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.”