Jess Walter is a chronicler of much of what goes on beneath the surface of America, and through the years he’s done so with an adept touch, subtle, not malicious, grounded, physical, gritty, and true, resulting in hard won hope under conditions that may warrant despair. This has made his work beloved of readers nationally and internationally. From Every Knee Shall Bow to The Land of the Blind and Over Tumbled Graves to the Edgar Award-winning Citizen Vince, the laugh-out-loud irony of The Financial Lives of the Poets, and the National Book Award Finalist The Zero, on into the vast scope and intimacy of New York Times #1 Bestseller Beautiful Ruins, the spare heart-filled stories in We Live in Water and the historical triumph of The Cold Millions, his books have been honored with significance and cherished by readers throughout the world. In his new collection of stories, The Angel of Rome (Harper), one encounters a broadening, deepening cycle of stories that are not afraid to speak of love in the midst of loss in ways that are refreshingly generous and kind-hearted, even in these days of political and social upheaval.
Jess is not only a novelist and short story writer, he is also one of the truly great readers. To attend one of his readings is to have a kind of out of body experience in which you pass through the veil of our shared foibles, traumas, and desolations, and arrive somewhere unforeseen. Most likely you will laugh out loud, many times. You might also cry. When you leave this space of literature and joy, you and those who came with you may find yourselves entranced in the radiant glow of feeling closer to one another. His gift is not only as a novelist and short story writer, but as a connector. The community comes away lighter, less fearful, more courageous.
Most of all, I love the way Jess shapes narratives of great regard for the humanity of people. I’ve enjoyed a long friendship with Jess in basketball, in the environs of Spokane, and in the writing life, so when I discovered The Angel of Rome would be his next collection of stories, I asked him for an advanced reading copy. After being struck by the unique creativity and expansiveness, I thought readers might like to know some of his inner workings as an artist. The following conversation was the result.
Shann Ray: Jess, good to be with you here at Fiction Writers Review for an interview on your exquisite new collection of stories The Angel of Rome. You have the rare light touch that carries unforeseen gravity. I think of your work, your prose, as a gift involving uncommon freedom of movement, while holding great weight-bearing capacity. Tell us what you know about writing stories that contain or rather embody a powerful and graceful touch.
Jess Walter: Thank you, Shann, and thank you for your enthusiasm for these stories. I like how your question highlights the physics of writing—“light touch … freedom of movement … weight-bearing capacity.” That question reveals something profound beneath the familiar metaphor of “structure,” especially with short stories—how the form demands a combination of lightness and stability, power and grace. I built a toothpick bridge with one of my kids once, and the point was to create as much tensile strength with as little mass as possible. That’s a fair definition of a short story as well. I suppose lightness and strength can come from a lucid style that values pace and clarity alongside imagery and depth. It also calls to mind something thematic, Milan Kundera’s unbearable lightness of being—life’s temporal frailty. My own attempts at graceful writing are perhaps a wistful, comic version of something like that—more philosophy than style. It’s the way I see life, maybe because I am accident-prone. I was thrown from a car as a baby, lost my left eye as a five-year-old, and since then, have broken a dozen bones. A pattern of accidents is, by nature, comic, like watching a Buster Keaton film. It can also be painful. But I was raised to believe the worst human trait is self-pity. I avoid self-seriousness and narcissism in fiction; these are vanities I look to burst. I love the great James Baldwin quote: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” That quote is about literature, but what is the next step? After you read, as a writer, what do you do with your pain? How can I write about my banal little stumbles against the long human history of suffering, of hard times, of death? How do I write about my father’s Alzheimer’s? To return to the language of physics, one thing we know about humor is that, like a good toothpick bridge, it makes the incredible weight of life bearable.
What does it mean for you to craft and shape stories? Talk about story generation. Where do ideas come from? I’m thinking of “Fran’s Friend has Cancer”; the story of Max and Sheila and the young punk God. “It is an unimaginable loneliness.”
I’m not sure that any short story has ever come about the same way for me. But, in general, they all start with some sort of fragment, usually recorded in the journals I have kept for forty years. Perhaps it’s a brief situation (A middle school teacher battles science deniers) or a line (“Mother was a stunner”) or a random image (A girl leaves a party with a movie star.) I’m at the desk every day at about 5:30 and at the keyboard I try to animate these small bits with language, and character and, eventually, some thematic intent. I’m a chronic rewriter. Even the shortest story can take me months. I have no idea what makes a story eventually work, and less idea what makes a story good; that lovely mystery reveals itself differently each time (and often, doesn’t.)
“Fran’s Friend Has Cancer” had a very straightforward origin that any writing student might recognize. I worked as a newspaper reporter and supported a family from the time I was nineteen, so I couldn’t afford an MFA. But I had friends who studied creative writing during this time, and friends who taught writing, and I would obsessively crib their reading lists and craft books, and steal their writing prompts. One prompt involved sitting in cafes and coffee shops, jotting down dialogue and looking for patterns of speech. So I did this. (I still do.) At some point, I was taken by the comic arrogance of the act—how had I imagined taking down a few snippets of dialogue might reveal the inner life of an actual human being? The vanity was thrilling, another bubble to pop. Then, I followed the most valuable writing technique I know: change perspective. Now, the subject is no longer the precocious writer sharpening dialogue by eavesdropping, but the person whose story is being “stolen.” Now turn the dial once more and the writer actually has access to Max’s inner life. Now turn it once more and the writer becomes something of an unlikely deity. Ironically, the dialogue in the story is entirely invented. I didn’t hear any of that conversation; rather, I set myself to the challenge of inventing four different topics and weaving them into a free-flowing dialogue. As is often the case for me, this long, evolving empathy equation (with its parentheticals and its tripling functions) ends in something equally profound, sorrow over aging, and funny, complete with faux reverential capitalization: “You finally get to met your Maker and he turns out to be a twenty-five-year-old Dipshit in a creative writing class.”
In “Drafting” the humanity glimmers. Tell us about the progression in the story that results in “they ascended together, the road fell away and the cold clear summit rose into view.” Along the way you reference Denis Johnson’s “Fuckhead” from Jesus’ Son obliquely with “‘A fuckup?’ Myra said.” And we are there, jagged with the reality of whole vital Life holding us to this world.
Denis Johnson and Raymond Carver were incredibly important writers for me. But their influence isn’t something I’m aware of when I’m working, any more than while playing basketball I think: this crossover comes courtesy of Allen Iverson, or this step-back jumper is homage to Steph Curry. Such things are internalized. Influence becomes personal with practice. (And in both cases, I come up short of my heroes.) My first collection of stories, We Live in Water, owes a huge debt to Carver and to Johnson, and to our mutual friend, Sherman Alexie. They were among the first writers whose characters I recognized as neighbors, relatives, classmates, myself. Drafting, like a few of my stories, deals with cancer, a disease that took my mother when she was only 53. The memory of accompanying her to torturous radiation and chemotherapy appointments, and of sitting with her during her final days, haunts me still. It was so visceral, the desire I had to keep her connected to life, to pull her over some kind of pass, to use my strength to get her to the other side. The feeling hit me when I was driving on Snoqualmie Pass and I saw a car drafting off a van. It felt like that. Again, the next step for me was changing perspective. What would it be like to be the one who needs to feel so tethered to the earth when you are in danger of floating away? Who would you turn to? Boone is, indeed, a fuckup, but he is also the most alive person Myra knows. And that led me to something surprising and universal. Looking back on her life, Myra thinks: “the only parts that really meant anything to me were the jagged parts … the parts that everyone else saw as mistakes.” Perhaps life is the mastery of fucking up. As Erasmus wrote, “The highest form of bliss is living with a certain degree of folly.”
Then we come to the title story, “The Angel of Rome.” What we don’t yet know is that reading it we will be devastated, beautifully, and restored to each other, elegantly. Here, we receive not the fractured or tortured feminine and masculine set at odds with one another, but rather a non-binary music of these in balance, within the individual and the collective. Speak of the collaboration with Edoardo Ballerini. The story is a triumph of love and connection, a resolution of our dreams with deep questioning, our dreams lost, forsaken, regained, forgiven, re-envisioned as goodness, as the truth of intimacy—like Hrabal, or Havel, the Czech writers who transcend time and being, you restore us to the present, the past, and the future. Can you name some of the subtleties you were able to bring about through your love for great literature, and for people, in this story?
It’s wonderful when a reader describes the same emotional journey reading a story that I felt as I wrote it: “love and connection … a resolution of dreams … the truth of intimacy.” The great actor and audiobook narrator Edoardo Ballerini and I had talked about collaborating on a story, writing something specifically to be read aloud, as well as on the page. We both love the neighborhood of Trastevere, in Rome, where, as a young man, Edoardo briefly studied Latin. This became the baseline of the story. I like to write about class and, growing up next to a drive-in theater, I have always equated Hollywood with a kind of artistic aspiration, and so the characters “Nebraska Jack” Rigel, Angelina “The Angel of Rome” Amadio and Ronnie Tower emerged from that. (I had actually written another story about Ronnie Tower’s TV show a few years earlier.) Edoardo is a very talented writer as well, and as I began sketching out the story of this young student and the two actors he meets in Rome, Edoardo suggested some wonderful lines and details. I cannot let go of the keyboard, even in collaboration. I will take suggestions on where to go, but I have to be the driver, like a slightly less manic Neal Cassady. So I’d write pages, send them to Edoardo, and he’d respond with a few notes. The story took about six months to conceive, compose, revise, and rework. I was making changes all the way until the day Edoardo recorded it, and then I made more changes for the collection. At one point, mid-pandemic, I flew to New York so he could table-read an early version. This is when it really began to come into focus for us both.
You are right, I think, part of that story’s emotional power has to do with time. I find that composition time is often reflected in the passage of time in a story. The longer a story takes, the better I know the characters, and the more its emotional sweep takes hold of me. (I think this is truest of my novel Beautiful Ruins, whose people were with me for fifteen years.) As “The Angel of Rome” grew in size and scope, I could feel the perspective growing, and the characters becoming more and more real. I feel this in the stories of someone like Alice Munro. She can, in thirty pages, create the sort of time perspective you might get in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude or Love in the Time of Cholera. Years pass on the page, and you feel the full gravity of regret, the accumulation of wisdom. There was also something about working with an actor that provided a rare view of the characters. Edoardo literally breathed life into these people when he read the story aloud. I made changes based on the way he read lines. As for where the story goes, there is nothing more satisfying to me than reading a love story that reveals a different love than you expected. Life is like that. You look to your right and it smacks you from the left. Love and time are irrevocably tied together. Your observation about the feminine and masculine in this particular love story brings me back to Kundera (who is, of course, another Czech writer, like those you named above.) “Love,” he said, “is the longing for the half of the self we have lost.”
When you think of your influences, where do your generosity and kindness as a writer come from? In “Before You Blow” we find this unlikely sentence as a fulcrum: “You become an adult the first time you see through love.” A grave double entendre that might mean everything or might also let us slip away from the existential questions that haunt us.
That’s a hard question to answer. I hope that I do show kindness and generosity, and not just on the page. If so, it’s because of my mother, whose life was unbearably short, hard and tragic: abandoned by self-destructive parents, raised in poverty by a cruel aunt, she didn’t even have her own bed until she was a teenager. She was a brilliant, sensitive woman with no path to higher education, raised at a time when all she could aspire to was marriage. And yet, she had, throughout her life, the fiercest belief in the goodness of people. She was unfailingly kind and good-hearted. Every year she would sit down with my yearbook and suggest that I befriend the kids who looked the most shy or afflicted or lonesome. Our family took in foster children because of her, and she fed every stray that came around. I helped nurse her in her final months and her last words to me were clear and profound and humbling: Take care of people.
I think literary fiction sometimes equates realism with cruelty, offering an unblinking, uncompromising view of “life as it is, and not the way we want it to be.” It’s understandable since popular entertainment tends to give us all sorts of fantasies meant to distract us, or to justify our self-serving beliefs and biases. Art can shake us free of these comfortable delusions. I think in “Before You Blow” seeing through a romantic delusion—in this case, juvenile love—is paired with the narrator’s heroism in a way that I found pleasing and surprising. That story could have gone to an unblinking, uncompromising, cruel place when she “sees through love,” but the story posits another way to deal with “life as it is.” The woman in the story does not think of herself in the story’s final moments, but instinctually helps someone else. This, I think, turns out to be her salvation, too. I used to marvel at my mother’s hard life. When she was dying, I marveled at the beautiful thing she chose to make of it.
In “Cross the Woods” the single “ache” in life burrows its way into a kind of communion with the reader. The sweetness of life: our longings a “sweet unbearable spring.” What do you see as the relationship between writer and reader, and if there is communion there, what does it mean to you. Your work also has a deft touch with humor. So few writers can communicate with humor. Reminds me of that term of two generations ago… she/he’s a “good humored” person, meaning they carry something like wit, joy, and well-being in hand and therefore are a good person to be around. Talk about humor and how it accompanies you in shaping your stories.
The writer hopes for that communion with the reader, and part of artistic growth is trusting that the emotions you raise in yourself as you compose a story will be felt by someone who reads it. I sometimes find myself writing a sentence that feels like a synthesis of what a story has made me feel. Usually, I cut these sentences. A story conveys more emotion when it isn’t overtly named, when the reader arrives there naturally. I think of the old “Hills Like White Elephants” writing assignment: capture a feeling without naming it. In “Cross the Woods,” the character pushed the emotional synthesis toward something unexpected, a revelation, Maggie wondering “if there wasn’t just one ache in the world: sad, happy, horny, drunk, sorry satisfied, grieving, lonely. If we believed these to be different feelings but they all came from the same sweet unbearable spring.” This wasn’t just a statement of the story’s thesis, but a moment of reverie. I cried when I typed it, so there was no way I was going to cut it.
I never know how to answer the humor question. It is so elemental to the way I think, and to the literature that I love. Humanity seems equally lovely and absurd to me. I like your connection to “good humor.” Of course, no one is always good-humored and I can be as sour as the next person. But I have found that writing is what brings that quality out in me. It is anathema to self-pity and pettiness (at least in me) and on the best writing days, I laugh and I smile, and I sometimes weep, and then I stand up from the desk and go out in the world with a desire to pet kittens and smile at strangers and shoot baskets and gently make fun of my brother.
In “To the Corner” and throughout the collection, there is multilayered beauty at the foundation of life. What does life ask of us regarding our loneliness? “And the little glass Jesus on top of the clothes in the box. Christ God, the appalling mercy.” I wonder what role Spokane plays for you in this collection. She, the city, the people move in the collection as if through water, harkening to your first collection We Live in Water.
Wow, “What does life ask of us regarding our loneliness?” I wish I knew the answer to that. I suppose I would say that there is an extraneous word in that sentence: our. Life maybe asks us to consider loneliness as a universal affliction, and to reach out to others who suffer from it. (I think here of my Mom, flipping through my yearbook, looking for lost kids I might befriend, or convincing the rest of my working class family that we had more than we needed and should share our home with foster children.) Of course, alleviating the loneliness of others has the added benefit of alleviating our loneliness, too—and look, we’ve snuck that word our back into the equation. I think that’s what “To the Corner” is ultimately about. The characters are separated by window glass in the beginning, and also by age and culture and class and race. Yet they find a way to connect in a simple moment of kindness and humor, of mercy. They see each other.
I think that’s what I love about Spokane, and why it shows up in at least half my stories. We see other people here. That story takes place in West Central Spokane, where I have lived for twenty years. It is a mixed neighborhood, sixty percent rentals, some new houses and a few grand homes, low and high income often on the same block. But everyone is outside, on porches and in lawns. In fact, there is a summer festival in West Central called Porch Fest. We go out and play music, drink and eat and dance and meet our neighbors. Walk the streets and you will hear hiphop and rock and bluegrass. In We Live in Water I wrote that, no matter where you live in Spokane, you’re never more than three blocks from a bad neighborhood. I like this about my hometown; it allows moments of transcendence like the one in “To the Corner.”
There is a recurring question, oblique, a kind of answer and response throughout the stories. A question of our participation or engagement with life and others: “Why not?”
A bridgework between the “why” of things and the “no” or the “not” but actually inferring “yes.” What is it that compels the lives in The Angel of Rome to give or receive this question?
One thing I like about pulling together a story collection is getting to look back over the way your thinking about stories—and life—evolved over a period of time. My first collection, We Live in Water, contains the best stories I wrote between 2000 and 2011. For The Angel of Rome I chose twelve of the forty stories I published between 2012 and 2021. In pulling those pieces together, I reflected on all that happened during that period, in the world, and in my life. A close friend, who was almost like a son to me, committed suicide in 2013. My father fell into dementia. My children grew up and went out into a world that, rife with political division, racial bias and the looming horror of climate change, felt ever more fractious and fragile (and this was before a worldwide pandemic.) I suppose I felt the need during that fraught period to actively look for hope, to seek out something productive to do with my sorrow and fear and anxiety. I felt that need off the page, too. In 2013, after my friend’s death, I helped start a nonprofit for young writers and artists. (That organization, Spark Central, has now grown into an art and tutoring center with a full-time staff of five and programs that has served thousands of kids. You can donate at www.spark-central.org.)
I have always loved the Kafka quote, “There is an endless amount of hope in the universe … but not for us.” I think people read the second part of that sentence as a refutation of the first part, like a cruel punch line to a joke. But there is something beautiful in that sentiment, too, the idea that we act hopefully, and engage with others, in spite of our awareness of doom, of our own mortality. In a world where selfishness feels unjustly rewarded, what if the very act of living, impossible without hope and engagement, is a subliminal and constant renewing act of selflessness? Kafka, you secret optimist!
In this collection, you’ve bent form, quietly opened form, and often created new avenues of form that turn the story and our narrative impulses inside out in ways that take us deeper into story, and deeper into our own questions about companionship, love, and loneliness. This makes the collection an undeniable gift in my opinion. What drives you to dive down into such fraught territory, and yet give readers the buoyancy to relish the dive?
Short stories are, for me, a place to experiment, to try new forms and explore new voices. It feels like less is at stake than with novels, which take me years to write. I like the way musicians call their work play, and often, when I’m writing a story, I feel like I’ve just picked up a guitar and started strumming. Go play now, I will sometimes write in my journal on those days when I don’t want to work. There is a paralyzing fear in the way we write sometimes. We are afraid to venture out of what has worked before, or what others say is possible with fiction. Why? What are afraid of? My journal is filled with exhortations to Get over yourself!
That playfulness also leads to observations and revelations about love and loneliness and being human that I don’t think I’d get without having played with form and style. I wrote “Famous Actor” as a kind of film criticism from a young woman who has a one-night stand with a movie star. The comic idea of her critiquing his work while they sleep together seemed at first like a fun way to play with form, but it became a path to understanding her character, to seeing the ways in which she was acting, trying not to reveal herself by playing a part. As a poet as well as a fiction writer, you probably know this intuitively, how new forms open new patterns of thought.
So true, my friend, and thanks for this conversation! Final question: how do you like to blow off steam once a book is complete, whether it’s when the last story is written, or the final revision is made, or the proverbial “The End” comes your way?
Wait, what? What “End”? Do you know something I don’t?
No, my favorite way to burn off steam from writing is by writing. I never have just one thing going, so I switch back and forth all the time. When I was a newspaper reporter and a young father, I had to scrape and sacrifice to find an hour here and there to write fiction, so I try not to take my luxurious writing time for granted. But I also treat it like it was then: a hobby. And I build all sorts of lovely moments into my “work day” (first breakfast: a cookie and coffee; second breakfast: bacon and eggs; later: a nap, lots of reading, two hundred jumps shots and a late-afternoon, meditative bike ride with my journal in my pocket.) Who would need a vacation from a schedule like that? In fact, when I go on vacation, the first thing I do is scout out a cookie and a cup of coffee, sometimes a basketball hoop. At 5:30 a.m., in a dark hotel room while my wife sleeps, I open my laptop, take a bite of cookie, and start playing.