Wednesday, November 06, 2013

We Are Water: An Interview with Wally Lamb

Wally Lamb's novels She's Come Undone and I Know This Much is True were both selected for Oprah's Book Club before and after achieving best seller status. Lamb's novel The Hour I First Believed dealt with the after effects of the 1999 Columbine massacre. Wally's new book is We Are Water . Like his previous novels, this is a multi-layered family saga with unexpected turns and several possible endings, not all of them happy.

Wally Lamb is based in Connecticut. He spends a lot of time teaching creative writing to the inmates at York Correctional Institution. Couldn't Keep it To Myself: Testimonies of our Imprisoned Sisters and I'll 
Fly Away are the autobiographical writings of Wally's students at York.

I was able to speak with Wally Lamb by phone on October 23rd. His novels can be read and re read always offering new insights and new enjoyment. Here's our conversation.

CP: Creative Writing 101 tells us write about what you know. You've been quoted as saying you don't write about what you know, or you write about what you don't know

WL: (laughing) Right! And also who I don't know. I create these characters and they sort of lead me into the story. When I wrote a book called I Know This Much is True, I had no idea I was starting a book about identical twins, one of whom develops paranoid schizophrenia.  I didn't know that with this most recent book, We are Water--it's about a family, a husband and wife whose marriage falls apart after twenty-seven years and the wife goes off and falls in love with another woman, marries her.

I didn't realize their three grown children  were going to start speaking in this novel. These are not at all close to my own experiences, but I learn from them

CP: Your novels are about families, very often in some kind of tragedy or dysfunction. When you sit down to begin a book, are you filled with hope for whoever you create, for their lives, after the book is finished?

WL:  Yeah, I think in general I'm a glass half full guy. But I don't know going into the story if the characters are going to be okay, or what the dilemmas are that they are going to have to deal with. They leave,. There's a puppeteer and a puppet and I'm not necessarily the puppeteer.

CP: The Hour I First Believed your novel has the shooting at Columbine as its basis. To me, that tragedy was not the centerpiece of the book but the affect that horror had on a woman who witnessed it, and a domino effect of everything falling apart in her life. Are those things difficult to write?  You are moving toward historical fiction in a way, having to deal with an event that IS true?

WL:  They are difficult to write. But when I look back at the last couple of book I've written, I see I've been greatly influenced by the women at the York Correctional Institution. It's a women prison in Connecticut where I live. I've doing this program for fourteen years. I encourage them to write what the need to write about. Very often what they need to write about is their own lives, especially childhoods. They are not trying to make excuses. It's refreshingly not about that. They do examine some of the traumas in their lives, they connect the dots between those difficult childhoods and what eventually happened to them. I'm teaching them writing, but they're teaching me about life. One of the things that comes over and over and over is the post traumatic stress disorder that comes from childhood molestation. And so, I've gotten quite and education from the women at the prison.

CP: Annie, in We Are Water has had a horrible background as a child. She copes in her own way. She was not very nice to her son as he was growing up. Her former husband, has a traumatic accident. I didn't get that he was enraged about that. He seemed in a period of acceptance. This is towards the end of the novel

WL: I think the novel picks up about three years after the traumatic things that happens to him. He does talk about going through a very dark time and trying to accept his new limitations. There is an examination of how he went down for the count before he rebounded. I think one of things I love most about not only my characters but a lot of people that I meet and I know is he resilience of the human spirit

CP: I'm always fascinated by authors when they sit down that first day at the blank page or the blank screen You wrote a novel where in the first paragraph a man chops off his hand in the public library,.
Now, where did that come from?

WL: That's a great question, Christopher. It came from back when I was a high school teacher . I ran a writing center. I invited people who had been teenagers during the great depression to come in and talk to my students. One of the people who accepted the invitation was a guy that I didn't know . He had been a religious zealot back in the 1940s. He followed a biblical dictate that he believed would stop World War Two.  He made this sacrifice that he took off his hand, a year later he took out his eye,  All I could think of when he was telling this to the kids, to the class.  Oh My God! This oral history project is going on all over the country, and I get this guy!  But he became my subject. All the students were afraid to work with him. I saw in him a kind of screwed up valor. He was locked away in the state mental hospital for about forty years. But there was something brave, something sad and  courageous about this guy. He became the model for Dominic in I Know This Much is True

CP: Your books probably take along time to write because they are so multi-layered. But let me tell you right now, they are not put down books. They are easy reads in the best way. You cannot stop until you finish them. We are Water is certainly in that category.

WL: Oh, Christopher Thank you so much. That means a lot to me!

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