The Cold Millions

Jess Walter on The Cold Millions, and How He Shapes a Story

April 1, 2021
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An EXCLUSIVE AUTHORLINK interview with JESS WALTER

THE COLD MILLIONS: A NOVEL (Harper, 27 October 2020)

Reviewers call him “a genius of the modern American moment” and his books “masterpieces.”

Best-selling author, Jess Walter, began his career as a journalist for The Spokesman-Review. Shortly after, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for reporting and continued to publish stories and novels, fiction and nonfiction in crime, thriller, literary and historical in his career.

In addition to the many accolades, including finalist for the National Book Award, all his books are bestsellers, like Beautiful Ruins (2012), which has sold over a million copies, translated into 25 languages, spent months on the New York Times list, and soon to become a major Hollywood film.

Jess Walter’s latest work of historical fiction, The Cold Millions, is set in his hometown of Spokane near the turn of the 20th century, where the mining, agricultural, and railroad industries were brewing into force with men looking for work, women fighting for justice and all in a climate of significant social unrest.

Authorlink talks to this extraordinary author.

AUTHORLINK: Mr. Walter, thank you so much for your time today on Authorlink! We’re looking forward to discussing your latest best seller with you, The Cold Millions and your writing process in general.

The Cold Millions has the mood of a noir-western, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a fantastic adventure story set in 1909, when cars still shared the roads with horses, overlaid with actual events featuring “labor activists and mining magnates, undercover Pinkertons and vaudeville stars”, in your hometown of Spokane, Washington.

We understand both of your grandfathers were travelling workers. Your dad’s dad, and your namesake Jess Walter, arrived in Spokane on a train he’d hopped on to in the Dakotas – which sounds so romantic although we’re sure it wasn’t. Your dad was a steelworker and supported the unions and labor equality.

Were your proud, hardworking family-roots the inspiration for The Cold Millions? How long did it take you to write the story? What comes first – voice, character, plot?

“…language was the thing that made me excited to get to the desk every day.”

WALTER:  Thank you—I like that description, noir-western, though I think it’s also a political or social novel (but I’ll stop there before I run out of hyphens.) Yes, both grandfathers were itinerant laborers in their youth in the 1930s, a generation after my novel takes place. I think the romanticism came from my Grandpa Jess (my dad’s father), who made hopping a train sound a little like stowing away on a pirate ship, or maybe that was just to a kid whose favorite book was Treasure Island. The original Jess Walter rode the rails through the Dakotas, Montana, Idaho and Washington, looking for farm work during the Great Depression. My mother’s father, Ralph, was homeless with his mother and sister as a child and ended up working as a laborer in agriculture and on road crews in California. He died on a worksite before I was born but my brother and I are named after these grandfathers. I grew up working on my Grandpa Jess’s farm. I wasn’t always proud of my blue-collar roots; I wanted to be a sophisticate, which is hilarious to me now. But as I grew older, I became fascinated by what it means to be working-class, and I wrote this novel, in part, to honor the simple ethos of fairness and equality that my father passed on, which came from his lifelong involvement in union politics at the aluminum plant where he worked. We didn’t have a church growing up; labor equality was our religion.

That question of which comes first, character, voice or story, is tough for me, especially with a novel. I had the idea of writing about the free speech protests of 1909 for years before I got a foothold in the story. I made notes on characters and possible entries into the story. I did research, collected material, wrote various beginnings. I guess I felt like the novel was there waiting for me to find it. When I did find it, it was the language that coalesced for me, so much so that I just wanted to keep playing those notes on my guitar, riffing a world of bindlestiffs and Pinkertons, morbs and misery whips. Eventually, those other elements emerge and come together—story, character, voice—but language was the thing that made me excited to get to the desk every day.

AUTHORLINK: “Bindlestiffs?” Excellent! That’s interesting that the language of the era set you off! The Cold Millions starts in the gilded age and ends in the 1960s where labor created a whole middle class. Would you say the themes of the novel are social justice and youthful activism? Were these themes present from the outset or, did they ebb and flow with time? If so, why in your opinion, does that happen (i.e., that themes focus into the forefront, then fuzz out backstage later) and is it tied to what’s currently going on in a writer’s life? 

WALTER: Certain social justice themes were baked in from the beginning, because of the topic (and the fact that it’s based on real events and features some real people.) I certainly set out to address income inequality, which, in the 2010s had reached the level of the Gilded Age. But there were other timely issues that emerged as I wrote, like police brutality and the cost of political activism. Researching the early twentieth century I just kept finding echoes of American politics and rhetoric from the Trump years, whether it was anti-immigrant nationalism or animosity aimed at the homeless. Later, as I was working on the novel, my kids moved home because of the pandemic. They are liberals, like I am, but find themselves endlessly frustrated by the slow pace of change and the retrenchment of the radical right wing. I spent months trying to convince them that voting for Joe Biden was a good first step toward a more equitable and democratic country. It was during these conversations that I was glad I was writing a novel with protagonists who were 17 and 23, and a hero who was a nineteen-year-old pregnant woman fighting for the rights of women, immigrants and workers. It was as if the book was part of this conversation with my kids about how we can get involved and try to achieve a better world.

I’m not entirely sure how a writer’s life creeps into the work. For me, as a former journalist, I think I always have my eye on the world around me. During the Trump years, I found myself at so many protests with my wife and kids, standing up for science, for women and reproductive rights, for civil rights, and there’s no doubt this sense of everyday activism made its way into a book about the beginnings of nonviolent civil protest in America.

AUTHORLINK: We like how you describe this book as part of a conversation with you kids. The Cold Millions highlights the social unrest and class divisions in your hometown of Spokane, Washington in the early 1900s, particularly over workers’ rights. The person leading the fight was a remarkable, a 19-year-old pregnant labor activist from New York named Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. She was a suffragist, and, as a labor activist (ten years before women had the right to vote), was trying to fight for fairness and social justice.

How did it feel writing this character’s point of view and giving her ‘agency’ at a time when, almost by law, she was not afforded any?

WALTER: I’d wanted to write about Gurley Flynn for a long time. We have this idea in our mind of the early 1900s, sepia-toned, conservative, culturally unevolved, and yet here was this timeless dynamo, marching as a teenager into labor camps and getting tossed in jail for speaking on streetcorners of Western cities, fighting for the rights of workers and demanding the “emancipation of the vagina.” I certainly didn’t need to give this character “agency”;  the real-life Gurley Flynn wasn’t waiting for anyone to “give” her anything. I suppose I felt a real sense of responsibility to honor the real woman, even as I tried to create her as a fictional character. I really hoped this would spark more interest in a figure that had somehow slipped through the cracks of history. (She went on to help found the ACLU, to be a civil rights activist and chairwoman of the Communist Party USA.) By the same token, she is so singular that she was somewhat difficult to write about. In the end, my answer was to make her the hero of the story, but not its protagonist, and to reflect her through the eyes of Rye, whose relationship to her begins, I think, as a kind of crush, but becomes one of sheer admiration.

AUTHORLINK: One can easily draw comparisons even to today’s current political climate. Was this done unconsciously or on purpose?

In your opinion, why does youthful idealism and the desire to stand up against the things we think are wrong sometimes disappear as we grow older?

WALTER: Certainly I wanted to make comparisons between the class politics of 1909 and the broken politics of the current moment. I would tell people I was writing what I called a “contemporary historical novel.” The trick was to not get lost in the politics, and to avoid being didactic, preachy, speechy, or bending historical figures to the cultural norms of 2021. Much of writing fiction is getting various balances right (or trying) and I was balancing my desire to say something about the current time with my desire to tell a rip-roaring story adventure set in another time.

Your second question here is fascinating, and one that I asked myself throughout the summer of 2020 as I talked with my kids about the upcoming election. Part of the difference is patience and perspective. In my mid-fifties, I have seen America swing to the left with the counterculture and the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976, seen it swing to the right with the election of Ronald Reagan, seen the first African American president in Barak Obama and the dangerous swing toward a racist, reactional nationalism in the Trump years (and a dozen small swings back and forth in between.) I do believe in the moral arc of the universe swinging slowly, but inexorably toward justice. But by the same token, I think there is a danger in aging that we become tired and cynical, that we settle for the status quo. We lose our will to fight. Watching young people protest for common-sense gun reform, or walking out of school for climate change, or fighting for police reform—I envied them their energy, their commitment, their belief. Imagine surviving a school shooting and having adults say, There’s nothing we can do about that. My god, of course there is!

AUTHORLINK: Too true. It’s been eight years since your previous novel, the wonderful (and one of my favorite book club reads), Beautiful Ruins, was published. It sold over a million copies and has been translated into 25 languages. We understand it was written and rewritten and rewritten again, over the best part of fifteen years, while you were also working on other projects. You finished it in 2009 but then kept on working on it until it was published in 2012.

You said once, “I was pretty certain it was a failed piece, and I have several dozens of those in my desk drawers and my laptop” (Tampa Bay Times, 7 January 2015)

Why did you feel that way? Did you suffer a type of crisis of confidence? If so, in what way? What qualifies as a ‘failed piece’ that sits in your drawer?

WALTER: A crisis of confidence is such a funny phrase. It implies that the natural state is one of confidence. My internal monologue goes more like this: I don’t have this, I don’t have this, I don’t have this—wait, this is kind of good. Ooh, that moves me. That’s funny. Okay. Now on to the second sentence: I don’t have this, I don’t have this … I’m not very results-oriented when I’m writing, or at least when I’m writing well. When it’s working, I’m just in the pages themselves, in the story, joyfully lost, trying to figure out those 10,000 little issues and problems that constantly bedevil, all the balances and sounds and songs—letting the story and characters and language flow. Never once in the fifteen years did I think, This Italian/Hollywood/cannibalism story is my ticket to success if I can just finish it! Nor did I think, My career is over, that book sucks. I thought, I wonder what Dee did after Italy? I wonder what Richard Burton’s kid would be like? I wonder if I can write the beginning of a Hemingway-esque war novel, I wonder …

“No one, least of all me, ever imagined it would be as successful as it was.”

It wasn’t until I’d abandoned several drafts, finished one, rewritten it, showed it to my agent and editor, probably 13 or 14 years into writing it, that I thought, Hey, this could be pretty good. No one, least of all me, ever imagined it would be as successful as it was. But it’s not a better book because of that. It just is what it is. I’ve never really thought success should be defined externally. I wrote so many years for an audience of one—me—that I sort of think that if I like it, someone else will, too. It’s probably why my books don’t really follow much of a pattern of genre or voice. I’m not thinking like a marketing guy (clearly, or I would’ve had a novel ready to go sooner after that book’s biggest success.) I’m just trying to create things on the page that excite and move me.

AUTHORLINK: Your above response made us positively gleeful. 😊 Thank you for being so frank! There’s hope for the rest of us yet. We want to turn our attention to your craft of writing. We loved what you said to the New York Times last December 17th, “I think writers sometimes fall in love with this idea of ‘the gorgeous sentence,’ and it becomes their only definition of writing. But other elements are also part of writing; to me, an elegant narrative shape is every bit as beautiful as great prose.” We agree with your perspective.

How does one create an elegant narrative shape? Do you mean writing a story that connects with the reader beyond the elements of language, story and theme?

WALTER: I have spent most of my career happily mulling that question. As the Supreme Court once said about pornography, I’m not sure I can define it but I know it when I see it. Or perhaps I know it when I feel it. Sitting up in my chair as a story’s suspense builds, admiring a story that makes me wait for the resolution I want, or finding the surprising inevitability of a perfect ending. I think the first step in seeing the art in narrative is the way you speak about it. For years, I felt as if some writers treated “plot” as the most brutish element of writing, the white-trash cousin of style. Perhaps it’s being blue-collar myself, but I never saw it that way. I got such a thrill seeing the circular structure in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, watching patterns repeat (as well as names) until the book’s action circles back completely on itself.

That structural “return” is thematic, too, and it’s connected to character, in the DNA of the language, and you see it in every sentence, the way a leaf and a branch mirror the exact structure of a tree. I have taught classes where I encourage the writers to simply draw the shape of the story they’ve just read. There are no wrong answers. It’s just getting them to step back and think of story in a visual way, to see the way action rises and falls, or the bumps in the road or the squiggles or the topographical map. Or to imagine a story as a musical score or song—the bridge, the pre-chorus, the crescendo. If a writer treats plot as a dirty necessity to a higher art—well, that’s exactly what it will be. But when you begin to use artistic and metaphoric language to think about plot and structure, not surprisingly, your plot and structure will become more artistic and metaphoric.

AUTHORLINK: That’s brilliant. Would love to attend one of your classes. It almost sounds like tapping into ones synesthesia. In brief, kindly describe your working day:-

  • Hours writing/researching/editing?
  • How many times do you go through a manuscript?
  • Who proofreads your work? Who are your first readers?
  • Does your agent review your manuscript before it goes to your editor?
  • How many drafts of editing does your editor usually go through before your book is ready to be published?

“I don’t have any set number of revisions.”

WALTER: I always say that I write seven days a week, 365 days a year, and then a novel comes out and I feel like a hypocrite because I just spent a month Zooming here and there and maybe I got only an hour of writing in a day. But I do love to sit at the computer and noodle on stories and novels, and to waste hours in libraries doing research. I get to the desk most mornings by 5:30 or so. I have coffee and a cookie and I try to work until second breakfast. I get some exercise and then I try to answer emails. I don’t worry about how many hours I put in as long as I’m engaged in something, but I’m usually at work (with plenty of breaks for napping, reading, shooting hoops) until 4 or 5 in the afternoon. I don’t have any set number of revisions. I tend to start at the beginning of a story or chapter each day and revise until I get to the place where I have to start writing again.

My first readers are usually some combination of writer friends, my wife, and my agent, Warren Frazier, but I can be stingy about sharing until I think it’s ready. I proofread my work, print it out and read through it for errors. Nobody’s going to save you from your sloppiness.  I worked for years with a great editor, Cal Morgan, and I would share drafts with him and he and I would mostly talk about larger issues—where is this going, how can the voice be maintained. For The Cold Millions, I worked for the first time with a terrific new editor, Jennifer Barth, and we worked similarly. She gave me invaluable insight into places the story dragged, or drifted away from what I intended. Then I rewrote. I am probably unique in that I love to be edited well, and I have been lucky to have worked with editors who want to make my books better. That’s an amazing gift. But waiting for someone to do the hard work on your manuscript is folly. That’s your job. Every comma splice, every typo, every unbelievable plot twist—those are all mine too.

AUTHORLINK: Thanks for that. Do you believe there a noticeable discrepancy – arguably narrowed in the last few years – in the publishing industry about what is regarded as literature – as opposed to commercial work – by women? Do you believe the way a book is received (and reviewed) about relationships, or history written by a woman, is different if it were written by a man?

WALTER: Certainly. When I was growing up, the very image of the writer (i.e., Hemingway/Fitzgerald, Roth/Updike) was male and white. I think a turning point in this way of thinking was the famous 2010 Jonathan Franzen headline The Great American Novelist. (The correct Jeopardy answer: Who is Toni Morrison?) Undoubtedly, Franzen is a great American novelist. It’s that article “The” that tipped the headline writer’s hand, as surely as those chick-lit flourishes for years tipped the hand of publishers whose women novelists were writing, as Franzen had, about families or what was called “domestic fiction.” I certainly think the gender field has been somewhat leveled in the past ten years, in awards, in reviews, and more recently, in terms of race, queer fiction, and other kinds of writing that were traditionally marginalized. Nothing to say about that but—it’s about time. I will say, it was an interesting experience, with Beautiful Ruins, how many readers wrote to tell me they’d assumed I was a woman, because of the cover of that novel and the wistful romance at the heart of it. I always wrote the same thing back: “Thank you.”

AUTHORLINK: Ha! Yes, it certainly is about time – and so much more interesting! We understand you have playlists to listen to for each book you write. What kind of music did you listen to when writing The Cold Millions? Is it available for the readers to listen to while they read? Further, which of these writing tips would you recommend more than others:

  1. Keep a writing journal as you write
  2. Move onto another writing project, if you’re stuck
  3. Seek feedback from fellow writer friends
  4. Have naps during the day

“Work harder! Bring back the gloves! Take a narrative breath!”

WALTER: I don’t necessarily have a playlist for each novel. I do listen to music, usually in the background, as I write. Typically, it has nothing to do with the book itself. For this book, I shuffled a lot of old R&B, blues, alternative music and whatever our algorithmic overlords tell me I like. (And it freaks me out how right they are.)

As to the tips, those are all true, and you’ve ranked them perfectly, in my experience. My writing journals are not for posterity and include lots of short admonitions and notes for the book: “Work harder! Bring back the gloves! Take a narrative breath!”

It’s a fine balance, moving on to other projects when you’re stuck. With Beautiful Ruins (and to a lesser extent, with The Cold Millions, which also took more than ten years from first conception to completion) I proved to myself that I would come back to things if I let them sit. When I did come back, I felt like I saw them more clearly, but the worry is always that you won’t be able to animate them again, or that the paint will have dried. It’s how I work, moving from one thing to another, but I know other writers who need to stick with one project until they’ve wrestled it to the ground. I don’t think one size fits all in figuring out how to write through dry spells.

Similarly, with writer friends, I think it depends on the friend, and depends on the writer. Nothing is better than someone who can point out your blind spots, encourage you to keep moving forward, give you an outsider’s opinion on what you’ve done. But I don’t know your friends. Trust is required. And nothing is worse than hearing someone say they loved (Character C) and you thinking, but wait, that character isn’t even really part of the story. As with any relationship, you also have to be healthy and strong enough to weather the off-base compliments and the criticism. In the end, no one can save your writing but you.

I have no such qualifications about naps. In fact, if you are reading this, you should go take one immediately.

AUTHORLINK: Ha ha ha! Great, thank you. We loved what you said about your work ethic, “I grew up in a very blue-collar family and came at fiction through newspapers, so that daily work ethic is how I still approach writing. This doesn’t work, move to that, that doesn’t work, move to this. My dad worked for 40 years in an aluminum plant. I don’t think he ever got ‘aluminum block.’ (Kenyon Review, 16 July 2012) How has this held you together all these years? How do you relax?

“The work of writing is easy. Writing well is hard.”

WALTER: If my dad saw my grueling, 12-hour work day he would laugh his steelworker ass right off. I wear myself out drinking coffee, eating cookies, sitting at a comfy desk, cracking myself up, making myself cry, reading a book about old labor songs, reading a paragraph out loud, rewriting it, writing a new paragraph, shooting nerf hoops, looking up a word in the Thesaurus, looking finally at my phone. Ooh, 10 a.m., time for second breakfast. Then maybe I take a bike ride. Then back to the desk. Answer emails. Read a book. Write a few more sentences. Take a nap. (My dad: Wait, when does work start?) On the weekends, I can’t wait to get out to my office to have a cookie, crack myself up, read a book, shoot nerf hoops . . . The work of writing is easy. Writing well is hard. Creating something great is damn near impossible. But I find joy in the process of trying. I suppose, in the end, I like the way musicians talk about it. They don’t say they’re going to work. They say they’re going to play. That’s what I try to do.

AUTHORLINK: Laughed out loud with this one. Your first book, the nonfiction Ruby Ridge: The Truth and Tragedy of the Randy Weaver Family, became a television miniseries, and now Beautiful Ruins, is going to be made into a film with Niki Caro, of Mulan fame, directing and produced by Sam Mendes and Steven Spielberg! How thrilling for you. Describe your reaction. Any ideas of who will be starring? Will you be able to/want to work on the screenplay?

Any film production offers for The Cold Millions or not yet? Who could you see playing Rye, Gig and Elizabeth?

” There is some talk of The Cold Millions being a limited TV series…”

WALTER: There is some talk of The Cold Millions being a limited TV series, which would be wonderful. But there are few things on the planet that are as boring as the behind-the-scenes dealings of Hollywood. (Meeting. Bottled water. Contract. Collapse. Meeting. Bottled water. Contract. Collapse. Lather, rinse, repeat.) It’s like watching someone run an 800-meter hurdle race over a period of ten years. (And each time they clear a hurdle, Variety runs a story.) I’ve had books in development for ten, fifteen years. Until I’m eating popcorn, watching it on the screen, it’s all just talk.

As far as casting, I never think of my characters that way. I grew up next to a drive-in movie theater and whenever producers used to ask my dream cast, I’d always say the same thing: Steve McQueen and Raquel Welch. Weirdly, they stopped asking.

AUTHORLINK: We loved how you said this once, “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.” What are you working on now? Are you able to talk about it?

WALTER: I tend to want to write away from the thing I just finished, so I’m writing a book of short stories and a novel that is contemporary and funny, and hopefully a little bit sexy. I sort of want it to have a femme fatale in it. And to be set somewhere sunny so I can go do “research.”

AUTHORLINK: Perhaps Greece? And just for some lighthearted Proust-like questions, to finish off:-

  1. What’s the last book you read that made you laugh?
  2. Which living person do you most admire?
  3. Which other talent would you most like to have?

WALTER: 1. Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet—absurd and hilarious. 2. Stacey Abrams. 3. Other talent? That implies I have one. I have always wanted to be musical.

AUTHORLINK: That’s great. Mr Walter, it was such a wonderful experience talking to you today. Thank you so much for your time. We can’t wait to see Beautiful Ruins, the movie and we wish you continued success for The Cold Millions!

WALTER: Thanks you!

About the Author: Jess Walter is the author of nine books, most recently the national bestseller The Cold Millions and #1 New York Times bestseller, Beautiful RuinsThe Zero, finalist for the National Book Award; and Citizen Vince, winner of the Edgar Award.

His work has been published in 32 languages and his short fiction has appeared three times in Best American Short Stories.

You can find out more about Jess Walter at https://www.facebook.com/JessWalterAuthor, https://www.instagram.com/jesswalterbooks/ and http://www.jesswalter.com/.

About Anna Roins: Anna Roins is a Senior Lawyer, previously of the Australian Government Solicitor, as well as a freelance journalist.

She has studied creative literature at The University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London. Anna is a regular contributor to AUTHORLINK assigned to conduct interviews with best-selling authors. She also tries to write novels in her spare time, reviews books and writes community pieces for reputable online and print publications.

You can find out more about Anna Roins at https://www.facebook.com/anna.roins, and https://twitter.com/Roinsstar.

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