VJ Books Blog

(publishersweekly.com, Nov 10, Kevin Howell)

PW: Your original deadline was 2004. Were you worried when that deadline was approaching?

Wally Lamb: Oh yeah, there was worry all through this experience. I had a terrible time starting this book in 1999. The first year was spent spinning my wheels. As the approaching deadline neared, the story had taken hold but I knew I had a lot of work ahead. I’m a writer who can’t be rushed. My editor understood. So, the pressure came more from me than from HarperCollins. Concurrently, my elderly parents went into a long decline and eventually passed away. And I also had kids in the house who over the course of nine years grew up and began leaving the nest.

Another component was: I hadn’t meant to get involved in teaching at Connecticut’s York Correctional Institution for women and later editing my incarcerated students’ stories for publication. But as much as that robbed time and energy from me, it also aided the novel.  I’m really grateful that Harper hung in there with me.

PW: Do you still teach that writing workshop?

WL: I’m still very much involved in the workshop. It was no accident that I began the novel the same year I began teaching that class and nine years later I’m still there. I’ve never been involved with writers who have been so enthusiastic and involved in creating and revising their work. I didn’t know that the women would give me more of an education than I was giving them. As I was reacting to their writing, they would give me feedback to the chunks of chapters I would bring in. They were very helpful. I once told them I was having a problem with a scene where the characters needed to speak prison lingo. The next week, a woman had written up a glossary of terms for me.

Most of the women I work with have not only done some terrible things but have had terrible things done to them. They were burdened with shame, guilt and secrets. As the secrets got told in the writings that were shared with the group, the women began to change; their writing really transformed them. One transformation was Barbara Parsons Lane, who had shot her abusive husband after he told her that he had sexually abused her granddaughter. She was sent to prison for 25 years and when she entered the writing program she was a mess. She couldn’t look people in the eye, couldn’t read aloud, was very mousy and scared of life. She was dealing with a terrible sense of guilt, but as she let her story come out, she started reading her own work. She became an advocate to improve the conditions of prison and a couple years ago, she got out of prison and now speaks at colleges on forums to raise consciousness about domestic abuse. Barbara—who is in both short story collections I edited—won the PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award in 2004. To be able to witness her transformation was unbelievable.

PW: When you began the novel, did you have an idea what it would be about?

WL: I had nothing in mind but my work is informed by ancient mythology, so I was rooting around for a myth to attach to. I read all kinds of myths and ancient stories. Finally, I landed on Theseus, the Minotaur and the maze-like Labyrinth. I never know where I’m going with the writing until I get there. I was sort of lost in the maze of the story myself. I had to remember that when you’re wandering in the corridors of a maze, it seems confusing until you rise above it and then you can see the way out.

At the same time I was reacting to a school shooting that had happened in Paducah, Kentucky. A cousin of mine had two daughters at that school and I began to think about how people could survive that experience. After the Columbine shootings happened, I began to Google school shootings and a sea of information lured me in. I had been a high school teacher for 25 years and knew that environment, so I was able to put myself there pretty easily, although not comfortably. I began to hover around this school shooting stuff. That became difficult because its pretty bleak and scary as both a parent and a teacher to think about such things. That did a number on me. [Columbine student gunmen] Dylan Klebold  and Eric Harris got into my head. I didn’t feel like I could fictionalize this story. I felt like I had to interface my characters with the real characters of Columbine. I hope that I’ve done it responsibly so it doesn’t cause more suffering.

PW: Tell us about Oprah choosing your first two novels for her book club.

WL: I’ll tell ya,  she called me up in December 1996 but I’ll always be honored that she called me four years earlier. One day in 1992 my son handed me the phone and a woman said, “This is Oprah Winfrey calling. You owe me two nights sleep because I couldn’t put your book down.” She was very funny and told me that she liked to call and thank authors when she read a book she liked. This was a big deal for me because after my first book, She’s Come Undone, was published, I used to send my kids to the mall and offer 25 cents to the first one who could find my book on the shelf. It was dismaying when 25 minutes later, they’d come out saying, “We can’t find it, but can we still get the 25 cents?”

Years later, I picked up the phone again and Oprah told me that she’d chosen She’s Come Undone as the fourth book for her Book Club. She said that if the popularity of her Book Club keeps going the way its been going, I needed to call my publisher that night—a Friday, after hours— so they could start printing more copies. I got hold of them and on Saturday morning they contacted their paper supplier and started printing. Oprah announced the selection the following week if memory serves. It was a wild rollercoaster ride.

In the summer of 1998, I Know This Much is True was about to be released and I was doing an interview in a hotel room. Oprah called and said, “Guess what? You’re going to be our Summer Book Club Pick.” I knew from the first time that it needed to be a well-kept secret before she announced it so I said, “Oh, that’s nice, ma’am. Can I call you back in 15 minutes after I finish this interview?” She laughed and said she’d call me back in 20 minutes. I finished the interview and walked the reporter to the elevator, and returned to find that I’d locked myself out of room. I raced downstairs to get another key and sat by the telephone waiting for her to call back, which she did about 45 minutes to an hour later. I couldn’t believe that lightning had struck twice.

PW: Did you feel added pressure with this third novel after the first two were embraced by Oprah and such a huge audience of readers?

WL: That’s something I wrestled with early on, but I had to chase away other people’s expectations and just allow myself to get lost in the story and let it be what it would be. I didn’t start writing any fiction until I was 30 years old and very early on the dynamics of writing with a writers group became part of my writing process. Writing is solitary work but receiving feedback and giving it is important and gives you a community. You learn about your own writing by reading and reacting to other people’s writing. Gladys Swan, a writer and teacher at the Vermont College of Fine Arts’s MFA in Writing program where I earned my degree, once gave me wonderful advice. She asked me what I wanted to get out of my writing. I said when I taught To Kill a Mockingbird, once kids get lost in it, they read the novel because they wanted to, not because they had to. “That’s the kind of book I want to write,” I said. “A book that teenagers would read voluntarily.” Gladys frowned and said,  “Well, my dear, the first thing you need to do is write the stories for yourself and let the audience who wants or needs to find them, find them.” That’s served me well. After two wild rollercoaster rides, I refocused and got lost in the story rather than preoccupied about what other people’s reactions would be.

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