Sunday, November 30, 2008

About one of my favorite authors, and from the The New London Day. I have met Wally Lamb a few times in social setting, and he was one of the favored teachers when I was at NFA so I am so glad that his books are always so interesting and well received, here is an intereview with him.

Tragedy's Collateral Damage
Wally Lamb discusses his latest novel, 'The Hour I First Believed'
By Rick Koster Published on 11/30/2008

For Wally Lamb, the time-honored concept of “Thanksgiving Break” this year means a few days back home between extensive legs of a signing tour for his latest book, “The Hour I First Believed.”

Since its publication Nov. 11, Lamb has already ranged far and wide - from bookstores in Boston to New Orleans to Miami to North Dakota. And after Turkey Day, he's back on the road through the Golden West until just before Christmas.

Just because he's home in Mansfield, though, doesn't mean he's off-duty. And so, on an early Monday morning, he graciously fields a journalist's questions about the new book, which was already No. 4 on last week's Publishers Weekly best seller list.

Though popularity is hardly unfamiliar to Lamb - his first two, Oprah Winfrey-endorsed novels, “She's Come Undone” and “I Know This Much is True,” turned him into a literary superstar - he admits the early sales figures for the new book are gratifying because, for a long time, he wasn't sure it would ever get written.

”Boy, I really struggled with this one,” he says. “I'd had the success with Oprah and it was great and wonderful but it was over. Then I had a book contract and a deadline and, yeah, I started to feel pressure. I became more and more worried whether I could write a third book.”

Lamb, who graduated from and later taught at Norwich Free Academy, has bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Connecticut and a master's in creative writing from Vermont College, but he didn't seriously try to become a writer 'til he was well into his 30s. And the success of both his first novels still surprises him.

What's not surprising, though, was that his agent had secured a sizable advance for the at-that-time unwritten third novel. And Lamb, whose renowned politeness and modesty is underscored in conversation, says he felt uncomfortable with his growing frustration over not being able to get started on the book.

He went to Manhattan and had a meeting with his agent and
another agency representative.

He says, “I told them, 'Maybe I should just give the money back.' And they looked at me like I was a Martian. I'm just not motivated by money or bestseller status, and my major concern was writing a good book.”

Eventually, with the help of a therapist and a moment of real-world epiphany, Lamb, 58, was able to work through the issues of his concerns and roll forward with the manuscript.

As with his prior two novels, “The Hour I First Believed” is a nuanced, multi-level and omni-dimensional story in which the past and present struggle for reconciliation - and there is always hope for the future. It's a wonderful, honest book filled with characters that are sometimes difficult to root for but always real. And, ultimately, the idea of resolution literally comes down to the final sentence.

At the heart of the story are first-person protagonist Caelum Quirk, a teacher, and his wife Maureen, a school nurse. After she has an affair, they move from Connecticut to Littleton, Colo., to try to revive their marriage. Both get jobs at Columbine High School. But when Caelum is called back home to care for a dying relative, Maureen is trapped in a cabinet in the school library on the day Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris go on their darkly historic shooting rampage.

Maureen survives but has a breakdown. They move back to the family farm in Connecticut where Maureen becomes addicted to painkillers. During and after a downward spiral that results in a horrible tragedy, Caelum, struggling with a variety of rage and guilt issues, seeks refuge in a cache of old family documents and diaries - through which Lamb marvelously weaves a colorful, revealing ancestral past that at first provides and then solves a painful mystery.

The tragedy at Columbine kicks off the story and serves as the underpinning of the novel. Yet the element that actually gave Lamb his creative break-through was a school shooting that had occurred earlier, in 1997, in Paducah, Ky., where a 14-year-old boy killed three and wounded five others. It turns out Lamb had a cousin in Paducah at the time whose teenage daughters were not only students at the school during the shooting but also friends with the attacker's older sister.

Lamb learned that, as the event unfolded, the shooter's sister wandered up and down the halls moaning that she'd never been in trouble and now her surname would forever follow her.

”I felt horrible for that girl,” Lamb says. “These events are terrible enough, but the collateral damage is incalculable. Every time I would think about the chaos she felt, I'd tear up and cry. Long before Columbine, I would think about this kid and the ongoing tragedy. And that's when the door opened for the novel.”

Lamb's riveting description of the Columbine shootings as they happened, and the immediate aftermath, are stunning, wrenching and bold exercises in craft. He says writing that section was tough.

”It was actually scary to do it,” he says. “If you Google Columbine, this sea of stuff just comes out. You can actually download the videos Harris and Klebold made just before the attack. You can hear the 911 call during the shootings and you think, 'This is real.'”

But there is much going on beyond Columbine in “The Hour I First Believed.” Playing significant roles in Caelum's search for his own history are a troubled teenager named Velvet Hoon (also a Columbine survivor), Hurricane Katrina, the Civil War, Mark Twain, drug addiction and alcohol abuse, abolitionists, the evolution of women's prisons - Lamb is famously involved in a literacy and writing program at York Correctional Institution in Niantic and has edited two nonfiction collections of inmate writings - an amazing history of the 1950s Rheingold Beer pinups and, significantly, mythology.

It was during his years studying for a master's degree in creative writing at Vermont College that mentor Gladys Swann taught him something he never forgot. “She said, 'You're never going to teach a completely original story because the stories that people need have been around forever. Always go back to the myths because they are the ones that have stood the test of time.”

In “The Hour I First Believed,” Lamb infuses both the stories of the Minotaur - he began to think of Harris and Klebold as a two-headed monster - and Orpheus and Eurydice, wherein Caelum's efforts to redeem Maureen mirror Orpheus' attempt to rescue his wife from Hades.

Naturally, at 700-plus pages and with so many layers, the book exists on a far more complex level than a James Patterson page-turner. And it's true that a simple narrative based on the Columbine shootings could comprise a streamlined thriller. Lamb, though, writes literature and is surprisingly candid about reaction to his work.

”I've taken it on the chin from critics; that I meander and slow the story down with the historical stuff,” Lamb admits. “That's fair. Once I'm through with the book, it belongs to the reader. But I do feel justified and that the ending connects the dots between the past and the present. Life is sometimes dictated by who our ancestors are.

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