Writer-in-residence focuses on local stories

by Courtney Murphy

Although many do, writers do not need to live in big cities such as New York or San Francisco to be successful. On Thursday, Feb. 24, local author and Whitworth Writer-in-Residence Jess Walter answered questions about his literary beginnings, writing process and childhood in Spokane. As Writer-in-Residence, Walter held several free literary events on campus. The event filled the Robinson Teaching Theatre with English majors, community members and fans of Walter’s work.

Each of Walter’s books have been a “radical departure from the last one,” said senior lecturer Thom Caraway, who was facilitating the conversation with Walter.

Walter has written everything from nonfiction to novels to short stories.

Instead of enrolling in a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) program like many writers do, Walter started his writing career as a journalist for The Spokesman-Review.

“I took the service entrance into literature,” Walter said.

Walter spent much of his time as a journalist reporting on crime stories, and looking for a story big enough to write a book about, Walter said. During this time, he wrote and attempted to publish many short stories, but was often rejected by the institutions he sent them to.

After years as a journalist, Walter found inspiration that manifested itself in “Ruby Ridge,” a nonfiction crime novel documenting a confrontation between the Weaver family of northern Idaho and the federal government.

The early manuscript of “Ruby Ridge” was rejected multiple times before Walter was contacted by a publisher offering him $30,000 to finish the novel. He agreed to write it without hiring an agent, Walter said.

Following his publishing debut, Walter had several jobs ghostwriting nonfiction crime novels, including one documenting the O.J. Simpson murder trial. However, Walter soon entered the world of fiction novels in 2001 with Over Tumbled Graves.

“I’m usually writing to get the taste of the last thing out of my mouth,” Walter said, about his tendency to genre-hop.

During the interview, Caraway asked about Walter’s decision to stay in Spokane as a writer, when many people choose to leave, and his continual inclusion of Spokane in his writing.

“There’s an entire narrative about Spokane that runs through [my] work,” Walter said.

Several stories are set in Spokane; in others characters travel to Spokane and in others it is mentioned.

Although he used to feel ambivalent toward the Spokane area in general, he now feels a “fierce love” toward the city, and that is at the beginning of a cultural boom, Walter said.

“There’s just this great energy downtown,” Walter said. Art is returning to the city in several ways, including the Spokane International Film Festival, various art gallery spaces and on a more humorous level, non-ironic diners.

Walter believes that there is no “us and them” dichotomy between good and bad people. Because of this, his protagonists are flawed and not always likable, yet relatable. He is interested in the gradation of ethics and morals, and the idea that people imagine they are more different from others than they really are, Walter said.

Students and community members found Walter’s discussion thought-provoking, and many asked perceptive questions during the Q&A session.

“I really liked how open he was about sharing his process of writing, he was down to earth and funny,” said Elizabeth Merriam, a junior English major who attended the lecture.

Walter’s newest novel, “Beautiful Ruins,” was published in 2012 and won many awards, including  New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His books are available at most bookstores around the area.

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