A photo of Jess Walters in black and white against an orange-tinged background, with a basketball hoop, a copy of Joan Didion's Sloughing Towards Bethlehem and the words "21 questions" in the top right hand corner

‘What makes me happy? Inauguration Day’: 21 Questions with Jess Walter

The American novelist and author of The Cold Millions on his love of Zadie Smith, the best writing advice he's ever had and shooting fantasy hoops with the President.

Jess Walter, one could argue, is a quintessential American author. The majority of his writing – seven novels, a short story collection and a non-fiction book, not to mention essays and short stories in McSweeney's, Esquire, Harper's and more – grapples with the American tradition of confronting big questions through literature, and finding meaning in culture and, of course, in life.

His latest novel, The Cold Millions, tells the tale of the Dolan brothers and their quest for a better life in early 20th-century Spokane, Washington. Set in 1909, the parallels between their era and modern-day America – as the brothers confront economic hardship, and the limits of the ‘American dream’ – provide a powerfully resonant thematic background for the moving story.

On the eve of the book’s release, we asked Walter to answer our 21 Questions about life and literature, in which he hails the brilliance of Albert CamusZadie Smith, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, remembers six straight Halloweens as a pirate, and talks shooting hoops with former President Barack Obama.

Which writer do you most admire and why?

I’ve always admired authors like Albert Camus, whose brilliant essays paralleled his fiction; among contemporary writers, I feel that way about Zadie Smith and her books of criticism and essays, Feel Free and Changing My Mind.

What was the first book you remember loving as a child?

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. For six straight years as a kid, I dressed up on Halloween as a pirate, in part because of that book, and in part because I got a stick in my left eye as a five-year-old and was already sporting a sweet eyepatch.

What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?

When I was 13, I crouched in my school library to see where my future novels might go, and that’s where I found, just before the Ws, Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. I loved its philosophical irreverence.

Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path

'For six straight years as a kid, I dressed up on Halloween as a pirate, in part because of Treasure Island'

I think I was 20 the first time I read One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. As a writer, it exploded my idea of what fiction could do, its scope and possibility. It feels in my memory like the moment in The Wizard of Oz when black-and-white suddenly gives way to colour.

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?

I was the world’s least effective security guard, walking around a college campus at night with a flashlight and a walkie talkie, looking for places to nap.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

My first newspaper editor told me, “You write beautiful descriptions. Now pick one.”

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)

Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem and The White Album. I marvel at the precision of the language and the way she comes in and out of detachment, and how her voice knits those disparate pieces into a vivid portrait of the ethos of 1960s and 70s America.

What’s the one book you feel guiltiest for not reading?

There are way too many to choose. As a college freshman, I wrote an essay about The Divine Comedy after only reading half of The Inferno and skimming the rest. I guess I feel guilty because I got an A.

If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______

I’d be an assistant basketball coach at a small liberal arts college, going to the readings of visiting authors and daydreaming that I might one day write a book like them.

What makes you happiest?

Building a fire outside with my family, snow skiing on a sunny day, a wide-open three pointer, and most recently, Inauguration Day.

What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?

People don’t expect authors to be athletic and I am, or perhaps was, a dedicated and sometimes decent basketball player. I used to play almost every day, and when my son was little, he thought I was a professional basketball player because I didn’t seem to have any other job and I spent so much time in shorts and hoop shoes.

What is your ideal writing scenario?

I’m pretty easy. All I require is a cup of coffee and a couch for reading and napping.

What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?

'Barack Obama and I would eat a light snack, just Gatorade and granola bars, because afterward we would go play basketball'

At the Winnipeg airport, my literary escort was holding a copy of Beautiful Ruins and a sign with my name and I said, “That’s me,” and she said, “No, I’m looking for the author Jess Walter,” and I said, “Still me,” and she said, “No, Jess Walter is a woman.” Even after I showed her the jacket photo, it took another five minutes to convince her, and everywhere we went that day she would introduce me by saying, “Can you believe this is a man?”

If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?

I have a policy against having dead people to the house so I’m going to go with former President Barack Obama. It would be a light snack, just Gatorade and granola bars, because afterward we would go play basketball.

What’s your biggest fear?


If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

How do you know that I don’t already have one?

What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?

Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights.

Reading in the bath: yes or no?

Oh hell yes.

Which do you prefer: coffee or tea?

What’s tea?

What is the best book you’ve ever read?

This question is as impossible as What’s the best breath you’ve ever taken? I’ll go with Henry IV, Part One, which is kind of a dodge, of course, but I read it in book form before I ever saw it as a play and I still can’t believe how alive it is.

What inspired you to write your book?

Economic injustice, postcards from 1909, the brutal and corrupt idiocy of the Trump years, my father’s Alzheimer’s, the American West, the river outside my house, the homeless guy in my alley, E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime and, finally, a book contract that I signed.

The Cold Millions by Jess Walter is out now..

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