ArticlesBlog

Jeannette Walls – 2009 National Book Festival

Jeannette Walls – 2009 National Book Festival


from the Library of Congress in
Washington DC good afternoon good afternoon and
welcome I’m Ron Charles the fiction editor of The Washington Post book world
which is a charter sponsor of the National Book Festival before we begin
I’ve been asked to remind you that these proceedings are being recorded for all
time by the Library of Congress which may broadcast them at some future date
after the author’s presentation there’ll be time for questions from the audience
from these two microphones ones there and ones there so if you don’t want to
become part of the library’s permanent collection just stay in your seat
it’s not fair having to introduce a great writer of memoir because she’s
already done it so well as you know Jeannette Walls was born in Phoenix and
she and her siblings had a difficult childhood in a strange but intense
family that was constantly on the move so bizarre was her upbringing and she
kept it a secret even while she tried to write about it for 20 years she tried to
write it as a novel at one point but finally coaxed on by a close friend the
man she eventually married she wrote The Glass Castle which has been a
best-seller for almost three years has sold more than 2 million copies in this
country and has been translated into 24 languages but for most of her career she
spent as a journalist she worked at New York Magazine Esquire USA Today and for
many years was a gossip columnist for MSNBC her up our upcoming book half broke horses is
an account of her life with her grandmother on the American frontier you
can look for that in bookstores just next week please join me in welcoming
Jeannette Walls thank you thank you it is it is such a great joy to be here
surrounded by so many wonderful readers and so many big deal authors like I sort
of feel this is an honor I I don’t deserve I’m just a girl with a story but
the telling of that story has changed my life and among other things it made me
see what a knucklehead I was for so many years so with our time together what I
would like to do is share with you some of the things that I have learned since
the publication of my book I am it it gives me such great pleasure to share my
story and that’s ironic because for so long my story was a source of shame for
me as Ron mentioned I used to write about celebrities for a living that’s
not the source of shame perhaps it should be but it’s not um but the day
that I was heading to some fabulous party and and saw a homeless woman
rooting through the garbage and realized it was my mother and getting together
with her a couple of days later and asking her what the heck am I supposed
to tell people when they ask me about you and her telling me just tell the
truth is really what changed my life it it seemed like such a simple challenge
but at the same time it seemed impossible how could I ever explain to
people why my mother who’s an intelligent and resourceful woman would
be living on the streets but moreover what kind of a monster of a daughter
would live on Park Avenue and write about celebrities while my mother was
living on the streets at the same time I felt it was something that I had to do I
felt like a fraud and a phony but there was no dot there was no doubt in my mind
that once people knew the truth about me that I was going to lose everything I
was completely convinced I would be fired from my job that I would lose all
my friends and and lose whatever meager little stain
not carved out for myself in this world so I’m sitting there trying to rise to
mom’s challenge and tell the truth and I thought why am I doing this I’ve got
this great job I go on television I held my own column I have a flush toilet what
more could anybody want in life you know um and and I and I developed a fantasy
for my story now any author who tells you they don’t have a fantasy for their
book is lying to you because it is an excruciating process sitting there
staring at the the word processor typewriter whatever you use and and you
tell yourself stories oh when my book comes out maybe such-and-such will
happen I never dreamed of the bestseller list that was that was too too ambitious
I never dreamed of any prizes or awards my fantasy became that if my story came
out that a rich kid would read it I was hoping that a rich kid and by that I
mean somebody whose folks paid the bills on time that a rich kid would read it
and would come to understand what it’s like to grow up on the other side of the
tracks what it’s like to have this weird combination of shame and pride about
your your parents and yourself and then as I worked a little bit longer on it I
developed an even bolder and more ambitious ambition and that was that
somebody who grew up like me would read it and we’d get the same sense of hope
that I got from reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and and so that’s what got me
through telling my story and and facing what I was certain would be shame and
humiliation well I have to say that readers have been so much smarter and so
much more compassionate than I ever dreamed possible
um I cannot tell you how many people have come to me and and I have seen have
told me um have let me see myself through their eyes and that’s sort of
what allowed me to forgive myself for my own past but I perhaps more shockingly
the number of people who’ve come up to me and said you know the details of our
lives are very different but you and I have a lot in common and sometimes they
start telling me their stories and sometimes they’re crying when they tell
me sometimes they have these rough Scrabble backgrounds like I did but
sometimes they were raised in what seems like great luxury but they had an
alcoholic father or a slightly loopy mom and they tell me their stories and
they’re these amazing inspirational stories and I think why
would you be ashamed of that number oh yeah I was ashamed too so so i i i i I
think that you know shame somebody who’s very wise when said to me that that um
secrets are like like vampires they can survive only in the darkness
and they suck the life out of you but once they’re exposed to the light
there’s a moment of horror then poof they lose their power over you but um
that’s oh no long after the publication I got to get back to my ambitions about
my book not long after the publication of my book a very pretty young um girl
approached me she said she read my story while she was vacationing in the
Caribbean and um she said she’s a cheerleader and she said there’s this
girl she said there’s a girl in her class she said she wears these nasty
ugly out-of-date clothes and hair’s all greasy and she said we all make fun of
her and she said and now I understand and now I will never make fun of her
again and I thought the Lord can strike me down with lightning right now I have
done my job on this planet I have made thank you honey I have made that one
rich kid understand but then not long after that not long after that a teacher
came to me she said she had one of her students read my book she she teaches in
northern Alabama so too rough Scrabble area and she said a young man who had
never read a book cover-to-cover started toting my book around with him and she
said I thought you don’t like reading he said I don’t she said I thought you
don’t you don’t like books at all he said I hate books said well why do you
like that particular book and he thinks for a second and he said this here’s a
fine white trash story and um then the teacher added very quickly in a
little bit nervously I believe he meant that as a compliment um but I I took it
as a compliment in fact in fact it is perhaps the greatest compliment I have
ever received because if a young man first of all who thinks he doesn’t like
books but moreover who thinks of himself as trash can hear my story and say hey
you know something she’s not that different from me and
that if a popular cheerleader can read my story and say hey you know something
she’s not that different from me that to me is why we tell our stories it’s you
know I think we memoirs get a little bit of a bum rap that we’re exhibitionist or
something like that and I I don’t believe that at all what you’re doing
your night air in your dirty laundry you’re saying this is my story and maybe
you can learn something from it without the nasty business of actually having to
have lived it and and what I have found from people is only compassion and
kindness and in a desire to connect and to understand what it was like to have
this childhood what it was like and and it elicits great conversations and as I
said a number of people coming up to me and saying you know I know what you went
through I went through something like that in thinking about what is the truth
you have to figure out you know somebody who’s much wiser than me once said the
truth is a liquid and not a solid and it takes many shapes so when you’re writing
even if it’s a when you’re writing nonfiction even though it’s it’s true
you shape your truth by which stories you choose to tell when I sat down to
write my story I was 40 years old so I had a lot of anecdotes to choose from
and and the very favorite memory for my entire childhood was when I was five
years old and um we had no money for Christmas presents and my father took
each of his children out into the desert night and he gave us as a Christmas
present whichever star in this guy we wanted
I’ve never been much of one for subtlety so I chose the brightest one it was
being his dead dad had to explain to me that Venus wouldn’t a star at all
just to plan it I wanted it anyway dad said what the heck it’s Christmas you
want to plan it you gotta plan it and he gave me Venus and it’s my most treasured
gift in my most treasured story ever to this day when I see Venus up in the sky
I think honey that is mine I own that and um so when my father died I told
that story at his funeral after I finished my sister Laurie
who’s three years older than me and always been a little smarter than me
always saw right through my dad’s BS she crossed her arms and said in that like
that sorry sob dad of ours to go give away something that doesn’t belong to
him in the first place and um I thought about it Laurie was absolutely right
dads giving me Venus was a completely meaningless gesture but I’m right – it
was a priceless treasure it is whatever you choose to make of it and I think
that you could say the same of the glass castle itself you know it was another
one of my father’s drunk and dreams and another one of his unfulfilled promises
or you can see it as as a hope and a dream for the future and that’s the way
I chose to see it believe that maybe all of this moving around and digging food
out of garbage cans and sleeping in cardboard boxes that that was temporary
that one of these days I would actually have a nice place to live and I’ve come
to believe that that is a much more valuable gift thank you I am I’ve been
fascinated by people’s reactions to my story you know some people think that my
parents were monsters who should have had their children locked up and some
think that they were certainly flawed characters but that they had gifts as
well and that they passed those gifts along to their children sometimes
reading groups will approach me let’s say we had a big ol argument about your
book you know which of us is right and I say that you’re you’re both why you’re
all right it’s it’s all how you choose to perceive it there’s one more story
bear with me that I want to take about a teach right I love teachers I think that
good teachers are Saints walk in this planet and if I keep on I I just I I do
I think that if you can if you can give a child the
gift of knowledge of learning a passion for education you’ve given them a great
treasure that they will have their entire lives so I just you know and some
people have asked me why I’m not bitter or upset about my childhood you know I
got that from my parents and I got a sense of self-esteem and I think that
the rest is all bonus ideally also get food and clothing I’ll admit that but
but um the sense of self-esteem is is amazing
when we’re in a story about a teacher there was a teacher in a broth rust L
ruff ruff rust belt area and she had her kids read the glass castle because she
was trying to get them to read stories about poverty and um there’s one if it
sounds like I’m bragging about my book it’s I am um um but I I’m not bragging
about my book I’m bragging about the power of storytelling the power of
sharing your stories but anyway this teacher was trying to get these kids to
read about poverty cuz there was one student in particular she wanted to
reach and um she said this is a good girl but she’s had a couple of brushes
with the law and she just wanted to get through to this young woman and um so uh
this young woman came into the class one day and she through the glass castle on
the table she said that is a very upsetting book to me and the teacher
said why is that she goes that there’s an episode where the mother takes three
kids shoplifting and gets clothes for one of the kids that was wrong and this
teacher is thinking oh this is great I could have this conversation with this
young woman about breaking the law and crime and punishment and the teacher
says what in particular bothered you about that scene this young woman says
if you go shoplifting for one of the kids you got to get something for all of
them and um the teacher said it was quite the
eye-opener for her because she had always thought of this young woman as a
rule-breaker and then she came to realize this woman isn’t a real breaker
at all she was just taught a different set of
rules and and so I think that that’s what memoirs and biographies that’s what
they do is is they take you inside somebody else’s life and and and they
make you see this is what you would be like if your circumstances were
different I think you know we we all define other people in different ways we
stick labels on crazy homeless people or shallow gossip calms thinking that we
know who and what they are but everybody has a story everybody there’s something
behind everybody and I’m on this campaign right now to get everybody to
write their own story their own memoir whether you want to show it to anybody
or not that’s your choice I think if you show it to somebody take it from me
people are kinder and wiser then we give them credit for being there they’re much
more trustworthy if you’re not ready to do that that’s okay too but I think
everybody should tell their story if not to other people at least to yourself and
figures yourself out people have asked me how could you forgive your parents
the only person I had to forgive was myself because I think that those of us
who pulled ourselves up by the bootstraps we can carry around a lot of
sort of survival guilt or mixed feelings about doing better than your parents and
leaving your siblings behind it’s it’s very complicated and coming clean we
destroy these neat patterns emerge and like I said readers are so smart I was
at one events a reader asked me something and she said why did your
mother do such-and-such I said you know I don’t know and I’ve
asked my mother and I can’t get a straight answer from her another woman
in the audience raises her hand she said I know I said you do she said yeah my
book club discussed it I was like oh okay
so um she had a good theory too so um some people have asked me is it weird to
go around talking about your family and having all these people discussing
members of your families they know it and it’s never been weird just because
people are so kind and so smart in fact time and time again readers have been
smarter than I am as I said people have very different reactions to my parents
and the questions I get most about I get the most questions about are my mother
people have really sort of wildly mixed feelings about her some people have said
you know your father I understand I understand alcoholism your mother’s a
mystery to me and I would often discuss my mother with them and usually their
faces would light up with illumination that sort of aha moment and usually they
would in the conversation by saying your next book should be about your mother
like right on mom she’s a crazy lay down all right you know um but they just kept
on insisting time and time again your next book
should be about your mother and I’ve been sort of kicking around for somebody
to write about because I have no imagination I can’t make things up I
it’s ironic to me that I mean this particular trip a temple let’s not even
go there but um um so eventually I proposed the
idea to mine my mother she no longer is on the streets I’m happy to say that um
the abandoned building where she was living several years ago for for more
than 15 years without heat of running water caught on fire and um I’ve been
trying to get my mother to come down live with me in Virginia not with me in
my house because I’m not a saint but we have a little place out back and she
kept on resisting she said Jen and I lived the most exciting city in the
world I don’t want to go down and live him for jigna that’s the sticks um I
said but mom you live on the street and she said I’m not some sort of a moocher
I’m not a freeloader live with my daughter and son-in-law I said mom we’re
thinking of getting horses him we could really use the help she said I’ll be
right there and um it was a valuable lesson for me
in terms of um you know if we want to help somebody if you can if you can give
them a sense of self-esteem and an idea that they’re helping themselves in
helping you as well that they’re much more inclined to accept your help and
they might even surprise you by really being helpful and rise into
the occasion and mom has been fabulous with the horses and she’s been fabulous
with other things too um not long ago she came in in this really good mood she
was very happy about something I said mom what are you so happy about she said
the most wonderful thing happened to me today I said what she said I fell off a
horse now my mother is the ultimate optimist if she can put a positive spin
on anything but I was thinking how could even mom think that falling off a horse
is a good thing so I asked her I said your mom what what could be good about
that she said well Jeanette anybody can ride but knowing how to fall takes great
talent and I thought there’s a great deal of wisdom in that you know
especially with the economy that we’re facing you know and when times are good
we can all just sail along so it’s you know no one had to land on your behind
and then pick yourself back up and get them moving in and those of us who can
pick ourselves up are really the truly lucky ones and the truly truly lucky
ones among us are the ones who can give somebody else a hand and say can I help
you up and and inevitably in my experience if somebody’s willing to
accept that help that they can be a big asset to you and so the ironic thing for
me is that this woman who for so long was a source of shame for me who I sort
of wanted to disappear from the planet I didn’t want her to die but I just wanted
her to go away has actually become not only a source of inspiration for me but
the source of my next book um because eventually when I proposed the idea of
well you know do how about I write a story about you she was all for it she
thought was a great idea and I interviewed her every day for a year and
not one time did she say oh that’s too personal let’s not go there you know
she’s just very forthcoming my mother cannot remember my phone number but
she’s this amazing recall for the the history of Arizona and the various
Indian tribes and which I related this I was like I was stunned I was taking
notes Rock she couldn’t you must be wrong on all the sudden go back and
google it and she was dead-on on all of it
so I said um mom what do you know all this stuff and you don’t even know your
own phone number she said my phone number is not that interesting
um um so um she was great about it but while I was interviewing her she kept
saying this book should not be about me this should be about my mother and um at
first I resisted because my grandmother died when I was about 8 years old and I
couldn’t interview and I don’t think I have no imagination I can’t I joined I
tried to fit on mentioned I tried to fictionalize a glass castle and I
couldn’t think of fake names for us so I used all our middle names you know and
it just I I couldn’t think how am I supposed to change this because
everybody did what they did because that’s in character and you know am I
supposed to say that the FBI really was after my father so I don’t I don’t I
didn’t know what to change but as I’m interviewing mom like I said she kept on
saying this next book should be about my mother
um and I resist it because I couldn’t interview my my grandmother who died
when I was 8 years old but she was this amazing character she had um was born in
1901 in a dugout I don’t mean on a baseball field I’m anali you know on a
riverbank a dugout in the and she trained horses and she was a
schoolteacher by the time she was 15 didn’t have a high school degree herself
and I thought mom was right that she did have an amazing story so um so I wrote
the story from her perspective in first person with the intention of changing it
back to third person and qualifying the stuff I didn’t know by saying you know
it is believed that or the evidence suggests but then I showed it to my
agent she said keep everything exactly as it is so we decided to slap the label
fiction on it we’re calling it a true life novel which I it was a it was a
phrase that actually Norman Mailer used in the execution or song but it’s
basically it’s just a family story in it like we all have like you know that we
were told by our parents and our grandparents and even though I think
that Lily my grandmother was an exceptional woman in so many ways just
tough broad she was just this this woman should whip out our choppers or whip out
her handgun equally quickly and she just you know she was a tough old lady and
did what had to be done so in some ways I think she was an extraordinary woman
another way she’s extraordinarily common just there was I think a lot of people
will recognize themselves or maybe their grandparents
and her and and I that is my hope for this book that it makes other people
think about their own stories their own histories and and their ability you know
so many people have said to me in fact a gentleman just said this to me earlier I
could have never survived what you did and even though I’m very flattered by
that compliment of course you could of course you could we’re all tougher than
we think some of you have probably survived much worse I was at some event
anybody was saying how could you be so strong and this woman sort of meekly
raised her hand she said I’m from Somalia she didn’t have it so bad you
know um I think there were all tough old
broads and tough old coots and if you just look in your history
you’ll realize we all come from this really hearty stock whether you came
over the ancestors came over from the potato famine or came over on slave
ships it’s it’s or it just came here to get away from the Holocaust we all have
what it takes to survive and and give yourself some credit and look at your
own stories and um you know my my hope for for half broke horses is um folks
will read it and like that poor white trash Caden like that popular kid will
just say hey you know something she’s not that different from me
thank you very much thank you thank you thank you thank you ask anything if I don’t know the answer
maybe somebody’s book club discussed it son had first read it had been
recommended it to him his friend in middle school recommended it to me and
then we passed it on through the family anyhow my question to you is how’s your
mother’s read the book right yeah mm-hmm and her reaction well you know I was
very I often showed to mom before publication and she wasn’t that
interested in reading it she was in the middle of a really zane grey a good zing
grade book so she passed on it and she didn’t read it until it became a
best-seller if i really wrestled with some of those scenes should I include
them in particular the chocolate scene for those of you who haven’t read the
book um there’s an episode where we kids were going hungry mom was eating
chocolate and I can’t Tammy to reader said your dad had me until the pool hall
scene your mom had me to the chocolate scene so I really wrestled with whether
or not to include that because I could have left it out and nobody would have
said hey there’s a plot hole here um and I decided to go ahead include it
and if mom and read it before publication and said please take this
out I could have said you know the public has the right to know mom um but
after she read it like I said it was already out and she had no problem with
that no problem so ever she was a little
upset by my description of her driving um other than that she doesn’t seem to
have any real problem which she said a couple of times I don’t see things quite
the way you do but I understand that you had to tell the truth as you saw it and
I think you know that’s a pretty darn fad with all the things I said about her
you got to hand it to mom you can cues her a lot of things but
being a control freak is not one of them so yes thank you this is not a question
but a very quick one-minute story to add to your teacher collection I’m the young
librarian at a public charter school here in Washington DC three years ago a
new English teacher came to our high school and she came and she said to me
I’ve never taught high school before she said what how do you think I should
start each day I said I think it’s really important even at the high school
level that the teachers read aloud something to their class just for
pleasure and enjoyment she said well what should I start with I said I don’t
know I said I’ve always found at any level but Charlotte’s Web works very
well but I said I just a book that I think would really work
very well well of course it was the glass castle what I want to tell you
though is is that for the next three years she had four classes each year she
read the glass castle to every one of her classes for three years that’s 12
times that she read aloud but glass castle she never censored a word she
read every word as written and the other thing she cried every time your father
died the last thing is she’d be here today but I guess the stress was too
much for it after three years she decided to take a year off she’s riding
her bike down the continental trail thank you so much thank you that’s
amazing thank you Jeanette two quick questions are your siblings especially
marine yeah number two I have a friend who’s an orthodontist she was very
concerned about your teeth did your homemade braces work your teeth are
absolutely beautiful did you have to go to a real orthodontist you called me out
on that honey he called me out I these are these very fine choppers that you
see are the result of professional dent yeah
my very first paycheck I went and got braces and my orthodontist gave me a
really hard time for not getting braces when I was a kid he said I had I had the
worst overbuy had ever seen and I did not tell him about my do yourself
efforts because I didn’t think it’d be impressed um but um yeah but an
orthodontist told me Mike technology actually was good and it would have
worked my siblings my older sister Laurie is still an artist she’s still in
Manhattan um my kid sister Maureen is living in California in a clean safe
place uh you know she’s not setting the world on fire with her career but that’s
okay she one of the many blessings that come as a result of the glass castles
we’re back in touch I’m trying to get her to come live with me and my husband
in Virginia but she says she never wants to live her it snows ever again I keep
telling her Marie Nicole’s not so bad when you got a thermostat just move the
little old thing and I just but she you know this has to be her decision and I’m
trying to sort of accept that but the chapter on that is not necessarily
finished I’m still working on that my brother has retired from the police
force he’s no longer with the Gestapo he is a ninth grade English teacher and I
could not be more proud of him whoa whoa whoa go Brian and he’s a great teacher
he really is thank you um hi Jeanette my daughter is I’m junior at Barnard and
when she was first year you came and spoke to her class which she loved and I
just wanted your excu anything you say about being at Barnard
and how it helped you I you know I loved being at Barnard and I loved going back
and speaking to that class one of my few regrets about the glass castles I wish I
would have changed the name of the Barna professor who called me out when when I
said you know she said what do you know about homelessness and I said nothing
you know um and I never meant to humiliate her I was not trying to get
even with anybody I think she’s I think Barnard is a wonderful place and this
was the woman who inspired me to become a political science major so and I was
so impressed with those girls they were so smart and as the best question so
good luck to her thank you hi thank you loved your book passed it on to many
people and also loved it my question is about your mother and it’s similar to
what you’ve already said about people not understanding her and while I was
fascinated by your non-judgmental take on it
did you ever try to explore or anybody else help you explore it was she
mentally ill what the illness might have been what was driving her really bizarre
behavior in regards to her children mom has never been diagnosed with any mental
illness as far as I know she certainly loopy she’s loopy I mean I don’t know if
that’s a diagnosis but I keep on quoting other people other readers because
they’re smarter than I am and now I’m going to quote a Rosie O’Donnell who was
a big fan of the glass castle I went on the view it was the best interview I’ve
ever done because I couldn’t get in a word edgewise they were all fighting
about but Joy Behar hated my mother so I that nut I can’t believe you’re letting
that nut live with you you know she is mentally ill you know that and Rosie
jumped in and she said there’s a whole spectrum of mental illness all the way
from seasonal affect disorder to schizophrenia and she said
most creative people are somewhere in between as am i and I certainly mom has
disorders I recently read a fascinating biography called my stroke of insight in
which this woman lost use of the left side her brain became completely right
brained and it was like reading a rosetta stone on my mom she’s a total
right brain person now that she’s living with me I have a great relationship with
her um she’s a hoot she’s a lot of fun if you’re not looking for to take care
of you my husband that handsome devil sitting right there gets um gets along
even better with it yeah gets along even better with her than I
do she’s she just thinks differently I don’t you know this the whole definition
of mental illness I don’t know it’s very complicated and I hope I hope that half
broke horses will help explain a little bit more about if not what’s going on
inside her head her journey thank you you were just mentioning the role that
you think that mental illness can play in what shapes a writer and earlier when
John Grisham was here he was talking about how Mark Twain was one of his
idols uh-huh and I think what a lot of people don’t know is that Mark Twain had
a daughter who was epileptic who drowned in a bathtub and I think that man was
never the same afterwards and I was just wondering your what your opinion is of
how emotional trauma or just a very tough life how attempts life affects you
can I take you a letter writer I think that everything in life is both a
blessing and a curse I think everything is and that is entirely up to us which
one we choose to focus on one of the blessings from my childhood is that I’m
a scrapper and a fighter and one of the curses from my life is that I’m a
scrapper and a fighter and it took me a long time to sort of understand that at
a certain point in life it’s okay to stop fighting but I think I think that
these difficulties that we should that we all face no matter how horrible the
experience there’s a very valuable blessing wrapped inside if you are
willing to receive that gift and but it’s not always easy it’s
I am I am overtime so I guess I got it I’m getting the hook here so thank you
very much thank you and so II will talk afterwards thank you thank you thank you thank you so much thank you this has
been a presentation of the Library of Congress
visit us at loc.gov

Comment here