Arts & Culture
6:38 pm
Tue May 14, 2013

Awash with Regret, Characters Try to Surmount "Beautiful Ruins"

Lake Effect's Mitch Teich interviews author Jess Walter.

There is a review of Jess Walter’s latest book, that describes the author as “ a big-hearted man who excels at writing about other big-hearted, if broken, men.” Walter would plead guilty as charged.

Jess Walter's latest story begins at a hotel in Italy opened by a Wisconsin car salesman and English teacher.
Credit Harper Perennial

The review is actually of his latest short story collection, but it could easily apply to his most recent novel, as well. Beautiful Ruins is just out in paperback, and brings together divergent characters, storylines, and even eras – from World War II Italy to modern-day Hollywood.

It's also filled with flawed characters who themselves are filled with humanity.

"To me, you know, a father who is homeless and has to beg for money to buy his son in foster care a present is more interesting than a wealthy lawyer who comes home from the golf course and finds out that his son has gotten in to Yale," he says. "I’ll just always be drawn to those harder cases."

That rooting for the underdog may come from his own small-town, blue-collar upbringing - "I like people who rise to challenges," he says.

Walter's life also inspired the undercurrent of regret in the novel - though he's quick to point out that it's something everyone experiences as they come to terms with the sacrifices and decisions they make.

"I started this book in 1997 and I lost a parent and had a couple of children and had one move out of the house, and you experience that much sort of life and heartache and also the sort of everyday triumph, and that's what I wanted the characters to sort of experience," he says.

"So I think this book probably has more of a breadth and a longer tail than other books I've written."

Yet his characters' regrets are played out, convincingly and with good humor, against sun-drenched, beautiful locales.

"The book is very much about our romantic ideal of the places and the people," he says.

Beautiful Ruins is just out in paperback. Walter also has a recent short story collection, called We Live In Water. Walter lives in Spokane, Washington; he was in Milwaukee last week for a reading at Boswell Book Company.