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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘It’s really flattering’: Obama picks Spokane’s Jess Walter for favorite books of the year list

Jess Walter reads during the Northwest Passages Book Club's Summer Stories: Summer Of '69 edition on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019, at the Montvale Event Center in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

“I tell young writers all the time that you can think that when a book comes out that everything’s got to happen right then.”

So said Jess Walter Saturday afternoon, hours after Barack Obama named the Spokane writer’s 2013 collection “We Live in Water: Stories” to a list of the former president’s – and cultural tastemaker’s – favorite books of 2019.

“But the great thing about books is that they get spread by word of mouth,” Walter added.

Word about “We Live in Water” might have been spread initially by Twitter instead of by mouth on Saturday, but it still proved Walter’s maxim right, as Obama’s 111 million followers found out about his high esteem for the six-year-old collection of mostly Spokane-based fiction.

Walter is no stranger to readers finding his books – his novel “Beautiful Ruins,” for example, was a No. 1 New York Times bestseller – but he said Obama’s pick of “We Live in Water” struck him both for the “reach” it provided and the “real honor” it represented.

“It’s really flattering,” Walter said. “I think people really sort of harken back to the days when the president read something other than far-right media. So it’s very cool.”

It’s also not the first time Obama has signaled his admiration for Walter’s work. Walter said a photo of Obama and his daughter holding “Beautiful Ruins” had “circulated” before.

“So this is sort of the second time my books have at least landed in their hands,” he said.

Two other Washington writers, Ted Chiang for “Exhalation” and Melinda Gates for “The Moment of Lift,” also made the list, as did Missoula writer Stephanie Land, who wrote “Maid.” And Walter noted another Spokane writer also recently reached readers on Twitter, when Margaret Atwood praised Sharma Shields’ novel “The Cassandra” on the platform.

“Spokane really does have this larger national literary reputation,” Walter said. “So I think it’s cool when people see Sharma or Shawn Vestal or any of us in some national light. It really speaks well for the whole community.”

Walter said the news about “We Live in Water” arrives just as he wraps up his next novel, “The Cold Millions,” which is due out in the early fall.

“I don’t like to talk about ’em it too much, just because it seems superstitious,” Walter said. “But it’s set in 1909 in Spokane. That’s about all I can say about it.”