Jeannette Walls offers hard-won hope for hard times
The only way to never fall off a horse, memoirist Jeannette Walls told an adoring audience at Miami Book Fair International last night, is to never get on one. “The lucky among us have what it takes to get up after a fall,” Walls said — then added, “We all have that.”
Walls announced at the beginning of her talk that she would neither lecture nor read from her new book, Half Broke Horse: A True-Life Novel. “I’ve heard Miami is a fairly literate crowd,” she said. “You’re capable of doing your own reading.”
Instead, Walls, the author of The Glass Castle, a searing memoir of growing up poor, hungry and sometimes homeless, told how writing the story of her life had liberated her from fear and shame, urging other people to tell their stories, too.
It was an impressive performance, even for a former journalist with years of television experience. Walls talked for 35 minutes, without notes, without more than one or two “uh’s”, delivering a riveting and witty inspirational address on the power of story to redeem our worst experiences and give us the strength to survive hard times.
“People say they aren’t as strong as I am,” Walls said, “they couldn’t survive the things I did. I”m flattered, but that’s nonsense. You could survive, too.
Walls talked of overcoming her hardscrabble West Virginia childhood to become a leading New York gossip columnist for New York magazine, Esquire, and MSNBC. But she had no doubt if people knew the truth about her past she would lose everything.
“I went on TV, I covered the Oscars, I wrote about important things like Jennifer Aniston’s haircut,” Walls said. “I lived in a house with a flush toilet. What more could I want?”
With the encouragement of her second husband, journalist and nonfiction writer John Taylor, Walls spent five years writing the account that would become The Glass Castle. Published in 2005, it became a huge best seller and critical success.
“The book has transformed the world for me from a place filled with potential enemies to a place filled with friends,” Walls said. “I realize now what a knucklehead I was. People are compassionate. That’s why I’m on a campaign to get people to tell their stories.”
Walls said she is often asked how she could forgive her parents, an alcoholic father and an exceedingly eccentric and self-obsessed mother.
“It’s not about forgiveness,” Walls said. “It’s about acceptance. And acceptance is not about approval. I didn’t have a normal childhood — so what? I have a great life now. Why resent and regret how we got here?”
Walls told how she came to write her second book, the critically acclaimed Half Broke Horses, the story of her “tough old broad” of a grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, a headstrong, hardworking Arizona woman still living the pioneer life in the first half of the 20th century.
“We all in this country come from hardy stock. We need to get back in touch with our inner tough old broad — especially now that we’re facing tough times.”
Walls says she has learned to view the grinding hardships of her childhood as a gift.
“I think in many ways I was lucky,” she said. “Every experience, even the worst, has a gift wrapped inside, if you are willing to unwrap it. Everything is both positive and negative, and it’s entirely how you choose to deal with it.”
Miami Book Fair International continues tonight. An Evening with Richard Powers, the National Book Award-winning novelist, will present his new book, Generosity: An Enhancement, at 7:30. Admission: $10. Arrive early for free food and drink at Twilight Tastings, 5-7:30 p.m., with cuisine from the Hard Rock Cafe.
All book fair events take place at the Wolfson Campus of Miami Dade College, 300 NE 2nd St., in downtown Miami.