Jeannette Walls Addresses Your Questions and Comments

Hi, Bookies:

No surprise, a number of you took advantage of the opportunity to ask Jeannette Walls the questions you had for her at the conclusion of our Half Broke Horses discussion. Read on as she reveals a little more about the two women who loomed large in her life—her grandmother Lily; and her mother, Rosemary—plus some plans for the future.

From Maggie Shi, RealSimple.com deputy editor and the discussion leader:

I would love to hear a favorite story about Lily that Jeannette remembers from her own childhood. And I’d also love to know: What was the most surprising or shocking thing Jeannette discovered about her grandmother while researching this book? Was there anything that was particularly difficult to write about?

The most surprising story for me was Helen’s suicide. I had never heard about it until I interviewed Mom. She said her mother didn’t like to talk about it and that she had to pull the details out of Lily.

My favorite story regarding Lily was once when she took us to a cafeteria and let us heap our trays with everything we wanted. When we sat down, I started discussing a book I’d read. Grandma stood and hollered for the entire place to hush the hell up because she had an important announcement to make. She pointed at me and shouted, “My little granddaughter Jeannette is a natural redhead and is double-jointed and is reading at a fifth grade level. She is a g——-d genius, so remember her because you’ll be hearing from her again. And she has damned fine table manners, too.”

My question for Jeanette Walls is how does she feel about the character she created compared with the one she knew? And how does her mother (Rosemary) feel about this part fictional/real person, Lily?

Posted by: Chris H| Thursday, February 24, 2011 at 02:04 PM

Oh, the Lily I wrote about is very much the Lily I remember. She was one of those people who caused a stir everywhere she went. She was always cussing and shouting orders or singing and pounding away on the piano and grabbing sailors up out of their chairs and jitterbugging with them. Half Broke Horses includes stories that I heard from Lily—including her favorites, climbing the tree to get away from the flash flood (the story I opened with) and the time she had to ride the Red Devil to get her first paycheck—as well as a lot of stories that I’d never heard until I interviewed Mom, such as the fact that Lily had a first husband. I didn’t change Lily a bit because I couldn’t possibly make up or improve on the character that she was.

One question I had for Jeannette is… 
Did researching this book give her a better understanding of her own mother and how did that affect her relationship with her mom?
Wonderful book, wonderful read-along. Thanks again!

Posted by: Melissa| Thursday, February 24, 2011 at 02:51 PM

Absolutely. There were so many times while interviewing Mom when I thought, “Wow. That really explains a lot.” I had always found my mother somewhat frustrating and slightly maddening—I think she has felt the same about me. I am, for better or worse, a lot like Lily and that’s one of the reasons Mom and I have always butted heads, but now I understand her story so much more. I believe that increased knowledge always leads to increased compassion and Mom and I have developed a really interesting friendship.

I actually listened to this book on CD and the one thing I would like to say to Jeannette is that I loved the author’s comments at the end. I hope she picks another fun person to do a fictional biography on!

Posted by: Teresa| Thursday, February 24, 2011 at 07:19 PM

Well, thank you, Teresa. Recording the book was a hoot.

I think Jeannette is a wonderful storyteller and I hope she writes another book. I guess that would be my question—is there another book in her future?

Posted by: Lulu| Thursday, February 24, 2011 at 08:43 PM

Thank you for the kind comments! I sort of thought that Half Broke Horses would be my last, but I’ve found myself taking notes on a new book. So there probably is one in the works, but I don’t yet know what it is.

I enjoyed Half Broke Horses but found it difficult to discern between fact and fiction. Since these events happened so long ago, I’m not sure how much was accurate. But the author did acknowledge this by saying it’s a true life NOVEL.

So my question for the author would be: How did you go about researching these events that took place so long ago?

Posted by: Kelly| Friday, February 25, 2011 at 04:59 PM

Half Broke Horses is a collection of family stories, handed down to my mother by her mother and father, and their parents—and sometimes their parents as well. I interviewed Mom for about an hour every day for a year. I was stunned by her recall. Sometimes I thought, she couldn’t possibly know all this stuff about Arizona history and the geology of the Grand Canyon and the distinction between Native American tribes, but I was able to double-check it on the computer, and she usually nailed it. I’ve come to understand that I’ve always underestimated Mom’s intelligence.

There were also a number of times when I was able to research something about Mom’s family and again, she was completely accurate. On the other hand, on a few occasions, her version of events conflicted with the research. When I asked her about those, her response was usually something like, “That’s a lie that was put out to cover up what really happened.” And she’d tell me how Lily had explained the real version and the cover-up.

So I had a couple of choices about how to tell the story. One was writing the book as a serious history, researching and double-checking what Mom had told me, presenting conflicting stories, weighing in on which is the more credible, and using qualifiers on details that were missing or unclear (i.e. “evidence suggests…” or “it is likely she took the same route back that she took there…”).

Another approach was to tell it more from my mother’s and Lily’s point of view, using Grandma’s voice and to use some of the liberties of the storytelling tradition, filling in gaps and stating as fact something that has merely been handed down anecdotally for generations. I chose the latter one and because I couldn’t very well swear that it was all true, I called Half Broke Horses a novel.


I just wonder how Jeannette Walls feels having written this story and comparing to her upbringing. I almost wonder if Walls would be resentful to Rosemary having written about how Rosemary had a solid upbringing with a super strong mother (Lily) and faithful hardworking father (Jim) who would go to any length for the benefit of their children. Whereas, Rosemary (unwilling to work when needed) and Rex (drunk) were so selfish in so many ways! WOW, I would love to hear Jeannette Wall’s perspective!…
I would also like to ask: Is Rosemary still living the “homeless” lifestyle?
 After you wrote Half Broke Horses, did you wish you had a mother like Lily? Did you wonder if your life would have been different if Lily was your mother??

Posted by: Bella| Sunday, February 27, 2011 at 10:30 AM

When I was growing up I used to sometimes wish that I had a more traditional mother, but I’m completely thrilled with the way my life has turned out. I think I’m one of the luckiest human beings on the planet. And if you’re happy with where you are, why regret how you got there?

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