There is no such thing as small talk with Jeannette Walls.
Strangers will emotionally undress right in front of her, exposing the scars of their family dysfunction, their long-kept secrets, their pain.
That’s what happens when your first book, “The Glass Castle,” reveals your own, long-hidden family drama. Your tenuous, vagabond childhood with an alcoholic, Don Quixote of a father; and a homeless, Dumpster-diving mother who was so passive she barely glanced at her children, let alone raised them.
Despite that strange and sorry start, Walls became a successful writer. One whose greatest success came from telling her own story.
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“I think it’s a hopeful book,” Walls said of “The Glass Castle” the other day from Washington, D.C. “I was on a panel one time and people said the American Dream was dead. But mine is alive and well.”
And then some. “The Glass Castle,” first released in 2005, spent 261 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list. It is now ranked sixth on the paperback nonfiction list, where it has been for 315 weeks. Eight years, all told.
Walls, 53, is now promoting her third book and first full novel, “The Silver Star.” She will read from it Thursday evening at the Seattle Public Library’s Central branch.
The book tells the story of two half-sisters, Liz and Bean, whose flighty, self-centered mother, Charlotte, leaves them in California to pursue a singing career. With some of the money Charlotte left for chicken potpies, the girls buy two bus tickets to Virginia, where their mother’s family once owned a mill and a gleaming mansion.
They arrive to find both taken over; the mill by a new owner and the house by age and neglect, but still inhabited by their Uncle Tinsley, who reluctantly takes them in and eventually softens.
The town is Mayberry with a dark side; people know each other, many are kind, but there is also a bully in Jerry Maddox, the foreman of the mill. The girls go to him when money is tight and start working odd jobs for him and his family — and then Liz gets in over her head.
“It is the continued questions about mental health and creativity,” Walls said of her inspiration. “And I wanted to hang a story on that, on ‘What is truth?’ Truth and reality, and why do we make stuff up?”
Walls knows about children in peril, and how to imbue them with the wits and wherewithal to get themselves out of tight spaces and tough times.
But it is subject matter that some critics think Walls has worn out. The Boston Globe called the book “A less satisfying affair,” and The New York Times put it this way: “There’s a lot of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in ‘The Silver Star,’ enough to remind readers that Harper Lee chose to quit while she was ahead.”
“Dysfunctional families are what I know,” she countered. “It’s like asking Tennessee Williams not to write about the South.
“I don’t make things up. I am not one of those people,” she said. “I took a bunch of things that happened to me, and happened to people I know, and cobbled them together and made them happen to one person.”
A few weeks ago, Walls allowed a New York Times reporter to visit her Virginia farm, where she lives with her husband of 12 years, the writer John Taylor — and where her mother lives in a cottage on the grounds.
The reporter noted the disarray of the mother’s place, the smell of urine, her seeming disorientation. And the accompanying photo was stark and unflattering, like something shot by Diane Arbus.
“It’s interesting how photographers capture us at unflattering moments,” Walls said of the photograph.
As for the rest, she said, it is what it is.
“I felt a little protective of mom initially and certainly (the reporter) didn’t take anything I said out of context.”
When the story appeared, “Mom was off traveling and I felt a little bad telling her about it,” Walls said. “Then she said, ‘What do I care what some New York Times reporter thinks of me?’ ”
That sounds like a relationship that could make a great novel.
“There is something very interesting about it,” she said. “One of the fascinating things about my mom is that she doesn’t have any proprietary sense of me.
“She never, ever undermines me or acts disappointed or has any expectations of me whatsoever. It’s an odd thing, but there is something very liberating about it.”
Walls, who has no children, describes herself as the “world’s worst cook” and a “lousy pianist” who has taken up photography. (“There’s a storytelling process,” she said. “I like capturing those emotions.”)
Will she try to tell another story in another book? Walls isn’t sure. But anything is possible — something she knows better than most.
“I am an optimist, and I believe that things can happen,” she said, “that life is pretty darned spectacular, and it isn’t just about the best-seller list.
Nicole Brodeur: firstname.lastname@example.org