Newsday Book Club chat with 'Beautiful Ruins' author Jess Walter: 10 things we learned

"Beautiful Ruins" by Jess Walter is the third "Beautiful Ruins" by Jess Walter is the third pick in the Newsday Book Club for summer 2104. Chat with Walter live at noon EST on Monday, Aug. 25 at newsday.com/bookclub. Photo Credit: HarperCollins; Hannah Assouline

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The Newsday Book Club met online Aug. 25 to discuss its third pick, “Beautiful Ruins” (Harper Perennial), with author Jess Walter. Walter offered us some insights about his novel, which was a national bestseller and a Newsday Best Book of 2012. Here are 10 things we learned:

1. While writing the novel, he experienced the different story lines much the way the reader does. "For me, the curiosity about Dee and Pasquale drove the suspense ...During the writing, I would get so caught up in each [narrative] side-trip, and all I could hope was that the writer had the same experience — wait, what is this story, then — ooh, this one is interesting, too.”

2. Of all the characters in the novel, he relates most to Pasquale Tursi. “Like most readers that I’ve heard from, the character I thought about the most, spent the most time with and probably empathized with most, was Pasquale Tursi. I put my joy and wistfulness over spending my life in my hometown into his character, and it was like I watched him grow into the sort of selfless person I wish I could be.”

3. He loves postwar Italian cinema. “I love film from that era, especially Italian cinema. Fellini is wonderful. I was especially inspired by ‘Nights of Cabiria.’”

4. Writing the character of Richard Burton, based on the real-life actor, wasn’t easy. “He had such an artist’s heart, and reading his diaries, you see this was a man who dreamed of being a writer. I wanted, not only to get the drinking, womanizing side of him down (and oh boy, was he that) but also the person seeking something profound in life.”

5. After “Beautiful Ruins” was published, he heard from an ex-girlfriend of Richard Burton’s. “[She] was the girlfriend he took to Italy when he started ‘Cleopatra’ (and who was, like Dee, embroiled in the Liz Taylor scandal.) She said while the story wasn’t hers, ‘it felt exactly like that.’ That made me feel good.”

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6. He didn’t start the novel intending to make a point about women in Hollywood. “I never begin a novel looking to make a case, or highlight some injustice. Almost all of my impulses are narrative, but ... the book certainly became about the way Dee was seen as disposable by this big, multibillion dollar industry.”

7. He has spent most of his life in his hometown of Spokane, Washington. “Pasquale’s sense of being ‘stuck’ somewhere provincial was something I was dealing with when I started the novel. By the time I ended it, I realized 1) it’s a gift to be from someplace, and 2) Spokane might be the most underrated city in America.”

8. He worked on a screenplay for the film adaptation of “Beautiful Ruins.” “I helped write the script with the director, Todd Field. I’m not sure when (or if) it will go into production. ... I’m not too worried about it. I could live with the book being the final word on this story.”

9. He works on different writing projects simultaneously. “When I get stuck on one novel, I can switch over to another one. I’m working on a novel about the Wobbly movement of the early 1900s, and the labor violence in the Pacific Northwest. ... I’m also writing a contemporary story about class and love in which a baby-sitter falls for a boy she watches once. Hard to say which one — if either — will reach the finish line first.”

10. He’s a fan of the audiobook edition of “Beautiful Ruins.” “Usually, I’ve had trouble listening to the audio version, but from the first moment I heard Edoardo [Ballerini]’s voice, I thought — that’s it. His Italian pronunciation, and just his way of delivering narrative are amazing.”

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