“Beautiful” Storytelling: Jess Walter

Want to root for an underdog? Try the guy building a tennis court into the side of an Italian cliff.

Author Jess Walter’s latest tome, “Beautiful Ruins,” is the story of such an underdog—young Pasquale and his attempt to create an idyllic resort for the ages on a patch of fictional Italian coastline—and what happens when a young “dying” actress comes to visit.

Walter’s story covers several decades with tales of movie set intrigue, Hollywood debauchery, writer’s block and parental angst in all directions. The author is headed to Wilmette this May as part of Wilmette Public Library’s “One Book, Everybody Reads” program. Make It Better spoke with Walter recently about his book:

What was the inspiration for “Beautiful Ruins?”

It’s such a tough question. With every novel, and especially this one, it often is the things I am ruminating about at the time I am writing it. It’s almost like a track of the places and things I have thought about over the last 15 years. When I started, it was 1997, I had just been to Italy and my mother had just been diagnosed with stomach cancer.

books-jess-walter-beautiful-ruinsHow did you develop the characters? Was it strategic, or did they evolve organically?

Writing fiction is all about rewriting—my novels are obsessively planned out, but only in hindsight. When I finish a draft, I have to go back and organize. (In this case) I was stuck forever. I had this woman, Dee, who arrived in town where this man Pasquale lived. I had to figure out how these people fit together … I wanted every character except Pasquale to be some kind of artist.

Is there a particular character you have a special affinity for?

For me, I never think of the characters that way. They’re all part of the same fabric, they all are as liked equally.

The title of the book is “Beautiful Ruins.” Does that title reflect the state of American culture, given the storyline involving television producer Michael Deane?

Our culture is our Roman ruins, our legacy. I don’t blame Hollywood—I feel like Hollywood reflects us back at ourselves. We’re capable of creating beautiful music and art, but we’re watching the Kardashians.

Thinking about the character Michael Deane’s statement, “People want what they want,” do you think a lot of realistic fiction gets passed by because people would rather have a happy ending? 

If you’re looking at reflecting realism, you don’t often have tidy endings. With the last chapter (in “Beautiful Ruins”) I wanted to recreate the whole novel in the last chapter. People mistake completion and fulfillment.


One book Walter recommends: “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”—“It’s a remarkable novel.”

(Photo credit: Hannah Assouline)




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