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Jeannette Walls: Finally, queen of the castle, on her own terms

The success of The Glass Castle shattered the way Jeannette Walls looked at the world.

Four years ago, just as her memoir about growing up in a shockingly dysfunctional family was about to be published, she was "in a fetal position under my desk," she confides. "I thought the story would be like a freak show."

But everywhere she went, she was met with compassion. And she understood how much pain all people carry. "It's not about me. It's about the readers and what they need to hear and issues they are working on."

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The bestselling memoir also gave her the courage to risk the financial security she had struggled to find all her life.

"I didn't have the next book deal," says the author, who has just published a new book.

Half Broke Horses is the novelized story of her maternal grandmother, Lily, an extraordinary, tough-as-nails woman living in the American west.

At the time of The Glass Castle 's publication, Ms. Walls was working in New York as a high-profile celebrity journalist with

But one day, the decision on how she would live became clear. "People were pouring their hearts out after Glass Castle , and then I'd go to my hotel room and I'd try to track down who Lindsay Lohan is really dating, and it felt wrong," she says with a laugh.

She quit her job to write books full-time in 2006, moving with her second husband, writer John Taylor, to rural Virginia. "I was very nervous about giving up a decent salary. I tend to cling to things."

Sharp turns have always been part of Ms. Walls's life. And it is obvious in her booming laugh and easy manner that where she is now, at 49, is the best place she has been, even though at one point in her struggle to overcome a horrific childhood of poverty she lived on New York's posh Park Avenue with her first husband.

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This is a story about the fortification of Jeannette Walls. She has built her own castle, one of serenity and confidence.

The glass castle was the dream her alcoholic father, who sometimes worked as an electrician, always held out for his four children - that one day he would build it in the desert. It was why she idealized him, she says. His dream was a fairy tale that kept her going through a childhood in which she and her siblings suffered beatings, scrounged for food in cafeteria garbage cans and were always on the run - the "skedaddle" her father called it - from collection agencies. Her mother, who described herself as "an excitement addict," is an artist who refuses to sell any of her paintings.

Ms. Walls's castle is solid, built from her understanding of the beauty and danger of truth.

Her only brother, who became a policeman, bragged about how they had survived their childhoods. But she couldn't. With meagre savings, she had escaped to New York at 17, where she entered Barnard College on scholarships: "It was a very snooty crowd we were in. People sat around and compared who knew more Fortune 500 folk."

Her first husband, whose father was a well-known New York lawyer, counselled her not to tell anyone about her background.

It was her second husband who encouraged her to tell the world her story, after her father's death in 1994. "I could never have written it when he was alive," she says.

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But after it was published, she realized there were still holes in the memoir. "I thought I told Mom's story in Glass Castle , but obviously I didn't. Readers had so many questions about her. How could a woman live like this? I did not mean to vilify her in Glass Castle . Some people hate her. But she's not a hateful person. She is not an evil person."

Ms. Walls wanted her subsequent book to be about her mother, who had moved from her New York homelessness (her preferred way of living as an artist) to live in a small caravan on her daughter's property in Virginia.

But her mother's stories didn't amount to anything. "I do understand my mother. She's like a child, and a child can be selfish. But the child is not being evil. She'll say, 'Look at how beautiful the clouds are! It's great to be alive. Go, birds, go!' But it's hard to get inside a mind like that, and make a story out of it. … She was passive. She let what happened to us kids happen, and maybe that's why she is not that interesting a character to write about."

By contrast, her maternal grandmother was an action-driven woman whose life could help explain her daughter. "What motivated Lily is proven stuff, taming the land, the horses and taming the children. It's a better story line. She had real stories. When I tried writing from her voice, I found it easily," she says.

Ms. Walls's father may be put to rest, but it's clear that her mother continues to be a bemusing enigma.

"Someone said to me, 'Aren't you angry at your mother for not taking care of you?' And I thought, why? She doesn't take care of herself. … She is not going to be any different. If I'm angry or frustrated, it's not going to change. It will just make me unhappy."

Her siblings are not as forgiving. Ms. Walls's ability to hold her past at a distance is her greatest survival tool. "I'm of the philosophy that everything that happens in life is a blessing and a curse. It's up to you what to focus on. And my father whipping me that time was the worst thing that happened to me and the best thing. It opened my eyes as to how truly bad the situation was and that I had to get out. … I couldn't save him and he wasn't going to protect me."

Still, she acknowledges the scars. The deeply felt need for security kept her in her first marriage for five years. "I didn't love him. But he was stable. He was safe, the opposite of my father."

She guards her food, she jokes, if anyone tries to take a bite from her plate. "I'll never be anorexic," she says. Nor will she be overweight. "I don't associate food with comfort. It's not like I eat when I'm upset." She is "very conservative with money," she adds.

The irony - and beauty - of her story is that she feels compelled to care for the mother who hurt her. Still, she does not sentimentalize her. Like her grandmother, she sees things for what they are and acts accordingly.

"This is going to sound flip, and I don't mean it, but it's like having another neat animal around the house."

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About the Author
Life columnist

Sarah Hampson is an award-winning journalist whose work started appearing in The Globe and Mail in 1998, when she was invited to write a column. Since 1993, when she began her career in journalism, she had been writing for all of Canada's major magazines, including Toronto Life, Saturday Night (now defunct), Chatelaine, Report on Business and Canadian Art, among others. More

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