June 10, 2012 in Features

For Walter, inspiration behind ‘Beautiful Ruins’ began on Italy trip

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Dan Pelle photo

Spokane author Jess Walter has written a new novel set in Italy. It is titled “Beautiful Ruins.”
(Full-size photo)

If you go

“Beautiful Ruins”

Reading by Jess Walter

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Auntie’s Bookstore, 402 W. Main Ave.

Cost: Free

Details: www.auntiesbooks.com or www.jesswalter.com

Random trivia: The title “Beautiful Ruins” comes from a description of Richard Burton by Louis Menand in The New Yorker

Fifteen years ago, Jess Walter and his wife traveled to Italy to visit her family. While there, the idea for a novel was born.

That novel, “Beautiful Ruins,” will hit bookstores on Tuesday. It spans two continents and five decades, two central characters and a half dozen supporting players.

“Beautiful Ruins” begins in 1962 when American actress Dee Moray steps onto a pier in the fishing village of Porto Vergogna, a maligned blip along the Cinque Terre, the stretch of the Italian Riviera where homes cling to cliffsides as if for dear life. There she meets Pasquale, proprietor of the town’s lone lodging, The Hotel Adequate View.

From there, we travel to Rome, Hollywood, Sandpoint, and points in between. Along the way, Walter weaves a complex and epic romance. At its center are Dee and Pasquale. Circling around them are Michael Deane, a crass Hollywood producer; his assistant Claire, who only wants to make good movies; Shane, with a movie about the Donner Party to pitch; Pat Bender, a washed up musician; Alvis Bender, a World War II veteran and would-be writer; and Richard Burton.

Yes. That Richard Burton.

“Beautiful Ruins” is Walter’s sixth novel. The Spokane native’s previous book, 2009’s “The Financial Lives of the Poets,” is set to become a movie with Jack Black. The one before, “The Zero,” was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award. Before that, 2005’s “Citizen Vince” won the Edgar Award for best novel.

That first trip to the Cinque Terre in 1997 made a huge impression, said Walter, 46, a former Spokesman-Review reporter.

“I was just blown away not just by how beautiful it was but how evocative it was. I just loved it. My mom was dying of cancer that year. And I came back and I just started writing this story about this woman with cancer who shows up in this little town,” he said.

As it often goes with fiction, he said, that’s not how the story ends. When he’d write himself into a dead end, he put the book aside and worked on something else. During one break, he wrote “The Financial Lives of the Poets” almost as a palate cleanser. When he came back to “Beautiful Ruins,” he rewrote everything.

“I’m sure not a sentence exists that’s the same as it was eight years ago, or seven years ago,” Walter said. Still, “Beautiful Ruins” wouldn’t let itself stay on the shelf for long.

“Every time I went back to it, I found myself more engaged by it and missing those characters. I’d get back to Pasquale, and he was like an old friend,” Walter said. “Getting back to it and writing something that felt so big and sweeping and had that sweep of time and many different characters, it was great.”

Dee Moray is in Italy to film a supporting role in “Cleopatra” with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. After Burton and Moray have a fling, studio publicist Michael Deane is asked to whisk Moray out of Rome, and she ends up in Porto Vergogna.

Writing about real-life people is a comfortable literary device for Walter, who used it to good effect in “Citizen Vince,” with its depictions of John Gotti, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter.

“Those characters can be great fun to inhabit because they come with all these preconceived notions and you get to follow through on some of those and then you get to break some of those,” he said. “Frankly, it was so much fun, I didn’t want to get out of the car with Richard Burton.”

In researching the late screen star, Walter said he kept coming back to something that Laurence Olivier once told Burton: “You have to decide: Do you want to be a great actor or a household name?”

“I was so interested in that because we’ve given up on that choice. Pat, the failed musician, talks about our desire to rank everything. To count how many Facebook friends you have. And the only measure of a novelist is how many (books) they sell. With a movie, it’s box office. We’re sort of losing some larger sense of artistic aesthetic,” Walter said. “There was a part of me that had an artistic crush on the young Richard Burton and wishes he had remained on stage and chosen a more artistic lifestyle.”

As work on the novel advanced, Walter played with different literary forms. He writes in third person and first. There’s a scene from a play, an excerpt from a memoir, and a chapter from a Hollywood how-to. And there’s a pitch for a movie about the doomed Donner Party, called “Donner!”

“I’ve always been interested in the Donner Party. And I was trying to think of the least likely movie that could be made right now, and it was the Donner Party. It’s so dark,” Walter said. “And then it became another challenge, to see if I could write an entire pitch as a piece of literature, because it’s a form I’ve never seen.”

These different segments take on the personalities of the characters they involve. The chapter from Michael Deane’s book, for instance, contains not a single comma. “I told myself, ‘This is a guy who has never paused,’ ” Walter said with a laugh.

“It’s kind of the Whitman Sampler of what I want to do as a writer,” he said. “And there’s none of those crappy orange ones in there. It’s all caramels.”

What’s next? He kicks off a book tour Tuesday that will run through at least November. In March, he’ll publish a collection of short stories.

Unlike in “Beautiful Ruins,” which lands in Spokane and quickly drives out of it, Spokane should figure prominently in several of these stories, he said. He’s been working on the “Financial Lives” script, which could begin shooting later this year in Atlanta – “which is so Spokane-like,” Walter quipped – and is settling into work on his next novel.

Walter just doesn’t know what it will be. It could be the suburban cattle ranching novel he’s been writing on and off for a few years. Or he has in mind a more urban crime drama.

“I think there’s a lot less planning than people would assume,” he said. “I just wake up in the morning, and write the next sentence.”


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