Q&A with MSNBC reporter and author Jeanette Walls

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Newsstreak reporter Molly Denman sits down to talk with MSNBC reporter and best-selling author Jeanette Walls. Photo courtesy of Molly Denman.

Why were you chosen to speak ?

“You know, I think that the issue of housing it just so central in people’s lives but it is also very central in The Glass Castle: having a place that is your home, having a place to live. You know I call the book The Glass Castle because there is so much of my life that was this ‘almost a fairy tale’ for us – that we would one day have a place to live. So, being invited to speak at a conference where affordable housing is the goal, well, there is this wonderful symmetry to it”.

What do you say at these conferences?

“[My core message is] that we are all stronger than we realize”.   Wall’s  message is one of hope.   “Sometimes people, having read my book, are a little worried that I am going to have a sad down-beat message but, in fact, I think it is one of perseverance and survival.”

When did you get the idea to write The Glass Castle?

“I sort of tried to in my teens and then again in my twenties and I would write a couple hundred pages and throw it away. I just couldn’t imagine the thought of sharing it”

Is any of The Glass Castle fictionalized?

“I have no imagination,” she remarked.  The turning point came as a result of Walls embarrassment over seeing her mother living in the streets.  When she asked her mother what she was supposed to tell people about her, she credits her mother for not only giving her permission to tell the truth but challenging her to do so. “That was really sort of the kick in the behind that I needed, but even then it was very difficult for me. I have to give a lot of credit to my husband who pretty much hog- tied me to the desk and said “you are telling your story”. He said “I understand it’s weird, I understand it’s complicated but you’re carrying this around as though its a burden and you really need to [correct it]”.

Walls found telling her story was the most therapeutic, cathartic thing she has ever done. “I think everybody knows things that they don’t realize they know. Its like the pieces of a puzzle are floating around in your head and you put the pieces down and a picture emerges” then it’s “ Oh my gosh! Now it makes sense to me!”

Did you envision becoming a writer?

“I did not think I would write about myself. I always wanted to be a writer. I always wanted to be a journalist, a story teller”.  Walls really doesn’t think of herself as a writer… she still thinks of herself as a journalist, “I’m a story teller, that’s all I am. We all have one slim little talent in the world and (for me) that is ferreting out stories. I’m the nosiest human being on the planet! I just love to dig and dig and find out “whats going on here?” but I have never been willing to turn the microscope on myself. So I did not think I would be telling my own story”.  And Walls certainly never expected her story would be published.

Is any of the book exaggerated?

“Oh no! No no no no! People ask me how much of a memoir is allowed to be made up. You don’t make stuff up! The whole point is to tell your story. If you start lying then it puts everything into question. Some people have said “oh you must have made that up,” I wish I could make stuff like that up. It would never occur to me to put kids in the back of a U-haul. I toned some of the stuff down because it was too wacky! The whole point of telling your story is to say this is how I got through the situation and maybe you can learn something from my life. You know there have been these scandals with memoirs, making things up. Why would you do that?! I don’t come across well in The Glass Castle.  I just survive these things, I’m not heroic, I’m just a kid. These things happen. My parents are the interesting people but these were things I was ashamed of that had to be pulled out of me.

There were many things in [the book] I had never told anybody. When my husband read the first version he said well if your parents weren’t buying food how did you guys eat? And I said “we got by”. He said “well, what do you mean, you got by?” I said “you know, I made do. He said “no, I don’t know, you’ll have to explain”. I said “well I’m not going to tell people that. No way!”  And he said “you have to”. So the idea I would make something up and lie about it well, why would you do that? You’re taking somebody into your confidence and saying okay this is what happened. And to lie would not only be a betrayal of you but it would be a betrayal of the truth, of the story and it makes it all invalid.

So no, no, you don’t make anything up. I could never make my parents up; these people who are complicated, who are both good and bad. My father, who could be so generous but, then, also so destructive. I could never have made that up. There are things that my husband read and said “Jeannette did this really happen? Your father took you to a zoo and you reached in the cage and the cheetah licked your hand? Are you certain?” Yeah. That sort of stuff was happening all the time. He said “not in most families, Jeannette”. Could I have possibly have made this up or exaggerated? So I called my brother and I said “Brian, remember that time that really beautiful cheetah, that really gorgeous cheetah licked my hand? He said that wasn’t a gorgeous cheetah Jeanette, that was a mangy flee-bitten critter!”  So that is the area you’re allowed a little leeway. Was it a gorgeous, muscular, noble creature like I remember or was it mangy and flee-bitten like my brother remembered? He is probably closer to to the truth, but it wasn’t a barracuda! You don’t exaggerate.  You have your perception of the truth but you still have to stick with the truth because otherwise then, I mean when I tried to fictionalize, and I did try to fictionalize it, what do I change? Do I make myself more heroic or more of a bad-ass? Do I make it that the mafia really was after dad? No, to have changed it from the truth, it wouldn’t have made sense then. The pieces stop fitting together.”

Were there any things that were particularly difficult to write?

“Yeah, my toughest memory from probably my entire life is the summer that I was 13 years old and my mom left me in charge of the household. I thought I could be a better mother than my mom was and get my dad to stop drinking and pay the bills and, you know, maybe get our electricity turned back on. Not only was I not a better mom than my mother was, I ended up you know, it’s not going to happen today!” Jeannette laughed at the memory of her ambitions.

“Dad took me to a pool hall and sort of quasi used me to fleece some other guys and it was the toughest experience of my life.  I also think it was one of the best things that ever happened to me because I do believe that everything in life is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing in that whole incident was that it gave me the kick in the behind

The cover of Jeanette Walls' best-selling book "The Glass Castle."

that I needed to realize – as much as I loved my father, and I believe he loved me in his damaged way – he’s an alcoholic and I couldn’t change that. And that he was not only not going to protect me, he was going to put me in harms way and he sure as heck wasn’t going to build me a glass castle. If I wanted a glass castle I’d better build it myself. But I really wrestled with whether or not to include that scene because it was so devastating to my father and I do love my father, the memory of my father. I almost felt I was betraying him, but I had to include that because it was so pivotal to my life and my decision to get out. So in telling the truth sometimes you have got to confront these ugly moments and figure out what they meant to you and why they are so difficult. But I do believe that the truth will set you free, I really do believe that. Increased understanding always leads to increased compassion”.

How did your father’s childhood impact how he raised you?

“I really do think that the most important part of growing up is understanding that your parents are human too – that they’ve got baggage, that they have issues. To me the shocking thing about my dad  was not that he was as damaged as he was, but that he had as much good in him as he did. He really struggled, I mean, he had a really difficult childhood. I do believe that most parents do the best they can.  Accepting that is just very important and not going around with this big chip on your shoulder, feeling bitter, feeling angry. I believe that dad gave me many gifts. I could concentrate on what he didn’t do for us but I think I’m a really lucky person. I  think he gave me a love of education and a sense of self esteem. I believe if you get those two things that you’ve got a pretty good inheritance. I originally planned to write a lot more about my New York year, where I knew a lot of people who didn’t get those things. They got a lot of material goods but they didn’t get those two things. But I decided eh, let them tell their story, I’m not going to pass judgement on them. But I believe, when all is said and done, I’m a very lucky person”.

How was the writing process?

“I was crying and we’re not talking pretty Hollywood tears, we’re talking big ol’ wet nose, snot slinging boohooing. I wrote the first version in six weeks and it was very, very bad. My bad writing default mode is still to journalism. I wrote things like “here to for not consider the plethora of influences”. Walls agent read it and said “you wrote this as though it happened to somebody else”.  Walls spent five years re-writing it and trying to be honest about what really happened and how she really felt about it.  Whenever she wrote as an adult looking back she would lapse into journalism. When she wrote it as the child she found she could describe what it really felt like to go through it. She admits that it took five years to find that authentic voice.

Are there any other books coming?

Walls thought The Glass Castle would be her one book and she ended up writing Half Broke Horses.  Since the book has come out in hardcover, which was over a year ago,  she has been on the road promoting it and she made up her mind “I don’t want to write another one – this is excruciating!” Then she found herself taking notes almost against her will.  She thinks another book is coming but it hasn’t taken shape yet.  Walls confesses “The Glass Castle isn’t the book I sat down to write. I think they sort of take on a life of their own”.

How does your life in Virginia compare to your life in New York?

“I didn’t want to leave New York.  My husband decided that it was time for us to go.” You couldn’t pay her to move back, now even though she still loves New York and always will but “when I go back I feel like it’s a boyfriend with whom I amicably split. I understand what I loved about it, but it’s not for me anymore. I love my life in Virginia.  It’s very rural. I have horses and I have a place for my hounds to run and I almost feel like I have sort of come full circle a little bit living back in the country.  I just can’t believe I am this lucky and happy as I am.”

How have the other Walls fared?

Jeannette’s mother came to live with Walls and her husband in Culpepper, Virginia when Jeannette appealed to her to come help with their horses. She is living in a nicely outfitted mobile home on their property and, while still eccentric, she is considerably calmer and more settled than ever before.  Her oldest sister, Lori, is still an artist in Manhattan. Her brother, Brian, is living in Brooklyn. He is retired from the police force. He was teaching for awhile and Walls was very proud of him for that. “I’m a big fan of education.  I think education is the great equalizer, especially for kids like the Walls kids,” Walls said. Jeannette’s kid sister Maureen is still living in California and Walls is trying to get her to come live with them in Virginia. Life has been most difficult for Maureen, the baby of the family.  She has had substance abuse issues but is considering coming to Virginia.  Walls seems hopeful that it will happen.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers or journalists?

“My advice would be passing along my mother’s advice which is “just tell the truth”. It’s the best advice anybody has ever given me, but its not that simple. Ferreting out the truth, as any non-fiction writer knows, whether you’re a journalist or a memoirist or a biographer or a historian [is a challenge]. There are many ways of approaching the truth, but be fearless about it, about your truths and about other people. Don’t worry about what other people are going to think, don’t worry at least in an early version whether it’s good or not. Just do your best to tell the truth and tell your story from the heart. Write what you know about.”

How was your first book?

“I wasn’t writing from the heart. Write what you know, write what you care about and your passion will come through. A friend of mine…says “when the heart speaks the heart listens” so if you speak from your heart it will come across.”

What is the most important lesson you have learned from your childhood?

“That you are stronger than you realize. I think we are all stronger than we realize. So many people have said to me I could have never survived what you did – but of course you could, of course you could.” Walls describes her “crappy childhood”as a great blessing. The important lesson she has learned from her adulthood is not to be ashamed of what she has gone through which she sees as the source of her strength.

How were you able to write the book with no judgment toward them?

“It’s accepting and understanding that my mother is who she is and, if I wanted her to be somebody else, I would be frustrated and angry because it’s not going to happen. I think she gave me great gifts and I guess the reason I can feel that way is because I am so happy with where I am in my life. If you are where you want to be why regret or feel bitter about how you got there? It’s not that I’m a good person, it’s that I’m pragmatic; bitterness and anger doesn’t get you anywhere. But there are wonderful gifts to be had out of every situation if you are willing to accept  that. I think that is what makes the difference between those of us who are happy with the many gifts that we have or who choose to complain and it’s a choice, it is a choice. I think that being able to make that choice is one of the great gifts. If my father gave me the gift of dreaming, mom gave me the gift of optimism. I think those two [gifts] are pretty great.”

Did writing the glass castle help you to accept your parents more or were you always so accepting?

“I think that writing the story made me understand them better. I think it made me understand the whole story better. The first time I read it back, I was a little shocked to tell you the truth. Because I think that sometimes we put things in a little dark place and you’re like ‘I can’t deal with this right now’ and then you see it and your like ‘whoa! I went through some wicked things didn’t I?’ I think it made me appreciate mom a little bit more.  I think I short-changed her a little – but at least she was there. It made me understand everything a lot better. It made me confront some things that I had not confronted.”

Do you have any advice for kids who may have a similar or difficult home situation?

“I wish I could give better advice, but just tough it out. You are stronger than you think.  There are gifts along the way, there are wonderful blessings. Just get through it. Get through it and you will be more prepared for the difficulties that are inevitable in adulthood. Walls speaks of the wonderful blessings that can be picked up along the way. “I would not trade my childhood. There is no amount of money that you could pay me to have traded my childhood in for an easier one. On the other hand, there is no amount of money you could pay me to relive it,” Walls laughs heartily.  “Just get through it and you will be okay. You will be okay once you’re on the other side.”

What was the most rewarding part of writing The Glass Castle?

“Having students read it. It really is a dream come true for me. I never expected my story to be received as well as it is. Some people say ‘is this a dream come true for you?’ It exceeds any dream I would have ever had. But the fact that I am sitting down here and being interviewed by you right now – it’s extraordinary to me that kids (excuse me for calling you a kid), young adults, get it. That you get it. You understand the story, you understand the issue, the messages I’m trying to get across. I don’t have the answers, but the fact that you are asking me these questions, that you are interested and that your class discussed these things is a miracle to me. You guys are disagreeing about things, neither one of you is right or wrong, but the fact that you are discussing it is what is important and that is what story telling is all about.”

How does your parenting style compare to your parents?

“I don’t have any children. My husband has children. None of us girls have kids and I think that’s not a coincidence. There is something called “parented children”, that if you take on adult responsibilities as a kid your are less inclined to do it and I think that is probably the case. I thought I would have children, but it just never happened.”
How did you handle growing up with barely any food and not having the basics?

“You just make the decision to”.  She quotes Oscar Wilde who once said “a necessity is a luxury once sampled.”  “All of these things that you think are necessities, of course you could do without them and that is one of the blessings of my childhood is, I know that. I know the difference between wanted and needing things.”

How were you accepted by other kids?

“I wasn’t. I was not accepted, I was an outcast. Believe it or not, that is okay. It’s okay. You learn a lot from that. I love my showers and every time I flush a toilet I think, ‘thank you God’.”

What was the most difficult part of growing up?
“It wasn’t the shame, the embarrassment. It wasn’t the hunger, it wasn’t the cold, it wasn’t even the dirtiness, it was just thinking no one would understand me, no one would like me if they knew everything about me. That is why the book was so cathartic for me, because people do understand and because there are so many of us out there. Shame is an isolating emotion and one of the great blessings of having told my story is that it has taken me out of the isolation of my shame and made me realize we all have our stories – we all have our areas of shame. This woman came up to me and said she had always been ashamed of her parents because they had an accent, they immigrated from Europe. So we can all find things to be ashamed of and I don’t really think I had it that much tougher than some other people. I met this woman one time on one of my recent tours and she said that her mother had never once complimented her. She said not one time did she get any praise from her mother. I thought ‘oh, she must be making this up, every body’s mother compliments them at least once.’ And she said no she had recently had a conversation with her mother about it and her mother said she never saw the point in commenting on behavior…if you didn’t need to change it. I thought, wow! Which of us had the tougher childhood?”

What is the greatest memory of your father?

Walls says being a complete outcast contributed to her becoming a journalist.  “I will always carry around the baggage from my childhood. The first time my husband tried to eat off my plate, he almost lost his hand!” When she stopped laughing, she admitted that there are issues she will always have – “but that’s okay. You get past it. One time I was at an event and somebody said ‘I cannot believe you survived the horrors that you did, there is no way a human being could endure that and still be whole’. And this woman in the first row, raised her hand and said she was from Liberia and that I didn’t have it so bad. This is a young woman who watched her parents being killed! We all can endure things that we think we are not capable of. That doesn’t mean we should have to, but the blessing of that is that you get through the other side and you say “you know I can face just about everything”. That is why I tell the story about the young woman who went to outward bound – she just doesn’t know she is that strong. I know that [I am that strong], you know that is not one of my issues”.

The greatest memory Walls has of her father without question is him letting her pick a star for her very own out of the night sky for Christmas.  She didn’t choose a star but chose the brightest object in the sky, the planet Venus, and that was okay with her dad. Her greatest memories of her mother are not from childhood but are new ones. “I think that only recently have I really begun to love and appreciate her. So it’s a gift I got late in life, and sometimes those are the ones you appreciate the most.”

Besides being an optimist like your mother, are there any other qualities you share with your parents?

“Oh yeah. In a scary way. I love reading, I love learning, I have an enthusiasm for life. I will also tell you I am the dummy of the family and that’s not false modesty. My parents were both brilliant. Everybody in my family is. I get together with my family and they have these heated debates about some obscure renaissance character I have never heard of and I’m sort of like “how ‘bout that Britney Spears?” (a giggle)  They are just on this other level. But you know, it’s not what you are given in life, it is how your choose to use it. I think that is a gift they have given me as well.”

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