A prominent New York journalist takes a taxi to a swanky downtown party and spots her elderly mother rooting through a dumpster. Afraid to be recognized by her homeless mother and to have her secret exposed should another party guest see the reunion, the journalist retreats to the comfort of her Park Avenue home. Later, propelled by guilt, she contacts her mother and admits her cowardice. "You're way too easily embarrassed," says the mother. "Your father and I are who we are."
It may sound like fiction, but it is the opening scene of The Glass Castle, a memoir written by Jeannette Walls, whose journalistic résumé includes New Yorkmagazine, Esquire, GQ and, currently, MSNBC. For two decades, Walls tried to hide her story about growing up with a charismatic yet alcoholic father who gave his children stars from the heavens in lieu of Christmas presents, and preferred working on a gold-mining device to holding down a steady job. Meanwhile, her individualistic mother called herself an "excitement addict" and preferred painting and writing to providing for the family.
"When I was writing this book, I kept wondering, 'Who the heck is going to care about this pathetic kid and her wacky family?' " Walls told PW. "But the response has just bowled me over." When The Glass Castle is published by Scribner on March 1, it will be riding high on word-of-mouth buzz among booksellers and the media, which the publisher started cultivating long before ARCs were ready.
"From the very beginning, I'd take 10 pages to a meeting and everyone wanted the whole thing," said Nan Graham, Scribner's editor-in-chief, who has edited Frank McCourt and Mary Karr. "So we bound up some manuscripts and started sending them around in-house and then out to others." When Victoria Skurnick, editor-in-chief of the Book-of-the-Month Club, received hers, she read it in one night. "I want to give it to every person I met," she said That seems to be the reaction from many early readers.
In addition to BOMC, the Literary Guild, Quality Paperback Book Club and Inside/Out book clubs have selected The Glass Castle, which is a March Book Sense pick as well. Vanity Fair, Elleand Entertainment Weekly have committed to features around the pub date. And a Primetime Livesegment on The Glass Castle will air next month. Scribner has already gone back to press after a 40,000 first printing, for 5,000 more copies.
"You don't always see this kind of media associated with a memoir," observed Edward Ash-Milby, memoir and biography buyer at Barnes & Noble, where The Glass Castle will be featured prominently at the front of its stores nationwide. Ash-Milby said he was taken by the book's "knock-out beginning" and has found that the book elicits a very strong response from everyone he gives it to. "A lot of people might have found [Walls's parents] neglectful," said Ash-Milby. "But they were also following their bliss and taking their children with them."
At Big Hat Books in Indianapolis, owner Elizabeth Houghton Barden described The Glass Castle as a cross between Sylvia Nasar's A Beautiful Mind and All Over but the Shoutin' by Rick Bragg. "It's going to make an amazing book club book," she said, tossing out sample questions such as: What is artistic freedom and does it come above responsibility to family? What do parents owe children and what do children owe parents? Is homelessness a choice? "It is just written in such spare, clean, exceptional prose," added Barden. "I loved that she was without judgment and I think that is what makes it so special."
"I wouldn't be surprised if movie rights are next," said Jamie Layton, manager of Ducks Cottage in North Carolina's Outer Banks, echoing the Hollywood Reporter, which predicted rights for this "movie-ready memoir" would sell before the books hit the shelves. No news at press time, but tick tock.