Interview with Wally Lamb

Posted by Goodreads on October 1, 2013
For 25 years Wally Lamb taught high school English in Connecticut and allowed himself to dream from time to time about a career as a novelist. Now at age 62 he has five novels to his name, including an incredible two titles selected by Oprah Winfrey for her star-making book club. Lamb's debut, She's Come Undone, wowed readers with its sensitive but unpitying portrayal of a woman tested too much in one lifetime, and his follow-up, I Know This Much Is True, sealed his reputation as an empathetic writer who effectively balances accessibility and depth. His new book, We Are Water, takes on another troubled character, the outsider artist Annie Oh, who's preparing to marry her powerful gallerist lover, Viveca.

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."

Goodreads: How did you go about building the character of Annie Oh in your new novel, 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.

Learn more about Margaret and follow what she's reading.

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Comments Showing 1-22 of 22 (22 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

Waiting for Indonesian Edition

message 2: by Jill (new)

Jill Bolster I can't wait to read this book. Wally Lamb is one of my favorite authors, I love all of his books!!

message 3: by Ezra (new)

Ezra Frank always in need of new books with meaning

message 4: by Banibayim (new)

Banibayim bani bayim

message 5: by Elise (new)

Elise Love to read Wally Lamb !!!

message 6: by Jaymie (new)

Jaymie Wally Lamb answered the question I submitted, so I'm kind of freaking out right now! Truly a brush with greatness!

message 7: by Elise (new)

Elise Jaymie wrote: "Wally Lamb answered the question I submitted, so I'm kind of freaking out right now! Truly a brush with greatness!"

I'm freaking, with you ! Yippee Skippy !

message 8: by Lindsay (new)

Lindsay Bruce Smith I am excited about this new book. Wally Lamb is my favourite modern author and I can't wait to read the book. I loved "She's come undone" and "I know this much is true"; they truly resonated with me as awesome (in the original sense) literature. On the other hand, "The Hour I first believed" was just a novel I read and one I didn't like very much at all. If I'd read that WL novel first, I never would have looked for another. I find it interesting, therefore, that the writing felt different for WL, because it felt to me like a book written from the head rather than the heart; the characters didn't live for me. So this is make or break time - will Wally Lamb keep his ranking on my list??!! I really hope so - I'm hoping for another book that enters my soul the way the first two did.

message 9: by Katherine (new)

Katherine Little Great interview -can't wait to read it.

message 10: by Kristin (new)

Kristin Awesome interview! Can't wait to read the book! :)

message 11: by Louisa (new)

Louisa I preordered his book (both ebook and audio) and cannot wait for October 22! Wally Lamb is such a fine person and his novels always touch a nerve within me. His outlook regarding "all things human" is so spot on. We are all more alike than not. His characters are always developed so completely and are relatable to me as a reader and a woman. I think this ability of Mr. Lamb's to see people with such an all encompassing eye makes the first person female characters in his books believable, despite the fact that he is a man. His gift as a writer is apparent regardless of the gender of the protagonist.
Here's hoping another novel is in the works. He never disappoints.

message 12: by Louisa (new)

Louisa Wally Lamb my favorite contemporary fiction writer.

message 13: by Missy (new)

Missy I've been waiting so long for a new Wally Lamb novel! Can't wait to buy this one!

message 14: by Christine (new)

Christine Definately buying this book! I read two of his books: She's come undone and I know this much is true, I love it.

message 15: by Louisa (new)

Louisa Just got We Are Water today on!!! So excited. Hope it's as good as it sounds from preview info. One of my favorite writers and have been waiting soooo long for a new novel to be published.

message 16: by Mo (last edited Oct 22, 2013 09:49PM) (new)

Mo Wally Lamb opened my mind, heart & soul about 17 years ago at a critical juncture in my life. After I read his She's Come Undone, I knew I finally had to find the courage to begin writing the novels that were coming alive in me and insisting on life outside the womb of my mind. They needed to be birthed by pen; and so I began. Wally wrote a girl & woman as if from the inside out. I was blown away and completely inspired again. His writing and that of Anne Marie Mac Donald's reminded me of what I'd always known I was born to do...but had avoided along the way for awhile. He may never know that the inspiration he passed on in his excellence of art, breathed renewed life into my heart at a most critical juncture in my life. I'd been an avid reader since childhood. I'd been writing as a closet writer since my youth. That one book of his was part of the beginning of a second life of hope. There have been many books by many others since... But Wally 's book was part of a life & game changer for me. M.A.Pigeon, author of Strange Things Done, to be published in 2014 with Friesen Press

message 17: by Mo (new)

Mo Regards above comment by M.A.Pigeon: I look forward to Wally Lamb's newest book: reading his books is 'better than chocolate'!
One of my questions was answered in his interview. The question appeared slightly edited and re-worded to perhaps include similar queries, but it was answered. Pretty wonderful experience here on Good Reads! Wally Lamb doing an interview for Good Reads and readers and writers having an opportunity to submit questions?! Pretty incredible. Than-You Mr. Lamb and Thank-You Good Reads!

message 18: by Louisa (new)

Louisa Re: comments above from Mo: loved your thoughts regarding Wally Lamb and think you have really accomplished something that has been a part of you always but is now coming to fruition with the publication of your book in 2014. Kudos to you and Wally Lamb for his inspiration. I wish you all the best and look forward to reading your book when it is published. Could you give me an idea if what your book is about? I'm very curious and interested in light of your comments about Wally Lamb's inspiration. Who is publishing your boom and how can I get a copy pre-ordered? Hope it will be available as an ebook and also would love to read and listen to your book with an audiobook if possible. Most of the books I enjoy most I read with the kindle and sudiobook at the same time. Just starting We Are Water now. Just came out yesterday and have been waiting so long for this book. I assume you will be reading this too ?? Would love to know your thoughts on this book. Let's hope it's as good as his others, especially I Know This Much Is True and She's Come Undone (my personal favorite).

message 19: by Samantha (new)

Samantha *Discovers that Wally Lamb wrote new book*

*Sprints to bookstore*

message 20: by Edgle (last edited Jan 07, 2015 11:51AM) (new)

Edgle Bennett omg Mr.Wally Lamb book "she's come undone' is a masterpiece. I can remember reading that book at work almost twenty years ago, its one of my top five

message 21: by Jill (new)

Jill Bolster I absolutely adore Wally Lamb and have read almost everything he has written. I loved his interview.

message 22: by Edgle (new)

Edgle Bennett @Jill, yes he's awesome!!

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