Jeanette Walls: Living Fearlessly

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Photo credit: Bernard Clark courtesy of Kingston Readers and Writers Festival

Everything we are or ever will be is completely up to us. I can’t think of anything truer then that, when describing best selling author, Jeanette Walls.

The Glass Castle is her bestselling memoir chronicling the unconventional poverty stricken childhood, which often included homelessness. 

She is here to launch the Kingston Readers and Writers festival. The annual celebration of sixty authors from across Canada and the world are here September 25 – 29 to celebrate the events fifth anniversary.

She is a former journalist who used to covered celebrity gossip for MSNBC.com. After the success of her 2005 memoir sold more than 4.2 million copies she now has many more fans of her writing.

I welcomed the opportunity to hear her speak to some 600 hundred Queens University students along with public at the Queens Read event.

I caught up with Ms. Walls prior to the speaking engagement where we discussed her books, writing and general advice for living fearlessly with the truth.

It was a rainy autumn day in Kingston, she is long and lean at six feet and appears to gracefully perch on the end of the chair.

I tell her how much I enjoy biographies, especially her memoir, The Glass Castle. What are you reading now? Do you read when you write?

 “I just finished, The House in the Sky, by Amanda Lindhout.” She said.  “It’s a memoir about a young woman and how she was kidnaped in Somalia. It was a wonderful story of survival.”

“I never read when I am writing. It’s too difficult. I read things like the newspaper but not novels. In fact, once when I was writing and reading a Frank McCourt novel, I began too thread Irish dialogue and phonetics into my sentences. I had to re-write it, my style is totally different. It didn’t sound like who I was,” she explained.

“But, I do like to understand the psychology of the characters, their struggles and their motivations. Which is why I like biographies, I think.”  

When you were a journalist I know you were living the ‘Park Avenue’ life. But, today you live more of a rural lifestyle. Do you miss New York or as a writer is it great to live so remotely?

“My husband wanted to leave New York. I reluctantly followed. I am a natural fighter and in New York I was fighting everyday. These days, I only fight with my crazy rooster. It’s a good life. I don’t think I could go back.”

Do you have a writing group that you belong to?

“No, it’s just my husband and I to share ideas with.  He is a fantastic editor.  He knew before I did which story should open The Glass Castle. I trust his judgment.”

I have followed your work from your huge success with The Glass Castle to the story about your maternal grandmother, Lily Casey Smith in Half Broke Horses, and am equally excited about your latest novel – Silver Star.

I know you once said, when you write a memoir everyone assumes you made it up. When you write fiction everyone assumes its true.

What was it like switching from writing a memoir to developing a story line and characters for a fictional piece of work?

“I’ve always been hopelessly nosy and good at digging stuff out. The story of Lily, I enjoyed piecing together from stories that my mother shared and researching history during that period.  In a memoir the story is shaped by the truth. There were more false starts with Silver Star than the other books. In fiction, you need to determine what would happen.  I am not very good at not telling the truth.

When you developed the fictional characters of Liz and Bean did you create bios for each of them? 

“No I did not write bios. The Glass Castle, I had forty years of anecdotes. While I wasn’t sure how I was going to tell the story, the material was very real to me. Liz and Bean, they are still characters I know. Its fiction, but for the most part I knew what it had felt like to have a mother who abandons her children. Bean’s character is strong and I can relate a lot of her in me.”

You do show great strength. They say a mother should nurture and a father validates you. Most would suggest that you missed this as a child. But, yet there is such a lack of bitterness in you. Is this your adult perspective or even as a child you did you feel this way?

I always felt loved. My mother, how could she take care of me she didn’t even know how to take care of herself? My mother gave more to me then she has ever taken away. Dad, he taught me how to dream. The Glass Castle was his way of giving us hope for the future. Really, it’s the most valuable gift that you can give a child.

Everyone’s experiences are different. I’m the middle child. My oldest sister Lori asked how I could go back there. My brother, Brian remembers the same situations but in his own way. I didn’t discuss the book with them. My parents didn’t care to read it until after it was a best seller.

After interviewing loads of celebrities you can get pretty cynical about what’s real. It often seems like a dual life. I know, you finally revealed your secrets in The Glass Castle; I read that you did this after your mother encouraged you to tell the truth. How has having the truth told reflected in who you are today as a person and as a writer?

“It was life changing. We all have stories. It took six weeks to write the Glass Castle and five years for me to publish the book. It was life changing, but also extremely difficult. I had forty years of anecdotes to piece together. I didn’t know where to begin,” She insists. “It poured out of me.”

“My parents taught me early on that I would be ok. They gave me that reassurance. I’m naturally a scrapper. There is a lot of fight in me. I used to think I wasn’t smooth like the others. I had a lot of bruises and was more textured than most. Someone once said to me, ‘Honey, if you look close enough even satin has texture.’ It’s so true.”

One of the Writersfest events is about writing trauma, any advice on writing about difficult times?  

She sits back, “As Mom said, ‘always tell the truth’. You will be surprised by what follows.  Once at a speaking event, the women organizing it had not read my book. Afterwards she came up to me and said, ‘Sister, we have the same father!’ We all know someone who has baggage. I let it all wash over me. I learned to separate myself from the circumstances.”

In closing, I read that you said, ‘I don’t want to write anymore. I don’t have anything left to say?’ Please tell me this is not true and we will see more works in the future?

“It’s true. I don’t have anything left to say,” She threw her hands up, laughs and rests back in the chair. “But, I say this after every book. It’s a disease, I don’t know, you just never know.”

**********
Later that evening, I had the pleasure of being in the audience to hear Jeanette speak. The packed Grant Hall at Queens University laughed on cue as she recalled many funny childhood stories.

One incident in particular when she seeks out her father to tell him there is a monster under her bed. Her Dad with his equally funny imagination explained that ‘it was just the ole demon. ‘It’s been after me for ages and now he must be after my children.’ So they set off hunting to show ‘that ole demon that he is a bully and bullies are cowards.’

Her courage and wry sense of humor explaining what life as a child and adult of unconventional parents was like was infectious. The audience laughed, the next weeping for the lack of basic necessities that she endured, like food and shelter that many take for granted.

Jeanette Walls is one fearlessly, kind and generous lady. She signed books for hours, patiently listening to others stories giving each a moment to share. She taught us a lesson in the strength of the human spirit.

“It’s when we fall that we learn how to get up.”

Nothing left to say. Yeah, right.

Kingston Readers and Writers Festival – off to a good start. For a list of other festival events or to purchase tickets visit kingstonwritersfest.ca.

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