Jeannette Walls Settles Down Far From the Noise of New York

“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.


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