INTERVIEW Walls on Writing About Childhood
Interview with Author of 'The Glass Castle'
Last summer, I was fortunate enough to read and review The Glass Castle, a memoir by MSNBC journalist, Jeanette Walls (the review is available at http://www-tech.mit.edu/V126/N27/27Castle.html). In the work, Ms. Walls describes growing up well below the poverty line with her alcoholic father and creative mother. This entertaining work that seemed more like fiction than reality was beautifully written and made me so much more appreciative of my "normal" family. Needless to say, when I found out Ms. Walls would be speaking at a local event held by Parenting Resource Associates' COMPASS for Homeless Families (http://www.parentingresourceassociates.org ) to raise awareness and funds for homelessness in Massachusetts, I was delighted to be able to hear her speak and talk with her after the event. After Ms. Walls shared some of her personal experiences with homelessness and poverty, I sat down with her and the following is an excerpt from our conversation.
The Tech: You wrote so much from the perspective of a child and you were able to mature and realize this wasn't normal throughout the book. How were you able to do that?
Jeanette Walls: The first version that I wrote — I wrote it in about six weeks and it was absolutely terrible. My agent read it and said I wrote it as a reporter, as if it was all happening to somebody else, but I was very emotionally removed from it. She said you have to describe what it felt like. I kept on insisting that I didn't feel anything, and she said, how did it affect you? I said, it didn't affect me, I'm fine. She kept discussing these scenes with me and I'd burst into tears, and I said, oh my gosh it's affected me more than I've acknowledged. So I had to do some soul searching. If you're going to describe what it felt like, you either do it from the perspective of an adult looking back, and I felt when I did that that I was lapsing into really bad journalism. . . If you're describing what it felt like, I thought why not take the reader back and really describe what it felt like. So I really did try to go back and remember what did it feel like to be four years old, five years old, six years old. And it took me five years to go back there and be honest with myself.
TT: One of the few issues I had with the book was that the ending was a bit abrupt. How did you get from Virginia, going to New York, and ending up where you are at MSNBC?
JW: That had originally been much longer, and I had a written a lot about New York. I thought that was going to be the interesting and fun part of the book, almost like a sitcom quality of girl reporter … When I wrote it, it didn't feel like it had any heart, it didn't feel that interesting, so I ended up cutting it back to almost nothing. And it really wasn't that interesting because, honestly — and I hope this doesn't sound self aggrandizing — but it just didn't seem that difficult. Having had my background and my childhood, I'd always worked very hard. So when I came to New York, I just got a couple of jobs and I just paid the bills and things just sort of fell into place … I called Barnard and said, hello, I would like to apply to go there … and it really wasn't that difficult. I compare it sometimes to the immigrant experience. I think if you came from a third world country and you'd come to the US, you're just astonished by all the wealth here, and all the opportunities.
TT: Are there things that you have now, that you think you could never go back to living without, or are there things that you're still amazed that you have?
JW: I am amazed by everything I have. I think one of the blessings of having a childhood like I did is that I never take anything for granted. Every time I flush a toilet, I think, thank you God … Every time I drive into our driveway and park the car, and I can't believe I live here. It just astonishes me. Every time I go to a grocery store I can buy anything I want.
I also believe there's a difference between wanting things and needing things. And I think it's very emancipating to know the difference.
TT: You mentioned not wanting to tell people about your background. Was it your fear that they wouldn't understand, that they'd think badly of you?
JW: I was convinced that I was inferior. I think that anyone's who's had a difficult past … it's very hard to reconcile where you are from where you were. You feel a little bit like a phony and a fraud — at least I did. I felt like I don't belong here, if these people knew the truth about me, even if they thought they liked me. Plus, I lived in a very snobby world where people would put down people if they went to public school. And not only did I go to public school, but people in the public school would put me down. I think that if bad things happen to you, sometimes it's hard to understand that that's not because of who you are, it's just your circumstance. Having seen other people and when they tell me about their circumstances, well that's admirable, so it's given me the perspective.
TT: Were you surprised by the success of the book?
JW: Stunned. Surprise is an understatement; I was shocked and overwhelmed. I thought if anybody read it they would think I was horrible, but I didn't really worry about it that much because no one was going to read it anyway.
TT: Were you ever upset with your parents and how they raised you? Your mother could have taught, but she wasn't going to give up her life for you.
JW: I was frustrated with her a lot. But also, from a pretty early age, I came to accept that Mom was not like other moms, and she was not going to take care of me … so she never disappointed.
TT: Are you thinking of writing any more books?
JW: I have an idea for a book. It's non-fiction because I'm no good at fictionalizing things. I tried to fictionalize The Glass Castle, and I was incapable of it — what are you supposed to make up? … I have an idea and I just have to see if there's a story there.
TT: One last question. How did you do in school? Did you enjoy reading as a child, and what was your favorite book?
JW: I was a total nerd in school. I loved school … My favorite book when I was growing up was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.