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There Are People Like Me: Jeannette Walls on "The Glass Castle"

As a fearsome Manhattan-based gossip columnist for two decades starting in the late ‘80s, Jeannette Walls used to make a living off of the tumultuous lives of the rich and famous—or, as her late father called them, “the skinny dames and the fat cats”—while writing for New York and Esquire magazine as well as The Barnard grad and her entrepreneur first husband seemingly fit right in among the other well-off residents of posh Park Avenue.

But in 2005, Walls decided to come clean about her own hardscrabble Appalachian past that she had mostly kept under wraps by publishing a memoir, “The Glass Castle.” She and her three siblings were regularly uprooted based on the whims of their bohemian parents, Rex and Rose Mary, who rarely worked and were constantly on the run, racking up 27 addresses just in their first five years of marriage. He struggled with demons brought on by alcoholism while she put her ambitions as a painter above the needs of her children. And both were most likely bipolar. Homelessness, poverty and often hunger were constants in Walls’ childhood, even after they moved into a three-room hovel with no running water, hardly any heat, a surplus of vermin and a lack of electricity in her father’s hometown of Welch, a downtrodden West Virginia mining community. 

After her autobiography—whose title refers to the solar-powered window-filled house that her father was constantly designing and vowed to build—became an immediate hit, one that was translated into 31 languages and spent seven years on the New York Times best-seller list, Walls, 57, gave up her big-city existence for a 205-acre farm in Culpeper, Va., with her second husband, fellow journalist and author John Taylor. Her mother, 83, resides in a cluttered cottage on the property while her precious art is stored in a shed. Now Walls and her life story will reach an even larger audience as the long-in-the-making movie adaptation of her memoir opens in theaters this week. She sat down in Washington, D.C., with to discuss her days as a disher of celebrity dirt, how it feels to have an Oscar winner like Brie Larson play her adult self and why so many continue to be drawn to her colorful account of her unusual past.

I remember meeting you in USA TODAY’s New York bureau in the ‘90s when you briefly were an assistant to financial columnist Dan Dorfman and thinking, “Wow, she is so regal and beautiful.” Journalists aren’t that pulled together usually. Little did I know what your life had been like before.

I worked so hard on that façade, honey. It’s funny because I found out some people thought I was aloof and kind of stuck up, because I was so reserved.

But you had a lovely smile, as I recall.

I thought I was friendly but I mostly kept to myself.

You must have had dealings with Donald Trump when you were writing the "Intelligencer" gossip column for New York magazine.

Oh, yeah. He and I talked kind of frequently. And I was not at all surprised at his election. Whether you love the man or hate him, he understands the media and understands the power of it. And as soon as the Internet hit and people started having their own web sites, I realized that people who did what I did, our positions were being threatened because, as journalists, we were the conduits between the celebrities and the public. They needed us. And as soon as they could have their own platforms—they used to say the freedom of the press belongs to those who own one—as soon as they had their own web sites, I saw pretty quickly my beat is going to be gone. It’s not extinct but it is going to have to morph into something else. Then TMZ and all that came up. Yeah, Donald Trump really understood how to float a story, how to float a rumor, how to manipulate the truth. And I think he was kind of shocked by how easy it was to plant stories. My father was slightly obsessed with him. “Give me dirt on Trump. You got to go after him, hon.”

For all the terrible situations you had to deal with because of your parents, they did seem to instill in you and your siblings an appreciation of the arts and sparked your imaginations. Your Dad was a thinker. They gave you a notebook so you could write stories. He made that comment to you: “Be careful what you do with that. You could change the world.”

That was quintessential Dad. These gestures that you could take as either Dad with his B.S. or you could take as this incredible belief in me. I chose to believe in his mythologies about me. And, yeah, I thought when he wasn’t being a no-account shiftless drunk he could be very inspiring and beautiful. And I will always love him and I will always miss him. Seeing Woody Harrelson’s portrayal of him kind of blew me away because he so captured him. It wasn’t just the imagination. It was also the love of education, the love of learning even though we didn’t always go to a conventional school. It was constantly reading books and, going over the plans for the glass castle, we discussed the math. My brother, Brian, retired from the police force, became a teacher for a while and now he works for Habitat for Humanity. He said it made him appreciate Mom and Dad more because some of those kids in the rough area where he taught didn’t have someone to challenge them to be more than they were. And to believe in you. With a complicated childhood, you can either focus on the positive or the negative, and I chose to focus on the positive.

It’s amazing how many people have been touched by this book—about five million copies have been sold according to the film’s production notes.

It’s five million at least in the U.S. It is hard to gauge overseas. Honestly, I expected it to tank. I did not expect this to happen.

What do readers say when they meet you or write to you? I’m sure many of them have shared what moved them about your story.

It’s one of two things. “I have no idea people live like this. You really opened my eyes.” That is from one side of the tracks. On the other side: “You practically told my story.” There are a lot of people out there like me. And they will tell you the details. Like, they got burned making oatmeal for themselves. [Note: A scene early on shows a three-year-old Walls getting seriously burned when her mother told her to boil hot dogs herself.] Or driving around in a beat-up car and the father is a drunk. And, if you made it out, then maybe I can, too. It’s both sides. The revelation that there are people out there like that. And the revelation that there are people like me.

Growing up, you probably didn’t watch TV or go to the movies much.

No. We went to movies sometimes, like drive-in movies. We went to the quarter movies. But we didn’t have a television. I remember, one day of the week, all the kids at school would be discussing this amazing TV show called “The Brady Bunch.” I thought they must be like the Joads from “The Grapes of Wrath.” “Oh, could you believe how they solved that problem, it was so amazing.” For years and years, “The Brady Bunch” just seemed like this mysterious larger-than- life family. Finally, when I moved to New York, I rented it. And it was kind of bewildering. When I started working at New York magazine, I didn’t know who all these celebrities were. I had been living in New York for a couple of years already. I moved there in 1977. I read newspapers enough to have a basic idea of who these people were. But for MSNBC, where I had to know the celebrities inside out, I took three weeks and I just studied People magazine. It was kind of shocking because sometimes the cameraman knew more about these people. It’s kind of weird the levels to which these people are followed. That they are almost deified. They know their children’s names and every relationship they’ve had. I was less interested with the celebrity stuff and who’s dating whom and more interested in celebrity temper tantrums and stuff like that. They are entitled to date whoever they want. But when they start abusing their staff, that is the thing that made me crazed.

When you did see movies more, what did you like?

I loved “The Verdict.” I loved “Casablanca.” You know, right vs. wrong. I think I like a movie where there is a victory, right over wrong, but there’s always some price to be paid.

You said in your piece that you wrote for the Los Angeles Times, about your experience with having your book turned into a movie, that you were warned by other writers about what happened to their works when they were adapted. What was the worst thing that you heard?

I don’t have permission to repeat any of their stories. But someone sent me a quote from John Le Carre, who said, “Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes.” And Frank McCourt wrote a lovely, lovely book, Angela’s Ashes, but he was very unhappy with the movie version. It wasn’t because it was Hollywood-ized. Maybe it should have been more Hollywood-ized. I think it is very hard when you take these complicated books and it’s turned into something that is unrecognizable to you. I think Jodi Picoult wasn’t happy with the ending of “My Sister’s Keeper.”

At first, Paramount bought the rights to your book in 2005 and Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B wanted to make it.

My understanding of what happened, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston were still married when they got it. And Jennifer Aniston was the one who loved the book. When they split, it got orphaned a little bit.

So their break-up actually affected the fate of your book as a movie?

I could have gotten back at them in my column. Made them sorry. But it did put me in a bit of a pickle. They did do stuff with it. Some very talented screenwriters looked at it. They tried some scripts with it. But it’s a fine line, humor and pain and all the things in my family. It’s a delicate balance. And they were really grappling with “How do we do this?” Then, about five years ago, the producer Gil Netter just snatched it up—he made "Life of Pi” and ‘”The Blind Side”—and his sensibilities are so like mine. Since he has done movies based on books, I figured he would know how to do it. He just wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Having Brie Larson play you as an adult probably is a dream come true.

She is an amazing human being. So empathetic. So perceptive. Talking to her is a little bizarre, because she sees everything. To be honest, she is really compassionate.

Destin Daniel Cretton, who directed and co-wrote the script for “The Glass Castle,” seems like a very good fit considering how he sensitively he handled the at-risk teens in the group home in “Short Term 12.” He portrayed them as human beings first, not victims or troublemakers.

My older sister, Lori, was really nervous about our book being made into a movie. She saw “Short Term 12” and said, “Our story is in good hands.”

She also got to check out Brie, since that was her breakout movie. The cast—Woody as your father, Naomi Watts as your mother—is quite strong. Then there is Ella Anderson, who plays you at age nine or so. She is amazing.

Oh my gosh. She took my breath away.

The most difficult scene to watch was the one in the public pool, where Woody as your Dad keeps throwing Ella into the deep end and forces her to learn how to swim.

It’s a great scene. I thought I was played perfectly. It really bothered a lot of people but some said they really admired him. That really was quintessential Dad. Sink or swim. These hard lessons.

Then again, one moment he is insisting his young daughter to do something against her will in front of pool filled with strangers. The next minute, he is taking the person in charge to task for segregating the black swimmers and only allowing them access during off hours.

That is how Dad was. You hated him one second, and then admired him like hell.

It gives the film extra depth to have two sets of young actors playing you and your siblings as you all grew up. But that can put extra strain on the director, dealing with so many less-experienced performers.

It was a challenge. But Destin was so great. He took the kids to Expos games. They all went to the park together and there was this incredible family feeling. There were kids skipping around on the sound stage, saying, “I love it here. I want to live here for the rest of my life.”

I saw an ad for the film on TV and there you were, onscreen, talking about the film and giving it your blessing. That doesn’t often happen with biopics and says a lot about how Lionsgate respects you and your story.

I didn’t know about that, either. Yesterday, I was working out at the gym and I heard my voice and thought, “What?”

They shot a lot of the film in Montreal. But did they go to Welch, too?

They did. They shot some scenes there. Destin wanted to go there to see it and get the feel of it. And he is walking down the street and he sees a sign that says, Welch Daily News. And that is where I laid out the high-school newspaper. He just knocks on the door and walks in. Suddenly, he makes friends with the editor and they show him around. And there is this 50-year-old or however old printing press down there. And it’s going “chunka, chunka, chunka.” He said, “Can I shoot a scene here?” He made friends with the mayor and got the local high-school football team to re-create a game. The cheerleaders, too. But the school’s colors were no longer maroon and white. They borrowed uniforms and the cheerleaders actually made their own for that. Destin said he wanted to shoot that scene in Welch because in the background there were these incredible mountains. They were majestic but they pin you in.

It seemed like they asked you for input. Even the costumer used an outfit you kept from the 1980s. That white power suit or whatever that was. 

They were asking all this stuff. I told the set people, “I used my Rolodex’” and they said, “Your what?”

What do you think your Dad, who died in 1994, would have thought of this movie?

I don’t know. I think he would be bursting with pride. I think he would be grinning from ear to ear.  I talked to my brother about this and Brian is really smart about him. He said, “Jeanette, curse him or bless him, he didn’t care as long as you say his name.” I think it was a respectful depiction of him. It definitely didn’t gloss over the ugliness. People who are addicted, you believe in them and then they break your heart. And I don’t blame Dad. And I don’t think Woody did, either. I think Woody got him.

Did Naomi do right by your Mom?

She was phenomenal. She captured this really complicated, contradictory woman. She doesn’t fall easily in any category.

I understood your Dad’s behavior more than your Mom’s. Maternal instincts usually are overpowering and take over your priorities.

For most people, they are. But Mom didn’t have that problem. Artists tend to understand Mom. People who feel "art is going save my life."

Did she ever sell a painting?

As a matter of fact, those are her paintings in the movie. A producer bought one. And he decided he wanted to buy another—and she raised the price. She said, “There’s a great demand for them lately.”

Susan Wloszczyna

Susan Wloszczyna spent much of her nearly thirty years at USA TODAY as a senior entertainment reporter. Now unchained from the grind of daily journalism, she is ready to view the world of movies with fresh eyes.

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