If this is Sunday, Jess Walter must be in Minneapolis … uh, no, that was Thursday.
Then he must be in Dallas … actually, that was Friday.
Los Angeles then? Salt Lake? Denver? Seattle?
Chances are he’s somewhere in between, out on the road doing publicity for his first book, the nonfiction study called “Every Knee Shall Bow: The Truth and Tragedy of Ruby Ridge and the Randy Weaver Family.”
And for a young guy from Spokane, East Valley High School class of 1983, the experience is a little overwhelming.
Take his New York experience, for example.
“They put me up in the Four Seasons Hotel,” Walter says during a phone interview, “this incredible hotel where I could push a button and open and close the curtains.”
Calling from the Minneapolis airport, just minutes before his flight to Dallas, Walter talks of having lunch with his Big Apple-based editor “at this ritzy place that I didn’t even see the name of, where a chicken-salad sandwich costs $28 or something.” Sitting at the table next to them was the novelist Jay McInerney.
Not exactly an everyday occurrence back home at Niko’s.
But as impressed by the whole experience as he is, Walter, just 30 and already having earned national prominence, hasn’t lost either his natural good-guy humility or smalltown sense of perspective.
“You know what’s the ironic thing?” he asks. “When I got to New York, Ursula Hegi was there starting her book tour.”
He pauses a second, weighing the knowledge that, among some circles at least, he is considered more important than Hegi - who just happens to be an award-winning novelist and, as it turns out, his former writing teacher at Eastern Washington University.
“It’s just so unfair,” he says. “Here she is, this nationally renowned writer, and I’m just some doofus from Spokane.”
Well, not just any doofus. Walter was one of the lead writers on The Spokesman-Review reporting team that covered the 1992 Randy Weaver incident in North Idaho. The stories that resulted from that coverage, which detailed the siege on Weaver’s mountaintop cabin by hundreds of government law officers, won both Walter and the newspaper a number of regional and national awards.
After it was over, the team reporters returned to their regular beats, including Walter. But even while it was going on, he was thinking ahead.
“From the very beginning of this case, I wanted to write a book on it,” he says. “And so for three years I wasn’t just reporting for the newspaper. I had hours of tapes that went above and beyond what a normal newspaper reporter would ask… . I was like a stamp collector. I was collecting quotes and notes and facts and figures and details.”
The book shows the effort that went into it, from the complex characterizations of the Weaver family and their supporters to the sympathetic portrayal of various law officers with whom Walter spent time.
Aside from the book’s quality, it is benefiting from timing. Senate hearings on the Weaver siege have brought the story national attention, earning Walter television time on “Good Morning, America,” “Nightline” and CNN along with more than 30 radio interviews.
Reader’s Digest has contracted to sell a condensed version of the book next fall; the New York Times news service has bought serial rights, and the Hollywood Reporter reported Friday that CBS has purchased an option to make a four-hour miniseries starring James Woods as Randy Weaver.
All of which is ironic because Walter had a hard time selling the book in the first place. That’s at least partly because he wanted to tell a balanced story - one that put a human face on such a white separatist as Randy Weaver.
“When I first tried to sell this book, one of the editors told me, ‘I’m really bothered by you humanizing these people,”’ Walter says. “But I don’t care who they are, understanding them only helps us. By humanizing them, all you’re doing is telling the truth.”
He catches that same doubting attitude on the road.
“People are shocked that I don’t take one side or the other,” Walter says. “The first question that I get almost all the time is ‘Whose side are you on? Which side did you take?”’
People find it hard to believe that, in this day of “Hard Copy” and “Geraldo,” it is possible - likely even - that a member of the press may actually have an ethical sense of objectivity. But the fact is that Walter does give both sides their say, and by doing so he hopes to help in some small way to heal the wounds caused by such events as Ruby Ridge, Waco and Oklahoma City.
“Actually, I do feel pretty strongly that this is the only way to get this out of the American conscience,” he says. “Maybe that’s not the best way to sell books, but when people realize the truth, they’ll realize that this (the Weaver incident) isn’t emblematic of everything that is wrong with our country. It’s just this wild story, and what I did was tell the story the best way I could. I really feel that I am doing a service just getting both sides out there.”
What a concept.
Almost as amazing as motorized curtains.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
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