Jeannette Walls, one of the bestselling authors of recent years, is best known for memoir, especially The Glass Castle, her indelible account of growing up in a poor, dysfunctional family. With her new book, The Silver Star, she turns fully to fiction, though, as she recounts here, her work is still all about the truth.
When you started to write, which writers did you revere?
I have loved Steinbeck since I was a kid. I admire the way he’d go out and observe and tell the world what he found out. He once wrote a piece of satire and he called his publisher before it was published and he said, you’ve got to destroy this. My entire life has been dedicated to trying to get people to understand other people by telling the truth. And this piece of satire looks to incite hatred and ridicule by telling half-truths.
What is the most dangerous type of influence for a young writer?
Trying to be like somebody else. Saying, I’m going to be the next David Sedaris. Don’t even try it! David Sedaris already has that territory staked out. These writers try to strike a pose, but readers see through that. Readers are really smart. They can spot a phony.
With The Glass Castle, was it a process to find that? Or was it there?
I wrote the first version in six weeks. I spent five years rewriting it. The biggest challenge was finding my voice. I spent five years trying to find out how to tell the truth.
When you are in a period of writing, do you change your reading habits for fear of being unintentionally influenced?
Whenever I’m writing, I have to stop reading everybody else to avoid being influenced by other people. I’ll read newspapers, and some non-fiction. Recently, I was reading some Doris Kearns-Goodwin. I love her writing.
If you could give your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be?
Trust readers. They are so much wiser and kinder and more insightful than I could ever have imagined. When I started, I was terrified of what they would think of my story. Now, readers understand my story better than I do.
Which author do you think is most influential today?
I go to a lot of book events, and Jodi Picoult has such a huge following, people love her – I’d put her up there. I’ve heard her talk about how the literary world doesn’t give her the recognition she deserves. Honey, you don’t need the literary world. You’ve got readers! I’m a populist. I go with the bestsellers.
This interview has been condensed and edited.