- Watch a video clip of author Jeannette Walls talking about the origins of her bestselling memoir, The Glass Castle.
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The Glass Castle: A Memoir Paperback – January 17, 2006
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Jeannette Walls grew up with parents whose ideals and stubborn nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation. Rex and Rose Mary Walls had four children. In the beginning, they lived like nomads, moving among Southwest desert towns, camping in the mountains. Rex was a charismatic, brilliant man who, when sober, captured his children's imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and above all, how to embrace life fearlessly. Rose Mary, who painted and wrote and couldn't stand the responsibility of providing for her family, called herself an "excitement addict." Cooking a meal that would be consumed in fifteen minutes had no appeal when she could make a painting that might last forever.
Later, when the money ran out, or the romance of the wandering life faded, the Walls retreated to the dismal West Virginia mining town -- and the family -- Rex Walls had done everything he could to escape. He drank. He stole the grocery money and disappeared for days. As the dysfunction of the family escalated, Jeannette and her brother and sisters had to fend for themselves, supporting one another as they weathered their parents' betrayals and, finally, found the resources and will to leave home.
What is so astonishing about Jeannette Walls is not just that she had the guts and tenacity and intelligence to get out, but that she describes her parents with such deep affection and generosity. Hers is a story of triumph against all odds, but also a tender, moving tale of unconditional love in a family that despite its profound flaws gave her the fiery determination to carve out a successful life on her own terms.
For two decades, Jeannette Walls hid her roots. Now she tells her own story. A regular contributor to MSNBC.com, she lives in New York and Long Island and is married to the writer John Taylor.
Q: How long did it take you to write The Glass Castle and what was that process like?
A: Writing about myself, and about intensely personal and potentially embarrassing experiences, was unlike anything I’d done before. Over the last 25 years, I wrote many versions of this memoir -- sometimes pounding out 220 pages in a single weekend. But I always threw out the pages. At one point I tried to fictionalize it, but that didn't work either.
When I was finally ready, 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.
Q: How did you decide to follow The Glass Castle with Half Broke Horses?
A: It was completely at the suggestion of readers. So many people kept saying the next book should be about my mother. Readers understood my father's recklessness because they understood alcoholism, but Mom was a mystery to them. Why, they would ask, would someone with the resources to lead a normal life choose the existence that she did?
I would tell them a little bit about my mother’s childhood. She not only knew that she could survive without indoor plumbing, but that was the ideal period of her life, a time that she tries to recreate. I think that for memoir readers, it's not about a freak show– they’re just looking to understand people and get into a life that’s not their own. I thought, let me give it a shot, let me ask Mom. And she was all for it. But she kept insisting that the book should really be about her mother. At first I resisted because my grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, died when I was eight years old, more than 40 years ago. But I have a very vivid memory of this tough, leathery woman; she sang, she danced, she shot guns, she’d play honky tonk piano. I was always captivated by her. Lily had told such compelling stories—I was stunned by the number of anecdotes, and that Mom knew so much detail about them. Half Broke Horses is 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. I realized that in telling Lily's story, I could also explain Mom's.
Q: Why did you decide to write Half Broke Horses in the first person, and how much of this "true-life novel" is fiction?
A: I set out to write a biography of Lily, but sometimes books take on a life of their own. I told it in first person because I wanted to capture Lily’s voice. I’m a lot like my grandmother, so it came easily to me. I planned to go back and change it from first person to third person and put in qualifiers so the book would be historically accurate, but when I showed it to my agent and publisher, they both said to leave it as it is. By doing that, I crossed the line from nonfiction into fiction. But when I call it fiction it’s not because I tarted it up and tried to embellish things, but wanted to make it more readable, fluid, and immediate. I was trying to get as close to the truth as I could.
Q: How has your relationship with your mother changed in recent years?
A: Several years ago, the abandoned building on New York’s Lower East Side where Mom had been squatting for more than a decade caught fire and she was back on the streets again at age 72. I begged her to come live with me. She said Virginia was 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 there. 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 doesn’t live in the house with us-- I have not reached that level of understanding and compassion-- but in an outbuilding about a hundred yards away. Mom is great with the animals, loves to sing and dance and ride horses, and is still painting like a fiend.
Q: What do you hope readers will gain from reading your books?
A:Since writing The Glass Castle, so many people have said to me, "Oh, you’re so strong and you’re so resilient, and I couldn’t do what you did." That’s very flattering, but it’s nonsense. Of course they’re as strong as I am. I just had the great fortune of having been tested. If we look at our ancestry, we all come from tough roots. And one of the ways to discover our toughness and our resiliency is to look back at where we come from. I hope people who read The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses will come away with that. You know, "Gosh, I come from hearty stock. Maybe I’m tougher than I realize."
From School Library Journal
Gr 9 Up-Growing up in rural Appalachia in extreme poverty, Walls (a former journalist and recognized author) and her siblings had to fend for themselves, supporting each other as they weathered their parents' wildly erratic and dysfunctional behavior. She presents an objective portrait of her circumstances that is both poignant and forgiving. Audio version available from S & S Audio.α(c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
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And put our necks out on the line
And you have broken every promise that we made
And I have loved you anyway”
-- “Like a Fool” - Keira Knightley/ Lyrics - John Carney/“Begin Again” Soundtrack
Dysfunction and crushing poverty are at the heart of this memoir, but love is there, as well. Readers might find it difficult to accept these things in the casual “this was my life” presentation, as though it had no effect on her, as though she is used to having others feel that one must choose to either love and embrace or cast aside the person who inflicted the craziness upon them. How difficult it must be to share such intimate details with the world and then sit back while they judge not only you based on your life, but also the people that you loved, love, despite themselves, despite the things they did or did not do.
Nothing about this memoir seeks pity, or condemnation of those who raised her, or even of the way she was raised, it just is the way it was, and now her life is different. Her rags-to-riches story takes her from Arizona to California to Welch, West Virginia, and eventually to New York City.
My father shared some of his stories with me about growing up poor in West Virginia, hours away from Welch, in another part of the state where there are also few economic options. Preacher, professor, farmer, the railroad, or by the time my father was old enough to think of a future, for just a few - a pilot. I would say he never looked back once he left, but the truth is he was friends with many from that small town until the day he died. Having been there, having heard his stories, stories of his friends growing up there, it was easy for me to envision these places she lived, the people.
Jeannette Wells has walked deep into her past in this memoir, her younger years were less than wonderful and yet she survived, flourished even, maybe. Certainly there must be scars of a childhood where neglect and hunger are so prevalent, where alcohol is more important than food, where clothing and shoes and shelter take back seat to liquor and chocolate bars. Parents are supposed to be the guardians of those too young to care for themselves, but frequently the children were left to fend for themselves or care for the parents. There are so many moments in this memoir that are horrifying, and she has both the physical and emotional scars from those years. And yet, what really shines through is the compassion and love she still feels after all was said and done.
“We finally find this
Then you're gone
Been chasin' rainbows all along
And you have cursed me
When there's no one left to blame
And I have loved you just the same”
-- “Like a Fool” – Keira Knightley / Lyrics by John Carney / “Begin Again” Soundtrack
Her descriptions of the conditions under which they lived and the unrealistic expectations of her parents was excellent and perhaps a primer for poverty and how we explain it.
For me the best part of the book is a discussion during a poli sci class at Barnard when her poli sci professor dismisses her first hand experiences as ridiculous even though the professor has no idea how authentic Jeannette's opinions are. Seems like the author eloquently describes the charade in which part of our country is engaged when they say "It is not their fault".
Sometimes( and I emphasize the word sometimes) it is a choice and a conscious decision as it was for Jeannette's parents. Through delusion, alcoholism, or mental illness I feel that some choose this perverse way of life.
Many will disagree but after 20 years of working in a free clinic I can not help but agree that throwing money at people does not always work.
I could not put the book down and highly recommend it.