Shelf Life

Exploring the ‘Beautiful Ruins’ of the American Dream

Kai Ryssdal Aug 17, 2012
Shelf Life

Exploring the ‘Beautiful Ruins’ of the American Dream

Kai Ryssdal Aug 17, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: At some point, most of us dream about making it. Doing whatever it is we always wanted to do. Whether that’s climbing the ladder at Goldman Sachs, writing the Great American Novel or whatever.

But make it or not, even the attempt can be a struggle. Jess Walter’s latest novel, “Beautiful Ruins,” is about that dream and the struggle to get there. Characters both here and abroad in a story told over 50 years who aim high, but fall short in the end. The one thing that ties them together: The movie business.

Jess, good to have you on.

Jess Walter: Thanks for having me.

Ryssdal: So, I don’t know want to start this out on a downer, but this is your second book in a row — we had you on for “The Financial Lives of the Poets” a couple of years ago — this is your second book in a row of career dreams that don’t really pan out.

Walter: Are there any other kind of career dreams?

Ryssdal: I don’t know; mine worked out all right.

Walter: Maybe it’s just a novelist’s job. Usually you’re sort of courting heartbreak when you’re a novelist, but I think it is a generational moment in which we’re wondering what the American Dream is and what’s left for the second generation, this period of sort of diminishment, I think, of expectation. I think the giant houses are shrinking back; I feel like we might be in this period of sort of more reasonable expectations. So maybe it isn’t that they’re diminished, but that they were too grand at one time. We expected to have it all, in some way.

Ryssdal: This is a book, actually, that goes back to the period when America was on the rise, 1962, and Americans abroad — and we were it, man.

Walter: Yeah. I’m so drawn to that period — I drive a 1963 Lincoln Continental convertible.

Ryssdal: Do you really?

Walter: Yeah.

Ryssdal: Does it have suicide doors?

Walter: It has suicide doors, yeah. The only unfortunate thing is that it’s painted orange right now.

Ryssdal: All right, you’ve got to fix that.

Walter: I think it’s nine miles to the gallon of premium, with a little STP added, just to keep it going. But I love that period of time. Especially when you’re writing about Hollywood, it’s a period in which America’s only ascendant — you can’t imagine anything else. And there’s a great romance to that period, which is why the novel begins in Italy in 1962 with this American actress.

Ryssdal: Yeah, there is romance, there’s America ascendant — you can see this book. Let me ask you: Why the movies?

Walter: I sort of had a grand sweeping view of this whole thing. And the title “Beautiful Ruins” refers to the characters, to the locations, to just about everything. But it’s also kind of the ruins of America and looking at ‘What did we produce?’ If archaeologists come along 500 years from now, it might just be our movies that they look at. This was, you know, the entertainment industry was — is — the thing that export to the rest of the world. So thematically, that’s why.

As far as characters, when you think about ambition, you think about — every character in this novel is someone who tells the story of themselves. And it’s a bit of self-deception, it’s a bit of public relations, but they’re all engaged in telling some version of themselves, which is such an American pursuit. We don’t just live our lives now — we sort of narrate them on Facebook and Twitter and ‘Look at what I’m doing, here’s what I’m doing.’ And that seemed to me a by-product of living our lives. If you ask an American: “What does your life resemble?” Without any prompting, most of them will say a movie. That’s the metaphor they’ll choose is, “My life is a movie.” I mean, I think it’s kind of our national religion without us even seeing it.

Ryssdal: It seems to me there are two things in this world that have a unique capacity to make you unhappy. One is love, right? And the other one is the work.

Walter: Yeah, right. Yeah, I think that’s right. And most of the people I meet in Hollywood, it’s a fascinating place — and I don’t know it well, I drop in every once in a while.

Ryssdal: He says nonchalantly.

Walter: Yeah, yeah. And I meet people who really got into this business as a creative outlet. Most people I meet want to make something great. They grew up on “The Godfather,” “Serpico” or “Apocalypse Now,” and they want to make something great. And there’s this system in place that no one seems to like, and you wonder then why is this system there? Why do all these people who want to make something great keep getting chewed up by a system that seems beyond their control?

Ryssdal: Jess Walter. His new book is called “Beautiful Ruins,” there’s an excerpt here. Jess, thanks a lot.

Walter: Thanks Kai.

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