Cashing in 

Jess Walter banks on comedy in The Financial Lives of the Poets

In Jess Walter's most recent novel, The Financial Lives of the Poets, a business reporter quits his job to create a website that links poetry with financial advice. Walter's protagonist is a dreamer and the novel itself is a stunningly realistic tragicomedy of American life in an age of foreclosure and layoffs.

It's only the most recent for the award-winning writer, who has penned more than six books in multiple genres. In advance of his gala reading at this weekend's Montana Festival of the Book, Walter corresponded with us via e-mail about writing, money and all the cool writers he hung out with once at The Depot.

Independent: You write within multiple genres. Is there any one that's more challenging or satisfying for you?

Walter: I love all kinds of writing and often work on a few things at once (right now I'm juggling a novel, a book of stories and a bad script rewrite.) Novels are the form I enjoy most. I find myself both emboldened and freed by the belief that every novel is, ultimately, a failure. There are huge differences in forms obviously (fiction is more immersive, a kind of self-hypnosis; nonfiction is so dependent upon research and framing; screenwriting is like writing an outline for someone else), but the act of writing itself doesn't really change because of genre; I show up to work every morning and find the home keys, whether I'm working on a novel, a book review or a ransom note ("Leave the money in a shoe box near a whispery elm tree by a gently curling river, its water muddled like a happy hour mojito...").

Independent: E. M. Forster once remarked, "All novels are about money." Your most recent novel, The Financial Lives of the Poets, might serve as a case in point. In that novel, your protagonist, Matthew Prior, suffers from what his financial advisor calls "fiscal Ebola" and Matt's problems mirror those of many other American families. What compelled you to write about money matters?

Walter: I wish I were the sort of writer who could say something like, "All novels are about money," with the kind of authority that causes you to pause and think, "Hmmm, are they?" Because it seems fabulously untrue to me. Even novels that are about money aren't really about money, since it's usually just a symbol.

Matt Prior's money crisis is really a family crisis. He's coming unraveled and, if anything, I'd say it's a novel about the increased potency of weed. I was more interested in what it feels like to come undone, to be on one of those cold streaks that we all hit (certainly every writer feels that way...) in which it feels like you can't get a break, like every decision is more stupid than the last—and in Matt's case—hopefully funnier. If I had to say novels are about anything, I'd say they are about...300 pages. Except those that are longer. Or shorter.

click to enlarge Jess Walter’s latest novel, The Financial Lives of the Poets, humorously delves into the dark landscape of bankruptcy, infidelity and drugs. Walter appears at the Montana Festival of the Book this week for Friday’s gala reading.
  • Jess Walter’s latest novel, The Financial Lives of the Poets, humorously delves into the dark landscape of bankruptcy, infidelity and drugs. Walter appears at the Montana Festival of the Book this week for Friday’s gala reading.

Independent: In an epigraph to The Financial Lives of the Poets, you quote Saul Bellow: "Poets have to dream, and dreaming in America is no cinch." How universally true are Bellow's words?

Walter: Very. The book's title refers to Samuel Johnson's The Lives of the English Poets, in which "poet" meant any kind of writer, even some philosophers. I like to think of my endangered newspaper colleagues as the poets of today. We live in a fast, fractured culture that is becoming increasingly technological, even binary, driven not by words but by numbers (how many friends do you have on Facebook? How many followers on Twitter? What's your credit score, your grade point, your Amazon ranking?) It's awful; I was told there would be no math.

Independent: What was your first success as a writer?

Walter: In my early career as a newspaper reporter, I worked on fiction at night and on the weekends for a decade before I had much success. I wrote a failed novel and sent out a bunch of short stories that were all rejected in various soul-crushing ways before I finally published anything, in the famous journal, Yawp. It was two years after that when I got my first check for writing fiction. It was for $25 from Story Magazine, for finishing in 25th place in a short story contest (the magazine went out of business not long after; apparently busted, financially and aesthetically, by allowing me in the door.) I still have that $25 check.

Independent: We can't help ourselves: Which late author would you like to meet in a bar?

Walter: This is one of those trick questions where I'm supposed to show either how smart I am (I'd have grog with Cervantes) or how rare and refined my tastes (I'd have ginger sake with the late Chechen poet, Udris Calpakis), but the great thing about coming to Missoula is that you don't have to imagine having drinks with writers because you just go to a bar and there they are! I had a swell beer with James Crumley at The Depot once and the last time I came to Missoula it was like a great writers' hall of fame: Kevin Canty, David James Duncan and Pete Fromm at my table, Debra Earling at the table next to ours.

Independent: What are you working on these days?

Walter: I'm giddy to finish this novel I've been working on the last few years, which is about love, fame and the Donner Party. In that order. Although it just occurred to me that, like all novels, it's really about money.

Jess Walter appears with Robert Wrigley and C.J. Box for the Montana Festival of the Book gala reading Friday, Oct. 29, at 7:30 PM, in the Wilma Theatre. Free. For a full schedule of events, visit www.humanitiesmontana.org.

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