The wOw Interview: Bestselling Author Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls/Image: John Taylor

The beloved author of The Glass Castle chats with wOw editor Hilary Black about her latest New York Times bestseller, Half Broke Horses –and her new approach to mining the depths of her family’s past

wOw: Joining me is today Jeannette Walls, the author of the blockbuster memoir The Glass Castle, who is here to discuss her new book: Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel. Jeannette, welcome.

JEANNETTE: Thank you.

wOw: I’m so excited to talk to you about this book because I was one of the earliest and most ardent fans of The Glass Castle, which went on to have an enormous following and spent almost three years on The New York Times bestseller list. Your new book tells the story of your grandmother, Lily Smith, and the arc of her life — and also, the story of your mother, Rose Mary, who features prominently in The Glass Castle. Had you ever considered writing this book as biography? In other words, were you intimidated to write this as fiction?

JEANNETTE: Yes, that’s a great question. I had originally intended to write it about my mother, and she was the one who kept on suggesting that the book should be about her mother. Not because she was reticent to be interviewed, but because she just sort of thought that there was a stronger story there. And at first I resisted, because I couldn’t interview my grandmother; she died when I was eight. And I don’t think of myself as a fiction writer. And there’s no written record of her life, only minimal records. So I didn’t want to write it about Lily. But when I sat down to tell the actual story, I found that, indeed, Mom was right. It was the stronger story. So what I did is I wrote it in first person, in Lily’s voice, but intended to change the book from first person into third person. But when I showed it to my agent and my editor, they said, “Don’t change a thing. Leave it as it is.” So we decided that it had to be called fiction. There was enough speculation and filling in the gaps — and just the mere fact that it was written in first person by a woman who’s been dead for more than 40 years, to me made it fiction.

wOw: And I’m sure that it was, if anything, safer to do it this way, given recent scandals surrounding “memoirs” by such writers as James Frey and Margaret Seltzer, which turned out to be a blurring of fact and fiction. And this format must have given you more artistic license.

: Yes. But, you know, that wasn’t even the consideration. It wasn’t, “Oh, given this climate.” It’s sort of more calling something what it is. Once you start making stuff up, then it’s not nonfiction anymore. You know, it’s interesting because, like I said, I don’t think of myself as a fiction writer — but I’ve only recently come to understand how close the two very often are. The sort of fiction that I enjoy reading is very close to nonfiction; and the sort of nonfiction that I enjoy reading, reads like fiction. You know, we take what we know and we write about it. So we ended up calling the book a “true life novel” because it was as close as I could get to the truth. But, at the same time, I just can’t say, “Oh, this all happened,” because I don’t know. I wasn’t there; I can’t verify it.

wOw: Again, for those who have not yet had the pleasure of reading Half Broke Horses, this book tells the story of Jeannette’s grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, as well as that of her mother, Rose Mary Walls. My second question is: What kind of research did you need to conduct to write this book? For example, had you ever been to the KC ranch or Hackberry before you started writing?

: I grew up in the Southwest, so I sort of knew the area. But I didn’t do that sort of research. I just interviewed Mom. I actually found a couple of books that mentioned some of her ancestors, and I was really happy to find that some of those facts did jive with what Mom had told me. So I just decided, I’m just going to take Mom’s word for pretty much everything. It will be her version, rather than going out trying to verify or find out what the various stories are. I’m just going to take Mom’s version and put it all in Lily’s voice. So again, that’s one of the reasons that I couldn’t really say, “This is all true.” But after I finished the book, my mom and my husband and I all did go back West and visited the places that she grew up. We visited Hackberry and Horse Mesa and we saw Agnes Weeps, and so I filled in some of the descriptions from that experience.

wOw: I was going to ask you about that because, for me, some of the most powerful parts of this book were the soaring descriptions of the Southwest. It was so vivid.

: Oh, thank you.

wOw: The descriptions of nature in these very remote, rural places just sang. I was just wondering how you could have ever called that out from pictures.

My husband was saying, “You guys are all so infatuated with rocks.” And then when he went West with us he said, “You can’t grow up in Arizona without loving rocks.” It’s so spectacular and otherworldly. It’s God’s country. I mean, every place is God’s country, but you could still see God’s fingerprints everywhere there. It’s just so beautiful.

wOw: After The Glass Castle came out and became such a huge bestseller, I’m sure there was a lot of clamor from your reading public to find out what happened next in the story of your family. And so I’m sure, as a result, there was quite a big pressure for you to write the next book. How long did it take you to write this book, all told, once you came up with this concept?

JEANNETTE: It took me about five years to write The Glass Castle. This one actually came a lot more quickly, once I found the topic. I think it’s easier to get perspective on somebody else’s life than it is on your own. But I have to say, the idea for the book actually came from readers. You mentioned that there was some clamor, and I’ve really come to trust readers. They’re very smart and very insightful, and sometimes they see things that we writers don’t. And people kept asking questions about my mother. I’ve been touring a lot on behalf of The Glass Castle, and the question that I got more than any other was about what motivated my mother, why is she the way that she is? People would say, “I understand your father, he’s an alcoholic. Your mother is a mystery to me. Why would somebody with a college education, who had the resources to lead a somewhat normal life, choose this chaotic vagabond life?” And I would talk to them a little bit about my mother’s childhood, and invariably their faces would light up with what my grandmother would have called “that Eureka moment” — when you come to understand something that before seemed inexplicable. And usually these conversations would end with the advice, “Your next book should be about your mother.” And I just … at first I resisted, but I heard that so many times from readers and I thought, “They must be onto something.” I didn’t want to do a sequel to The Glass Castle, about what happened with the family. You know, that’s a magazine article at most. But the prequel about why was this woman, this fascinating, bizarre character – my mother – why was she the way she is? I think there’s an interesting story behind that … you know, if you’re willing to dig deeply enough the answer’s always there. You might not love the answer, but there’s a reason that everything is the way that it is. I urge people to look at their own ancestry. Wonderful patterns that emerge, and you think, “Oh, my gosh. No wonder this turned out this way.”

wOw: From reading this book, I know exactly how your mother came to be the way that she was. The person you meet in The Glass Castle is this little girl that you meet in Half Broke Horses, and you kind of understand how the two relate to each other.

JEANNETTE: Oh, Hilary, that’s music to my ears. Thank you.

wOw: Another question I had was about the title of this book: Half Broke Horses. I know that you’re quite an accomplished horsewoman yourself, and I’m wondering: Did your own love of horses inform this book, or attract you in any way to this subject?

JEANNETTE: It’s funny you should ask that. I sort of resisted the title of horses, because I don’t want to turn off people who have no interest in horses. And sometimes horses these days are associated with the “tally-ho” set. But if you look back to my grandmother’s day, horses were your car, they were your plow, they were very much a part of your life. And that’s a world we’ve gotten away from. And that’s sort of good because horses were very difficult. They were expensive, they pooped all over the place, they got sick. But they were very much a part of my mother’s and my grandmother’s worlds. And the reason that I settled on that title was a conversation I had with Mom. She was telling me a story when the ranch hands would go get these range horses that were wild, and they would break them in properly. And it was sort of tragic the way Mom was describing it, that these horses that were never broken quite right, that they were sort of unrideable to anybody except these rangy ranch hands. Afterward they weren’t really fit for anything, because they weren’t quite domesticated, but they weren’t wild anymore. And she was practically in tears when she was describing them, about these misfits – these misfit horses. And I realized, “Oh, my gosh, she’s almost talking about herself.”

wOw: Exactly.

: She wasn’t quite right for society, but she couldn’t go back into the wild again and it was just … it was very touching to me.

wOw: That’s certainly something that comes across in the book. As your mother grows older and meets your father, within the realm of this true- life novel, you very much see her being torn between her past childhood on this beautiful and wild ranch, where she learned to ride horses bareback, and a world that demands that she be civilized in a way that she never had to be growing up.

: Exactly. Exactly. To this day, she cannot understand why somebody would give up their freedom, which is the most important thing in the world to my mother – this freedom and being close to nature. Why someone would give that up to have a nice house, it seems a bad trade to her. Why somebody would be stuck in an office with a job that they don’t love, in exchange for comfort and security – to her, that’s a bad deal.

wOw: And you can see that her love of nature was passed along to her by your grandmother — because nature was her life.

JEANNETTE: It was, and it still is. You know, my mother lives with us now, and she still loves horses and being out in the great open spaces. My grandmother broke horses and she was a wonderful teacher. She broke students in a way; she just loves to tame – everything she ran into, whether it was critters or land or human beings. But my mother was the one creature that she encountered that she couldn’t fully tame, that she couldn’t bring around.

wOw: I remember that toward the end of the book, your grandmother says something that I thought was fascinating: that your mother was the one person who was not breakable, in a way. So my next question is, did you show any drafts of this book to your mother before sending it on to your publisher? Did you feel the need to show it to any members of your family?

JEANNETTE: Mom had no interest in reading it. It was the funniest thing, I was sort of like, “But Mom, this is your story.” And she said, “But you’re the one who wrote it. What if I disagree with something you wrote and we have a big argument over it? It’s your story, Jeannette.” And I said, “No, Mom, it’s yours.” And she said, “But you have to tell it as you see fit.”

wOw: What a sophisticated attitude. I myself would be too curious to not read the story of my life, had someone else chosen to write it.

JEANNETTE: I would be all over that, too. You know, you can criticize my mom for many things, but being a control freak is not one of them. She just sort of says, “Just do it as you see fit.” My husband actually read out a couple of passages to her, including the description of her father, Big Jim, and she was just beaming away saying, “Yep, that’s my dad. That’s my dad.” But she doesn’t seem to have any interest in reading the rest of the book.

wOw: Did you feel the need to run the manuscript by anyone else in your family? There is a controversial moment in the book, when your great aunt comes to a tragic end. Was that an upsetting thing to reveal?

: Well, she didn’t have any children — and again, I didn’t know who I would run it by. The people who I feel would be most affected by it aren’t around. I’m not going to censor something because somebody doesn’t want it in. I mean, it’s a sad moment, but I didn’t feel I needed anybody’s permission to include it. It’s not like she has any immediate relatives.

wOw: Well that, I think, is lucky.

JEANNETTE: Yes. Yes. My brother read the book, and he enjoyed reading it more than he enjoyed The Glass Castle. He said it felt a little odd for him to read that, because it was his life. With this book, he could read it more as just a story that he found sort of fascinating.

wOw: And had he heard the same stories that you had heard? Did he recognize stories from his childhood, written in the pages of this book?

: Most of the stories were new to him. Some he did recognize. Some were familiar. But you know, Mom had all these incredible stories inside her that she hadn’t shared. And I think we all do. I mean, I think one of the great things about Lily’s story is, on the one hand she’s this incredible woman, this unique character who did all of these things. On the other hand there’s something extremely common about her. I mean, she was a schoolteacher, she was a mom, she was a rancher, she played poker. But she was a mom who did what she needed to do to make ends meet. She was a tough old broad. And I think that most of us have ancestors very much like her; these tough old broads and tough old coots, who just came to this country to get away from the potato famine, or get away from the Nazis, or came over on slave ships, and did the hard work that needed to be done to get by in these tough times. And while I’ve been touring on behalf of The Glass Castle, so many people have said to me, “Oh, you’re so strong and you’re so resilient, and I couldn’t do what you did.” And it’s very flattering, but it’s nonsense. Of course they’re as strong as I am. I just had the great fortune of having been tested. I think that if we all look at our ancestry, we all come from tough roots. And one of the ways to discover our toughness and our resiliency is to look back at where we came from. I hope that that’s one of the things that people who read Half Broke Horses will come away with. You know, “Gosh, I come from hearty stock. Maybe I’m tougher than I realize.”

wOw: I really thought that Half Broke Horses was the story of the American dream. I mean, these are the roots of people in this country. These are the stories that you hear about as a child. In history books, you read about the hearty pioneers and the people who worked the ranches. But this book offers a much more personal way to experience it.

: Exactly. Half Broke Horses was called a Laura Ingalls Wilder for grown-ups. And I love that, because I just love the Laura Ingalls Wilder series. But it was just one family’s story. On the one hand, it was so fascinating to live with these people who tamed the land. On the other hand it was everybody’s story.

wOw: Just a few more questions. Would you be interested in writing straight fiction, now that you’ve had this experience of writing true-life fiction?

: What an interesting question. You know, a couple of years ago I would have said, “No, I don’t do that.” But now I’ve started to understand, “A-ha, sometimes fiction is just nonfiction with little tiny things changed.” Originally I tried to fictionalize The Glass Castle, and I couldn’t because I can’t make things up. But then I’ve sort of come to realize: Sometimes that making stuff up is just filling in gaps or changing small details. It’s not putting in great big explosions and alien invaders. Well, some people write that way. But I’ve never been one to make things up out of whole cloth. I just recently came to The Bell Jar very late in life. And if you read that, and then you read Sylvia Plath’s biography, you realize, “Oh, my gosh, she basically wrote a memoir and just changed the details and called it fiction.”

wOw: The best fiction is what comes from life, because that’s what rings true.

JEANNETTE: That’s what we know. I could never make up a character as complex as Lily Casey. But now I’ve come to understand, oh, you don’t have to. You find a fascinating person and you do your fiction from that. So I guess it’s a possibility.

wOw: Good. Well, I hope it will be, since the people clamoring for the follow-up to The Glass Castle will now be clamoring for the follow-up to Half Broke Horses.

: Oh, from your lips to God’s ear, honey!

wOw: So have you already embarked on your first work of fiction? Or are you just going to go through the publicity for this book and give yourself a much-needed break?

JEANNETTE: You know, Hilary, I sort of told myself, “I don’t know if I want to do this again.” I love writing, but I hate it. It’s sort of excruciating, and you’re sitting there thinking, “Gosh, I don’t want to disappoint the readers. I’m no good at this.” You beat yourself up, and then you finish and think, “I’m not going to do this ever again.” And then all of the sudden, something hits you as really interesting. “Ah, that’s almost worth writing about.” You find yourself jotting something down, almost against your will.

wOw: One final question. This book, as I mentioned earlier, was for me a love story to Arizona, as well as a love story to America’s past. Did writing this book make you want to visit Arizona more often, or perhaps live there? I know you live on the East Coast now.

: Yes. You know, Hilary, it is a love story to Arizona. But I hope it’s also a love story to the planet. I just think that every place has such beauty. It’s marvelous that we have all of these gizmos — that we can turn on air-conditioning whenever we want, and we can just have all these comforts. But in the whole process we get a little bit away from the planet. We sort of forget how wonderful and magnificent nature can be. I think everything in life is a blessing and a curse, and I think that the threat of global warming is just reminding us how precious and magnificent, and strong yet fragile, our planet is. And let’s not forget this incredible gift that we’ve been given, and let’s all treat it a little bit better.

wOw: Not only is that profound, but it’s certainly what comes across in your wonderful, wonderful book. So, Jeannette, thank you so much for talking with me today. Again, this is Jeannette Walls, author of Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel. And I hope that you will all go out and buy it and have the delicious experience of reading it, as I did. Thank you, Jeannette.

: Thank you so much, Hilary.

Jeannette Walls is the author of the Half Broke Horses, just published by Scribner. She lives in rural Virginia with her husband, John Taylor.

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