Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Five Questions About The Jess Walter/Beautiful Ruins Phenomenon, a Timely Post as Walter is Coming to Boswell on Monday, May 6, 7 pm.

A. What is Beautiful Ruins anyway?

While Jess Walter's novel jumps all over the last fifty years, there are two basic plotlines. In 1962 in a dying fishing village, Pasquale, a struggling hotelier takes in an actress who has a small part in Cleopatra. She's dying of cancer, and has set up a rondezvous with someone else on the set. Dee is Pasquale's only guest, and perhaps only one of two foreigners ever to visit the hotel. The other is a writer, Alvin Bender, who comes every year to not finish his novel (and to drink a lot).

The second timeline is contemporary. A young assistant has been tasked with taking pitches while her boss, Michael Deane, a famous producer who hasn't been able to have a hit movie in years but might be onto a great idea for a trashy multi-platform dating show, stays home. Interrupting her last pitch of the day is Pasquale, who fifty years later, has taken it upon himself to find Dee, with Michael Deane's card in his hand. The story is how their tales and over a dozen other characters, including Richard Burton, intersect. Oh, and we get to read excerpts from a screenplay, a novel, a memoir, and a stage play, among other things. Funny that the Maria Semple employs a similar concept of found narrative, as I call it. She's coming May 1, by the way, 7 pm.

B. How did I first hear about Beautiful Ruins?

Interestingly enough, I think the first person who told me to read Jess Walter's novel was Dave, the former buyer at Next Chapter. Our tastes overlapped a lot, which we knew from back when we both worked at Schwartz. He was over the moon about the book and got a whole bunch of people to get on board.

We wound up selling the book pretty well, but I knew that they had blown us away, numbers wise. I think the high numbers got Milwaukee onto the paperback tour. I consider our event a sort of gift from Next Chapter, a thank-you gift for taking over a lot of their events at the last minute when they closed.

C. Where did Jess Walter come from and why does everyone seem to love him?

This is Jess Walter's seventh book and sixth novel (it was followed by a book of short stories). He's been shortlist for the National Book Award, been a New York Times notable book of the year, and taken home an Edgar for best novel. One of his novels was Time magazine's number two book of the year (which I think just means that Lev Grossman really loved it). The Thing that's amazing is that all this is for something like four different novels, although previous to Beautiful Ruins, it was The Zero that got the most acclaim.

Our sales on The Financial Lives of Poets (2009 hardcover, 2010 paperback) were slightly better than what the Downer Schwartz did for The Zero (2006 hardcover, 2007 paperback), but that has generally been the case for literary authors as our sales have increased. They were respectable, 8-10 copies each in paperback, but nothing like this. I held onto hardcover copies of each, without actually reading them. I was convinced I would one day get around to it. I knew the author was important, and I knew I'd like him, but there's this problem--I can't read fast enough!

That midcareer breakout is so sweet, and justifies old fashioned publishing models. One of the great things about publishing literary work as opposed to commercial properties is that good reviews and word of mouth can turn around a bad track record. And there's no question that Harper put their hearts behind this.

As Walter tells it, he lives in Spokane, the city of his birth. He's got three kids. He came out of journalism. He writes in the mornings. Here's a few more questions answered from an interview with Noah Charney in The Daily Beast.

D. What exactly broke out this book to become the #1 bestseller in the country?

Honestly, I'm still trying to get the story about that. I'm hoping it will show up in the New York Times any minute. I know that the indies positioned it, but I just don't think we can get a book like this to #1 without another channel jumping on board. This used to happen all the time with Borders, which loved to break out trade paperback literary fiction. So who has taken up the mantle?

The thing that's so amazing to me is that it's everything I love in a novel--multiple plotlines and timelines, humor, sadness, big characters, moral gray areas, big questions. Reading the book, I was reminded of some of my favorite authors--Don Lee, Frederick Reiken, Peter Cameron. It's Jennifer Egan without sweeping all the major awards.

I came to the book late. I was telling people all last fall "this is my favorite book of the year I haven't read." I'm glad it lived up to my own hype.

The cover has certainly not hurt the book. Cheers to Harper for being smart enough to keep it for the paperback. Jeers to Random House for that paperback cover of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by the way. The entire staff of Boswell's is in agreement that the paperback jacket just doesn't work.

E. When a book is this popular, it's time to do a window, right? Stacie, what were you thinking?

"When you asked for volunteers to make a window for Beautiful Ruins to promote the event, mentioning how nice it would be to somehow recreate the gorgeous cover, I got really excited. I love dioramas and have had so much fun doing similar things for window displays in the past (baseball stadium, pirate ship, Wind in the Willows Christmas, Ian Rankin). I asked Hannah, who loved the book, for any thoughts on scenes or characters she thought would lend a nice touch. So, she is behind the idea of recreating not only the cliffside village with its colorful architecture, but also the writer's hotel room with his typewriter, libations of an alcoholic nature, cigarettes and an exquisite view of said village (even though the hotel's name might imply otherwise).

"For any of these displays, I generally just wander around the store and the storage room to look for inspiration. For the pirate ship, it was this oddly shaped box liner with 3-D squared edging. For this, it was the brown packing paper that shows up with boxes of books. They would be perfect for the rocky cliffs! From there, it just sort of came out organically as I stumbled across bits and pieces: a red wood table, wood podium top, and bag of fake snow helped make the bed; loads of colored paper, sharpies and Scotch tape made the buildings; brown tissue paper stands in as the winding dirt/gravel roads throughout the village and down to the water; and --oh, the water!-- the water is four shades of blue crepe streamers so I could vary the shade from lighter in the shallow, coastal edges, out to darker for where it gets deeper, overlapping the colors to guide the transition. I can't believe I get paid to do this kind of stuff, I love it!"

We love it too!  I'm so thrilled to be hosting this event with Jess Walter. Join us on Monday, May 6 at our now-classic starting time of 7 pm.

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