If you are one of the many fans of last year’s best-seller and critical hit Beautiful Ruins, you’ll be happy to know that Jess Walter has not left his readers in the usual five or 10-year gestational lurch. His new book, We Live in Water, a pithily wrought collection of short stories (and short short stories), is a first for the genre-stretching author, who began his career as a journalist. He has since written six novels, one nonfiction book, and a few screenplays and poems for good measure, but needing a writing break from the expansive breadth of Beautiful Ruins, Walter escaped into these stories. The result? A shared consciousness permeates the two books. From characters haunted by the past to not-so-subtle references to cannibalism, both heart and humor become a guiding force through the Pacific Northwest, fatherhood and addiction.
Diverging from Beautiful Ruins’ fairy-tale–esque storylines of unrequited love and Hollywood celebrity, We Live in Water is firmly rooted in a less glamorous reality. Walter proves himself to be one of today’s most empathetic voices by confronting head-on the hard subject of poverty. Through grace and wit, he makes social injustices approachable—bringing the character of a homeless man holding a sign to life, Walter does not look away.
I spoke to Walter about how We Live in Water ultimately landed on its own shore.
There are many overarching similarities that resonate in the two books. Are these similarities unintentional, or do they stem from deeper-rooted concerns?
Imagine the way that anyone sees the world—they see everything around them, and the one thing they can’t see is themselves. Writers are sometimes surprised by some of the things that bubble back up, but there are some things that I know I’m writing about all the time because I’m thinking about them all the time. Usually, when I start, I have the most basic idea of voice, or a bit of a character or part of a story. Then often, I’ll be finishing a first draft, and I’ll look back and say, “Oh, this story seems to be about this.” We Live in Water corresponded with a time when I was volunteering at a low-income school, and I had just seen so much poverty around me in my city.
In several of the stories, characters walk the thin line between hopelessness and hope, between moral bankruptcy and redemption. What compels you to place such high stakes on your characters?
I don’t see any difference between the basic longings of people in all kinds of situations. A story like “Don’t Eat the Cat,” which is looking at a near post-apocalyptic future, is really about a bad boyfriend. In “Anything Helps,” the character [a recovering addict] is trying to reach out to a child. Being a dad and having a dad, I know that’s the wrenching stuff of life. Having a background as a newspaper reporter, I suppose I am drawn to situations where tension is high. When I was writing “The Wheelbarrow Kings” (which is about two meth tweakers who have an almost Homeric adventure trying to sell a TV), I reached the point of the story where one of them said, “I guess remembering is better than living.” I remember thinking that myself at one point, being lost in some reverie of memory.
That quote is one of the saddest lines I’ve ever read, yet so many of your characters could have uttered it. Are such epiphanies a necessary part of a character’s journey?
I don’t think of it in craft terms, but in character terms. When I was writing Beautiful Ruins I was writing a lot about actors and actresses. My daughter is deep into theatre and I’m so interested in the empathetic side of theatre—the way you get so deep into a character that you connect with their feelings. In “Wheelbarrow Kings,” when those two characters have been on this great adventure and they started laughing, as I was writing that scene, I was laughing because one of the guys compares the guy with the remote control to a Jedi with a lightsaber. At that moment, I was laughing, but I was still wishful about their lives. That line comes to you because it’s a real connection to the characters; it’s one of the mysterious, transcendent parts of writing that I live for but doesn’t happen very often. Those moments are bigger than the language choices because they feel holy in some way.
Many of the stories tread into the past, but “Don’t Eat the Cat” eerily veers into the future. It’s a world that is so frighteningly believable, where pharmaceuticals and technology have run amok. Where did the vision for this wasteland come from?
I had been seeing all these zombie and vampire stories and movies—those post-apocalyptic stories seem so obscene to me. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Steven Pinker’s book that makes the argument that things are really getting better all the time? Except for the advent of technology and warfare, which can kill a lot of people at once, he argues that the world gets less violent over time. Yet fiction seems obsessed that the world is ending. At the beginning of that story, all I wanted to do was make the point that by believing we are living in the end times, we are engaged in a type of narcissism. We’re saying the world must revolve around me: ‘Because of my own mortality, the whole world must be getting worse.’ But you start out writing a protest against zombie stories, then you realize how much fun they are.
In “Statistical Abstract For My Hometown, Spokane, Washington,” an extremely intimate exploration of a place is channeled through a clinical tone. What came first—the voice or the subject?
You’re sitting at the desk stuck as a writer, and sometimes you have ideas, or a line comes to you, or a character or a situation, but in this case it was a conceptual idea. I had seen this statistical abstract idea somewhere and I thought, “What if you have this statistical abstract that is ‘off’? Like it was leaking.” I imagined a little boat taking on water as the story starts creeping in. I wasn’t very far into it when I realized it was about this “thing” I have with my hometown—a bewildering love for the place, but also sorrow over its poverty. I’ve probably read it three times and I’ve yet to get the last line out without my voice breaking. Although it works as a short story, there’s nothing in it that isn’t non-fiction. It’s very personal and I was able to get there in part because it started as such as a dry idea.
What is the importance of comedy in your writing? From “Thief,” where a father sets a trap in his closet to find out which of his kids is stealing, to “Virgo,” where a demented newspaper editor re-writes the horoscopes to sabotage his ex-girlfriend, there is a laugh-out-loud pleasure that ebbs and flows with the emotional wave of the more serious moments.
More than anything, I have to check myself to make sure it’s not just funny. The same thing happens when I’m writing something suspenseful—it still has to connect in some character way. That’s usually the weight that I’ll fall back on. I try to entertain myself while writing, but the general idea of humor goes more to how I look at the world: I generally see the world as a place where we trip over our own vanities and stumble to the ground.
Bridgette Bates is a writer and editor who lives in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in the Boston Review, Fence, American Letters and Commentary, and elsewhere.Photo credit Hannah Assouline