an interview with Jess Walter, author of Beautiful Ruins

Interview and introduction by Zoe Brezsny

We never really know when a piece of art will change the landscape of what’s possible. If you asked me a month ago whether a sentimental, postmodern novel would open up new ground in American fiction, I would’ve laughed, especially when you added that it starts off with a dying American actress escaping to a small Italian fishing village. Nonetheless, that’s what Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins does and in none of the clich├ęd and predictable moves that we’ve come to associate with artistic revolutions. There are no taboos broken here, no values assaulted, no screaming out at the injustices of the world, but a much more assured and gentle mind at work. One of the shocking aspects of Beautiful Ruins is just how adult it is.

Walter is an inventive and emotional storyteller, which makes it easy not to notice what’s revolutionary about his work. It's also true that when a work of art like Beautiful Ruins garners an enormous amount of praise from the likes of The New York Times Book Review and NPR, we tend to notice the attention surrounding it instead of the value it might have. That Walter uses postmodern literary techniques and combines them with a gushing sentimentality is more than a trick, but a mode of investigation, a way of understanding how we misperceive the surface of things, especially glamour. What Walter does with the idea of glamour is pretty amazing.

That's where it starts
Beautiful Ruins is both a hardboiled look at America as we know it today and an epic romance, beginning in 1960s Italy and the Roman film set of Cleopatra. One chapter might be about a reality TV show called "Hookbook," or an aging, Botox-injected producer in LA; the next chapter might be about the failed novel of an alcoholic war veteran staying in a shabby Italian Inn. Each jump in time and place is written with seeming ease and Walter’s use of realism is masterful both in the present and the past. He makes it seem all so easy, and, to crib a bit from Walter’s own concerns, glamorous. Of course, there’s nothing easy about it: an epic that is as deft as a short story, well, that’s rather astounding.

I was able to talk to Walter and ask him about some of the key issues in Beautiful Ruins—postmodern narrative techniques, Hollywood glamour, realism, America. I found his ideas about writing and the world at large just as considered, subtle and challenging as his latest novel and I think you will, too, imaginary, but real reader.

ZB: You used to be a journalist. How did that help shape and craft Beautiful Ruins? Did your training influence the way you shaped and crafted your characters?

Jess Walter, author of Beautiful Ruins
JW: Yes. Richard Burton is in the novel, and there are plenty of other historically accurate characters. Being a reporter was amazing training. There’s that old saw about writers, “write what you know.” I always turn that on its head and think, “know what you write.” That means: really research something. My journalistic training has helped me to do that. It allows me to immerse myself in the world I’m trying to create.

ZB: Why did you feel moved to write about America’s cultural obsessions with beauty, money, and success? Are those themes or ideas that you find exciting?

JW: Most novels are about the characters. That’s really what drives me, what’s exciting to me. Usually, I notice themes emerging as I write -- what the characters are revealing to me -- and then I go back and try to highlight those. So as I wrote Beautiful Ruins, I realized that all these characters were involved in storytelling or Hollywood in some way, and in response I made it even more about that.The novel tells you what it’s about. I think in this case I knew that one of my main characters was going to be an actress before I had any idea what that meant. I went searching for what it meant, and realized that I wanted to say something about the way we live. Nowadays we all seem to live our lives like movie stars. We manage our Facebook page like we’re publicists trying to present a great image of ourselves. So it seemed like it was a larger cultural thing that was seeping up through the work.

ZB: You move from 1962-era Italy to modern day America, giving an inside look into the dark underbelly of show business. You also take us to the Donner Party’s makeshift campground, an isolated army post in Italy, and through a series of music pubs in London. These transitions between time and place are all done masterfully. What did you hope to convey or capture with these huge jumps?

JW: I think a lot of times a writer will write something simply because they’re stuck. That was true for me. I started writing all these different voices to try and find another way into the story I was telling. I had almost hit a dead end. I worked on the book over such a long period of time, over fifteen years, and I wrote all these different kinds of stories. I wrote movie scripts and short stories and worked on plays. I realized that those different kinds of storytelling forms were what I was really interested in. And again, I think the form dictates the theme. I love a good writing challenge, and jumps in time and space are thrilling to me. I think the subject of all writing is time. It’s how time inflicts itself upon us. Somehow we make it through it. And so to have a great big time jump forces you as a writer to confront that.

ZB: Did you have to do draft after draft to make sure that it flowed well?

JW: I don’t typically write drafts. If I do, I don’t keep track of them. On Monday morning I start at the beginning of whatever section I’ve been working on and I read it aloud to myself to get back in the voice and work through it. I’ve likened it to combing ratty hair; I start at the top and I keep going until I hit the rats, and then I go back up and do it again, and wherever I find the rates are the places I’m sort of stuck. I’m constantly rewriting. The first sentence of the book was probably rewritten 8,000 times during the 15 years I worked on it.

ZB: The titles of your books are wonderful. Beautiful Ruins, The Financial Lives of Poets, Citizen Vance, Land of the Blind, and Over Tumbled Graves. What do you exactly mean by "Beautiful Ruins"? How can something be both beautiful and ruined?

JW: I would say how could it not be? I came across the title when I was doing research on Richard Burton. I found a description of him as being a beautiful ruin. I’d never had this happen but I almost lost my breath and thought, “My god, this is my title.”I had the idea that unlike a city like ancient Rome, which still has glorious pieces of architecture left, the only thing left over from America in the future will be a few fragments of movies and TV shows. Those will be our cultural ruins.I was thinking about old movies starring Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Cary Grant, and Marilyn Monroe. They’re black and white and crackly, and they are a kind of ruin. Then I realized all my characters were, as well. Because so much time passes in the novel, you meet them in their 70s and find that they are ruined people who are in some way, thanks to the lives they’ve lived, more honorable, more impressive, more attractive.
There is an authenticity in that city there
ZB: I was struck by the idea of failure and success in your book. That really touched me. I was wondering what captured you about that. It’s such an intrinsic part of the American psyche.

JW: If you think about the track of this novel, I wrote it over 15 years. That means I failed at it for 14 years. It mirrors a time in my life when I was pretty certain that my writing was a failed endeavor.I think failure is the result of every artistic endeavor. I love what Tobias Wolf said, that the only reason he writes short stories is that you can approach perfection; you can never get there, but you can approach it. In a novel you can’t even approach it. It’s another kind of beautiful ruin. The book itself is hopefully a really lovely failure, and coming to terms with that as an artist has been a liberating experience that has allowed me to keep writing.

ZB: So when you finished writing Beautiful Ruins you didn’t say to yourself, I hit the mark, I am completely satisfied with its creation? What do you see, despite the fact that NPR’s Fresh Air has called Beautiful Ruins a “literary miracle"?
JW: Whenever I get a bad review, and they come sometimes, I know exactly what they’re talking about, and I have a sense that they’re exactly right. One critic suggested that Beautiful Ruins might be too sentimental. If he thought that idea hadn’t occurred to me, he was crazy. I was worried the whole time that I was courting sentimentality. I love getting the great reviews, though. Who doesn’t want a great review? But I think every novel has failures of conception and of execution. The conception is the idea. Mine was a story that jumps around in time, has many different characters, and ruminates on romantic love. All of those elements can possibly be failures. There’s also another kind of failure, a failure of execution. That happens when you don’t pull off what you attempt.The rewarding thing about a good review is when it says I nailed the execution. There may still be failures of conception, and my idea may not have been entirely sound, but I pulled off what I set off to do.

ZB: Pasquale Tursi, one of your main characters, lives in a small fishing village and is pretty much isolated from the world of celebrity and show business until Dee Moray, an actress in the film Cleopatra, visits his hotel, The Hotel Adequate View. What was your intention for this character, a man whose big dream is to build a tennis court and construct a man-made beach for the modest hotel he owns?

JW: My original vision was unclear. Later I think I realized what it was: that everyone else was in the business of living their lives from the outside, watching themselves live their lives. And I think that’s how so many of us exist in the era of Facebook and Twitter. We describe our lives rather than live them, especially those of us who are writers or performers: we tell a narrative, we tell a story of our lives.l wanted Pasquele to be the one character, who—and I don’t want to give anything away in the book—makes a decision to live his life by whatever rules he feels are necessary, not some dream or Hollywood vision. It’s funny to me that people talk about how romantic the book is when I’ve always thought of it as an anti-romantic book.

ZB: When I read Beautiful Ruins, other works that came to mind were Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and the novels of Brett Easton Ellis. Your book has the tapestry of characters, deep feeling, and epic sentiment that Angels in America has, as well as the grit and glamour of a Bret Easton Ellis novel. How would you respond to such comparisons?

JW: I love Tony Kushner and Angels in America, and hold it in high esteem. It would have been inconceivable for me to say “that’s what I’m trying to approach.” But now that you mention it, I think there is a theatricality to my novel partly because there are plays in it, and some of the characters are larger-than-life, theatrical characters. But none of that was intended, certainly. And I do really like Bret Easton Ellis. He too has written about Hollywood, for instance, and about those sorts of characters.My personal take on Hollywood is that while it’s dark, it’s ultimately an incredibly hopeful place—an almost sentimental and romantic place—because no matter how often it beats you in the head with bad stuff, you come back to it. You give it another chance.

ZB: One element of Beautiful Ruins that I love is your journalistic precision about rendering details and facts. It makes your stories real, earnest, and accessible. I go to a school where the high postmodern writers such as Samuel Beckett and Vladimir Nabokov are deeply valued. Would you consider yourself a realist writer?

JW: Beautiful Ruins is a postmodern novel in that it takes all sorts of fragments and makes a novel out of it. It also has a kind of awareness of itself as a story. One review said my novel scrubs the postmodernist novel of all its cynicism, and I thought that was a really interesting description. Postmodern writing can seem flat and cynical. It can seem arch and knowing, as if you have a condescension for the characters, like “we know these aren’t real characters,” while in fact you’re just spinning a story that is part of a cultural theory. You can easily get lost in the theory side.I love to tell stories; I don’t spend anytime thinking, “Am I a realist, am I a satirist, am I an absurdist, am I a Marxist?” The story tells me what it wants to do. My book Zero is a very absurd, postmodernist, satirical novel. Beautiful Ruins has an earnestness to it that I think is maybe out of vogue but works because of the characters and the story. I think that can be the danger, to run from true emotion, real feeling.
The return of feeling
©The CCA Arts Review and Zoe Brezsny

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