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Shawn Vestal: Walter stayed — and helped his hometown literary scene flourish

UPDATED: Sun., Oct. 25, 2020

Jess Walter is the author of “The Cold Millions.”  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Jess Walter is the author of “The Cold Millions.” (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

When Maya Zeller was beginning her graduate  work as a poetry student in Eastern Washington University’s MFA program in 2005, she attended a student reading where she saw Jess Walter in the crowd.

“I knew he was kind of famous and I had a small literary crush on him, like everyone,” she said.

She was surprised to see him there in the first place. As the event began, she noticed that two people near Walter were talking.

“I saw him quietly lean over and say, ‘Hey, that person’s reading. Can it wait?’ ” she said. “He just gently, kindly pointed out that an MFA student was reading. … I thought, ‘This is what a famous writer does. He makes space for other writers.’ ”

Walter’s seventh novel, “The Cold Millions,” is coming out at a time when Spokane has a much different literary profile than it did when his first book, the nonfiction account of the Ruby Ridge standoff, “Every Knee Shall Bow,” was published in 1995.

Over the past decade or so, the number of writers who are doing literary work in – and about – Spokane has exploded. Many of them found an example, an adviser, an advocate and a friend in Walter. I count myself lucky to be one of them.

When Zeller published her first book of poetry, “Rust Fish,” in 2011, she was surprised to see that Walter recommended it in an interview with a local magazine.

“He gave a little spotlight to this new writer,” she said. “I just see him do that continually.”

Walter is charitable with time and advice. He endorses many books by local writers, which is no small gift. He participates in local events and helps bring great writers to town. He and his wife, Anne, are big supporters of arts organizations. And he helped to create an organization, Spark Central, that provides creative opportunities for young people in West Central and citywide.

As a single, small example of that organization’s efforts, he once taught a workshop to young students in the NATIVE Project. Toni Lodge, the project CEO, said she remembers emphasizing to the students what a gift it was to have a writer of his stature there to give them advice.

“I just think he’s an amazing human,” Lodge said. “I love him.”

It is not his success alone – as well-deserved as it is – that elevates him in the local literary landscape. It is the way he has lived that success and used it to lift others. It is the way he has embraced this place, and made his work about it.

He’s the mayor of literary Spokane.

‘I could stay here, too’

There have always been writers here, of course. But back when John Keeble, the author and longtime Eastern Washington University professor, was in his early days teaching, the scene was often pretty quiet, he said.

Keeble started the MFA program at EWU in 1978, and taught many of the writers who fill up the city today. He had Walter in class as an undergrad, and has watched as his career grew and grew along with the local writing community.

“It gradually, gradually picked up,” he said. Now, “there’s a writer under every rock, practically.”

There are many reasons for this, and many people who share the credit. The program Keeble started, for one thing, has graduated hundreds of writers over its four decades, many of whom remained here, seeding the literary scene.

But Walter has been a singular source of inspiration to other writers here.

Sharma Shields, who has published two novels and a short-story collection that have won awards and gathered national attention over the past eight years, grew up in Spokane. She left after high school, studying in Seattle and then Missoula – aware all the time of Walter’s growing success.

“There was something in his staying in Spokane that made it seem like I could stay here too,” she said, “whereas when I left Spokane at age 18 I thought I would never live here.”

Shields and her husband, the writer and graphic novelist Simeon Mills, moved to Spokane in 2008. Both have published work since moving here, and Shields also operates a small press, Scabland Books. In that way and many others, she has also used her success to lift up other writers.

Melissa Huggins, the executive director of Spokane Arts, is a writer and the former director of EWU’s annual Get Lit! literary festival who grew up here. She has seen many of the ways Walter contributes to local events, by participating and helping to bring other writers here.

“I appreciate Jess’ story because he’s been so full-throated about wanting to stay in Spokane and believing in Spokane,” she said. “He’s always been like, ‘No, this is my town, and I want to be here, and I’m choosing to be here even though I could go other places.’ ”

Walter is well aware a lot of people here are glad he’s stuck around. “I remember the first time someone thanked me for staying,” he said. “I knew exactly what they meant. It does matter.”

But he did not always intend to stay. Born, raised and educated in and around Spokane, he had the antipathy toward his hometown that most people have toward theirs. He also had periods, as his career grew, where he wondered whether he shouldn’t be off doing the work somewhere else.

“No one wanted to leave when they were young more than me,” he said.

‘It wasn’t bad then’

Walter told the story of how he came to change his mind in a remarkable essay published in 2011, “Statistical Abstract for My Home of Spokane, Washington.”

In that piece, which is one of the finest things anyone anywhere ever wrote about their hometown, he digs into Spokane’s grit and poverty with humor and heart. He writes of his evolution from loathing this place to embracing it, and of the epiphany he had while talking to a Seattle-ite who was running down Spokane.

“He said that it was too poor and too white and too uneducated and too unsophisticated, and as he spoke, I realized something: This guy hated Spokane because of people like me,” he wrote. “Did I hate Spokane because I hated people like me? Did I hate it for not letting me forget my own upbringing? Then I had this even more sobering thought: Was I the kind of snob who hates a place because it’s poor?”

He landed at this realization: “I think there are only two things you can do with your hometown: look for ways to make it better, or look for another place to live.”

A lot of people here love that essay, and it’s easy to see why. It marked a turning point, I think, in the story that we tell collectively about Spokane.

But one of the things Walter thinks people may misunderstand is that he didn’t decide he loved Spokane because it got better. He wasn’t saying that he came to accept his city because the restaurants improved.

“People always say Spokane’s better, right?” he said. “I say it wasn’t bad then. It was just poor.”

That part of the city has played no small role in the literature Walter has made out of his hometown – a literature of place that begins with his very first novel and runs through “The Cold Millions,” a story set in one chapter of this city’s history that reflects a light on its present.

“We have the sense that the South is a place where setting really rises to the level of character and language,” he said. “Why don’t we think that about Spokane, too?”

We do, now, in part because of him. There was a time when many artists thought they couldn’t stay here to do their work. That was the story of literary Spokane. Young creative people left. Seattle called. Portland called. Some famous writers were born here – and they left. Sometimes they came back for readings, for which everyone was grateful.

Walter stayed. That helped rewrite the story.

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