Author Jeannette Walls tells interviewers that she "can't make anything up." At the beginning of her career, she hardly needed to. Her first book, a memoir titled "The Glass Castle," told a searing personal history to which a novelist couldn't have done justice.
Her second book, a true-life novel titled "Half Broke Horses," was also based on family history. Now Walls is out with a through-and-through novel, "The Silver Star," and she has had to learn to make things up.
POST-SHOW EXTRA: Novelist Jeannette Walls reads an excerpt from "The Silver Star"
Walls will read from "The Silver Star" at 7 tonight at the Weyerhaeuser Chapel on the campus of Macalester College in St. Paul. She joined Kerri Miller in the studio this morning. Here are highlights from that conversation:
On being forever known as the author of "The Glass Castle":
"People do associate me with that book, but that's fine. I'm so much luckier than most authors ... you can't go around thinking, I can't write anything else, because it's not going to be 'The Glass Castle.' You can't let that inhibit you. When I was writing The Glass Castle, I was terrified. I thought that it would ruin my career and that people would meet me with contempt and ridicule. The reaction was so different than I expected. But if I'd listened to those voices inside my head, I'd have never written it. So you can't listen to those voices when you follow it up."
On her difficult parents:
"I saw my mother rooting through the garbage one day. I was in the back of a taxi, and I slid down in the back and hid. And I got together with Mom a couple of days later. I said, 'Mom, what on earth am I supposed to tell people when they ask me about you?' And she gave me the best advice anybody's ever given me. She said, 'Tell the truth.'"
On the relationship between mental illness and creativity:
"People kept asking me about this question of mental illness, because so many people who've read both of my previous books have said, your parents are mentally ill, aren't they? And I don't know the answer to that. They've never been diagnosed as that. But I'm a research nerd, and so I started researching it. I'm sort of fascinated by the whole issue of creativity ... Mental illness and creativity: What is the crux between them? There were a couple of issues that I wanted to explore and I couldn't figure out how to do it within the confines of nonfiction. So I was sort of forced to write fiction. ...
"If you look at the number of creative geniuses who've been posthumously diagnosed as being bipolar, it's pretty much a Who's Who. I am not one of those people. I am a linear thinker. And I'm fascinated by these people who do genuinely make things up, whose minds go places that mine doesn't. ... My mother would give us art lessons, and my two sisters would come up with these wonderful, fantastic pictures of apples. My apples would look like apples."
On whether her later books will live up to her early success:
"I had this extraordinary experience just the other day where a woman up to me and said, 'My son is ADD and he doesn't like reading. And yours is the best book he's ever enjoyed reading.' My gosh! — it just doesn't get any better than that. It would feel selfish of me to expect that to happen again. You can't get too greedy. I've already had more than my fair share."
On having the courage to write about an embarrassing past:
"A very wise man once said to me, 'Secrets are a little bit like vampires. They suck the life out of you, but they can exist only in the darkness. Once they're exposed to light, there's a moment of horror, but then poof! They lose their power over you.' And I think because my secrets are so bizarre and out there, it really has given a lot of people permission to open up about their secrets ... In my experience, memoir readers aren't looking for a freak show. They're looking to understand. And I think that once you tell your story, you realize, Oh, these crazy homeless folks, or these crazy poor folk, everybody has his story. Everybody has his story....
"Anybody who's had a tough childhood knows you internalize that. And you think there's something wrong with you. And I see that time and time again. That people who've been through these things, you think that you're not as good as other people. And you carry this sigma around with you.
"The first casualty, in my opinion, of poverty is shame. Shame is so much worse than the hunger, or the cold. It's going around thinking, I am an inferior person. You can get yourself a big old house, with a bunch of bathrooms, and take a bath every single day, and have all the food you want. And that demon is still chasing you. It's only once you're able to turn around and confront your past that you can deal with it."
LEARN MORE ABOUT JEANNETTE WALLS AND 'THE SILVER STAR'
• How Jeannette Walls Spins Good Stories Out of Bad Memories
"Another theme," she went on, "is when people take advantage of you, is it smart to fight back? One of the blessings of my childhood was being a fighter and a scrapper, but being a fighter and a scrapper is a curse too. I'm just learning you don't always have to fight. That's been the revelation with 'The Glass Castle,' the kindness of people. It's completely defanged and disarmed me. (The New York Times)
Jeannette Walls' 'The Silver Star,' a tale of a young girl longing for her mother and her shifting loyalty to family
Like Walls in her memoir, Jean/Bean is a resourceful, resilient, big-hearted girl who somehow can't give up on her mother, no matter how much she's made to suffer. Up until this point, Bean's voice -- what her teacher calls her "ugly mouth" -- and the strong sense of place hold the book together, reminding me of some of my favorite, feisty heroines in middle-grade fiction. (The Cleveland Plain Dealer)
• Jeannette Walls on Poverty and Homelessness
"This is something that I lived with, with a secret, for a long time. I didn't tell anybody that my mother was living on the street and in fact that I was homeless from time to time. It was a source of shame."
"If you speak to just about any homeless person, one of the things they'll tell you is that people look right past them ... and if you just smile and nod at the person I think that just means the world to them." (NOW, PBS)