Off Duty is a series of lively conversations with influential people, from CEOs to celebrities, on life, work and the art of taking time off.
Jeannette Walls is living the shame-free, authentic life her young self could only dream of.
The bestselling author kept her eccentric, nomadic, often traumatic childhood a secret for many years while working as a gossip columnist for MSNBC in the early aughts, but she eventually chose to rid her past of its power by telling all in her award-winning memoir, The Glass Castle. The book spent hundreds of weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list and was made into a feature film in 2017.
Nearly 20 years after the release of her memoir, Walls is still writing about triumph and overcoming hardships, though she’s pivoted to historical fiction. Her newest book, Hang the Moon, tells the story of Sallie Kincaid, a young woman living in Virginia during Prohibition who’s been cast out by her family but returns to her hometown, determined to reclaim her place.
Walls is known for her glass-half-full attitude, a stunning way with words and her contagious laughter. She resides on a 205-acre farm outside Culpeper, Va., with her husband, fellow writer John Taylor, and she confidently says she’s created her own glass castle – her father’s metaphor for a home, or a life, that’s full of hope, dreams and magic.
You kept the truth about your childhood hidden for quite some time, but you eventually told the whole story in The Glass Castle. How did it feel to reveal yourself to the world like that?
I thought that once people knew about me, I would be filled with shame and embarrassment – but the opposite happened. I was completely unprepared for people’s kindness and warmth. Before I wrote the book, I was walking around with armour on and it was hard to be truly intimate with people. Since having told my story, people tell me their own amazing stories about triumph and perseverance on a regular basis. It has transformed the world for me, from a place filled with potential enemies to a place filled with potential friends.
Your most recent book is a novel, and you say it’s the first truly fictional book you’ve ever written. How does writing fiction differ from non-fiction?
I used to think I’d never write fiction because I believed I had no imagination, and it was a reader in the audience at one of my speaking engagements who said, “I think you have a fabulous imagination, but you’re afraid of your own creativity.” That kind of gobsmacked me. I’d written one memoir and then my two subsequent books were labelled novels, but they’re based on people I knew. So this is my first truly fictional book. That being said, I relied heavily on fact and research.
Some people say I keep writing about strong women. Of course I do – I love strong women. I wanted to write this story about a woman who’s underestimated, who wanted to get into the family business, who idealized her father and wanted to be just like him, and I wanted to set it during Prohibition. But I’d been looking around for a character to base it on and there just wasn’t enough research out there. So I thought, if this guy in the audience is right, maybe I can do this fiction stuff.
You’ve been hard at work writing this book for the past eight years. What brings you joy now that you have some free time?
I love critters of all sorts. My husband and I have two dogs, four horses and bees. I absolutely love working with the bees. I also play the piano very badly and I love music theory. I’ve got a beautiful garden, I live in a gorgeous part of America, I have amazing friends. Joy is all around me.
Are you reading or watching anything right now that you’re particularly enjoying?
I recently read What Looks Like Bravery by Laurel Braitman, which was a wonderful book. I just started watching 1899, which is different because I usually don’t like horror, but I’ve come to realize it’s actually not the genre that matters – it’s the writers’ willingness to tackle the great mystery of what makes human beings tick.
Homelessness is on the rise in North America. As someone who experienced homelessness as a child and whose parents were homeless, what do you think of it?
People who experience homelessness are often really struggling with mental illness and drug addiction, and I think the first challenge is seeing them as individual human beings. Dehumanization is what we do whenever we’re afraid of a group and I think that’s why storytelling is so important. When I go speak on behalf of homeless organizations, I love to tell the story about my mom and dad – two wildly talented, brilliant people who, for whatever complicated series of reasons, ended up on the streets. So listen to people’s individual stories and consider people not as a member of this troublesome group but as human beings that each have a reason for being where they are.
You’ve been through some very hard times. How do you maintain a positive mindset?
I don’t think of myself as being that positive, just incredibly fortunate. I think maybe because I went through what I did, I’m just so grateful. Sometimes I still can’t believe I have a house that has four flush toilets in it. But I guess I have always been somebody who focuses on the positive. I genuinely do believe that people are good and kind, and having my book come out and seeing people’s reactions reinforced that. So many of us are walking around hiding things that we think are shameful and make us less than others, but I’ve come to believe you can flip it over and there’s a beautiful blessing on the other side.
This interview was edited and condensed.