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The Library of Congress > Poetry & Literature > Interview Series > “Coming to Terms with the Family You Were Given and Finding the Family You Need”: Wally Lamb
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Wally Lamb is the author of four New York Times best-selling novels: Wishin’ and Hopin’, The Hour I First Believed, I Know This Much is True, and She’s Come Undone and was twice selected for Oprah’s Book Club. His most recent novel is We Are Water.Lamb also edited Couldn’t Keep It to Myself and I’ll Fly Away, two volumes of essays from students in his writing workshop at York Correctional Institution, a women’s prison in Connecticut, where he has been a volunteer facilitator for the past 14 years. He has won numerous awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts grant and the Connecticut Center for the Book’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Wally Lamb

Interview

This interview was conducted over email by Jillian Davis.

Your most recent novel, We Are Water, shares themes and plot points with your debut work, She’s Come Undone, including: childhood sexual abuse, a professor-husband’s romantic involvement with a student, and the characters’ fascination with the ocean. What do you see as the relationship between these two books, and the different ways the characters respond to the above?

The writer and writing teacher Donald Murray once noted that we write to bear witness, and in doing so, we return over and over to the themes that compel us to testify. Murray identified three themes in his fiction, poetry, and essays to which he cycled back repeatedly: the pain of having been labeled “stupid” as a boy, the horror of war (he was a combat infantryman), and the heartbreak of his child’s premature death. As I was writing We Are Water, I was not conscious that I was cycling back to material I had investigated two decades earlier in She’s Come Undone, but perhaps I needed to do so. The plot points of child sexual abuse and emotional entanglements between students and teachers hearken back to a disturbing situation I witnessed as a first-year high school teacher in 1973. Unbeknownst to me, one of my students—a sweet, intelligent 15-year-old—had been seduced into an affair with a married colleague of mine who was the father of two young children. When this student became pregnant, she disappeared from campus and my colleague lost his job. For nearly 40 years now, I have wondered and worried about my abused student, the child she bore, and the impact on the offending teacher’s wife and his other children. His was a terrible abuse of power and a betrayal of the trust that is extended to educators, and it continues to haunt and anger me. I suppose that’s the crux of the relationship between She’s Come Undone and We Are Water. Dolores in the former story and Annie in the latter may be projections of that adolescent student I once knew whose innocence was stolen by a sexual predator

The part the ocean plays in both We Are Water and She’s Come Undone is less painful to explore and easier to decipher. I grew up in Connecticut, 30 minutes away from the Rhode Island shore, and I loved the beach as a kid—particularly during hurricane season when the waves could become powerful and wild. My favorite vacation spot is Cape Cod in Massachusetts, where I enjoy riding the surf, spotting whales and seals, and walking miles of beach. I think I am most in touch with my spiritual side when I look out on the open sea. Its vastness and churning movement humble me and remind me of my own insignificance in the grand scheme of things, provided that there is a grand scheme—that it’s not all just random. The ocean has that same questioning, humbling effect on my characters whom, like me, negotiate and ponder its two-sidedness: the fact that can both sustain and destroy life.

Five of your seven books have titles in the first person. Do you see these titles as an extension of the characters’ perspective, of the author’s voice—who do you include in the knowing or being (i.e., The Hour I First Believed and We Are Water)? Are the titles a commentary on the characters or by the characters?

I have never had acting experience, but when I hear actors discuss their craft, I often nod with familiarity. Each of the five novels I’ve written has a first-person narrator—or, in the case of We Are Water, no fewer than eight first-person narrators. When I go to work each day, I sit before the computer or the lined pad and become someone other than who I really am. I feel fortunate to be able to do so because this allows me to push past the boundaries and limitations of my own relatively happy life and inhabit other skins—much in the way that an actor on a stage or in front of a camera becomes someone else. As a novelist, I have transformed myself into an obese teenage girl, the identical twin of a brother afflicted with paranoid schizophrenia, the husband of a Columbine High School shooting survivor, a parochial school fifth grader, and a pedophile and his victim. The titles of these novels are commentaries by the characters, but what I attempt to do in each story is speak in a specific fictional voice that I hope might, in some way, be about the reader’s life, too.

Many of the most important turning points in your characters’ lives are centered on trauma and loss. Do you think that the way people process these events is what defines them?

I don’t think people’s processing of trauma and loss necessarily defines them fully, but these surely influence the course of their lives. I was 12 years old when a dam collapsed at the northern end of my hometown, releasing millions of gallons of lake water that cut a path of death and destruction. Among the dead was a 27-year-old mother who drowned in the flood waters after helping rescue her three sons, ages four, two, and six months. I drew on that remembered local tragedy when I wrote We Are Water and, in the course of my research, became friends with those three little boys—who are now well-adjusted, middle-aged family men. Each has a successful career and a great sense of humor. Were these three brothers greatly impacted by the loss of their mother on that terrible night and the reality of having grown up without her? Certainly. But are they defined solely by tragedy and loss? No.

For the past 15 years, I have volunteered at a maximum-security women’s prison where I facilitate a writing program. Most of my students there had terrible things done to them as children and many have been convicted of having done terrible things. Some are serving life sentences and will die in prison. Yet each is a complicated equation not fully defined by the trauma she endured or the crime for which she has lost her freedom. In my novel The Hour I First Believed, Maureen Quirk, afflicted with PTSD and drug addiction after the Columbine trauma, must discover how to live a useful life in prison. In I Know This Much Is True, Dominick Birdsey must ride a roller coaster of emotional responses to his twin brother’s mental illness. In We Are Water, Andrew Oh must struggle with the grim truth that he killed a man in a rage and has not been caught. Should he keep his dark secret or reveal it? In my fiction, I’m interested in examining and depicting not only the ways in which trauma and loss derail the lives we may have imagined or planned, but also, and more importantly, how our responses to these can attest to the resilience of the human spirit. Thankfully, I have not had to endure the tragedies that befall my characters. But what we share in common is this: we are imperfect people living less-than-perfect lives yet trying to become better people.

Has your work with the female inmates of the York Correctional Institution changed the way you write your female characters? If so, how?

I grew up with older sisters and older girl cousins who lived next door. The only other boy on McKinley Avenue was a rock- and snowball-thrower named Vito, which didn’t exactly make him great playmate material. A loner, I frequently was thrust into the role of observer of my sisters’ and cousins’ exotic games of pretend—not a bad perspective for someone who will grow up and become a fiction writer. The girls were cowgirls and stagecoach robbers one day, Amazons in sarongs (old curtains) the next, harem girls the day after that. In the latter fantasy, I was enlisted to play the minor role of a sultan named Kingy Boy, which required me to sit cross-legged on the floor with a bath towel wrapped around my head turban-style and say things like “Peel me a grape” while they danced and undulated around me. All this to say that, from an early age, I became immune to the spell of “the feminine mystique.” I’ve always felt comfortable among, sympathetic toward, and amused by females, and I am aligned with and supportive of the tenets of feminism. This has served me in my interactions with the women of York Prison and my goals for them as writers.

If I have taught my incarcerated students a thing or two about how to write more effectively, they have taught me a number of things, minor and major, about life—everything from how to talk “street” and how to cook an English muffin pizza with a plastic bag and a hair dryer to how to use humor, art, writing, and sharing as survival tools in a harsh and institutionally hostile environment.

I reject the supposition that men are marooned on Mars and women on Venus, and that each gender, therefore, is doomed never to understand the other. That rejection has allowed the women of York Correctional Institution to give me the gift of their trust. Whenever they hand me writing in which they expose the hard truths and long-buried secrets of their pasts, or they read their highly personal pieces aloud to the group for the purpose of getting feedback, I am an eye- and ear-witness to acts of courage and generosity. Perhaps that’s the most impactful thing these students have taught me about writing and life: that taking risks, no matter how risk-averse one may be, will pay dividends in ways you might never have imagined.

The main characters in She’s Come UndoneI Know This Much Is True, and We Are Water create new families through remarriage and/or adoption. Do you think that they are simply repeating old patterns, or have they learned how to do it right at last?

My contemporary novels are built on a scaffolding of ancient myth and stories from antiquity—tales that have withstood the test of time because people have needed them to be told and retold down through the ages. Believe it or not, Dolores’s story arc in She’s Come Undone mimics that of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey: a character leaves the restrictive safety of home port, goes out into the world and gets beaten up and bloodied, does some beating up and bloodying, and eventually returns home to test his/her mettle as a changed and better person. I Know This Much Is True is based on an eerie Hindu myth I read in anthropologist Heinrich Zimmer’s The King and the Corpse. It’s the tale of an ineffectual ruler who learns the value of humility and responsibility by solving the riddles put before him by a sarcastic talking cadaver. I hope never to pen a protagonist so static and stunted that he or she simply repeats old patterns without having learned from the conflicts that have been negotiated. I would never ask readers to waste their time on so clueless a character, so pointless a plot. Book critic Susan Larsen once described the meaning of She’s Come Undone much betterand more succinctly than I ever have when she noted that it is a novel about coming to terms with the family you were given and finding the family you need.