Last week I sat down with NYT bestselling author, Jeannette Walls to chat about “The Glass Castle”, a new film based on a book she penned about her experiences growing up in poverty. While her story is quite engaging, it pales in comparison to the enchanting presence Jeannette has in person. It’s not a word I use often, but “vivacious” is the perfect description for her. Our ten minutes together blew by as we discussed the impact her youth had on her adult life, and how well the film captured the essence of her family.
Excerpts from the discussion are below, or you can listen to the roundtable in its entirety here:
TCF: As I watched the film, something I often think about kept popping into my head, and I was wondering what your take is on it: “Nature versus nurture.”
Jeanette Walls: Oh no. That’s the toughest question in the world. I just don’t know the answer. People ask me if I’m resilient in spite of my past or because of my past. And I think it’s because of my past. But I have no way of knowing.
I think I was given really great gifts from my parents. My older sister would disagree. And it’s just something as writers, we’re constantly fascinated by. Like why is this the way it is? And I don’t know the answer. That’s why I wrote my book so people can sort of figure out like– I – as a former journalist, didn’t want to tell people how they should feel, or what they should think. I just, I just told my story – that’s all I have.
You’ve mentioned that one of the skills that your father had passed down to you was “demon chasing.” Could you speak a little bit more on that, and tell us some of the demons you’ve slain?
For so many years, I thought of myself as a brave person. I’ve never been afraid of snakes or the dark or anything like that. The movie covered this very well, but I’m just going to touch on it a bit that when I thought I heard a demon, my dad gave me a knife, and we went demon hunting. “Don’t be afraid of it, you’ve got to chase that old demon.” It was such a pivotal lesson, but it took me a long time to put the lesson to use.
I was 40 years old, I had everything I’d ever dreamed of. I’m living on Park Avenue, I’ve got this amazing job. I can do anything. But there was something missing. I was running, I was hiding from myself. My past was my own demon. And I came to realize that dad was absolutely right. You confront that demon, it really can’t hurt you. We’ve all got demons. But we’re stronger than our demons, ’cause we created them.
If you reach a place in your life where you can turn around and confront the demon – it not only can’t hurt you, but you put a harness on your demon, and you put him to work for you. Because one of the things I hope I’ve also learned is very often the thing that we think is the worst thing about ourselves is actually the best thing we have going for us. It certainly was with me. I was trying to cut off my past, be the woman from nowhere. I was just so intent on protecting myself and hiding in the corners and being a journalist and writing about other people’s lives. The hypocrisy did not escape me. That here I am chasing other people’s secrets, while I’m running from my own.
What was the experience of writing the book like?
I thought nobody would get it. I thought that it’s too weird, it’s too complicated and people won’t get it. One of the many wonderful things that’s happened as a result of my story being out, is that people tell me their stories. Sometimes they say, “I’m so ashamed, I’ve never told anybody this before.” And what I’m hearing is this amazing story about triumph and surviving against the odds. I realize that so often when these things happen to us, we think it makes us somehow less of a person. That’s why you have to confront these things that scare you. Because they’re really not bad at all. Life is beautiful. A very wise friend of mine – he’s an artist, he said, “Most people want to be more than who and what they are. But art, true art is the – finding out the essence of who and what you are.” And, and I thought that was just so wise, because like – stop looking everywhere else for inspiration, it was there all along. I wrote a book years ago about celebrities that I thought would hit like hot cakes. It was all about famous people and scandals. Sunk like a stone. And I thought that this book would sink like a stone. And instead – it resonated with people because it was true and honest.
Is that why you think it took off because people can identify with it more?
I think that everybody has a past – obviously, and many of us are conflicted about that past. And I think that a lot of us erect barriers thinking that we’re protecting ourselves, but in fact, we’re just isolating ourselves. If somebody is willing to take down the barriers and say, “This is who and what I am,” I believe it gives the other person courage to do the same. And then emotional connections can be made. And that is what storytelling is about.
Interviewee: Ancient – and all civilizations, during the day – primitive societies, and I hate to use that word, ’cause it sounds judgmental. But anthropologists have studied people, and during the day they do the hunter and gathering stuff. But in the evening, they gather around the fire or whatever it is. And they tell stories about escaping the – the wildebeest or where they found the berries. And they’re stories of survival. “This is how I got by.” And that is where storytelling began, and that is where entertainment began. And I think that that is why we tell our stories. “This is how I got through this.” And I think that people who are in tough spot have turned to my story and said, “There’s a way out. If she made it out, I can too.” I think there might also be – to a lesser degree, people saying like, “I’ve always wondered who those crazy, dirty people were.” But it’s done without, without malice.
I like to understand what’s behind them, who are those people? My book has been used a lot by organizations looking to raise money for the impoverished and the homeless, to put a face on these stories. To give a story rather to these statistics, what these numbers about. Like all these people I don’t know? Why don’t they get a job? Why don’t they–?” It humanizes the disenfranchised. To say, “Wow, it’s more complicated.” The director of this movie worked in a foster care system for a while and made a movie inspired by that. He gave an interview afterwards, saying he thought he would go to the foster care system as the cool guy with the answers. But after having worked in it for a while, he realized there are no simple answers. I knew from that comment that he was the right person to direct the movie. Because there are no simple answers. It’s just all so complicated and contradictory. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to embrace and understand it.
I think stories like these, help you empathize with people.
Yes. Well, that’s what it’s all about. That’s one of my favorite words, “empathy.” I think it’s this one thing wrong with the world – it’s lack of empathy. Because I think that very often we think, “Oh that person’s nothing like me.” All negative emotions can be traced back to fear on some level.
People are scared, “They’re weird, they’re going to take what’s mine, they’re using up our tax money. They’re taking our jobs.” With empathy, if you can understand, we all want the same thing. We might try to get it in different ways, but we all want to feel good about ourselves, we want to feel safe, we want our families to be safe – we want to feel loved.
Oh my gosh. It was, it was phenomenal. I mean – Brie Larson, I never had any doubt that she – she could nail it. I saw her in – in Destin’s previous movie, “Short term 12.” And it was just like, “Wow, who is this woman?” She wasn’t Brie Larson 08:06. And, “Room,” hadn’t come out yet, so nobody knew who she was. And even back then, I thought, “If this woman could star in our movie, I would, I would be – I would die a happy camper.” And I didn’t even articulate that 08:18 even. But since she’d worked with Destin before, they got her. Naomi Watts – phenomenal. And she talked to mom so often. My mother is a tough role, a tough role. She nailed it. Woody Harrelson – and I knew he’d be – he’d be good. Of course, he’s Woody Harrelson, I’ve seen all of his movies. And like, we love Woody. He’s a great guy. It’s funny ’cause I tell people, “Brie Larson.” “Oh, she’s great.” I say, “Naomi Watts.” “Oh, she’s very talented.” You say, “Woody Harrelson.” “I like Woody!”
I think it was essential that the, that the actor who played Rex had to be likable. Because he’s – he’s a no count scoundrel, drunk– And if you didn’t like him, the movie would’ve fallen apart. But Woody captured the irresistible quality of my father. That no matter what he did, there was just something that you just like kinda kept coming back. And you couldn’t help but love him.
He had a certain amount of charm and optimism that he would project.
And neediness. The neediness, he captured that. He captured the vulnerability.
It took my breath away the first time I saw him in character. They went off script, and he was saying things that my father had said that I hadn’t told him. And I was just a mess. I asked him afterwards, “How did you do that?” He said he stopped studying the tapes of my father because he didn’t want to be mimicking him or impersonating. He wanted to become Dad, and there were a couple of times he did become Dad. He became this person. There were a couple of times that he stayed in character maybe longer than he should’ve. I mean after these really intense scenes – it was intense. I mean it was just – it was magnificent. The crew was crying during some of his takes. I mean it was truly beautiful. Smack me down for all those things I ever said about shallow Hollywood. They left me in the dust when it came to getting it right. To being perceptive, to being empathetic, and to storytelling.
Yeah, it was awesome – great performances.
Thank you. Thank you. I couldn’t agree more thank you.