‘It’s the cage I’m in. But it’s a very happy cage. And I’m delighted to be here.”
That’s Jeannette Walls, mega-selling author of the memoir, The Glass Castle, saying those words on a glorious summer day on the pool deck of one of those hipper-than-thou Toronto hotels. The only place she looks like she inhabits is a gilded designer boutique – a private cage of the beautiful. Tall and slim at 53, she wears a form-fitting sundress, her auburn hair blown out into a glossy curtain, her angular face an artful study of planes under big Jackie-O sunglasses. Every so often, she hoots with laughter; flips that hair; smooths the creases of that dress; gestures with pale, freckled arms. She has alighted only briefly on the rooftop during a fast-paced flight path through major North American cities to promote her new novel, The Silver Star.
But just when she seems too glamorous to slug it out at the keyboard of a computer, along comes this admission: “This [book] was harder than non-fiction … I practically didn’t go out for a year, until finally I thought, ‘Get your act together!’ I drew circles around my eyes,” she says, lifting up her sunglasses to bug her eyes at me for effect. “And a friend said, ‘You look like hell.’” Suddenly, she’s a down-home gal who knows a thing or two about hardship.
The cage Walls refers to is the one of her horrific childhood experience, the one her literary imagination won’t let her escape – perhaps, in part, because she fears where the mind can go, when untethered from reality.
As millions of her faithful readers know, The Glass Castle chronicled her peripatetic youth, growing up with an abusive, alcoholic father, who kept promising that he would build a glass castle in the desert – as soon as the family of six ran free of the bill collectors – and her creative, neglectful mother.
It is easy to see the themes in The Silver Star, a story of two sisters, Bean and Liz, whose single mother is unstable and prone to flights of fancy – and sudden abandonment. After she leaves the two girls alone with little food, they set off to live with extended family, learning to fend off danger and create a sense of home. They cope with the challenges differently – Liz, the elder sister who is highly creative, escapes into her agitated, delusional mind. Bean perseveres through practicality.
“When you write a memoir, everyone assumes you made it up. When you write fiction, everyone assumes it’s all true,” she points out. “Some will say Silver Star is so much like The Glass Castle, great! Or The Glass Castle, horrible! I don’t know if that’s a blessing or a curse but that’s the world I know. I’m not going to write a thriller. I’m not going to write about a posh life on Park Avenue. In [early drafts of] Glass Castle, I tried to write about that world. It didn’t work. I wanted readers to compare the world I came from to the world I moved to. But at best, I had a green card there.”
It has been Walls’ fate – and good fortune – that she has been able to inhabit both the glitzy New York world and the uncomfortable psychological territory of her childhood. At 17, she escaped to New York, where she entered Barnard College on scholarships and later became a high-profile celebrity journalist for MSNBC.com. With her first husband, she lived the Park Avenue lifestyle. Now, she writes books full-time on a farm in West Virginia, where she lives with her second husband, writer John Taylor.
But her success has come with some survivor guilt. “I thrived not because of any creativity I have. I’m an observer and whatever success I’ve had is just due to the fact that I had really good material.”
The Silver Star is an “homage to sisterhood,” she explains. “The older siblings protect the younger ones from the toxic family. They make it a safer world for those of us who end up getting accolades and praise and bestsellers. My [older] sister is a much more talented writer than I am. She’s so creative, and she was taking the hits. She is the artist, and she finds the past extremely painful.”
The Glass Castle may have been an attempt to close the book on her background, but since its publication in 2005, it has generated new questions that she felt compelled to explore. In 2009, Half-Broke Horses, a semi-fictional account of her maternal grandmother, examined the influences on her unconventional mother.
The idea for The Silver Star started when readers of The Glass Castle asked her if her parents were mentally ill. (Her father died in 1994. Her mother lives near her in a separate house on her farm.) “I didn’t know the answer to that,” she offers. “They certainly were loopy as all get out,” she adds with a laugh. “So I started doing a lot of reading on mental illness and became really fascinated about the juxtaposition of what we call mental illness and creativity.”
I ask her if she’s reluctant to indulge her own imagination because she saw how it derailed others in her family. “I think about that all the time,” she confesses. “I have asked myself: Do I not want to let myself go or am I not able to? I cling to what I know. I hug the shore. I do know when I try to let myself go, nothing happens. It’s ‘Okay, blast-off!’ And I’m still sitting here.”
But she also feels that the best fiction is rooted in reality. “We project what we think we know, and it’s not enough.”
Does she feel she might pick up the characters of Bean and Liz in another novel? “Oh, I kind of hate you for saying that,” she hoots. “I don’t want to write any more. I don’t have anything left to say.” She grimaces behind her sunglasses, pushing her hair behind her shoulder. “But I said that after my last book.”
What would she do if not write?
“Oh, I got horses,” she says, slapping the table with a manicured hand. “I got the world’s meanest rooster to contend with,” she trills happily before teetering off on her heels to her next appointment.