Jess Walter may not be the first writer to come out of Spokane, Washington, but he has certainly put it on the literary map. In his latest novel, The Cold Millions, the bestselling author draws readers into a tale set just after the turn of the 20th century, as modernity and labor strife collide in the mining, agricultural and railroad hub of Spokane. It stars two young brothers, “tramps” named Rye and Gig, but real historical figures such as activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn also make appearances.
You have some strong personal connections to this story, being from Spokane but also with your family history, your grandfather’s experiences as a rancher and your father’s role as a union officer. Tell us something about the inspiration for the story and how you developed it—not just the setting, but also Ursula and the villain, Brand.
I used to be ashamed of my working-class roots, but my family and hometown inform much of what I do. The Cold Millions is about two hobos just after the turn of the 20th century; a generation later, both my grandfathers were vagrant workers. My dad’s dad, my namesake Jess Walter, arrived in Spokane on a train he’d hopped in the Dakotas. My dad was a steelworker and a union guy, and labor equality was as close to a religion as we had.
I often start with divergent goals for a book and then try to connect them. Here, the impulse was to tell a story about social justice and youthful activism and pair it with a rollicking adventure story, part Western and part noir. The thrill is often in finding characters you never imagined in your original conception of the book, like Ursula the Great. You’re doing research, bent over 110-year-old newspapers, when you notice the ads for vaudeville shows, and next thing you know, this salty woman is taking over, singing to a wild cougar.
“Put me in Paris, and I’d probably write about meth addicts trying to pawn a stolen bidet.”
It’s been eight years since your previous novel, Beautiful Ruins, was published. Can you give us some insight into the creation of the two novels? How was the process different?
It always takes a while to realize that nothing I wrote before can help with this book. Eventually, familiar patterns and themes emerge, but early on, every novel feels like a first novel. The Cold Millions required more research than most of my books, so I spent months reading old newspapers and tracking down obscure books, articles and academic papers. Finally, at some point, I had to fire the whole research department (me) and rely more heavily on the fiction unit (also me). I guess if anything carried over from Beautiful Ruins, it was my interest in a more expansive kind of storytelling, in not being limited to a single point of view.
Spokane has become your Yoknapatawpha County. How do your fellow residents feel about being spotlighted in your books?
I love Faulkner’s invented settings, as I love Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo or Louise Erdrich’s Argus, but my fictional setting is also a real one, more like William Kennedy’s Albany or Elena Ferrante’s Naples (in an aspirational way). I loved how John Steinbeck wrote about Monterey with such heart (“Cannery row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise . . .”). And because I also venture out in my writing—to Italy, to Hollywood, to New York—writing about Spokane always feels like coming home.
What do my fellow Spokanites think? Most are appreciative, I think. I do hear from some who wish I wouldn’t focus so much on crime and poverty, that I maybe I might set a story on Spokane’s swanky South Hill for once, perhaps at the Manito Country Club. But I’ve never lived there. I’ve always lived in the flats just above the river. Although it might not matter anyway. Put me in Paris, and I’d probably write about meth addicts trying to pawn a stolen bidet.
You’ve described this book as “the last Western.” How is that so?
Yikes, did I say that? Such self-importance! I should’ve included the word gasp, as in last-gasp Western, because the period I’m writing about—1909, cars sharing the roads with horses, a certain frontier lawlessness around the edges—marks the end of this mythic Western period. But with the class divisions, the blatant unfairness, the social unrest, I also felt like I was writing about now. Maybe what I meant was this was my last Western (my only Western). I used to demean that whole genre as “horse porn.” But all I seem to do as a writer is break my own aesthetic rules and reverse every formerly unshakable opinion that has ever escaped my mouth.
You’ve now published crime novels, a 9/11 phantasmagoria, a Hollywood love story and now a historical novel. What impels you to try new genres?
A phantasmagoria! I don’t really think of genre when I’m writing. The story I’m telling just proceeds from the voice and the characters I create. I hope a wry wistfulness connects them all, a sense of jaded, bemused compassion. I do take pride in not repeating myself creatively. But that’s more to avoid boredom than to honor some artistic pledge I’ve made. I just try to write the next book I want to read, and since I read across genres, it’s always made sense to write across them, too.
I noticed the name “Tursi” (a character in Beautiful Ruins) popped up in The Cold Millions. Is that a nod to your fans? To your characters?
It’s probably more a nod to my characters. I imagine a distant great-uncle of Pasquale’s making his way to the United States and settling in Spokane’s Little Italy (where my wife was raised, and where I worked my first job as a dishwasher and busboy at Geno’s Fabulous Pizza). In The Cold Millions, Rye makes the observation that the world is “becoming one place,” and I kind of imagine my fictional world that way, too, as one place, full of coincidence and serendipity.
“If it’s true you cannot have racial justice without economic justice, then the opposite must surely follow.”
Aside from the research you did, did you read at all for pleasure when writing the book?
Of course! I read Wolf Hall for the first time and thought it was terrific. I went on a glorious Alice Munro bender and then reread James Baldwin. I read Denis Johnson’s great The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, and because he mentioned Leonard Gardner’s Fat City in an interview, I read that, too. Olga Togarczuk’s Flights, Sarah Broom’s The Yellow House and Percival Everett’s Telephone haunted and illuminated. Oh, and poets: Christopher Howell’s The Grief of a Happy Life, Jericho Brown’s The Tradition and Dorianne Laux’s Only as the Day Is Long.
I understand you are a younger brother. Did your relationship with your older brother influence your portrait of Gig and Rye? If there is a movie, who would play them?
Actually, I’m a classic middle child, with an older sister, Kristie, who is a county library director, and a younger brother, Ralph, who is a newspaper sports editor. I’m close with both of my siblings, and my brother is probably my best friend. Ralph and I share the gravitational mix of camaraderie and responsibility that Gig and Rye feel for one another, but little else of our relationship appears in The Cold Millions. A novel about my brother and me would be only six pages long, and four of those pages would be dialogue lifted directly from Caddyshack, with the rest being boozy smack-talk about who is the better basketball player. (I am.)
As for movies, I have never been able to “cast” my books—my sense of Hollywood is stuck in about 1974 (and I don’t think Steve McQueen is available). But in a movie about my brother and me, I would be played by George Clooney, and he would be played by a potted plant.
Is any of the socialist, revolutionary spirit still alive in Spokane?
Sure. The city of Spokane, like most urban areas, is reliably blue now (about 60% for Hillary Clinton in 2016), but the city is surrounded by the reddish counties of eastern Washington and lies within the larger, liberal Pacific Northwest. There are veins of individualism on both the left and the right here that come together in places like barters fairs and survivalist expos—a kind of leave-us-the-hell-alone libertarianism. There are also thriving anti-fascist groups, and the Wobblies are still around, having been revived by the Seattle WTO protests of 1999. Like everywhere, I think the real revolutionary spirit right now lies in the protests sparked by Black Lives Matter. As it should be. If it’s true you cannot have racial justice without economic justice, then the opposite must surely follow.
What’s next for you?
Creatively, a book of short stories, which I’m pulling together now. And I’m having fun working on the next novel. And later today I’ll play my brother in a social distance basketball game (we shoot at opposite ends of a full court) that I am certain to win.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Cold Millions.
Author photo by Rajah Bose