The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter + INTERVIEW

You may remember me gushing over Jess Walter's The Zero some days ago.  In case you don't recall every magnificent keystroke I commit to the world at large, feel free to click here to read it again.  That book was deliciously good (and troubling and funny and . . . ).  You might also recall that I emerged from that experience feeling I had made a significant discovery.  I had missed the Jess Walter train on its first go-round, but now I was fully on board.  I was a full-fledged, ticket-holding, destination-bound fan.  And I proved it by emailing Jess Walter himself.  No, really.  His website has one of those ubiquitous "email me" buttons on it, and I did - never expecting a response.  I just wanted to tell him I loved the book . . . and ask him to do an interview.  I laughed self-deprecatingly as I sent the thing off.  I mean, who was I to send personal emails to famous people?  But here's the thing: he wrote back.  And he agreed to answer some questions.  So read on to find an interview with Jess Walter, one hilariously bright and intelligently funny guy.  And if you're still not convinced, read this from the Huffington Post.  Yep.  Stamp my ticket twice.  I am a fan. 

Before I sent Walter the questions, I got my hands on a copy of his latest, The Financial Lives of the Poets.  I inhaled it and then let it sit for way too long before finally getting the interview pulled together.  Flipping back through it for this post, I was reminded of the uncanny humor, the insightful analysis, the very real balance between collapse and recovery that Walter infuses his work with.  The Financial Lives of the Poets is about Matt Prior, a former newspaper reporter watching his financial world (and that of his colleagues and friends) disintegrate while also experiencing a downturn in his marriage and family.  Oh, and he smokes a lot of pot.  

It all starts with a fairly innocent, late-night trek to the 7-11 for some milk.  "The milk is like nine dollars a gallon."  If that line doesn't strike you as funny right now, it will after you read the book.  Somehow, from this moment, Matt is transformed into Slippers, drug dealer to upper-middle-class suburbia.  There is, of course, more to the story, and there is a lot of humor here.  But what I appreciated most about this book is way it deals with the heartbreaks of life right in the midst of that humor.  In particular, I loved the sections where Matt was dealing with his aging father, who has come to live with Matt and his family after losing everything to a stripper.  There is so much truth in their relationship, so many funny moments ("You know what I miss?") that are undeniably tinged with loss.  Here's my favorite passage:

I look up blearily.  Dad has picked up his remote control again, and is staring back out the black window.  He takes a deep breath, then lifts the pizza to his mouth and chews.  He looks over at me like a stranger, this good man who spent forty years losing the people he loved, and then, in only a few months, managed to lose himself.  (We live like water . . .)
My gaping sons no longer gape at their grandfather, but at me.  I guess they've never seen their dad cry before.  I wipe my eyes, smile.  I don't know what to tell them: Boys, pay attention to your mother; mothers have a million things to teach you.  But fathers?  We only have two lessons, but these two things are everything you need to know: (1) What to do and (2) What not to do.  I look from the boys down to the dark watch, jutting from my wrist like a tumor.  And my bleary eyes drift up to Dad's black window and my own faint reflection in it. (242)
I don't want to reduce myself to a drooling fan girl, incapable of objectivity, so let me offer one complaint.  I didn't really love the ending of this book.  It was too tidy.  Yes, sometimes, many times in fact (especially for the white, upper-middle-class types), things work out pretty much alright.  But for me, this story (the novel and the real one we've been living in) should not be reduced to a neat package.  It should have remained a bit messier somehow.  In fact, Walter's comments on the Huffington Post say much the same thing.  I wish I'd thought to ask him about the ending.  Alas.

And now . . . the interview (I've inserted two responses to Walter's responses - they are italicized.):

SC: I just read a comment about the poet James Tate, who wrote some bitingly funny stuff.  He says that he never thought about humor when he was writing – it always just came out that way.  As a writer known for his humor, how do you feel about the “funny” in your work.  Do you set out to make people laugh, or does it just come out that way?

JW: I love James Tate. He's a genius. I would agree that writing that strikes other people as "funny" is often due more to the author's outlook or personality than some technical consideration. I often think that something I'm writing is funny, but I try to make sure it isn't JUST funny, that the humor is in service of something deeper; otherwise it's like a stereo with only a treble knob. The only time I set out to "be funny" was in The Financial Lives of the Poets--partly because writing The Zero left me so drained and wrung out that I wanted to do something lighter, something voice-driven, something that--selfishly--made me laugh.

SC: It would be foolish to ask you a question like "How does writing non-fiction differ from fiction?”  So I won’t do that; however, your first book, Every Knee Shall Bow: The Truth and Tragedy of the Randy Weaver Family tells the true story of the Ruby Ridge incident in Idaho.  How do you compare this work, which is considered your first major publication, to the fiction you’ve been so lauded for lately?

JW: Not a foolish question at all. One of the big surprises for an author is how different each writing experience is; you're inventing the whole world all over each time out. So I would say that the experience itself is no different than the difference between my first novel and my last. Technically, the big difference is probably obvious: one relies on research, framing, finding a structure for actual events; the other relies on invention, immersion, even a kind of self-deluded alchemy to give imagined events the feel of reality. I'm an old-fashioned purist, I think if you label something as nonfiction, it's as close to factually truthful as you can get. As for my progression as a writer, I couldn't keep doing it if I didn't think I was getting better, but the last time I read Every Knee Shall Bow, I was a little intimidated by the strength of its research. I hope I could still do that.

SC: The Zero is highly touted as a thought-provoking examination of the aftermath of America’s most prominent contemporary tragedy: 9/11.  Did you ever feel, as you were writing, that you shouldn’t be telling this story?  Or that the timing was not right for it?

JW: Most of the time when I'm writing I don't think at all about the reception of a book; if I paused to consider that, it would stop me cold. Everything you need is on the page. When it's going well, I really don't think about anything except the piece itself. Writing The Zero, especially, was sort of hypnotic and all-consuming. I just thought the world had gone crazy and that a surreal irreverence was the only proper response. I did become a little bit anxious just before it came out, but that was more about the fear that I had just appropriated the tragedy in some other way. But a week before it came out, I read it again and I thought: yes this is right. This feels right.

SC: I agree.  This book does it just right.

SC: My students and I recently finished Sherman Alexie’s Flight.  After reading The Zero, I was struck with some of the similarities between these two books: the disassociation of self, especially as it pertains to violence; the fragmentation; and the sense of forgiveness necessary to move on.  Alexie uses a quote from Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five for the epigraph of Flight, and I can’t help but feel all three are post-war novels in a sense.  Do you see Vonnegut in your work?  How do you relate The Zero with either or both of these novels?

JW: Vonnegut was the first author I idolized and he continues to be an influence for me, and, I think, a whole generation of writers. For me, his prose was so transparent, so inviting, and he was so funny, and inclusive of genres like sci-fi, and most of all, he had a humanistic morality to his work--he expected better of people. But it becomes important, I think, to carve out your own voice as a writer; in my early 20s, I think I aped writers that I liked--including Vonnegut--before I put in enough sentences to find my own rhythm and style, to find my own aesthetic. I think a writer's influences make themselves known across the breadth of his work, The Zero reflecting my continued reading of everyone from Heller and Vonnegut to Kafka and Cervantes to Zadie Smith and David Mitchell.

SC: My students want me to ask if you and Alexie hang out.  If so, they’d like you to tell him they unabashedly admired and enjoyed Flight.  They’d also like to know: what is your favorite Alexie work?

JW: Ha! We usually see each other three or four times a year and we email a lot. We're both basketball junkies and so that tends to be what we talk about, that and our kids. Writing is such a solitary pursuit and sometimes we'll exchange little bits--poems or stories--but we mostly just say: great job. I'm a fan of all of Sherman's books, but I'd say The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is my favorite book, along with his latest, War Dances. My favorite single story of his, though, might be "What You Pawn I Will Redeem." Gorgeous sad sweet.

SC: Do you consider yourself a writer first or a reader?  What are you reading these days?

JW: That's a tough one. I don't think you can be a writer without being a reader. I've gobbled up books my whole life and even now, I usually have three books going at once. But I guess I think of myself first as a writer. I write in a journal every day and I spend a few hours, sometimes six or more, at my computer every single day. You have to get your chops in, like a piano player. It's taken years of putting myself in the chair day after day, but it feels empty and wrong when I don't write now.

SC: Normally, I loathe the “stuff” that publishers are adding to books, usually stodgy book group questions.  In The Financial Lives of the Poets, however, I really enjoyed reading the excellent article by Luke Baumgarten that talked some about your writing space and practices.  Would you consider sharing with my readers how you approach your job?

JW: There's not much to it. I wake up really early, without an alarm clock, at 5:30 or so, and I grab a chocolate chip-oat-nut bar that my wife bakes and a big latte an the writing journal I've been jotting ideas in, and I trudge out to my office, above our garage, and--without answering emails or phone calls or going on line or indulging any other distractions--I write. I go until I run out of gas, then I often get some exercise and read what I've done. I tend to work a section over and over, rewriting it dozens of times, and I can't move on until I feel like it's just right. I work on two or three different things at once, just in case I get stuck, so that I don't suffer writer's block (if a story isn't working, I switch over to a novel and vice versa) and when I'm done for the day, I grab my journal and a book and venture off to have lunch, read and jot more ideas in my writing journal (I tend to "see" solutions and great character bits and writing inspiration AFTER I'm done working for the day.) Then the next morning, I take my cookie and my coffee and my writing journal and do it all again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

SC: The Financial Lives of the Poets sort of tackles the economic decline and housing crisis that we’ve all been surviving (or not) these last few years.  Impossibly, it does so in a completely irreverent and jocular manner.  The back of the book quotes Nick Hornby saying this book “made me laugh more than any other book published this year,” and it is funny.  But it also deals with some terribly real and difficult truths about aging parents, struggling marriages, irrepressible dreams, a father’s responsibility to provide for his children, and drugs.  How do you manage to strike such an impressive balance?

JW: Hmm. I might be the worst one to ask that. That balance is just how life looks to me, I think ... these achingly funny things occurring alongside real struggles that would be funny if they weren't so sad. If anything, I may have turned up the comic elements just a bit--again, just because I felt so drained emotionally after The Zero (I often think I write one book to get the taste of the last one out of my mouth.) But that intersection of sad and funny is what I'm interested in. A comic novel with no emotional grounding or edge of danger or something ... would be to me ... pointless, a sitcom.

SC: Why poetry?  Although there were a few aspects of the story that asked the reader to suspend a little disbelief, the only one that caused me to seriously pause was Matt’s dream of poetfolio.com, an online financial poetry site.  I just couldn’t imagine anyone thinking it would work.   Am I being too short-sighted?  Is this idea about to take the internet by storm?

JW: Ha! Humor often relies on exaggeration, and it's often the thing I second-guess--did that go too far? I wanted him to have a very very bad idea, but something connected to some younger version of himself (he liked poetry in college, though he never really wrote it; he became a business writer.) And I wanted to parody the sort of web-site free-for-all that led to online grocery stores and pet-therapy. But as unlikely as it sounds, I've now met dozens of people who write financial poetry, including a financial limerick writer who has a regular gig on a public radio station.

SC: As a poet, I am intrigued by your willingness to create these poetic pieces in your novel.  They are, ostensibly, the work of Matt Prior.  They are also undeniably yours.  How did you feel about including these poems?  Did you experience any insecurity about that aspect of the book?

JW: The only way I could write Matt's poetry was to decide he was an even sloppier poet than I am. Only two of the poems existed at all before I started writing the book--A Brief Political Manifesto (mothers-in-thongs) and a poem about Matt's father called Dry Falls (which is, of course, about my father.) I imagined Matt wrote fragments of verse, but the meter and line always gave way to prose--since that was his real training. I experience all sorts of insecurities about every aspect of writing, and the poetry was no exception, but humility is good for a writer, or anyone. But I always apologize to "real" poets (... an apology I extend to you, Sara) for the intended silliness of some of Matt's (and yes, of course, my) work.

SC: "Dry Falls" was the most impressive piece to me.  It was the only one I returned to again, and I still feel it is a worthy poem, distinct from the book.  It is also what is referenced in the passage I quoted when it says "we live like water."

SC: What are you working on now?  Or, put another way: how long will I have to wait for the next Jess Walter book?

JW: Well, I'm just revising a novel called The Beautiful Ruins which is about an actress in Italy in 1962 who meets a young hotelier and then disappears from his life for fifty years, until, as a widower, he decides to find out whatever happened to her. It's about what happened to her in those fifty years, and to her son, and to Richard Burton, and to Hollywood, and to the Donner Party, and to live theater in Seattle, and to punk music and ...

Thanks to Jess Walter for this fantastic interview.  I'll look forward to getting a copy of the next one, but while I wait, I will tackle the Ruby Ridge piece.  I am a fan, after all.


  1. This is AWESOME! Congrats on scoring such a great interview. I love what he says about writing humor - Jonathan Tropper said almost exactly the same thing in response to a question about how to write funny. Oh, to have that skill!

    I also loved Financial Lives - which was my introduction to Walter's work. Here's my favorite passage: "He stops in the aisle of how-to books and clicks his tongue as he runs his hand across the spines of books that show how to do simple electrical work and how to repair and carburetor and how to fix a clogged sink and how to build a porch and how to stain your fence and, finally, how to build a tree fort. This long bookshelf seems taken directly from my insecurities — an entire library of things I cannot do. In the next aisle of this hell-library would be books about how to manage your billions and what to do with your foot-long penis."

    (This is my review from last year, if you're interested.)

  2. Thanks, Greg. Your review is fantastic - I love the image of Matt Prior in one of those money-grab things. Hilarious!! Apparently you do have that skill. Definitely read The Zero if you haven't already. Though I liked this one, I still prefer The Zero.

  3. I really enjoyed Financial Lives - especially the wit with which he addresses the tragic spiral of a man's life.

    I heard Walters and Sam Lipsyte talk at the Center for Fiction about the comic novel and this interview is a nice elaboration on some of what he said there.

  4. "The tragic spiral of a man's life" - interesting wording, Booksnyc. I haven't read any Lipsyte. Thoughts?

  5. What a great interview--thank you! He was super nice at the reading I went to and graciously signed my book. I LOVE that he and Sherman Alexie are buddies.

    Looks like they're making a movie out of this book, too. Hope they do it justice: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2011/05/close-your-eyes-think-of-a-poet-does-he-look-like-jack-black/