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Jess Walter: "Beautiful Ruins" explores love, loss

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Most love stories originate with great romance, but for Jess Walter, it was his dying mother who inspired him to pen an epic tale of lost love in "Beautiful Ruins."
/ Source: Reuters

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Most love stories originate with great romance, but for Jess Walter, it was his dying mother who inspired him to pen an epic tale of lost love in "Beautiful Ruins."

Published earlier this month, the novel takes readers on a vast journey spanning five decades and two continents, uncovering a mystery-filled relationship between a small-town Italian man, Pasquale Tursi, and a Hollywood actress, Dee Moray.

Their romance is set against the backdrop of the beginning of the scandalous affair between Hollywood screen icons Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, while they were filming "Cleopatra" in Rome in 1962.

Walter, a native of Spokane, Washington, spoke with Reuters about the challenges of writing a complex timeline of events, harnessing historic Italian landscapes with Hollywood modernity and why the ending may not be what readers expect.

Q: What inspired the story of "Beautiful Ruins?"

A: I first went to Italy in 1997 ... I was just so taken by the place as a lot of people are. My mother was dying of cancer right around that time, and she's about the age of Dee Moray. I was in one of those places that I wanted to show my mom, so I started writing about a woman arriving in Italy in 1962, around the age my mom would have been.

Q: Although the Cinque Terre in Italy is a real place, why did you create the sleepy town of Porto Vergogna for the book?

A: I was hiking along the Cinque Terre and thought because I'm not Italian, it seems so audacious to write about this place, so I invented my own village, Porto Vergogna, and invented the Hotel Adequate View. I then had to look for a story to figure out the mystery. I did research and found out "Cleopatra" was being filmed during that time, and often, the novelist gets led around by the nose doing research.

Q: There is a mockery of Hollywood and its cultural savagery, whether it's the "Cleopatra" film taking over Rome or one of the characters' scripts getting reworked into something completely different from the original script. Were you making a comment?

A: I think Hollywood is a reflection of culture more than driving it ... It's a notoriously shallow place to work. I've encountered a bit of that working there off and on over the years, but I don't have bitter stories to tell ... I was so fascinated by the character of Richard Burton, because to me, he was a living example of that question of fame versus art. His relationship with Liz Taylor seemed to be the dawn of modern celebrity in which fame didn't depend on your morality being intact. Your amorality would make you more famous.

Q: Structurally, each chapter goes in and out of different time periods and can be disorienting. Was this intentional?

A: Yes, I really became interested in the idea of story-telling itself, and all these different forms - there's a movie pitch, plays and parts of people's memoirs - the story does move back and forth in time between 1962 and present day. I imagined that the book itself was like ruins you come across, a bit of artifact, a play, a movie pitch, and when you put the artifacts together, you get a picture of what this civilization was.

Q: Did any of the characters surprise you in their development?

A: Michael Deane, the movie producer. When I sat down to write his memoir, the entire chapter has no commas in it, which was a great writing challenge. I thought to myself that this is a man who never pauses ... Using him as a vessel to bring (Dee and Pasquale) back together seemed like the right thing to do.

Q: The romance doesn't take the course of a traditional love story. What can readers expect of Dee and Pasquale?

A: I had the two sets of characters that you assumed were going to get involved - Pasquale and Dee, Shane and Claire - and I saw them as parallels. It's a romantic novel in which no romances really work out, and I wanted to keep to that. I thought maybe the best romance is the one that is unfulfilled in some way, so for Pasquale and Dee, their relationship can be more poignant.

(Editing by Jill Serjeant and Prudence Crowther)