Interview with Wally LambOctober, 2013
Lamb, who's often inspired by news events in his fiction, found himself in the headlines earlier this year when the York Correctional Institution temporarily banned She's Come Undone and I'll Fly Away, one of two anthologies he edited written by incarcerated women. Lamb whipped up a frenzy on Facebook, and within 24 hours both books were back on prison library shelves. Now he's taken to wearing a T-shirt that proclaims "Read Banned Books," given to him by the prison's librarian. "I'm wearing it as we speak," Lamb reported during a chat with Goodreads interviewer Margaret Wappler this month. "It's my new favorite T-shirt."
We Are Water?
Wally Lamb: She stems from a terrible tragedy that happened in my hometown of Norwich, Connecticut, in 1963. I was about 12 years old. An earthen dam, after two to three days of torrential rain, burst forward and released millions of gallons of water that went rushing downhill toward the center of the city. The path of that floodwater cut very close to our house; I remember looking at the raging water rocketing by that night. In the days that followed, I followed a story about a young family, a mother and father and their three children. The dad and the mom got the kids into a tree because they were caught in the flood path. But just as the husband was about to pull the wife up into safety, the water carried her away and unfortunately she drowned. 1963 was a long time ago, but it's stayed vivid in my mind. I started writing about the flood, and I ended up getting in touch with the three little boys who were rescued that night who are now in their early fifties. Annie started as a little boy, but I changed her gender because I really wasn't writing nonfiction, and I wanted to go where the story would lead me. But I started with a character who had lost a mother under sad and tragic circumstances.
GR: What interested you about a character who'd lost a parent in such a way?
WL: I became very interested in her insecurities, particularly her posttraumatic stress. The PTSD part of Annie's story I learned about through my work with female inmates at the Connecticut prison where I've led a writing program for a while now. Many of them have had very difficult childhoods. If you don't have help, you very often carry that into adulthood. Both of those things influenced the character.
GR: The three sons who lost their mother in the flood—have they read your book?
WL: Yes, they have all read it and given their seal of approval. Tom Moody, who was the oldest boy, only four at the time, is the only one who remembers his mom and snatches of that night. Coincidentally he'd been researching that tragedy when we first got in touch. He started a nonfiction book about the flood, which is now self-published. We helped each other through the research process and have become friends.
GR: Have you ever had someone be so directly impacted by what you've written about?
WL: In The Hour I First Believed I wrote about the Columbine tragedy, and I did have a close encounter with the father of one of the shooters. He read the book and came to a reading to have his book signed. It was an intense and moving exchange. I had mentioned in an interview that I was sympathetic toward the two boys who were the shooters, but particularly their older brothers. Suddenly their family name is notorious. We talked a bit about the impact for these older brothers.
GR: The dichotomies of Annie's life are really fascinating—to go from a very broken childhood to adult wealth and art-world fame. Do you think that kind of change can be particularly unmooring for someone who had such a tragic start in life?
WL: Yes. Thank God I haven't experienced a tragic event such as that in my own life, but it makes me think of some of the drastic changes I've been through. I did come to this world of success through the Oprah Book Club. I have a pretty vivid imagination, but I could've never imagined all that. She put me on that map in terms of a readership. I still scratch my head to this day. When I started writing, it took me almost nine years to write She's Come Undone. Every once in a while I'd allow myself the fantasy that it might get published, and then I'd say to myself, "Yeah, sure, Wally. Go out and mow the lawn." That whole thing took me by surprise—first that a publisher wanted to publish it and then that Oprah picked it up and then picked up the second book. Two rides on the roller coaster, one year after another! So that took a while to manage. It does unmoor you for a while. As thrilling as it is and as grateful as I am, I had to figure out how to handle it.
GR: What was the biggest challenge about it?
WL: When I started writing The Hour I First Believed, the excitement had died down and suddenly I'm back in the office again, facing these new characters that I didn't know. For a while I was scared to write the first sentence because I was more aware of my readership than was good for me. I put an awful lot of pressure on myself to make a book that would be as well-liked as the first two. The money I got upfront to write that book was a little confusing, too.
The beginning is always the hardest part. I got through the year by praying. I'm a little ambivalent about who or what I was praying to, but I do have a spiritual side. I was asking the universe to grant me another story. I don't write with an outline, so I often have no idea where I'm going. I just have to show up at the desk every day so that I can learn more and on deeper levels about these characters.
GR: Was We Are Water a struggle? Or did it come pretty easily?
WL: For reasons that I don't fully understand, that was one of the novels that came the fastest and without a whole lot of torment. The Hour I First Believed was so difficult because of the subject matter, the very sad and horrible event that was Columbine. We Are Water also starts with a terrible thing, but it's more of a personal thing rather than a whole nation's grief. I had a smoother ride this time, so I was grateful.
GR: Secrets play a big role in We Are Water. Are secrets particularly corrosive for your characters? Some of them have managed to carry around their baggage for years.
WL: That goes directly back to my work with the women at York prison. I've run a writing program there for 14 years now, and I've seen again and again how people are really oppressed by the secrets they've kept. Many of them grew up in households where the order was "what goes on in this house stays in this house." I'm talking about things like incest and physical abuse. When the women liberate themselves of those secrets by writing about them, you see dramatic changes. They find their voice and dispel their secrets. They gain a kind of strength. We've now published two books through Harper Collins. Now they're sharing these secrets not only with their classmates but out into the world. It's very courageous.
GR: Do you feel that all people have those kinds of secrets that burden us, even if they're not on a big scale, like physical abuse or infidelity?
WL: Yes, we have private selves and more public selves. We have aspects we show our intimate friends and maybe family, and then we have the face we give to the world. To some extent we all wear masks and harbor secrets. And I think it's one of the reasons people respond to my books. I write in the first person, I become these other people. The novels go out into the world, and a lot of times people will say, 'How did you know my story?' And they'll talk about their own secrets and how they related to the characters. There's nothing better than that if you're a writer who just sits in a room making up people.
GR: Goodreads member Jaymie asks about your choice to center We Are Water around a lesbian wedding. What attracted you to that event as a writer?
WL: One of my very best and oldest friends is a lesbian, and I have seen her struggle with people's reactions and political reactions to the issue of gay marriage. Connecticut's legislature voted in gay marriage five years ago. They voted in civil unions first and then gay marriage a couple years later. Because it was so close to the heart of a person I really love, I could understand a bit more about people's need for that kind of validation. I'm happy to say that when she and her wife got married, I was the best man. That was maybe four years ago, when I was just starting the book.
GR: Your books often draw from modern-day issues and current events. Why are you most drawn to present-day hot topics?
WL: Well, I live in the real world; I don't live in a vacuum. I have political reactions to things, I read newspapers and the like, but probably what it all stems from is that I have a pretty highly developed sense of empathy. I respond emotionally to the toughest things in life. I've always rooted for the underdog and I've always objected to the immoral use of power. If I were to see a theme that weaves through all my work, it's that if you have power, you are obliged to deal ethically with that.
GR: You've been praised for your ability to write authentic female points of view, as you did so successfully in She's Come Undone. Do you see gender as really being a lens for seeing the world differently, or in the end do you think that people are just people, no matter what?
WL: Certainly men and women tend to be socialized differently. I think there are certain biological differences, of course, other than just the obvious hormonal influences. The bottom line is that we come from man and woman, and we have both in us. If I had to make a choice between the Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus approach or basically that we're all humans, it would be the latter. I suspect that we're more alike than different, but it goes back to some of those masks we put on and certain learned behaviors.
GR: When you start writing a female character, do you approach it differently at all? Do you think, "OK, it's time to put on my lady thinking cap"?
WL: [laughs] It's more like, "It's time to put on my lady pants!" I started with Dolores from She's Come Undone when she was a little girl. That didn't intimidate me because I grew up with sisters, and girl cousins down the street. Mine was a very girl-centric neighborhood and childhood. I was very often cast in the role as an observer to their behavior. So I wasn't intimidated by little girl Dolores, and it didn't seem foreign. However, I did begin to lose my nerve as Dolores grew up. I remember almost quitting when she had to face whether to get an abortion. I work in writers' groups, and at the time the women in the group would encourage me and pull me through. If it seemed authentic, some of that is because people are reading draft No. 12 or No. 14. I had a lot of roughage that those readers helped me sand down so it'd read more true to the character.
GR: Goodreads member Antoinette asks, "What is the most insightful thing you learned while working with the incarcerated women [at York prison]?"
WL: You think of prisoners in a certain way. And for me it was a stereotypical way, and they disarmed me. They showed me, even from the very first class, and certainly this message has been reinforced throughout the 14 years, that "there but for the grace of God goes the rest of us." Nobody says when they're a kid, "Gee, I guess I'll commit a whole bunch of felonies and get myself in prison." When you learn that they are more than just the crimes they were convicted for, that they are whole, complex equations, if you will, then you can begin to see how your life can connect to their lives.
GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?
WL: I am an early riser. On my best writing days I'm up at 5:30 a.m., I hit the gym, and I'm back at 7:30 a.m. at home, and by 9 a.m. I'm at my writing desk. The earlier I can get started, the better, because my creative mind works best in the morning hours. As the day goes on, around 2 p.m., my creativity starts to turn off almost like an electrical current when you flip the switch. Like right now I'm here with my assistant, and we're doing the business part of my writing career. But I reserve the mornings for fiction. Usually around 2 p.m. I will stop, though I must admit that if I'm having a really bad writing day, I knock off at 1 p.m. and watch Days of Our Lives.
GR: What writers, books, or ideas have most influenced you?
WL: I have such a long list. I would say Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces is like a well that I keep going back to over and over again. That work studies the ancient myths in all sorts of cultures, from African to Inuit and so forth. To me those primal stories, because they have lasted the longest in the culture, really go to the heart of things. That's a book I read over and over again. When I was developing as a fiction writer, probably the work of Flannery O'Connor and John Updike were really important to me. But there are so many others. Novels that were crucial to my development include To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye. And of course, all three of those are written in the first person.
GR: What are you reading now?
WL: I just finished two books. One is John Searles's Help for the Haunted. It's sort of a ghost story that works as a coming-of-age novel. It's a real page-turner. I was very moved by The Viewing Room, written by Jacquelin Gorman. She spent some time as a chaplain in a hospital. The viewing room is where loved ones can see the person who died before the body goes to the funeral home. It's a beautiful exploration of death and the meaning of life.
Interview by Margaret Wappler for Goodreads. Margaret has written about arts and culture for the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, the Believer, Fader, NYLON, and other publications. Her fiction was recently anthologized in Joyland Retro, and she has been published in Another Chicago Magazine, Black Clock, Facsimile, and Public Fiction. She lives in Los Angeles.
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