Wally Lamb: Breaking his silence

  • Article by: CLAUDE PECK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 23, 2011 - 3:58 PM

In his first novel in 10 years, he sweeps up history, violence and family heartbreak. Dark stuff, but he's also open to the possibility of redemption.

Wally Lamb's new novel, 450,000 copies of which have just arrived in bookstores, is big enough to threaten Thanksgiving and maybe even Christmas, as readers ignore turkey basting and tinsel tossing to turn the 723 wide-ranging, heavily plotted pages of "The Hour I First Believed."

Lamb writes big books. And popular ones. Oprah Winfrey famously pulled an all-nighter reading Lamb's first novel, "She's Come Undone," the painful, funny coming-of-age saga of Dolores Price. She later included its paperback version and Lamb's 900-page second novel, "I Know This Much Is True," in her Book Club, a bestowal that invariably sends the anointed novel on a rocket ride.

Both novels made it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list and were optioned as movies (never made).

Lamb's millions of fans have been on a starvation diet since 1998, when his second novel was published.

"It's not like I've been goofing off or anything," Lamb said with a laugh when asked about the long gestation of his new book, which he delivered to his publisher about four years past deadline. "The story takes as long as it takes. It comes to me very slowly."

I met Lamb, 58, in his hometown of Norwich, Conn., on a sunny fall day that was perfect for taking photos at the corn maze owned by his brother-in-law (an element of the book's plot). We talked in a meeting room at Norwich Free Academy, where Lamb attended high school and taught English for 25 years.

His beard is salt-and-pepper. He is small-town casual, wearing jeans and a sweater. In the four hours we spent together, Lamb displayed none of the impatience or high-horsed-ness one could expect of someone who has sold as many books and made as much money as he has. And though there's a hint of sadness in his eyes, he was unfailingly gracious.

In a hallway busy with students, a security guard greeted him as "Mr. Lamb" and assured him that since taking his English class she has continued to write and hopes to produce a book one day. Like any good teacher, he offered her praise and encouragement.

'Why I started writing'

"I always assume, when I finish a book, 'OK, now I must know how to write a novel,'" Lamb said. "But as it turns out, I only knew how to write that novel. This one I had a terrible time starting."

"I had to get over this bestseller stuff and go back to the reason why I started writing in the first place, which was to entertain and inform myself."

In the decade between novels two and three, both of Lamb's parents died after long declines. He and his wife, Christine, had three sons at home, including a special-needs boy they adopted at age 4 to remove him from a perilous family situation. And Lamb became very involved with a volunteer job running a writing workshop at York Correctional Institution, Connecticut's only maximum-security prison for women. Despite a political dustup with the Connecticut attorney general (the subject of an eventual "60 Minutes" report), two anthologies of the women's works, with introductions by Lamb, eventually were published.

The outside world was no less full of big events, from the Columbine High School shootings to the 9/11 terrorist attack to the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina, all of which ended up playing a role in "The Hour I First Believed."

Imagined characters, real events

Although there are dozens of characters in Lamb's new novel, it has at its center the cranky and disconnected Caelum Quirk and his wife, Maureen. Their marriage splinters over an infidelity. Seeking a new start, they move from Connecticut to Colorado. Caelum, a teacher, and Maureen, a nurse, each get jobs at Columbine High School. When Caelum is away, Maureen witnesses the 1999 rampage of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold that left 15 dead and many more injured.

Beset by post-traumatic stress disorder, Maureen sinks into depression and addiction, and the two move back to the Connecticut farm where Caelum grew up. But Maureen ends up in a women's prison (founded by one of Caelum's ancestors). Caelum takes in two refugees from Katrina, and finds a teaching job where one of his students is a maimed and deeply troubled Iraq war veteran.

Caelum somewhat reluctantly dips into his family's ancestral history when it's presented to him in the form of a doctoral thesis by one of the boarders. He also discovers secrets and lies about his parentage.

The tragedies and trials faced by Caelum and Maureen are contemporary, even the nonfictional ones. (Lamb opted to use real names in writing about Columbine, for instance.) But in Lamb's mind, their story, like all narratives, reflects an ancient one.

When, at age 32, Lamb entered an MFA program at Vermont College, a professor, Gladys Swan, gave him advice that stuck with him. "She told me that I would never tell an original story," Lamb said. "The best you could do is tell your version of the archetypal stories."

This dovetailed with Lamb's existing interest in myth. His second novel was based on the Hindu tale "The King and the Corpse." The classical myth of Theseus and the minotaur is the spine of "The Hour I First Believed," which sets key scenes in a rural Connecticut corn maze that stands in for the famed underground one created by Daedalus in the ancient Greek story.

"When the Columbine news broke, I came to view Klebold and Harris as two-headed monsters," Lamb said. "I had dark days wrestling with this material. There was a monster at the middle of the maze."

Deciding to graft the actual event, including the names of the victims, into his fictional account, was tricky. But, Lamb said, "I felt that as a high school teacher for 25 years I could put myself in those corridors and empathize."

Facing the fallout of violence

The whorl of American violence is seen not just in Lamb's Columbine chapters and stories of Caelum's father's penchant for drunken bar brawls, but also in a gory account of his great-great-great-grandmother Elizabeth Popper's work as a nurse in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War.

"It is a dark novel, but we live in dark times, and I think that is a measure of its honesty," said Terry Karten of HarperCollins, who editedthe book.

Karten (who also edits Doris Lessing, Barbara Kingsolver, Francine Prose and Louise Erdrich) said she was "astonished by the ambitious reach of the novel and by the kind of commentary it provided on the role of war and violence in American history."

Lamb, who said he is "not that much of a history buff," wrote the Popper history all at once, and then a German editor suggested it might be best to leave it out. Instead, he chopped it up and included it in shorter sections, as Caelum picks up and puts down the manuscript. "The Hour" also dips into history via letters, news stories and flashbacks.

Lamb seems to be arguing that history, whether of a nation or an individual, matters.

Then there is the topic, somewhat unfashionable in contemporary literature, of belief. Readers who expect a novel with this title to be centered on religion will be disappointed at how little there is about church and faith.

"I'm certainly not talking about organized religion," Lamb said. "It's more about how Caelum holds out the possibility for hope," even amid the considerable chaos and heartbreak of his life and marriage: "What exactly did he believe?"

Raised in a big Italian Catholic family, Lamb said that while he still goes to church occasionally, he considers himself "a questioning Catholic, more attuned to the social-justice aspects of the church.

"I'm being purposely ambiguous," Lamb added with his trademark modest smile. "All I'm saying at the end is that God may only be in the forward propulsion of life, in the invisible pull of our ancestors, who may be affecting our lives in ways we may never know."

Lamb's nervy goal in a novel that sprawled more than he intended is to suggest something broader about individuals, and something narrower about the sweep of time.

Claude Peck • 612-673-7977

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