If Jess Walter had a time machine, the dial would surely be set to Italy in 1962.
“It was such an evocative time,” says the author of the novel Beautiful Ruins, sounding just a little wistful. “It was the coolest place in the world. That’s what I love about Fellini’s movies. He captures the place, and those movies drip with romance. I always want a cocktail and cigarette after I watch them.”
Walter, who appears Sunday at Miami Book Fair International, watched every Fellini movie he could get his hands on during the (many) years he worked on the dazzling Beautiful Ruins (Harper, $25.99), partially set in Italy at that magical time. The novel, Walter’s sixth, opens in Porto Vergogna, the very worst place in the Cinque Terre (“smaller, more remote, and not as picturesque. In fact, the hoteliers and restaurateurs to the north had their own pet name for the tiny village pinched into the vertical cliff seam: baldracca culo — the whore’s crack.”)
The story begins in 1962 when the dying actress Dee Moray arrives unannounced at the Hotel Adequate View, pride of Porto Vergogna, at least in the eyes of its young, ambitious proprietor Pasquale Tursi. It ends thousands of miles and years away in Idaho. In between, it winds through modern-day Hollywood and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival back to Rome during the filming of Cleopatra, a moving, funny story of love, betrayal, bad movies and reconciliation. Novelist Richard Russo sums up the book neatly: It’s “an absolute masterpiece,” he writes.
Beautiful Ruins began to take shape in 1997 when Walter, 47, visited Cinque Terre in the offseason with his wife, a third-generation Italian.
“We were the only tourists in the hotel where we were staying,” he says from his home in Spokane. “It was raining when we got there and dark. The next morning I threw open the shutters, and there was the sea and a gorgeous sunny day. We walked the trail from village to village. It was one of the most incredible places I’ve ever seen. So remote.”
When they returned home, Walter tried to work on the book but ran into roadblocks. He finished a draft in 2008 but didn’t like the way the stories came together. He did know that the heart of the novel belonged to Dee and Pasquale — so compelling they even managed to upstage Richard Burton, who makes a significant appearance.
“It was such a strange book for me,” Walter admits. “I worked on it for so long. There are so many different versions. I’d find my way back to it only to write myself into some corner.”
Fifteen years passed until Beautiful Ruins made its way into print, but Walter kept busy in the meantime. He published several books, including the Edgar Award-winning crime novel Citizen Vince; the National Book Award-nominated, post 9/11 dark comedy The Zero; and the satirical The Financial Lives of the Poets. The novels vary greatly in tone and subject matter, a testament to Walter’s imagination and curiosity about the world.
“I honestly think part of it is having a journalism background,” Walter says. “Ultimately if you’re a journalist, one day you’re writing about figure skating, one day a political debate. I loved that about reporting. I like throwing my energies into various corners of the world. When I won the Edgar I was working on Beautiful Ruins, which is definitely not a crime novel. I write essays and short stories and poetry. I’m a writer, and the subject is less important than the act of writing itself.”
Even when he worked at the Spokane Spokesman-Review — where he covered the Ruby Ridge story, about which he later wrote a book — Walter harbored dreams of fiction.
“This is what I’ve always wanted to do,” he says. “I probably would have gone the MFA route except I was a dad at 19, and it made more sense to go to work for a newspaper and support a kid that way. But the funny thing is, that detour became the most important step in my developing as a novelist.
“I teach in MFA programs now, and I think that’s a great way to become a novelist, but I mourn that Pete Dexter and Joan Didion’s route is maybe less likely because there are fewer of those jobs. I always liken it to playing piano in some great dive jazz bar. You didn’t pick the songs, you played what people asked for, but you got your chops.”