Seated at the wooden dining-room table at her horse farm in rural Northern Virginia, Jeannette Walls throws her hands in the air, mimicking a familiar gesture of her maternal grandmother, Lily Smith.
“She would just whip out her teeth or whip out her gun with equal ease,” Walls says, laughing. “She was all the time dancing. She just loved to dance and play honky-tonk on the piano. She never said anything; she always shouted things. She was a very loud woman. I was terribly fond of her.”
With striking features and a disarmingly humble attitude despite her rock-star status as an internationally known best-selling writer, the 49-year-old author says she didn't intend to write the true-life novel, “Half Broke Horses,” being published Oct. 6 by Scribner. She intended to decode the mystery of her mother. But it was her hardscrabble grandmother from Texas by way of Arizona, a woman who broke horses, taught school, bootlegged liquor, managed a cattle ranch, and learned to drive a car and fly a plane, that really fascinated her.
Readers of Walls' 2005 memoir, “The Glass Castle,” understood the drive behind her alcoholic father, but not her unstable, artistic mother. Why would someone with an education lead such a wacky life? “I wanted to explain so people would understand her, at least partially,” Walls says. “She grew up without plumbing or electricity and she not only knew she could survive, but for her that was the ideal period of her life. People who are readers of memoirs and biographies are not looking for a freak show; they're looking to understand. That's why I'm such a fan of nonfiction: The answer is always there.”
To unravel the enigma of her mother, Walls interviewed her for an hour every day for a year. “It's like having a barn cat,” she says of Rosemary, 75, who lives in a trailer behind the house. “I love having her here. She's very independent; she has a little car now and tools around. She paints all the time and sings.”
Rosemary's memories changed Walls' perspective on both her childhood and the thesis of her book. “I may have adored my father, but he wasn't always there,” she says. “At least mom was there. And a lot of her message was optimism and perseverance. I don't think I always respected her. She was sort of one of the kids that we had to take care of. I never expected her to take care of us. It was just not part of the equation.”
Walls found that she related to grandmother Lily's pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps attitude and could inhabit her mind-set with an ease she lacks with her mother. “I'm a terrible actress, but I almost felt like I could slip into Lily's voice,” Walls says. “She was a very driven woman. And what she craved, I understood — education, bettering herself. I also recognized myself a little bit in some of her less endearing qualities. She was very competitive and scared some people and I've been accused of that from time to time.”
The decision to focus on Lily's life rather than Rosemary's blurred the clear distinction between biography and fiction. “There were arguments to call it nonfiction, but for me it crosses the line about 10 times,” Walls says. “I don't see myself as a fiction writer but I couldn't interview Lily and there were too many leaps I had to make.” By reaching back a few decades further than she intended, Walls funnels the voice of three generations of women into one compelling narrative.
While the plot is as riveting as any fast-paced novel, “Half Broke Horses” never veers from the emotional truth inherent in the heartbreaks or triumphs of Lily's life. “It's a family story,” Walls says. “In some ways there's nothing extraordinary about Lily. I think most people in this country have a grandma or grandpa like her — a tough old broad or coot who came to this country to get away from the potato famine or the Nazis or came on slave ships and just did what needed to be done.”
Lily, who often lied about her age, was believed to be 69 when she died. Walls, who was 8 at the time, says she felt that any hope for stability vanished with her grandmother. “But I think the seed was planted,” she says. “If somebody appears in your life and shows you the promise, the possibility, they've given you the formula. And that's enough.”
Walls is playing around with ideas for her next book. She's not sure she wants to exploit another family member just yet. For now, she's learning to play the piano and considering moving to a farm with enough acreage to garden and raise bees and chickens.
“As someone who now has a thermostat, I appreciate my luxuries,” Walls says. “I treasure them but at the same time I could live without them. To be able to entertain yourself is a skill we've lost. If you can stay half-broke, that's not a bad thing.”