Jeannette Walls, HANG THE MOON

Jeannette Walls, HANG THE MOON

Zibby is joined by #1 New York Times bestselling author Jeannette Walls to discuss Hang the Moon, an energetic and propulsive Prohibition-era story about an indomitable young woman in a world of lawlessness, secrets, scandals, and death. Jeannette describes her love of history and her fascination with prohibition, which stems from a childhood with an alcoholic father. She also talks about her feisty protagonist, her extensive historical research and obsessive re-writing, and her relationship with fiction. She also reveals what it was like to see her memoir The Glass Castle come to life in its film adaptation and what she is up to now–a beautiful, small-town life.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jeannette. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Hang the Moon. Congratulations.

Jeannette Walls: Thank you so much.

Zibby: A new novel out. First of all, how do you feel about it? How do you feel with it entering the world and all of that?

Jeannette: You know, it’s so funny because I spent so long with Sallie Kincaid. She’s a kind of complicated woman, but I grew to really love her. I feel like I’m taking my baby and showing her to the world and hoping other people get her too. So far, people have been really smart about it. It’s very exciting. I never thought I’d write fiction. I see myself as a truth-teller. It was a long and slow journey. Hang the Moon is my first fully fictional book. That being said, a lot of it is based on historical figures. My long-suffering editor had to pry my bony fingers off facts because I kept on going to the truth and to history. I wanted it to be credible. Authenticity is very important to me, so I did a lot of research for this. I spent probably much longer on this book than I should have.

Zibby: What does longer mean?

Jeannette: Seven or eight years.

Zibby: Is there a “should” for how long a novel should take? I don’t know.

Jeannette: That’s an excellent question. I got so immersed in the research. I love history. I love finding things out. I think we have to understand our history to understand where we are now. This book is set in the 1920s. I always thought that was a fun jazz era. People are all reading Gatsby and doing the Charleston, but not in the hills of Virginia, not in rural Virginia where the life was really, really hard. It was kind of difficult to research this. The moonshiners who I wrote about were not keeping diaries. The research was tough. I ended up reading a lot of newspapers from the period and catalogs and trial transcripts to try to get the language right. It was very important to me that the characters felt like real people from that period. I’m not knocking anybody else’s way of writing, but sometimes in historical novels I feel that the characters sound and feel contemporary. I didn’t want that, but I also didn’t want them to feel archaic. I didn’t want them to feel quaint and otherly. It was this trick of trying to make them relatable but old-fashioned.

Zibby: Interesting. What drew you to this time period?

Jeannette: There were a couple of things. First of all, I’ve long been fascinated by prohibition. My father was a raging alcoholic. I learned about prohibition when I was around seven or eight years old because there was a whiskey bottle on the table that Mom had repurposed as a vase, and it said it was illegal to refill it. I was like, “Mom, we’ve got to throw this away. We’re going to arrested.” She goes, “Oh, that’s a dumb law. Just ignore it.” That’s the way my family operated. She told me about this magical time called prohibition. Because my father was such an alcoholic, I wanted to live during this time. She said it was a disaster. It was a big backfire. I was fascinated for that reason. Beyond that, it was a time when America was really trying to figure out who it was. It was post-World War I. It was moving from being an agrarian society to being a somewhat urban society. The technology was revolutionary, especially the car. I think it’s kind of hard for us today to imagine what it was like to have a car and electricity for the first time. At the same time that the nation is trying to figure out who and what it is, where it’s going, Sallie is coming of age, our main character. I wanted that to be the backdrop for this young woman who’s trying to figure out, who the heck am I? What does it mean to be an American? What does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean to be a Kincaid, the most powerful family in the county? What does power mean? How do you use that power? That was the thing that I wanted this character to be grappling with at the same time that the nation was doing it.

Zibby: It’s not unlike now, in a way.

Jeannette: So many parallels, yes. I thought, oh, my gosh. I thought that being immersed in this research would make me nostalgic for the twenties. It actually had the opposite effect. I’d be reading these newspapers about race riots. It was funny, just the casual racism and the gleeful misogyny in the newspapers, jokes about women drivers and jokes about African Americans, ha ha ha, I was like, wow, this is so freaking ugly. I’m not saying we’re as far as we should be, but we have come a long way. There are these parallels about grappling with new technology and the power of it. It’s beautiful and wonderful if you use it correctly. Even more than that, I think that because it was such a time of profound change, it was scary to many people. We’re losing the way the world used to be. The world used to be safe and beautiful and simpler. We’re moving into this modern time. It’s scary.

Prohibition was largely a movement to go back to the past, the way things used to be before these crazy Italians came with their wine and the Irish came with their beer. Let’s go back to this better time. The prohibitionists were well-intending people for the most part. Some of them were a little nutty. Some of them actually believed that if they outlawed liquor, they could close the saloons. The dads would go home to their families. We could eliminate crime. All of that money that had been used for law enforcement could be used to educate people. It was this utopian ideal that completely and utterly backfired and created a crime wave unlike anything this country had ever seen. The price of liquor went up. The quality of liquor went down. In the mountains in Virginia where I’m talking about, this had been the only cash crop for years, so it turned somewhat law-abiding people into outlaws who were being shot at. It was a very tumultuous and scary time.

Zibby: Then of course, we have just the everyday of loss and sibling relationships and stepparents and blended families. How do you make sense of your environments where things in your own home, which her home for a while, keep changing all the time?

Jeannette: Exactly, Zibby. As much as there’s all of this stuff about shootouts and rum-running and all this craziness, Hang the Moon is essentially a book about family and our role in family and how we’re stereotyped often to do X, Y, Z. How do you break free from family while staying true to your roots? Hang the Moon, some booksellers told me they’re going to be promoting it as a Mother’s Day book. I thought, that’s the craziest thing in the world because it’s about the opposite of motherhood. Then I realized that’s why that’s such a brilliant idea. Sallie, she overidentifies with her father. She doesn’t really have a mother-role figure. Her biological mother died when she was three. She doesn’t get along with her stepmother. She’s raised by her mother’s sister, that aunt, who she loves but she doesn’t particularly admire. Her other aunt, she kind of admires but doesn’t love. She wants to be like her dad. She keeps being told, no, you can’t be. You’ve got to become a mom and raise a family. In this life and in this world, that wasn’t an appealing option. In some ways, we have so many more options now. Still, it’s a difficult choice. How do you be a mom and a woman and a career woman? It’s something that is at the core of what Sallie’s really grappling with. With her, it was more either/or choice. A woman could become a career woman. There were a few, but you really couldn’t be a mom too. She had to choose between these two worlds. She loved and idealized her father. Much of the book is a journey coming to terms with who her father really was and who her mother really was.

Zibby: I feel like that’s some of the work you’ve been doing for your own life through memoir.

Jeannette: Very well-said. I am not Sallie Kincaid, obviously, but I think we all mine from our personal experiences. I remember being thirteen years old, and my mother was thirty-eight years old, and looking at her thinking, I don’t know about this motherhood thing. This looks really hard. I didn’t want to become my daddy, but it certainly seemed he had more options. The roles that we’re all assigned, and not just the women, the guys as well — Sallie’s half-brother Eddie, he’s a lovely young man. He’s very sensitive. He doesn’t want to become the head of the company, the head of the family business. Men get stereotyped just as easily as women do. This is really about, how do you fulfill your destiny? What does family mean? Do we choose our families, or are we born into them? To what degree do we have any control over that?

Zibby: What does it mean for you as a grown-up when you have thought so much about your own family of origin, written about your family of origin, explored family so much in fiction? Then you have to make your own choices going forward. How do you synthesize all of that and move forward?

Jeannette: It’s something I still grapple with. It’s something I think about all the time, the legacy that my very complicated family gave me. I think that in my ripe old age, I’ve really been able to pluck the good out of the bad, certainly. I think that they gave me an incredibly mixed bag in terms of my heritage, but there were so many beautiful gifts in it. I come kind of late to pure fiction. I always thought I would never write fiction. I was a journalist. I was a truth-teller. I would go around telling people that. I will never write fiction. I can’t make things up. I’m incapable of making things — I have no imagination. That was almost a mantra that I had. I was at a book reading one time. A gentlemen in the front row raised his hand and very gently told me, “Ma’am, I think you’ve got a great imagination, but you’re afraid of creativity.” I thought, oh, my gosh, this is one of those moments. I realized that my parents were both super creative, super imaginative, to the point that it was a little scary, to the point that my father had all these characters in his head who would trod out sometimes at his behest, sometimes without his control. My mother had a relationship of convenience with the truth. I ran head-first into the truth. I’ll be a journalist. I’ll find out the truth. Any biographer or journalist knows that we shape our truths by which stories we tell and how we choose to tell them.

That certainly came clear to me while I was writing The Glass Castle because you can take the exact same incident — my very favorite memory from my entire childhood, my father giving us stars, to me, it’s a beautiful, precious memory. To my older sister Lori, who’s much smarter than me, it was my dad’s cheapo way of getting out of having to actually buy us things. We’re both right. How do you tell your truths? That was The Glass Castle. Then the next book was about my mother. I called it fiction. It was actually about her mother, but it was all told to me by my mother. I had no idea how much of it was true. I had to fill in little gaps. Then The Silver Star. This was the first book that I really mostly made thing up. That being said, a lot of it is based on historical figures and historical incidents. I wanted to make sure that everything that happened was credible. The main character, Sallie Kincaid, she ends up being a rum-runner and heading up the caravans of . There was a woman who actually did this. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t write about them because it could’ve never happened. I think you lose readers. You’d lose me. I think the best kind of fiction is rooted in reality. Then you take it and stir it up and do what you will with it.

Zibby: You had one random line — I don’t even know why this jumped out at me when I was rereading the book this morning — about how at the time, wearing white gloves was such a signal. It said so much about who you were, where your place was in society. It signaled to your peers, to everybody else. Then as I read it, I was like, is there a signal? Where does that take us today? I don’t know. How interesting that it was just so clearly delineated back then.

Jeannette: Yeah, these status symbols. It wasn’t just white gloves to show that you didn’t get your hands dirty, literally and figuratively, but it was also white dresses. If you look at those fabulous pictures of the Victorian and Edwardian women in the white dresses, they look so perfect. You have to think about all that work to keep those — things were filthy back then. To keep dresses white, it was a lot of hard work. Most of these status symbols, it always comes back to money, what you can afford. After the white dresses, dyes became popular, but they were kind of expensive. Bright colors became the status symbol. Now it’s stuff like the bags, the twenty-thousand-dollar handbags, these things people carry around. I got money, honey. These little signals that they send to each other. The truly wealthy, I have heard, try to hide the fact that they’re as wealthy as they are. They know. They have these little rich-person signals.

That’s, I believe, one of the things that made me less nostalgic for the 1920s. I think it’s less important. It’s certainly still somewhat important. The society was so stratified back then. It was breaking out of that because there was becoming a middle class. Women were able to have free time. What they did with that free time was very significant, all of these women’s societies for beautification and better sidewalks. Who belonged to which society? My editor said, “This is a book in the mountains. People didn’t have these societies.” Yeah, they did. In these small towns, it was very important, especially the valley people versus the hill people. There was a real divide there. I think all communities have these little signals to let each other know who’s on top and who’s on bottom. The fluidity with which you can come up and down, personally, it’s very important to me. When I’ve toured overseas on behalf of The Glass Castle, some people say, your story could only happen in America. For all our problems, I do love that. There is some fluidity. With my white-trash beginnings, that I’ve been able to do what I’ve done is extraordinary. I lived on Park Avenue for a while. I’ve rubbed elbows with those people, but I always felt a little bit more like I had a green card there. I always come back to writing about my people. This is who I know.

When I wrote The Glass Castle, I originally included a lot more about my first husband’s world. I was an outsider looking in. I just think if you’re going to tell your story, half-truths, they can become caricatures. There can be some truth in it, but they’re meant to ridicule. I believe in getting as deep as you can to get empathy. If you tell the whole story, I believe empathy almost inevitably follows. Explain why these people are who they are. One of the things that really, really helped me writing Hang the Moon was hanging out on the set of The Glass Castle and watching these actors become people they had never met and understanding them so deeply and so profoundly that sometimes when the director would tell them to do or say something, they’d say, you know, I don’t think my character would do that. It took my breath away that these people knew and cared about these characters who happened to be my family so profoundly that they understood how they would think and act.

Zibby: Did they get it right?

Jeannette: They did. I think that fiction writing, if it’s done right, is an act of empathy. There was one point at which a couple of the characters, but particularly Woody Harrelson — he took my breath away. He went off script and said things that my father had said that I hadn’t told Woody. The first time I saw him in full makeup, I was shaking and crying. He nailed it. He did it with such compassion. It just floored me that these actors, they weren’t interested in passing judgement. They were interested in understanding. Why did your parents do this? Why did your sister do this? What was going on? The physicality of emotion, they got it. Woody and Naomi Watts would stay in character when they weren’t on screen. We went out to dinner one night, and they started fighting. I thought, this is just too weird. They got it. They understood that loving bickering and fighting. The degree to which I could channel that, I tried to, this understanding. The characters in Hang the Moon, some of them are, I don’t want to say not sympathetic, but they don’t always do good things. I wanted the readers to understand why. We all are a mixture of dark and light. We have the reasons for doing what we do. If I could get that across with these characters who lived a hundred years ago, that was my hope. I just wanted people to get what was going on in their heads.

Zibby: That absolutely came across to the reader.

Jeannette: Thank you. That means a lot to me.

Zibby: I just felt like all these bad things kept happening to Sallie and all these people she loved. I felt particular compassion towards Aunt Faye, especially when they were about to take her to the feeble-minded place. This poor woman.

Jeannette: That was the story for so many women back then.

Zibby: I know. It’s still horrible to read.

Jeannette: It was a difficult time for women, like I said, despite all the flappers and all that, especially in rural settings. Finding a man was the career choice. There’s nothing wrong with that unless you choose badly, if you hook yourself up with a bad man. That’s what Sallie kept on seeing, is these examples of women who thought that getting married was going to save them, and it didn’t, who thought that finding a man was going to be the solution to their problems. It actually was the creation of their problems.

Zibby: You’ve had so much success with your book and your movie. Now you have this fabulous novel. You’re well-known. How does this play out in the day-to-day life? When you wake up and you make coffee or whatever you’re doing in the morning, what does your day-to-day look like? How much does all of this creep into every moment of your life? Do you know what I mean?

Jeannette: I think I’m the luckiest human being on the planet, first of all. I can’t believe this. It’s so ironic to me. For so long, my past was a source of shame for me. I’m very big on, take these things that you don’t love about yourself, flip it over, and there’s a blessing on the other side. I love that. When I’m writing, I’m kind of obsessive. I’m a fast but sloppy writer. I just write and rewrite. I’ll come clean with you. Seventeen drafts on this thing. Seventeen drafts. First draft, it was awful. The first draft was just terrible. I believe in just getting it down. What’s wrong with this? Fix it. What’s wrong with it still? Fix it? My life is very simple and very humble. I have a nice house now. I have four bathrooms with flush toilets in each one of them, so life is good. You got a flush toilet, you got nothing to complain about. I live on a farm. I have critters. I have a beautiful life. I live in a smallish town. I kind of love that. I loved New York City. I was head over heels in love with New York. Now when I go back, it feels like an old boyfriend. I will always love it, but moved on. I feed my critters and work on my book. I love the small-town life. I just feel there’s so much material there, the arguments. There is a lot of hierarchy, but then there’s also a lot of mingling. It’s very interesting to me to see how that works.

Zibby: Are you working on something new now?

Jeannette: I am not. One of the things that I realized — I’m so sorry about all the suffering during the pandemic, but one of the things that I realized about myself is that I’m not good at multitasking, something that moms are very, very good at. I’m not. I realized I couldn’t be working on a book and do this right now. I’m obsessive and need to do things a hundred and ten percent or I can’t do it at all.

Zibby: Do you still find yourself going back into some of the historical stuff of the book? Are you still reading lots of books on it and all of that?

Jeannette: I think about it all the time. I think about the period. I think about what happened next, what happened before, how we got there. One of the reasons that I love looking into history is because it’s almost like therapy for the nation. You don’t understand where we are now until you understand where we used to be and how we got here. The progression once you read it, it’s like, oh, that makes so much sense. I’ve heard it said, and I love this, that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. These themes keep on coming up. That’s one of the reasons that I wanted to set it a hundred years ago. I think that these issues of family and stereotyping yourself and role models, they are somewhat timeless. It’s something we grappled with a hundred years ago. It’s something we grapple with today. It’s something we’ll grapple with a hundred years from now.

Zibby: Having read The Glass Castle, of course, and seeing the movie and all of that, so many people might feel like we really know you. A memoir, of course, is just your choice of what you put in it and your interpretation of it. What do we not know about you? If that’s all we take away, what are we really missing or what, maybe, we’re getting wrong? What’s the real you versus the you in the memoir?


Zibby: You said I could ask you anything.

Jeannette: I know. I’m just trying to think of the right answer to that. I’ve been to a lot of classrooms where people will tell me — I love speaking to students. The fact that The Glass Castle is read in classes, it’s beyond a dream come true. People say, you’re just like I thought you would be. I don’t know if there’s anything more. I believe in transparency. I really do. I think people see you differently than you see yourself sometimes. I’m not trying to be at all cagey or hiding anything. I am what you see. I’m not a good poker player.

Zibby: Me neither.

Jeannette: I don’t hide anything very well. I am what I am.

Zibby: Amazing. Is Hang the Moon going to be a movie?

Jeannette: It has been optioned for a streaming TV series. They told me too many characters and too much plot for a traditional movie. They’re looking at doing something a little bit longer, which would make me so happy. Somebody who read it told me it’s like the dirty Waltons.

Zibby: That’s really funny.

Jeannette: A family involved in crime. It would be a lot of fun.

Zibby: Who do you think Sallie misses the most?

Jeannette: Her mom. Growing up without a loving mother, without a loving parent, but especially — Sallie’s journey is really looking for a mother role model. That’s really what it’s about. People say that Sallie’s fearless. She’s not fearless. She’s terrified. She’s terrified that her father will disapprove of her. She’s terrified she’s not worthy of being a Kincaid. She’s terrified she’ll never find her place in the world. I don’t want to do any kind of spoilers. It’s only when she stops trying to be her father that she can kind of come to terms with who she really is. She has a little bit of a hole in her heart that will never be completely filled up because she never felt that mother’s love when she was growing up.

Zibby: Last question. You rewrote this seventeen times. You said many times that rewriting is the key to everything.

Jeannette: For me.

Zibby: For you. How do you get over the fear of getting back into a manuscript and trying again? How do you gear yourself up to just go back and try and try and try again and keep making things better?

Jeannette: I don’t know if it’s fear. I’m obsessive. It’s like picking at a scab or something. I can’t help myself. I think about it first thing in the morning, last thing at night. You keep on tackling it. The thing that I have the fear of is that I’m going to lose perspective. You read something. Does this work? Does this make sense? Does this feel right? I read things out loud to see if it works, to see if it sounds right to my ear. That’s why we have editors. That’s why we have readers out there who say, Jeannette, this doesn’t work. I don’t mind being told that. In fact, I kind of like it because you can lose perspective. You can fall in love with your own prose or your own clever little line or your whacky plot twist. I just love to be told, no, go back and work on it. Make it better. Somebody’s going to tell you somewhere, that doesn’t work. I’d rather be told before it’s out there. That’s the fear, is that it’s out there. I have a fabulous editor. My husband is so wonderful about being a reader. I am a research nerd. I dug up all this great information about the history of flypaper and the history of oranges. I did great big, long, fat chapters all about this stuff. Luckily, he’s more easily bored than I am. He was like, “Jeannette, this is really boring. Take it out.”

You’ve got to have those other readers. You’ve got to have the editor. You’ve got to have somebody who will tell you, this doesn’t work. John, my husband, had a really good line. He said writing is so tricky because you have to simultaneously believe in yourself and question yourself. It’s a real balancing act. The same is true in life. Especially with any creative endeavor, you have to believe in this thing that in the early stages was god awful. It was so bad. There was so many interesting things. I was trying to cram them all in and do the history of prohibition in America. People don’t need that. If they want to read a book about the history of prohibition in America, they could read it. You can’t smoosh that in. I just had to keep on cutting stuff and cutting stuff because I find everything in the world fascinating. Just stick with a story. You kind of fall in love with the struggles of this woman, which makes me feel a little bit like I’ve turned into a crazy person like my dad. She became this person who I cared about, Sallie. I wanted to get her story and pull it out of all of these various stories that were trying to intrude and just tell people about this woman who was struggling so hard to figure out who and what she was and to get that story out there and let people hear it and to meet and know and maybe even like Sallie.

Zibby: Lucky for us, you used all that creativity, and here we are.

Jeannette: Thank you.

Zibby: Thank you so much, Jeannette. Thanks for coming on and for talking and for sharing and being so inspiring and just so amazing. This has been such a joy. Thank you.

Jeannette: The pleasure is mine. Thank you so much for having me on your fabulous show.

Zibby: Thank you.

Jeannette Walls, HANG THE MOON

HANG THE MOON by Jeannette Walls

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