I recently met Jeannette Walls at the Highland Park Literary Festival. Some people found her memoir, The Glass Castle unbelievable, but it sold millions of copies. She followed the memoir with two novels, one she called a true life novel. My presentation at the festival was “The Blurry Line Between Fiction and Truth”. She said she was interested in my presentation because she had obviously walked that line.
Our short conversation and the keynote speech she gave at the festival caused me to reflect on the similarities and differences between us and our books. Here are just a few:
Her name and picture filled an entire page on the first page of the program.
My name and picture was just across from hers on a fourth of a page. I was first on the page because it was alphabetized.
She was the keynote speaker and spoke to a packed auditorium.
I spoke to two small classes.
She was on the NYT best-seller list for years.
I read the Times best seller list almost every Sunday.
Her memoir sold more than four million copies.
I have sold a similar number—minus a few zeroes.
Her memoir was translated into twenty-seven languages.
My books are in English.
She has more than four thousand reviews for one book on Amazon.
I have about a hundred reviews for 10 books.
She was a celebrity gossip columnist and a regular guest on television when she wrote her best- seller.
I was a small town CPA and financial planner
She stayed with memoir to the tune of four million in sales.
My first book started as a memoir but changed to a novel when I realized my memory was more fallible than I thought.
Her family had a hardscrabble existence and often did without basic necessities.
My family had a hardscrabble existence and actually suffered more and worse hardships than hers.
Her parents were vagabonds.
We moved across the state and back to escape poverty and start anew.
Her parents had inherited property and had lease income from land holdings in Texas.
My family inherited nothing and sold everything to get out of medical debt.
She portrays her parents as educated and highly intelligent, but devoid of common sense and basic human values.
Neither of my parents graduated high school, but they had an abundance of common sense and a strong system of values.
Her parents let their children go hungry while they smoked, drank and hoarded food for themselves.
My parents never ate until we were fed.
Her parents abandoned their children more than once.
Mine never abandoned us. We stayed under the same roof, even when it leaked.
Her parents flagrantly violated laws and ran out on their debts.
Mine never knowingly violated the law, always paid their debts (though sometimes late).
Most of her family’s sufferings were self-imposed by her parents.
Our family sufferings were primarily drought, death, and health problems.
Do I believe her story? After meeting her and hearing her speak, I believe she wrote as close to the truth as her memory allowed. She saw her parents, especially her father, as brilliant. I saw their self-described brilliance as delusions of grandeur, as a thinly-veiled cover for mental derangement, abhorrent acts and mental instability.
But I have also portrayed my parents (in fiction and non-fiction) in a favorable light. With so many people blaming their parents for their own foibles and failures, I think cutting them a little slack is good. Concentrating on their good qualities and forgiving their bad ones has to be a good thing. Of course, we should not cross the line and lie.
If she had written her book as a novel, would it have sold as many copies? I don’t know, but probably not. Remember James Frey, whose appearance on Oprah sent his “memoir” to the best-seller list? His manuscript began as a novel, but an agent told him she could sell it if it were true. Presto—it became a memoir. You know the rest.
Would things have worked out differently had I published my first book as a memoir? Not likely.
Is the creepiness of her parents and strange story the reason for the millions in sales? Or is her writing that superior to other writers? Her writing, by the way, is very good and easy to read.
Of course, her minor fame and television appearances before the book was published didn’t exactly hurt. And then there was the call from Oprah, but I think that came after the book’s initial success.
Also, her book has a great hook.
Here’s her hook: Dressed in her gala finest and heading to a social event in New York, Jeannette looks out a cab window and sees her mother rummaging through a refuse bin for scraps of food. 8 ½ million people in New York and she sees her mother. She tells the driver to take her to her home on Park Avenue instead of to the event. Who doesn’t want to know the rest of that story?
So what else makes a best-seller? What makes one book sell millions of copies while others languish? Next time.