For many years, newspaper readers and television viewers across the country knew Jeannette Walls as a successful graduate of Columbia University’s Barnard College and part of New York’s sophisticated, media elite. Instead of waiting for someone else to write a tell-all account of her past, she chose to do it herself in the best-selling memoir The Glass Castle.
That also is the title of the lecture she will give at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 24, in Woulfe Alumni Hall in the Anderson Student Center on the St. Paul campus of the University of St. Thomas.
Walls was born in Phoenix in 1960 into what many would consider a dysfunctional family. Her parents had 27 addresses in the first five years of their marriage, and the family wound up living in a three-room house in hardscrabble Welch, W. Va.; it didn’t have plumbing but did have snakes, rats and an unmended hole in the roof.
The name of the book, Glass Castle, refers to the solar-powered, glass dream home her father promised to build one day in the desert, but with a drinking problem, coupled with frequent bouts of unemployment, he never did. Despite the hardships, Walls excelled in school. After her junior year in high school, she took a bus to South Bronx to share an apartment with her sister. They found jobs and with the help of scholarships, loans and earnings, Walls graduated with honors from Barnard in 1984.
Early in her career, Walls interned and then became a reporter for the Brooklyn-based alternative newspaper The Phoenix. For six years, from 1987 to 1993, she wrote the “Intelligencer” column for New York magazine, and went on to contribute to the MSNBC.com gossip column “Scoop” until leaving in 2007 to write full-time. She also has written for Esquire and USA Today, and has appeared on a host of national television programs, including “The Colbert Report,” “Prime Time Live” and “Oprah.”
Her first book, Dish: The Inside Story on the World of Gossip, was published in 2000. Next came The Glass Castle in 2005, Half Broke Horses in 2009 and most recently, The Silver Star in 2013.
Glass Castle, written in a simple prose style, has sold more than 4 million copies, has been translated into 31 languages, was named by Amazon at one of the “Top 10 Books of the Decade,” and has won a string of honors that include the Christopher Award, the American Library Association’s Alex Award, and the Books for Better Living Award. The memoir is used in university courses on literature, psychology, parenting, child development and poverty.
A review in the Atlanta Constitution said, “Charles Dickens has nothing on Jeannette Walls. … Dickens’ scenes of poverty and hardship are no more audacious and no more provocative than those in the pages of this stunning memoir.”
Paramount, which bought the book’s film rights, announced last year that “Hunger Games” star Jennifer Lawrence will play Walls in the movie.
Walls has spoken at many colleges, corporations and business associations about overcoming hardship and turning adversity to your advantage. She says that we all have more in common than we think, and our flaws are our greatest assets.
Walls and her second husband, journalist John Taylor, live outside Culpeper, Va.