Auntie's: What is the connection between Over Tumbled Graves and the serial killings for which Robert L. Yates has been convicted?
Jess Walter: I used the Yates case as research, but this is a different story. As a reporter, I wrote about four serial killers, and several other murderers, many of them sexually motivated. Itís horrifying to realize how many men have been stalking women in Spokane. I wanted to write about what that does to a city. But this is not a book about the Yates case. I finished it before Yates was even arrested. I was actually haunted more by three murders that Yates didnít take responsibility for Ė the killings in the early 1990s along the river. I borrowed details from that case and Yates and others, but this is a novel with its own characters, its own series of events, its own fictional world.
Auntie's: Why did you want to write a novel about such events?
JW:You write about the world you see. I was a 21-year-old newspaper reporter when I saw my first dead body. That kind of renders the normal coming-of-age fiction obsolete. I set out to write a literary crime novel. I like novels with more at stake than whether Pam will fall in love or whether Todd will overcome his speech impediment. And I like suspense novels that donít insult my intelligence with stock characters and ridiculous contrivances. Richard Price, Pete Dexter and Elmore Leonard create well-crafted crime novels that are really about humanity. Thatís what I aspire to. A lot of great stories get dumped into ďgenreĒ categories. If it were published today, The Brothers Karamazov would probably be dismissed as a murder mystery.
Auntie's: The title of your novel comes from T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. What are you doing reading poetry, anyway? : - )
JW: My cable was out for a few days. Actually, thatís my snooty literary side (the side my publisher would probably like me to ignore). This is a very readable suspense novel that echoes the structure and themes of ďThe Waste Land.Ē Iíve always loved the dark mood of that poem. The novel shares its images of a river bearing witness to death and decay. Eliotís allusions can be intimidating, but if you just read the poem, itís wonderful. In the novel, the protagonist, Caroline Mabry, had a double major in college: criminal justice and poetry Ė the two sides of her personality.
Auntie's:What kinds of research went into writing this novel?
J.W.:I started by reading every book by FBI profilers. I interviewed cops and an FBI profiler, read autopsy reports, traveled (twice) to New Orleans. Most of the novel, though, comes from living in Spokane and spending a decade as a reporter here. In the end, I ran some old Adam-12 crap past a former detective and friend of mine and heíd say, Cops donít do that, or bodies donít smell like that. But this is fiction. The test is not: Does that happen? Itís more: Can that happen?
Auntie's: Do you see any connections between this book and your earlier books, all of which are nonfiction?
J.W.: I suppose I grew somewhat cynical seeing the Ruby Ridge and O.J. Simpson cases up close, watching justice get drowned out by personalities, politics and greed. That cynicism is certainly reflected in the novel. Iím drawn to crime because I think writers should go after stories with the greatest potential for drama or humor or horror or whatever it is youíre trying to get at.
Auntie's:How did you come up with the character of Caroline Mabry? Please describe her.
J.W.: The most important thing about Caroline is her sense of irony. I needed someone to register the ridiculous along with the horrific. Sheís my favorite kind of hero, self-deprecating and funny, but also smarter, tougher and braver than she thinks she is. I chose a female detective because the sexual nature of a serial killer is so basic, I needed someone to feel that to her bones. Caroline was pretty easy to write. If you believe the character youíve created, they begin to do all the work and you just transcribe it.
Auntie's:What was it like writing about Spokane, the city where you live?
J.W.:It was tough at first because my own ambivalence toward my hometown that was coming out. I ended up just going straight at it Ė writing a section in which the main character thinks about how every young person in Spokane is either on his way out of town or making excuses for still being here. I hate that, especially when Iíve heard it come out of my mouth. People here speak about Spokane like theyíre in an abusive relationship. ďIf I just stick it out a little longer, I know it will change.Ē
Auntie's: What did you enjoy most--and least--about writing this novel?
J.W.:Most? I love everything about writing fiction. Being paid to write fiction is like winning a $10 lottery ticket every day. Youíre not going to get rich, but damn, if you donít feel lucky. At its best, writing a novel is not so different from reading one. The characters begin to move around on their own and you just canít wait to see how the whole thing turns out.
Least? Writing is a very solitary business. The office politics tend to be a little dull. Not a lot going on around the water cooler. On the bright side, when I got drunk at the office Christmas party, no one was offended.
J.W.:Right now, Iím trying to get a screenplay made into a movie. Iím also deep into a comic novel about a lawyer (also set in Spokane) and Iím under contract to write two more novels, including some sort of follow-up to Over Tumbled Graves. Iím also trying to put together an office bowling team.