Memoir Spotlight: Jeannette Walls

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Jeannette Walls is the author of The Glass Castle, a memoir with more than 3 million copies in print, and Half Broke Horses, a bestselling true-life novel based on her grandmother. She lives in the Virginia piedmont with her husband, John Taylor.

Does the type of writing you’re doing (nonfiction, memoir, fiction) alter your process at all?
I’m a fairly fast, but sloppy writer, so I’m a big fan of re-writing, and re-writing again. I sit down at my desk pretty early in the morning and write all day until about 4 or 5 p.m. I don’t have any tricks or devices to get me going, but when I’m writing in the longer form (book versus journalism), it does take me a couple of hours to get into what I call “book head.”

What memoirs and memoirists have inspired you either while you were working on your own memoir or since its publication?
I really love memoirs and there are so many great ones out there that I hesitate to single out any and slight the others, but a few that come to mind are This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, Angela’s Ashes (of course) by Frank McCourt, The Memory Palace by Mira Bartók, In the Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White and My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor.

In my opinion, however, writers should be very careful about reading someone else memoir while they’re working on their own. I found that while I was re-reading Angela’s Ashes, blarney started creeping into my writing. I thought, Wait a second. I don’t think like this. One of the most challenging aspects of writing a memoir is finding your own voice, and you should be very careful about being influenced by someone else’s voice.

Your tone in The Glass Castle comes across as very matter-of-fact. Even as you’re recounting clearly difficult moments, you seem to report on them and not judge them. Do you think your background in journalism contributed to how you approached these episodes?
Yes, I think that the journalism background had something to do with that decision – the idea that the writer’s job is simply to present the story and let the readers decide what to make of it all. Some people who’ve read my story think I had a terrible childhood and that I was neglected or even abused, while others feel that my parents, while certainly flawed, also had truly wonderful qualities. And that’s the way it should be, because in real life two people can look at the same president and one will see a hero and the other a villain.

Another reason I wrote without judgment is that I was aiming to tell the story from my childhood perspective, and most children really don’t pass judgment in those situations; that’s their reality, that’s what they know. At least, that’s the way I felt.

For many people, writing is a way to discover a sort of “truth.” Would you say this happened to you either during the writing process or once the book was complete? If so, what was that experience like for you?
Absolutely. The first time I read back The Glass Castle, I was a little shocked. We all know things that we don’t realize we know. I spent six weeks writing the first version of the book—which, by the way, was truly awful, and that’s not false modesty—and then five years re-writing. In the earliest version, I’d really gloss over unpleasant or difficult things. The re-writing was mostly the process of being honest with myself about what really happened and how I felt about it. In the end, though, it’s been tremendously cathartic. Some people have asked me how I could forgive my parents, and honestly, the only person I had to forgive was myself.

Your recent book, Half Broke Horses, is a “true life novel”—how did that concept play out in your work?
The book is about my grandmother and there is very little written record of her life, so most of the information came from my mom. I’d originally set out to write Half Broke Horses as non-fiction, with the intention of taking out or qualifying whatever facts I couldn’t verify. I had also written an early version in first person, in an effort to capture my grandmother’s distinctive voice, and had planned to change it into third person. My agent and editor both felt that I should leave the book in first person.

It became clear that those qualifiers that historians often use (phrases such as “she probably took the same route” or “evidence suggests…”) wouldn’t work if I wrote the story in first person, and what’s more, they took the reader out of the immediacy of the story. I left them all out and, consequently, crossed the line from nonfiction into fiction, which is ironic, because I really don’t think of myself as a fiction writer. There were some who argued that I could still call it nonfiction, but I disagree. The phrase “true life novel” was my editor Nan Graham’s idea, but she didn’t invent it; it was used before, most notably with Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, which was written largely from interviews and court transcripts from the Gary Gilmore case—but Mailer also took some the liberties of story telling and, very wisely, I believe, didn’t want to stick the rather unforgiving “nonfiction” label on it.

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