Skip to main content

Interview: April 15, 2005

April 15, 2005's Suspense/Thriller Author Spotlight Team (Carol Fitzgerald, Joe Hartlaub and Wiley Saichek) interviewed Jess Walter, author of CITIZEN VINCE. Walter, who has written both fiction and nonfiction, explains why he chose to set his latest novel in the fall of 1980 and the significance of that year's presidential election. He also talks about the kind of research that was needed for this particular story, his flexible writing schedule, and the process of developing characters (Walter always remembers what Kurt Vonnegut once wrote about characterization). You are well-known as an author of both nonfiction and fiction, which includes your new novel CITIZEN VINCE. What is your biggest challenge when writing a work of fiction, such as CITIZEN VINCE, as opposed to a book based on true events, such as EVERY KNEE SHALL BOW?

Jess Walter: The biggest challenge in writing fiction is also the best thing: its terrifying freedom. With nonfiction, there are any number of writing decisions (voice, tense, point-of-view, etc...) but the one thing you generally don't worry about is the framework of the story. My first nonfiction book, about Ruby Ridge, has all the elements of a novel but I never had to ask myself that dreaded fiction question, What Happens Next? And you never worry about verisimilitude --- whether or not something feels believable. The more outlandish the nonfiction, the better it is. Things happened in the Ruby Ridge case that I would never have been able to get away with in fiction.

BRC: While CITIZEN VINCE is a work of fiction, it uses real world events --- the 1980 Presidential election, for one --- as a secondary backdrop. What made you decide to set CITIZEN VINCE in the fall of 1980?

JW: The election of 1980 seduced me. The choice between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan was such a drastic choice, between two visions of America and its place in the world, and it seemed to set the stage for the last twenty-five years of politics. Reagan's ability to attract labor Democrats broke down voting blocs and made elections about our individual feelings and our sense of national self-esteem. It was a giant leap in mass media consumer politics: Compare Kennedy's social call "Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country" with Reagan's more individual appeal "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" It's the society vs. the individual. This election was a pivot one which America has turned, to a more cynical and psychological type of politics. I wanted the novel to be a political novel, but not about politicians, about a voter.

BRC: Are you poking some fun at politics with your writing? We ask since there were many lines written about the campaign and its "importance" that have been echoed with the same sentiment for all subsequent elections. Was this a commentary on your part?

JW: You caught me. There is a definite element of satire in CITIZEN VINCE, but hopefully it's subtle and doesn't take away from the movements and growth of the characters. I do think that, since 1980, we have been having the same election over and over again...that there are these efforts to triangulate the other party, to steal their message, to play dirty without looking dirty, to demonize and separate the American middle from its leading edges. I wanted to write a novel that was idealistic in its message about what voting means for the person who casts the vote, without letting our cynical and reductive political process off the hook. I love politics the way I love baseball: irrationally. Now if they'd just get rid of steroids, the designated hitter, high salaries and political consultants...

BRC: CITIZEN VINCE also involves some real-world personalities --- a reputed mobster --- as a secondary character. Is Vince Camden, the protagonist of CITIZEN VINCE, based on someone you know?

JW: I do know some guys in the witness protection program (see question below) but they aren't much like Vince. A journalist and book reviewer who had the misfortune of reading the entire Jess Walter library suggested that Vince Camden was closer to me than any character I've written. I think she was right. Obviously, Vince and I have completely different lives, but I think our insecurities come from the same place. I think the most naked autobiographical material is often on the subject of insecurity, that stuff of insomniac anxiety and sudden nightmares. Like Vince, I've always felt like a fish out of water, somewhat self-educated, sort of bouncing through life waiting for my better angels to kick in. Unlike Vince, I've never been in jail, dated a real-estate hooker, or had to go back to New York to plead for my life. But I'm still young.

BRC: Part of the story of CITIZEN VINCE concerns the Federal Witness Protection Program. How did you research the program for CITIZEN VINCE? And are you aware of any true-to-life circumstances involving people in the program that have occurred that were similar to what happened in CITIZEN VINCE?

JW: As a reporter, I got to know a couple of guys in the witness protection program who live in my hometown. I played poker with them, had pizza and coffee. One of them committed a murder in Spokane and did a few years for manslaughter, then was arrested for bookmaking, and most recently got picked up again for selling a gun as a paroled felon. The other guy has managed to stay out of trouble. Then, in the late '90s the idea began to coalesce, and in my research I found out that Spokane really was a good place for former Mafia witnesses. They're interesting guys, not at all like Vince or Ray Sticks, but I definitely had their help in getting some of the details down. Ironically, when the novel was all done, I saw these two guys hanging out together in, of all places, a donut shop.

BRC: The characters in CITIZEN VINCE are very well-drawn. Can you share your character-building process with us? Do you create profiles of your characters before you begin writing the actual novel? How long does a character sit around in your head before you bring the character to life on paper?

JW: Thank you. To me, the process of writing fiction is so wound up in character that I don't separate it from the novel. I don't write character sketches, although there always turns out to be little vignettes or back stories that don't make the novel. I'm more concerned about character than plot or any other element. I tend to live with characters for a few years before I start writing. The characters in CITIZEN VINCE began as an idea for a screenplay in 1998 or so, and before that, I suppose, were zygotes in the general idea of writing a political novel based on criminals. My gestation period, for this book, was about five or six years. My hero Kurt Vonnegut wrote once that every character must WANT something; even if your subject is the aching loneliness of man, he still should want something, "even if it's just a glass of water." That's the one thing I try to do: give all my characters something to want.

BRC: Your three novels --- OVER TUMBLED GRAVES, LAND OF THE BLIND, and now CITIZEN VINCE --- are stand-alone works, with no continuity among them. Have you considered writing an ongoing series revolving around a character or group of characters?

JW: There is a bit of continuity, in the setting (Spokane) and in a few characters who appear in more than one book. But each book has a different protagonist. I'm just not a big fan of serial protagonists. I know how much readers love them, but for me, there are two problems. First: believability. The ninth time the librarian solves a murder I wonder, Why would anyone go to that library? Even real homicide detectives generally get only two or three really interesting cases in their careers; the rest of the time, they're hauling off drunk husbands and filling out reports. But more than that, as a writer, I simply don't want to write the same book twice. That's where I feel let down by authors, when I feel like I've read this same book before. With serial characters, often there's one book that is so much better than the others, it serves as a kind of summit that they never reach again.

BRC: What kind of research did CITIZEN VINCE require? Were there any unexpected difficulties about setting the book in 1980 (as opposed to a more recent election)?

JW: Maybe it's my reporter background, but I love researching novels. People are so much more helpful when they know it's for a novel than if they think you might quote them in a magazine piece or a newspaper story. With CITIZEN VINCE, the research included interviewing former Mafia witnesses to reading about a dozen books, everything from architecture in New York to the way the witness protection program works. I also got a 1980 ballot from the county election office, several weeks worth of Spokane and New York newspapers, and --- in my favorite bit of research --- wandered around Brooklyn and Manhattan with a 1980 subway map. And I get paid for this!

BRC: Can you share some details on your previous novels and nonfiction books for readers who may be new to your work?

JW: My first book, EVERY KNEE SHALL BOW (later released as RUBY RIDGE) came out in 1995, and was about the federal standoff with Randy Weaver. I covered this case for my newspaper and I'm still proud of my reporting, and the way it reads like a novel. I also co-wrote Christopher Darden's bestselling book about the O.J. Simpson murder trial, IN CONTEMPT. In 2001, I published my first novel, OVER TUMBLED GRAVES, followed it up two years later with another novel, LAND OF THE BLIND, and now, two years after that...CITIZEN VINCE. I guess people have called my novels literary crime fiction, but I really hate labels like that. To me, a novel is just a novel.

BRC: Does your daily writing schedule differ when you are working on one type of book as opposed to another?

JW: I'm a binge writer. I don't have standard times that I work. I know a lot of writers do it in the early morning, but I always start my day by going to a coffee shop, where I read a book and write in my journal. After that, I just write when I feel like doing it, and I almost always feel like doing it. Right now, as I answer this question, it's 2 a.m. and I just finished work. While my hours aren't fixed, I try to treat this like any other job, though, and put in at least 40 hours a week. Obviously, not all that time is spent in front of the computer. I do research and read books and go to late movies. I try not to force myself to write anything that doesn't feel right. The important thing is being at the computer. If I'm having trouble with a novel, I work on a short story, or a screenplay, or a poem.

BRC: Do you prefer writing fiction to nonfiction, or vice versa?

JW: That's a tough one. I'm a grass-is-greener person, I guess. During this last stretch of novel writing, I've really missed writing nonfiction. I guess I think of myself more as a fiction writer, but I really love being able to cross over into different forms and genres.

BRC: Your website notes that you have written short stories and screenplays in addition to your journalism and novel writing. Do you have any stories or screenplays in the works? And speaking of screenplays, are you interested in adapting one of your own novels for television or film? Or has there been outside interest?

JW: CITIZEN VINCE was originally written as a screenplay, but I wasn't happy with it and wanted to rework it. Eighteen months later, it's a novel. There is some interest in the book right now, and both the earlier two have drawn the attention of filmmakers, but nothing has come of it yet. I love the movie business. I've sold two scripts, but never had anything made. Most of your time in Hollywood is spent in pitch meetings, which remind me of a roomful of transients talking about what they'll do if they find fifty bucks on the sidewalk. Still, I would love to have a good movie made from one of my novels.

BRC: What can we expect from you as far as your next book is concerned? Are there any topics that interest you as a subject for investigation? Or do you plan to write another novel?

JW: I always have four or five things going. I'm always writing poems and short stories and I have two novels competing for my attention right now. The one that seems to be winning is very different from anything I've written. It's a social satire, very dark and funny and perhaps a bit inappropriate. The other is a more earnest story about a small town and the death of a young basketball player. I am working on some nonfiction ideas that could become books, and I'm chipping away at a memoir about my family car, a 1963 Lincoln Continental convertible.