ORANGE, Va. — Early in the “The Glass Castle,” the movie based on Jeannette Walls’s memoir of growing up destitute, Rex Walls sidles up to his little girl, who lies burned and bandaged in a hospital bed.
“Hey, Mountain Goat, it’s time to skedaddle,” he says, before swaddling her in blankets and hustling her past security toward his jalopy.
Hasty retreats are a theme in the film, as they are in Ms. Walls’s 2005 book of the same title. It is an alternately wrenching and exhilarating yarn of a childhood spent shuttling with her willfully shiftless parents from one parched Southwestern locale to another, and finally, when the family’s resources dry out, settling in Welch, the dilapidated West Virginia mining town that was her father’s childhood home.
A life on the move seems to suit her. More than a decade ago, with her memoir in its seven-year run on the New York Times best-seller list, Ms. Walls chose to ditch New York, not to mention her career of more than 25 years as a gossip writer.
She had few qualms about abandoning the cocktail-fueled chatter and red-carpet extravaganzas for the verdant seclusion of a 205-acre horse farm in Virginia.
“When something doesn’t work for you, you just get up and leave,” she said. “I skedaddled out of Welch, and I skedaddled out of New York. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Ms. Walls, 57, got her start at New York magazine in the 1980s. She worked as the assistant to the editor Edward Kosner and eventually became the main writer of the Intelligencer column, a widely devoured rival to The New York Post’s Page Six then.
“She was very self-contained,” Mr. Kosner recalled. “She was always a grown-up. With that kind of harrowing childhood, she had to be.”
He added: “There was always a degree of distance there. Nobody knew really very much about her.”
Not that Ms. Walls goes out of her way to cultivate mystery. “Ask me anything,” she offered brightly the other day at her Virginia home.
The move away from Manhattan, initiated by her husband, the writer John Taylor, was daunting at first. “I didn’t think I’d like it out here,” she said. “But I thought, let’s give it a shot.” Tucking a stray wisp of russet hair behind one ear, she added: “I will say that I have always had the compulsion to put down roots. I love having a house. I love belonging someplace.”
It took her a while to adapt to a setting that some would consider an idyll. Spirits rising, she found herself refurbishing the 19th-century Greek Revival house with porticoes that is set on a slope overlooking the barns, pastures and hayfields of a working farm.
Strolling the grounds, the crunch of wood chips underfoot, Ms. Walls gazed at her plump hydrangeas. “I’m more obsessive than I realized,” she said. “This little garden patch, it just keeps on expanding.”
Her mother, Rose Mary, a radiant figure with no gift for conventional parenting, lives in a cottage on the property. (Naomi Watts plays her in the film.) An unabashed hoarder, she has filled her place and a neighboring shed with the vibrant art works she has painted over a lifetime.
While the farm has given Ms. Walls a stability that long eluded her, she knows better than to count on it. Years of roving the country in junk cars, foraging for food in school trash bins, being pelted with rocks by bullies and being eyed with contempt by neighbors have left her wary.
“If you grew up very self-conscious, feeling that you’re not as good as other people, I think that it defines you,” she said.
A sense of shame has never entirely departed. “Owning it, I don’t know if that’s a bad thing,” Ms. Walls said. “It’s important to tap into it and be in touch with it. For me, it’s part of process of storytelling.”
With the writing of her memoir, she let go of trying to bury the fact that she slept in a rope bed, defecated in a ditch and lived in ramshackle quarters whose ceilings and floorboards threatened to crumble at any hour.
“Somebody told me the secret to happiness is low expectations,” she said. “I still can’t believe that I have flush toilets, that I can go to a grocery store and buy whatever I want, which will never fail to amaze me.”
She was sipping nothing more lethal than tap water in her kitchen, its generous windows affording a view of undulating fields of grass bordered by a low rail fence.
“The green rolling hills have always held some sort of spell for me,” she said. “I feel at home here now.”
In retrospect, the transition to the country was perfectly timed. The long years of mining celebrity dish for New York, Esquire and MSNBC had soured her on the beat.
“I grew up without television; I don’t really care about celebrities,” said Ms. Walls, who as a girl aspired to writing about politics, poverty and social justice.
She maintained a zest for reporting and grew accustomed in those days to sashaying to galas sheathed in a lustrous dresses, her sharply sculptured features softened by an up-do and triple-strand pearls. “I loved the glamour,” she said.
Still, she couldn’t shake off a gnawing unease. “I think I was playing a role,” she recalled, “acting the part of this perfect New York City media flinty gal, wearing this little dress-for-success outfit. Really, I was trying to fit in. The first time I was on a red carpet, I couldn’t believe it.”
At the time, “I was all about work,” she said. “I would get to my office at 9 o’clock and I’d leave at 11. I was all about deadlines.”
The rise of social media threw her. “I realized, I can’t call people for comment anymore, because some of those people now have their own website,” she said. “TMZ was taking off, and things just started getting iffy. Gossip was starting to cross into this really ugly zone, and I thought, ‘Why would anybody want to be famous?’ I didn’t want to do this anymore.
“I thought, ‘What am I going to do?’ I was looking into dog-walking: I’m good with big dogs and I don’t mind picking up poop.”
She fretted about the casualties she left in her wake.
“I was snarky,” she said. “I don’t know the degree to which I hurt anybody. My column — these flip little paragraphs that combined hero worship and schadenfreude — they might have been accurate. But I was telling half-truths. And I wanted to dig deeper.”
She wrote much of the memoir while still at MSNBC. “I thought I was going to get fired from my job,” she said.
She is well aware that her story strains credulity — a stretch for even the most accommodating imagination. Destin Daniel Cretton, the “Glass Castle” director, said, “At first, I honestly thought, ‘Oh, some of these stories are so extreme, they might be slight fictionalization of memory. It wasn’t until I heard the details for the first time from her lips, in her own vernacular, that I realized, ‘Oh, maybe it was true.’”
The Glass Castle – “Official” Movie Trailer (2014)
Video by krazycartoons
For Mr. Cretton, the film and memoir were essentially about the near-unbreachable bond between Ms. Walls and the father she doted on and came to reject when she bolted for New York at 17.
A rangy figure who modeled himself after the ace pilot Chuck Yeager, Rex Walls, until his death in the mid-1990s, was given, between reckless bouts of drinking or slamming Rose Mary around, to sketching elaborate plans for a glass-walled, solar-powered family abode. Only its foundation saw light of day, gradually transformed into an outsize trash pit, an eyesore even in falling-down Welch.
The performance of Woody Harrelson, who plays Rex in the movie, which has its release on Aug. 11, struck Ms. Walls as eerie, especially in his interactions with Jeannette, who is played as an adult by Brie Larson.
“During the filming, Woody was asking all the time: ‘Tell me about your dad. Did he look you in the eye? What did he do with his hands?’” Ms. Walls said. “I said, ‘Daddy liked to squeeze beer cans — not the wimpy beer cans that we make now — hard beer cans from the ’60s, like ‘Cool Hand Luke.’
“When I watched the performance on tape, I was crying. I was trembling, pounding on the shoulder of the guy next to me. In the scene where he and Brie were getting into fights about her leaving, I was freaking out. Woody was saying things that Dad had said to me, things I’d never told him.”
Ms. Walls ultimately married her father’s antithesis, settling for a time on Park Avenue with her first husband, Eric Goldberg, a well-meaning “suit,” as he comes off in the film, who was thrown, if not outright embarrassed, by her oddball relations, and, as it seemed to Ms. Walls, by the burn scars she carried since girlhood. Grappling with whether to leave him, she told her brother, Brian, “He never wrote a bad check; he’s a good, honest guy, keeps a daily journal of his activities.”
Brian’s reply still rings in her ears: “You’re talking about a good accountant,” he told her. “I’m not hearing the word love.”
Ms. Walls said: “I’d come to terms with the idea that I would never fall in love. I didn’t need anybody. I had a career. I was independent. I had gay friends for intimacy.”
Her deepening friendship with Mr. Taylor, who worked with her at New York and at Esquire, spurred a change of heart. They married in 2002, and he teased the memoir out of her, bit by painful bit. The globe-traveling son of a diplomat, he was not put off by her background or the burn scars that covered her torso.
“John told me: ‘Don’t ever apologize that you have scars. They give you texture,’” she said. “That was such a revelation, that somebody would not only forgive me for what was wrong with me but see it as something to be admired.”
The two plan to stay put, though she has a soft spot for New York. “The city is like an old boyfriend with whom I amicably split,” she said.
Life on the farm has its merits. She has found the serenity there to write two more books, “Half-Broke Horses: A True Life Novel” and “The Silver Star.” She is working on a novel about a businesswoman in the 1920s.
“I know I’ll be O.K. here,” she said. “In New York, I’m not so sure. A lot of those gossip columnists, they lose their platform. Walter Winchell spent the last part of his life hanging out on street corners and handing out mimeographed columns. That was just an eye-opener for me.”
Nothing doing for Ms. Walls. “I wanted a place where I could go broke and still grow vegetables, bail water out of the creek and shoot deer,” she said. “If worse comes to worst, I’ll survive.”