Looking Inside Herself to Discover a “True-Life” Story

My interview with author Jeannette Walls

Journalists are never the story. They look instead to the world at large, interviewing, researching and seeking objective truth. Jeannette Walls knows this approach well, having worked for twenty years as a journalist in New York City—including a stint as a gossip columnist—before her first nonfiction book, “The Glass Castle,” was released in 2005.

This disarmingly candid memoir quickly became a national bestseller, resurrecting Walls’ peripatetic, peculiar upbringing, her artistic but unconventional mother Rose Mary and creative and savvy but alcoholic father Rex. But in that book, for the first time Walls was very much the story.

Her husband, writer John Taylor, urged her to write “The Glass Castle,” but it was readers who spurred Walls’ newest book, “Half Broke Horses,” unwittingly catalyzing her storytelling ‘s next evolution. This “true-life” narrative is part oral history and part invention, reconstructing her grandmother Lily’s early 20th century Texas ranch life and delivering Walls into the realm of fiction.

“I’m not trying to create a new genre—the book just doesn’t fit into any existing ones,” Walls insists. “Even though it’s just a family story and an oral history, I don’t know if it’s true.”

Lily died when Walls was a child, so she originally intended to write about her mother, Rose Mary, about whose life readers are always curious. “They always ask why someone with my mother’s education would live on the streets the way she did. And when I tell them about her childhood, their faces light up,” Walls said.

But when she attempted writing in her mother’s voice, it just didn’t work. That’s when Rose Mary, who now lives with Walls and her husband in Virginia, urged her to center “Half Broke Horses” on Lily. Walls eventually realized it was the more compelling story.

“I resisted that at first, because I couldn’t interview Lily, but Mom had so many stories so I researched or filled in gaps, and gave it a shot. I wrote it in first person because it was easier to capture her voice.”

And indeed Lily’s voice jumps off the page, that of a tough, no-nonsense pioneer woman who bucks gender role expectations and sees lessons in every event, whether breaking horses, riding 500 miles alone on her pony to arrive at her first school teaching job, being scammed by her first husband, or fired for not adhering to the politically acceptable curriculum.

Today, Walls describes herself as a “what you see is what you get” kind of person, and it’s easy to see the roots of her character in her grandmother’s in depth portrait. She also admits that writing family histories has been a way to see herself, and her kin, more clearly, this time by interviewing her mother daily, hearing startling stories and learning firsthand about Lily’s and Rose Mary’s life philosophies.

“It’s sort of a self-therapy—you’re examining your past yourself,” she said. “The process brought into focus not only Lily’s life but my mother’s. It’s therapeutic and enlightening to look at the patterns that emerge.”

With two books under her wing—the second written in half the time—Walls is on the road promoting “Half Broke Horses,” practicing her new hobby, piano playing, and waiting for the next interesting subject to appear—and not necessarily nonfiction.

“I’ve always thought of myself as a nonfiction writer, but I’m starting to understand for the first time how closely related fiction and nonfiction can be,” Walls said. Her next topic? “I just don’t know. I’m just waiting for readers to suggest one.”

For now, she hopes “Half Broke Horses” will inspire people to look closely at their own histories. “We’re all stronger and more resilient than we realize,” Walls said. “We all come from hardy stock, and if you think about your ancestry you’ll see what you come from. Look inside yourself and find that.”


Originally published 11.07.09 in the Miami Herald.