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Meet the WritersImage of Jeannette Walls
Jeannette Walls
Good to Know
Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Walls:

"When I sat down to write The Glass Castle, there was no doubt in my mind that once the truth about me was out I would lose all my friends and my job. So far, the reaction has been the opposite. I'm just stunned. I think I've shortchanged people and their capacity for compassion. The whole experience has changed my outlook on the world. My brother and I are closer. My sister Lori and I have discussed things we'd never before talked about. I'm back in touch with people I knew in West Virginia whom I hadn't spoken to since I left. My mother wants to correct something in the book: She wants everyone to know that she's an excellent driver.

"When I was growing up, I always loved animals. But it was a part of myself that I'd let go dormant as an adult. Writing The Glass Castle, I was reminded of how important animals had always been to me, and that love was reawakened. Not long ago, I rescued two racing greyhounds, Emma and Leopold, and I'm irrationally devoted to them.

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In the spring of 2005, Jeannette Walls took some time to tell us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests.

What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?

  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. This book didn't really influence me as a writer, but it had a powerful effect on my view of the world and first made me realize how much of an emotional wallop -- and comfort -- a book could deliver. I read it when I was 11 or 12 and was stunned that a character created 50 years earlier seemed so similar to me. She loved her father even though he was a hopeless drunk, she lived in a rough neighborhood but found beauty in it, and she was determined to make something of her life.

    What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?

  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck -- I read it when I was 12, and it hit me almost as hard as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I loved the family's struggle and pride.

  • The End of the Affair by Graham Greene -- The unflinching way Greene portrays the conflict between faith and cynicism, and love and hate, makes this the most brutally honest -- and tender -- book I've ever read.

  • Monkeys by Susan Minot -- Nothing escapes the young narrator's attention, but the fact that she doesn't acknowledge the implications of what she observes gives the book its magical quality. The real story is in what's unspoken.

  • The Liars' Club by Mary Karr -- The spunkiness of the narrator, the gorgeous language, and the acutely observed detail give the flashes of horror and absurdity their shocking power.

  • This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff -- His childhood wasn't particularly traumatic, but Wolfe evokes it with such beautiful precision and sly humor. In sentence after sentence, he finds the perfect words to convey the complicated emotions of a boy who wants to be both tough and loved.

  • Peter the Great by Robert Massey -- I just adore a good biography, and this is probably my favorite. Massey is sympathetic but also clear-eyed in his understanding of Peter. It's a beautifully researched and written book about a remarkable man and his place in history.

  • Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt -- What makes the book so irresistible is how when McCourt's life becomes bleaker, he responds by becoming more humorous and poetic.

  • John Updike's Rabbit series: Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich, and Rabbit at Rest -- Updike makes the life of a car dealer in a small Pennsylvania town an remarkable epic. What I find so compelling about Rabbit is the way he loves himself and takes such joy in his daily existence.

  • Anywhere but Here by Mona Simpson -- The complicated combination of love and contempt that the narrator feels towards her mother makes this one of the most moving accounts of a daughter-mother relationship I've read.

  • The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski -- Humanity at its most savage, narrated by a young boy who doesn't fully understand what's happening to him or why and only wants to survive.

    What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?

  • The Verdict -- I love the message of redemption through the truth; the way an alcoholic, loser attorney takes on a hopeless case against a powerful institution as way of restoring meaning to his life.

  • Casablanca -- Like Rick, I am, I'm afraid, a rank sentimentalist. I always get teary in the scene where the French Resistance drowns out the Nazis in song.

  • Sophie's Choice -- I can never resist watching this movie, even though I know that by the end I'll feel like I've been punched in the stomach. Gut wrenching, tender, poetic, tragic.

  • The Pianist -- What's so beautiful about it is the character's struggle to retain some dignity and humanity through his music while the world around him has descended into the horror of the Nazi invasion.

  • His Girl Friday -- It's a silly movie, but also astonishingly clever, and the actors are enjoying themselves so much that they're irresistible.

    What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
    I listen to music mostly in the evening. I've come to love what is called world music, like the Zimbabwean Oliver Mtukudzi and the Colombian singer Marta Gómez. I also love the Irish folk singer Mary Black. Other favorites include Chet Baker, Eva Cassidy, and Billie Holiday. My favorite classical piece is probably Bach's Suites for Unaccompanied Cello. But I don't listen to anything when I'm writing. I'm too easily distracted. If there's music, or any noise, I try to block it out.

    If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
    Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. I find books that have a moral and spiritual center, that speak to what is really important and lasting, hugely appealing.

    What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
    Books are my very favorite gift to give. If you give a book to someone and they really respond to it, you feel you've actually changed their life in some way. I recently gave my father-in-law both volumes of William Manchester's biography of Churchill -- and we had long, animated conversations about him and history and the psychology and greatness. If a book really moves me, I'll sometimes buy several copies for friends and give them out even if there's no occasion. I bought The Lovely Bones for four or five people. If someone's not much of a reader, I try to find a book that speaks to one of their passions. Whenever I'm reading a book I enjoy, I always develop a mental list of the people I want to share it with. I love it when people reciprocate; when they call me up and tell me they're reading a great book and can't wait for me to read it. That's how I heard about Gilead.

    Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
    I write on a 19th-century oak table, in front of a window overlooking a wisteria-covered arbor. I don't think I have any rituals per se, so I'll describe my writing habits when I wrote The Glass Castle. I wrote it entirely on the weekends, getting to my desk by 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. and continuing until 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. I wrote the first draft in about six weeks -- but then I spent three or four years rewriting it. My husband, John Taylor, who is also a writer, observed all this approvingly and quoted John Fowles, who said that a book should be like a child: conceived in passion and reared with care.

    What are you working on now?
    While I was working on The Glass Castle, I told myself I'd never write another book -- it was so emotionally grueling -- but already I find myself kicking around ideas. I haven't settled on any yet.

    Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
    I've been a journalist for almost 20 years and wrote one nonfiction book about the history of the tabloid press. But writing The Glass Castle was an entirely different experience. I was writing about myself and about intensely personal -- and potentially embarrassing -- experiences. Over the last 25 years, I wrote several versions of this memoir -- sometimes pounding out 220 pages in a single weekend -- but I always threw out the pages. Once I tried to fictionalize it, but that didn't work either. It took me this long to figure out how to tell the story.

    If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
    Barbara Robinette Moss. I don't know if she qualifies as being "new" because she has two memoirs out, but I just love her, both as a writer and, from what I can tell, as a human being. She's brave, funny, sensitive, compassionate, and she deserves wonderful things in life.

    What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
    Write about the world you know best. Even if it's fiction, drawing on your own intensely felt personal experiences will make a story more compelling. For years, I wanted to write to about the glamorous and high profile. It turns out that the most interesting thing I had to tell was not only familiar to me -- it was a part of me that I'd tried to hide.

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  • About the Writer
    *Jeannette Walls Home
    * Good to Know
    * Interview
    *Dish: How Gossip Became the News and the News Became Just Another Show, 2000
    *The Glass Castle, 2005