Saturday, December 6, 2008

Wally Lamb: Loaded Questions with the bestselling author of "The Hour I First Believed" Part Two

The more I read over the transcript of the interview I conducted with Wally Lamb a week or so ago the more I realize what an interesting and geuinely pleasant individual he was. Having read both of his first two books, I Know This Much Is True and She's Come Undone, as a young adult not long after I realized the joys of reading books that weren't assigned, I would say I have an attachment to the style of Wally Lamb's writings. It was partly because Lamb's novels played such an important role in my foundation literary likes and dislikes that I was very nervous to talk with him and particularly hopeful that he was amiable and interesting. I think it becomes very clear in the second part of this interview that we had a good deal of fun talking. I know from reading countless Lamb interviews that some of the information he has shared in the second half of the the interview below is new and exclusive. He shares some very interesting coincidences where his characters are concerned, the very organic nature of his book's plots and finally the interesting way he begins looking for new material.

Read Part One of our Interview with Wally Lamb, here.


Kelly: I also read in one of your previous interviews that often head over to the fiction floor of your library to write.

Wally Lamb: Yeah! I live at the back door of the University of Connecticut, in fact I taught there for awhile, but it's about a ten minute drive to get over there and a lot of She's Come Undone was written in long hand on the fourth floor of that library. Because of the way that I write, I have to sit down and discover what the story is, I am not one of these writers who can outline the whole thing and write toward a preconceived ending, I have to sit down and sort of find out what is going to happen. Very often, because that is my way of doing it, I get stuck and hit the wall. So if I am working in the library I can get up from the study carol where I am sitting and just sort of wander around and read the spines of the books, the titles and stuff, and lots of times I make discoveries that I would not have made had I not done that. Wandering in a library is definitely part of my technique.

Kelly: Right. One of the biggest discoveries that I have read about you making in the library was the one related to the Birdsey twins (from I Know This Much Is True).

Wally: Yeah that's right because I had an ancient myth and the troubled brother of the main character and I happened upon this book and it was by Claude Levi Strauss who was one of those guys who investigates myths. I opened the book and this xerox fell out of it, it was obvious that a student had been doing a paper or something and had xeroxed this article. I picked up the article and it said "Harelips and Twins" and suddenly it came to me. Oh my god, these guys are twins, they're identical twins and when I made that discovery that's when I could understand that character Dominic Birdsey and his anger and the fact that underneath his anger was this fear.

I had a similar thing with this novel, The Hour I First Believed. I was wandering again and I came upon a book called The Logic of the Labyrinth and I opened it up and I was reading about labyrinths, mythology and labyrinths in English gardens and all that kind of stuff. And then I read this thing about the irony of the maze and you're stuck in the middle of it and it is illogical, nonsensical and confusing but if you rise above it you can see that there is an order and there is a way out. So that became the metaphor of the book and I divided the novel into two parts. One is Butterfly is kind of an investigation of how chaos can screw up our lives and send us reeling in different directions that we hadn't planned on. Then part two, Mantis, is kind of like looking from above, down at the labyrinth and seeing that there is some sort of ordering principle to it all, there is a meaning to life whether it's spiritual or otherwise. So chaos and order, all part of this dichotomy.

Kelly: I think that's great. You've probably just inspired an entire generation of aspiring authors to go wandering around their local libraries.

Wally Lamb: [laughs] I just hope that when I gab on like this I'm not sounding like my own Spark Notes.

Kelly: [laughs] The other part of that question was whether or not you ever get recognized at the library.

Wally: Oh yeah, plenty of times. I tell you, I work in writer's groups and there's this one group -- people ask me "Where did you come up with that name Caelum?" and the character in the first draft that I wrote was name Milo Quirk and one day I was meeting with my writing group in a sandwich shop across from the university and this undergraduate comes up and says, "Excuse me for interrupting. Are you Wally Lamb?" I said "Yeah". And then he said "Oh, you named one of your characters after my sister." It turned out to be true, my wife is an elementary school teacher and she once had a student she liked and her name was Zahra and I liked that name so I named a Cocker Spaniel in She's Come Undone after her, Zahra. So this kid comes up to me and I am afraid he's going to be made because I named a Cocker Spaniel after his sister but he didn't. He smiled and said "Do you think you could name a character after me?" and I said "Well, I don't know, what's you name?" He told me his name was Caelum and he spelled it out for me and I said "Well, no promises." Then I went home and I was thinking it over -- Milo or Caelum and finally Caelum won out. So, not only did I name a character after him, I named the main character after him.

Kelly: That is amazing! You're going to have to call that family the next time you write a book to see if there are anymore siblings. [laughs]

Wally Lamb: Right. [laughs] Gotta keep it all equal.

Kelly: I thought it was really interesting that you placed the main character from The Hour I First Believed, the aforementioned Caelum Quirk, in the same class as Dominic and Thomas Birdsey. Can fans of I Know This Much Is True expect to see the paths of Caelum Quirk and the Birdsey twins cross?

Wally Lamb: Yeah. I'll tell you why I did that. First of all, I have created this town, they both have this fictional town as a setting, I call it Three Rivers, Connecticut, but it is sort of based on my home town and a couple of towns that I have lived in: Norwich, CT; New London, CT and Willamantic, CT where I have an office. It is a hybrid of three Connecticut working class towns. So I sort of figured that logically they are all living in a small town and it is credible that they might run into each other from time to time. So that's one of the reasons why I did that. The other reason is that I am really grateful to the people who have loved my work, people really seem to be invested in the characters, not only Thomas and Dominic but Delores from She's Come Undone, the first novel. So that's sort of my way of waving a hello and thanks to these people that have loved those characters. I am sort of giving the allusion that, okay, they are still out there, they are still struggling but doing okay.

Kelly: Would you ever return to any of the characters from your previous novels?

Wally Lamb: I did once, when I finish a novel it's not mine anymore. I let it go and it belongs to the readers, not me. But, I did go back to the characters from She's Come Undone when I was writing the screenplay for that novel. When you write screenplays there's a lot that you have cut out, you have to take a several hundred page novel and turn it into a one hundred and fifteen page script. A lot ends up on the cutting room floor. One of the things that was fun for me was that as I cut out I created new scenes for those characters. So, that's the only time I have ever gone back. I don't know what's around the corner for me. I do really like this fictional town so there may be minor characters that I can begin to make major characters -- I'm not sure.

Kelly: Interesting. Do you know that status of the She's Come Undone movie, has it been optioned or whatever those words are for a movie that's in the beginning process?

Wally Lamb: Both She's Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True both started out as
options and then both were bought by movie studios. She's Come Undone is with Warner Brothers and I Know This Much Is True is with 20th Century Fox. It is a long, long process development stuff. The projects heat up and then cool down, major stars have been attached to them and then they detach. For She's Come Undone Reese Witherspoon was going to produce and star in it. Will Smith was very interested for awhile in playing the twins in I Know This Much Is True. But what happens, because Hollywood is more about money than art, when some of these major stars express interest everyone holds their breath but the problem is that they are being offered not just your project but another five hundred projects. So, both projects stalled when they were interested so they decided to go elsewhere. They are still viable projects but a lot of years have gone by and I don't know if they will ever be made. One of the things you learn to do is write your name on the back of the check and realize that it's beyond your control.

Kelly: And never look back. [laughs]

Wally: [laughs]

Kelly: I know that this last novel too you quite awhile.

Wally: It did. [laughs]

Kelly: You were a few years past your deadline.

Wally: Yeah, like double past. I am always nervous when I have to talk to journalists who have to make their deadline because fiction writers, you know, as long as your publisher is willing to hang in there with you you can take the time you need to develop. The unfortunate thing is that it does take me a long time to come up with these stories but ultimately I needed that much time and I needed -- I was reacting to a lot of things that were happening in our country and in our world and that sort of got woven into the story. It took what it took. But thankfully Harper Collins was patient.

Kelly: I read a quote from you that you said you could have signed a three or four book deal but you weren't interested in mortgaging the rest of your life.

Wally: Right. I want to take it one at a time because I don't know how many stories I have in me. Each one has been more difficult to write than the one before it and I don't want to promise that I am going to create four more books and then decide that I only want to write two more. I am taking it slowly.

Kelly: We'll be interviewing the author of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle later this week . . .

Wally: Oh yeah! Have you read that book?

Kelly: Well, I -- this is such a sad story. The publisher was nice enough to send a copy of the book to me and I went on vacation to Hawaii. I was so excited that I had it and so I packed along with me and I left it in my hotel room. So . . .

Wally: You sound like me.

Kelly: I know, I wasn't joking earlier about losing things while traveling. I am just going to have to swallow my pride and go and buy a copy just like everyone else. [laughs] But, I am wondering, looking back what sort of advice you would give to a fairly new novelist who has been selected for such an honor.

Wally: Are you talking about the Oprah Book Club?

Kelly: Yeah.

Wally: Well, I would say it's a real exciting, thrilling roller coaster ride. Enjoy the dips and the turns around corners and then when the ride is over get off the roller coaster and start again, humbly. You know, there's nothing more humbling than the blank page. I think it is crucial that you write the story for yourself and don't worry about whatever the audience is going to be that eventually reads it.

Kelly: That's good advice. I know this is probably the last question you want to answer while celebrating the release of your new book but are you already working on something else?

Wally: I am still officially in recovery.

Kelly: I bet.

Wally: But, I do have a notebook that I carry around with me wherever I go. I've got my radar up, picture a satellite disk on top of my head and it is magnetized towards certain subjects. I have list of things that I want to start investigating. Everything from Lou Gehrig's to P.T. Barnum, Great Blue herons. I have a couple of myths that I am reading and considering for that sort of backdrop or scaffolding. So, that's where I am now, sort of generating material and seeing what is going to begin to vibrate for me.

Kelly: That's kind of exciting. It is exciting as a reader to think that things come together so organically, that you haven't sat down with a formula -- that things are fluid to change, right?

Wally: Definitely, yeah. A lot of people ask me what author I read but probably a better question is what musicians am I listening to and also who are the painters that I like, who are the artists and so forth. One of my favorite artists is René MaGritte who sort of puts these two -- he's kind of a surrealist and he puts two things together that don't necessarily make sense but create some kind of weird and interesting energy. So, that's what I do too. I'll take something like Lou Gehrig's and the Great Blue heron and and I'll put them next to each other and see if there's an electric charge that goes back and forth between them and that's sometimes how stories begin for me.

Kelly: That is really interesting. Well, I thank you very much participating.

Wally: You're welcome!


Erica said...

What a great interview! I just finished "The Hour..." tonight and really loved it.

Mil said...

Wow. He just blows me away, thanks for doing an interview with Mr. Lamb. Still waiting to read The Hour I First Believed because I can't afford it just yet. But I'm sure it will be worth the wait!

Unemployed in PDX said...

i have always been a fast reader but have been barreling though "The Hour..." in record time.

it is a fantastic book. also, thanks for the great interview Kelly! i too live in Portland.

Unknown said...

He must have written his Hopin and Wishin book really quickly if he hadn't even started it less than a year ago, and it's already been published. Anyone know the timeline on that?

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