Thursday, May 9, 2013

How Did the Book Club Go for Jess Walter's "Beautiful Ruins"? Spoiler Warning!

As you might have guessed, I go to a lot of author events. I have my strong feelings on what works and doesn't. I have mentioned that unless an author is an amazing reader, which usually comes with a theater background, it is better to talk more and read a lot less. I've noticed that talking about inspiration and how it ties into the story seems to resonate with a lot of attendees, and make them more interested in buying the book afterwards. But I never quite realized what it difference it makes to a Q&A to have a group where everyone has already finished the book.

In a traditional question and answer period, there are so many roadblocks. You can't talk about the ending. A question about a plot point or charcter or theme running through the story will be lost on many of the attendees. Someone will ask the old favorites "when and how do you write?", "do you outline?" and "what do you read?" So I was rather fascinated to be present for two Jess Walter question sessions, one with our in-store book club, and another for our traditional event that followed.

I've already gone on a bit about how much I liked Beautiful Ruins. It's the kind of book that resonates with me--several storylines and timelines, structured a bit like a puzzle, genres bashing against each other, a good dose of humor, themes that play out over different scenarios, and so forth.

You should also know the two basic plotlines: in 1962, a young woman (Dee Moray) arrives at a dying fishing village to stay at its only hotel (the innkeeper is Pasquale Tursi), well off the beaten path of tourists. She's an actress with a part in Cleopatra, she's dying of cancer, and she's waiting to meet someone.  At the same time, in contemporary Hollywood, fifty years later, a production company has an open pitch day, and junior exec is filling in for a legendary producer, whose biggest success is now a reality dating show. Arriving at the office is Pasquale, searching for the producer, hoping to find the actress.

The story not only jumps back and forth, but to other times as well, and the storytelling devices include an unfinished novel, a play, and a movie pitch. It's not as outrageous a construction as fellow Washingtonian Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette, but its interesting that there are similarities about the book regarding the creative narrative devices. Interestingly enough, both authors have eperience in other mediums. But Walter's device is actually more intrinsic to the story, where one of the themes is about how we tell our stories.

So what did we learn in our Q & A? And just one more warning, that there are some small spoilers here. And also that I'm paraphrasing and I'm hoping I got all the details right, but that I might have made a flub or two. (below left is Walter with Stacie-with-help-from-Nick-and-Hannah's diorama).

For one thing, the Hollywood themes that run throughout both storylines were not originally in he novel. One has to be aware that Walter took fifteen years to write Beautiful Ruins, and as he always says, it may seem like a success now, but for probably fourteen of those years, he considered it a failure. The story was inspired by traveling to Italy with his wife, who is Italian. The fishing village was there, and the young woman's arrival, but she wasn't an actress. It was only when Walter was researching the time period and place that he realized that "Cleopatra" was shooting at the time he was writing the novel, and not only was that a good story, but a good backstory as well.

I love the genre smashing in the story, the romantic historical piece playing out against the jarring contemporary comedy, which almost borders on satire. And I love the Michael Deane character, whose face grows younger as his body grows older. I think he was somewhat inspired by a well-known producer who did turn to reality shows at one point. Walter's talked about the need for a villain in the story, but as he wrote him, the guy grew more appealing. Interestingly enough, this is sort of the thesis for Chuck Klosterman's new book, I Wear the Black Hat, which I recently read. The book comes out July 9, and we're hosting him at Boswell on Thursday, July 18. I can't resist an asside like that.

We learned that the working title for the book for many years was The Hotel Adequate View

Being that we're from Wisconsin, we asked about Walter's connection to Madison, as that is where writer Alvis Bender hailed from. Bender was the other American who visited Pasquale's hotel, where he tried to work on his novel, inspired by his war experiences. Our group noted that all the details were right, but Walter confessed his only previous visit to Wisconsin was to attend the wedding of a friend outside of Madison. He was taken by the geographic layout of Madison and had a framed shot of the isthmus in his home. And that's it. So he did a good job with that.

Walter talked about the various creative forms the novel took. In partidcular, we were fascinated with the pitch for Donner!, the film about the man who survived the Donner Party with a team of strong-willed women. Walter said he would write these pieces (and the unifinished novel of Alvis Bender, and the rejected first chapter of Michael Deane's memoir, and the play by Lydia Parker, the girlfriend of Pat Bender) a bit flippantly at first, but then would really get into them. And Walter, though he lives in the town of Spokane where he was raised, has a lot of experience in Hollywood. He is adapting both Beautiful Ruins (for director Todd Field) and The Financial Lives of Poets (starring Jack Black) for the screen.

Another attendee asked about the Richard Burton scenes, which seemed to be a bit polarizing with our group. Walter noted that he had a lot of fun writing for Burton, and once he started, it was hard to actually get him out of the book, considering he was not a major character. When our friend John was selling The Richard Burton Diaries, every other bookseller would say to him, "You know what you have to read? Beautiful Ruins!" And he did, by the way. One of the exciting discoveries that Walter made was that there was a gap in Burton's diaries from 1960 to 1964, leaving him room to be more creative with Burton's character, as the novel takes place in 1962.

That's on of the things I really loved about Walter. His enthusiasm for the writing process. He would positively glow when he really got into the details of writing. And this, in spit of the fact that he's been touring on and off for a year for Beautiful Ruins, with another tour in between for his short story collection, We Live in Water. It's no wonder that several authors we had in the month leading up to our visit with Walter positively sighed about his upcoming appearance. One bought a copy of Beautiful Ruins for the Fill the Shelves promotion for the Milwaukee Public Library, and another author bought a copy of the book for her mom. So sweet! (The Fill the Shelves promotion continues through the end of May at Boswell).

Above is another Beautiful Ruins cover that shows how Harper Perennial could have gone wrong with a paperback jacket. Placing this woman in the picture destroys everything that is wonderful about the story. It pigeonholes the book in a way that drives me crazy and chases away lots of potential readers. Stacie showed me this Huffington Post piece on de-gendering covers, which I guess has been quite popular. It certainly pushes a lot of my buttons!

I'm going to be honest and note that not everyone in the book club loved Beautiful Ruins as much as me and S., who had read the book twice (not that that's unusual for her, but it did impress Walter). Maybe it was the humor, that sometimes has readers downplay a novel's power. Or maybe it was the structure--at least a couple of folks found it slow going. Or maybe they just thought didn't like it. Eh, can't please everyone. This is one of the lessons of bookselling--somebody doesn't like everything.

C., who can sometimes be tough on a book, really liked the characters, and that's the most important thing for her. G., on the other hand, thought the characters were a bit cartoonish (I'm assuming she's referring to the contemporary story, which ad more of a satrical edge.) M and J both enjoyed it, and found it very funny, while S2 said it's her favorite book she's read since she started with group.

But perhaps the best response was from N. who couldn't attend, but sent me a note that was so eloquently written that I'm reprinting it here.

"I love Beautifiul Ruins; it's lively, engaging, and brilliantly put together, So many phrases stand out and ring true. One of them, "the random nature of disaster." That's what much of the book is about, I think. Some of the disaster truly is random, but much of it is not, only seems random. I started thinking about art, about creative enterprises, and how they start out being one thing and end up another, particularly when capitalism enters. But not just capitalism; people's own flawed selves enter as well. So many creative endeavors in this novel: theater, movies, books. All of them shaped by forces other than the person creating them. Well, I'd be more articulate if I had more time. And the characters--sharply drawn, so that we care about them."

She had sent me the first note with 65 pages left to go. Here's her take after finishing: “I like the way that he tied everything together. Even if that's a conservative approach, it's still very satisfying for a reader to know how everything came out, and that everything more or less came out well. Do you know the Truman Capote story, "Master Misery"? In it, a psychiatrist purchases people's dreams--there's even a sliding scale--for about $5.00 each. I was reminded of this when the Hollywood producter wanted to purchase "life rights"--in effect, purchasing the stories of their lives. (I also thought this was perhaps a wry commentary on memoir, the genre. Human emotions sold for capitalistic gain.) Everything about this novel was so fine: characters, language, plot, genre-jumping, everything."

For me , it was a magic combination. In some ways, it was like a mashup of two of my very favorite novels, Day for Night, by Frederick Reiken, and Wrack and Ruin, by Don Lee, combining the structure and connections of the former, with the themes about storytelling and identity of the latter and the humor of both. Not that Beautiful Ruins isn't a hundred other things; it is. But I really have to do an "if you like, try" display for this one.

Oh, and we had the traditional event too, and we had a regular question period. Walter talked up Kurt Vonnegut a lot, the author that first inspired him, and Don Delillo, who recently replaced another author in his triumvirate of writer heroes. Of course I can't remember the third. 

Next up, we're back to our regularly scheduled 7 pm start time for book club. Only two folks showed up late, and at least they got to hear Mr. Walter talk.

Monday, June 3, 7 pm, at Boswell:
A discussion of Ben Fountain's novel, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk.
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, and shortlisted for the National Book Award.

Monday, July 1, 7 pm, at Boswell:
A discussion of The Three Weissmanns of Westport, by Cathleen Schine.
Schine will be visiting Boswell for her new novel, Fin and Lady, on Monday, July 22, 7 pm. Perhaps we'll be able to take a moment with her to discuss Weismanns beforehand. I'll keep you posted.

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