There are magicians who practice sleight of hand, and then there are novelists who do the same with words, and no one does that trick better than Jess Walter. His fans include Barack Obama, and whether he is writing about the making of Cleopatra (Beautiful Ruins), a two-bit crook (Citizen Vince), or a pair of brothers during a strike in Spokane (The Cold Millions), Walter never fails to amaze. He is also a wizard at conjuring short stories, with his most recent collection, The Angel of Rome, published this year. Along with Steph Cha, he edited the 2022 collection of Best American Mystery and Suspense.

JIM KELLY: In your latest book of short stories, the title piece, “The Angel of Rome,” has a line that I think sums up so much of what animates your fiction: “This is the problem with living in fantasies; we so often fail to account for ourselves being in them.” And this observation by the character Jack Rigel is prompted by the sleeves on his beloved leather jacket being too big. Your empathy for your characters and how they handle the improbable circumstances they find themselves in is quite winning. What inspired “The Angel of Rome,” which by the way has a hilarious scene of mistranslated courtship worthy of Kingsley Amis?

JESS WALTER: First, thank you. The “Angel of Rome” story began with a conversation between myself and the great Edoardo Ballerini (who had masterfully narrated my book Beautiful Ruins) about my favorite neighborhood in Rome, Trastevere. Edoardo had studied Latin at the Vatican as a young man, and I thought that would make such a great setup for a story set there. I tried to use the place—Italy—and the milieu—the world of cinema—to revisit my favorite elements of Beautiful Ruins.

It was fun collaborating with Edoardo; we even had a “table read” of the story, going back and forth on lines and ways to read them. I think that process gave the story its big cinematic sweep. The humor came pretty naturally out of the big, unlikely scenario I began envisioning, and Edoardo’s embodiment of the characters really opened them up for me. I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun than when I had all of the elements in place and I got to write these big, comic scenes about language and desire.

The realization Jack has, about failing to account for ourselves in our fantasies, is something I find myself writing about a lot. And I really did buy such a leather jacket one time, in Florence, on the Ponte Vecchio, from a leather salesman who insisted it looked great on me, even as it hung off my shoulders. For years, every time I put that coat on, my self-delusion hit me right in the sleeves, until I finally gave it to a taller friend.

J.K.: In your previous collection, We Live in Water, the title story may be one of the most perfect short stories I have ever read, cutting between time periods and points of view and managing to be both sweet and devastating. How do you decide what makes a short story and what makes a novel?

J.W.: Typically, for me, a short story reveals itself during the writing. I’ll have some idea, or hear the voice of the character, or experiment with some new form, and after writing for a while I can simply see the story closing the door that I’ve opened. With a novel, it just keeps expanding to fill your imagination, posing new questions, moving through time, surprising you in the places that it goes.

But I love stories with a big sweep and scope, and with big, bold moves through time. I remember reading Alice Munro for the first time and feeling the full sweep of a novel in a few pages.

The story “We Live in Water” came to me in a couple of images that connected—a man on an aircraft carrier looking at the horizon and seeing where sky and water connect and his son watching fish in an aquarium—and when those scenes were written, and the connections were made, it felt as if the movement I’d begun when I started the story had completed itself, in 8,000 words instead of 100,000.

In the end, the father, having been through the ordeal related in the story, recalls that horizon and comes to see that everything that made up his flawed life (vanities, loves, failures) exists in a tiny band of gray splitting the horizon between the eternities of sky and sea. At that point, the story feels to me like it’s completed, and I’m ready to move on.

J.K.: Obama named We Live in Water as one of his favorite books of 2019, which both delighted and surprised me since I had not pegged him as a reader of short stories.

J.W.: I was so surprised and so pleased. What an unlikely thing! The book had been out for six years by that point. It wasn’t some trendy, flashy title. The publishing world so often focuses on how a book is launched, putting all of the marketing behind the book’s first week in print. The truth is that books are beloved because of word of mouth, one reader telling another reader. Or, in this case, the brilliant, generous former president telling a lot of readers.

There is not a lot to do with a great thing like that except to smile, blush, and open a file on a new story. I have always wanted to play basketball with President Obama, but I suppose I’ll just have to settle for him reading me.

J.K.: I marvel not just at your productivity but at its variety. The Cold Millions, for example, is a novel about two brothers from Montana who come to a strike-troubled Spokane in the early 1900s, Citizen Vince is about a small-time crook in 1980 whose past catches up to him, and The Financial Lives of the Poets centers on a laid-off financial journalist who becomes a drug-dealing police informant. Yet each book is in some way about redemption. Are you secretly a Jesuit priest?

J.W.: Haha. Finally a yes/no question.

No, I am most certainly not a Jesuit priest. Or Catholic. Or religious. If I did belong to a church, the saints would all be comic, hapless, accident-prone, and constantly having their vanities punctured by humor. I suppose I do pride myself on the variety in my books, but I don’t think of it that way until someone points it out. It’s kind of cliché, but I really do just write the next thing I want to read, and since I read across genres and eras, I suppose it makes sense I’d write across them, too. I do find a certain creative energy in challenging myself to try new things on the page, new points of view, new story types, new characters.

J.K.: Beautiful Ruins, which came out in 2012 and is loosely based on the making of Cleopatra and the romance of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, has become for me the definitive account of La Dolce Vita, the early 1960s, and Hollywood all rolled into one. How much time did you spend in the Cinque Terre researching the novel, and were you surprised by its success? Is there a chance it might become a film?

J.W.: I went to the Cinque Terre twice, first in 1997 and again in about 2009, to research that novel. The second time I went, I’d finished a very disappointing draft and needed a burst of inspiration, and hiking the trails, eating and drinking wine in cliff-side trattorias, I certainly got inspired. And maybe a little drunk.

I was very surprised by its success. I was in New York at the world’s smallest book party (my agent, my editor, and my nephew) when I found out it had made the best-seller list. It was like winning a beauty pageant you don’t recall entering. But I love that so many people have met those characters over the years; after 15 years working on that book, I was especially fond of them.

I don’t know if Beautiful Ruins will ever make its way onto screens. When you write a satire of Hollywood, you certainly can’t be surprised if the Hollywood version doesn’t work out. I’d love to see it, but there is a part of me that will be even happier if I’m the last word on those characters.

J.K.: It may be due to a lack of imagination on my part, but I do find it a bit amazing that the same person who wrote Every Knee Shall Bow, a deeply reported book about the fatal encounter between Randy Weaver and his family and the F.B.I. in Idaho in 1992, is the same person who has written all these novels and short stories. (Every Knee Shall Bow was the basis for the 1996 TV drama The Siege at Ruby Ridge, starring Randy Quaid and Laura Dern.) Obviously, you are a terrific reporter. How did the turn to fiction come about? And do you miss traditional reporting?

J.W.: I went into newspapers first because I was a young father from a working-class family. I always wanted to be a novelist, but with college debt and a toddler I could no more afford an M.F.A. than I could a second home. Or, actually, a first home. So I took that once reliable path to learning to write: journalism.

It was the best grad school I could have hoped for, and I mourn the fact that it’s less and less a viable alternative to the academic side of writing. (I think we fail to factor how education can be a class barrier to many writers.) What started as a fallback became a second passion. I loved being a reporter, and my coverage of the standoff at Ruby Ridge was kind of the culmination of my eight years of newspaper work. I was part of a team that was a finalist for a Pulitzer, and I used that story to teach myself how to write long-form narrative.

I was also reading and writing fiction during those years, and after the book was published I had a very small foothold in the publishing world and started a long transition back to the thing I’d dreamed of since I was a kid: seeing my name on the jacket of a novel.

J.K.: Are there two or three writers you especially admire or feel have been influential? And how do you structure your writing days?

J.W.: Unfortunately there aren’t two or three; there are two or three hundred, two or three thousand. But when I used to teach, I’d tell people to come up with a rotating list of their Holy Literary Trinity. (Wow, maybe I am secretly a Jesuit!) Mine used to include Kurt Vonnegut, Joan Didion, and Don DeLillo, and then it was Alice Munro, Gabriel García Márquez, and E. L. Doctorow, but then it became Percival Everett, James Welch, and Denis Johnson, and …

My days are pretty well structured. I lug a latte and a big cookie to the desk every morning at 5:30, then I work until 10 or so, go have second breakfast, take a nap, go get some exercise (usually basketball, swimming, or biking), then take a nap, then do some more work, then start thinking about happy hour.

The one rule I have is to not answer e-mails or phone calls until after 10. Most days, when people are just starting their second hour of work, I’ve gotten in all the writing I can manage for the day. I’m such a sweet boss that I find myself wanting to work for myself seven days a week, to venture out with a cookie and my daydreams every single day.

J.K.: I want to stress again not just how good your fiction is but also how drily amusing so much of it is. You are married with three children. I trust they appreciate how droll you must be around the house.

J.W.: Oh, thank you. A good sense of humor is a requirement in our family. My wife and kids are expert teasers, of me and each other. My dad was kind of the Jedi master. He just passed away after a long illness, and my brother and sister and I were so happy to include this line in his obituary: “Bruce had a devilish sense of humor, and passed on his love of roasting to his kids—one boy, one girl, and one disappointment.” I would be honored for my kids to write such a line about me.

Jess Walter’s The Angel of Rome: And Other Stories is out now from Harper. Walter is also the editor, with Steph Cha, of this year’s collection of Best American Mystery and Suspense

Jim Kelly is the Books Editor for AIR MAIL