Aside from her Southern accent, Jeannette Walls bears no outward traces of the extremely poor, nomadic childhood she chronicles in her brilliant new memoir, The Glass Castle. The tall, elegant MSNBC columnist bravely bares her lifelong secret of growing up with her three siblings and having to eat butter for dinner, make her own braces, and suffer the whims of her artistic, intelligent and utterly selfish parents, one she thought would get her kicked out of polite society and leave her socially ostracized once it was revealed.
Walls’s greatest strength is her ability to tell her story with compassion and empathy rather than bitterness, letting the story unfold from her childhood perspective, from cooking hot dogs at age three and catching on fire, to growing up faster than most of us can probably imagine having to ever do.
She imbues her gambling, alcoholic father, Rex Walls, with a mix of paternal love and bumbling despair and her mother’s artistic megalomania and inability to hold a job with frustration, tenderness and occasional humor. When he offers her up to the winner of a pool game as a teenager, or successfully tries to coax money from her meager budget while her mom is away, we see a grown man utterly incapable of giving his children what they need.
However, Walls, who eventually moved to New York, attended Barnard and began rising up the journalistic ranks, has taken enough time to distill her feelings about . She takes her title from her math and science focused dad, who always promised his kids he would build them a magical, perfect glass castle in which to live, one of the major metaphors for in the book. The Glass Castle is gripping, passionate and memorable, a book that will leave any reader who’s paying attention stunned with its vivid imagery while proving, once again, that truth is indeed far, far stranger than fiction can every hope to be.
In person, Walls is charming, intelligent and introspective, delving deep into her own psyche while putting forth the idea that memoir should be “universal.” Below is but a portion of a two and a half hour interview conducted in Walls’ home.
You wrote that your husband encouraged you to tell this story. How long were you thinking of writing it and once you decided, how long did the writing process take?
I thought about writing it for close to 20 years. I tried to write it fictionalized, but I couldn’t even make fake names of people. Periodically, I’d write about 200 pages in a weekend and throw it all away without even reading it. What happened is, the opening scene in the book pushed me into thinking, “I should really write this.”
I hadn’t told people about my past, when people asked, I’d demur or lie a little bit. John was my best friend before we were romantically involved, we worked together at New York magazine. He took me Central Park and said, “You’re lying to me about something. Every time I ask you about your family, you change the topic and it’s insulting to me. You know everything about me and I don’t know anything about you.”
I said, “I’m not going to tell you because I don’t think you’d want to be my friend anymore.”
And he said, “I’m not going to be your friend, forget it.” So I told him everything, and his first reaction was, “That would make a great book.” But then about five years ago, I was working on my previous book, Dish, about gossip, and he called up my agent and said, “Jeannette’s got this great story.”
So even your agent didn’t know.
No, nobody knew, my former assistant knew. Between that time and the time it got published was about five years. The first version was too distanced; I was writing it as a journalist. It wasn’t emotionally raw enough. That’s one of the reasons I wrote it from the perspective of a child is to convey those emotions and re-experience them.
That’s one of the things people comment on. Someone the other night said, “She did a good job because it’s objective.” I feel like that’s not quite the right word, you went back to your childhood version, but it’s not objective. But even just the facts, no matter how you told that, it’d be impossible to walk away from that story and have an opinion about how your parents acted. DO you think there is such a thing as an objective memoir?
No, if my sister or brother. I made a conscious decision not to extrapolate or comment on the events. “I realized in retrospect that my father was dealing with certain issues…”I wanted readers to project their own feelings into what was going on. Some people have said that’s the book’s greatest strength, but I’ve also been criticized for it. She doesn’t give her opinion on the situation of childrearing or the homeless issue. It was a conscious decision because whereas I couldn’t be completely objective, I think part of the reading experience is to put your own experience into it. I hope you wouldn’t be able to come away from it without feeling one thing or another, but that’s entirely up to you; it’s sortof a Rorshach test.
Some people think my parents are absolute monsters and should’ve had their children taken away from them. Some think they were these great free-spirited creatures who had a lot of wisdom that a lot of parents today don’t. People have said, “oh, your experience reminds me of my own childhood.” This photographer for Entertainment Weekly told me that her parents were artists and were broke but they went to great lengths to create this magical childhood, and she took these wonderful photographs of me underwater, because that’s the part she related to. This magical, surreal childhood where rules don’t apply. Many people who read my book say, “This sounds like child abuse.”
To have a complicated relationship with your father—when something is that complex, it’s reductive to sit there and try to describe it. “My father was an alcoholic and had al these problems, but he was also charismatic”—let the reader figure that, and that engages the reader more.
The child, that would be me, the protagonist, the perspective changes as I got older. I was defending dad much longer than everybody else was. In a way it was stupid, and in a way, it was my salvation. He was all I had. He really believed in me when I thought that nobody else did. If I were to believe that dad was a complete fraud, what would I have left? We have these defense mechanisms. I sometimes wonder about seeing things too clearly or being too smart; that’s one of the reasons I was worried about my mom reading it. I saw no value in tearing down her defense mechanisms. Mom has so many really good qualities; I’m sure if you met her, you would really like her. She’s a funny person, she’s upbeat, she sees beauty in many things. I didn’t write it for revenge or to get back at her or anything.
It’s not bitter. That might be slightly woven in, but it’s not from a “let me get back at them” perspective. Did you have to tone that down or do you really not have bitterness?
One of the reasons I could write it now is because I am happy with where I am. 10 or 15 years ago, I was very confused about my feelings toward my mother and my father, and myself, where did I belong in this whole spectrum of things? When I left home and got married to my first husband, I was overcompensating to get the absolute opposite of what my father had been. There was no way I was gonna hook up with a handsome, manipulative SOB. I got this man who was so risk averse, he never got a driver’s license. I married somebody the opposite of my father. There was no doubt in my mind when I wrote this book, that I would lose everything by writing it, whatever status I had, my friends. I had to get to a place where I didn’t mind losing it. Of course it was foolish of me to think that because that hasn’t happened. It’s been an incredible lesson to me that I thought I would lose it all.
Do you blame your mom for not doing more to help you?
Mom, and I’m not blaming mom, I never in my life genuinely heard her try to get my father to stop drinking. On some level, she enjoyed the chaos of it. Some readers' insights have blown me away. One reader said, look at the point your mother decided to move to West Virginia. IT was right after you’d successfully detoxed your father. It might have only been for a little while, but you actually got him to stop drinking, but your mother saw he was capable of that and moves from a house you owned outright to where his parents were both alcoholics. And was she bringing us to that situation? I’m not blaming mom, but honestly, she loved chaos and she continues to. We were taping something about the book and somebody came up and said “We’ve offered her a fully renovated apartment” and she said no. But part of me loves that about her; she loves a challenge, she loves the drama.
When I go down to her apartment, the junk is piled three to four feet high; you can’t make your way through it, and I feel myself getting a little on edge. She has the capacity to change it, but she doesn’t. That is the life mom chooses. She gets really upset when I offer to change it. The one thing she does want me to do is build a little house to keep all of her artwork in. That’s the only help she’s ever asked for.
The idea of the role reversal is very interesting, your mother is like a child, and you forgive it in a child.
You’ve hit the nail on the head. When people ask, how can you not hate your mother? She’s very childlike in some ways, but intellectually, she’s incredibly sophisticated; sometimes she just blows me away. We were there the other day with someone from the London Observer, and she said “Oh, I’ve heard of you, you’re based in Manchester, aren’t you?” and the woman said, “We used to be, now we’re in London.” How does she know that? I didn’t know that. The last time I got together with my family, they were having this heated debate about some Renaissance figure. I was always the idiot of the family and I was like, “How ‘bout that Britney?” They’re so well-read.
Mom, getting back to her. Bill Clinton once said that his problem was psychologically, he’s 17-years old, and that he always has been and always will be, and Hillary is 40-years-old, and she always has been and always will be. Arrested development I guess is what it is. I think psychologically mom is around 4-years-old. Intellectually, she’s incredibly advanced. People say she was selfish with the candy; she was selfish in the way that a child is. “This is mine and I don’t want to share it!” When she met my niece, her granddaughter, for the first time, she wasn’t that interested. It’s not a selfishness, it’s an egocentric ness; there’s a difference.
When she read the book, she said, you kids never dressed scroungy in West Virginia. And I said, “Yes, we did.” And she just said, “Oh, I guess you did.”
You get the sense that it wasn’t mean-spirited; they weren’t trying to harm you, it was almost like they just didn’t realize they had children or something. They would treat you as being at their level.
Neither of my parents ever struck us in anger. My husband says it was almost like they were wild animals; I gave birth to you, now find your own food. Mom was like, I’ve got my own needs, you take care of yourself.
It’s admirable on some level, some kids are overly coddled, but there needs to be a balance.
I definitely see some residual effects of that. I can’t stand to be taken care of; it drives me a little crazy when people try to carry my bags. What do you mean, I can’t carry my own stuff? I get really irritated.
That’s eerie. There’s so many personal things in my life where it’s exactly like that. The alcoholism issue is interesting; it’s a disease, but it’s not cancer. It’s tough to grapple with, because they are complicit in it to some extent.
It’s tough. I read what you wrote and it blew me away what you said. I loved the fact that you connected with it and could understand this character who could be repulsive and compelling at the same time.
What was interesting is that I always had enough to eat. It’s a weird thing to surpass your parents, because you almost don’t want that.
That was very tough and weird when my father was in New York; he didn’t want to be helped. I wanted to buy him some warm clothes; it was so insulting to him.
The way you tell it, it allows you to see different perspectives, but their actions speak for themselves. The objective issue, it’s hard not to judge them, your take now is not as judgmental as anyone else’s would be. I don’t know if that’s the passage of time, it seems like you’re more at peace with it than most people would be.
I’ve never really felt bitter. I’m a really lucky person, I’ve got a great job, I’ve got a wonderful husband, I’ve got a great life. I’m not gonna say I don’t have any scars from the whole thing, both figuratively and literally. Hooking up with somebody who accepted me completely like John, that was a huge barrier for me. John says my scar is what makes me interesting. It was an epiphany, to me John was like a Kennedy or something, he went to boarding school, he seemed so out of my league, that’s why I didn’t want to tell him about my past. HE felt that I was out of his league. It’s also just the passage of time.
Writing the book was hugely cathartic on so many levels, you also realize that so many people who’ve had these weirdnesses in their background. So many people have shared their stories. You would never know. I hate this word bonding, but it is bonding, like oh my god, we’re all freaks. It’s this incredibly emancipating thing; you shouldn’t necessarily think that if this thing gets out about you that you’re going to be ostracized. That was the huge shock to me, and to the extent that people see me as different, they admire me. It creates a faith in humanity that wasn’t there before. I saw everybody as potential enemies.
I heard from a lot people; they said, if we’d known how bad off you were, we wouldn’t helped. They didn’t go to any lengths to hide it. When we didn’t have running water, I dug up a picture of myself with icicles. I would get up a 4 am to get myself clean, I would do whatever it took because I didn’t want to go to school and smell bad and have the other kids move away from me. The fact that I was hiding in New York was an extension of that.
It’s so jarring. How would you ever look at you and know that?
That’s the cool thing, that people are surprised is really great. The first time someone accused me of being a Park Avenue snob it was like “Yes.” Part of me carries that with me, of me being a gawky, ugly dirty kid. My great indulgence is I take a shower and a bath every day, the fact of running water, I just love that I can just get clean, it’s such an indulgence and a luxury.
By the end of the book, you’re like now they’re in a place where, it boggles the mind. You can understand it on one level, but why would you choose it? Not to deny that they’re not choosing it, but it’s like, huh?
Exactly. That’s why mom’s such a character. And in a way, that’s one of the things, now that I don’t have to put it up with it, that’s one of the things I sortof like about her. She doesn’t run ot the comforts that other people do. She’s really a survivor, she’s a pioneer woman. This is a person who, 100 years ago, she loves to say it was her ancestors who tamed the west, but she’s really gotten that spirit of sortof “bring on the challenges.” In today’s society, she’s definitely looked at as more of a freak but, you know, I don’t know, is it a psychological disorder? Somebody asked me, is she bipolar? I honestly don’t know. Maybe, it might be, sometimes these psychological disorders, they’re what makes people great. You know, Peter the Great, I’m sure that he probably could’ve used medication. I don’t know what the answer ot all that is. Would medication make her any happier? I honestly don’t know. The truth is, my mother is a very, very happy woman. She’s probably got more friends than I do. She’s the first to tell you, you don’t need heat, you just throw on a couple of extra covers. She’s got her dog. Her dog sleeps on her to keep her warm, her cats sleep on her to keep her warm. She’s got some heat because the apartment below her has heat, but you know, she’s got a space heater but she won’t turn it on because it gets too expensive with electricity. She has a refrigerator but she won’t use it because she says it uses too much electricity. I’ve offered to pay her bills, and she has no interest in it. She really gravitates…it’s funny because I think I have a little tiny bit of that in me. If somebody gives me a choice and says this is impossible, you’ve got to pull an all nighter, part of me is like, I can do this, but it’s 1/100th of that, I definitely like the stability that I have now.
If John turned out to be a terrible alcoholic, I don’t know how much I would put up with it, I just don’t know. I know would not have put up with a raging alcoholic. The thing is, John drinks a little, and it doesn’t bother me at all. Did I gravitate towards that? Did I gravitate toward somebody closer to who my dad was? I don’t know, probably so. I think I was probably able to accept the good of my father. I don’t care if somebody has a little craziness in them, I think that’s good, it’s all a matter of balance.
From talking to you, it seems that you were able to find the good things within that and an ability to…I don’t know about forgiveness—do you feel like it’s a matter of forgiving him?
That’s an excellent question. First let me just say, that’s the trick for us all, isn’t it? It’s finding the good and being able to leave the bad behind. It’s not even a matter of forgiveness because that implies, I think that’s sortof a judgmental way of saying it. “Forgive” means that they’ve sortof hurt me and damaged me. I think it’s more a matter of accept becuase I’ve had the life I’ve had and nothing is gonna change that, it wasn’t so bad, and nothing is going to change that. There were wonderful things and there were horrible things, and you accept it, and when you accept hat
And if you accept your mother, she’s got some lovely qualities, she’s got some maddening qualities.
She is who she is and I’m not gonna change her. And I love her. I’m glad I don’t have to depend on her to be a mom. It’s not a matter of forgiveness because that implies that she’s hurt me, and if you accept that, then that means that you’re a victim. It’s not a matter of me being a kind, benevolent person, but more being a pragmatist. You move on, you accept it for what it was and you make the most of it.
Somebody asked me if I believe in luck, and she doesn’t believe in luck, and I think it’s an interesting conversation. Luck is the hand you’re dealt, and we’re all dealt different hands, and life is the way you play it because you can get a crappy hand and play the heck out of it or you can get a wonderful hand and just misplay it terrible. So many people have wonderful hands that they just don’t do anything with. I got a mixed hand, you can’t sit around feeling sorry for yourself because that’s not gonna do anything.
Do you think growing up the way you did means you have more of a drive to succeed? It seemed like it was so clear, like when you found writing, maybe it wasn’t a choice so much of “this is what I want to do” but it seems like you’ve gone far beyond…
It’s an interesting question. Yes, I do think that. But I do sometimes wonder, would I have more of a sense of entitlement that would’ve propelled me ahead? You certainly see successful people like Barbara Walters, who didn’t have a traumatic childhood, but it’s interesting—she had a traumatic childhood in another way. Almost everybody’s had a weird, traumatic childhood. But I do think I had more drive and ambition than most people because I didn’t really have the choice. A lot of my friends who had their parents pay their rent—I never had the luxury of that on one hand, but on the other hand, it was definitely sink or swim so I had to swim.
You talk in the book about your job now covering celebrities and that ultra-glitzy life, so I’m curious about how what you do now relates to your job. Does your childhood help you relate to anyone you cover in any way, or is it just a different world?
Nothing is what it seems to be, there’s always a deeper story. I think it’s finding the missing piece that makes everything make sense, and that applies to people whoa re poor or rich. One the other hand, there is a fascination with the filthy rich and the people who have so much money and power and wealth; you’d think that they’d be happy but it just ends up causing them a whole new set of problems. It’s both actually.
I really don’t want to sound grandiose, but going through what I’ve been going through with the interviews about the book, it’s actually made me more sympathetic to celebrities. Just this little tiny tiny taste of being in the public eye. For example, with reviews. You can get 70 positive reviews and then you get a negative one and you’re like “What does this person know?” and you want to call them up. I’ve heard about celebrities doing that.
Like Courtney Love.
Apparently Julia Roberts is that way. You get one negative thing and you go berserk. I actually understand it now. “That person never read the book, what do they know?” It’s interesting, it does make you see, wow, this is what they’re talking about. It’s a reminder not to be too harsh on people. I think every journalist should be interviewed, I think everybody who writes about other people should go through the experience themselves; it’s fascinating to be on the other end.
I think also this idea of having a secret, which clearly you did, and then basically unearthing people’s secrets.
Exactly. And I wonder if that was something that motivated me; everybody has their secrets and I’m unearthing other people’s secrets—is that a hypocrisy on my part? I hope that I wouldn’t have written about something, I hope that I would’ve limited myself to someone doing something wrong and not the fact that they grew up in certain circumstances. I think you should be sensitive to whatever it is that you’re writing about. What is that secret? I hope that, in my case, it was mostly abuses of power, and it wasn’t that somebody had an embarrassing childhood. I think it’s increased my sensitive towards that sortof thing.
Just the very idea that you thought that something awful would happen. It’s hard to not come away admiring you. The things you had to do to survive are so admirable. If you could do it over again, I don’t think you would choose that childhood, but I feel like you’re saying it gave you certain things.
I wouldn’t change anything. I don’t wish that anything had been different, but I don’t want to relive it. I don’t regret that I went through this experience because I ended up at a place that I’m happy with, so however I got there is fine by me. However, you could not pay me enough money to go through all that again, and I wouldn’t raise a child that way myself either, obviously. I would probably spoil a child rotten. I hope not. That’s an interesting question people have asked me; how do you not spoil a child? I don’t know. I’m very sympathetic to parents who want to give their children whatever possible but at the same time, I do think it makes you not appreciate things. Certainly I appreciated things once I got them. When I got to college, because I was paying for all of it myself, I knew why I was there, I knew how much each course was costing me. There was no way I was going to miss a class; I was going to get my money’s worth.
I got a lot of value out of it, on the other hand, I wouldn’t recommend it as a childrearing philosophy.
I said it to myself as I read it, “These are the kind of people who shouldn’t have kids.” It’s a weird statement because you don’t want to say “You shouldn’t exist.” I think it’s easy to look at your parents and say they were not--
They did not do for you what parents should do for children. What’s your response to the idea that your parents were not people who were equipped to raise children?
I think that’s probably right.
What do you think motivated them to want to have kids?
Both of my parents, there was never any question that they would have children. They loved children. For my father, it was a self-aggrandizing thing on some level. Dad loved having kids, he loved having an audience. Mom just loved being around children. It’s an interesting question, I don’t know if I can answer it intelligently. Why does anyone want to have children?
It’s interesting. It made me think of it because it was like, Why do you? It’s obviously complex, it was like they gave you so much leeway because they weren’t really parenting. It was almost like they were treating you so independently and yet you were dependent on them. And yet they did love you; it seemed like they cared about you…
It’s funny because my mom has no maternal instinct, none. She loves children in a weird way, but in another way she doesn’t. I was down in the East Village with my mom the other day and there was this kid who was driving everybody crazy, and mom just loved him. She was just hugging him and kissing him on the head. Whenever she was a teacher, the children’s reading scores would go way up. One time, when I was sitting in one of my mom’s classes, she was teaching at an Indian reservation, the kid knocked over a vase and you could tell he thought he was going to get hit. He was cowering, and mom said “If breaking a vase is the worst thing you do in your life, you’re fine, we’ll get another one,” and the kid’s expression just changed and he hugged her. Mom was talking to the kid saying “You are wonderful and you are good and you’re worthwhile and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise,” and I was thinking she was just yammering, because it was the kind of stuff I’d heard all my life. And these kids just came to life and were clinging to her physically. I realized so many kids didn’t get any of that.
I thought all kids got that, that’s just the way parents talk to kids, but they don’t. Despite whatever mom and dad didn’t give us, I got that sort of thing in abundance to the point where I took it for granted. So many of the kids I knew on Park Avenue, they told me their mother never told them they loved them; I thought, how could that be? I got told that so often. My brother would tell you, what does that mean, if you’re being told you’re wonderful, but you’re not so wonderful. So my brother’s like, forget it, it was hypocritical so it didn’t jive. I guess I bought into, okay, you’re lovely, we just don’t have enough food. I think I have a little of my mother’s ability to see what I choose to see. Writing the book was an eye-opener for me; like, so, we had it really bad. It was supposed to be an homage to mom and dad. I knew that, I knew we went without the food and all that, but when I sat down and wrote the book and looked at it, I thought, dang, they don’t always come across so well, do they? I think I rationalized their behavior for so long.
Were you unnerved by that portrayal?
No, because I’m fine. I was a little concerned with how mom would take it. I couldn’t have written the book when my dad was around; I wouldn’t have done it to him. I think he comes actually worse than mom in many ways. I think I gave my father more credit than my mother. I realized at least my mom was there when dad disappeared so often. Dad was always taking credit and expecting to be the hero and I definitely rose the occasion and glorified him in the way he wanted to be. But I think it was a defense mechanism and that was the reason I couldn’t have written it until now. I’m 45; I don’t kneed those anymore. At a certain point in my life, I still did need to have those illusions. When you can get some distance to say, this is how I reacted, this is how mom and dad were, I couldn’t have done that 20 years ago. I tried and it didn’t work.
Do you think it’s rare? Lucianne Goldberg called you one of the most stable people she knows.
I keep coming back to this. My mother and my father gave me some incredible gifts, for example, demon hunting. Dad was a genius about stuff like that, being able to take these metaphors and incorporate them and give you little life lessons. It’s ironic because for so many years, my own demon was my personal past, and it took me that long to confront it and realize
I realized, you’re not scary. I was scared of this thing that had absolutely no power to hurt me because I was letting it.
It was so tragic already. I’m glad you wrote it because I got a lot out of reading it, but for you as well, I imagine, as a writer, as difficult as it might be, to have it out, I think that non-writers don’t get that purging process.
It was huge, just to be able to put it on paper, to be able to step back and say wow—it was very cathartic. These patterns emerged that I hadn’t seen, like dad’s disappearances, or sometimes just more subtle one like the role of light.
That’s something I didn’t realize, like that’s a theme in my life?
Did you have an outline? Because when you read it, it flows. As you were writing, did something like that come out of you?
There’s several like that, like fire and the role of home, and I didn’t realize that until the end. That came out completely on its own. And I thought, should I play this up? No. I’m not gonna sit there trying to emphasize it. I didn’t realize these themes. Fire, the issue of water; where there was more water in West Virginia, where there was less, we did thrive. I didn’t realize all of this so no, that was not premeditated at all. In fact, I think if I would’ve tried it, it wouldn’t have worked.
There’s so much happening and I was talking to someone at a party and saying, I had to put it down for a little while. Your heart just goes out to you, you just want to go in and chase these people and say “How could you take her last $20?” That was such a pivotal scene. It’s not what most people would do to their child and to read that. It’s a really powerful book, no matter what perspective you’re coming from, I don’t think it’s possible if you’re actually reading to walk away with no emotion from that scene.
That was the toughest one to write. I knew that was a pivotal moment for myself. You sit down to write it and realize, this is pretty dramatic. I didn’t realize all the levels at which dad was operating, I was operating, you have to confront it. It was pretty intense to write too. I love what you said, I’m really flattered.
I wanted to give it to my dad, but I can’t really say, “Read this and tell me if you think you were like this.” It’s a weird thing.
My vote is to do it, but I don’t know what your father’s like, I don’t know what your relationship’s like.
He’ll read my interview with you. I think he realizes. There were little things and I was like “that’s so weird.” It’s not things you really talk about in detail, you kind of forgot about them, it’s so gripping.
This makes me so happy. You and I probably have incredibly different lives, but that you connected to it and saw things in it that made you think about your life and your relationship with your father; that is the best compliment that I could possibly get. That is the highest, highest level of praise for me. People think, “Oh my gosh, this is making me think or this hits home or this sounds real to me.” That was my absolute dream when I was writing it. The reason that I was almost in despair was that nobody would connect to it. It’s just so so weird and so bizarre, who could possibly relate to this, and the fact that people are.
Really that family dynamic, between your parents, and the kids—each of your siblings’ reaction was different. Even just you and your sister; that’s why I think the move would be good, because there were six people.
I would love to see it turned into a movie. People are getting it, and if people get it. I would hate the see the characters turn into 2 dimensional characters. I loved This Boy’s Life, and I thought the characters weren’t as complex in the movie version as the book.
I think it’d be great if it was a movie, but I’m such a book person. I feel like you can make characters unfold in ways that a movie can’t.
And sometimes the best books make horrible movies and horrible books make great movies. Movies are simplistic, so sometimes simple plots turn into great movies. You’d have to sacrifice so much, a good director can capture mood and color, a good actor can somehow get the character.
I think that’d be great, but there’s a pace that only at the end you see. Just the way your relationship with your father, there’s a turning point that’s really gripping. That relationship comes through very strongly, the specialness of it. Your dedication of it to him. Even at the beginning, it’s easy to think “of course that’s never going to come to fruition.” You slowly reveal. He was clearly brilliant. It’s jarring, it almost makes the book jarring—here’s someone so smart, and have both of them so cultured, let these things happen. It doesn’t make sense.
I really debated whether that photo was a mistake. I wanted people to see, these were such gorgeous people with such incredible potential. They could’ve gone any way, but they chose to go the way that they did. The British edition chose not to include the photo. The other reason that that’s the only photo I included, is that’s the only one I have. There’s no pictures of us, but there are tons of photos of my mother’s artwork. It doesn’t really bother me, but it’s funny, because I see how many pictures my brother takes of his kids. Mom and dad, they did have such potential, but on the other hand, they led the life they chose to.
What you said about my father—the brilliance made the alcoholism so much more tragic. My mother came across a lot of my father’s writings in her storage space. He was an incredibly talented writer, he could write beautifully, very clean, sophisticated, lovely use of language. The whole idea of unrealized potential—if only he hadn’t drunk, but what happened, happened. HE gave us a lot of gifts, you cling to the good things, because otherwise it’s too sad.
The book is sad and tragic in some ways, but there’s a thread of belief. Even your parents, they believed in themselves and you. It seemed like, from the little bit that we got of the other kids, that it was so depressed and downtrodden. I feel like you have the greater mental vision to survive. In order to enact that, you have to believe that.
It’s so true, and it’s hard for me to explain to people who haven’t read the book. It’s like, well, we didn’t have food, but at the same time, we were luckier than other kids. I did want to go on welfare, I wanted to be able to eat, or get clothes. Actually I think the clothes were the more important thing. You got a $40 clothing allowance if you went on welfare, in addition to the food stamps. But in retrospect, I’m not sorry. I think as wacky as mom said, and I’m not faulting people who went on welfare, she did not want to be branded welfare kids, I don’t know if that was the right decision but I’m glad she made it.
It’s easy to look at it in black and white, but it’s not so much. Each decision…although some, it’s like, how could they do that? The diamond ring. It would be a lot easier and one sided if there were no other options, because then you could say, they had no choice. But the fact that they did complicates it so much but makes it a good story.
It makes them more interesting. I love memoirs. Usually these moms are either a bad guy or the good guy, they’re these wonderful, brave characters or these harridans. Both my parents are such characters. If they could actually capture it on film. My mom is still around; if some actress could go spend the time and get inside her head, I’d love to see that depiction. That’s what the skill of good actors is; they figure out what motivates you, they’re these incredible students of psychology, the good ones are.
I didn’t see it, but people said that in The Aviator Leonardo DiCaprio did that. Also, Denzel Washingotn. I know somebody who went out to dinner with him and thought he was this incredible egotist because he kept looking in the mirror. And at the time, he was studying to do Hurricane, and he as checking to see his expressions. That’s what they do, they replicate other people. I’d love to see mom and dad replicated.
The Glass Castle is out now. Jeannette Walls will read from and sign her book on Thursday, June 2nd at 7:30 at Barnes and Noble, 267 7th Avenue, Park Slope, Brooklyn, as well as at noon on Friday, June 3rd at the Simon & Schuster Booth (#3539) at Book Expo America at the Javits Center. Walls will also read from her favorite classic book on July 26th at 6:30 at The Strand Bookstore, 828 Broadway at 12th Street.