New York Times best-selling author Wally Lamb’s work has been twice featured on Oprah’s Book Club and translated into 18 languages. A best-selling novella is now a holiday film. He is the editor of two anthologies Couldn’t Keep It to Myself and I’ll Fly Away, two based on writing by students in his writing workshop at York Correctional Institution. Lamb’s sixth novel, I’ll Take You There was released last month as a Metabook and a traditional book from Harper Collins.
We were lucky enough to have a chance to sit down with him for an illuminating conversation about the author behind the work and where he finds his inspiration.
New York Times best-selling author Wally Lamb — Photo courtesy of http://www.wallylamb.net/
Q. Tell us, what is a Metabook?
Lamb: A Metabook features text, audio, music and film. I'll Take You There includes the novel, a short film about me and a short film about Lois Weber, the pioneering female silent film director who is at the heart of the book, and an audio dramatization of the book starring actress Kathleen Turner, Laura Benanti, Dana Delany and Jeremy Sisto, as well as photo galleries and an original soundtrack, which includes a newly recorded version of the classic, "At Seventeen" by Janis Ian.
Q. How has your Italian background influenced your writing?
Lamb: In every way. My Italian-American heritage, of which I'm very proud and with which I identify strongly, surfaces in several of my novels. In I Know This Much Is True, there is a story within a story about the main character's Italian immigrant grandfather, told in the old man's voice. In We Are Water, the protagonist has an Italian mother and a Chinese father. That novel also features a character who I named, tongue in cheek, Gualtiero Agnello (Walter Lamb.) Wishin' and Hopin' and I'll Take You There both focus on the Funicello family. (They're cousins of child performer Annette Funicello who was best known as a Mouseketeer on the original Disney Mickey Mouse Club.)
Q. Tell me why and how your novels so female-centric?
Lamb: I grew up in a household of women, they ran the show, they kept it all together. I credit my ability to write in female voices, as well as male, with having grown up with older sisters in a neighborhood largely populated by girls. And yes, I’ll Take You There features feminists from Lois and winning the vote for women, to the 70s when Felix’s ex-wife is an activist and finally, the third Aliza, a Gen-Y blogger and writer for New York magazine. Plus, my work is also informed by my work as a writing coach at York Correctional Institution for women in Niantic.
A young Wally Lamb — Photo courtesy of Lamb Family
Q. Why are the locales in your novels centered in Connecticut?
Lamb: Connecticut is in my blood. I’m a very rooted person. I grew up in Norwich, Connecticut, I still live in Connecticut. My novels travel to places I know: mostly in Eastern Connecticut, a fictional town called Three Rivers. Eastern Connecticut is very different from Western; we're more liverwurst than pâté, more bowling than polo. The ghosts of New London's glorious Garde Arts Center are the central characters in my new novel, I'll Take You There and back in 2014, my novella, Wishin' and Hopin' premiered at The Garde and was shot at my alma mater, Norwich Free Academy.
Q: How did you start writing mammoth novels?
Lamb: My first novel started off as a short story, but it kept growing and I had a teacher, Gladys Swan, who suggested it might in fact be a novel. I followed her advice and kept going, it turned into She’s Come Undone.
Shortly after Gay Talese published his opus Unto the Sons, he wrote a New York Times book review essay titled, "Where Are the Italian-American Novelists?" (March 14, 1993). I took that as a challenge at the time and still do.
Q. Some authors create a graph or map to plan out a plot, how about you?
Lamb: I’m envious of authors who do this, I wish I did that, it might be easier to know where I am going. But for me I am a plodder, I make an appointment with my computer everyday and I have no idea where I am going. I need to get lost and sometimes my characters lead me to places I don’t expect to go. For instance, in I’ll Take You There, I never expected Felix to be confronted by Hollywood’s ghosts.
The ghosts of New London's glorious Garde Arts Center are the central characters in Lamb's latest work — Photo courtesy of Garde Theater
Q. Where do you find your ideas? And what type of research do you use when dealing with subjects like mental illness, and schizophrenia in particular?
Lamb: I try to stick with what moves me or teaches me about myself, same thing I hope the novels do for others. As for schizophrenia, I did not know that much about it, but a workshop participant told me his own story and from there, I ran with it, blending what I knew about mental illness in my own family; I wound ancient myths into the story regarding the twins and the plot simply continued.
Q. Do you think much about your audience as you write?
Lamb: I try not to go there, I work hard, do my best and send it out to the world hoping that people can relate to it. I accept any reaction and hope they think it is worth reading.
Q. Is a Lamb novel pure entertainment?
Lamb: I write to find out what the story means to me, that is what I try to do especially with the first draft. I try to find something that applies not to me only, but to others, but don’t try to control it too much. Essentially it is about what moves us, teaches us about ourselves.
Q. What are the easiest and hardest things about writing, for you?
Lamb: Dialogue comes naturally to me and I can hear the characters’ voices in the scenes. Hardest thing: creating something out of nothing – the first draft is torturous. But I love revising. If you demystify the process, it comes down to four strategies: what can I do to make the draft better; what should I cut out to make it stronger; what do I need to do to clarify it; and finally, what should I reposition.
Q. Did the Metabook process differ and how?
Lamb: The big difference is collaborating with more than an editor and publisher, but also with a creative director, a cast; brainstorming was exciting. The story is still the core, the design is almost as important, the visuals, the lists of suggested cast members for the parts – I really enjoyed being part of the entire process.
This is Lamb's sixth novel but the first to be released as a Metabook and traditional book from Harper Collins — Photo courtesy of Harper Collins
Q. Do you read much?
Lamb: I read the New Yorker from cover to cover but, I won’t read novels while writing novels; am more likely to turn on the soaps and watch As the World Turns or something else on TV.
Q. Influential Authors?
Lamb: Harper Lee, Dickens, Updike, O'Connor (Flannery – more for short fiction), Cather, Fitzgerald.
In a note, Wally wrote to Lee upon her death:
Dear Miss Lee – Thank you for teaching me that fiction can be, simultaneously, entertaining and political, and that writing about a specific place can reveal universal truths. When I read your work, I am sent back to my own early years to rediscover the wisdom of the child I was before I came of of age and began to see “through the glass, darkly.” Rest in peace, Nelle Harper. I have been your grateful student. ~Sincerely, Wally Lamb
Q. What’s next for Wally Lamb?
Lamb: Back to the drawing board with a new novel and maybe editing a third collection of my prison students' work. (I have a stockpile of good stuff since the publication of I'll Fly Away. And I just met with actor Mark Ruffalo who would be cast as the twins in a TV series based on my novel, I Know this Much is True. Additionally, I am working toward a third anthology featuring the women writers from the York Correctional Institution.