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Author uses facts to create award-winning fiction

By Carolina Astrain
March 18, 2013 at 10:04 p.m.
Updated March 18, 2013 at 10:19 p.m.


An excerpt from 'CITIZEN VINCE'

One day you know more dead people than live ones.

The thought greets Vince Camden as he sits up in bed, frantic, casting around a dark bedroom for proof of his existence and finding only props: nightstand, dresser, ashtray, clock.

Vince breathes heavily.

Sweats in the cool air.

Rubs his eyes to shake the dust of these musings, not a dream exactly, this late-sleep panic-fine glass thin as paper, shattered and swirling, cutting as it blows away.

Vince Camden pops his jaw, leans over, and turns off the alarm just as the one, five, and nine begin their fall.

Each morning at 1:59 he sits up like this and turns off the clock radio in the split second before two and the shrill blast of alarm.

He wonders: How is a thing like that possible?

And yet ... if you can manage such a trick - every morning waking up a few ticks before your alarm goes off - why couldn't you count all the dead people you know?

START WITH GRANDPARENTS.

Two sets.

One grandfather had a second wife.

That's five.

Vince runs a toothbrush over his molars.

Mother and father.

Seven.

Does a stillborn sister count?

No.

A person has to have been alive to be dead.

By the time he finishes his shower, blow-dries his hair, and gets dressed - gray slacks, long-sleeve black dress shirt, two buttons open - he's gone through family, neighbors, and former associates: already thirty-four people he knows to be dead.

Wonders if that's high, if it's normal to know so many dead people.

Normal.

That word tails him from a safe distance most days.

He opens a drawer and pulls out a stack of forged credit cards, looks at the names on the cards: Thomas A. Spaulding. Lane Bailey. Margaret Gold.

He imagines Margaret Gold's lovely normal life, a crocheted afghan tossed over the back of her sofa.

How many dead people could Margaret Gold possibly know?

Vince counts out ten credit cards - including Margaret Gold's - and puts these in the pocket of his windbreaker.

Fills the other pocket with Ziploc bags of marijuana.

It's 2:16 in the morning when Vince slides his watch onto his wrist, careful not to catch the thick hair on his forearm.

Oh yeah, Davie Lincoln - retarded kid used to carry money in his mouth while he ran errands for Coletti in the neighborhood.

Choked on a half-dollar.

Thirty-five.

Vince stands in the tiny foyer of his tiny house, if you can call a coatrack and a mail slot a foyer.

Zips his windbreaker and snaps his cuffs out like a Vegas dealer leaving the table.

Steps out into the world.

SOURCE: "Citizen Vince" by Jess Walter

BOOKS BY JESS WALTER

• "Beautiful Ruins," a New York Times bestseller.

• "The Financial Lives of the Poets," (2009), Time magazine's No. 2 novel of the year.

• "The Zero," finalist for the 2006 National Book Award, the 2007 PEN Center Literary Award and the 2007 LA Times Book Prize and winner of the 2007 Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award.

• "Citizen Vince," winner of the 2005 Edgar Award for best novel.

• "Land of the Blind" (2003)

•  "Over Tumbled Graves," a 2001 New York Times notable book.

• "Every Knee Shall Bow," a finalist for the PEN USA literary nonfiction award in 1996.

Source: JessWalter.com

IF YOU GO

• WHAT: Jess Walter, American Book Review Spring Reading Series

• WHEN: Noon Thursday

• WHERE: Alcorn Auditorium, the University of Houston-Victoria, 3007 N. Ben Wilson St.

• COST: Free, open to the public

Whether it's mystery, romance or a timeless tale of the lower class biting at the heels of the American dream, author and investigative journalist Jess Walter, 47, manages to make his characters shine brightly with detailed word smithery.

Walter is giving a reading in Victoria on Thursday afternoon as part of the University of Houston-Victoria's American Book Review Reading Series.

The inspiration for his characters from his 2005 novel "Citizen Vince" - about a mild-mannered credit card scam artist and a string of jilted New York mafia members - was taken from the pages of his Spokane, Wash., reporter notebooks, Walter said.

"It was a good city for New York mafia witnesses," Walter said. "In my reporting, I found seven different mafia witnesses that got sent here, and I even got to know a couple of them by interviewing."

The culture clash of having a crime family from New York living in quiet Spokane were the elements the journalist said he found fitting for writing a crime thriller paralleled by the 1980 Ronald Reagan presidential campaign.

"The 1980 election was interesting because it was when we started a real pendulum swing from the left to the right," Walter said. "When the conservative movement as we know it today was launched, so it just made sense to use that election."

In the novel, his main character, donut baker and credit card scam artist Vincent Camden, grapples with the fact that he cannot vote because of his prior convictions.

"I had also been fascinated by the fact that we don't let felons vote," Walter said. "Which seemed to me like the strangest punishment - like telling teenagers they can't have vegetables because felons don't really want to vote."

After a political rally, Camden convinces one young Republican, Aaron Grebbe, to give a stump speech to a few of his blue-collar poker friends.

Grebbe is convinced the speech is one of the best he's ever given and begs Camden to let him stay and continue his back-alley campaign unaccompanied.

But Grebbe quickly loses his thunder after realizing no one at the poker table is registered to vote.

"We are wildly inattentive when it comes to politics; most people can name three or four Kardashians, but I'm not sure how many members of Congress they could name," Walter said. "That's sort of a sad fact. We are a distracted culture, and we don't take our own government seriously as we take some things, except for every four years when it becomes another television show."

"Citizen Vince" was the winner of the 2005 Edgar Award for best novel.

And his latest book, "Beautiful Ruins" was a New York Times bestseller and named the best book of 2012 by Esquire.

Film adaptation of some of his books, including "Beautiful Ruins," are currently in the works, said Walter.

"If an actor gets interested, then I would tailor the script to them," Walter said. "Billy Bob Thornton wanted to be in it "Citizen Vince" at one point."

The father of three said he works on his fiction pieces seven days a week.

"To get to do the thing you love is such a treat that it makes the challenges and struggles worthwhile," Walter said. "The hardest part of becoming a writer is that we expect things in our culture so fast, and what it really takes to get there is hard work, a ton of reading and time."

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