An Evening with Wally Lamb

Wally Lamb is one of my favorite authors. The themes in his work resonate with me. Interwoven in his stories about flawed characters struggling to find their way are themes of social injustice, racial prejudice and ways in which the powerful prey upon the powerless. And I like Lamb’s setting as his books are set in my home state of Connecticut.

On April 16 I had the opportunity to attend a presentation by Wally Lamb sponsored by the Friends of the West Hartford Public Library. The author of four New York Times bestsellers, including Oprah Winfrey Book Club selections She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much is True (my favorite) and The Hour I First Believed, Lamb read from his short novel, Wishing and Hoping, and his current book, We Are Water, and shared insights into his writing process. Here are some highlights:

The genesis of We Are Water: During a radio interview with a local station after Wishing and Hoping was published in 2009, Lamb was asked what was next for him. He wasn’t working on anything, but he didn’t want to “sound dopey,” so he told the interviewer he might write about the catastrophic flood that devastated his hometown of Norwich, Connecticut, in March of 1963. “It was total BS,” he recalled. The next day, the cousin of one of the families victimized by the flood called and put him in touch with her cousin, who survived the flood but lost his mother. The cousin, Tom Moody, was an engineer living in Texas. Moody and Lamb connected and shared their experiences. Moody later wrote a nonfiction book about the flood and Lamb used it as a major plot point in We Are Water.

Writing process: “I don’t have an outline. It doesn’t work that way for me,” he said. “A lot of people outline and work toward a preconceived ending. That is not something I can do. I always write in the first person and I let that person tell me what’s next and what’s next isn’t always chronological…It took me nine years for each of my first two books, six years for my third and four for We Are Water, so I must be doing something right.”

Transition from teacher to writer: Lamb taught English for 25 years at Norwich Free Academy and was later an associate professor who directed the creative writing program at the University of Connecticut. He runs a writing workshop at the York Correctional Center, a women’s prison in Niantic, CT. He said he grew frustrated as a high school teacher when he would write helpful comments in the margins of his students’ work and they would ignore them as they were only interested in the grade they received. He changed the format to a workshop so he could give feedback as the students wrote. “In truth I’m still teaching. It’s volunteer teaching now…As tough as the balancing act is, one feeds the other. I became a much better teacher of writing when I started writing…I threw out everything I thought I knew about how to teach writing and we would figure out what each person individually wanted to explore in their writing.”

Inspiration for his characters: In an interview with The Hartford Courant, Lamb said, “I’m always attracted to what outrages me. What outrages me more than anything else is stories about the powerful abusing the powerless.” He told the audience in West Hartford his characters are not based on his own life. “My characters’ lives don’t much resemble my own. What we share is that we are imperfect people seeking to become better people,” he said,

Why he writes: Lamb said he writes fiction to “move beyond the boundaries and limitations of my own experiences so I can better understand the lives of others…I write about people who have worse lives than I’ve had. I was only 21 when I started teaching and I realized a lot of people don’t have a fair shake. Life isn’t fair. I’ve always had a strong sense of empathy but it’s been honed through my writing where I can live life in their skin. That’s been a perk for me. It has stretched me beyond my limitations.”

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Book Review: This is How You Lose Her, By Junot Diaz

Infidelity is a major theme of Junot Diaz’s 2012 short story collection, This is How You Lose Her. If this was merely a recitation of the different ways in which men cheat on their women–and there’s a lot of that in the nine stories–it would be pretty unremarkable. But Diaz offers much more than A Cheater’s Guide to Love, the title of the last story.

Many of the stories center on Yunior, the character Diaz introduced in his earlier short story volume, Drown, and reprised in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Yunior, often described as Diaz’s alter ego, is a wonderful character–a young man who wants to do right, but is caught between his upbringing and his internal moral compass.

In Yunior’s world, the men cheat on their women. He watched his father, Papi, cheat on his mother, and his brother, Rafa, cheat on women, often in the bedroom the brothers shared. In “Miss Lora” Yunior as a teen ponders this as he lusts after an older woman. “You had hoped the gene missed you, skipped a generation, but clearly you were kidding yourself.” These little asides to the reader, as if he is a confidante of the character, are a hallmark of Diaz’s work.

What gives these stories of heartbreak and betrayal buoyancy is Diaz’s shimmering prose, a unique blend of scintillating narrative, Spanglish and street lingo. Diaz writes with an energy and intimacy that keeps the reader invested in the story.

“Invierno,” one of the best stories, describes the arrival of Yunior’s family from the Dominican Republic to a gritty urban locale in northern New Jersey. Papi won’t let Yunior or his older brother, Rafi, leave their small apartment, but toward the end of the story, their mom takes them out during a snowstorm, viewing things they’d never seen in their homeland. “We even saw the ocean, up there at the top of Westminster, like the blade of a long,curved knife. Mami was crying but we pretended not to notice. We even threw snowballs at the sliding cars and once I removed my cap just to feel the snowflakes scatter across my cold, hard scalp.”

The collection ends with a story in which Yunior has an epiphany. Cheating on a woman he truly loved, Yunior’s heart burns when she breaks up with him. It takes him years and he still is not over her. And that’s when he realizes, in Diaz’s beautiful words, “The half-life of love is forever.”

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Book Review: “On the Wild Coast,” by Patrick J. Lee

Like the country where she grew up, Alice Burley, the main character in Patrick J. Lee’s brilliant novel, “On the Wild Coast,” is caught between two lives. Alice struggles mightily  to come to grips with her past, find her identity and gain inner peace. Alice returns from the comfort of middle-class London to the remote outpost on the eastern coast of South Africa after learning she has inherited her childhood home in the shabby coastal town of Port Victoria.

The flashpoint for this story is the mysterious death of Martin deVilliers, a celebrity journalist whose body has washed up on the shores of Port Victoria. On her way to the region, Alice offers a ride to Mendi Mkhize, the chief magistrate, whose car has broken down. Mendi has been dispatched to Port Victoria to investigate the presumed murder, which in reality means he must determine whether it was a crime against a tourist.

Alice must decide whether to evict two elderly aunts, Alicia and Phyllis, from the family home and they are not exactly thrilled to see her. Alice must also decide what to do about her own life. Suffering from bipolar disorder, Alice has become unmoored as she deliberately eschews her medication in favor of an elite surfer she meets on the beach. Simon Scully could have been a champion, except that he tanked in every big competition. Alice is attracted to him because he lives in the moment and he becomes her lover.

While she enjoys her days with Simon, Alice learns that Menzi has arrested Breakdown for the murder and is holding him in a locked room adjacent to the general store. Alice tricks the store owner, Sammy, into releasing Breakdown, whose only crime was stealing and wearing the dead man’s clothes.

Alice’s internal struggles mirror the messy adjustment that the African National Congress has made in its ascension to power in South Africa. At one point Alice recalls watching her nation’s first democratic elections from London. “The country seemed full of the jumbled traffic of those going upwards to power and wealth bumping into those tumbling down…Yet, in Port Victoria, behind the barrier of the hills, the change was different. It was as though the present had arrived without completely displacing the past, and the two were wandering around in a blend.”

Lee has created a rich and colorful collection of local residents, and the supporting cast lends depth and humor to the story. Johnny Fourie is a fisherman so tough that he survived 15 hours in the choppy waters and sauntered ashore to attend his own wake. Clive Gilman is the owner of the shabby post colonial Cape Hamilton Hotel. Bob Peace is a burned out DJ who gets stoned and plays rock and roll records at an independent station called Radio Freedom. Woodstock is an outcast who makes a meager living doing odd jobs for Johnny. And then there is Breakdown, a larger than life homeless man who “scourged himself a habitat in the tidal zone between the ocean and the town, between civilized and wild.” That succinct and vivid passage describes everyone in Port Victoria. All of the characters are from somewhere else and find themselves in this region between the civilized and the wild.

And then there is Dom Marias, whose presence is almost spectral. Marias, who ran a community health clinic treating rebels during the war for freedom, has turned to growing marijuana, but he is fiercely protective of the town and its people.

In the end, Alice must confront painful things about her past and it is in resolving these long ago hurts that she is finally able to move on. It has been said that effective endings must be both surprising and inevitable. Lee has managed to craft a thoroughly satisfying ending that does both.

 

 

 

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Book Review: The Moon Sisters, by Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh’s second novel, The Moon Sisters, is a story about hopes and dreams, grief and loss. It is about the push and pull of family. It is ultimately about the contentious, but loving relationship between two sisters as they struggle to come to grips with their mother’s untimely death.

Jazz, the older sister, is in her early 20s. She is practical, focused on the future and sober-eyed. Olivia is four years younger. She is creative and high-spirited, a dreamer who suffers from synesthesia, a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sense leads to involuntary experiences in a second sense. Olivia can “smell sights (Papa was the fresh mown grass, the sun was Mama) or taste words…” The sisters’ fragile relationship is tested when Olivia embarks on a journey across their home state of West Virginia to fulfill her mother’s wish to see ghost lights at a cranberry bog, the key to writing a scene in her mother’s unfinished novel. Doubting Olivia can make the trip alone (she is legally blind from staring at the sun after her mother’s death) Jazz decides to drive them in her grandmother’s van. The van breaks down and ends up in a repair shop. Olivia decides impulsively to board a freight car with an odd assortment of train hoppers. Unknown to her, Jazz leaps aboard the train at the last second, clinging to a ladder for hours.

Fleeing the train at the next stop, the sisters are reunited. Jazz is furious with Olivia as her younger sister is determined to complete the long journey on foot. Jazz’s anger boils when she learns Olivia is in love with a mysterious, tattooed train hopper who calls himself Hobbs.

Walsh, co-founder of the popular writing blog, Writer Unboxed, writes each chapter in the voice of the two main characters, alternating between the distinct and different voices of Olivia and Jazz. The book is organized into five sections covering the five stages of grief.

Interspersed throughout the text are letters from their mother to her estranged father, who disowned her when she became pregnant with Jazz out of wedlock. The letters serve to give a sweet and spectral voice to Beth, the sisters’ mother.

Olivia’s quest is to find closure, but the long journey forces the sisters to confront their own hopes and dreams and in the process they learn about themselves and their relationship mends.

Walsh writes beautifully in vivid, lush prose. This long-awaited novel is a real treat.

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Revisions: The First Read-Through

In a recent post, I wrote that the essential initial step to revise a first draft is to read through the entire manuscript with a hyper-critical eye. During this read-through, resist the urge to make changes on the fly. Look at the overall story. Take notes on individual scenes. Strive to take a global view. What you are looking at is the story as a whole and how it hangs together. Or not.

The first key question you want to ask yourself is: what is the essence of the story? What is the story really about? What is the (dare I say it?) theme of the story? We’re not talking plot here. We’re talking about the main character’s internal challenge. That’s what drives the story. Once you know what your story is about, the next key question is: does your first draft pay off the theme? Is it clear to the reader what the story is about? Does the main character’s internal struggle shine through to the reader?

Revisions are on my mind these days. I am going through the first draft of my work-in-progress, tentatively titled, A Prayer for Maura. This was a National Novel Writing Month project from 2012. I really liked this story when I wrote it. I believed then, and still do, that it is a story that plays to my strengths as a writer and has loads of potential. Re-reading it for the first time, though, I realize it needs a lot of work.

I won’t go chapter by chapter, but I am four chapters into it and some of the scenes are good, while others just don’t work. Some need more setting and details, while others just don’t sing. Some of the writing is decent and some of it is, well, let’s say it is in need of some sharpening.

So far, I have resisted the urge to go in and start re-writing. I want to evaluate the first draft as a reader, but with the advantage of knowing where the story is going to go and how it is going to end.

At this stage, it is crucial to resist the urge to write or even edit. This is the thinking stage. The rewriting will come later.

What about you? How do you go about editing your first draft?

 

 

 

 

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Book Review: “The Goldfinch,” by Donna Tartt

Don’t be put off by the heft of this book. At 771 pages, The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt is not light reading on any level.

The Goldfinch starts off with Theo Decker, age 27, holed up in a hotel room in Amsterdam, deeply troubled, and then circles back to the shocking event that kicked off his extraordinary journey. Theo’s life changed forever when, as a 13-year-old boy, he and his mother, Audrey, are killing time before a dreaded appointment at his school for disciplinary reasons. Caught in a sudden thunderstorm, Audrey and Theo duck into the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When his mother decides to go to the gift shop, Theo stays behind to look at a painting, while entranced by a young girl who is at the museum with an older man. That’s when a terrorist explosion rips through the museum. In the hazy aftermath, the old man gives Theo a ring and urges him to take a painting that had fallen to the floor, The Goldfinch, painted in 1654 by Carel Fabritius. A Dutch painter, who ironically died in a gunpowder explosion, Fabritius was Rembrandt’s pupil and Vermeer’s teacher.

With Theo’s dad, a failed actor, alcoholic and gambler, out of the picture, the 13-year-old boy ends up in the posh Park Avenue home of classmate, Andy Barbour. He traces the ring back to an antique shop in Greenwich Village called Hobart and Blackwell and eventually meets James “Hobie” Hobart, who explains that Weldon Blackwell was the old man who died in the terrorist bombing and the young girl was Pippa, his niece. Hobie, a gentle and thoughtful man, takes Theo under his wing and teaches him the furniture restoration trade. Pippa, injured in the bombing, comes to be viewed by Theo as his soul mate and the only person who can understand the ordeal they both endured.

As Theo struggles to adjust to life with the well-heeled Barbours, his AWOL father shows up with his pill-popping girlfriend, Xandra. They spirit poor Theo away to a never-finished housing development on the outskirts of Las Vegas, where he befriends a similarly motherless immigrant from the Ukraine, the irrepressible Boris Pavlikovsky, the most captivating character in the book. While his dad is gambling and Xandra is off working, Theo and Boris pass the time watching TV, drinking beer and getting high. They scavenge for food and shoplift to get whatever they need.

The painting is sealed in a pillowcase hidden under Theo’s bed. For years, Theo battles against the natural instinct to turn in the painting, but he hangs onto it. The painting is a connection to something beautiful and a reminder of his mother and it soothes his aching heart.

Theo eventually finds himself back in New York City and Hobie becomes his temporary guardian. His turbulent journey to adulthood includes heavy drug use and a harrowing experience with underworld associates of Boris.
This is as much a book about the intersection of art and life as it is about the journey of a flawed young man. The value of an artistic work, in this case the pilfered painting, lies in its simple beauty and what Theo sees as his connection to his mother.

Tartt is an accomplished writer whose vivid and incisive prose infuses every page with energy. Despite the book’s length, the story never drags. Theo’s final reflections provide a superb capstone to this powerful story. Theo speaks about a middle zone between reality and where the mind strikes reality, “a rainbow’s edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.”

Theo continues the thought, “And—I would argue as well—all love…”

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All Aboard! Writer-in-Residence Program on the Rails

I travel 12-15 times a year on business, so flying is second-nature to me. I can’t say I enjoy it, but I’m used to it. Recently, I had the opportunity to take two train trips on Amtrak from Hartford, Connecticut, to Trenton, New Jersey. I must confess, when it comes to traveling, I prefer trains. The seats are comfortable, there’s more leg room and there are electrical outlets and wi-fi for internet connectivity.

A colleague at work told me about an intriguing program. Though it’s not advertised, Amtrak has started a pilot writer-in-residence program. Here’s the deal: a writer can book a trip on long routes and travel for free, as long as she blogs about it on social media.

The idea came from an interview with Alexander Chee, which was linked from a tweet. Chee said he liked the train best for writing and wished Amtrak had a writer-in-residence program. Writer Jessica Gross read the interview and tweeted about it. Amtrak offered Gross a free round trip from New York to Chicago on the Lake Shore Limited. All Amtrak asked was for Gross to tweet about the trip and give an interview with their social media team.

What’s so great about writing on a train? In an interview with The Wire, Gross described the train ride as a “unique environment for creative thought,” one that “takes you out of normal life.”

Gross detailed her experience in depth in the Paris Review. She wrote:

“Writing requires a dip into the subconscious. The lockbox, at times kept tightly latched in our daily lives, is pried open, and things leak onto the page that we only half knew were there. Boundaries help to contain this fearful experience, thereby allowing it to occur. Looking around at my fellow passengers gives me an anchor to the world: my fantasies, my secret desires, aren’t going to get anyone killed. We’re all okay here; we’re all here, here.”

The train is an ideal environment for writing. It is a confined space, yet the writer has a sense of movement. There are stops in different cities to break up the routine. It’s great for people-watching. And it’s a comfortable place to write.

Amtrak officials say there is no application process set up and they are not sure whether they can offer a free ride to any writer, since there is a cost to the cash-strapped rail service. I am intrigued and I want to check it out.

What about you? Would you find the train an appealing writing environment?

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