Author Interview Series: Jess Walter

A former National Book Award finalist and winner of the Edgar Allan Poe Award, Jess Walter is the author of six novels, one book of short stories and one nonfiction book. His work has been translated into 30 languages, and his essays, short fiction, criticism and journalism have been widely published, in Best American Short Stories, Best American Nonrequired Reading, Harper’s, Esquire, McSweeney’s, Byliner, Playboy, ESPN the Magazine, Details and many others. For this segment of our Author Interview Series, we asked Jess what inspired his book, his writing, as well as a host of other questions. Here’s what he said:

Tell us about We Live in Water.
The stories in We Live in Water range from comic tales of love to social satire and suspenseful crime fiction. Traveling from hip Portland to once-hip Seattle to never-hip Spokane, to a condemned casino in Las Vegas and a bottomless lake in the dark woods of Idaho, this is a world of lost fathers and redemptive con men, of personal struggles and diminished dreams.

 

What inspired you to write the book? 

The book was written as separate short stories, over a period of six or seven years. When I went back to look at the stories I’d published in a ten-year period, I noticed some themes recurring  and these were the stories I included in the collection. I found that I’d been writing stories about the people we drive past every day–the homeless guy with the cardboard sign that reads, “Anything Helps”, the hippie girl signing people up for Greenpeace, the guy picking up garbage with a prison crew. With income inequity increasing every year, with a wider gap between wealth and poverty, I wanted to write about people cast aside. As a first-generation college student who has lived his whole life in a poor city, these stories felt most natural to me. The last piece, “Statistical Abstract of My Hometown, Spokane, Washington” was meant to pull all of the threads together.

What were your biggest challenges when writing the book?

Oh, probably the same challenges facing every book–mortality, sorrow, existential dread, and most of all, the sheer difficulty of writing a story that coheres, that comes together and hopefully connects with readers beyond its elements (language, story, theme) but on some level that strikes core emotions. Because it’s a collection of short stories written over a period of time, the other challenge was finding magazines and journals, homes for all of those orphans.

Who are you reading now? 

I’m reading Lidia Yuknavitch’s wrenching novel The Small Backs of Children, TaNehisi Coates’s incredible Between the World and Me and I’m rereading Jim Shepard’s grad school of short stories, Like You’d Understand Anyway to remind myself how to complete a complex short story. I’m in a Shakespeare club that reads a play a month and we just finished The Taming of the Shrew, and I just saw a live version of it in a park in my hometown that was terrific. I create spoonerisms out of things so I keep thinking of the title as The Shaming of the True.

Which authors and novels/memoirs have been an inspiration to you, and why? 

There are thousands–more than a person could possibly name. The writers who have inspired me in the last year with work that floored me, that made me want to write better, include Rebecca Lee (Bobcat), Marlon James (A Brief History of Seven Killings) and Jenny Offill (The Department of Speculation). The first four writers in my inspiration hall of fame would be Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Joan Didion and Don DeLilo.

What advice can you provide to aspiring authors?

My advice: 1. Write, write write. 2. Read, read, read. 3. Don’t be afraid to emulate the style of writers whose work you love. 4. Don’t listen to bullshit about what you have to do to become a successful writer. It’s just writing. 5. Don’t give in to envy; it is poison. Nothing that happens to anyone else has any effect on what happens to you. 6. Don’t let anyone turn you into a careerist. If you think writing should make you rich go to business school instead. 7. Be a good human being first. Volunteer, take care of people. Don’t ever mistake narcissism, neurosis and fear for strengths; they are ballast. 8. Write directly into the subjects that scare you. 9. Avoid sentimentality but seek real emotion. 10. And most important of all, never take advice from a writer.

 

Jess Walter

About Jess Walter

A former National Book Award finalist and winner of the Edgar Allan Poe Award, Jess Walter is the author of six novels, one book of short stories and one nonfiction book. His work has been translated into 30 languages, and his essays, short fiction, criticism and journalism have been widely published, in Best American Short Stories, Best American Nonrequired Reading, Harper's, Esquire, McSweeney's, Byliner, Playboy, ESPN the Magazine, Details and many others.