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Writing Westward 

An interview with Jess Walter

Jess Walter is the bestselling author of "Beautiful Ruins," a novel that dominated "best of" lists in 2012 and continues to charm readers of every stripe. His latest work, a collection of short stories called "We Live in Water," illuminates the hard knocks experienced by Pacific North Westerners with stories that his friend, Central Oregon writer Benjamin Percy, calls, "A badass collection...gritty and big-hearted." We caught up with Jess in anticipation of his visit to Bend this week.

Source Weekly: You've published six novels since 2001, including "Beautiful Ruins," which was a #1 New York Times Bestseller. What made you return to the short story form in your new collection, "We Live in Water?" Which form do you prefer, and how do you think they differ in the eyes of the reader? 

Jess Walter: I've always written short stories. I felt like the stories in "We Live in Water" were similar enough thematically (linked around the idea of poverty, stories about the people you drive past without noticing) that these 13 belonged in a collection, so I pulled it together and sent it to my publisher. I don't really approach the two forms differently when I'm writing, but the difference arises out of the sheer length of the process of writing a novel. A story is like a couple of dates; a novel is like getting married. I think most readers prefer novels because they love to get lost in a long narrative, to really be immersed in a world. It's been rewarding to have some readers tell me, "I don't usually like story collections, but your book made me look differently at them."

SW: The stories in "We Live in Water" have a distinct focus on the Pacific Northwest. What do you think writers in our neck of the woods have to offer to readers nationwide? Is being a "western writer" simply a reference to your home address?

JW: I do think there are probably qualities that make up western writing—perhaps there's still a whiff of frontier iconoclasm—but there's such incredible variety and breadth of writing in the west that it's hard to nail down. At one time, that phrase western writing might've connoted some lyrical book about fly fishing or horseback riding, but I think fiction, perhaps because of the ubiquity of MFA programs, is much less defined by region and more by genre and by style—minimalists and maximalists and fabulists and realists, etc...I do set a lot of my stories in the Northwest, especially Spokane, but I've also written novels set in Italy, Hollywood, New York...

SW: Your path toward a career as a novelist included stints as a reporter, a nonfiction author, and a ghostwriter. Was your goal to always to write novels/fiction? How have your goals as a writer evolved along the way?

JW: A literary path only seems intentional in hindsight. I certainly didn't have any master plan, I just wrote the next sentence, paragraph, story, book. I did always aspire to write fiction. But I became a father at 19 and worked at newspapers to support myself and my family. And I loved it. It's kind of a 1930s way to become a novelist, but it worked great for me. Writing nonfiction was amazing training and I hope to take a run at a big nonfiction book again in the next few years.

Author! Author! with Jess Walter

7 pm. Thurs., Sept. 25.

Bend High School, 230 NE 6th St.



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