Busyness, thy name is Jess Walter. The Spokane author already released a collection of short stories, We Live in Water, earlier this year, but he kicks it into another gear in June. This week Book-It Repertory Theatre adapts his sharp modern economic satire The Financial Lives of the Poets (June 7–30) for the stage, and on June 11 he’ll join Sherman Alexie and Jonathan Evison at Town Hall to debut Pharos Editions, a new publishing imprint that resurrects notable authors' and artists' favorite rare and out-of-print books. That’s all in addition to working on his next novel and writing screenplays for Financial Lives (which is set to begin filming this fall with Jack Black attached) and Beautiful Ruins. Get this man another latte.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we chatted with Walter about the process of adapting his novels, the first real Northwest novel, and breakfast cookies.
How involved are you with the Book-It adaptation of The Financial Lives of the Poets?
I haven’t been at all. They asked me if they could do it and sent me an invitation. I’ll be as curious as everyone else. I’ve gotten some updates along the way telling me that it’s going well, but I haven’t seen a script or anything. I’m really excited to see it.
How does it feel having your work adapted in a hands-off manner like this?
It’s interesting, because I don’t know that I’ve done it enough—either way—to know. I’ve written a screenplay adaptation of The Financial Lives of the Poets that’s supposed to go into production this fall. So I’ll very quickly have both experiences; seeing a version that I did, and a version that someone else did.
What are the tricky elements you encounter when adapting your novel into a screenplay?
You get wedded to working a certain way, and because they’re such different forms, it has to be more exterior, less interior, more active. Flashbacks can’t just find their way into the text—where you can have a character pause in any moment, and as the narrator, as the author, you can explain what’s happening. Explanation and backstory tend to go away. There’s just this question of language, which is kind of the DNA of a fiction writer. And language is the least important part of the screenplay, except when it comes to dialogue. There are all those translations you have to make. It’s a little bit like translating yourself into another language. And that language is cinematic.
How did you get involved with the Pharos Editions?
They contacted me and asked if there were any books I thought should be brought back into print. There were a couple I thought of, and after looking into them, The Land of Plenty was the one that just really struck home. I had been doing some research into the 1930s novels—novels of Depression-era America, specifically proletarian novels. I came across Robert Cantwell’s book and realized that it hadn’t been in print. The book had made this big splash when it appeared in the '30s, and then hadn’t been heard from again. It seemed like such a great opportunity; it's such a particularly Northwest book. In some ways, I think it’s the first real Northwest book—certainly modern novel. I thought it was just a real natural. Tracking down Robert Cantwell’s family and finding the rights, all of that was kind of great. It brought back my old journalist skills.
What is your writing routine?
It mostly involves a giant breakfast cookie and a big latte. But that’s really it. As soon as I have my cookie and my latte made, I’m usually ready to go. I write in a journal, so I often am translating journal writing from the day and night before.
What are your feelings about book critics?
I think book critics are an incredibly necessary part of the process. I worry that writers work so hard to be kind to one another that we can be in danger of losing real criticism. I’ve gotten bad reviews before, and I think as a writer you have to be glad that a world still exists in which reviewers can criticize work they don’t think is up to par.
Who are the up-and-coming Northwest writers you think people should read?
I think there are a million. There are so many great writers in the Northwest. There’s a poet named Ed Skoog, who I think is wonderful. I don’t know if Jim Lynch and Jonathan Evison count as up-and-coming, but they’re wonderful writers. Peter Mountford had a book last year that I really liked. Urban Waite. I could keep going… Sharma Shields.
What are some of your favorite books you’ve read over the past year?
I really like The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt, another Northwest novel. I thought Fiona Maazel’s Woke Up Lonely was terrific. There’s another book called And Sons by David Gilbert, it’s about to come out, it’s wonderful.
If you weren’t a writer, is there another line of work you would’ve pursued?
I am an excellent bartender. That was the thing I was doing before. That’s probably what I would be doing if I wasn’t a writer. I think I would be writing no matter what I was doing.
Do you have a specialty?
I think I make a mean Manhattan.