More than two decades after his tales of trauma and redemption catapulted him to literary success, the best-selling author is still inspired by the human struggle—and the power of story to heal.
From giving voice to the suffering of a traumatized overweight girl in She’s Come Undone to exploring mental illness and family abuse in I Know This Much Is True, the novels of Wally Lamb have spoken to a generation of readers who recognize their own struggles within his characters.
But it may be through his work teaching writing to women prisoners in Connecticut that Lamb, a former high school English teacher, most embodies the idea of the healing power of storytelling.
“So many of these women had dark secrets from their past. I could see they were getting better—stronger—as they let those secrets go and found their writing voices,” says Lamb, who also edited two critically acclaimed collections of inmates’ essays. “I could see their burden lightened.”
Speaking at the Taos Writers Conference recently, Lamb said he was facing his own struggles when he began volunteering at the prison. He’d been stricken with writer’s block, unable to find his footing on a novel he was under contract to complete. And he was sinking into depression as he coped with moving his parents into a nursing home and adopting his emotionally challenged four-year-old nephew.
But, he says, the prisoners inspired him to start writing again. And getting back to work—on the novel that eventually became The Hour I First Believed—helped him overcome his struggles.
“I did experience the lifting of my depression while writing for five or six hours each day,” he says. “I became immersed in somebody else’s life.”
Lamb’s power as a storyteller seems to come from that ability to fully dive into the minds and hearts of his characters, as well as from his willingness to hold his heart open to the pain and hardship of others.
“I don’t love to write, but I love figuring out what’s going to happen to these characters I worry about,” he says. “I feel parental toward them, and I worry that they’ll come out okay. Some of my best days are when they surprise me.”
Dolores, the overweight, sardonic main character of his best-selling novel She’s Come Undone, was inspired by the pain and pathos he witnessed in the classroom—and by one student in particular.
“As a high school teacher, I was on the receiving end of a lot of teenaged girls’ writing,” he explains. “I was about 30 pages into writing Dolores, and I remembered this girl who sat at the back of the class because she was too heavy to fit in one of those desks with the built-in tables. The other kids weren’t mean, but it was obvious that she made them uncomfortable. So they ignored her. I would try to draw her into discussions, and she’d just scowl at me and recoil. With Dolores, I was trying to create a life for this former student of mine.”
When a woman in the audience stands up shakily to thank Lamb for his books—she read She’s Come Undone, she tells him, while hiding from her father’s abuse—Lamb gives her his full attention. These are the moments that mean the most, he says later.
“The real gift of having my first two novels chosen as Oprah favorites was all of the letters from readers I started receiving—even more than the royalties or the fame,” he says. “I still have barrels of letters, and I answer every one.”
One letter that caught Lamb’s attention came from a young man who said he’d recently been released from a psychiatric hospital, just like Dolores.
“He was a ‘razor man,’” Lamb says. “He started cutting himself after college. [He said] Dolores helped to save his life.”
Lamb struck up a correspondence with the man and encouraged him to write about his experiences. David Fitzpatrick went on to write the critically acclaimed memoir Sharp.
Lamb says his work teaching prisoners and mentoring writers isn’t just a side project; he considers it to be deeply connected to his literary success.
“Creativity and altruism are boiled down to action and reaction,” he says. “If you have enough creativity to create a novel that’s widely accepted, that requires a reaction from you.”
On His Latest Novel
In We Are Water, Wally Lamb tells the story of dark secrets that emerge when middle-aged mother Annie Oh leaves her husband for another woman.
Where did We Are Water begin?
I was doing a radio interview, and the guy asked, “So, what’s next for Wally Lamb?” I said, maybe I’ll write about this terrible flood that came through town when I was a kid in 1963. And then there was the story of an African American painter who died mysteriously. The two events were like magnetic poles, and these electrical charges of the story kept bouncing between them for the next four years.
What role does water play in this novel and your life?
The floodwater—not just the sight but the sound, the roar, the screams of people dying in the collapsed mill—all came into play in this story. Water plays into the plotlines of several of my books, and my life. My hometown, Norwich, Connecticut, is about 40 minutes from the Atlantic, and I’ve always loved going there. I like how small the ocean makes you feel when you’re feeling too significant.
There’s an ongoing theme of an impending shark attack in this novel. What role do animals play in your stories?
For my [master’s degree] thesis, I investigated what the myths of the world had in common. Many times they’re quest stories. And there’s usually an animal along on the journey—a sidekick or an adversary—who helps the character learn what they need to learn. For She’s Come Undone, the loose framework was Homer’s Odyssey, and a whale became Dolores’s helpmate. In I Know This Much Is True, there’s a rabbit and a monkey who represent Dominique and Thomas. The praying mantis is the helpmate in The Hour I First Believed. In this one, the shark is an antagonist, and then at the end Orion and Andrew spot a whale too.
Which of your characters in We Are Water were you most worried about things ending well for?
Andrew Oh is the amalgam of his parents, Annie and Orion. I knew he was quick to anger, and part of that anger was unexpressed toward his mother. I saw him as the most victimized and also the character that needed to be saved. But I didn’t realize his significance in the story, or how his story would play out, until close to the end. The way this story resolves itself is actually my favorite ending of any of my novels.
Andrew Oh tells his father that being an atheist is arrogant and humility is a door that opens onto faith. Has your humility opened any doors onto faith?
I like the ideas expressed in the Serenity Prayer because they’re steeped in humility: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. Faith used to have a religious definition for me, but I’ve evolved away from that. I’ve learned what I do and don’t have control over. I’ve learned to give up control to a higher power—an undefined higher power—sometimes.
The character of Mr. Agnello, an artist, has a girl skipping rope who often appears in his paintings and is his muse. Is there a “girl skipping rope” who fuels your work?
At this point there are many girls skipping rope. The inmates at York prison. Once you hear their stories and are inside the prison, you can’t unhear things.
On Teaching Prisoners
When he’s not working on his novels, Wally Lamb leads a writing workshop for women at York Correctional Institution in Connecticut.
Why were you interested in working with women in prison?
Power versus powerlessness, the uses and abuses of power, and how power has to be used morally are themes in my books. And that interest also extends to my work with women in prison.
What do you learn from these women?
I’m sometimes frazzled driving there, thinking of everything else I have to do. But I always leave feeling grateful that they’ve allowed me to come back. In the process of giving to them, I get so much. They’re educating me about things beyond the periphery of my own lifetime experiences. That’s why I write fiction, too. When I become these characters and they put me in different situations, I have to expand my knowledge beyond my own limited perspective.
How do these women draw power from the experience of writing their stories?
When I began, the new governor had declared this tough-on-crime stance. He put male prison guards in the women’s prison, and dogs. Made it a very hostile environment. These were women who were already traumatized and abused, many suffering from PTSD. The writing group became an oasis in the middle of this hostile environment. I was the catalyst for it, but they created their own dynamic.
How did the trust within the group evolve?
At first, most of the women were cautious, writing kind of happy, corny pieces. But there was a woman named Diane who had killed her abusive spouse, who wrote very honestly. She told me on the first day, don’t ever read anything of mine out loud —even used an alias, “Natasha.” Well, in the third session, Diane/Natasha surprised me. She raised her hand and asked, “Can I read something?” The room was completely silent when she finished. Everyone was stunned. One person started clapping, then another. That opened up the floodgates. The women started trusting themselves, trusting each other and me. It’s evolved into an experience that’s as important to me as to them, I think.
Previously published as Wally Lamb Feels Your Pain in Spirituality & Health Nov/Dec 2013
Jennifer Haupt interviewed novelist Alice Hoffman in the September/October issue of Spirituality & Health.