Thursday, June 21, 2012

Signed Encounters of the Firsts Kind: Jess Walter in New York City, June 20, 2012


Jess Walter talked with writer/editor Ben Greenman and signed books including his new one, Beautiful Ruins (Harper Collins, 2012), last night in Manhattan at the magnificent McNally Jackson Books. The talk was informative and entertaining and Walter came across as a warm, humble and thoughtful with an evident sense of humor. He tells personally mortifying stories with casualness. The youthful scar of playing spin the bottle with a girl who chose to lick the toilet seat rather than smooch him. Or the time he showed up for what he thought was a public book signing at Powell's books in Portland. He is also quite adept at chosing metaphors that must help aspiring writers a deeper understanding of the writing process.

Walter was happy to sign my entire Jess Walter library. Happier than the people behind me in line.

Walker is one of those authors where meeting them makes you want to keep reading them! I recently finished Citizen Vince and planned on reading The Zero next, though Walter was kind enough to recommend a personal reading schedule (of his work) with a glint in his eye. Maybe I'll read Lives of the Poets next instead, since that's what he told me to do.

Some interesting points from the discussion: Beautiful Ruins is a novel some 15 years in the making, according to Walter. Walter has been a working journalist and his work tends to jump between genres, managing to be both literary and page turning. He doesn't like to read or write the same book twice. Explaining the kind of propulsiveness he aims at in his writing, Walter mentioned David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, so it will be interesting to look for influence in this novel. A few other interesting points came out of the discussion. When he hit a wall in the writing of Beautiful Ruins, Walter took 8 months off at one point to write The Financial Lives of Poets (Harper, 2009), a less sprawling, less complex effort, the shortest time he has ever taken to finish a book.

Reflecting on the genesis of this novel, Walter told a few amusing stories of his Hollywood encounters over the years and the two speakers reflected on what the decline of journalism as a feeder for fiction means for the future. Several of his novels have been optioned, and Walter once failed an audition to be one of the screen writers for the adaptation of one of his own books. With the devastation of the newspaper business nearing completion, Greenman and Walter worried, we may be losing a key source of novelists and writers, who bring a particular set of skills (such as the ability to write on deadline) and outlooks we may well miss when they're gone.


It has been a busy few weeks at McNally Jackson Books, which is such a great space and atmosphere that I feel moved to mention again how great it is. It is great: thoughtfully appointed, welcoming, creatively organized, an emphasis on signed books for people like me. There is even a little cafe with delicious tiny pies that mocked me from the safety of their case when I finally found a seat. They stage the events and get out of the way, allowing the featured artists to stretch out and take whatever time they need. They don't over-manage the signings.

We may have turned a corner here with the dissolution of Borders and the apparent revival or at least of resilience of the American independent bookstore, but I can't help feel a slight sadness whenever I spend time in stores that have managed to become bonifide community centers in addition to being well run businesses tending to my obsession, such as the Bookshop SantaCruz, the Odyssey in Hadley MA, Elliot Bay Book Company in Seattle, Vromans in Pasadena, Greenlight in Brooklyn, etc. How will these stores maintain their quality or even stay in business? Of course, I do my level best to impoverish myself to keep such stores in business, but it might not be enough.


Here is Walter's signature from last night. I am fairly confident that it is authentic!

For comparison, below is one from several years ago, on a book I purchased from a dealer.

Finally, a close up from last night.



1 comment:

Mike Wehmeyer said...

I've seen Jess Walter twice, and both times he was very entertaining and a generous signer. I drove to St. Louis to see him during his tour for Financial Lives, and there weren't many people at the signing (Left Bank Books in St. Louis, a very good indie that does a nice job hosting signings), so there was more opportunity to talk. I asked him about his experience as a judge for the National Book Award, and it was interesting to hear him talk about that experience. I think I've mentioned (in another forum) that during a session with Richard Russo and Pete Dexter, Russo was asked what he thought the most promising book coming out was, and he mentioned Beautiful Ruins, and Dexter jumped in and called Jess Walter the most underappreciated writer in America!

My advice with regard to reading order is to read The Zero next. I liked Financial Lives, but The Zero was flat out brilliant!

Finally, so what was the "public book signing at Powell's books in Portland" episode?

Walter's tour for Beautiful Ruins has him up and down the east and west coasts, with nary a stop in the middle of the country... Looks like I'm going to have to get to Denver at the end of October to see him, if at all.