Years ago, in a past life, I met Jeannette Walls at a conference, a “gossip” symposium organized by some now-long-defunct dot-com. I knew who she was — everyone in the room did; she wrote a widely read online gossip column for MSNBC, “The Scoop,” was a veteran journalist who’d worked at Esquire and New York magazines, and had published a terrific book on gossip called Dish. Strikingly tall, polished-looking, and sitting at the front of the room, she was a respected member of the gossip establishment, surrounded by colleagues and admirers. From my spot in the back, where I was slumped down trading snarky comments with the other dabblers and misfits, I swear, as the light bounced off her lustrous red hair, she looked like she had an aura.
But during a break in the program, I was startled to see Walls’s gleaming head floating above the crowd, making a beeline for me. We’d never met, but she’d read a book review I’d recently written and wanted to discuss it. I was struck, especially in that crowd, by her kindness and intelligence, traits she’d continue to display in our occasional email exchanges over the years. She seemed too real for the room. And as anyone who has read her best-selling 2005 memoir, The Glass Castle (which has sold more than two million copies, been translated into 16 languages, and been optioned by Paramount Pictures), can now tell you, she was.
With The Glass Castle, Walls, who’d made her living unearthing the secrets of the rich and famous, revealed her own long-held confidences: that she’d grown up both loved and neglected by parents who embraced adventure and eschewed basic responsibility; that her father had dreamed big and drank even bigger; that, as her family drifted from place to place, she and her siblings had often had to use their own ingenuity to remain clothed, fed, housed, and healthy; that though she had attended Barnard College, lived for a time on Park Avenue, rubbed designer-clad elbows with celebrities, and broken into journalism’s most elite circles, she’d spent much of her childhood in a ramshackle house in West Virginia with no indoor plumbing and a stinking garbage pit out back. Beautifully written, deeply honest, and filled with darkly glimmering truths, the book was a smash-hit literary success, and a personal triumph for Walls, who left the world of gossip shortly after its publication.
“I was so embarrassed by my past that I expected my story to be met with contempt and ridicule,” Walls recently told the Barnes & Noble Review via email, “but people have been really compassionate — and danged smart — about it all. It’s all been quite humbling, really. It made me see what a knucklehead I’d been for so long and has helped me trust other people. And myself.”
On October 6, Walls will publish Half Broke Horses, a “true-life novel” based on family stories about her maternal grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, who, as Glass Castle fans may recall, provided a patch of sanity and stability in Walls’s chaotic childhood, but died when the author was only eight. In Half Broke Horses, which Walls has written in her grandmother’s clear, lively voice (as she recalls it), our view of Lily broadens, stretching like the horizon from her hardscrabble beginnings on a west Texas homestead to her time scraping by as a maid in Chicago, where she got her flapper hairdo and resolve, to her years spent teaching, ranching, raising kids (one of whom was Walls’s mother, Rose Mary), and rising above hardship in Arizona. Lily emerges as a remarkable, resilient, resourceful woman, the kind who’s not above doing a little local bootlegging during the Depression to get by, who can instantly tame a wild mustang with her firm touch, who can beat the pants off a passel of half-pissed men at poker and still get up to teach their kids to read and write the next day. In other words, she’s a total pip.
In the weeks leading up to the publication of the new book, Walls shared her thoughts via email about the rewards of digging through family history, the importance of truth in memoir, and why writing about gossip left her worried she was “turning mean as an old yard dog.”
The Barnes & Noble Review: You mention in the author’s note to Half Broke Horses that you had originally intended to write a book not about your grandmother, as this one is, but about your mother. What made you change your mind?
Jeannette Walls: It was Mom who kept suggesting I make the story about her mother. At first, I resisted because I don’t see myself as a fiction writer and my grandmother Lily died when I was eight, so I couldn’t interview her.
I had intended to write about Lily’s early life as the backstory, but I was stunned by the number of anecdotes and the amount of detail Mom had about them. And when I sat down to write the book, I found that those stories kept upstaging Mom’s. So I thought, what the heck, I’ll write Lily’s story — in first person because I found it easier to capture her voice that way — then I’ll change it into third person, taking out what details I don’t know or qualifying them with phrases such as “it is likely that…” or “the evidence suggests that what happened next….” That sort of device is valuable in scholarly histories where the record is unclear or contradictory, but I feel it sometimes takes the reader out of the story. I showed the first-person version to my agent and editor, and they both told me to leave it alone.
BNR: You call the book a “true-life novel.” How much of it is based on fact, and how much of it did you make up? And did you privilege fact over fiction in every case or allow yourself to take liberties with known facts to enhance the story?
JW: Half Broke Horses is simply a compilation of family stories, stitched together with gaps filled in. They’re the sort of tales that pretty much everyone has heard from their parents or grandparents or had passed down from great-grandparents.
I got it as close to the truth as I could. I didn’t set out to tart it up or make it more dramatic, but rather to make it more readable, fluid, and immediate. The simple fact that I told it all in first person in my opinion disqualifies it from being called nonfiction.
Calling it a “true-life novel” was the decision of my editor, Nan Graham. I thought it was very smart choice. The phrase has been used before, for Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, which was written largely from transcripts of interviews with people involved in the Gary Gilmore saga but, as I understand it, Mailer took minor liberties that made the book cross over the line from nonfiction to fiction.
BNR: What was the process of researching the book like for you? What challenges did you face as you dug through your maternal family history? What were the biggest surprises and greatest rewards?
JW: I interviewed Mom for about an hour nearly every day for a year. She was fabulous. She has a stunning recall for certain types of information, though she’s the first to admit that she gets shaky on facts such as numbers and dates. But not once did she forbid me from using anything or put controls on what I wrote or how I wrote it. I used a couple of stories that I remember from Dad — when he took Lily for an airplane ride, for example — and I also talked to some other relatives, and actually found a couple of books that included passages about a few of my ancestors, sometimes confirming what Mom said, sometimes with slight contradictions.
I debated trying to do some heavy-duty research — exactly who shot my grandfather’s father, for example, is a matter of some debate — but most of the people in the book are long gone with no or little written record left behind, so there’s no way to check most of it. Ultimately, I decided to use almost exclusively what Mom told me.
I think anyone digging through a family history would find it fascinating. These patterns emerge, and behavior that seemed inexplicable suddenly makes sense. I urge anyone who’s lucky enough to still have parents or grandparents around to consider interviewing them. You come away thinking, “Wow, now I understand why this all happened this way.”
BNR: It’s interesting that your mother didn’t put any limits on what you wrote, though that’s certainly consistent with the portrait of her you’ve drawn in your books. She’s just not that bothered by how others may judge her. How have other members of your family reacted to having their lives. or their relatives’ lives. written about by you and widely published?
JW: Everyone in the family has been really great about it. Mom can be accused of many things, but being a control freak is not one of them. She told me once that she sees certain things differently than I do, but she can understand why I saw them that way, and I had to tell the truth as I saw it. I think that with all the things I wrote about Mom, that’s a pretty amazing attitude to have.
BNR: You’re used to writing in your own voice. In Half Broke Horses, you are conjuring the voice of another person, someone who died when you were a small child. How did you channel Lily’s distinctive voice? How clearly do you remember it? How much of it is your own creation?
JW: Lily was one of those people who, once you met her, she was seared onto your brain, whether you liked it or not. I always adored her, but not everyone did. Everything about Lily was loud: her voice, her clothes, her piano playing. She cussed like a sailor, danced so as to shake the rafters, and was always pulling out her gun or pulling out her false teeth.
When I tried to write the book in Mom’s voice, it was much more of a struggle. We’re so different, and even though I think I understand her, she’s always surprising me. I actually found it much easier to slip into Lily’s voice — or at least, what I recall as being her voice. While I was growing up, Mom always said, “You’re just like my mother” — and I don’t think she meant it as a compliment. I’m not a carbon copy of Lily, but I’m afraid I’m more like her than I care to admit.
BNR: Personally, this book must have presented very different challenges than The Glass Castle, in which you were revealing a past you had kept hidden from many people in your life. Recounting painful details from your own childhood must have been incredibly difficult, if ultimately liberating. How did the process of writing this book compare to writing that book, emotionally?
JW: Getting a perspective on someone else’s life is much easier than getting a perspective on your own. The difficulty in Half Broke Horses came in trying to be true to someone else’s spirit and story. I don’t know how I did, and honestly, I’ll be curious to see how readers react.
I was terrified in the days before the publication of The Glass Castle. I thought people would hate it, so what do I know?
BNR: As we learn here, your grandmother, Lily, lived an exciting, eventful life — and was incredibly self-motivated, smart, and resilient. In The Glass Castle, she appears as a patch of safety, sanity, and stability amidst the chaos of your childhood. (It is in her house — before and after her death — that you spent your happiest young days.) What sort of influence has she had on your life, on your choices, on who you have become? Has that influence changed as a result of writing this book?
JW: Although Lily was a very strong woman, opinionated, unpredictable, she was also a lot of fun. I remember once we went to a restaurant where music was playing and she grabbed a sailor out of his chair. “Don’t know how to jitterbug?” she asked. “Well, honey, you’re about to learn.” Yet she also had rules and order in her life that we never did in our household. When we visited her, we always had three meals a day and she’d take us kids out to buy us clothes in this big car that was so fancy it had blinking turn signals. In our cars, we were lucky if the windows rolled up.
I grew up with absolutely no baby photos. Mom and Dad didn’t take pictures of us kids, and if they had, those photos would have been left behind in some late night skedaddle. But about a year ago, my cousin Shelly (the daughter of my mother’s brother, who I’d lost touch with in recent years) handed over a pile of photos that my grandmother had left behind. In it, was a group shot of me when I was about two, with my sister Lori and brother Brian. We were all wearing new clothes. We must have gone to visit Lily, she took us shopping, and had our pictures taken. That sort of thing happened a lot to most other kids in America, but for me, it was a temporary visit into the world of stability. I always thought of Lily as proof that you could have a comfortable life if you made up your mind to do it. Lily left me with the notion that if you had the gumption to grab even the wildest life by the horns, you could wrestle it into submission.
She exited my life early, but she planted the seeds before she did. That’s what most teachers do.
BNR: Your mother, whom readers may feel they know quite well by now, as she has played a central role in both The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses, helped you with this book. Can you talk about how your relationship with her has changed in recent years — since the death of your father and as a result of your last book, and of this book?
JW: A lot of readers of The Glass Castle had real problems with Mom, and I understand that, but one of the things I came to grasp through researching and writing Half Broke Horses is why Mom is the way she is. She not only knew you could survive without electricity and indoor plumbing, but for her, it was the ideal time of her childhood. She grew up with almost complete freedom and could not understand why someone would trade that freedom for stability and security. That isn’t to say I agree with her, but understanding and accepting that this is the way Mom is has been very liberating.
I get along great with Mom now. She’s a hoot. She’s always upbeat, and has a very different take on life than most people. She’s a lot of fun to be around — as long as you’re not looking for her to take care of you. She lives with my husband and me now — not in the house with us because I have not reached that level of understanding and compassion, but in an outbuilding about a hundred yards away. It’s a bit of a mess so I don’t look inside, because when I do, I can feel the Lily inside me getting all riled up. But Mom is great with the animals, loves to sing and dance and ride horses, and is still painting like a fiend. She doesn’t seem that interested in selling her paintings these days and when my husband asked her why, she said, “I don’t need the money anymore.”
BNR: It sounds like you’re taking care of her in a way she seems to have been unable to take care of you. How did she come to live with you? When we last heard from her, at the end of The Glass Castle, she was fighting for squatters’ rights to stay in an apartment on New York’s Lower East Side. What happened?
JW: Several years ago, the abandoned building where Mom had been squatting for more than a decade without heat caught fire and she was homeless again. She was back on the streets again at age 72. I begged her to come down and live with John and me. She said Virginia is too boring, and besides, she’s not a freeloader. I told her we could really use help with the horses, and she said she’d be right down.
There’s possibly an opportunity for her to go back to New York. My brother Brian is telling me to do whatever it takes to keep her in Virginia. He says he’s never seen her happier or calmer and he actually has a decent relationship with her now.
I don’t think she’ll leave, and I hope not. We check in on her at least once a day but she mostly takes care of herself. We have dinner with her a couple of times a week, but she’s pretty independent.
BNR: As a writer who is contending with an amalgam of fact and fiction (and clearly acknowledging it), what is your take on “memoirists” who fudge details or even make things up wholesale, without letting the reader know? Is it a major betrayal of the reader, or should we expect memoirs to be somewhat subjective?
JW: Of course memoirs are subjective. That’s the conceit — this is one person’s perspective on his or her life — and I think it’s one that most readers understand. None of my siblings have contradicted a single fact in The Glass Castle, but if any of them had written about our lives, it would have had an entirely different tone and perspective.
There is, however, a big difference between perspective and making things up. If the writer feels that he or she has to tinker with the facts, that’s fine. But be up front about it and call it fiction.
To me, the whole point of writing a memoir is to say, here is the story of my life, and maybe you can learn something from my experience without actually having to go through it. So to make stuff up — to present something that’s not true as actually having happened — obliterates the purpose of sharing your story. To say, here’s how I struggled with poverty, or here’s how I beat drugs, or here’s how I survived the Holocaust, and then to be dishonest about it is a terrible violation of the trust that a reader gives an author.
BNR: How has your life changed as a result of the literary fame brought by the success of The Glass Castle? And did your decision to finally reveal your past to the world change the way others treat you and your own sense of self?
JW: Oh gosh. I’m hardly famous. Once in a while, someone will recognize me at an airport or something like that, and they’re always incredibly kind, but it’s not like I need to wear disguises to go out in public.
I was so embarrassed by my past that I expected my story to be met with contempt and ridicule, but people have been really compassionate — and danged smart — about it all. It’s all been quite humbling, really. It made me see what a knucklehead I’d been for so long and has helped me trust other people. And myself.
BNR: That’s funny, the disguises. It really would have been the ultimate irony if by coming clean and ditching the gossip world you’d ended up as paparazzi bait.
JW: Anyone who writes about other people for a living should be written about at least once. It’s very interesting to have the tables turned.
BNR: How did your past life as a gossip columnist and journalist prepare you for your current work as a memoirist and novelist? What ultimately prompted you to leave that work behind, not long after the publication of The Glass Castle? Do you miss anything about that long chapter in your life?
JW: I think I was drawn to gossip because I wanted to show that the truth is more complicated than what we see; that there’s always a story behind the façade. But the irony — some would say “hypocrisy” — of tracking down other people’s secrets while hiding my own has not escaped me.
I do believe that the truth will set you free, but the truth is usually way too complex to be condensed into a couple of paragraphs. I don’t think that gossip has to be cruel; what interests most people in it is the psychology of what makes people tick — including these famous people who we turn to for moral touchstones, the same way that people used to use Greek gods or fairy tales. And I absolutely don’t condemn people who do it for a living, or those who follow it. Still, sometimes gossip crosses into cruelty — which I tried to avoid, though I’m sure I sometimes failed, and shame on me for that.
It’s easy to make fun of people who seem to have it all — money, fame, power — but the more I found out about these people, the more sympathetic they became. Writing about them just started feeling really wrong. And no, I don’t miss a thing about it.
BNR: How do you think the world of gossip has changed since you wrote your first column years ago? And what do you think of those changes?
JW: People always say, “Oh, gossip’s the ugliest it’s ever been.” But people have always been interested in this stuff. What’s changed in the last few years isn’t our appetite for information; it’s just that with the Internet, it’s become much easier for everyone to weigh in. Any bozo with a laptop can have a voice, not just the rich and powerful bozos with printing presses, and I think that a lot of good has come with that, too. It’s more democratic, if you will, with all the messiness and chaos that comes with this level of participation.
BNR: You have written about your own family twice now — and it seems like there are so many fascinating characters in it, you could keep exploring branch after branch of your family tree. Where do you plan to go from here? Will you keep writing about your family, or do you want to … branch out?
JW: I have no idea what I’ll write about next. Or if I’ll write again.
BNR: So you’re not one of those writers who feels absolutely compelled to write?
JW: Oh, not at all. I not only have to feel I have something to say, it has to be worth sharing.
BNR: What’s up withThe Glass Castle, the movie?
JW: It’s been optioned. We’ll see. There are some very beautiful actresses interested in playing me, which I find amusing as all get out, but as we’ve seen, these hot starlets are very good at de-glamming themselves.
BNR: Any names you care to share? And are you at all afraid of handing over your life story to someone else?
JW: I’m not supposed to discuss casting. In case it doesn’t work out, we don’t want someone to be known as not the first choice. I know nothing about filmmaking, so I’m staying out of the whole thing and trusting the folks who are working on it.
BNR: I’m wondering about the book’s title. Do you consider yourself “half broke”?
JW: Oh, I’m definitely half broke! For more than 25 years I tried to be all civilized and citified, going to black-tie events in my designer clothes, rubbing elbows with movers and shakers, but it was a world that I never belonged in. When you try to be something that you’re not, you get a little weird, and I worried I was turning mean as an old yard dog.
I think that coming clean about my past in The Glass Castle allowed me to be honest about who I really am, and I could let down all those defenses I’d built up over the years. Now, living out in the country, running around with my hounds and assorted barn cats, my husband says, “You certainly have changed since you lived in the city. You’ve gone back to being Mountain Goat.”
BNR: Writers are often asked to give advice for aspiring writers. But your writing confronts so many deep human struggles — between truth and illusion, selfishness and selflessness, adventure and stability, just to name a few — that a broader question seems in order: What’s your best piece of advice?
JW: It’s the advice Mom gave me when I asked her what the heck I was supposed to tell people when they asked me about her. She said, “Just tell the truth.”
Getting at the truth isn’t all that easy. And you might not be ready to share the truth with others, but in my experience, people are wiser than I had expected. If you’re not prepared to tell others the truth, at the very least, you should try to be honest with yourself.
Amy Reiter, a former editor and senior writer for Salon, has written for The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, Glamour, Marie Claire, Wine Spectator, and American Journalism Review, among other publications.