That’s Jess Walter in Salon more than a year ago, talking about Beautiful Ruins. The interview provides a peek inside the mind of a smart storyteller who worked to bring shape and form to a novel over the course of 15 years. What’s remarkable is that the story reads so seamlessly, given all that work and thinking. And time.
Walter started writing in 1997 with only the beginning in mind—and didn’t know what would happen or where it would go. He said it went through so many versions that it’s “hard to trace” how the pieces came together.
Says Walter: “All I had was a single chapter or two (and then three) of Dee arriving in Pasquale’s town (very different from the final first chapter) and I couldn’t seem to get past those first chapters: a woman arrives in a small Italian town and meets this man, and she’s sick and uh, then … uh … uh … I didn’t know what happened next.”
Walter may not have known immediately “what happened next” but he found the pieces, through research and reading, and started stitching them together.
The result is a whimsical, wide-open story. It’s nearly frothy in spots. On the page, the flow is effortless. Walter leaves large gaps for readers to fill on their own. The plot is intricate, lurching back and forth over time, and also remarkably simple—a love story between two unlikely people. You might think a book that required so much thinking to write would start to get weighed down, but Walter seems to have found the pieces he needed and then hooked up the helium tank to his keyboard.
The stories move quickly and the cast is large. There’s a young Italian, Pasquale Tursi, with dreams of fashioning a new resort out of the rocky Italian coast. He’s earnest and a big dreamer, but not smart enough to know that you need fences around a tennis court if you’re playing the sport on a high cliff by the ocean.
There’s the young actress, Dee Moray, who arrives with a somewhat mysterious-odd illness. There’s a struggling American writer, Alvis Bender. And then there’s a big-shot Hollywood producer, who once upon a time played a key role in rescuing the over-budget effort to film “Cleopatra” in Rome with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The producer, Michael Deane, has endured so many procedures on his body that he appears “prematurely embalmed.” Deane is the glue to the story; the fixer.
There’s an erstwhile screenwriter who is pitching a movie about cannibalism and The Donner Party to Deane. And there’s the producer’s assistant, Claire, who takes filmmaking seriously and is a bit ashamed to be working with Deane, whose only recent claim to fame—and its not so recent—is a television reality show about dating called “Hookbook.”
And then there’s a struggling rock star who turns out to be the son of…well, no spoiler alerts here.
The stories hum along. We are well anchored in each character’s hopes and dreams. There’s a fair amount of light, frisky raunch that keeps the energy going. Everyone seems to want a taste of fame and the ones who have it (the Richard Burton sections are hilarious) don’t seem to care.
There are stories within stories. We are treated to sample screenplays, the first chapter from Bender’s World War II novel, The Smile of Heaven, and The Rejected First Chapter of Michael Deane’s Memoir.
Walter’s shifts the styles and tone and he makes it look easy. He doesn’t spare a dime from the budget of his imagination. Beautiful Ruins dances on the page. It’s a bit of a marvel that it grew out of simple idea that took years to shape.
Walter saves his sharpest and hottest skewers for Hollywood and maybe that’s too easy and too obvious, as targets go. Some of the characters border on cartoon, particularly Michael Deane, but in the end we are left with real people and their very human struggles and their efforts to reconcile their hopes and dreams with how their lives fared.
By splintering the focus among so many characters, Beautiful Ruins loses some impact, at least for me. I admired the pieces and the characters. I enjoyed reading every bit of it, except for the too-long finish in Idaho. But in the end, I wasn’t sure what I’d consumed. It seemed to be more storytelling than substantive story. And, ironically enough, I think it would make a perfect Hollywood movie.