Sam Gillette
August 07, 2017 09:00 AM

As a child, author Jeannette Walls sometimes went hungry for days, lived for years in a rat-infested shack without running water, and fiercely loved her charismatic, alcoholic father, who frequently spent the few dollars the family had on beer. She transformed the story of her painful childhood into her 2005 book, The Glass Castle, one of the bestselling memoirs of all time. Now the book is finally coming to the big screen, as a movie starring Brie Larsen, Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts, in theaters Aug. 11.

In an interview at her Virginia farmhouse in the new issue of PEOPLE, the 57-year-old reflects on her difficult past, her reconciliation with her mother (her father has died), and how she feels about her life being turned into a movie.

“I’m excited!” she says. “[Hollywood] looked at this mess of a story and didn’t know what to do with it. Is it sad? Is it happy? We don’t know; it’s kind of both.”

Her memoir was a runaway success, but reliving her childhood wasn’t easy for Walls. One of her earliest memories was suffering serious burns after she attempted to cook hot dogs for herself, unsupervised as usual, at three years old.

Courtesy Jeanettte Walls
Jeannette Walls (far left) with sister Lori, their parents and brother Brian in 1961.

“My husband suggested I open the book with that story,” she says, “And I said, ‘Oh, that was no big deal. I caught on fire, and I got a scar, but, you know, I survived and everything.’ He said, ‘That was a big deal, Jeannette, trust me.'”

Her childhood involved moving to “at least 20 places,” frequently going hungry, and dealing with an almost complete lack of supervision from her parents, who once took a while to realize that six-year-old Jeannette had fallen out of the car when they were driving. The situation worsened when the family moved to a leaky, uninsulated, tumbledown house in her father’s hometown of Welch, W. Va., and his drinking increased — but she loved him anyway.

Onscreen, her father, Rex, is played by Woody Harrelson and her mother, Rose Mary, an eccentric sometime schoolteacher with a passion for painting, is played by Naomi Watts.

For more on Walls’ story, pick up the current issue of PEOPLE, on stands now. 

Walls was 13 when she realized the urgency of her situation. Her mom had left town for work, leaving her and her siblings a little money to buy food. Her father persuaded Walls to give him their few dollars to buy beer instead.

“I realized that as much as I loved him, I couldn’t fix him,” she says. “It gave me a kick in the behind that I had to get out.”

Walls eventually attended Barnard College on scholarship and later joined New York magazine in the 1980s, where her career as a writer began. She currently lives on a farm in Virginia with her husband, writer John Taylor. Her mother lives in a cabin just up the hill from them—a big improvement in their relationship. Rose Mary still believe she’s “the villain” in the memoir,  but, reports Walls, “She says, ‘I understand that you had to tell the truth as you saw it.'”

Eric Ogden

“I’m a survivor,” Walls says. “I have a joyful life and I attribute that to both of my parents.”

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