In one sense, Jeannette Walls has led a charmed life. A graduate of Barnard and onetime gossip columnist, Walls wrote her first book about gossip. Her second book spent more than 10 years on the New York Times best-seller list and has been translated into nearly three dozen languages. In another sense, her life has been anything but charmed: the book was The Glass Castle, a memoir of her hard times growing up poor and with parents who were, shall we say, difficult.
Her latest book, Hang the Moon, is a novel about a resourceful and ambitious bootlegger during Prohibition and captures beautifully both the characters and setting. Any resemblance between the author and the main character is, of course, coincidental.
JIM KELLY: In your marvelous new book, the narrator, Sallie Kincaid, is a highly determined person whose father is at turns loving and violent. Sallie is intent on making good in the world, which she does, but her extended-family life grows ever more complicated. I think you can see where I am going here: how much did your own life inspire the family depicted in Hang the Moon?
JEANNETTE WALLS: You got me. I’m not Sallie Kincaid, but, yeah, I mined a lot of Sallie’s dilemmas and her hotheaded determination from my own life. Whenever Sallie’s dialogue felt off, my husband and I would “act” out a scene. He’d read the lines of the Duke—or whoever—and get me to react as Sallie. “Don’t think about it,” he’d say, “just blurt out whatever comes to mind.” It usually worked, except when I used midcentury curse words.
J.K.: You set the book in rural Virginia in the early part of the last century, primarily during Prohibition. You bring those times alive so well, without the modern sensibility that sometimes mars historical fiction, that I wonder how you pulled it off. Did you research any real-life characters?
J.W.: Thank you so much. Really. Thank you more than I can say. I worked darned hard on that. It’s the biggest reason this book took as long as it did, trying to get not just the historical details but doing my best to get inside the heads of people who lived a hundred years ago, reading newspapers and letters and court transcripts to get the language and sensibilities right. Sometimes, however, idioms from the period felt too quaint and dated. The challenge was finding language that was old-fashioned without being archaic.
I had an advantage over most of my contemporaries in that I grew up for long periods without electricity or running water, so I understand the hardships of a primitive life, the utter wonder of plumbing and such modern miracles. Still, I had to take the story way beyond my own experiences but wanted to stay within the realm of what was realistic or possible for that time and place, so, yes, much of Hang the Moon is inspired by real people and actual events.
I had an advantage over most of my contemporaries in that I grew up for long periods without electricity or running water, so I understand the hardships of a primitive life.
J.K.: Come to think of it, your maternal grandmother was a bootlegger, and you adopted her voice in Half-Broke Horses, which came out in 2009. You called it a true-life novel, an approach that obviously worked, since The New York Times named it one of its notable books that year. Why not just call it a novel?
J.W.: My grandmother had an astonishing life, and I merely put it into story form. To claim her plights, her tough choices, and her outsize personality as the product of my imagination felt dishonest.
J.K.: Your memoir of growing up, The Glass Castle, sold millions of copies and spent years on the best-seller lists. Are you surprised by just how successful it remains, and what chord do you think you struck with readers that made it so popular?
J.W.: I am still stunned. Can’t believe it. Keep thinking this whole journey has been an Oz-like dream and I’m going to wake up back in West Virginia.
As to its appeal, I suppose a lot of people carry around secrets from their childhood, things they’re ashamed of. When they read The Glass Castle and see that my childhood was even nuttier than theirs—or perhaps a lot like theirs—they realize they’re not as peculiar as they thought.
J.K.: Are there two or three writers whose work has especially influenced you? And is there a particular genre that you especially like reading?
J.W.: I fall in love with whatever I’m reading at the time—and if I don’t by about page 30, I stop reading. There are so many wonderful books out there, and I’ve come to realize that it’s not genres I’m drawn to but emotional insight. I applaud any writer of any genre—history, sci-fi, beach reads—who tackles the great, unanswerable mystery of what makes human beings tick.
J.K.: Writers tend to develop routines and even a few tricks to help them stay at the desk and actually write. Any tips on how to stay as focused and as productive as you?
J.W.: Don’t know if I’d call myself productive, seeing as how I haven’t had a book out for a decade. Obsessive is more like it. I’m a fast but sloppy writer, believe in getting the story down in words, good or bad. And then I re-write. And re-write. (Seventeen versions on this danged thing!) My advice, for what it’s worth, is to find a subject that interests you endlessly, because it’s going to be the first thing you think about every morning and the last thing you think about every night.
I applaud any writer of any genre—history, sci-fi, beach reads—who tackles the great, unanswerable mystery of what makes human beings tick.
J.K.: For many years, you wrote a popular gossip column, and living in New York City in the latter part of the 20th century must have been a pretty heady time for someone in your profession. Is there any part of that life you miss?
J.W.: I had a blast in New York. I’m a yard dog at heart and took great glee in nipping at the heels of the rich and powerful when they misbehaved. Even today, I’ll hear a story and think, Oh, wow, I really want to go after that! But I’ve come to realize, that’s not the better part of me. I’m a happier person now that I’m not always fighting.
J.K.: Finally, a twist on a familiar question! Name three people from your gossip-beat days that you would not want to have dinner with. And is Donald Trump one of them?
J.W.: There are no names on that list! I’m perversely drawn to miscreants and reprobates, backstabbers, blowhards, and bullies. In my previous career, I turned those antics into items. Now they’re fodder for fiction.
Hang the Moon, by Jeannette Walls, will be published on March 28 by Scribner
Jim Kelly is the Books Editor for AIR MAIL