Jeannette Walls is the New York Times best-selling author of the 2005 memoir, “The Glass Castle,” which has sold more than 3.5 million copies in the U.S. alone, has been translated into 22 languages and is being made into a movie by Lionsgate. A former gossip columnist and writer, she published “Half Broke Horses” in 2009, a novel based on the life of her maternal grandmother. Jeannette will speak at the annual Women’s Philanthropy Fund with the Amarillo Area Foundation on Nov. 27. She currently lives in Virginia with husband and fellow writer, John J. Taylor.
Amarillo Magazine: I must ask, have you been to Amarillo before? Jeannette Walls: Yes I have. I love Texas! My grandmother is from Texas. She was a real Texas gal. The legend is that she slashed my mother’s tires so that I would be born in Texas. But that didn’t happen. I guess I’m a little bit of a Texan!
AM: You grew up destitute, essentially homeless, aimlessly roaming throughout the United States, “skedaddling” as you say. Your parents neglected you and your siblings. I think it’s safe to say you were robbed of a childhood. JW: It’s interesting. It’s a matter of perspective, isn’t it? We sort of were neglected… In some ways I was, and in other ways I feel I was incredibly blessed, that my parents were there for me in a lot of ways. They certainly weren’t there in terms of the material things, the food and clothes, but I think I was given an incredible education in a lot of regards… I cannot remember a time in my life when I didn’t read. We read the classics, astrology, we read about history – we had these incredible discussions. When you say robbed of a childhood, I suppose in some ways, yeah, I never had a care-free childhood, I never had a childhood where you assume you are going to be taken care of. You learn early on to take care of yourself. And I consider that a gift, if you see it that way. And that’s the way I choose to interpret it.
AM: How were you able to continue to love and believe in your parents? Do you harbor any resentment toward them? JW: No. My parents are certainly flawed, but that’s their issue and not mine. My mother can’t take care of herself. How can I expect her take care of me? When she was left on her own, she became homeless. It’s not about me. A lot of people have asked me if my mother’s mentally ill, and I really don’t know the answer to that question… There are people with much, much tougher childhoods than mine… Everybody has a story, you’re not isolated, you’re not alone. You’re not the only one who was embarrassed by your parents, or understand the way the world was working, or believe other people would understand. People are smarter than what I gave them credit for. They do understand.
AM: How long did it take for you to write “The Glass Castle?” JW: I tried a number of times when I was younger, in my teens and 20s and 30s before throwing it all away. When I was 40, I set in earnest to really try and tell it, and I wrote the first version in six weeks and spent the next five years rewriting it… That’s what I spent five years trying to recapture, and to be honest about what it really felt like, going back there and reliving these emotions. And being honest, and I don’t mean not lying, because I never tried to pass myself as a Rockefeller, but really confronting these very complicated, sometimes contradictory emotions of admiration and shame, of love and disdain, and try to reconcile them.
AM: Was it therapeutic and healing? Or did it stir up buried bitterness and anger? JW: It was the most therapeutic, cathartic thing I’ve done in my life! It really changed the way I see the world. A very wise man once said, “Secrets are like vampires. They can suck the life out of you, but they can only exist in the darkness, and once they are exposed to life, they lose their power.” And I find that to be so true. The process of writing it was excruciating. That was really difficult… That’s one of my missions in life now is to encourage people to confront their demons from their past. I think so many of us run from them. The thing is, when you run from them, they will chase you… If you are willing and able to stare it in the eye, it might be the best thing to have going for you.
AM: Your mother seems quite at ease with “The Glass Castle.” JW: Yea, oddly!
AM: Was your father alive when you published it? JW: My father was not. No.
AM: What do you think his reaction would have been? JW: I don’t know if he would have been as accepting of it as she is. You can accuse my mother of many things, but being a control freak is not one of them. She disagreed with my perspective on a few things, nothing I’d written, but, “I don’t see things that way. And you must write the truth as you saw it.” And I think that’s pretty amazing.
AM: Did you ever believe your father would build you the glass castle? JW: Oh yeah, when I was younger I did.
AM: When did you realize that wasn’t going to happen? JW: Sometime when we were living in West Virginia. When we started putting garbage in the hole my brother and I had dug as the foundation for the glass castle. It became stunningly clear when I was 13. I think I knew earlier, but I was clinging to this false hope because I had nothing left to cling to. Then around 13, I realized this isn’t going to happen is it. If anybody is going to worry about my future, it has to be me, because my dad’s not going to.
AM: I’m curious to learn about how you ended up where you are today. You went from a dilapidated shack without plumbing to Park Avenue? Describe that path. JW: I originally I thought I would spend a lot of the book about that, and I didn’t. It’s a familiar story, the quintessential story, the… American dream. It didn’t strike me as that difficult. The great thing about having a truly crappy childhood is challenges don’t seem like a big deal. When I moved to New York City, my oldest sister and I had this plan. We got her there first. I had been babysitting and one of the people I had been babysitting for wanted me to go to Iowa. I said instead of me, take my older sister. Then my brother followed, and my kid sister followed. I worked three jobs, morning job, evening job and weekend job, and I paid the bills. Then, I got into a high school that had internships instead of classes. It was an alternative high school and I got a job at a newspaper. It seemed easy and miraculous compared to my childhood. If you pay the bills, the lights stay on! The cops don’t chase you; the house doesn’t catch on fire. It seemed calm, organized and orderly then all of a sudden, Mom and Dad showed up! Mom and Dad followed us to New York and life became chaotic again. I tried to pretend they didn’t exist, but when I was working at the newspaper, and the editor came to me and said, “You need to go college. I was initially hurt because I thought I was getting fired. I was very naïve and said, ‘What’s the best college in New York?’ And he said Columbia. So I called Columbia, and said, “Hello, I’d like to apply there. They said, “We don’t accept women… You can apply to Barnard College and take classes.” It never occurred to me that I could never get into a good college… Scholastically I was so blessed. There were so many times our parents sat down with us and we asked questions and my parents would not respond to us. They would pull out some book and Dad would lecture me on it. They gave me a good education. Perhaps even a spectacular one, considering.
AM: How did you fit in the culture of New York and a prestigious college, and how were you able to hide your past? JW: Well, it wasn’t that difficult to hide my past. I just kept quiet about it. I didn’t talk about it and people didn’t ask. Since I wasn’t born in West Virginia, it was pretty easy to relearn the accent… As far as the culture and all that, luckily now I don’t have to try to pretend; I can order off the French menu with the proper accent! With the clothes, it’s not that difficult – you just go to Barney’s and buy some black dresses. People just assumed I started dating this guy on Park Avenue and we ended up getting married. I went to Barnard. People just assumed I had this upper-crust background. I just kept quiet about it. Here’s the funny thing: I think there are so many like me out there… My story is not unique. It is not unique at all. What I think is unusual is for whatever crazy reason I decided to tell it. The great thing about having told it, it’s not about the sales or rewards, it’s given a lot of people a different perspective on their own story… I hope that’s what my story has done, that it’s made people who’ve never gone through this sort of thing a little more sympathetic to those of us who have, and for those who have, to be a little bit more sympathetic to ourselves.
AM: Let me ask you about the opening scene of “The Glass Castle.” You saw your mother digging through the trash as you sat in a taxi en route to a party. You didn’t attempt to help her, and maybe she wouldn’t have wanted your help. At that moment, had you already planned to write a memoir, or did that experience set in motion writing the book? JW: It gave me the kick in the behind to tell that story. Before, I just ended up throwing it away.
AM: Let’s talk about your journalism career. What sparked your interest in this industry? JW: I’ve always been an observer and I’ve always been an outsider.
AM: What was your first journalism job out of college? JW: I got a job between my freshman and sophomore years at New York Magazine basically as head pencil sharpener, the gopher, coffee shuffler. I worked there through the summer and through the rest of my college years, and they hired me once I got out of college. While I was there I became the assistant to the business and finance reporter... I was working for Dan Dorfman, we went to USA TODAY together, and I started writing about business and finance and marketing. Then I got hired back at New York Magazine to do a column called the “Intelligencer.” It was called a gossip column but it was really about movers and shakers, people like Donald Trump, the media world, and I thought I would hate it, but I actually loved it. You had to be a real scrapper and it was right up my inner yard dog, and I stayed there for seven years, and then I went over with the editor to Esquire. I worked there for a year, and then I wrote my first book. Then I went to MSNBC, online and on-air and I started doing items there on movers and shakers. I got a couple of thousand hits. Then I did my first Britney Spears item and I got two million hits. So the dye was cast and I started writing about celebrities!
AM: Living in poverty, has that made you more grateful for your lifestyle as opposed to those who just stumbled upon star status or were handed a successful family business? JW: I will never take a toilet for granted! I’m much more grateful. It’s a blessing to come from poverty. I’m so lucky.
AM: Tell me about your family. Are you close with your siblings? JW: I’d been out of touch with my youngest sister until I finished the [“The Glass Castle.”]. She had the toughest time. And one of the wonderful things about writing this story is we’re back in touch. She lives in California, but we talk very regularly. My oldest sister Lori is still in Manhattan and we also speak regularly. She’s an artist and my brother is living in Brooklyn, and he’s a school teacher, and we’re very, very close. He’s a rock. I adore him.
AM: What’s it like being married to a fellow writer? JW: Oh my God, it’s such a blessing. People ask me if it’s weird being married to a writer. But it would be weird being married to a non-writer! John is a God-send. He completely understands. He was the one who wanted me to tell my story, not just encouraging, but cracking the whip over me. He found my story literally incredible when I first told him details of my past. He made a confession: “I thought you were making some of it up.” Then he met my mother and said, “OK.”
AM: It’s been reported “The Glass Castle” is being adapted into a movie. JW: It is with Lionsgate, and they did “The Hunger Games.” The woman who starred in that, Jennifer Lawrence, she’s slated to star in it.
AM: That’s very exciting! What do you think it will be like for you to see your story on the big screen? JW: I’m optimistic that they will stay true to the story and that’s all I really care about. It’s a peculiar thing when somebody else takes charge of your story. They’re all pros and they know what they’re doing. I’m very optimistic… [Jennifer Lawrence] is an amazing, amazing actress and the producer says she’s a real smart cookie.
AM: What’s next for you? What are you currently working on? JW: I just finished a book, actually. I just handed it in [in October]. It is fiction and it’s about two sisters with an unstable mother who get into a situation over their heads because of their home situation. They try to take on more than they should.
AM: On Nov. 27, you will visit Amarillo for the Annual Women’s Philanthropy Fund Event with the Amarillo Area Foundation. When did public speaking become a facet of your career? JW: It was a little bit by accident. I did not expect “The Glass Castle” to be a hit. I thought when people read, it would incite ridicule and contempt and it would disappear. It’s funny, shortly before the publication, it actually leaked to a fellow gossip columnist what it was about, and I was a little outraged… But she said, “Hey, wait a minute, Jeannette, this is what you do for a living!” The tables turned… So I thought, ‘Once the book comes out, I’ll go back to my job.’ The irony and hypocrisy of pursuing other people’s secrets while I was hiding my own did not escape me and I justified it in all sorts of ways. But once the book came out and I was communicating with people on it with a level of honesty, it was a little peculiar to continue writing short, snarky paragraphs about celebrities. On a couple of occasions, celebrities pulled me aside and said, “I just read your book and it really resonated with me because,” then they would reveal things about themselves, and I realized “I can’t do this any more. I can’t go around writing these sarcastic paragraphs about people. I started getting calls from universities and charities, “would you please come and address our crowd?” My gosh. Could I actually quit the day job and do this? I was really wrestling with it because it was a good job. This opportunity presented itself from left field. The number of people who’ve told me it helped them with their story, it’s what I love doing. I write an article every now and then, but I’m not a full-time journalist any more. I’ve never been happier. Life is very good.
AM: Why did you want to be a part of this event in Amarillo and what do you hope to offer audience members? How will you motivate them? JW: The event first of all, it sounds spectacular and I’m really honored to be a part of it. One of the issues I want to address is confronting your past. Everybody faces challenges and hardships, so one of the things I talk about is turning what seems like a hardship or disadvantage to your advantage, to see things from a different perspective. One of the great things about having a childhood with more than my fair share of difficulties, is you realize how tough you are. So many people say to me, “You’re so strong. You’re so resilient. I could have never made it and do what you did.” Of course you could. I’m flattered, but I did what I had to do. I hope to get that across to people, too, to not only accept your past, but embrace it, and find the gifts in it.
by Drew Belle Zerby
After graduating from LSU in 2009, Drew Belle worked as a page designer in north Louisiana until moving to Amarillo and joining AGN Media in late 2010. In her spare time, she loves to read, travel and spout out useless movie trivia.