'The Silver Star' Author Jeannette Walls on Bullies and Celebrity Takedowns
Even after writing about her childhood with her poor, eccentric parents in her bestselling memoir, "The Glass Castle" and her mother's childhood in her novel "Half Broke Horses," Jeannette Walls still doesn't know the answer to the question book clubs ask her all the time: "Is your mother crazy?" In her newest novel, "The Silver Star," Walls has written about "another negligent mom," but the focus is on two sisters, Bean and Liz, who are left to fend for themselves against some vicious bullies. Walls says that "The Glass Castle" opened a dialogue among readers about poverty, homelessness and alcoholism, and if "The Silver Star" "opens up the same sort of dialogue about bullying," that to her "is more important than a Pulitzer." We spoke with Walls about her days as a gossip columnist for New York magazine and MSNBC--which she saw "as going after the bullies--these rich, powerful people who thought they were above reproach"--and it brought out her "inner yard dog." Walls also tells us what she thinks of Jennifer Lawrence as the star of the forthcoming movie adaptation of "The Glass Castle," which literary character was her "soul mate" as a poor, bookish outcast who loved her "no-account drunken daddy" and which book was "a Rosetta stone for figuring out [her] whacky mom."
Bookish: What books have you been recommending recently, and over the course of your life, what is the book that you've recommended the most?
JW: I don't read books while I'm writing, because they tend to influence my tone. I do allow myself [to read] very straightforward histories. I'm just nuts, nuts, nuts for Doris Kearns Goodwin. I recommend any of hers. "Team of Rivals" is one of my all-time favorite books. I also just read "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys." I tend to gravitate toward biographies, memoirs and histories. A memoir that I love is Jill Bolte Taylor's "My Stroke of Insight." I'm constantly buying it, five or 10 copies at a time, because I find myself giving out copies of it all the time. It's about a brain scientist who had a stroke and lost the use of the left side of her brain and became completely right-brain. The left side controls the ability to speak and write, and the right brain is what controls the more animalistic senses, color and light and emotions. She found that even though she couldn't really speak or understand language and had lost the ability to function in modern society, she was really happy being very right-brained. I love the book for several reasons. First of all, it was like a Rosetta stone for figuring out my wacky mom. But beyond that, it's a manual on how to become more right-brained. That's one of the reasons that I give it out to so many people: It's a fascinating manual for leading a more content life.
The book I've probably recommended more than others and probably my all-time favorite since I was 10 years old is "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn." At the time, I was a bit of an outcast and very unpopular and bookish and poor and loved my no-account drunken daddy, and here's the lead character of this book set around the turn of century in Brooklyn--and she was homely, outcast, bookish and loved her no-account drunk daddy. I thought, "Oh my gosh, a soul mate."
Bookish: Did you give "My Stroke of Insight" to your mom?
JW: No, she had no interest in reading it. [Laughs.] I said, "Mom, Mom! This will help you." She goes, "Why would I want to read that?" She's too right-brained. My mom is really fascinating that way. "Half Broke Horses" was about her and her mother, and she was pretty much the sole source on it. I finished writing it and I offered to give it to her, and she said she had no interest in reading it. I said, "But Mom, it's about your life." She goes, "Well, exactly. I already know it."
Bookish: Did your mom read "The Glass Castle"?
JW: Only after it became a bestseller. She was a little upset with my description of her driving, but other than that, she really didn't have any issues with it. She says, "I see certain things differently than you do, but I understand why you see them the way you see them, and you have to tell the truth the way you see it." That's pretty fabulous considering everything that I wrote about her.
She's not a control freak. She's never tried to get me to be somebody I'm not. Growing up that way had a maddening aspect to it: She never combed my hair when I was going to school or washed my face. So, I'd end up going to school dirty. It taught me to take care of myself and led me to be independent, and to this day I don't really count on Mom, for better or worse. Some people who've read "The Silver Star" say, "Eh, she's done another book about her mom--a negligent mom." Well, of course I have, what do you think I know?
Bookish: When did the idea for "The Silver Star" first come to you?
JW: I thought that "The Glass Castle" would be my last book. I thought, "I wrote my story, I don't have anything left to say." And then readers kept telling me that I should write a follow-up about Mom. And Mom was the one who urged me to write it about her mother. So [after "Half Broke Horses"], I thought that was that. But readers kept asking me about the issue of mental illness. They'd say, "Is your mother crazy? Your mother must be mentally ill." I honestly don't know the answer to that. And so I read Jill Bolte Taylor's book, and I became fascinated by the number of creative geniuses who have been posthumously diagnosed as bipolar. What is the coexistence between mental illness and creativity? Those types of creativity factor into "The Silver Star."
I'm also fascinated by [what happens to a child] when the parents aren't there. Very often the siblings step up to the plate. Sometimes that results in children who are wise beyond their years, who are very competent in taking on adult roles. But even if they're competent at it, they probably shouldn't be doing it. It takes a toll. Sometimes these kids who take over the family end up being CEOs and world leaders because they're very good at taking charge. But sometimes, when the burden is too much, damage is done. Very often in these dysfunctional families, the oldest kids bear the brunt of the dysfunction so that the younger children can have a childhood. I've seen it so many times. These older kids who take on the responsibility for their younger siblings--they're heroes. I wanted to write a story about that and I couldn't figure any way to do it in nonfiction, so I wrote it as fiction.
Bookish: The sisters in "The Silver Star," Bean and Liz, are confronted with bullying. Why did you set out to tackle bullying as a subject?
JW: It's a topic that means a great deal to me. It's been in the news lately, but gosh, it's certainly not new. It's just so devastating. An unpopular kid goes into a school and one person, or more--or sometimes the entire school--gangs up on them, and what do you do? If you're like Bean, you fight back. I'm a lot like Bean. That's not always the right thing to do, but I still maintain that that's what you do: You fight back, even if you're going to get your behind kicked. You don't let the bullies win. Sometimes you fight back with the written word, sometimes you fight back by finding allies, sometimes you fight back by throwing punches. You can't be a victim. That being said, I don't know if Bean made the right choice or not. Sometimes, no matter what you do, you're going to regret it.
One of the reasons that I'm glad that so many kids have read "The Glass Castle" is that it opens up dialogue about things like poverty, homelessness and drunkenness, alcoholism. And I hope, hope, hope that "The Silver Star" will open up the same sort of dialog about bullying. I'm 53 years old now and bullying was around when I was in high school. But we had bullies who didn't have the Internet--they had to use mimeograph papers. Now it's much more efficient with all these social networks. If "The Silver Star" can open up a conversation about this sort of thing, then I've done my job.
Really, I'm not all that interested in being called an artist, or critical acclaim or anything like that. What interests me a great deal more--and has happened in spades with both "The Glass Castle" and "Half Broke Horses"--is dialogue about these tough issues. I love book clubs. A lot of them have told me, "We had the most heated debate ever about your book. Usually we just drink the wine. But I hated your mom and my best friend loved her. And I said, 'How could you love such a horrible person.' And then my best friend, who I've known for 20 years will say, 'Because she reminds me of my mom,' and my jaw will drop because she's never said this sort of thing to me before. And then we had this discussion." That to me is what it's all about. That's why you write--it's not about sentence structure or rethinking the novel. I'm just not that kind of writer. If my books can get people to talk about themselves and about these issues that they're not really prepared to talk about yet, but they can talk about it in terms of my books, that to me is more important than a Pulitzer.
Bookish: You spent some years the gossip world: You wrote for New York magazine's "Intelligencer" column, you were a gossip columnist for MSNBC and you even wrote a book about gossip called "Dish." How has being so immersed in the gossip world influenced you as a memoir writer and a novelist?
JW: In a weird way, it's all toward the same goal: You're trying to get at the truth. I was a real nerd in school--a political science major--and I thought I'd write these powerful, hard-hitting stories about poverty or whatever. I tried to write a couple when I got out, and my editor said, "Well, they're professionally written but they're very boring." Then, the editor who I used to work for called me in because they needed somebody to write the "Intelligencer" column. I was a little insulted because I thought it was just the gossip column, but he said, "Give it a shot, see how you like it." And I loved it. I was constantly being threatened by the people I was writing about, but I did see it as going after the bullies--these rich, powerful people who thought they were above reproach--and I'm getting behind the façade and saying what's really going on. They were constantly threatening to sue me and throw me out of the business: "You'll never work in this town again" type of things. "Oh yeah? You and whose army?" It brought out my inner yard dog. I loved it. I left to write "Dish," which I thought would be a huge bestseller, and it sank like a stone. But then I went on to MSNBC and I thought I'd do hard-hitting items about movers and shakers, and they got a few thousand hits, and I wrote a couple of Britney Spears items and they got two million hits, and I thought, "Well, I'm a floozy for the hits." I told myself that I was getting at the truth behind these million-dollar façades--what are these people really like? But the truth can't be condensed into a snarky paragraph.
The irony--and some people would say hypocrisy--of pursuing other people's secrets while I was holding tight to my own did not escape me. I tried several times to write "The Glass Castle," but I kept on throwing it away. Seeing my mom on the streets was really a kick in the behind to do that. I thought that writing "The Glass Castle" would get me fired--I thought, "Once they know the truth about [my background], they're going to say I'm not qualified to write about famous people." And it was funny--another irony is that the gist of what "The Glass Castle" is about had leaked to a gossip columnist before the story appeared. I called up my editor--I'd gotten permission to write my memoir but they didn't know what it was about--I needed to warn her before the gossip item hit. I was really nervous and I was sort of shaking, and I called her up and I said, "I need to warn you, I kind of have a weird past." And I could hear her getting a little bit nervous. I told her a little bit of it and she goes, "Oh, that's really interesting." And then she told me that she thought I was going to confess that I'd been a hooker. [Laughs.]
I thought I'd go back to writing snarky paragraphs about people. But something really weird started happening: I'd go to cover these red carpet events, and a celebrity would pull me aside and say something like, "Thank you for writing about alcoholism in such a compassionate way. My father's an alcoholic who reminds me a lot of yours, and I've given your book to several of my friends to help them understand my relationship with my father." Or I'd hear back from my agent that such-and-such celebrity had read the book and it really moved her, and it completely defanged me. So even though I didn't get fired from my job, I did become disqualified to write. I discovered how compassionate and wise people were--I did not expect them to understand, and they did. I just lost all desire to write about other people's secrets.
Bookish: What are your thoughts on the movie version of "The Glass Castle" that's currently in development? Jennifer Lawrence is considering the lead, isn't she?
JW: Oh, I'm over the moon. People have been for years have been asking me, "Who would you want to play Jeannette Walls in the movie?" To have said Jennifer Lawrence would have just been the worst sort of hubris, like, "Oh yeah, you just want the hottest, most fabulous person in all of Hollywood to play you." I just don't want to jinx this. [Laughs.] Everything I've heard about her is that she's amazing and I'm thrilled. I love the screenwriter--she's fabulous. They don't yet have a director. And with Hollywood, you never know until it appears on the screen. The producer, Gil Netter, is just an incredibly cool guy. I'm just happy. If it happens, it's fabulous, if it doesn't happen, that's fabulous too. This book has already exceeded any expectations I ever had for it--I wouldn't dare have any more. If anything happens beyond this point, it's gravy.
Jeannette Walls was born in Phoenix, Ariz., and grew up in the southwest and Welch, W.Va. She graduated from Barnard College and was a journalist in New York City for 20 years. Her memoir, "The Glass Castle," has been a New York Times bestseller for more than five years. Walls lives in rural Virginia with her husband, the writer John Taylor.