Jess Walter Doesn’t Have a Lot of Patience for Memoirs
“Maybe it’s fatigue with social media and the confessional tone of reality television,” says the author of the new novel “The Cold Millions,” “but I get claustrophobic spending too much time in the head of another writer.”
What books are on your night stand?
“The Death of Vivek Oji,” by Akwaeke Emezi, “The New Wilderness,” by Diane Cook, “Interior Chinatown,” by Charles Yu, and “Sand,” by Wolfgang Herrndorf.
What’s the last great book you read?
Sarah M. Broom’s “The Yellow House.” And I finally read Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” this summer. (Sometimes, when everyone is reading a book, I avoid it like it’s a trendy restaurant. Now, 10 years later, I can’t find anyone to talk about it. I sure hope there’s a sequel.)
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” (terrifically overheated), Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (“Twilight Zone” with brandy) and George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” (on Page 43, report to come later).
Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?
I judged a contest once — 200-some books — and another judge said: “You’ll be surprised how many good books there are, and how few great ones.” Indeed, there were many “well-written books” but the great ones stood out for other qualities: audacity, originality, thematic weight. I think writers sometimes fall in love with this idea of “the gorgeous sentence” and it becomes their only definition of writing. But other elements are also part of writing; to me, an elegant narrative shape is every bit as beautiful as great prose.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
It’s late morning, just after second breakfast. I take a break from six minutes of intense writing to recline in my office chair and read from Olga Tokarczuk’s “Flights,” when a great line (“There is too much world, so it’s better to concentrate on particulars, rather than the whole”) inspires me leap up and take another shot at writing. But on the way to the desk, I see that I’ve left James McBride’s “Deacon King Kong” open on my napping couch. I plop down and read: “Three days after Hot Sausage predicted his doom, Sportcoat decided to stop in at the Watch Houses to see his buddy Rufus.” Six hours later — another day at the office is done. Fin.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
I fear that asking me for an undiscovered literary gem is like expecting a “stylish gift” from your Aunt Linda. That said, I do think regionalism has caused some great writers to be overlooked. I wonder why James Welch’s “Fools Crow” isn’t on the list of great American novels. Or why more readers don’t walk around marveling at the inventive, unpredictable books of Percival Everett, most recently, “Telephone.”
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
In 2005, I wrote an essay confessing how, as a 20-year-old, I pretended to be working for Esquire magazine in order to interview Kurt Vonnegut Jr. When my story finally appeared almost 20 years later in an alternative newspaper, Vonnegut mailed me a signed, leather-bound copy of “The Sirens of Titan.” I can still smell the Pall Mall smoke on that manila envelope.
What book should everybody read before the age of 21?
“The White Album,” by Joan Didion and “Giovanni’s Room,” by James Baldwin.
What book should nobody read until the age of 40?
“American Pastoral,” by Philip Roth, immediately upon turning 40.
Do you count any books as comfort reads? Or guilty pleasures?
During our wrenching election season, I took comfort in reading very short books: two about life in pandemic times, Zadie Smith’s “Intimations” and Bill Hayes’s “How We Live Now”; and Fleur Jaeggy’s intense, swirling novella, “S.S. Proleterka.” I’ve never felt guilty reading. I feel guilty playing poker on my phone and looking up crossword answers. I gobble up well-written journalistic history like Lesley M. M. Blume’s wonderful “Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-Up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World.”
Your new novel deals partly with the early-20th-century labor movement. What writers, fiction or non, are especially good on class and money?
So many. John Freeman’s anthology “Tales of Two Americas” is a good sampler. But I’d start with William Kennedy’s “Ironweed,” Eula Biss, Luis Alberto Urrea, bell hooks, Jennifer Haigh, Richard Russo, Jesmyn Ward, Willy Vlautin, Kiley Reid and a thousand others that I will no doubt kick myself for forgetting. Of course, in America, you can’t disentangle class from race, as Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste” makes devastatingly clear.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
From Peter Guralnick’s “Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music and Writing,” I liked knowing that, according to another musician, Ray Charles was the “best blackjack player I ever saw.”
Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?
Basketball. For decades, boxing and baseball were the go-to literary sports. Basketball is jazz and ballet and hip-hop, the most aspirational of sports. There are, of course, some great writers on the sport: Pat Conroy, Sherman Alexie, John Edgar Wideman, Kwame Alexander, John Updike in “Rabbit, Run.” Ross Gay’s incredible book-length poem about Dr. J — “Be Holding.” And Natalie Diaz’s collection “Postcolonial Love Poem” contains the terrific numbered poem “Top Ten Reasons Why Indians Are Good at Basketball.” (“8. On the court is the one place we will never be hungry — that net is an emptiness we can fill up all day long.”)
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
I love short stories: Mavis Gallant and Tobias Wolff and Mary Gaitskill, and this summer, I went on an Alice Munro bender. I like discovering new writers in the Best American Short Stories anthology. I can be impatient with memoir and autofiction. Maybe it’s fatigue with social media and the confessional tone of reality television (When I see the ingredients, I’m, like, what am I supposed to do with Twinkies?) but I get claustrophobic spending too much time in the head of another writer.
Do you distinguish between “commercial” and “literary” fiction? Where’s that line, for you?
I’m sure there is a distinction, but I hate thinking in those terms, because they pretend to know the writer’s intent. I imagine every writer wants literary respect and every writer wants commercial success. These terms suggest a lack of respect for how difficult both things are. Once, during the eight years between novels, my mail carrier caught me at the mailbox looking for a check. He asked what was taking so long with my new book. “A novel takes time,” I explained. “You have to research it, craft it, find the thematic strands, tear it apart, rework it.” He shrugged. “James Patterson published three books this year and I liked them all.” Point, mailman.
How do you organize your books?
Intuitively, unalphabetized on dedicated bookshelves. I have a bookshelf for hardcovers of novels that are meaningful to me (Don DeLillo to Gabriel García Márquez to Edward P. Jones to Marilynne Robinson), other bookshelves for “classics,” shelves for nonfiction and poetry, one for autographed books, and a few “general public” shelves with great books for my adult children to pilfer — which they do. In my office, I keep bookshelves for current research, books on writing and stellar examples of what I hope to do next. (Last year, it was covered with historical fiction; now, it’s dedicated to story collections.)
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
I probably have more poetry than someone might expect of such a bad poet. I tend to dip in and out, read a poem here and there, recently from Jericho Brown, James Tate, Dorianne Laux, Christopher Howell, Natasha Trethewey, Robert Wrigley …
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
Pretty typical. As a kid, I loved nonfiction about dinosaurs and space, and fiction about time travel: H. G. Wells, Ray Bradbury and Madeleine L’Engle. My favorite book was “Treasure Island,” so much so that when my grandfather told me stories of hopping freight trains to find farm jobs during the Depression, I imagined it like stowing away on a pirate ship.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Having never hosted a literary dinner party, this idea terrifies me. Especially if dead people start showing up. I did once have a great meal with Laura Lippman and Anakana Schofield (whose new book, “Bina,” is terrific), and we were so clever and funny, I could imagine Dorothy Parker wanting to rise from the grave to join us.
What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
Oh, pretty much all of them. Classics and best sellers and thrillers and books by writers’ writers, poems and essays and books by friends and books that friends recommend. After 40 years of trying to catch up, I still live in a state of behind-on-my-homework anxiety, which is maybe natural for the autodidact, the fear that at any moment someone might ask me about Proust and I will say how much I enjoyed “The Shipping News.”
What do you plan to read next?
I just cracked Christopher Beha’s “The Index of Self-Destructive Acts,” which starts like this: “What makes a life, Sam Waxworth sometimes wondered — self or circumstance?”
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