I didn’t want to like Jess Walter. He had too much of everything my writer’s heart craved for itself. To start, too much critical acclaim: reviewers called him “a genius of the modern American moment” and pronounced his books “masterpieces.” Along with the accolades, he had too much commercial success and far too many books. He’d published six novels since 2001 and his most recent novel, Beautiful Ruins, was (and still is) a New York Times best seller. If those “too muchnesses” weren’t enough, there was one more: the impressive range of his work. He wrote mystery (Citizen Vince), satire (The Financial Lives of the Poets, The Zero), and his Beautiful Ruins possessed romantic overtones and a panoramic sweep that had movie written all over it. Why did he have to be so good in so many ways?
Despite my efforts to adhere to Dear Sugar’s advice on literary envy, I avoided reading Walter’s books. This was easy to do since I am first and foremost a short story reader and writer, and Walter is primarily a novelist. But this year Walter published We Live in Water, his first collection of short stories. Here was my chance to judge his work in the form I knew best, and I secretly hoped I would end up an anti-fan.
Walter’s stories made it impossible for me to dismiss them. They got to me. I found myself giving money to cardboard-carrying panhandlers I had driven past for years, all because of the generosity, humor, and heart of these stories. I was won over, so much so that I sent an e-mail asking Jess Walter to talk with me about We Live in Water when he was in the Bay Area for bookstore readings in April. Luckily for me, my literary envy died its own good death.
The Rumpus: I’m wondering why you turned away from the novels to write the stories?
Jess Walter: The first fiction I ever wrote was short stories. I was writing short stories in my late teens and early twenties, and I think it’s how you teach yourself to write. I was also trying to write novels, but in creative writing classes and with friends we’d get together and share stories. I wrote short stories for seven years and used to mail them out. You couldn’t send them by e-mail. I called them manila boomerangs. I’d seal the self-addressed stamped envelope inside an envelope and I’d mail it off, and it would come back six weeks later with a rejection letter in it. The first place to publish me, after seven years, was a friend’s magazine called Yawp!. Then I entered Story magazine’s short fiction contest, fifteen or twenty bucks, whatever it cost to get in. They had 7,000 entries and I finished twenty-fifth. My name went in the magazine. They didn’t even publish the story, but I got a check for twenty-five dollars, and I remember looking at that check after seven years and thinking, Well, now I’m a professional. So before I published any novels, I’d always been writing stories.
In recent years, I think the path to becoming a writer has become more through the novel. It’s easier to get a novel published than a book of stories, obviously, especially through big publishers. That wasn’t always the case. I only took a few writing courses in college, but I came up at that time of Carver and Richard Ford and the dirty realists, and you were supposed to write a great book of short stories and then that would lead to a novel. I think it’s kind of inverted now. So it really took me this long to create enough market to publish a book of short stories. But I’d been writing them and publishing them all along, mostly in journals that people haven’t heard of.
Rumpus: Do you privilege the novel over the short story?
Walter: I probably do only because I love being immersed that long in something. The stories tend to be what I work on when I’m stuck. Something will just pop into my head and I’ll think that’s more of a story. When I saw two guys pushing a giant TV down the street, I thought, That’s a short story, and it became “Wheelbarrow Kings.”
When I went back to look at my stories, I had about forty to choose a collection from. I really wanted a thematic collection. Because I’m a novelist, I think in terms of structure. The way I keep going is through structure. It’s what inspires me and pushes me through. And I realized the structure in a collection is how they’re put together. Structuring the collection became the art of it for me. Because the stories had all been written.
Rumpus: These thirteen stories have a Northwest focus, a male focus, and a paternal focus, also. Can you talk about how these ideas cohered to form the collection?
Walter: I have stories about basketball players, I have stories from women’s points of view, and they just didn’t feel like they fit. I’ve been a dad since I was nineteen, so I think a lot about fatherhood and the power of that sacrifice in your life. So that’s a theme that kept coming up. I live in a very poor neighborhood, as “Statistical Abstract” shows, so a lot of the stories would just be things I observed over the years. When I started thinking about the story collection, we were still in the middle of a pretty bad recession and I felt like I wanted the stories to reflect the hard times.
Rumpus: So poverty was an organizing theme?
Walter: The idea I had was that these are the people you drive past, these are the people you don’t want to talk to, almost all of them criminals, stalkers, zombies. I think the only theme I was working with was empathy.
There’s a story in the book called “Thief,” which is an exercise in empathy that I’ve given writing students that I got from my friend Sam Ligon, who I think got it from Francine Prose or Amy Hempel or somebody. You take something from your past that you’re somewhat ashamed about and you write about it from another character’s point of view. So I was writing this detective story about a father trying to figure out which of his kids is a thief, and I was, of course, the thief. For me they were writing exercises in empathy, often. If that can be a theme, that’s a theme that bubbled through: looking at these hard lives and finding some human connection that we would all share.
Rumpus: The title We Live In Water is intriguing. Based on the story of the same title, it seemed like it’s grappling with the idea of self-determination or individualism.
Walter: In that story that’s exactly how it works. The story is about a father who begins by saying he keeps coming undone, he keeps coming apart. He’s caught in his own patterns of trying to pull his life together and then coming apart. His son now is going to look for him years later having gone through divorce, repeating the pattern of his father. The question of whether or not we have free will and free choice makes me think of the ending of that story, when the father closes his eyes and pictures himself on the aircraft carrier. I should read it to get it right exactly:
He closed his eyes and tried to find something to look at in his mind. He came back to that morning on the carrier, the blue sky and the ocean, and where they met, that endless line. Everything that isn’t sky and water lives for a moment in that little gray band. Above and below it, the blue stretches forever.
I almost pictured that gray band as the band of choice in our lives. We do have choice, but it’s a thin band and the rest is all these things pushing on us in all these directions. And there is a theme of water. It’s a really common phrase that a house is underwater. That image of poverty and water had been kicking around in my mind. I wanted people to think of themselves. In the same way that putting “Statistical Abstract” at the end cast back over the book in a way, making “We Live in Water” the title story cast it in some other light.
Rumpus: The title made me see the collection through a different lens because it wasn’t direct; it wasn’t clear. I had to consider the meaning.
Walter: I think that enigmatic connection, when you have to work harder for it, is sometimes more valuable, more worthwhile.
Rumpus: There is so much about addiction in the collection. It seems you can appreciate in your stories the allure of being in an altered consciousness—of being a meth addict, or taking a club drug even if you end up becoming a zombie. Does that speak to you?
Walter: Sure. There’s alcoholism in my family and we all battle with whatever patterns we can’t get out of. I became sort of by necessity a two-drink person, because of that fear of seeing so much generational alcoholism in my family. It was either that or quit entirely. I don’t know a family that isn’t touched by some sort of addiction.
Rumpus: Your stories are very sympathetic to a person who succumbs to addiction.
Walter: I remember reading Jonathan Lethem’s book Motherless Brooklyn, about Tourette’s, in which he makes the obsessions of Tourette’s connect with your own obsessions. And I think about that with addiction sometimes. There are so many things I wish I didn’t do, but I still do them.
Walter: Right, for many people it’s Facebook, or sports on TV, whatever it is. I have my own demons that I battle. But whatever they are, you wish you could not do them. For most of us it’s “I cannot get off Facebook.” But imagine that your demon has you living on the street. I don’t think those compulsions and obsessions are that different. I think they are common to humanity. If you come from money and you become an addict, you go to the Betty Ford Clinic, you get treatment. If you’re living on the street and you’re an addict, it’s much harder to find your way out.
The neighborhoods I grew up in were poor and full of drug users. I don’t think it’s that hard. I don’t think you have to look that hard to find those kinds of lives. But I also don’t think you have to have experienced it really close to be able to empathize. Again, these stories were me trying to recover some sense of empathy, which I think a fiction writer especially needs.
Rumpus: The collection is very eclectic. You think you’re in a collection that’s going to be straight realism, and then there’s a zombie story. And the forms of the stories are very different. There are very short stories, there’s a story told in parallel narratives set decades apart, and there’s the list format of “Statistical Abstract for My Hometown of Spokane, Washington.”
Walter: The tenses change. The dialogue changes.
Rumpus: You don’t have a consistent way of going about your business. Where does that eclecticism come from? And are you that way in other parts of your life?
Walter: I’m certainly eclectic in my writing. Citizen Vince won an Edgar Allen Poe Award for Best Mystery, other books have been literary, Beautiful Ruins is somewhat romantic. The topic doesn’t matter to me, the form doesn’t matter to me. I’m really drawn in by themes and by play, by experimentation. After Vonnegut and after Hemingway and after Didion, I had a brief love affair with the metafictionists, especially with Robert Coover and Donald Barthelme. I just thought their work seemed like play. There’s a part of writing for me that is still play. I think Steven Millhauser is a genius of the short story because he will do anything. He’ll make a short story out of notes for a gallery show. He will make a short story out of a cartoon of a cat chasing a mouse. The form is so malleable and can do so many things.
When I start a short story it’s often with some formal idea, like I’m going to write a Statistical Abstract. With “Don’t Eat Cat,” I was fed up with zombie stories. I thought what a cheap, stupid allegory for everything, writing about zombies. It started as a protest piece. Then I quickly decided my zombies weren’t really zombies. It was instead something you called people who were on this club drug, who then exhibited aggressive behaviors. And then like everyone who writes about zombies, I found it was so much fun.
Rumpus: You start with a formal invention first and everything else comes after?
Walter: Often that’s how it works. There are three short-short pieces in the collection that are connected. The first one came about because I had heard someone was doing an anthology of stories under 300 words. And I thought, Can you tell a whole story, not one of those little fragments you usually see in microfiction, but a real story which has a beginning, a middle, and an end, an actual narrative arc, in 300 words? So I wrote “Can a Corn,” about a guy who commits suicide by fishing. But it’s once I discover the people inside that the story really gets going, and then the formal invention becomes less important. It’s just the way in; it’s the door; and then what’s behind it is always some kind of people, which I think probably makes me more in the tradition of realistic fiction because that’s usually what I’m interested in, the people.
With the 300-word story “Can a Corn,” I’d read all these Northwest fishing stories. My two pet peeves are what I call horse porn and fishing porn. Western writers go crazy when a horse comes in; they’ve got to describe it so lovingly. Having grown up on a ranch, I was reacting to the way I thought fishing stories were so overwritten with a kind of religiosity of the line dancing on the top of the water. I wanted to write a fishing story where it was the way I remembered fishing, which was a couple of drunk guys in an aluminum boat. The only time I stop to describe anything about fishing is when he takes the hook and pushes it through the thin paper of the corn, which is not a line dancing on the water. It’s an old guy with his gray fingers. Most of the stories come out of a sense of play, out of a sense of, What do I want to work on today?
Rumpus: There are some great dads and sons in this collection, and I don’t think they’ve been given their due by the reviews. Even the most troubled fathers make some beautiful decisions in these stories. Were you surprised the reviews tended to overlook these good dads and sons?
Walter: When I was a kid, I wanted my dad to be a college professor, honestly. He was a gruff guy, he worked in an aluminum plant, he drank all the time.
Rumpus: You wanted him to be more refined?
Walter: Yeah. I wanted to be more refined. A lot of kids think they’re adopted, but I thought, How did I get in this family? I said to a friend one time—I can’t remember what my dad had done to embarrass me, kids get embarrassed, but I said something about it to a friend. He said, “You know your dad’s there every day.” This kid didn’t have a dad, his dad wasn’t around. And I never thought about that before. Being there every day.
I’ve been taken by the fact that people keep focusing on the difficulties of these characters’ lives, seeing them as lowlifes or loser deadbeats, and that kind of hurts my feelings. These characters didn’t seem that far out of the realm to me. Again, I’m not that far removed from having a $250 car that broke down, and living in a $175-a-month apartment. I read one of those reviews, and it was a very nice review, and then I went to the grocery store. There was a young woman in front of me in line and she was attractive. She had on these really nice jeans and the cuffs were frayed like crazy, like she’d spent a lot of time walking on heels. She was wearing stiletto heels, and she was pretty, with all sorts of piercings and tattoos that came up all the way down to her fingers—glove tattoos. We kind of smile at each other. She sets on the grocery store counter two Red Bulls, a tube of sex lubricant, and a Caramello candy bar. And I remember looking and thinking, I really want to write that story.
And in my mind, immediately I’m thinking: all she’s ever wanted to be is an actress. Dropped out of high school, she’s with this boyfriend. He’s like, “Man, we’re going to make this porno one of these days. Mike, he’s got a camera and he’s going to come over and make the porno for us.” She’s so excited they’re going to make the porno, but they always get so high they never actually make the porno. I’m standing there in line thinking she buys the lubricant thinking, Well we might have to do some things, you know, I’ll need this—she gets two Red Bulls to keep them excited, and the Carmello candy bar, and I can see the whole story. And then when she gets home, they’ve gotten high and they’re not going to make the porno tonight; she’s going to have to go about whatever business.
And as I’m standing there in line, I think two things. I think of that story, and I think, Janet Maslin does not shop in the same grocery store I do. Whether or not it’s how I live, it’s the world I live in. I drive by an “Anything Helps” sign every day. Some days I give money, and some days I don’t. That’s what the ending of “Statistical Abstract” is about: never living more than three blocks from a bad neighborhood being a kind of good thing.
Rumpus: I was impressed by the endings of each of the stories and with the way you concluded the entire collection with the final story, “Statistical Abstract.” For me the endings had the effect of enlarging the individual stories and the book as a whole. Do you have a theory of endings that you rely on when you’re writing yours?
Walter: Often I don’t know where something’s going. So I started writing “Statistical Abstract” thinking that it was just going to be funny. I’d seen all these young guys on children’s bikes and I’d thought, Why are there so many of those guys on kid’s bikes? And then that connected with the idea of a Statistical Abstract, and so I thought, I’m just going to write to the point where I can say there are more adult men per capita riding children’s BMX bikes in Spokane than anywhere in the country. So I wrote to that point. I love humor in writing, so I’ve written to the thing that’s funny, there’s the joke, but then I just kept going. I started thinking about all the bikes I’ve had stolen, and that got me thinking about crime, and that got me thinking about the city I’m in. It’s the same as those novelistic rabbit holes, you just owe it to yourself as a writer to follow them wherever they go. It’s one of those clichés that the book tells you what it wants to be, but it kind of does.
For me, the ending feels right in an emotional way if I’ve completed the movement that I started. The movement I started with “Thief” is: which of these kids is a sociopath? The ending was: I don’t want to know. It’s as simple as that. The movement I started with “Wheelbarrow Kings” is: we’re going to have an adventure. The end of it was: maybe remembering is better than living. You kind of don’t know until you get there. A story like “Anything Helps” ends where it begins with him sitting on the same corner but now he’s got this book.
When I finished “Statistical Abstract,” I wasn’t entirely sure what it was. Is it an essay? Is it kind of a story? It’s funny, putting it in the collection made it feel more like a story. Before that it really felt like a one-off, in a way. And putting it at the end of the collection felt like a kind of weird index—here’s that boy reading the story here, and here are those meth addicts riding down the street, and there’s another glimpse of the world of the stories you’ve just read. I wish I could say that I sat down and thought, I need one more closing piece, and wrote “Statistical Abstract,” but I didn’t.
Rumpus: I could have sworn that you did.
Walter: You probably have to trust that your work is following certain themes and certain movements, but then the rest is a kind of piecing together so that the whole becomes larger than the parts. And I felt that way. I felt like the luckiest writer just because I made a couple of the right decisions. And who knows, maybe I should have left this story out, or put that one in—it’s not like I felt like I got it all right. But two things, the title, that collective “we” in We Live in Water, and that end story, that end cap, I just thought this is how this story collection should close. And I love reading “Statistical Abstract.” When I get to the very end, and my neighbor Mike and I walk that girl to the door of the shelter and they let her in and we stay outside, there’s that line, “that’s as close as we’re supposed to get, maybe as close as we want to get,” and it casts back on all those people we’ve met before. We can get this close, we can empathize, but that’s as close as we want to get, we don’t want to be out there, and that felt honest and earned at that point. I was really proud at the end.
Featured image of Jess Walter © by Hannah Assouline.