March-April Author of the Month
Author of Land of the Blind and Over Tumbled Graves!
Review and Synopsis of Land of the Blind:
Caroline Mabry, a single detective living in Spokane is trying to fill her empty weekend with police work when a mysterious man comes to the station simply wanting to confess. Not knowing what he wants to confess to, or if he’s even really guilty, Caroline allows him to fill page after page of his own narration of the crime. Meanwhile, Caroline attempts to learn more of this enigmatic, and somehow attractive man, who seems as lost and lonely as her. What follows is a two-part narration, one following Caroline in her search, and the second being the direct confession of the mysterious man, which winds through the years beginning at his youth detailing all the events which led to this moment. And as Caroline's attraction grows, she must find the answers surrounding this man and his sudden appearance without breaking too many rules.
This is a story that is filled with emotional depth and a raw and brutal exquisiteness. The characters themselves are beautifully flawed and profoundly real. Walters masterfully alternates between Caroline’s ruining self, and Clark’s expressive account of how it all led to its tragic end. And as for suspense, its here too, but almost seems to lose its importance when compared to how these lives and events have all intertwined only to meet at this heartbreaking junction, and perhaps that’s the best kind of suspense of all. Walters doesn’t just tell a story, he makes it real and three dimensional, and the reader is brought deeply into the lives of those that inhabit this narrative that will resonate long after its read.
1. What is it about crime that gets your creative juices flowing?
I was a newspaper reporter for a few years and certain images stick in your head – a woman pushing her best friend out a six-story window, a man burning his girlfriend in a fireplace – and you ask yourself: how did these people get here? And then it becomes, like all good fiction I think, a question of character, trying to invest these people with real emotions and lives. I guess I’m drawn to characters that just happen to be in drastic, puzzling and painful situations. Crime is great conflict.
2. Why did you decide to make your main character a woman?
It’s funny; in hindsight, you don’t really feel like you make your characters anything. In the first novel (Over Tumbled Graves) I chose Caroline Mabry because I thought a woman detective would be the only way to register the horror of a serial killer murdering women. By the second (Land of the Blind), she just sort of does what she wants. I figured she’d just frame the wild story of Clark Mason, that she’d be the person he confessed to – but as the novel went along, she seemed to just wander out on stage. Sometimes it seems as if I have as much control over her as I do the other women in my life.
3. How much are your characters and events taken from real life?
Like any author, your feelings and observations always bubble to the surface, from food to philosophy. With Land of the Blind, it goes even deeper. Much of the novel is about childhood and some of that childhood is similar to mine. Clark Mason gets shot in the eye with a bb gun when he’s 12. When I was 5, I was hit in the eye with a stick and can’t see out of my left eye. But like any novelist, you have to take responsibility for the whole world and I see slivers of myself in everything and everyone in my books. Kurt Vonnegut says: This is not my life; it’s how life feels to me. That sounds about right.
4. Your characters are so wonderfully flawed making them much more real so that it must be tough to shake them at the end of the day. How much a part of you do they become?
Thank you. Character to me is the elemental stuff of fiction. I can be moved by poetic sentences and seduced by compelling plots, but in the end, I fall in love with the characters of a book. I think the best suspense comes not from some guy skulking around with a gun, but from caring about the people in a book, wondering what will happen to them. Sometimes I do find myself almost feeling guilty for the trials that my characters face. You want to give them some time off. I imagine Caroline at some remote cabin, seeing my number on her cell phone and turning it off.
5. Tell us a bit about your writing background.
I studied both journalism and creative writing in college and so I consider myself a practitioner—or maybe a victim—of both. I wrote for a newspaper for eight years and then left to write a nonfiction book about Ruby Ridge (Every Knee Shall Bow, 1995, re-released last year as Ruby Ridge.) That book was made into a CBS miniseries in 1996. I also co-wrote prosecutor Christopher Darden’s book about the O.J. Simpson murder case, In Contempt. I also write short stories and screenplays and essays. But novels are my love.
6. Your writing habits? For example, how does a typical day of writing proceed?
There are no typical writing days for me, except that I rarely take a whole day off. I’m a binge writer—sometimes in the morning, sometimes at night, sometimes around the clock. I’m not of those people at his desk at 6 a.m. every morning and then finished by noon. Often, by noon, I’ve just finished coffee and writing in my journal and shooting baskets and playing trains with my son. My big advantage is that I only sleep five hours a night, so I often work late into the evening. I have a carriage house/office behind our home and I trudge back and forth three or four times a day. My other big advantage is that I’m married to an editor.
7. It appears you have a love/hate relationship with Spokane, WA., and obviously know the city well so much so it's almost a secondary character. Will it always figure so prominently in your novels?
Love/hate. That’s a nice way to put it. Spokane is my home and has figured prominently in the first two novels. It is a poor, isolated city that peaked in the 1920s and I find that fascinating. It also happens to have the strangest crimes this side of Miami. But I do love it – the people, the geography, the architecture. It’s unlike any place I’ve ever been. Luckily, a novelist is looking for different things than, say, the chamber of commerce.
8. What advice can you give hopeful authors-to-be?
Don’t take advice. I’m only half-kidding. It’s good to hear what people have to say about your work and you need the humility to learn and grow as a writer, but in the end, this is a solitary art or business (or both) and so you have to trust your own instincts. My only advice: Read. Read. Read.
9. Which authors have been your greatest influence?
That’s such a tough question. I grew up loving Ken Kesey, Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving, Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion. I spent my college years with Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck, and now read everything I can get my hands on. I love the writing of Don DeLillo, Richard Price, Russell Banks, Richard Powers and Martin Amis. Honestly, I don’t read as much crime fiction, though I like Elmore Leonard and—most recently—Val McDermid and Robert Wilson. I like books that transcend their genre and I think the best contemporary example of that is Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.
10. We find Caroline Mabry such a wonderful character, and so have to wonder what's next for her?
I wonder too. She won’t return my calls.
Jess Walter is the author of two novels – Land of the Blind, a March 2003 Booksense 76 selection, and Over Tumbled Graves, a 2001 New York Times notable book of the year – and the nonfiction book Every Knee Shall Bow, a finalist for the PEN Center West literary nonfiction award in 1996. A career journalist, Walter also writes short stories, essays and screenplays. He was the co-author of Christopher Darden’s 1996 bestseller In Contempt. His journalism has appeared in Newsweek, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. His novels have been published in eight countries and five languages. Walter lives with his family in Spokane, Washington.
LAND OF THE BLIND: A March 2003 Booksense 76 selection. Kirkus Reviews: “absorbing … a flowing story of character.” Publishers Weekly: “hypnotically compelling.” Booklist (starred review): “haunting … a novel of uncommon depth.”
OVER TUMBLED GRAVES, a 2001 New York Times notable book of the year: Washington Post Book World: “outstanding … tremendous emotional impact.” Dallas Morning News: “Suspenseful, challenging and intelligently written.”
EVERY KNEE SHALL BOW (RUBY RIDGE): 1996 finalist for the PEN Center West literary nonfiction award … The New York Times Book Review: “a stunning job of reporting.” … The Des Moines Register: "an excellent, well-written and important book … Made into the a 1996 CBS miniseries starring Laura Dern.
IN CONTEMPT (by Christopher Darden with Jess Walter) Spent thirty weeks on The New York Times 1996 nonfiction bestseller list… The New York Times: “powerful and affecting.” … USA Today: “beautifully written.”
Journalism and other writing:
Reporter for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington for nine years … Part of a team that was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in spot news reporting in 1992 … Twice a national finalist for the Livingston Award for reporters under 35 years of age … Has won dozens of regional and national reporting and writing awards … Short stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications