Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Interview with Wally Lamb, bestselling author of The Hour I First Believed, She's Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True

Author Interview: Loaded Questions with bestselling author Wally Lamb

Its 4:00 am the day before Thanksgiving. Everyone else who has gathered to celebrate the holiday the next day has already gone to sleep but I've been sitting up for hours trying to will myself to put Wally Lamb's latest novel, The Hour I First Believed, down. I hadn't intended this, was going to bed at 11 pm when I suddenly remembered that the book had arrived a few days earlier and that I had packed it in my bag. Just to help me fall asleep, I think, cracking the book open.

Four hours later the sun is beginning to rise and I am sitting in the exact same spot on top of the covers, the bedroom light on. I haven't slept and when I say that I don't mean that I have tried to lay down but just haven't been able to sleep, I mean quite literally -- my eyes never closed.

It had become my ritual to check Amazon every few months for any sign of a Wally Lamb release on the horizon. I didn't know that he'd been working on a book since 1999, fresh off of a public sensation that was the result of one of his novels, I Know This Much Is True, being picked as an Oprah Book Club book for the second time in his short career. The fact that it had taken him so long, that he had been years late on his deadline, meant nothing to me when I first saw the new title pop up in the search window. From that moment on I was ready to be swept up by what has become Wally Lamb's style: a painfully true novel that looks at the lives of real people in crisis, coping or not.

The Hour I First Believed
is great novel, worth wait -- maybe even enriched by the wait. The main character, Caelum Quirk, is a middle-aged teacher on his third marriage who moves to Littleton, Colorado, where he gets a job at Columbine, to escape an embrassing situation and so that his wife, Maureen who works at Columbine as a nurse, can be closer to a father she'd never been able to connect with. There may be a certain reaction to finding out that the novel is, partly, based upon the events that took place at Columbine High School in 1999 but prospective readers should know that that horrific occurrence is not dramatized in the novel, not justified, recreated or glorified. Lamb instead considers the violence that took place at Columbine and uses his characters Caelum and Maureen Quirk to look at what happens after such a traumatic event, whether memories of such an event ever fade. The novel consists of a number of characters experiencing crisis and hardship and how each of them responds in their own way. I think you will see from the interview below and in the second part to be published tomorrow that Wally Lamb is an author that has a great deal of emotion and feeling for those involved in school violence and it occurred to me, while talking with him, that it was that emotion and connection that lead Lamb to give The Hour I First Believed the proper time and attention.

Despite my nervousness Wally Lamb was easy to chat with, the interview quickly taking the form of a conversation. He discusses his writing habits, his experiences with the Oprah Book Club and the appearance of Thomas and Dominic Birdsey (two integral characters from Lamb's bestselling I Know This Much Is True) in his new novel.

I look forward to sharing this interview with Loaded Question readers, literature junkies and Wally Lamb fans more than any interview we have done in the past. Please feel free to leave comments about your reaction to this interview, your feelings about the novel, etc.

Amazon is currently featuring The Hour I First Believed for 40% off, click here for more details.


Kelly Hewitt: I know that you have just returned from a book tour for The Hour I First Believed, how has that been going?

Wally Lamb: Yeah, I actually just got back from the first leg of the tour, I go back on the road on Saturday or Sunday. It was really a lot of fun, exhausting of course but I met some great people and had some really nice audiences. When I was in Minneapolis I went and was interviewed at the Fitzgerald Theater which is where they do the Prairie Home Companion so I got to sign the wall there, that kind of thing. The signings have gone well, so yeah, I have had a really good time. My only problem was that my last gig was in Fargo, North Dakota and at that point I was so tired that I fell asleep at the gate and jumped onto the plane at the last minute and left my laptop behind in North Dakota.

Kelly: Oh no!

Wally Lamb: Other than that things have been going well. We did a signing down in New Orleans, a reading and a signing and two of my sons are down there teaching in the inner city and so I had a nice reunion with them and that was great too.

Kelly: Very good. You're a trooper, I sometimes take one trip and sometimes lose things and fall asleep at gates. I can't imagine traveling that long.

Wally: [laughs] After awhile you start to pick up a rhythm and of course the book company hires these media escorts that meet you at the airplane so they drive you around from place to place, wherever you need to be, to the interviews and stuff so that stress is taken away from you. So it's all good.

Kelly: I was interested in preparing to talk to you that you often read classic novels and ancient works to familiarize yourself with the kind of stories that have lasted over time and that people really connect to.

Wally: Yeah mythology. I had very good advice early on. I had a wonderful writing teacher named Gladys Swan who told me, you know, you're never really going to tell an original story because all of the stories that people have needed, sort of like the real humane and human stories that reveal human behavior and human values, they are already out there. So the best you can do is to put your spin on that. I am sure I looked at her kind of doppily and didn't know what she was talking about but she said to go and read some ancient myths, that's what you need to do. Those are the stories that have lasted longer than any of the others. I began to do that and I discovered people like Claude Levi Strauss and Joseph Campbell and those people who have studied how the myths of a lot of different cultures are very similar to one another. So, consequently, for each of three novels I have a myth or, in the case of this novel a couple of myths, that form the spine of the contemporary story that I am telling. Now, as a reader you don't need to know that, those stories are just sort of a guidepost for me.

Kelly: Well that was part of my next question, is there a particular story or myth that you read in preparation for The Hour I First Believed?

Wally: Yeah, the story – you know I started investigating this Columbine stuff, I kind of fell into it accidentally, actually, when I got on the Internet this tidal wave of stuff about Columbine kind of both interested and disturbed me. And so the myth that was sort of used as the backbone was the myth of Theseus who goes into the labyrinth, he's got to confront the monster in the middle which is the Minotaur. That began to really resonate and in a sense both my character Caelum and I kind of took on what I came to see as the two-headed monster of Dylan Kelbold and Eric Harris. It was important for me to deal with the actual rather than to fictionalize a Columbine-like setting.

Kelly: As a reader I am glad that you handled it that way.

Wally: Oh, really?

Kelly: Yeah, it was a real event and this way it forces the reader and you the author to deal with the real world seriousness of the events. It doesn't need to be fiction, right? Because it was such an important event that we shouldn't be allowed to escape from.

Wally: I think we still need to keep examining that, you know? I was a little bit nervous about how people who were actually involved at the high school that day or who lived in Littleton, how they were going to react to it and I guess I will probably know when I go back out on the tour. One of my first stops will be in Colorado. But, I felt kind of validated by the people I have met in other cities who had a Littleton connection or in a couple of cases people who are now in their twenties who were students at the time at Columbine. I felt very reassured that they were saying that they were glad that I have taken up this subject matter because they don't want the people of Columbine to be forgotten. There have been so many subsequent school shootings that, I think we need to keep looking at this thing.

Kelly: The book does deal with some pretty heavy material with the events of Columbine and the effect of tragic events on the people who live through them. I wonder, as a school teacher of twenty-five years were you ever afraid of school violence? Was that something that occurred to you?

Wally: Well, certainly nothing of that scope. I remember one time fairly early on in my teaching career, it was after school. One kid was bullying and chasing after another kid and I stopped them both in the hallway and I said to the kid who was sorta being chased, I said “What's the matter?” and he said “He's got my gun!” and I thought there was some kind of kidding or that he was exagerating but low and behold the other kid handed over his pistol and that's probably the closest I came to it. There was no danger. There was no gun fire. But, you know, it could happen and I reacted to Columbine not just as a teacher who could pretty much emphasize with what it might be like but also as a father too. You have to have great empathy for those parents of those families.

Kelly: Right. I read in another interview that you knew some people or, some people who knew people who had been involved in a school attack first hand and that you had talked to...

Wally: Yeah, one in particular and that was the one in Paducah, Kentucky and that was actually before Columbine and it was my cousin's daughters who were at that high school and they knew the older sister of the shooter and I would think about her and worry about her and wonder, you know, how she was doing. And Klebold and Harris they both have older siblings, each of them had an older brother who maybe a couple years earlier who had gone through Columbine High School and I worry about those kids too. I mean certainly there's the victims and their families but when your siblings became infamous your family name is in the news in this horrible way. What happens to these collaterally damaged people? That was kind of my entry into it.

Kelly: That's interesting, because we often don't here a lot about the siblings and family members.

Wally: Right and I can understand why they would want to go underground. I think I feel just as much empathy towards the Klebold and Harris families as I do the victim's family because, you know, they are victimized too and they will certainly never get over it. Also, I think too that my work with the women at the Connecticut Maximum Security Prison, which started at the same time I started the novel, that certainly fed into my understanding of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder because many of the women I work with suffer from that. (Interviewer's note: It is while working with this prison that Lamb edited two collections of stories written by his inmate students: Couldn't Keep It To Myself and I'll Fly Away) Some of them have done these terrible things and have had pretty traumatic things done to them particularly in their childhood. It kind of makes you connect the dots and look at the bigger picture. PTSD certainly comes into play when a lot of the soldiers come back from Iraq and Afghanistan and also the people who lived through Katrina.

I have two sons who are teaching down in New Orleans and one of them was there teaching school in the 9th Ward when Katrina happened and so he had to evacuate and he taught in Houston for a year and he was working with 6th graders and many of them have suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome from Katrina.

Kelly: So both of your sons became teachers?

Wally: Yeah, they both entered the Teach America program and our older boy now is a principal, he's only twenty-seven, but he's a principal at one of the charter schools that have sort of blossomed in the wake of Katrina. Our younger son teaches writing down there at a school called The Langston Hughes Academy. [laughs] There are both charter schools. The one benefit that has come out of Katrina is – you know it was such a broken and chaotic school system down there in New Orleans and now it is being replaced to a larger extent by these charters and are really doing great things for the kids now.

Kelly: After your novel She's Come Undone was selected as an Oprah Book Club choice and became very popular there were a lot of readers who registered some surprise that a man had written a female character with such skill ...

Wally: Oh yeah. That's still one of the questions that I get a lot in readings and stuff.

Kelly: Well, it's been sixteen years since the book has been published and I guess maybe you answered my question which was, do you think that things have changed that a novel like She's Come Undone written from a female prospective by a male author would still be such a surprise to readers?

Wally: I don't know, I think it certainly has been more common for female writers to write male characters than the opposite. But, yeah I think people would still stand up and take notice. I tell you, I have never been one to prescribe to this theory that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. I think if you scratch the surface we're more alike than different. Let's face it, we all come from male and female – that's how we're created. So, yeah to some extent I think that it is marketable to sort of focus on how different guys are from women. But I've just never. . . I guess if men are from Mars and women are from Venus I am just an intergalactic traveler. [laughs]

Stay tuned for part two of our exclusive interview with Wally Lamb tomorrow. Tomorrow Wally and I chat talk about where he came up with the name Caelum Quirk, his writing rituals and the occasional appearance of Thomas and Dominic Birdsey, well known characters from I Know This Much Is True, in his new novel.


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