'Glass Castle' author Walls pens novel
Author Jeannette Walls poses in this undated handout image. In her debut novel "The Silver Star," Walls tells the story of a young heroine who moves to a brand new town, confronts financial hardship and must deal with an unstable mother. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Simon & Schuster, John Taylor
TORONTO - In her blockbuster 2005 memoir "The Glass Castle," Jeannette Walls wrote of a harrowing, nomadic childhood which saw her overcome debilitating poverty and grapple with the whims of two severely dysfunctional parents.
In her debut novel "The Silver Star," she tells the story of a young heroine who moves to a brand-new town, confronts financial hardship and must deal with an unstable mother.
So is the author upset when people note a certain similarity between the two works?
"Of course it's familiar! I'm going to write what I know, honey!" Walls said with a laugh during a recent interview.
"I'm not out there writing thrillers, or writing about posh upper society 'cause those aren't my people. I don't know about that world."
Walls' "world" was unforgettably depicted in "The Glass Castle," which became a fixture on bestseller lists. Readers were haunted by the abject poverty faced by Walls and her siblings, including the author's memories of picking half-eaten sandwiches out of school garbage cans.
Many were quick to level blame at Walls' parents, frequently asking her whether they suffered from mental illness. It's a question she became fascinated by, and wanted to explore further.
"Certainly they're loopy as all get out and where (is) that line between wacky and eccentric and mental illness?" said Walls, 53.
"I wanted to tell the story and I couldn't figure out a way to do it with non-fiction, so I wrote a fiction book about it."
"The Silver Star" is set in early '70s California, where 12-year-old Bean and her 15-year-old sister Liz live with their mother Charlotte, who fancies herself an aspiring performer.
When she leaves them alone for weeks with barely enough food, the girls worry the authorities will intervene, and flee to their mother's Virginia hometown.
There they are taken in by the kindly Uncle Tinsley and enrol in a recently desegregated school where tensions between black and white students are high. Charlotte, meanwhile, remains an erratic presence in their lives.
The two-year writing process was harder than the author anticipated. Walls' background as a journalist (she got her start at a Brooklyn newspaper and went on to write the "The Scoop" column for MSNBC) was a hindrance in some ways.
"As a journalist (or as a non-fiction writer), what you do is you dig down (and ask): What really happened? What really happened?'" she said.
"The answer is there if you dig deeply enough. If something seems bewildering or wrong, it's because you haven't thought about it hard enough. However, with fiction, if something seems bewildering or wrong, it's because you did a bad job."
And yet, Walls says she also found it freeing to deal with a fictional character like Charlotte, rather than a real-life family member.
"I guess an advantage of fiction over non-fiction is that the people that you're writing about can be insulated from having people pass judgment," she said, referring to the harsh treatment her mother received from readers of "The Glass Castle."
While Walls promotes "The Silver Star," the impact of "The Glass Castle" — which is being turned into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence — lingers.
"I pinch myself daily," Walls said of the book's success.
She said she expected readers to look down on her because of her difficult upbringing. That hasn't been the case.
"The whole process has been such an eye opener for me because people are kinder and wiser than I ever expected. I think that shame is a very isolating emotion. You think you're protecting yourself, but you're just putting up these barriers. And I came clean about my story and expected people to look down their nose at the poor white trash and it's the opposite."
Added Walls: "And I'm not bragging about my book. What I'm bragging about is the power of storytelling — and I think it's huge."
Next week, Walls will make appearances in Calgary and Vancouver.