Like a baby who’s both baffled and enchanted by games of peek-a-boo – Did that lady just disappear? No wait, she’s back! – Jeannette Walls has a complicated relationship with truth.
“I’m somebody who’s just always believed in truth – that the truth will set you free and that it’s my right to tell the story and blah-blah-blah. And then I sat down to write my memoir,” said Walls, a former journalist. “And I realized that my perception of what happened to our family is just different from others’.
“If my siblings had written ‘The Glass Castle,’ it would have been entirely different without any of the facts changing.”
Walls’ memoir of her hardscrabble childhood and deeply dysfunctional family was on the New York Times best-seller list for 100 weeks. She followed that with “Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel,” the story of her resourceful, no-nonsense and spectacularly compelling grandmother.
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Then last year, she published her first novel, “The Silver Star.”
Walls will be at Watermark Books in Wichita on Wednesday for a reading and signing of the new book, which was just released in paperback.
It is the story of two girls whose mother takes off to find herself, leaving them to find their way in the world. “Bean” Holladay is a scrappy, confident 12-year-old. Her 15-year-old sister, Liz, a nonconformist, poet and reader of Edgar Allan Poe, is forced into her role as caretaker, starting with a bus trip from California to Virginia, where their widowed uncle lives in a decaying mansion that’s been in their mother’s family for generations.
If that sounds a little like Walls’ own nomadic and self-reliant upbringing, it’s because it is.
“I wanted to talk about what happens with children when the parent abdicates responsibility,” Walls said in a recent phone interview.
“One of the many neat things about having told my story is that people tell me their stories. Time and time again, I hear these heroic stories – sometimes they’re heroic, sometimes they’re tragedies, sometimes they’re both – about the oldest child taking on the responsibility of the parents so that a younger sibling can have a childhood. And I think it’s such an astonishing thing.”
Much of the novel is pulled from real life, Walls said, from her experience growing up in West Virginia in the 1970s.
“Going through Vietnam, Nixon, integration, there was so much disillusionment going on, so much angst,” she said. “Fear about the future, bitterness about the past, and not too nuts about the present, you know?
“So how do you deal with these things? How do you move forward? How do you define yourself?”
Walls explores several themes in the novel, including independence, status, honor and justice. But again and again, she said, with the material, the characters and the writing process itself, her thoughts kept returning to the idea of truth.
“The imagination is an interesting ”
Walls hesitated, grasping for just the right word.
“ Gift, I guess,” she said.
“That’s something I thought about a whole lot while I was writing ‘The Silver Star,’ because I come from a family of six, and four are highly creative – and then there’s the cop and the journalist,” Walls said, referring to her brother and herself.
“We color inside the lines. We’re these linear thinkers,” she said. “And my two sisters, my mother and my father have these minds that just go places that mine doesn’t. So I’ve thought a lot about: Why do people make things up?
“Sometimes they’re creative. Sometimes the world as it exists is not appealing to them, and they want to make it better or make themselves better. And sometimes they can’t help it, and thoughts appear in their heads,” she said. “And is there a continuum there? What is the relationship between that and what we call mental illness?”
After writing “The Glass Castle,” an unflinching tale of growing up with parents who likely were mentally ill, “I was terrified about what would happen,” she said. “I did think that writing about my story would just sort of be the end of me professionally.”
Instead, readers and others – including celebrities she interviewed as part of her gossip column “Scoop” on MSNBC – wanted to talk about the book and the similarities between Walls’ childhood and theirs.
“This is why I love journalism,” she said. “This is why I will always, whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction, turn to reality. Because it’s not that truth is stranger than fiction. It’s more nuanced.”
After years writing her own and other people’s stories, was fiction liberating? Though her characters were rooted in reality, was it freeing to know they could go where she led them, say whatever she wanted them to say?
“It’s both freeing and overwhelming,” she said, laughing. “I guess it’s freeing in the way that being lost is freeing.
“With nonfiction the challenge is always: What really happened? And with fiction it’s: Is this credible? Could this have happened this way? My husband likes to call it ‘the tyranny of choice.’
“So whenever I was curious or stuck or troubled, I would look for a similar situation” from real life, her own background or stories of people she knew, Walls said. “My goal was to make it real, to make it believable, to make it feel true.”
When she visits bookstores and talks to readers, as she will in Wichita on Wednesday, Walls said she hopes to inspire others to reflect on their personal histories.
“I hope they think about their own stories. We all have stories, and so many people hide from their stories,” she said. “I hear other people’s stories, and being endlessly nosy, it is so fascinating. It’s just been this real journey for me.”