Lessons from the dust of Beautiful Ruins

brcover   Last month most of the members of our In Print Writers as Readers book discussion group said they had no trouble finishing our selection – The Language of Flowers. This month several writers admitted they kept reading Beautiful Ruins just because it was our selection of the month. For several, it was a chore, not a treat.

And yet, when we started talking about it, we realized author Jess Walter had shown us much worth discussing.

Walter’s novel about the intersections of several lives during and after the making of the movie “Cleopatra” was less than straightforward in its style. Its constant structural changes sometimes amused and sometimes annoyed members of the group.

The novel opens in 1962 like this:

The dying actress arrived in his village the only way one could come directly – in a boat that motored into the cove, lurched past the rock jetty, and bumped against the end of the pier. She wavered a moment in the boat’s stern, then extended a slender hand to grip the mahogany railing; with the other, she pressed a wide brimmed hat against her head. All around her, shards of sunlight broke on the flickering waves.

We agreed that the Walter’s prose style immediately brought to mind the era in which the opening scene was set. And that’s where some of the group took a deep breath and settled in for a nice long read with descriptions and pace that evoked the people and places of half a century ago. Others, though, just slogged along, determined to get through what seemed destined to be a conventional, literary novel.

In the rest of the chapter, we learned a bit about the actress Dee Moray and more about Pasquale Tursi, who “watched the arrival of the woman as if in a dream. Or rather, he would think later, a dream’s opposite: a burst of clarity after a lifetime of sleep.”

But when we got to chapter two, our readers seemed to move to the opposite sides of the appreciation/toleration coin.  Here’s a sample of that chapter:

Claire wakes jonesing for data; she fumbles on the crowded bedside table for her BlackBerry, takes a digital hit. Fourteen e-mails, six tweets, five friend requests, three texts, and her calendar – life in a palm. General stuff too: Friday, sixty-six degrees on the way to seventy-four. Five phone calls scheduled today. Six pitch meetings. Then, amid the info-dump, she sees a life-changing e-mail. From affinity@arc.net.  She opens it.

Walter takes us instantly into the 21st century. The changes – from old-school, almost languid prose to rat-a-tat delivery, from sleepy Italy to speedy Hollywood, from past tense to present – jarred nearly everyone. And these weren’t the only sudden changes in the novel’s style and structure.

I picked this novel for us to dissect specifically because I was interested in how Walter handled the long time frame. We agreed that his approach was unexpected and, for some of us, less than enjoyable, but it was effective. There was no question that we knew where we were in the timeline between 1962 and 20-something in most chapters.

We also agreed that Walter was able to paint distinct pictures of most of the main characters.  And there were lots of them in different places and times. One of us, among our visual thinkers, created color-coded charts to help her keep track of people and places.


Another launched a short discussion when she mentioned how much she disliked Michael Deane, a Hollywood producer today and a “fixer” in the 1960s. We agreed quickly that our dislike was an indication of Walter’s success in describing Deane physically – “The first impression one gets of Michael Deane is of a man constructed of wax, or perhaps prematurely embalmed.” – and psychologically – he agrees to promote a script he knows the studio will reject just so he can use the rejection as a way to get out of his contract.

The book is billed as humorous, but the humor escaped several of us. And when we saw it, it was generally of an ironic or sarcastic nature. Some drew parallels with Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Carl Hiaasen or Christopher Moore.

There are several love stories – or lack-of-love stories – in the novel. So, was love a theme of the book, we wondered. We concluded there are certainly examples of familial love and responsible love, as well as “it’s depressing and people suck” love and time- and obstacle-conquering love.

We had mixed feelings about whether we would recommend the book. Despite agreeing that Walter has a gift for description and character development, we also agreed that the jarring format he used to “travel” through time and space just wouldn’t appeal to everyone.

Are we glad we finished it? Yes.

And we think we’d like to see the movie.


“I can’t believe Becky even said,” that, Miriam growled, slamming her books onto her desk in the dorm room. “I mean, what business is it of hers whether I go out with Dick?”

“Slow down,” her roommate Sandy said, surprising herself when she realized she was waving her hands in the air, as if she could somehow slow Becky’s tirade that way. “What did you say she said?”

Becky paced the four open feet between the desks. “She said I might want to be careful before I got too involved with him. “


“I have no idea. She said she didn’t want to talk about it, but she knew he’d done something awful to another girl he went out with.”

“So, you’re saying she never actually went out with Dick herself?” Sandy asked.

“No, she didn’t,” Becky responded. She finally plopped down on the edge of the window sill, her back to the palette of fall leaves that colored the entire campus. “So, what difference does it make to her?”

“Well, maybe she’s jealous. Otherwise, why would she even pay that much attention to him?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. What do you think I should do?” Becky asked, sounding a little dejected.

“Well, as the bard said, ‘All the past is prologue,” Sandy said. “Or, as Scarlett put it, ‘Tomorrow is another day.’ Guess you just need to wait to see what she – or he – does next.”

Christmas Messages

Emily could feel the package slipping from her grasp. NO, she thought. I’ll never be able to pick it up if I drop it. But she could gain no purchase on the box, not without dropping one of the other four she was carrying.

She bobbled, trying to balance it, but just as she felt it slipping irretrievably to her left, a hand reached forward to grab it and push it back to the top of her pile.

“Oh, thank you,” she said, turning to see who had come to her aid.

“No problem,” he responded, before she’d even finished speaking.

Her brown eyes widened, and so did the matching orbs she saw before her.



“I had no idea you were in town,” Emily said, unsure what else she could say. It had been all of 20 years since he’d left to join the Air Force, to learn to fly. His father had been determined that Matt become a lawyer, forcing their son to go to the U of I before sending him to law school at Notre Dame. As soon as the degree was in his hand, Matt headed to the recruiter’s office.

“I did what he wanted,” Matt had told his mother that day. “Now I’m doing what I want.”

That was the last she’d seen him. His father, for whom Matt had been named, refused to go to basic training graduation, wouldn’t talk to him on the phone, forced Emily to cut their conversations short, was too busy to visit him when he moved from base to base. After a few years, he’d stopped calling home.

Now, he stood there looking almost exactly as he had all those years ago, hair still dark, the soft waves barely showing up in the short cut he’d always worn. His eyes were bright, but the grin she’d seen when she’d first turned around had faded.

“Uh, yeah, yeah,” he said, dropping his gaze and mumbling.

“Are you living here now?”

“No,” he replied. “I’m staying with Brent Davis. You remember him? From my class in high school?”

Emily nodded.

“Can you two move ahead?” came a frazzled voice behind them.

“Sorry,” Emily responded, turning to shuffle a few feet ahead in the long pre-Christmas line at the post office. She turned back to Matt. “Yes, I remember Brent. He was at the house nearly every day.”

“I’m staying with him while I figure out where I’m going to live now.”

“Live now …?”

“I’m retired from the Air Force.”

“Retired,” Emily repeated quietly. Her son, retired? She noticed he was carrying packages, too. On his hand was a pale strip where a wedding ring might have been. Had he been married? What had happened? Did he have children?

“Retired,” she repeated. “Are you thinking about coming back home?”

“To Rockford?” he asked. “I don’t think so, but I’ll probably stay in the Midwest somewhere.”

She looked at him, wondered if he knew that his father had died a few years ago.  She didn’t really want to tell him that in a line at the post office.

“What are your plans for Christmas?” she asked. “Would you like to come to the house for dinner? I’d love it if you’d join us. There are things,” she paused. “… things we should talk about.”

“I, uh,” he looked over her head. “You need to move up again,” he said, nodding toward the front.

She turned, moved a few feet closer to the counter, then turned back.

He was gone.

“Hey, lady, the line moved again,” said the stranger behind her. “Go forward.”

The question

Michael Wheetley rose from the table where he’d been drinking coffee to carry the cup back to the counter for a refill. He picked up the carafe and swirled the ebony liquid. Last cup from this batch, he realized, and wondered if he should make another pot. He yawned as he mulled the question, then realized his unconscious act had provided the answer. He set the mug down and moved over to the sink to run some fresh water.

As he mindlessly filled a new filter with grounds, his thoughts drifted to the real reason he was at home today. He had taken a sick day to work on his resume. He hated his job as an accountant for a family-owned regional gas and convenience store company, and he desperately wanted to find something else to do.

He pushed the button to start the coffee maker, grabbed the mug he’d just filled at walked back to the table and sat down before the computer screen. He’d updated his resume, which didn’t take much, since he’d been at the same job for the last six years. He ran his fingers through his curly red hair, and muttered, “What the hell do I want to do?”

He knew the answer. Really, he wanted to travel. And shoot pictures. But how was he supposed to do that?

Panelists offer insights to the writing life

Ten authors took part in panel discussions during InPrint’s second A World of Words book fair at Barnes and Noble in Cherry Vale Mall, Oct. 20.  Here are some quick insights and inspirations they shared.

  • “I plot chapter by chapter. I know what clue is going to be where. … I want my readers to have fun and to be able to have a good night’s sleep when they are done.”

Patricia Rockwell writes two mystery series, one she describes as “acoustic mysteries” – Sounds of Murder, Voice Mail Murder – and one featuring a 90-year-old sleuth – Bingoed, Valentined. She is self-published and a member of the Independent Author Network. Find her at  www.independentauthornetwork.com/patricia-rockwell.html.

  •  “I used two editors, and lost about 70,000 words in the process.”

Salahuddin Khan wrote Sikander the story of a young Pakistani man who travels to Afghanistan to join the mujahideen to fight the Russians in the 1980s. He self-published, but is now working with an agent. His blog is at www.sikanderbook.com.

  •  “Small publishers really let you be hands on.”

Patricia Ann McNair’s fiction and creative nonfiction has been published in anthologies, magazines and journals. Her short story collection is called The Temple of Air.  She offers daily journal prompts at her website, http://patriciaannmcnair.com.

  • “I worked with Pritzker Military Library in Chicago and they helped me find a traditional publisher for my book.”

Cyndee Schaffer’s Mollie’s War is based on her mother’s letters home from Europe during World War II. The research she did at the military library helped provide the context for her mother’s war experience. She promotes her book at www.mollieswar.com.

  • “The Rockford airport is a spaceport in the book.”

Ted Iverson’s self-published science fiction book, Mission to the Stars: Book One: The Search for FTL,  takes the familiar surroundings of northern Illinois and imagines them in the distant future.

  • “We decided to research the time period, the Dutch voyages, and the native tribes.”

Jim Applegate, with his wife, Marion Applegate, took a bit of family history and developed it into historical fiction in their self-published historical novel, Listen for the Lark.

  • “There are two kinds of essays: story sharers and observers.”

Mike O’Mary, author of The Note, is also series editor for Dream of Things online and print anthologies at http://dreamofthings.com.

  • “You have to be willing to be vulnerable. You have to be willing to dig deep.”

David W. Berner, a Chicago journalist, has recently published Accidental Lessons: A memoir of a rookie teacher and a life renewed. Link to his blog, “The Muse,” from his website, www.davidwberner.com.

  • “Short stories are like affairs. A novel is like a marriage.”

Libby Fischer Hellmann, who writes both short stories and novels, is the author of A Bitter Veil, and of the Georgia Davis and Ellie Foreman mystery series, set in Chicago. Check out her marketing ideas at Wait… There’s More on her website, http://libbyhellmann.com.

Meet some writers


Barnes & Noble Book Fair

Join us for our second annual A World of Words: In Print Book Fair at the Cherry Vale Mall Barnes & Noble. It is Saturday, October 20 from 11 am to 5 pm. There will be guest authors, book signings, readings, panel discussions, and children’s events! Tell your family and friends! It’s a great opportunity to do some Christmas shopping and help support In Print at the same time.

The Book Fair is In Print’s biggest fundraiser. Whenever our Bookfair ID number (10803369) is mentioned at checkout on the day of the event, Barnes & Noble will donate a portion of the sale to In Print. Can’t attend the Book Fair? Visit BN.com/bookfairs to support us online from 10/20/2012 to 10/25/2012. Be sure to enter our ID number (10803369) when you checkout.