Jeannette Walls: Whether Non-Fiction or Fiction, Her Stories Are Unforgettable
by Stephanie Verni, Assistant Professor of Business Communication
Writers often claim they are born to write, but only the best writers can tell a compelling story worth reading, no matter what the reaction to the subject matter may be. Shocking tell-all celebrity and political memoirs have captured the public’s attention. In fact, memoirs have accounted for the spike in non-fiction book sales in recent years. Then, just when you think you’ve heard every story imaginable, along comes a book from a journalist that gives readers pause and leaves them scratching their heads, saying, “This can’t be the story of someone’s life.” In fact, it is.
Jeannette Walls’ best-selling, first-time memoir, The Glass Castle, caught the book world by surprise. This book has been translated into 24 languages, and more than 2.5 million copies have been sold around the world. It’s apparent that Ms. Walls’ storytelling capabilities are embraced by diverse populations across the globe; her readers seem to connect to the material she presents.
And why not? Walls’ story of her nomadic family life with her father, mother, and siblings warrants the attention it has received. Readers of her memoir are left puzzling over the bizarre nature of her upbringing by her parents, and yet find compassion and a sense of empathy for them at times throughout the memoir. The way Walls allows her own story to unravel, punctuating it with tenderness and despair, love and doubt, and determination and vision, can be both disturbing and uplifting. Despite this range of emotions throughout, readers cannot refrain from turning the pages as quickly as possible to see what will unfold next.
In interviews over the years, the resounding sentiment Ms. Walls expresses is one of thankfulness that her memoir has resonated with readers, and that the shame she felt — and then put into words — of being the daughter of a homeless mother and often incoherent father has encouraged readers to share stories of their own. Ms. Walls, once tentative and anxious to tell her story after beating the odds, now rejoices that the truth she’s kept inside for years is no longer a secret.
The craft of memoir writing takes careful thought and planning. It’s a selection process of what stories to include so that readers can identify with an unusual situation. On her Amazon author page, Ms. Walls admits that her memoir was written on and off over the course of 25 years, and that she even considered turning her personal story into a work of fiction. Luckily, she found the strength to write from the heart, and the result is a memoir that ultimately leaves readers with a sense of hope.
After the success of The Glass Castle, Ms. Walls decided to tackle another family story, this time the story of her grandmother, who died when Walls was only eight years old. Half-Broke Horses: A True Life Novel, is told from her grandmother’s point-of-view, which is the reason why her publisher attaches the “fictional” aspect to this story by calling it a novel. The book traces the life of Lily Casey Smith, a feisty woman who was born in 1901 and was independent and resourceful well before the first wave of the feminist movement and the right of women to vote passed in 1920.
Whether it’s her journalistic reporting for such publications as New York Magazine, Esquire, USA Today, or as her role as an entertainment gossip columnist at MSNBC, Ms. Walls has the distinct talent of hooking readers by allowing herself to dig into the lives of those she focuses on in her stories. Ms. Walls’ writing is intriguing, captivating, educational, and memorable. Her growing readership attests to her storytelling capabilities. Her audience has embraced her melancholy, heartbreaking, yet inspiring tales that ask readers to consider and examine their own lives while also being considerate and cognizant of the lives of others.
Stephanie Verni is an Assistant Professor of Business Communication in Stevenson’s School of Design. She teaches courses in writing, including feature, magazine, and public relations writing, as well as advertising and communication courses. She received her MFA in creative writing from National University, and her first novel, Beneath the Mimosa Tree, was self-published in March.