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Locally Writ: Jess Walter describes his new novel, ‘The Cold Millions,’ as ‘melody of the sentences’

UPDATED: Sun., Oct. 25, 2020

Local and No. 1 New York Times bestselling author Jess Walter had always dreamt of becoming a novelist, but journalism came to him first. He couldn’t have asked for a better detour, he said.

“It was a great thing for me, to find that sense of curiosity and the deadline chops you get as a writer,” Walter said. “I think I’m a much better novelist because I was a journalist first. … There are so many things you learn from practicing journalism that make you a better novelist.”

His work in journalism also encouraged his interest in a wide variety of areas – historical, political, social and otherwise. This meant that when he finally started writing long-form fiction, his choice of subjects would become just as broad.

“I think it’s probably safe to say that I don’t repeat myself very often as an artist,” Walter said. “So each book is kind of self-contained in its own world and its own concerns.”

His most recent novel, “The Cold Millions,” might differ in subject, but, he explained, what it does share is a similar sense of humanity.

Set during the free speech riots of Spokane in 1909, the story centers around Rye and Gig Dolan, two brothers living by their wits and struggling to find their place in a world that doesn’t want them.

Walter knew from the start that he wanted to write a story about income inequality, and the early 1900s struck him as the perfect setting.

“I had always been interested in that period of time and especially the free speech riots in Spokane,” Walter said. It was a useful inroad into writing about poverty, social unrest and class divisions, “but in a way that was entertaining, that could take you to this other time and place … this wild moment in my city’s history.”

What finally set the book in motion for him, Walter explained, was finding the sound, “the melody of the sentences.”

“I could hear what 1909 sounded like, with its bindlestiffs and Pinkertons,” Walter said. “For me, it’s being able to hear what these sentences should sound like because I write all the time, and I write so many things that when the novel starts to assert itself, that assertion comes through the way it sounds.”

The focus of “The Cold Millions” calls back to literature Walter remembered reading as a student. He was drawn to John Steinbeck’s “proletariat, class-driven novels” and said that reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s circling, sweeping stories felt like seeing in an extra dimension.

“ ‘Hundred Years of Solitude’ is probably my favorite novel,” he said.

Walter’s own writing process is similarly nonlinear. The idea for “The Cold Millions” came to him almost three decades ago while he was still working at The Spokesman-Review, and half of that time he spent working on his 2012 novel, “Beautiful Ruins.”

“I’m writing two or three or six things at once,” he said, explaining how while he was working on “The Cold Millions,” he also was working on his last novel, “Beautiful Ruins,” among other projects that are still continuing.

To aspiring writers, Walter offered the following advice.

“Never take advice from writers.”

“It’s an incredibly simple and almost impossible thing. The simple part is you just have to read and write, all the time, and most people have trouble sustaining one or both. The rest is resolve.

“It’s taken me decades to arrive at the place where my fiction was something that could support me. And the patience that it takes is another difficult part.

“So I think in the end, you have to just write because you love it and write things you love. Then it sustains itself whether or not it pays for itself because the love sustains it.”

“The Cold Millions” is available for pre-order at Auntie’s Bookstore and Wishing Tree Books.

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