By Lynn West
Gather up your book club and spend the evening of Wednesday, September 30, with Jess Walter, an award-winning Washington writer who will headline the second annual Les Bailey Writers Series at Saint Martin’s University. Walter’s 2012 novel, “Beautiful Ruins,” spent more than a year on the New York Times Best Sellers List. Walter will discuss his craft, what it takes to become a writer and will read some of his award-winning writing.
I have been fortunate to briefly cross paths with Les Bailey and Jess Walter over the years. Les Bailey, Ph.D. was a gifted and inspiring English professor at Saint Martin’s for 35 years until his death in 2010. He was also chair of the English Program and dean of humanities, and it was in this capacity that I knew him. He was a genuine human being. Olivia Archibald, Ph.D., an English professor at Saint Martin’s who taught with Les Bailey for 10 years, echoes my description and also calls him a true gentleman.
“He was Saint Martin’s and that is why Holly Harmon and the late Carleen Jackson, both former Saint Martin’s administrators, and I initiated the Les Bailey Endowment and Writers Series shortly after his death,” explains Archibald. “We wanted to bring writers of note to campus to share their work, which was an important part of Bailey’s teaching philosophy.”
Jess Walter fits this philosophy perfectly as he often alludes to the influence his first college writing class had on his career. His teacher for that class was my good friend Donald Wall, Ph.D., English professor at Eastern Washington University. Even before Jess Walter’s first book was published, I remember Don talking about what a bright guy and outstanding writer he was. Sadly, the last time I heard Walter speak was delivering Don’s eulogy a few years ago.
In the eulogy, Walter recounted a story in a 2001 article, entitled, “Recollections of Favorite Professors,” for the EWU alumni magazine, Perspectives: “You’ve been telling people you are going to be a writer since you were 8,when you ran a newspaper from the basement and called your collection of comics a library,” he said. “Then, you are 18 and land in Dr. Wall’s honors English class.”
He described himself as being somewhat of a slacker as a student but in this class, he met his match. “After getting a D on my first essay in this class,” he reminisced, “I met with Dr. Wall and confessed I was going to be a writer. His response was, ‘You have a lot more to read before you can be a writer.’” He dedicated his 1995 novel, “Every Knee Shall Bend” to Don, using Don’s response.
I definitely saw the more serious side of Jess Walter at Don’s memorial service. However, Gwendolyn Cash James, an English professor at Spokane Community College and friend of Walter’s, says we can expect him to be “a dynamic speaker, hilarious and engaging, compassionate and pithy.” James has also worked with Walter at the Get Lit Festival, a yearly Spokane literary event.
James suggests getting a flavor of what to expect in advance by listening to Walter on the podcast called “A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment”, where he collaborates with his friend Sherman Alexie, another famous Washington writer. Another friend, local writer Jim Lynch, author of “The Highest Tide,” will provide Walter’s introduction at Saint Martin’s. David Ammons, communications director of the Office of the Washington Secretary of State and a member of the Les Bailey Writers Series Writer Selection Committee, will serve as master of ceremonies.
Of course, the best way to get to know Jess Walter is by reading his work. In addition to writing eight books, he has worked as a career journalist, ghostwriter, screenwriter and teacher of writing. He has likened the office where he writes to a car shop or a garage, “…Where all of the vehicles are up on blocks and I am trying to put together something that works.”
This ability to talk about his craft was important to the selection committee, chaired by Mary Gentry, a retired attorney and local writer. According to Gentry, the selection committee weighs not only the writer’s ability to articulate the writing routine, but the writer must also have community appeal and material that can be used in college classrooms.
As a Northwest writer, many of Walter’s settings are familiar to local readers. The streets of Spokane and surrounding areas appear in many of his works and “Beautiful Ruins”concludes in Sandpoint, Idaho.
Walter’s works have earned him many prestigious nominations and awards. His short story, “Mr. Voice,” has been selected for Best American Short Stories 2015. He has been a finalist for the PEN/USA Literary Prize and the 2006 National Book Award, and twice won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award. In 2005, he won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for “Citizen Vince.”
Archibald concluded, “We are working hard to keep Les Bailey’s legacy alive.” Jess Walter will become a Les Bailey Writers Fellow, the honor bestowed on each writer who participates in the series.
Come early to the Norman Worthington Conference Center on Saint Martin’s campus on September 30. The event is free, begins at 7:00 p.m. and is open to the public. Judging by last year’s event, it will be a full house.