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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Northwest Passages Book Club: Jess Walter loves his hometown – he really does

Spokane author Jess Walter will be the next guest of the Northwest Passages Book Club. The evening will be a fundraiser for Spark Central, and nonprofit he helped found. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
By Martin Wolk For The Spokesman-Review

Jess Walter’s fiction may sometimes give the impression that he has mixed feelings about his hometown, but nothing could be further from the truth.

“Spokane has all of these great things that other cities have and is rising in just about every way, and yet it’s still a place where a police officer or a garbage collector or a teacher can afford a house,” Walter says in an interview.

Walter, who joins The Spokesman-Review’s Northwest Passages Book Club on May 16, admits he didn’t always feel this way. When he was younger, Walter says he and his friends considered Spokane as “a place you escaped.” That feeling seeps through in a 2011 essay, “Statistical Abstract for My Hometown of Spokane, Washington,” in which the narrator confronts crime, poverty and adults who ride small bicycles.

The piece is included in Walter’s 2013 book, “We Live in Water,” a collection that shines a spotlight on characters living on the margins of society, mostly in the Spokane area and the Pacific Northwest. While Walter later penned a more complimentary “Addendum” to his “Statistical Abstract,” he also cautions against reading too much into his stories.

“Nobody should read a fiction writer and think that this is representative,” he says. “I think it’s a novelist’s job is to find stories that are about conflict and sorrow – and write about those things.”

And anyway, he said, Spokane has changed – and so has he.

“Spokane is not the city I grew up in,” he says. “Part of it is how amazing the city has become, and part of it is just personal growth and realizing I’m from that place, and I couldn’t be prouder of it.” He points to Spokane’s thriving arts community, its booming restaurant scene and a progressive spirit that was less evident when he was growing up. His grown daughter recently moved back to Spokane, he says, and many of her friends “desperately” want to join her.

Walter also expressed pride in Spark Central, a local nonprofit he helped develop that is aimed at encouraging creativity, especially among underprivileged youth. Spark Central will benefit from the proceeds of next week’s community book club event.

Walter was inspired to get involved by his own working-class background as well as by an artist friend who died young after struggling to help spread creativity in the city. Walter and a colleague initially created a youth arts education program called INK Art Space, which merged with Spark Center in 2016 to form the new group.

Spark Central is built on the former railroad property of Kendall Yards, “so the idea was simply that you can go anywhere from here,” Walter says. The center offers young people the chance to learn about writing, technology, art – “just about anything where creativity comes into play.”

“If it’s cool and someone wants to do it, we try to find a way to make it happen at Spark,” he says. “Every time I go in there now I get inspired and think: Of all the things I’ve done – books I’ve written and stories – that’s probably the thing that I’m the proudest of.”

Walter is returning to a fictionalized Spokane with his next novel, which will be published in 2019. The story is set in the early 1900s, when the city was booming but also splintered by class and labor violence.

“It’s probably closer to historical fiction than anything I’ve ever written, but to me it fits right in with the other things I’ve written,” he says. “I always felt that would be a fascinating time to write a novel about.”

Walter has been spending time in Los Angeles, where wheels are turning on a plan to turn his best-selling novel “Beautiful Ruins” into a movie, with production scheduled to begin this summer. David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada”) has recently agreed to direct the film.

Walter said he is “cautiously optimistic” after seeing other film projects fall apart, including “The Financial Lives of the Poets,” his comic novel of the Great Recession. Ironically that movie ran out of money before production, he says.

“Beautiful Ruins” would be the first of Walter’s novels to be made into a movie, although his nonfiction book about Ruby Ridge, “Every Knee Shall Bow,” was made into a 1996 television miniseries. “Beautiful Ruins” could pose a challenge for the film’s producers because of its setting in multiple timeframes and locations, including Hollywood, the coast of Italy, Edinburgh, Portland and Sandpoint. But Walter said he was “very pleased” with the script, by two writers from the show “Transparent.” “I thought they did a great job getting at the comic essence of the story,” he says.

Jess Walter’s Top 10

What are you …

1. Reading: “Exit West” by Mohsin Hamid

2. Watching: NBA playoffs

3. Listening to: “Please Be Patient With Me” by Albertina Walker

4. Following: Two words I wish had never met: social and media

5. Working on: novel, book of short stories, preseason tan

6. Enjoying as a guilty pleasure: Would rather not feel guilty about pleasure

7. Planning: I really want to go to Colombia

8. Inspired by: the classes and kids at Spark Central

9. Imagining: second breakfast … mmmm

10. Challenged by: the thought of another two-plus years of the current lying, bullying, kleptocratic administration

Martin Wolk is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys reading contemporary fiction and memoirs. He has been a correspondent for Reuters and, among other publications.