“… the book really is about his being able to choose sides and understand the idea of fairness. And that if we lift one person, we lift everyone. And if we lift everyone, we lift ourselves.” Author Jess Walter discusses The Cold Millions with host J.T. Ellison on NPT’s A Word on Words.
J.T. Ellison: Welcome to A Word on Words! Take us to Spokane Washington in 1909 and set stage for us for The Cold Millions.
Jess Walter: I wanted to write about this place in my hometown because it was such a thriving place. The word “teeming” kept coming up, and the streets were teeming with people. It was one of the fastest-growing cities in America. It was actually the same size as Nashville in 1909, and so these cities were exploding in size. And it was the scene of these labor battles between union organizers at the time who weren’t allowed to speak on the streets, who were trying to organize for workers of all races, of all gender. They battled against city officials and corporate leaders who did not want those unions to organize. I really wanted to try to capture that period in part because it felt so resonant of the world that I was living in, in the last four or five years.
Ellison: It really does have a lot of current day alignments, and I want to talk about that in a little bit. This is the backdrop. We’ve got a little civil disobedience going on. Tell us about the story.
Walter: I mean, the story really revolves around an actual historical event that had, for me, slipped between the cracks and wasn’t something people talked about anymore, which was the free speech protests of the early 1900s. Labor leaders who were denied the opportunity to go out and organize began in cities like Missoula, Montana, Fresno, and Spokane Washington to organize these protests, mostly among indigent workers, among hobos and tramps, as they called themselves then. And Spokane was the setting of the most violent, more than 500 were arrested, at least three died. Many were brutally beaten and thrown into makeshift cells. Sometimes 25 people in a cell built for two. And that battle between early labor… And at the time, early labor also included suffragists like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn who were fighting, not just for the rights of workers, but for the rights of women, native Americans, people of color, to have jobs to be part of this process.
So it was such an early moment of progressivism that I really wanted to try to capture. Into this story wander my two protagonists, Gig and Rye Dolan, two Irish brothers, 23 and almost 17, who’ve spent their lives living in hobo camps, going from job to job. And they get swept up in this early political movement and all sorts of treachery with undercover Pinkerton agents. And I really wanted it to be a rollicking adventure. I wanted to be able to write about these issues that we face now, but with the danger of treachery and murder is about, partly because that’s often what went on in 1909 at the end of the mining wars and in the middle of these labor battles.
Ellison: That’s absolutely fascinating. Where did you come across this?
Walter: It’s interesting. I had known about this as a reporter. And just seeing that this was my hometown felt so strange and unlikely to me. I’d known about Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who was the 19-year-old pregnant labor activist, who came to Spokane to lead this charge 10 years before she had the right to vote, leading this incredible battle and practicing a kind of journalism actually by uncovering all sorts of corruption in the city. So I’d known about this character, and I just sort of filed it away as a story that would make both, again, a great sort of adventure story, but also one that would have echoes of the current moment. A story set at the end of the Gilded age, which is the last time income inequality reached the level.
It was a story about police brutality that would echo with many of the issues we talk about now about the rights of speech and of voting and women’s rights. And it just felt like such a contemporary story, but set 110 years ago. And so I had just filed [it] away, waiting for sort of the moment when it would seem the most resonant. And talking to my very politically active daughters, the idea of bringing back a character like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and letting them read about her was just really inspiring.
Ellison: She’s absolutely amazing. I mean, this is a real woman, this is what she did. She went out on the road, and she was fighting. There’s this sense of futility through all of this. And Gig and Rye, certainly, they’re living in the hobo camps. What else are they going to do, right? They’re just going to get up and find work and then drink it away, or Gig is. I mean, Rye’s not at that point yet. And here comes this young woman who wants to show them that life isn’t futile. It doesn’t have to be futile, and that’s just an incredibly powerful message.
Walter: Yeah. I don’t write historical fiction very often. But when you are and you encounter a character like that, you really want to present them as fully and as completely as they really were. And she did live such an amazing life, giving speeches about fairness and equality from the time she was 13 or 14 years old, fighting for women’s rights passed on by her mother in New York. And she was so famous in her time that one newspaper called her the “East Side Joan of Arc.” The New York Times called her the “she-dog of anarchy.” And for Christmas this year, I got my daughter’s she-dog of anarchy T-shirts just to remind them that it’s okay to go out and cause some trouble.
So coming across that figure and then being able to put her pretty much as she was in a historical novel. There are a few scenes that I invented. There’s a wild scene with some minors in the roughest place you could imagine, a place called Taft Montana Work Camp up in the mountains. That is an invented scene. But for the most part in the book, she goes to the places she went. She gives the speeches she gave. And even though she is kind of the hero of the novel, it really revolves around Gig and Rye, these two brothers. One of whom is a committed labor activist, and Rye who really just wants a house, a place to live, sort of represents those of us who may not be as politically committed, may not want to choose sides, but still get the benefit of what the leading edge of these activists goes and fights for.
Ellison: He’s just reading War and Peace and trying to understand the world, and Gig wants to fight. And Rye is just kind of like, dude.
Walter And I think it really is his coming of age. As one of the characters notes, Rye does become intellectual. I think for Gig, he’s almost wearing it like a sort of suit. As I was doing my research, one of the things that really moved me was this idea of the great hobo library that these workers who had nothing. They had just enough to pack in a small bindle, small pack. And so often, one of the things they would pack alongside their one change of clothing was a book. And then along the fire, they would trade these books. And in that way, you could work your way across the country and read Emerson and Thoreau. And you could create a sort of education, and that just moved me so much as someone who loves books, who sees them as the great class equalizer, the fact that these homeless working people would take with them a book.
Gig reading 2/5 of War and Peace, because that’s all he’s been able to get his hands on, struck me as such a poignant detail. But I think Rye’s growth throughout the book is to understand his place in the world. And even though he will never be one of those leaders out in front of the parade, I think the book really is about his being able to choose sides and understand the idea of fairness. And that if we lift one person, we lift everyone. And if we lift everyone, we lift ourselves. And I think that’s what Elizabeth Gurley Flynn’s cause comes to mean for him.
Ellison: That’s absolutely fantastic. The story itself… I want to talk about the structure because it’s a spider web.
Walter: Yeah, sure.
Ellison: It’s told through this ensemble cast, and the structure is just to die for. I want to know how you did that. It’s absolutely genius. And when it reveals itself… as an author, I was very impressed. And I think the readers will absolutely love how you weave everything together. Can you talk about how you built the book?
Walter: Thank you. I think of myself as a structuralist first. I work on a story. And when a structure kind of emerges for me, that’s when I know I have the story. And I love when the structure and the theme and the setting all sort of combine. So for instance, for this book, I saw the whole book as a river and the river is the central motif. Most of the book is told in third person. It follows Gig and Rye over their shoulders as they experience this whole world. But every once in a while, these tributaries or undercurrents will come in, and they are these first-person stories. You might get a police officer in 1909 on the beat chasing a thief, a robber, and you might get a native American worker who worked at a fair. You might get all these characters coming in. And Ursula the Great, a vaudeville singer who falls for one of the brothers and who dances on stage with a live cougar.
I wanted to write those first-person stories to sort of add to the main narrative flow, the way a river flows. The river is at the center of the book, too. I talked about this period being teeming. I wanted the novel to feel teeming, like it was just bursting with these characters. And so at a certain point, for me, the structure becomes the theme, which becomes a sort of larger motif over the top of the thing. And so you may not read it and think, oh, I just read a book structured like a river, but I think you get that flow that hopefully, I was hoping to create. And you also get to meet these indelible characters in their own words. And for me, writing those first-person sections about somewhat minor characters as they come in was another way to almost revel in those small roles that actors love, those walk-on roles that steal the show. And I loved having characters like Ursula the Great and the quite evil Del Dalveaux come on and steal the show for a while.
Ellison: And they do, they absolutely steal the show. I mean, these aren’t just tertiary characters. I love the river and the tributaries, and it could also be the heart and the veins. I mean, they are so integral to the story.
Walter: Yes, totally. Yeah. And heart and veins is set up like rivers. It leaves. It’s kind of a natural way to get back to that main tributary, that style. So in that same way, the novel really takes place in 1909, 1910. But there are two stories, a story from 1864 and one from 1964 toward the end. And it’s another sort of structural thing that, for me, it makes a story larger than itself to be able to frame it within this 100-year period, which really tells the story of my hometown, of the city I grew up in.
Ellison: And you have a personal connection to the transient lifestyle, correct?
Walter: Yeah, somewhat. I mean, both my grandfathers were hobos in the 1930s, jumped trains to find agricultural work in the west. And my grandpa, Jess Walter, who was a farmer when I knew him, would tell me these stories about how to catch a train. And for me, there was always a sense of adventure. I was a kid who loved Treasure Island, and this was like a cabin boy stowing away on a pirate ship, jumping on a train and seeing where it led and then looking for work. But my grandfather arrived in Spokane on a train he’d hopped in the Dakotas looking for work. And so yeah, I grew up [there]. My dad worked in an aluminum plant. I come from working-class stock, and so the story to me was very personal in a way, and a kind of origin story for the kind of beliefs that my family has, this idea of fairness and a sort of old fashioned labor ideal that you take care of everyone and try to create a better world for all of us.
Ellison: We were talking about Ursula and her mountain lion that she dances with, I mean, which is just incredible. I would love to see that. But she’s just a fabulous character. And your female characters are actually really incredibly strong in this book. And there was one passage that just… I had to close the book for a moment, which is always a sign of really, really great things, but she’s turning away from the boy she loves or is attracted to or wants to be with and has to go to the man that she’s beholden to. Here’s the section:
There are things a woman must do, my sister used to say.
A woman owns nothing in this world, Ursula used to say.
Roar, the mountain lion used to say.
That just really spoke to me again about the futility and finding the path to your own happiness and finding a way through what you have to do versus what you want to do.
Walter: Thank you. Thank you so much. It was really important to me when you write a character like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who was all audacity, who is sort of singular character. Most women did not live lives like that. And I wanted to create another character whose search for agency followed other paths. Spokane being, at the time, one of the great entertainment cities in the United States. It had the largest theater stage, had this huge theater scene and a big vaudeville scene, too. These wild shows where men would get on stage and wrestle bears and punch horses. And so when I invented the act of Ursula the Great, it’s not that far removed. They very well could have been someone who sang and dance with a wild cougar, so omnipresent were acts like this. But I did want her to have to have a different sort of agency. You to have to fight within these incredibly unfair rules.
And thank you for reading that line because I think ending with the cougar sort of says, this is the hard real world. This is the natural world that the cougar lives in, that I live in. This is not what we want the world to be. This is what the world is, and that realization to her. Another thing I loved about Ursula is at one point, her sister tells her that her attraction to beautiful young men will be her downfall. And Ursula says, “Well, then let’s get on with it.” And I loved her sort of combination of appetites and fatalism and the realization she was going to do, what it took to get things done and to take care of herself in a totally different way than, than Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.
I think so much of this book was conceived around the time of the 2016 election, and my daughters’ fear of the world was coming up around them. And I just kept thinking, I have daughters who are in there, one is in her 20s, one is in her 30s. And just thinking about the courage that a character like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn had in her time inspired me to want to give my daughters a book like this for the present time.
Ellison: I like that, fatalism. I was thinking resignation, but it is fatalism. That’s absolutely perfect. Can you tell us a little bit about what Gurley went on to do?
Walter: Yeah. She had such a fascinating background, as I said, grew up pretty much on the soapbox giving speeches from the time she was a child. By the time she was 17, she was going West to organize labor. We meet her at sort of the height of her powers. But also at a really fascinating moment. Her mother was so afraid she was going to go West and fall in love with some rough minor and get pregnant and end up as a housewife. And this is about the point we meet her. This is what might be happening. And so she’s pregnant, her husband wants her to come home and become a housewife so he can work in the mine, and she’s out agitating labor organizing. She goes on after this to fight many other labor battles in Patterson, New Jersey organizing silk workers in Massachusetts, in Oregon.
She also later becomes president of the Communist Party USA and is jailed for sedition, writes books about being jailed for her beliefs. She really was a committed socialist. And I think one of the reasons that she has sort of slipped through the cracks of history is so many people who were aligned with American socialism or American communism later had to answer for the horrific regimes in the Soviet union and in China. Communist Party USA suddenly was aligned with these despotic murderous tyrannical governments. And someone like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, it’s complicated to see that what she was doing was fighting for different things, worker rights and women’s rights.
But I think there’s really a kind of reassessment of some of those things. One of the amazing things with this novel for me has been getting letters from all sorts of people who said, my grandpa was in WW, the Wobblies, the group that Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was in at this time, and he would never talk about it. And reading your novel has been so great for me to see the kind of fights that the battles that they had and the life that he would’ve led.
I think for a lot of people whose beliefs in the 20s and 30s were McCarthyism and the red scare caused people to sort of shy away from the commitment they had during that time. And I think Elizabeth Gurley Flynn…she also helped start the ACLU. She was one of the founding members of the ACLU, really a historical figure that I think for various reasons has sort of slipped through the cracks. And one of the things that makes me the happiest in Spokane is people are talking about now putting a monument up to the battles that she and the other labor leaders had then, kind of reclaiming this historical moment.
Ellison: Oh, she’s fascinating, and you do an absolutely wonderful job with her. You’ve been called a versatile novelist, which I think is actually an incredibly high compliment because you don’t want to just write the same book over and over and over. But do you feel like this is a departure from your earlier work? And also, is there a thematic link between all of your books?
Walter: I suppose versatile is one way to look at it. I do tend to not want to write the same sort of book, but I tend to not want to read the same sort of book. I really am only driven by the next thing I want to read. And to me, each story brings with it certain requirements. If I’m writing about the end of the Gilded age in Spokane, Washington in 1909, I’m not going to write the same novel that I would write about Italy in 1963 or the terrorist attacks of 2001, other subjects to my novel. So for me, the novel sort of tells you what it wants to do. And it’s not like I’m sitting there in some office saying, I should try this or I should try that, I just get so engaged by a certain topic that, that becomes the one that I want to dive into.
This was a departure in many ways, because it required so much research. To write a novel set in another time is to learn another language. You have to become fluent in 1909. You have to know what time the trains would run and which houses would have electricity and the language. There is a language all its own, the bindle stiffs and the pounding wedges in the curves of a logging camp. So I felt like finding fluency in that period meant that I spent a longer time researching. I’m a journalist by training, so I’m so comfortable with research. But I think that was the big departure for me was relying so much on research and then finding a way to incorporate those historical figures, the real ones, without over fictionalizing their stories. Definitely, creating fictional versions, but I really wanted to honor the fact that this was a story that I felt like more people needed to know about.
Ellison: Well, the research was spectacular. I mean, it had to have taken a lot of effort. You do disappear into this story, into this timeframe in ways that I haven’t with a lot of other historical models. So kudos to you. I thought it was absolutely brilliantly done. Wow. We’re probably getting close to the end of our time, but I would like to ask you two more questions. What do you think elevates a good book to a great book?
Walter: Wow. What elevates a good book to a great book? I think there’s some almost alchemy involved that is in many ways has to do with the reader as much as the writer. Some books, history drifts past and then only comes back later and recognizes them as great. But I think there’s some truth, especially in a novel. There’s some truth that we maybe hadn’t admitted to ourselves when we read it that comes forth from a great novel. And the rest, I think is empathy with characters. We are drawn to novels because we get to live in another life for a while.
There’s no other art form where you immerse yourself in another world and other people for a week, two weeks. Sometimes if it’s such a great read, maybe three days. But that immersive quality, the thing that I love about talking to readers is they haven’t just watched a TV show that I’ve written. I’ve given them the notes and it’s like they’ve played it on the piano. They have cast and run the entire movie in their own heads. And so their involvement in it, that ability to connect with readers, I think, is all about empathy. I think it’s a connection between reader, writer and character where you’re able to create a kind of empathy-generating machine. And so I think those novels that last, it can be through language, it can be through narrative. But I think most often, it’s through that sense of character and empathy.
Ellison: What are you working on now?
Walter: I have a book of short stories coming out next year, which I’m really excited about. It’s called the Angel of Rome. I had wanted to return to Italy where Beautiful Ruins was set, one of my favorite places. So I have a very long short story called the Angel of Rome, which is actually available as an audio book right now, but will be the main story, and it’ll be the title story and a collection of short stories. About half of which take place in my hometown Spokane, the other half take place from Rome to New York. So all over the world. That’ll be out next year sometime, and then I’m diving into the next novel.
Ellison: Absolutely wonderful. Well, you’ve got a new fan for life here.
Walter: Oh, thank you, J.T.
Ellison: I’ve read a few of your books, but this one just really, really worked for me. So thanks so much.
Walter: Well, thank you so much. Yeah. Thanks for having me on.
Ellison: Keep reading!
Jess Walter Recommends
Bobcat and other Stories, by Rebecca Lee
Erasure, by Percival Everett
Fools Crow, by James Welsh