Jess Walter has covered the Spokane serial killer case for The Washington Post, written the book on the FBI siege at Ruby Ridge, Every Knee Shall Bow, (which was also a finalist for the PEN West literary nonfiction award in 1995) and spent weeks sleeping on a cot in celebrity lawyer Christopher Darden's home during the process of co-writing In Contempt. His first novel, Over Tumbled Graves, takes place in Spokane and chronicles a rash of mysterious prostitute killings that -- to anyone living in the area for the last year -- seems all too familiar. Serious stuff.
So you wouldn't expect Walter to be funny -- either in person or on the page. And yet, Over Tumbled Graves opens with the scene of a drug bust gone awry, in which an undercover cop, digging around in a baby stroller to turn off her cell phone, launches her prop baby into the air, over a bridge and into the Spokane River. Bystanders scream, a man jumps in the river to save the plastic baby and the bad guy gets away. It's awful, yet pretty funny, much like an inappropriate joke that should never leave the company of good friends.
"I had some help from ex-cops in writing the book," Walter explains. "They're a lot more free with the information when they're retired. They love to tell you these crazy, unbelievable stories, but they tend to speak like Hal from 2001 when they're still on the force. Everything is very PC and by-the-book."
It's a Saturday morning at The Rocket on Main (which appears in the novel disguised as a bar bearing the actual name of the building that houses it -- The Longbotham), and Walter is gamely answering questions he will no doubt have to answer many times over when he sets out on book tour next month, when Over Tumbled Graves will be released. One of the first things that he finds himself explaining is that the novel is just that, a novel, and was written during a period in which the Spokane serial killer case was all but dead.
"Everyone had sort of forgotten about it. But I had covered the Green River killings, about four different serial murder cases, actually, for The Spokesman-Review, and so I already had a lot of background there. And of course about two weeks after I finish the book, they discover Robert L. Yates is the killer."
Not surprisingly, Walter is quick to point out that his novel has nothing to do with Yates.
"That's the one thing that I've been most concerned about," says Walter. "I didn't want to write a nonfiction account of this case. It's like most fiction writers would say, it's easier to tell truths in a world that you've made up than it is in straight nonfiction."
Walter did cover the first string of prostitutes -- three in all -- to be found dead on the banks of the Spokane River, which provided the impetus for Over Tumbled Graves. Yates has never been connected to those murders, and initially there was little public or media outcry.
"It was so weird to me to be living in a city where it was taken for granted, where it was almost expected that a hooker would wash up on the banks of the Spokane River every week," says Walter. "Every year, the U.S. Department of Labor releases the most dangerous professions, and every year it's always the same. Taxi drivers have the most dangerous profession. It's something like 1 in 10,000 taxi drivers is killed every year. But what about prostitutes? Prostitutes aren't even listed, and the odds that a prostitute will be killed while working is about 200 times higher. When you ask why prostitutes aren't listed, the reasoning goes something like, 'Well, prostitution isn't a legal line of work.' But as a society, we shouldn't pretend it doesn't exist."
The one thing Walter's novel does have in common with the real outcome of the Spokane serial killer case is the appalling ordinariness of its villain.
"There's a real banality to evil. In crime fiction, there's all this pressure to invent a meaner, scarier bad guy, and so we create these serial killers that are like Hannibal Lecter. I really wanted to create a less scary monster because the reality is that they're so ordinary," he says. "I'm completely uninterested in him [Yates] as a person. He's a sociopath. He really doesn't see people as existing outside of himself. I was so taken with the victims' families. I was much more interested in them and what they were going through than with Yates himself."
Over Tumbled Graves follows the course set by a serial murderer known only to police officials as the "Southbank Strangler." Walter's protagonist, Detective Caroline Mabry, a thirtyish cop trying to live down her first shooting in the line of duty, joins forces with her colleague Alan Dupree, only to find their search for the killer beset by departmental politics, the "serial killer" industry and their mostly hidden feelings for one another. While Dupree is married and Mabry is dating a studly young bartender, there exists between the two a sort of Scully/Mulder, more-than-professional attraction.
While the book seems at first glance to be an unapologetic crime novel, Walter took pains to write something that would read more like the literary fiction he's always favored.
"I was worried it would be cast into the mystery/thriller section. I wrote this novel the way I'd write any fiction. I'm hoping it's a deeper, more meaningful read than most suspense novels."
For someone with Walter's impressive background as a journalist, it's surprising that his writing in college was geared more toward creative writing workshops. Still, with the birth of his oldest daughter rapidly approaching, he wasn't holding his breath for "the novel factory to start hiring." He started writing for The Spokesman-Review as a sportswriter, but it was one of his first news stories that changed the route of his future career.
"One of the first stories I ever covered was when a woman stepped in front of a train out in the valley. I was 21 years old, and I got there just in time to see them pick her up. Her back gave out like a gunny sack and, of course, I was horrified. I went and talked to the conductor of the train and how he saw her pacing by the tracks and he kept thinking, 'Don't do it, don't do it,' because you can't stop a train in time," he says. "It happened near Argonne Village, and as I talked to people I found out she went into all these stores first and talked to the merchants. It was fascinating to me. I wanted to write a much longer piece for the paper, but my editor said we don't really cover suicides because it might cause other people to do it. Which makes sense; I could see that position. So we did a little piece, but not the story I would have wanted to do. And then I would go into my fiction writing seminar where most of the stories were of the, 'Does he really like me' variety."
Walter's coverage of the siege at Ruby Ridge and the Randy Weaver trial for The Spokesman-Review led to his unforgettable and affecting 1995 account Every Knee Shall Bow. He left the Review that year, he jokes, "to watch The Rockford Files and tear the lath and plaster out of my house." While he did freelance articles for The Washington Post, Newsweek and the Boston Globe during that time, he also helped Christopher Darden with his book on the O.J. Simpson trial and media frenzy, In Contempt.
"It was great," he says. "He wanted a black female writer to help him write the book. I managed to get a meeting with him anyway, and the first thing he said to me was, 'What do you know about black people, coming from Spokane?' "
Walter responded with a quick sense of humor, winning over the reluctant Darden, who opened his home to him during the course of the book's writing. "I pretended to reach into my briefcase, and said, 'I have two letters of recommendation from my two black friends.' "
His sense of humor infuses even the dark terrain of Over Tumbled Graves, even in describing the weird push-pull a city like Spokane exerts over its residents. "Everyone dragged around heavy suitcases filled with excuses for staying in Spokane," he writes. It begs the question, with the kind of successes he's enjoyed in recent years, has Walter been tempted to take his wife and three kids and "get the hell out of Dodge?"
"I get tired of people apologizing for it," he confides. "Spokane is my Bedford Falls. I'll go to L.A. to pitch a screenplay, and there's 25 other writers in the room wearing sport coats over their T-shirts, wearing little glasses, who look just like me. For me, it seems pointless to leave, especially if you're a writer who writes about dark things. If I was 24 and single and didn't know anyone in Spokane, I'd be out of here. I'd move to Budapest. But I have friends who bash Spokane and all of a sudden, I'm the Chamber of Commerce."
Walter pauses for a minute and then adds: "The older I get, the more I believe you have to be from someplace. It's like I bought this stock in '65 and even if it's not doing so great, I have to hold onto it now."
& & & lt;i & Over Tumbled Graves will be in bookstores on February 6. Jess Walter reads at Auntie's Bookstore on Friday, Feb. 16, at 7:30 pm. Call: 838-0206. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &
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