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Between the lines with Wally Lamb (Q&A w/ event details)

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Today, Hartford Books Examiner welcomes Wally Lamb.

The beloved author of five novels, Lamb will visit four local venues between this Thursday evening, December 5th, and December 11th to present his newest, We Are Water (Harper, $29.99. (See event details below.) Hi s first two works of fiction, She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True were both #1 New York Times bestsellers and selections of Oprah’s Book Club; his subsequent works, The Hour I First Believed and the comedic holiday novella Wishin’ and Hopin’ were national bestsellers. Further, Lamb has edited two non-fiction anthologies, Couldn’t Keep It to Myself and I’ll Fly Away, which evolved from a writing workshop that he facilitates at York Correctional Institute. Wally Lamb makes his home in Connecticut.

We Are Water was published in October and has been selected by Parade Magazine as one of “3 Must-Reads for Fall.” Library Journal gave the book a starred review, and praised, “We are water: ‘fluid, flexible when we have to be. But strong and destructive, too.’ That’s evident in this emotionally involving new novel … Clear and sweetly flowing; highly recommended.” Publishers Weekly noted, “Lamb’s … fifth novel takes on race, class, sexuality, and art … the complex plot is captivating … Lamb excels at delivering unexpected blows to his characters, ratcheting up the suspense to the final page.” Further, Kirkus Reviews offered, “A searching novel of contemporary manners—and long buried secrets—by seasoned storyteller Lamb … We all know that life is tangled and messy. Still, in reminding readers of this fact, Lamb turns in a satisfyingly grown-up story, elegantly written.”

From the publisher:

In middle age, Annie Oh—wife, mother, and outsider artist—has shaken her family to its core. After twenty-seven years of marriage and three children, Annie has fallen in love with Viveca, the wealthy, cultured, confident Manhattan art dealer who orchestrated her professional success.

Annie and Viveca plan to wed in the Oh family's hometown of Three Rivers, Connecticut, where gay marriage has recently been legalized. But the impending wedding provokes some very mixed reactions and opens a Pandora's box of toxic secrets—dark and painful truths that have festered below the surface of the Ohs' lives.

We Are Water is an intricate and layered portrait of marriage, family, and the inexorable need for understanding and connection, told in the alternating voices of the Ohs—nonconformist Annie; her ex-husband, Orion, a psychologist; Ariane, the do-gooder daughter, and her twin, Andrew, the rebellious only son; and free-spirited Marissa, the youngest Oh. Set in New England and New York during the first years of the Obama presidency, it is also a portrait of modern America, exploring issues of class, changing social mores, the legacy of racial violence, and the nature of creativity and art.

With humor and breathtaking compassion, Wally Lamb brilliantly captures the essence of human experience in vivid and unforgettable characters struggling to find hope and redemption in the aftermath of trauma and loss. We Are Water is vintage Wally Lamb—a compulsively readable, generous, and uplifting masterpiece that digs deep into the complexities of the human heart to explore the ways in which we search for love and meaning in our lives.

Now, Wally Lamb reveals a few pages from the book of his life …

1) As a child, did you wear your literary lust loud and proud or were you a closet bibliophile?

Well, you know, in looking back I don’t think that I had much literary lust nor was I a closet bibliophile, but the thing that I did a lot when I was a kid was not so much read but watch TV.I probably spent way too much time in front of the tube and I also drew all the time so I think rather than literature and books leading me into the life of a writer I think it was the artwork and the drawings and the cartooning and the comic books that I used to make.That’s who I was as a kid.

2) What book(s) were you likely to be caught keeping company with under the covers?

I loved magazines when I was a kid, and I still love magazines. My two favorites were Boys’ Life and also MAD magazine. And we got Life magazine. Again with the pictures, the photographs in Life every week—I loved that kind of stuff. But I do remember a couple of favorites when I was a kid. There was a series of books about a character named Homer Price [written by Robert McCloskey] and I liked the illustrations and the stories. They were light and they were funny and Homer would get himself into all kinds of problems and then he would have to get himself out of those problems. And I liked reading about real people. I liked biographies as a kid. I remember I was in about eighth grade or so when I read a biography about Houdini and I still remember that very vividly to this day. Also, The Black Stallion. I loved that book; I remember sitting there with a big pad of paper and copying some of the illustrations and so forth.

3) What are you reading currently & what is your initial impression?

You know what I read? I read everybody else’s novels that are coming out because people hit me up for blurbs and stuff. But I am spending a lot of time on airplanes these days, and so that gives me reading opportunity. Right now, a couple of things come to mind. One is a book by Ellen Litman. She’s a creative writing professor at UConn, so I know her a little bit. She’s also a Russian émigré, and a very talented writer, and she has a new book coming out in 2014 called Mannequin Girl. I’m only about fifty pages in but she can really write and the character is very sympathetic. It’s about coming of age in the old Soviet Union. I’m not sure where it’s going but I know that I’m in the hands of a good writer. The other book that I just finished, and that I really, really admire, is called The Viewing Room. It’s written by a woman named Jacquelin Gorman. This is a group of interlocked short stories. In hospitals, they have something called the Viewing Room and after somebody dies but before the body gets shipped off to the funeral home, the loved ones can view the body in this stark little room. Jacquelin Gorman was a chaplain at a California hospital and she was assigned to the Viewing Room and so she’s bounced off into fiction with this but it’s beautifully told and, ironically, it’s a story about death and dying but it’s very life affirming.

4) What one book do you always recommend when asked?

I like to recommend new writers and for about the last year I have been singing the praises of a book called The Orchardist. The author is Amanda Coplin and she is one to watch, I think. The story is very intriguing, and it’s a very interesting character who is the protagonist. It’s very original material and it reads very much like a seasoned pro and not a first time author.

5) Which of your own books would you suggest to readers & why?

You know, it depends on who the reader is.I think some of my books work better with one group, one audience, and others with another.I know that She’s Come Undone is still pretty popular with adolescents, particularly adolescent girls, and that book keeps chugging along twenty-one years later.And then subject matter sometimes attracts people who may have lives that intersect with that subject matter, and so I’ve gotten wonderful letters from people who have mental illness in the family in response to I Know This Much Is True, and already that’s starting to happen with We Are Water.But some readers don’t like a heavy book with really serious themes so to them I’d suggest my little, funny Christmas book, Wishin’ and Hopin’.So I prescribe differently for different readers.

6) Is there a book or author that readers would be surprised to know you’ve read and liked?

I don’t know how surprised they’d be, but I love The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Alexander McCall Smith books and I particularly like to listen to them as audio books. I love the narrator, Lisette Lecat. She does such a good job with those. And I’m a big fan of David Sedaris. People who might read my more serious books might be surprised to know how much I value laughter, and nobody makes me laugh harder than David.

7) Who is the one author that would, or did, make you weak in the knees upon meeting?

I was at a New England booksellers’ tradeshow a few years back—it might have been when I Know This Much Is True was coming out—and one of the other authors who had a new book was John Updike. His short stories particularly, I didn’t just read them and enjoy them, I studied them because I admired them so much and I was sort of groping to find out how to get better. At these tradeshows they have the free giveaways and so I stood in line to get a signed book by John Updike and to meet him and I kept getting closer and closer to the front of the line and then I would be so intimidated by his greatness that I would chicken out and get to the back of the line and move forward again and that happened two or three times and I never could do it because I didn’t want one of my literary idols to disappoint me in any way. I did end up meeting him years later. He did an event at Eastern [ECSU], actually, and I was invited to a reception. I got to meet him and I told him that story and I thought he would get a kick out of it but he just looked at me like I was weird.

8) Has there been an “I’ve made it” moment in your career?

Yes, there’s a funny story attached to that one, too.Oprah had just picked one of my books and so it is maybe two or three weeks later and I was back off the road.My kids were younger back then, and so I’m sitting on the couch looking at the Sunday Times and because of the Oprah influence I’m sort of staring in disbelief at the booklist there and there’s my name and the name of the book in the number one spot and just at this moment when I’m in danger of feeling a little bit puffed up my son Justin goes walking by me.He’s not looking at me but just walking past and he’s got one of those Magic Eight balls and he says to the Magic Eight ball, “Is my dad a dork?”And then he shakes it and he looks at whatever floats up and then he looks over at me and says, “My sources say yes.”So there went my big moment.Just when I’m thinking, “Wow, I’ve made it,” my kids brought me back down to earth again.It reminded me not to float on air for too long but to keep it humble.

9) What is your greatest literary ambition?

You know, not any big, great ambitions.I just hope that I can keep chugging along and keep investigating characters.I don’t write for the money.I don’t write for fame, or anything like that.I write to explore the un-me and to learn something about people who are not necessarily like myself in the process.So writing is a learning experience for me, and that’s why I do it.I start caring about these characters that I come up with, and I start worrying about them, and I kind of just keep writing to see if they’re going to be okay by the end of the story.

10) Fill in the blank: Hartford Books Examiner is _____.

Well, you know what? I have probably worked on this answer longer than any of the other ones, and so my fill in the blank is: Hartford Books Examiner is run by a literary blogging superstar. How’s that?

(Note: This interview was conducted via phone.)


With thanks to Wally Lamb for his absolute generosity of time, thought, and support, and to Mr. Lamb’s assistant, Joe, as well as Leslie Cohen and Liz Esman of HarperCollins for helping to facilitate this interview.

The following is a list of the author’s upcoming Connecticut appearances:

12/05/13 – 6:30 PM – Ferguson Library in Stamford CT (1 Public Library Plaza) – Details

12/8/13 – 12:00 PM – Chester Synagogue – “Books & Bagels” event with Larry Bloom – Details

12/08/13 – 7:00 PM – Darien Library (1441 Post Rd.) – Details

12/11/13 – 6:30 PM – Waterford Public Library (49 Rope Ferry Rd.) – Details

03/05/14 – 4:30 PM – Reading at Trinity College (Hartford)


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