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Finding truth and keeping it real: In Jess Walter’s new collection ‘The Angel of Rome,’ the Spokane author lets character shine through

June 26, 2022 Updated Thu., July 14, 2022 at 10:48 a.m.

Local author Jess Walter has an upcoming short story collection called “The Angel of Rome.”  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)
Local author Jess Walter has an upcoming short story collection called “The Angel of Rome.” (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)

The best fiction usually rings true.

No matter how far-fetched the plot, we want characters who do things that are plausible and react with emotions that seem real.

Bringing characters to life realistically is a big enough challenge in a novel, but when the work is a fraction of the length? That is a monumental task.

In 5,000 words, how does a writer make it feel real that a middle school science teacher would lose his cool when someone claims the moon landing was faked? Or let readers into the world of a young woman who escapes her “cancer patient” title for a few days as she embarks on a weekend road trip with a slacker ex-boyfriend? Or, as in the title story of Jess Walters’ new collection, “The Angel of Rome: And Other Stories,” can the adventures of a starving Latin student in Rome, an aging American TV star named Ronnie Tower and an Italian diva come as vividly to life as in the best rom-coms?

In the hands of Walter, the answer to that question is a yes. The Spokane author, a National Book Award finalist for “The Zero” and a New York Times bestseller for “Beautiful Ruins,” presents “The Angel of Rome,” a new collection of stories that weave together several threads. He will celebrate the launch of his 10th book Tuesday with an appearance at the Northwest Passages Book Club, sponsored by The Spokesman-Review and Auntie’s Bookstore.

Family – both the kind you’re born into and the ones we make – is a frequent theme in these 12 stories. Celebrity, too, from the “fame” of a lawyer who advertises on bus benches and an actor who drops in on a house party, to the beloved performer and father who gives voice to a town’s most memorable commercials, and the aforementioned Italian diva and her American co-star.

“I really think not only for me, but for a lot of people, the last decade has not been easy. And I wrote sort of hopeful stories where I looked for hope in things like family, odd mentorships, like Ronnie Tower,” Walter said. “I didn’t realize I was doing it. It’s often when you go back you can see what you’ve been doing.”

“The Angel of Rome” began with Walter sorting through 50 stories that have accumulated since the release of his last story collection, “We Live in Water,” in 2013. This batch of stories, reflective of this time in Walter’s life, have their roots in sadness – the suicide of his friend, Isamu Jordan; his father’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis; watching his children deal with climate change; and political disappointment.

“I kept asking myself, ‘Where do you go for hope? Where do you go for connection?’” Walter said. “So when I went to put the collection together, this idea of unlikely angels, like Ronnie Tower, landed.

“One of the cool things about a story collection is you look back and see, ‘Oh, that’s what I’ve been preoccupied with for the past decade.’”

All of these stories have appeared elsewhere. The lead-off entry, “Mr. Voice,” and “Famous Actor” both were featured in the “Best American Short Stories” collections, in 2015 and 2017, respectively. “Town and Country” was originally a Scribd Original, while “The Way the World Ends” was featured as part of Amazon Originals climate change-themed Warmer Series. Two stories originally saw life in The Spokesman-Review’s Summer Stories series, “Magnificent Desolation” from 2019 and “Before You Blow” from 2017.

“I love getting a good prompt,” Walter said. “That’s why, like having Summer Stories has been so fun to look through.”

Only one of them began as a collaboration with the actor who then was tasked with helping give voice to the characters.

“After all, what is an angel but a kind of ghost, untouchable, out of place and time?”

– “The Angel of Rome”

The audio story “The Angel of Rome” was released on Sept. 16 as an Audible Original and was co-written by Walter and Edoardo Ballerini, the actor and award-winning voice performer who read Walter’s “Beautiful Ruins” and “The Cold Millions.”

The two share writing credit, something that Walter hasn’t done much of in recent years. “When I write, I’m a little like Neal Cassady,” Walter said, referencing the beat poet who was the inspiration for Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” and who drove the bus Further during Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters’ adventures detailed in the “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”

“I have to be behind the wheel. Even when I write screenplays with people, no one else gets to touch the keyboard because it’s the only place where I’m kind of a control freak. But Edoardo had such great notes.”

Ballerini, whose screen credits include “The Sopranos,” “Boardwalk Empire” and “First We Take Brooklyn,” comes from a literary family. His father, Luigi Ballerini, is a poet, author and professor. His mother, Julia Ballerini, is an art historian, critic and fiction writer. But Ballerini insists he’s not a writer.

But he had a special connection to “The Angel of Rome” and its protagonist, Jack Reigel. On the surface, the two have nothing in common – Reigel is from the Midwest, while Ballerini grew up in New York and Italy. But both applied for, and got, a scholarship to study Latin at the Vatican in Rome, and both immediately found themselves in way over their heads.

“After I graduated from college at Wesleyan University, I had this crazy idea to become a classicist and classical scholar, so I applied for this scholarship,” Ballerini said. “When I got there, I was so overwhelmed because everybody in the class was so far advanced. They were so far beyond where I was.

“I quickly realized I was in the wrong place. I was embarrassed to be there, so I quit the class, and then with absolutely nothing to do, I wandered around Rome for a while. I stumbled across this ad in a newspaper saying American actors wanted to join a theater company. So I joined this company of ex-pat actors for a few weeks before I packed it in and went back to New York.”

In the story, Reigel, despairing that he was a lousy Latin student and deeply homesick for Omaha, Nebraska, stumbles onto a film set for a movie starring Angelia Amadio, known throughout Italy as the Angel of Rome. Her co-star is the American TV actor Ronnie Tower, who immediately enlists Jack as his translator and confidante, not realizing that the Latin Jack studies and speaks – badly – isn’t the same as the Italian that Jack speaks, also badly.

And once Walter heard about this episode in Ballerini’s life, “He just had a flash: What a great short story it would be,” Ballerini said. “So he approached me, and obviously we have a history after ‘Beautiful Ruins,’ and said, ‘Would you be interested in working on this?’ And I said absolutely.”

It began, Walter said, with him interviewing Ballerini and writing half a draft. He sent that to Ballerini, who sent back “great notes,” Walter said.

They met up in New York during the pandemic to work on it some more. They gave it a table read, which is where actors get together to read a script aloud for the first time. “And it was so remarkable to start to hear those characters in his voice,” Walter said.

Another draft, another reading, then final revisions and the story was ready for recording for Audible, Amazon’s subscription audiobook service.

“Jess has such a great ear,” Ballerini said, “that he made some adjustments afterward after he heard what I was doing, so he really crafted it that way. I feel like it was a unique way to work to put a story together.”

“First sex is like being in a stranger’s kitchen, trying all the drawers, looking for a spoon.”

– “Famous Actor”

Walter’s stories often have their genesis in real-life events, such as Ballerini’s time in Rome studying Latin. Or the time a “famous actor” stole his prescription medications.

The idea of writing about that experience had been floating around in his head for a while when he went to Bend, Oregon, for a book event. He was walking by a party one evening “when that whole story just popped into my head.”

“It was this weird thing where I’ve always thought, ‘What do I do with that time that actor stole my prescription drugs?’” he said, not naming the actor. “I saw these people on the porch of a house in Bend and I wasn’t even invited to the party, and I was standing there. And as I often do, I pulled out my notebook and started writing: What if the barista goes home with this actor and does a film criticism during their one-night stand? Then coming up with the line that a one-night stand is like searching for a spoon in a stranger’s kitchen, and I was so pleased by that.”

The story “To the Corner” is about a retired and recently widowed former newspaper reporter who eyes with suspicion a group of teenagers who hang out on the corner outside his West Central home. Elements of that story come from Walter’s time as volunteer reading tutor at Holmes Elementary School.

“I would see the kids I tutored in the park,” he said. “Scary kids are a lot less scary when you’ve read ‘Johnny the Turtle’ with them sitting next to you.”

“A short story? What’s the matter, you can’t write a whole novel?”

– “Fran’s Friend Has Cancer”

It’s rare for a short-story collection to make a big splash in the publishing world, saleswise, although there are exceptions, and a good short–story collection can launch a writer’s career. One only has to look to Sherman Alexie and “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” to see proof of that. And like many novelists, Walter got his start in fiction writing by crafting short stories and selling them wherever he could – Harper’s, Esquire, McSweeney’s, ESPN the Magazine. Despite his success as a novelist, he still loves writing short stories. After all, he said, they’re no more difficult to write than novels, “they’re just shorter,” he said.

“A lot of my readers when I do an event and they’ll say, ‘What’s the next book’ and I say ‘A story collection,’ I can see their shoulders slump,” he said with a laugh. “I love them. I love the experimentation of them, the playfulness. In this collection I can write from the point of view of a 25-year-old woman with cancer, or a man in his 70s who a writer is eavesdropping on. You can do so many more things and it’s more playful.”

He calls it the closest to “the pure act of writing,” even though more often than not, his story ideas don’t work out.

“I do feel really fortunate that I get to publish a book of short stories because they aren’t as popular,” Walter said. “But weirdly, this one they have a lot of preorders and they seem really excited for it, and the advance reviews have been really good.”

Unlike with novels, where publishers hope to make a big splash in the first week, a story collection has more time to breathe and to grow a readership, often by word of mouth.

“Some word of mouth is in the beginning, so some people who have heard (‘The Angel of Rome’) find their way to the whole collection,” Walter said.

It helps, too, to have a loyal base of readers.

“I think I’ve built enough of an audience that, thankfully, some readers will follow me anywhere, even into my indulgent short-story self,” he added with a laugh.

His last story collection, “We Live in Water,” didn’t even get published in hardcover, “but it ended up doing really well.” Six years after its release, former President Barack Obama included it on his list of favorite books of 2019. “I still am shocked,” Walter said. “It was pretty cool.”

With a short-story collection, too, Walter gets to travel to various locations. Spokane plays a part in several of the works. “Fran’s Friend Has Cancer” is set in a New York City restaurant, while “The Way the World Ends” takes place on the campus of Mississippi State University. And there’s Rome, of course.

“It really does reflect the good balance of the last decade,” he said. “I have traveled so much more than I ever have. I think three trips to Italy, including two to Trastevere” – the neighborhood in Rome at the heart of “The Angel of Rome.”

“I find my creativity really sparked when I travel and it makes me want to write about those places,” he said. “And when I get home, it’s the same thing. I love seeing my home through travelers’ eyes. Sometimes coming home from a trip is so thrilling that way.”

He knew “Angel of Rome,” “Famous Actor” and “Mr. Voice” would be in the collection. Once he had the other nine stories picked out, the next task was putting them together in just right way.

“I have two metaphors with short-story collections. One is the yard sale, the other is the album,” he said. “And to me it’s very much like an album. I want the first song to be catchy and to hook you. I always loved that ‘Mr. Voice’ starts with the word ‘mother’ and ends with the word ‘father.’ I love that as the first story, that was the first one that locked into place. The next question is where to put ‘Angel of Rome’ and where to put ‘The Way the World Ends’ because they’re both longer. Especially ‘The Angel of Rome,’ it’s technically a novella, and I wanted it early enough in the collection that it left a mark. That you got to it, but I didn’t want it exactly in the middle.”

He intentionally alternated long stories with the shorter ones, and made sure the characters all had different themes.

“Then I went through and read all the first sentences in order just to see, like a musician, how do these hooks go,” he said.

Putting that puzzle together, he said, is a part of the process he really enjoys. “The closest thing to being a rock star is determining the order of the songs. The rest of it is the sheer indignity of being a fiction writer. But just for a moment, you get to put the whole album together.”

“She thanks Jeremiah and says: ‘There is so much more to do.’ ”

“The Way the World Ends”

With “The Angel of Rome” about to be released in the world, Walter is hard at work on an entry in this year’s Summer Stories set to launch July 3 – look for Walter’s story Labor Day weekend. He also is working on couple of novels, one about an eco-resort in the Virgin Islands and the other a “strange, sexy noir novel I’ve always wanted to write set in Venice Beach, California,” he said. He’s got 80 or so pages of both written, and he’s not sure which is going to grab him, but the characters in both “have sparked that ‘Now I have to know what happens, and why they have to be a novel.’

“Hopefully, sometime in 2025? Or 2024? We’ll see when I finish it,” he said, adding, “I feel less pressure to produce now, and more glee that I get to do this.”

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