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Author relays challenges of writing, love for his hometown

By Carolina Astrain
March 21, 2013 at 5:05 p.m.
Updated March 21, 2013 at 10:22 p.m.

Author Jess Walter signs a book for a fan at the University of Houston-Victoria's American Book Review Reading Series.

A red, shining cover of Jess Walter's "Land of the Blind" sat on audience member Ken Titt's classroom desk.

He makes a point of reading the novels before each of the University of Houston-Victoria's American Book Review Reading Series lectures, said Titt.

Next to him sat his wife, Peggy Titt.

"This series has become part of our lives," Titt said. "We're so happy UHV has this program here."

Wearing a fine, gray blazer, author Jess Walter walked into the room and started talking about a sense of place.

Walter spoke to an audience at UHV's Alcorn Auditorium on Thursday afternoon about his hometown, Spokane, Wash., where he and his family grew up in a blue-collar community of cattle ranchers.

"It was sort of a grim place," Walter said.

The author described eating off aluminum plates with the men in his family while watching a heap of tree debris burn in silence.

After the author's younger self described the flames as ballet dancers to the other men, his father promptly directed him to "go inside the house with the women."

"I always felt like a little bit of an outsider," Walter confessed to the crowd of withering laughter. "I was not just the first in my family to graduate from college but the first to graduate from high school."

His smile pressed his cheeks closer to his left eye's scar, caused by a stick injury when he was 5 years old.

The author followed his comic introduction with a reading from his newest collection of short stories, "We Live in Water."

In his reading, Walter described his hometown as poor, white and largely uneducated.

UHV freshman Adriana Almendarez, 19, said she could relate to the author's experience.

"I grew up in Killeen, and I thought it was a really boring place to live," Almendarez said.

Walter said because of strongly rooted devotion to his hometown, he decided he needed to write about it.

As a young reporter working for the Spokesman-Review at age 19, Walter said, he was constantly bashing against the creative constraints of journalism.

"Writing is a lot like playing the piano," Walter said. "Some people get to play classical masterpieces; others end up playing at juke joints."

Although his avid creativity was often dismissed at the copy desk, his time in newspapers made him a better writer, he said.

"And my God, did I get my chops," the author exclaimed.

Walter said he tries to read as many as four books a week and write almost every day.

"It took me seven years before my first short story was published," Walter said. "It takes a while, and it can be tough ... but you should always write what you know."

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