BY TABITHA BLANKENBILLER
There’s a new kid on the MFA faculty schedule. Jess Walter arrives during your junior semester, somewhere between receiving accolades for The Financial Lives of the Poets and releasing Beautiful Ruins. You sit in the makeshift lecture hall at Pacific University, one of those nondescript caverns that can be transformed by table rounds and chairs into a fundraiser alumni dinner, or a parachute and nap mats into a summer camp, or in this case, rows of chairs with stingy padding and a podium. His craft talk is up next, and it’s tough to know what to expect. Each writer gives one talk during each residency, and with the newbies, it’s a quick indicator of whether you’ve got to rush back to frantically re-submit your advisor request form, or designate their future presentations for the hour you’ll skip campus and buy a round of lattes.
At the podium, Jess launches into a 2nd person narrative trailing his path from feeling small town weirdo writer inclinations up to taking the leap into college, and snagging an interview with his idol, Kurt Vonnegut. “You write him a three-page letter, he sends back three words on a postcard,” he said, “which is an absolutely square deal.” He talks with a half-smile and shrugs, as if a bit embarrassed, absolutely appreciative, pure happiness to be up and telling a story. He describes his home and family with such humor, honesty, and tenderness, despite their bewilderment at his predilections. He positions himself as the freak, while they are there to ground him—drinking beer, shooting hoops, giving him shit, being happy with their homes and lives while he struggles to get noticed by the humblest of publications. It’s the same way you would describe your own people, with love. Appreciation. A wistfulness that you can’t quite understand each other better. Walter’s embrace of his roots and self-effacing take on the writing life refreshing, riveting and real.
Even in front of a tightly-packed crowd he’s able to speak with the intimacy and friendliness of a dim bar. You keep catching the eyes of your friends in the row, that oh my god he is brilliant! glance. At the end of Walter’s 50-minute, one-man-show novella, the room rockets with cheers. In that moment, each of you are the black sheep of your blue collar Spokane family, the one who wanted to be a writer when you didn’t know how, and at last found this community of like “others.” And you all have the same new crush.
But you’re a creative nonfiction student, so you can only watch from afar as the fiction writers battle down to bloody stumps for an advisor slot.
Karaoke night, last semester. A salty bar in Seaside, Oregon, with locals glowering at the literary invasion. It’s January on the Oregon Coast, which means colorless obscured sky and enough constant, brooding rainfall to give even the sparkliest of Forks vampires a case of seasonal affective disorder. But room and conference spaces are Pabst beer cheap, so it’s the home of Pacific’s winter residency. And residency is never complete without a pack of introverts trying to dance and cover Journey.
Jess Walter isn’t on this semester’s schedule. Too many other damn people are in love with him, buying his books, demanding his presence at mountain-top retreats you can’t afford to go to. But he was able to sneak in for a guest talk on having your book turned into a film project. You don’t say hello to him in the halls or at lunch because, when faced down with a writer you really, really, really like, your tongue tends to paralyze and you have to resort to fake-losing an earring to disperse the awkward, silent staring.
As you elbow your way up to order a mojito (the bar wench glowers at you until you change your mind and ask for a long island), you catch a glimpse of that crooked smile. Yep, Jess has come down to your karaoke night with Ben Percy and Pam Houston, and is applauding and cheering with all the enthusiasm of someone who’s not too cool and successful to be there with all you weirdos and wannabes.
Before he can catch you gawking, the DJ shouts your name into the microphone. The song you’ve been practicing all semester to sing bumps from the stage, and you launch into your best vodka-fueled Lady Gaga monster claw dance. Ra ra, ra ra ra! You growl and strut, and even cajole the townies into singing along.
Nailed it, you think through the drunk and the applause. And Jess Walter was totes there. Does he know who you are now, maybe? The Gaga superstar who may also have a laptop hard drive full of brilliant essays? You snuggle this delusion.
Powell’s, the following spring. Beautiful Ruins has just dropped, and The Basil Hallward Gallery has filled to standing-room-only capacity for the reading. You know how these things go, and left happy hour early to snag a stalker front-row seat. As Walter speaks (he always keeps his “reading” time brief, as he explains—“no one will ever tell you, oh, that reading was too short”), you feel the new crowd under the spell of that charisma, the anti-Franzen. You see the writer you hope to be someday at the carved bookcase podium, against a rotating exhibition of eclectic artscapes. Hilarious, endearing, humble, happy.
Someone raises their hand and asks him to describe his typical writing day. “Every morning, I wake up, and my wife makes me this giant chocolate chip cookie. It’s warm and delicious, and when I eat that, I’m ready to go. If she keeps making me cookies, I can keep writing books.” And, once again, everyone crammed into the top floor of Powell’s on Burnside is in love.
You leap to the front of the line, spaz-style, as soon as he makes a step for the red signing table. This is a Portlander survival skill. Dawdle around for ten years gathering up your scarf and latte means you’ll end up waiting an hour for a signature. He asks how it’s going, though whether he’s asking “hey stranger who came out for this event, how’s it going?” or “what’s up, legendary karaoke wordstress?” you cannot ascertain. He asks your name, and when he asks if it’s spelled with an “I”, you say, “yep, the right way.” He laughs. Like, for real! At your joke! And you will, until the day you die, have a copy of Beautiful Ruinssigned “For Tabitha: The Right Way—Ha! Write like the wind.”
A year later, the world has changed. You’ve graduated, and no longer have the swath of MFA writing get-togethers to look forward to. You are now a week away from a mandatory and surprise job relocation to Tucson from your beloved literary mecca. You feel as though you’re leaving everything you are behind—the readings, the writers, the ease of Wordstalking. You are clinging to one glimmer, one example that all may not be lost. Jess Walter lives in Spokane, and he can still be a brilliant writer. And Tucson is basically the Spokane of the southwest. You’ll be okay too, right?
As if the Gods (or Powell’s booking agents) are smiling down on you, they book Jess Walter the week before your moving van takes off. Your last Portland reading. Again the room is packed, and again you’ve forsaken an extra round at Bluehour for that front row. But this time you raise your hand when he asks for questions. Life has become too short to be shy around your idols, and there’s one burning inquiry ready to leap from your tongue.
Walter points at you, and asks, “yes, Tabitha?”
Your resolve falters a moment. How does he know your name?! Your resolve is quick to return, though, and you explain without stuttering that you’re leaving this land of heroes and bookstores, and you’re scared. Any advice for being a writer in the desert?
“People want to know why I stay in Spokane all the time,” he says with a chuckle. “And, I don’t know. I kind of like it there. And why not? You can be a writer anywhere. You just have to write.”
You hold this truth with you down 1500 miles, and when you look back on that last night in your favorite place, you feel a smidge less lonely in the heat of the homesickness. Out in the Eastern Washington valley, and on the plains, and in the Florida swamplands, and in every other place that isn’t Portland, you’re one of those starry-eyed weirdoes, writing like the wind.