Journalist and writer Jeannette Walls is sitting in a small conference room at the New York offices, flipping through old issues of the magazine. One from 1988 has Arianna Huffington in shoulder pads on the cover, another from 1992 declares Williamsburg “The New Bohemia.” “I still dream about New York mag,” says Walls as she scans the pages of her popular Intelligencer column that covered New York City gossip, a beat she owned from 1987 to 1993. The column and her time at New York play a large role in the new movie The Glass Castle, a film adaptation of her best-selling memoir starring Brie Larson, in theaters today. Surrounded by glossy pages and layouts for New York’s next issue, Walls spoke to Vulture about the smoke-filled parties of 1990s New York City, the power of nonfiction writing, and the celebrity of Donald Trump.
Bring us to the beginning. How did you get the job at New York?
I was in college at Barnard, and during my freshman year I worked for the Barnard Bulletin and I thought, “If I’m going to work, I want to get paid for it.” I went to the career services office and there was a listing for it. I came in for an interview and I thought, “There’s no way I’m going to get hired.” I was interviewed by a woman named Pat Weiss, but Laurie Jones was sitting behind her, and she ended up becoming the managing editor at Vogue. They just asked me a few questions and they said, “You’ll never become a writer here.” And I said, “I don’t expect that! I’m a college student.” I started college later than most people did, at 20, and I’d just had my 21st birthday. I was like, “I’ll take out garbage or do whatever it takes just to work at New York Magazine.” My god! I’d do anything! Laurie asked me two questions and she was reading the New York Post more quickly than I’d ever seen a human being read before, like, bing bing bing. And so I got back home and the phone rang and they said, “You’re hired.” I couldn’t believe it. I squished up all my classes into two or three days and worked at New York mag. I worked until they closed, and on weekends as well, delivering press releases.
After I graduated they hired me to be Ed Kosner’s assistant, and I worked with Dan Dorfman, and when Dan Dorfman left for USA Today, I went with him for a year, but I really missed New York. Then I got a call from Ed Kosner to do the Intelligencer column, and I was a little insulted, because I was a political-science major and I thought, “Do I want to do this?” I wasn’t that happy at USA Today so I thought, “I’ll give it a shot.” Well, the first couple of weeks, people were yelling at me and threatening to sue me, so I thought, “I love it!” [Laughs.] I was a pig in mud! I was answering all the phones, and I’d been told it was a tough job, a quick burnout, but I had a blast and I stayed there seven years. It wasn’t my first job, but it was the first job that meant anything to me. I still dream about New York mag. It’s kind of weird. I dream I’m part-time and they can’t find a full-time job for me. It’s usually that I can’t find a lead, and I call all my great sources and say, “Can you help me out?”
How did you start to source your column?
There are these people who are nosy like I am. They love to talk. They’re usually not at the very top or bottom, they’re in-between. They see things going on. I had six Rolodexes: three alphabetical and three according to category. If I needed a political item, I’d look at everyone under “politics” and call them. I don’t know how you’d do it today, and I’m wondering now, because when you need something from someone now you’re just going to tweet it. So I really don’t know how you would do something like this. The great thing about having a column like this is that it used to be people’s conduit to the public. So, if you’re a mover or shaker, and you want a story out, that was the second kind of source. There were a lot of very powerful people who’d float a story through the column. That I think you can still do. A journalist today can do anonymous stuff: Somebody wants a story out but doesn’t want to create a spectacle, they can do it through the column. But on the middle levels … I don’t know how it’s done these days. I really wonder. The political and social climate is so interesting. I’m hearing all these stories and going, “I want to do this again!” but I think it must be so hard to do it. If you call someone for a comment, they’re immediately going to tweet it.
For sourcing, you go to parties, you meet people who are in the know, you say, “Can I call you?” You always have to be aware of what people’s motives are. People obviously have an agenda or they wouldn’t give you a story. So as you get to know them, you ask, do you trust them? Do they have an ax to grind? Everyone does, as long as you’re aware of what that ax is and cognizant of double-checking what they give you and calling everyone to comment.
I loved the weekly format. On Mondays I would come in and call everyone, clean up my desk, you know, just see what’s out there. Tuesdays, by the end of the day, I had to know what I was doing and give the list to the editor. Wednesday, you write it up and report it. Thursday you make sure all the sources get another call, and Thursday evening it’d go to press and come out Monday. That’s not the way it works anymore! You had this whole week to rewrite, rethink, sleep on it. This immediate thing is both exhilarating and intimidating. I have great admiration for anyone doing it.
What were the parties like? I’m picturing a lot of cigarette smoke.
A lot of it. I was always off in the corner watching people. I was never really a party person. I was never part of this world, I just had a green card. But I think there was a lot more bling — big hair and big shoulders and big everything. I remember this one reporter had come over from California and one of the things she insisted on was banning smoking at New York mag. I was like, “Get out! What a California thing to do! Journalists smoke! That’s what they do! There’s all these little ashtrays on everyone’s desk!” She was just repulsed by it. Now the thought of everyone sitting around offices and smoking is bizarre. Some of them had been around since the ’50s and to me that seemed like, “Wow! Thirty years! That’s so weird!” And now that’s me! [Laughs.] Part of me … I don’t want to say I miss it, because I will always love it, but it feels like an old boyfriend with whom I amicably split. I’ll always love it, and it’ll always have a place in my heart, but gosh, it’s just not for me anymore. God bless those of you who do it, because I don’t have the energy for it.
It is exhausting.
And I did love it, but you can’t give a hoot what anybody thinks of you. At the time a lot of people were in it just to be famous, and that’s not the reason to do it. The reason is, I always thought, to go after those people. It’s not to be accepted into that world, but to be the person on the sidelines calling it. With tweeting, reality shows, and all that, the lines have always been blurred, but I don’t think they exist anymore.
Speaking of people who blur the lines, our president must have been a pretty large figure at the time. What was it like covering him?
He was the quintessential Intelligencer item. I mean, I liked movers and shakers more than celebrities. I wasn’t that interested in celebrities. I grew up without a TV. Donald Trump sort of straddled the world between movers and shakers and the very accessible, the kind of “celebrity” I was interested in because everybody knew who he was, but it wasn’t because he was a movie star. I liked that type of a celebrity.
Say what you will about him, he really understood the media. He really understood how to float a story, how to deny a story, how to attack his enemies, how to get even. It was sort of stunning. Some people who probably have higher IQs don’t hold a candle to him in terms of understanding the power of the media and the power of image, and of getting your message out there, despite what the reality is. I think even he was sort of shocked early on about how sometimes he’d just say something to a journalist, and all of a sudden, it’d appear and become this reality because so many journalists don’t check things out. He understood that the most important asset a public figure has is his or her persona, and that you can create this persona, and the reality is unimportant to some people. It was genuinely fascinating to watch the man operate. It’s funny, because the divorce, which we covered in such gory detail, was one of the few times he really made a misstep. He was overseas when Ivana went to Liz [Smith] to leak it. She owned the story for a while, and he had a series of missteps. But again, you’ve got to hand it to him: He’s like one of those punching bags you hit and he just comes back. All of this is not to, in any way, condone what he does. This is just from a purely analytical position as a journalist, watching this man who understood journalism and understood the public so much better than some people who had much more complex press machines.
Did you ever have any interactions with the fake spokesperson?
No. I knew his voice well enough that I don’t think he ever tried to pull that on me.
Who were some of the other major players of the time?
Mark Zuckerman, Arianna Huffington, Andy Warhol. He died during that time, but he was still around in my day.
Did it ever feel like a boys’ club?
No. There were enough women. People have started talking about that in the world, and in that respect, probably. For me, I never thought of being a woman as something that would keep me out of anything. I guess I was too ignorant to keep in my place! [Laughs.] When I was looking at some of the pictures, I was like, “They don’t have many women here, do they?” Part of it was because I did like writing about the movers and shakers of real estate, but I also did a lot of publishing stuff. There were definitely women in publishing, but a lot more guys. Rachel Williams was there, Howard Stern … definitely more of a boys’ club than it is now.
How did magazine writing prepare you for memoir writing?
I’ve been faulted for this, but more often I’ve been thanked for it: I wrote the story pretty straightforward, not telling the reader what to think. The writer shouldn’t pass judgment, they should just lay the story out and let the reader jump to their own decision about what’s going on. We have a president who some see as a hero and some as a villain. We’re all looking at the same facts, but people are drawing entirely different conclusions. And I think that’s the way it should be with any story. It can be interpreted in a bunch of different ways, and it’s kind of a Rorschach test. That aspect of just telling the story and letting the reader decide comes from journalism.
You’ve written fiction too. What does nonfiction offer that fiction can’t?
It’s not that the truth is stranger than fiction; it’s more nuanced. I love the contradictions. I could never predict what my mother was going to say. I could never have made those things up. I think people are so complicated and so fascinating, and if you’re writing fiction, you have to ask yourself, “Could this happen? Is this wacky?” I don’t think my book would’ve been accepted as fiction because it’s just too bizarre, but if it’s not working in nonfiction, it just means you’re not going deep enough. You’re just skimming the surface and writing what you see. You just have to go a little deeper, and that’s what I love about nonfiction. The answers are always there. You might not like it, but you have to keep pushing it to see what the heck is happening, and not thinking, “Am I on the wrong track? Am I making up something stupid that doesn’t work?” It usually means you’re not going deep enough.
You don’t have to worry that that this couldn’t happen, or it’s not true to character, which is something you have to worry about all the time in fiction. Even if you’re stealing shamelessly from real life, which I think many fiction writers do, and that’s the fiction I’m really drawn to, but when you start changing things and combining characters, does that make sense? If you’re pushing together one character raised in poverty and another raised in wealth, they’re going to have different psychologies, and you just have to make sure they make sense. Nonfiction can be surprising, but it’s never going to be stupid. It’s never going to make you throw the book across the room and say, “Okay, she just lost me, that didn’t happen!” unless your take on it is inane, and you refuse to acknowledge something.
What do you think a good memoir needs to have?
Honesty. I wrote the first version of The Glass Castle in six weeks and I spent five years rewriting it, because the first version was very bad. I spent five years trying to be honest, and I don’t mean not lying, I mean going deep enough. In the first version, I glossed over some things that I really found unpleasant. You’ve got to be willing to go into those dark corners and look at the unpleasantries. I tell aspiring memoirists, if something is so horrible and so painful that you cannot imagine putting it in writing, that means you must, because it’s pivotal. It’s going to be really hard and you’re going to cry and be a basket case, but then you start to understand that you own it. I think that, as a memoirist, you don’t try to gloss over the ugly stuff, but you also can’t focus too much on the positive. Everything is such a balancing act, to find the good and the bad, and that’s the challenge in telling a story about my parents: I could’ve made them seem a lot worse. I could’ve made them seem a lot better. We shape our truths by what stories we tell and how we choose to tell them, and the same is true with any nonfiction. You can make me seem like a complete idiot, or almost articulate. It’s just, “Which quotes do I use? What’s the kicker quote? How do I structure this whole thing?” It’s up to you, and just because it’s accurate doesn’t mean it’s true. It’s quite a challenge, because one of the things with my memoir is that my very favorite story of my entire life is getting a star, and my older sister finds that painful. She thought it was my father’s sick way of giving us presents without having to buy us anything, and she’s right — but I am too. If she’d written the memoir, it would be entirely different without a single fact changed.
And then you have to leave out some things you thought were central to it, and then you realize, “I can’t include everything.” In my early version, my husband would look over stuff and say, “You don’t have to include absolutely every single job you ever had,” and I would go, “I don’t want to be accused of lying!” [Laughs.] “Somebody’s going to say, ‘Oh, she worked there for six weeks!’” “It’s okay, Jen, nobody’s going to hold you accountable.” But then, I held people accountable for leaving something out of a movie or a book, and it’s just a process of figuring out what the story is.
To talk a bit about the film, I love how when we meet Jeannette, she’s telling a story about work. Why was it important to meet her that way?
Because that’s how she finds herself. That was her façade, that was her persona. “I’m a working gal with no past! I tell funny stories about the people I interview!” I completely defined myself by that. I got [into the office] before most people did, and I left most evenings at 11 and worked on the weekends. I thought, “This is all I am and all I ever want to be.”
I also love the scene where she’s at her desk with the old computer and the stacks of paper. What was your desk like?
It was just like that. They had a photograph. Actually, these very lovely people who worked on set came to me and I started talking about my Rolodexes and they were like, “What are those?” I was like, “They’re little pieces of paper where you write down phone numbers!” They were looking at each other like they were bewildered. Tragically, I still had a couple of them, and I brought them down.
Did you pull those out?
I have Andy Warhol’s home phone number! I have all these people who died who are just so weird to throw them out. They photographed them. And then the wardrobe people came and were like, “Can you describe your ’80s clothes?” and I said, “I don’t have to describe them, I’ve got them upstairs!” I ran and got them for them and they have dusty shoulders that come out to there, and Brie Larson wears them in the movie.
Those are your clothes in the movie?
Some of them, yeah!
One of the dark ones. The one she gets married in, from the wedding picture, is the outfit I got married in. Norma Kamali, circa 1988. I thought I wanted to get married in the Chanel suit, but they cost like $3,000 back then and were kinda boxy for me. So I got this Norma Kamali and it was quite hilarious. There were also my mother’s paintings in there. That was the level they wanted to do to get it right. It was beautiful.
There’s a great line where Brie says: “Rich, white, and old is our target audience.” Was that true?
Kind of! [Laughs.]
Who was your target audience at the time?
I don’t really know. I made a quip like that one time, and I don’t know who our audience was, but I know I had a big following in that category. A couple people were like, “No, I was a rich white girl when I read your column and I loved it back then too!” I was probably just putting myself down.
There’s also a great scene where she’s highlighting the Times. Is that a thing you’d do?
Absolutely. I would highlight it, circle it. I read 12 newspapers a day. I’d come in and there was a stack of them on my desk. I actually took a speed-reading class so I could get through them. I just loved it. It feels so anachronistic now to see newspapers.
What were you looking for?
Something where the whole story wasn’t there. Something that didn’t sound right, where there was more to the story than this. There’s a contradiction here. There’s a conflict of interest. I was like the CIA. You’ve got to follow everything and know what that person’s up to so you can go, “Wait a minute! That doesn’t make sense. They were saying this …” so it’s like putting puzzle pieces together. I followed it all obsessively, and if somebody said something that contradicted what one of their colleagues said, I just called them out. I assumed there was more than what we were seeing.
What are some of your most visceral memories of being in the office?
One time Jimmy Breslin threatened to beat me up. He pulled a phone out of a wall.
That seems on-brand for him.
It was! I loved all that sort of stuff. All these people threatening to beat me up or sue me. That’s the great thing about being raised the way I was. I was like, “Really? You think I’m gonna scare? Come on! You’re gonna try to intimidate me? I don’t think so!”
What is your relationship with writing like now?
I write mostly at home. I’m a complete rube. It feels so funny being back in the city because I lived here for 30 years and it’s just so crowded and lively, and my life now is very bucolic. I live on a farm and I get up early, feed the critters [laughs] and then I come back and my husband and I mostly work together. I’m working on fiction right now. It’s an entirely different kind of relationship, but it’s still storytelling. It’s all storytelling. I believe in it so passionately, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, and just getting behind the façade and to the deeper truths, however you choose to do it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.