By Rebecca Martin
Thanks to researchers at the New School, I knew before I began Jess Walters’ Beautiful Ruins that reading it would make me a better person, I just didn’t know it would make me a better writer.
As the New York Times reported October 3, a recent study reveals that reading literary fiction leaves people more empathetic than reading popular fiction or non-fiction articles about the origin of the potato(I can only assume that all of the literary and personal tales crafted in WWW creative non-fiction courses are as valuable in engendering empathy in the reader and so have chosen not be discouraged about the value of my own work—really, I’m fine).
And just like they said, I so easily inhabited Jess Walters’ main characters that I found myself empathizing with all of them, no matter that they did lousy things or were weaker than I had hoped they would be–even the alcohol-sodden actor Richard Burton, who’s behavior in the story is caddish verging on loathsome, was humanized and somewhat understood, not to mention hugely entertaining—thanks in large part to Walters’ use of dialogue.
Even though I lead a non-fiction workshop, I had to share Burton’s explanation of his career and romantic choices as an example of perfectly done dialogue with the class. Walters gives us a gesture or a glimpse of Burton’s windblown hair in the open convertible for every assertion that he made the right decision to leave the stage and all the reader hears is the regret that he never articulates. Earlier in the book we hear Pasquale, a young Italian innkeeper in a town no one visits, caught in two conversations at the same time in two different languages. The scene made me laugh, with Pasquale’s aged Italian Aunt cautioning Pasquale against getting involved with the “whore” Dee, the beautiful American actress Pasquale is nursing, and Dee thanking the Aunt for her good wishes, but more importantly it allowed me to inhabit the characters and their instinctive mistrust and trust of each other. Writers of fiction and non-fiction alike will benefit from the example Walters sets.