids from his window in Spokane and an Italian actress reflecting on how she never got her dream role in equally persuasive and poignant ways. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You seem to have a very innate sense of what a story needs to make a character’s world feel full and real in a limited number of pages. How is composing a short story different from writing a novel for you?
The initial impulse is very similar. You start seeing inside this world and you want to describe it. The comparison I sometimes make is that writing a short story is like going on a date and writing a novel is like having a relationship. For me, short stories are really fun and playful. I can say, what would this be like in a second-person perspective? Or what if a teacher just got fed up with all these students throwing religion into his face? I try to just have the best date I can have. I try to make them lively and fun. With a novel, you really are just venturing out. You have to meet the other person’s parents and figure out holidays, and it’s just so much more work. There’s a playfulness with short stories that differs for me.
In the first story, “Mr. Voice,” two of the characters meet at the 1974 World’s Fair in Spokane. In “Before You Blow,” the character works at a former Spokane pizza establishment, Geno’s Fabulous Pizza. In “Magnificent Desolation,” the characters walk around Manito Park. In “Drafting” the characters have this beautiful, cathartic drive over Snoqualmie Pass and through the Columbia River Gorge. Your love for Washington, specifically your hometown of Spokane, is so visceral in these stories. Tell me the role Spokane plays in your imagination.
Growing up, the geography of New York was imprinted on me in the literature that I read, especially “Catcher in the Rye.” I’ve always wanted to do that for the city I live in. I think as writers, we mythologize these places where we don’t live. And I love creating a kind of mythology of Eastern Washington. It’s one of my favorite things when people from other cities come to Spokane because they want to visit places from the books. I also just love it there. It’s an incredibly rich place to write and set literature. I can still see Holden Caulfield’s Times Square, and I want readers to be able to see my Spokane that way.
You’ve said in interviews before that you identify as a working-class writer. How does your upbringing influence the stories that you tell?
When we think of class in America, the great novel is always “The Great Gatsby.” When I read it, I thought it was just a book about rich people. I didn’t see anyone that I knew in there. It’s like really rich, nouveau riche, extremely rich, barely rich. My dad worked in an aluminum plant and I had to pay for my own college. I was a dad at 19. I think living in Spokane, you stay close to your working-class roots, and to me that’s a really important thing. But to imagine then that that takes some sophistication away from the stories or suggests more brutish emotions is more classism. The people I grew up with feel as deeply, think as brilliantly, and create art as profoundly as anyone who goes to an Ivy League school. They just do it in a world of Nissan Maximas and $110,000 houses.
Growing up in a tiny town where no one goes to college, I always thought Ivy League people had something I didn’t, besides the money. But when you meet them, you find that’s not necessarily true.
That’s exactly it. You can have a provincialism growing up in a poor place. That your world, the borders of your world can just be smaller. If you summer in Barcelona, or whatever, your world’s bigger. But I’ve met rich, successful, entitled people who are just as provincial in ways that they don’t realize. Provincialism knows no class.
Something that I love about your stories is this Americana quality that they have. All of this is pretty starkly contrasted with the last story, “The Way the World Ends,” which captures the anxiety of a climate scientist and, through the narrative, hits the reader with some pretty bleak facts about global warming. Do you feel any sort of moral imperative as a writer to write climate fiction, or are you just representing the world you’re living in?
A little bit of both. I don’t think you can ignore climate fiction. My kids are in their 20s and 30s and I’m really aware of the world they live in. But even that climate fiction story, which presents a harsh world, ends with the word “hope.” You’ve got to give them hope. It was really a way for me to look straight into what is a terrifying existential moment in our history and find some way to keep going. Every time there’s a school shooting, we have to fight our cynicism and keep battling for the right and good things. Not that long ago, Barack Obama could not even be for gay marriage or he wouldn’t get elected president. How far have we come? Even as the country has lurched to the right, we’ve come so far. So that hope I just wanted to apply to the most starkly frightening thing I know. But it’s also a funny story too. I do like to have one outlier that feels like a very different kind of story.
In “Fran’s Friend Has Cancer,” an older couple is in a diner talking about their relatives in a sort of bitter, funny way, and they notice a man with a notebook sitting in the next booth, writing down their conversation, almost word for word. Do you ever feel like this man?
Definitely. That’s the most meta story in the collection. There are all these different parts of the process of writing, and sometimes you feel this ideal, like you’ve created life. And then other times it seems like they’re alive, but they’re only 3 inches tall and they can only do one thing. I was sort of just playing with that idea. When I was a young writer, I really used to write down conversations. I wanted to really get at the way people talk, the way they really talk, not the way it’s represented in literature. So I wrote four different conversations going on at once.