The setting is serene, a cliff-side town set in Italy’s alluring Cinque Terre coastline: where a lonely young man and his widowed mother go about their isolated lives, barely hearing from or being heard by anyone. Until one day, a mysterious boat bearing a beautiful American actress arrives at the dock, seeking lodging for the young woman at the family’s small hotel…and a mystery wrapped in decades that spans continents unfolds in Jess Walter’s captivating novel, Beautiful Ruins.
This story’s appeal captured the attention of the Wilmette Public Library’s One Book program, a multi-month initiative including exclusive programs on the Cinque Terre presented by Select Italy. Before this program, however, we wanted to dig to the heart of the matter, to understand the man who wrote the saga that portrays the Italian culture so poignantly, seducing the reader to fall in love with the imperfect beauty of the Italian land, the people, and their culture. We asked Jess Walter a few questions regarding his experience and interest in Italy, and his insights not only enrich the understanding of the man behind the book, but the story inside, as well.
SI: What is your personal experience with Italy and the Italian culture?
Jess Walter: My wife is second-generation Italian. We first went in 1997 and I fell in love with the culture, the food, the language, all of it. After visiting my wife’s cousins in Rome and Milan we made our way into the Levante and I fell in love with the cliff-side towns of the Cinque Terre. I thought it would be a great place to set a novel. I went back a couple of times to research it, although, in the end, like most novelists, you have to leave the research behind and trust that you can create your own Italy (including inventing my own village) hopefully as believable and visceral as the real place. I set the Italian parts of the novel in the 1960s, in part, because I wanted to represent Italy at a time before the Cinque Terre had been discovered by American tourists. As a former journalist, I use research to immerse myself in new places and times
SI: Do you speak Italian fluently?
Jess Walter: No, I barely speak the language at all. I relied on translation and Italian grammar books, help from relatives and an Italian professor I hired as a translator. The Italian and English phrases are braided throughout the novel in a way that will hopefully allow American readers to understand what’s happening while giving a feel for place and its language. One of the recurring themes of the novel is the way in which people miscommunicate, so often it was key that the characters not understand one another.
SI: Why the Cinque Terre, in particular Porta Vorgogna?
Jess Walter: Porto Vergogna is a made-up village. I wanted to create a village as remote as possible and when I was hiking the Cinque Terre I saw small clusters of houses that weren’t big enough to be villages so I simply imagined a tiny village between Portovenere and the Cinque Terre, a sixth land.
SI: What impression of Italy do you hope your readers take away from this book?
Jess Walter: The Italy of the novel is fictionalized, of course and is, in some ways, more tied to the film culture of the 1960s. It’s not, and is not meant to be, a travelogue or a depiction of modern Italy. It’s a story about the romance of youth and Italy represents, for Dee Moray, that kind of romantic place that could live in a person’s memories for decades, the way it lived in mine for fifteen years while I worked on the novel.
SI: Do you travel to Italy often? What is your favorite spot and your favorite aspect of the Italian culture?
Jess Walter: I’ve only been there a few times, but I do love the culture–the incredible art, the food, the cinema, just the feel of Italian life. On the first day my wife and I went to the Cinque Terre it was the off-season and we woke in our hotel, the only tourists in Monterosa al-Mare, and walked to the other villages. It was beautiful, perfectly relaxing and lovely.
Jess Walter is the author of the national bestseller The Financial Times Poets, the National Book Award Finalist The Zero, the Edgar Award-winning Citizen Vince, Land of the Blind, and the New York Times Notable Book Over Tumbled Graves. He lives in Spokane, Washington, with his family.