By Daniel Ford
I was in high school when my mother lent me her copy of Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True.
At that time, I was still finding my way as a reader. I was reading classics on my own and in class, but was just starting to branch out into modern fiction.
Lamb’s critically acclaimed novel was like a thunderbolt to my young mind. I may not have fully appreciated his characterization or writing style at that age, but I was enough of a reader to know great writing when I saw it and I Know This Much Is True is superb prose. In college, a good friend of mine—who has read everything Lamb has ever published—recommended I go back and read She’s Come Undone. The novel remains one of the best I’ve ever read. It’s a masterpiece that should be required reading.
Lamb published his latest novel, We Are Water, in October 2013 and it features deep, well-thought out characters and a memorable multi-narrator structure (the paperback edition is available Aug. 12). He talked to me recently about how he caught the writing bug, how he lets his protagonists take the wheel, and how his work with the York Correctional Institution has affected his writing.
Daniel Ford: When did you start writing? Was it something that came to you naturally or was it developed over time?
Wally Lamb: When I was a kid, I wasn’t particularly interested in writing or reading, but I loved to draw. My specialties were cartoons and comic books. It was only in retrospect that I realized I was preparing myself for a life as a writer with this hobby. I began writing fiction in earnest the summer I was 30. This was also the summer that I became a first-time dad, so for me the two are intertwined.
DF: As a Connecticut boy myself, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask how growing up in Connecticut influenced your early writing and your subsequent career.
WL: My hometown, Norwich, housed the largest state hospital for the mentally ill in Connecticut. The hospital campus both scared and fascinated me when I was a boy. And I’m from eastern Connecticut, which afforded me a different upbringing than if I’d grown up in the western part of the state. We root for the Red Sox, not the Yankees. We drop our "R’s" like Bostonians. I’ve quipped that western Connecticut is paté, and eastern Connecticut is liverwurst. My family was largely working class, as are most of my characters.
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you outline? Listen to music?
WL: I sometimes envy writers who can outline their stories and then write toward some preconceived ending. That seems like it would be a much more efficient way to write a novel than the way I do it, which is to write in a character’s voice and allow that character to take me into a story and reveal himself or herself a little at a time. The plot evolves from what the character reveals and I have no idea when I begin where the story will take me. For instance, when I wrote my second novel, I Know This Much Is True, I began with the angry voice of a character named Dominick. I had no idea then that he had a brother, much less an identical twin, or that that twin’s mental illness would circumscribe his own life into adulthood.
DF: She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True were best-sellers, featured on Oprah’s Book Club, and put you on the map as a writer. What were those early experiences like and how did they shape your mindset and career going forward?
WL: She’s Come Undone was picked by Oprah in 1997 (five years after its publication) and I Know This Much Is True in 1998, right after I finished that novel. It was like a pair of rides on a really cool roller coaster: a little scary but mostly fun. But then the ride was over and it was time to go to work on a new novel. The success of the first two novels intimidated me for a while; I was afraid to write because I was afraid to fail. My insecurity kept suggesting that I was a fake and that now everyone would find out. I had to let go of my focus on my readers’ reactions and rededicate myself to the reason why I started writing fiction in the first place: to discover and explore my own truths honestly and humbly.
DF: One of the defining characteristics of your novels is well-rounded characters that realistically and poignantly struggle to become better people. What’s your approach to character development?
WL: My approach is to sit in the passenger seat and let the protagonist drive the story. Slowly, the character reveals what I need to know: is he or she a reliable or unreliable narrator? Do other characters need to speak up, too? Does the main character’s childhood reveal who this person has become as an adult? After I complete a draft, I then have to begin again, going deeper with the knowledge I’ve accrued about this person. The real writing begins once you start sculpting the lump of clay you’ve generated—in other words, revising your highly imperfect initial draft.
DF: How has your experience as a volunteer facilitator at York Correctional Institution, a women’s prison in Connecticut, influenced your writing and how has it affected you in general?
WL: Through their writing and discussion, the incarcerated women with whom I work have opened my eyes to many realities about which I was previously ignorant: the injustice of the justice system with regard to people of color for one; the lack of mercy and relative indifference to rehabilitation in the American penal system for another; for a third, the sad fact that the majority of incarcerated women were victims of incest and/or violence as children. This has not only informed my fiction to some degree but also made me what I call an “accidental activist” for fairer treatment of our imprisoned populations. Once you hear the stories and see what sometimes goes on in prison, you can no longer unsee and unhear these things. Denial is no longer an option.
DF: There are multi-year gaps between your novels—including, of course, your collection of essays. Is that because of your teaching schedule or is your writing/editing process more deliberate than most writers?
WL: Both, I think, and also because I’m a pokey writer and, during bad writing stretches, a procrastinator.
DF: Was your writing process any different for your most recent novel We Are Water?
WL: Yes. We Are Water is not told by a single narrator, but by eight different voices: four female, four male. Thus, the story becomes a mosaic rather than a straight narrative that takes the reader from point A to point B and so on. This way of revealing the story allows the reader to become more interactive, I think. You have to decide whose viewpoints you trust and whose you don’t. Different readers root for different characters. I’m told that this makes for an interesting book discussion because not everyone is on the same page.
DF: Where did the inspiration for We Are Water come from and how did you go about developing your main characters?
WL: The novel has two non-fictional antecedents, both from my hometown. The first was a devastating flood that occurred in 1963; it destroyed much of the property in its path and took five lives. The second is what happened to an outside artist named Ellis Ruley, who painted obsessively but could not sell his work during his lifetime. He died under mysterious circumstances and his work is now prized by collectors of American folk art. The way I developed the story and the characters was by starting with these real-life events and people and then weaving a network of fabrications until they became their own thing. The actual flood and the life and death of Ellis Ruley were merely springboards into the fiction.
DF: All of the characters in the Oh family undergo a dramatic life change by the end of the novel. How do you decide which characters will find themselves stronger and which characters will be a lost cause?
WL: I don’t believe in lost causes, necessarily; I think that even a despicable character like Kent Kelly, who dies without redemption, could have been redeemed had he believed what I believe: that love is stronger than hatred, that good can triumph over evil. To ask how I “decide” the fate of my characters is to assume that I’m in control like an omnipotent god or a puppeteer pulling strings. It just doesn’t happen that way for me. The story gradually reveals itself to me. I don’t really feel as if I am in control.
DF: What advice do you give to up-and-coming writers?
WL: Humble yourself to the challenge of revision and seek feedback from others. Also, give feedback to other writers. I participate in writers’ groups and that has always been part of my process.
DF: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?
WL: I recently made a cameo appearance in the film version of my comic novella Wishin’ and Hopin’, which will be released later this year. I play a janitor—pretty funny because in real life I can’t fix a damn thing.