Wally Lamb is the author of two novels, She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True, and the editor of the anthology Couldn’t Keep It To Myself: Testimonies from Our Imprisoned Sisters. He is close to completing his third novel, now titled The Hour I First Believed. This interview took place on June 28, 2006 on the campus of Vermont College where Wally was one of the visiting writers during the summer residency. He graduated from the MFA program there in 1984, which is where he began writing what would become She’s Come Undone under the mentorship of Gladys Swann. I have the pleasure of meeting Wally in person for the first time for this interview.
DA: My first question has to do with Vermont College because I’m so excited to be back here. Would you tell our readers a little bit about what it was like when you were a student here, who you worked with, and what the experience was like?
WL: I started writing fiction fairly late. I was about thirty years old. I didn’t even know if it was a story; I just started writing this thing. And then several drafts later, it became a story. Early on, I sort of slammed into the wall of all I didn’t know about how to write publishable fiction. Not being a big risk taker, it sort of surprised me that I had a drive to get better at this, and so with a lot of trepidation, I signed up for this program. I remember on the drive up from Connecticut, I passed the “Welcome To Vermont” sign and pulled into the visitors center parking lot, and I kept looking at that other side of the highway thinking: Well, maybe I’ll just turn around, do a U-turn and try to do this on my own. But I came. The first couple of days were tense and I still didn’t know if I belonged here. Then I hooked into some really nice people who were interesting writers and fun to be with, and that and the workshops allowed me to hit my stride and pick up the rhythm of this place. Those are friends I’m still close to. What the program did is open me up. I had been writing in a vacuum, and suddenly there were all these people who had the same kinds of concerns and questions that I did. Then, to be both on the receiving end of critical response, and also giving it and having to articulate your prescription for how somebody else’s writing could be better—both of those dovetailed for me, and made me not only a better writer but also a better teacher. I was teaching high school English at that time. I did a twenty-five year stint at a high school in Connecticut. At Vermont, I had the great fortune of working with a writer named Gladys Swann. Do you know Gladys?
DA: She was here when I started. I was actually supposed to work with her my first semester, but she became ill at the residency and wasn’t able to take on any students that semester. Do you still keep in touch with her?
WL: I saw her not too long ago in Austin, at the AWP conference. We had a nice little reunion there. She was a wonderful teacher. She gave me two pieces of advice that have served me very well ever since. She asked me: “Why are you here? What do you want to get out of this?” And I don’t think I had quite asked myself that question, so I had to make up something and said: “Well, To Kill A Mockingbird is a novel that always works with my high school students. I guess I want to write stories that kids would want to read rather than have to read.” I remember Gladys sort of frowned. “Don’t prejudge who your audience is,” she said. “Don’t write for an audience. Write for yourself. Satisfy yourself and go where you need to go. Then let whatever audience, large or small, find the work.” So, that was very liberating for me, that I didn’t have to write to an audience and it really opened things up for me.
Gladys’s other great piece of advice was this: she told me that I was never going to write an original story because the world is an old place and all the stories that people need have already been written. But, what I could do is find my own way of retelling some of the stories that matter to people. She was suggesting that I go back to the archetypal stories, the ones that have lasted the longest. She said to read the ancient myths, read Joseph Campbell, read Heinrich Zimmer—I’ve found his The King and the Corpse particularly useful—read classic stories from different cultures that have common themes. There is a commonality to a lot of the ancient works. I did that, and it led me to the critical paper I wrote while a student here, but also to the wellspring I go back to again and again and again. Particularly in times when I’m stuck or when I’m searching for an idea, I’ll go back and I’ll reread those ancient stories and they quench my thirst. They keep me going until I’m off and running again on my own.
DA: Let me get this question out of the way about your third novel. Is it finished?
WL: No. It’s hard for me to judge, but I think I’ve got about another year’s worth of work. Which is kind of bad because the publisher’s deadline was 2004. But you know, it comes at its own rate.
DA: I know that you’re a slow writer, but I see the payoffs of that in the published work. I take great reassurance in that because I’m slow, and I believe it takes as long as it takes, and I really appreciate—
WL: My procrastination?
DA: Your process.
WL: (Laughs.) It’s not procrastination. That’s the wrong word because I work on it pretty steadily. But some days and some weeks, it’s more wheel spinning than writing. I get stymied. This has happened now with three different novels, but certainly more so with this one. Possibly because of the emotional content of the work, but also because of the wider readership and everybody’s expectations because of the Oprah stuff. I’ve had to wrestle with those kinds of things. Creatively, I’ve been at it long enough so that I see when things are not going well for, say, a week or I hit a dry spell, that I can say okay, this too shall pass. With those first couple of novels, I wasn’t sure that I could deliver, that I was going to be able to complete the book. Not a problem with She’s Come Undone because there was no contract obligation; I didn’t submit the manuscript until after I’d finished it. But the second novel certainly had a deadline, and it was a big monster of a book. But, you’re right; it takes what it takes. Each time I start another novel, I’m humbled by the process, and overwhelmed by all that I don’t yet know about how to write an effective story. But, almost always, along with that frustration comes the joy of the breakthrough when suddenly you’ve got it and you’re off and running. Very often that comes to me through unexpected gifts or serendipitous surprises, discoveries that are sort of put before me.
DA: Can you give an example?
WL: I don’t want to sound too New Age-y, but for me there’s a component of the process that, along with the nail-biting and grunt-work, seems like I’m being blessed or gifted by…well, I don’t know who or what. But I’m grateful for these gifts whenever they’re offered. In I Know This Much Is True, I’d been writing for three or four months, and I had this character who was pissed off at the world. He was really angry and I didn’t know why. So, I was writing to find out what his deal was. I live near the University of Connecticut and sometimes when I get stuck in front of my computer, I’ll just pick up stakes and go to the fourth floor of the library, where the fiction is, and I’ll wander around and look at the spines of the books. I was doing that one day and I came upon something valuable in the philosophy section. I picked up this book and out fell a Xerox that some student had written a paper on and had forgotten to take out of the book. The article was called “Harelips and Twins.” At that point, I’d already begun to realize that Dominick’s anger was due in large part to his brother. I had already begun to write the brother. I didn’t have a diagnosis for him or anything like that, and certainly I didn’t think I was going to write about schizophrenia, which I knew nothing about then, but I knew that his brother was troubled mentally. And, suddenly this Xeroxed paper falls out and lands on my foot, and the light bulb goes on in my head—and I realize they are identical twins.
DA: They didn’t start out as twins?
WL: No. But when I realized they were twins that suddenly gave me a key to unlock Dominick’s anger and come to realize for myself that the anger was an overlay for what was really fear. They had started out as a single entity and had separated for whatever reason, and one of them gets this terrible disease and the other one is spared. Dominick is afraid, even into his thirties, that the disease is coming to get him too. Then I realized that some of his anger, and even his cruelty to his brother, is based on survival of the fittest—to get away from this guy or reject him so as not to catch what he’s got. When I understood Dominick on that deeper level, then I could write him more effectively. And that deeper understanding was the result of a serendipitous accident: a photocopied article falling out of a book and saying, in effect, “Yoo-hoo.” But that’s the kind of stuff that happens. That’s just one example. With my new book, I have a motif about mazes and labyrinths. Again, same setting, the UConn library, fourth floor, and a book called The Logic of the Labyrinth. I picked it up and it had all these great pictures of mazes. It’s a scholarly text. Looking at the pictures made me go back and read the Minotaur story, and suddenly I had an underpinning for a contemporary story based on a myth about mazes.
DA: Do you want to talk about the content of the new book?
WL: I’m happy to. The first source came as a result of being a high school teacher when all the school shootings started happening—Paducah, Kentucky and Columbine in Colorado—all those horrible things that happened, one right after the other for awhile. I have a cousin whose daughters went to the high school where Michael Carneal shot several people, injured and killed them. He was, I believe, a freshman when that happened, but he had a sister who was a senior and she was a friend of my cousin’s daughters. My cousin, April, told me the story of what happened. Her kids were spared that day because their older sister had just gotten married out of state and they had decided to stay an extra day where the wedding was and drive back on Monday, so they were out of school the day it happened. April told the story of Michael’s sister, that she was in the midst of all this chaos and confusion, and wandering the halls and sobbing and saying over and over again: “I’ve never been absent, I’ve never been in trouble at this school, I never even had an absence.” And it was her brother that had turned everything to chaos. Every time I thought of that story, I would start crying. It was so sad and moving to me that this poor kid had been so marked for no reason of her own. It’s just a horrible thing to contemplate.
Having walked high school corridors for twenty-five years, it really resonated with me. Now, at first I wasn’t thinking in terms of story, but every once in a while I’d recall what April had told me, and it would make me tear up. Then one day, I realized it was something I might need to write about. I switched locations from Paducah to Littleton, Colorado, and I got both fascinated and creeped-out by Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris and all their premeditated planning of this terrible event—their great secrecy and the fact that they were terrifyingly effective stealth artists, hiding in plain sight all along and leaving horrible things on Web sites and that kind of thing. It was a failure of imagination that people couldn’t make that leap and say this could happen.
So, what I have come up with is a fictional take on a non-fictional event. I have a main character who is a high school teacher at Columbine. He’s a Connecticut guy who, partly to save his marriage, decides to pull up stakes and go back to Colorado where his wife is from originally—he’s on his third marriage, and that’s not going well. He gets a job at Columbine, and she also gets a job there, as a school nurse. But he’s away from Columbine the day of the shootings. He’s in Connecticut when the tragedy happens, and his wife is in the school library where a lot of the carnage took place. The novel is partly about the damage that’s been inflicted: debilitating fear, post-traumatic stress, and, later, drug addiction. And in the midst of working with my prison inmate students, I begin to write about a female character’s criminal behavior. So, after reading my students’ work for five or six years, I realize some of that has seeped into my storytelling. I see that whole thing coming together.
DA: You’ve anticipated my next questions about the prison writing workshops you teach and how that might have an impact on your own writing.
WL: Along the way, I became interested in the history of the prison where I volunteer. So, I started doing research on it and came to find out it was the first and remains the only women’s prison in Connecticut. It was opened in 1917. Before that, women were thrown into the men’s prisons because the philosophy was that they were “fallen women” anyway—disposable—so it didn’t matter much what happened once they got there. It was the Quakers who started the movement to build separate penitentiaries—notice the word penitent. Reformatory. The philosophy was to reform women who had fallen prey to the ills of the city—put them out in the country, give them farm work, fresh air, and sunshine in a bucolic setting, and they would then rise to the occasion and become good women again. Of course, this philosophy is very dated now. York prison, where I teach, started out as a prison farm. They grew their own food and food for the community, the almshouse and the orphanage, and it was a system that worked. People did get better. That became really interesting to me, and as I studied the changes from 1917 through the 1950s and 60s to the God-awful supermax prison it is today, that became part of my story, too. What I’ve ended up with now is a novel about three generations of a family who all have ties to this prison. Caelum Quirk is the main character. He’s the husband of the woman who’s struggling with addiction post-Columbine, and he’s also the great-grandson of the woman who argued the prison into existence and served as its superintendent for many years. Caelum’s mother has a connection to the prison, too, but I’m not going to show my cards on that one.
DA: In rereading your two novels, I noticed some commonalities. Both books dealt with mental illness and hospitalizations, and there was the looming presence of mental institutions in both. There are two large institutions, a prison and a mental hospital, in the area where you live, and they seem to have had an impact on your work. There’s the huge prison where the women who wrote the memoirs in Couldn’t Keep It To Myself are incarcerated, and then the huge mental hospital that may have been the prototype for the hospital where the fictional character Thomas Birdsey is hospitalized in I Know This Much Is True, and the characters Dolores Price and her mother in She’s Come Undone. What hospital was that?
WL: Norwich State Hospital in the town where I was born and grew up, Norwich, Connecticut. The state hospital, or as natives call it, “down below“—as in, “so-and-so is down below.” It loomed large in my childhood, larger than I actually knew. It was a place I remember being fascinated by and creeped-out by whenever my mother or father would drive past. It was a big looming campus of very beautiful old brick buildings that had been built in the same era, the same decade, as the prison farm. The late teens: it was a progressive time, in terms of addressing social ills—both nationally and in Connecticut.
So, I’m a kid growing up in Norwich, Connecticut, in the 1950s and 60s, and every once in a while we’d drive past the state hospital. Then when I was fifteen or sixteen, I went to a family wake, and my cousin April—I have a lot of cousins, but for some reason she keeps surfacing in these stories—spilled the beans to me that our grandfather, my mother’s father, had been institutionalized at that hospital for a terrible act of violence. There had never been any pictures of my grandfather around—very few references to him. I had been told that he had died before I was born. So, he was kind of irrelevant to me when I was growing up, and then my cousin told me that he had died in 1955 or ’56, when I would have been five or six at that time, but that he was locked up.
My grandmother had birthed eleven children who survived and lost a number whom she had miscarried. And when my grandfather was a fairly old man, he’d gotten into an addled state and tried to kill my grandmother. He had cut her neck and left her on the floor. Some of the details of the story I found out later, not from my cousin. He had left her on the floor, walked down to the police station, and turned himself in. When my aunt, who lived upstairs, came down for something, she found her, and my grandmother was saved. There was some question about whether my grandfather was going to be incarcerated or committed “down below,” and I think probably some political strings were pulled. Grandpa was an Italian immigrant, as was my grandmother, and he had been one of the leaders of the Italian community, so I think the family had a little bit of political cache at that time. He was committed to the hospital, and he spent the last five or six years of his life down there.
A couple of years ago, when the last of my aunts died who had lived in that family house, my sister Gail was disposing of things and she found my grandfather’s death certificate which said “death due to brain cancer.” I don’t know if that crazy, horrible thing he did was a result of that or not. There’s no way of knowing. But, it implies that there might have been some medical problems going on. But what he’d done became such a source of shame for the family, that his eleven children kept complete silence about it. It just wasn’t talked about. That’s a very Sicilian thing to do; you protect your own and you don’t speak your business outside of the family. That has had a strong impact on me. I realize how strong when I look back at these novels I’ve written.
DA: Another thing that seems to thread through them is the lost child motif and the search for identity.
WL: That’s not autobiographical in any way, although certainly I felt alienated as a kid. I think a lot of kids go through that. I was the only boy in our household and lived on a street full of girls, so I was the odd-kid-out. Which I realize is beneficial if you’re going to grow up to be a fiction writer, because, from a very early age, I was cast as the observer, rather than the participant. Occasionally my sisters and my cousins would pull me into the pretend games they liked to play. If they were playing hospital or doctor and they needed a patient, I could be the patient. They would stick common pins in my arm—inoculations, if you will—those were the terms on which I could play with them (laughs).
DA: I read somewhere that you drew a lot as a child. What struck me about the drawings you described—a tidal wave headed toward a beach filled with people, a lion escaped from the circus—was that you already had the conflict right in those childhood drawings.
WL: I guess you could say that I’ve always been conflict focused. I remember as a young boy, I used to play with blocks. I had a pretty good collection of blocks, and I used to build things on the parlor floor. And I had little rubber figurines of people, and I’d cast them in stories and build them a house—then, oh no, a tornado’s coming! I was always into that kind of thing. I couldn’t swing a Little League bat to save myself, but that’s the kind of thing I really enjoyed. It was by and large solitary play, and again it was good training to be a writer who sits alone in a room for the majority of the day and plays with his imaginary friends.
DA: Do you still write short fiction?
WL: Book contracts have a way of steering you in one direction and away from another. I haven’t really been compelled to write short fiction for a while now, for a number of years. The novels themselves are daunting enough. I might go back to it though.
DA: When I’m reading, I’m aware that there’s a relationship that exists only on the page between the reader and the writer. But there’s also another relationship that happens, and that’s between the writer and the characters he or she has created. Your stories are very character driven, and I know you discover the characters as you’re writing. There’s almost a parental aspect to it.
WL: Yes. Absolutely. You’ve hit it right on the head—for me, anyway. When I was writing Dolores, in She’s Come Undone, I was writing as the character, but I was worrying about her as if she were my troubled daughter, and a pretty much uncontrollable daughter at that. I never really felt when I was writing her that I was in charge of the story. She was kind of pulling us both through that plot. Every once in a while, I would worry to the point where I would try not to write situations that I was imagining. I remember one of them was when she’s raped by an upstairs neighbor, who she’s carrying on a sort of flirtation with in her innocence. She doesn’t quite get it, because she’s a clueless thirteen-year-old who has to go live with her grandmother after her parents have gotten divorced. Suddenly, this cool guy who’s a DJ comes to rent an upstairs apartment in the grandmother’s house. So, Dolores starts dressing up and batting her eyelashes at him, and then he takes advantage of that.
When I was writing Jack Speight, the upstairs neighbor, I didn’t know—because I never plan things, I just write as it comes—if he was going to be a positive or a negative force for her. I kept wanting to write him as a more positive character. I didn’t want him to hurt her. But the writing I was doing to make that happen seemed kind of bogus to me, and it just didn’t ring true. So, I remember I was in the library, writing in longhand—and this happens not too frequently, but when it does it’s really exciting—where I just sort of drop into the story and the story becomes my reality, and the room I’m in blurs away and time sort of warps. When I was writing that scene where she goes upstairs to the porch and he begins to tickle her, and the tickling turns ominous and she’s not quite understanding what it is that’s happening, I thought maybe twenty minutes to half-an-hour had gone by while I wrote that scene, and when I looked up at the clock about three hours had lapsed. I’d had no idea.
To get back to your question about parental stuff, I don’t think it’s an accident that I started writing fiction during the same summer that I became a father. Our oldest son, Jared, was born on May 25, 1981. We were up in the delivery room all night, and suddenly he’s not a lump in my wife’s belly anymore, he’s an actual person, and I was really excited and really exhausted—not as exhausted as my wife. But she went to sleep, and the baby went off to the nursery, and I went running home to take a shower and call our relatives and friends, and it was in that shower on the day of my son’s birth that I heard my first fictional voice. I wrote a couple of scraps of dialogue. I didn’t know what it was then, but it was dialogue. A wise guy ice cream vendor was talking about his dorky summer job driving a Mr. Softee truck. I don’t know what possessed me to do it, but I got out of the shower and before I was even dressed, I just jotted it down. You know how, if you don’t write down what’s in your dreams, they sort of evaporate? I just wrote this thing down, and then maybe a month later, I found this little scrap of paper and on it is written what I heard this young wise-ass guy say. And I sat down and that was how I started.
For me, fiction writing and fatherhood are intertwined in ways that I don’t particularly understand. But I do feel, as the creator of these characters, kind of a parental responsibility. Which I don’t feel at all after the novel is finished. People will ask, “Are you going to continue Dolores’ story?” And I have no interest in doing that. That story is told, and now I’m worrying about other kids of mine, just as I worry about our own kids, our real kids.
DA: One of the other things I noticed about your novels is that sometimes a character, who appears to be a minor character in the beginning of the book, will come back into the story later in a major way. In She’s Come Undone, the characters Roberta, the next-door neighbor, and Mr. Pucci, the guidance counselor, and even the grandmother, all come back into the story in important ways.
WL: And none of that was planned; it just happened. For me, fiction writing is writing riddles that I then have to solve, and that goes back to The King and the Corpse myth: riddle-solving as a way to save your life. These things are sort of land mined in the text as I’m writing it, and then suddenly, I see it for the first time as with the motif of the whales in She’s Come Undone. I was writing for over a year on that novel, and one day, probably as a procrastination strategy, I thought: I’m not going to write, I’m just going to read what I’ve got so far. And I realized there were three or four random references to whales, and when that came to the surface for me, I realized something subconscious had been going on there. Then, I began to work with it on a conscious level, and that’s where craft comes in, as opposed to first draft. You begin to hone and sculpt your raw material.
DA: I have an appreciation of the absurd, and for the way events are sometimes spookily coincidental or serendipitous, in real life and in fiction. You seem to also appreciate the absurd in the way you juxtapose things against each other. Did you discover that as you wrote?
WL: Yeah. It’s sometimes fun for me too, as in the novel I’m writing now, The Hour I First Believed. The title’s taken from the hymn “Amazing Grace.” It’s set in the fictional town where Caelum grows up, Three Rivers, which is a hybrid of Norwich, New London, and Willimantic, Connecticut. Caelum lives next door to the women’s prison when he’s growing up, and he’s in the same class as the Birdsey brothers from I Know This Much Is True. It seems organic that, as people living in the same town, they would know each other. I’ll give you a little sample. This is in Caelum’s eight-year-old voice:
Aunt Lolly and Daddy are twins, except they don’t look alike the way the Birdsey twins in my grade do. Aunt Lolly’s taller than Daddy, even though she’s the girl. Plus, she’s a little bit chubby and Daddy is skinny. He has black hair and a bushy beard and two missing front teeth that aren’t gonna grow back. Daddy and Aunt Lolly’s mother died in the middle of having Daddy, and so Grandpa had to raise them by himself, and Great-Grandma Quirk was kind of like their grandmother and their mother. She wasn’t crazy then. Aunt Lolly said Great-Grandma used to be very, very smart and she started the ladies prison. It was her idea. Daddy said, “My sister came out first so she grabbed all the smarts and left me with all the stupids.” He said he was the runt in a litter of two. A lot of the kids in my class can’t tell the Birdsey twins apart, except I can. Thomas has a little dot near his eyebrow, and Dominick doesn’t. And sometimes Thomas is a crybaby. They came over to my house once. Dominick and I played Whirlybirds, on account of that’s both of our favorite TV show. I was Chuck and Dominick was P. T. and we jumped down from the barn onto big bales of hay, like we had to jump out of our helicopter just before it crashed. But Thomas was too chicken to play Whirlybirds. He only wanted to play with the barn kittens and throw a stick for Queenie our dog.
They don’t have major roles, but I like revisiting them.
DA: Well maybe Dolores will come back? You think you’re done with her, but—
WL: Maybe she’s not done with me yet. When I did the Oprah show on She’s Come Undone, the most fun part happens when the camera lights go off and it’s just Oprah and the guest, in this case me, and the audience. There was a Q&A; going back and forth and someone asked: “Do you think you could continue Dolores’ story and bring her through menopause?” Writing that book raised my consciousness, but I don’t think I can raise it that high.
DA: In the 2003 commencement speech you delivered at Connecticut College, you mentioned the petition that you were asked to sign, a petition by writers asking President Bush to exhaust all diplomatic measures before using military power in Iraq. And a reporter asked, “Why do you think writers have the answers?” You replied: “Fiction writers have no answers, only questions, the most significant and succinct of which is why?” War is another thread through your novels.
WL: You’re probably just as troubled about the political situation as I am, and about the direction of this country. I do think fiction writers, and poets as well, get to pose deep questions. I’m always very interested in the popular culture. It was really fascinating to me that there were these simultaneous things going on this spring: this horror show in Iraq, and the very troubling racist overtones of the illegal immigrant debate, and everyone’s intoxication over who is going to be chosen for American Idol. I think we’ve all got levels of denial going on, where we can get as excited about that as we can get riled up about something else. That’s not to say that we should be negative all the time, and only stew about the problems of the world and the country. But I do think that fiction certainly has entertainment value—and that is a value, but fiction also has the capacity and a responsibility to kick us in the pants. It’s easy to get complacent. One of the most important things that writers do is shake people out of their complacency.
DA: Rereading I Know This Much Is True, it resonated on a whole different level for me because now we are in Iraq with a second Gulf War after the first Gulf war in Kuwait, which was the war that so deeply affected the character Thomas Birdsey. How did the opening chapter in I Know This Much Is True come about?
WL: I had been a classroom teacher for a number of years and then in the last five or six years, I designed and ran a writing center on campus. This was back in the day when schools were first embracing computers, so I wanted it to have computers and I wanted there to be a place where writing could be done across the curriculum and not just as part of the English class. As the center’s teacher, I worked with science classes, history classes, et cetera, et cetera. Those last years, I received other people’s classes, and worked with the visiting teachers and their students. I was planning an oral history project with a history teacher and we decided it’d be interesting for the kids to interview people who had been teenagers during the Great Depression. I put a little notice in the paper and the phone started ringing off the wall in my classroom because folks were in retirement and interested in looking back on their lives. Many people responded that they wanted to share their stories.
We had a group of about fifteen interviewees, and I planned a three-day program. The first day was going to be all of us sitting around in a circle, and the kids were going to tell a little bit about themselves and the older people were going to tell a bit about their lives. I was going to try to gauge who might connect with whom the best. We had interesting people show up. Somebody had been in the original Miss America contest and somebody else had worked the breadlines and soup kitchens. They were very colorful people, but there was one guy who was just scowling the whole time, sitting with his arms crossed over his chest and wearing dark glasses. His name was Peter Mayock. The bell was going to ring in a few minutes, so I asked him if he’d like to tell us a little about himself before we ran out of time. He uncrossed his arms and revealed that he had a hand missing, and then he took off his glasses and he had an eye missing. He stood up and proceeded to tell us a scary, horrific story about how he was a pacifist in World War II and worked at the defense plant, and he read the Bible and saw the Biblical passage about if thy right hand sinneth, cut it off. The kids and I are all flustered, and I say, “OK, uh, THANKS!” and he sits down. So, he’s coming back the next day for the one-on-one interview. There was this cute little girl who had stood up earlier and said, “My name is Terri, and I’m really into dancing and Jesus.” And Mr. Mayock was this religious zealot, so I said, “Terri, how about we hook you up with Mr. Mayock?” But she said, “Um, can I have that little cute Santa Clausy guy instead?” The bottom line was the kids were too scared to work with him. And he was coming back and somebody had to work with him, so he became my guy to interview. And I kept interviewing him because his story was so creepy and compelling.
He had been locked up in the Norwich State Hospital for decades, and then was bounced out unceremoniously during the Reagan era when they began to cut funding and de-institutionalize so many people. He had gone all the way up to the Supreme Court to try to argue for his freedom on writs of habeas corpus to free him from institutionalization. He had this fascinating story to tell, and he truly believed that God wanted him to lead the way. This was happening in the days before the first Gulf War in Kuwait, and Mr. Mayock was riled up about that and felt that if the leaders would just listen to him, they could avoid war. It was sad; he was pretty delusional. And yet his politics were pretty much the same as mine. There was something almost heroic about him; he had been waiting for his following through all those decades and thought he was the shepherd who could lead us to better days and to be better people. It was heartbreaking, and yet it was poignant.
Then in the course of interviewing him, I mentioned my grandfather, and he said, “Oh yeah, I knew Bruno.” They had been hospitalized together. I kept up with Mr. Mayock, and, eventually, he went to a nursing home. He just passed away last year. He’d had a sad life. One of the things he told me was that he had a brother who had worked for the railroad and lived in another part of Connecticut. Neither had ever married, but the brother would come and visit him every single Sunday for all the years and years that he was institutionalized at the hospital. That aspect of it became so moving to me, that he had this brother who was devoted and I’m sure very disturbed by him. You can see how all that plays out in my novel. It was a very Vincent and Theo type of relationship, not unlike the story of Van Gogh and his devoted brother. So anyway, this guy answers the ad in the newspaper about the oral history project, and look at the reverberations and repercussions.
DA: Raymond Carver used to say, “Always answer the phone.”
WL: That’s a great quote, and true. Ironically, on my very last day at the University of Connecticut, I was packing up my office and the very last thing that I had to do was hand my key in to the secretary, and as I was closing the door the phone rang. And Ray Carver was right—answer the phone. It was Marge Cohen who was the librarian at the prison. And she said, “We’re in trouble here. There have been some suicides and suicide attempts, and we’re looking for something that might distract, and we’re calling on people to help.” And that’s how I started teaching at the prison. I couldn’t decline.
DA: Are you still doing your workshops with the women prisoners?
WL: Yeah. We’ve had some bumps along the way with the institution and the lawsuit and everything that happened after the publication of the essay collection. [See note.]
DA: There’s so much about workshopping with the prisoners that’s the same thing that happens with a regular workshop—building trust, and taking the risk of sharing the work—but it was greatly magnified for them, especially the risk level. It must be very rewarding to help those women find a voice.
WL: I’m sure you know that the more you give, the more you get back. And, really, it’s been a back-and-forth thing all along. They really have helped me to understand things that I didn’t understand before. I’m so proud of them. I’ve never had the opportunity to work with students over several years, and I’ve been working with some of my current students since 1999. Some have really blossomed not only as writers, but also as critics. The criticism must be generous—gentle but useful. Sometimes we allow other people to sit in, and whoever comes in and observes can’t get over the level of sophistication and the real care that they give to one another’s writing. And as a teacher, it’s unbelievable to be witness to some of the leaps they take. Very often there are trust issues in the beginning, and rightfully so, not only with each other, but with me. Suddenly, it happens to student after student; they’ll take that jump and get to some other side, and they realize that they can do it. And they realize that if they tell some of these secrets they’ve kept or been threatened to keep since they were little kids, that it somehow unburdens them, and the sharing within the group and then the publication is a further step toward letting the secrets out. Some take that step very cautiously, and some choose not to take that step, which is fine, but the risks they take transform them as people. It’s not me who does it; it’s the writer herself who does it. And it’s a very cool thing to see.
NOTE: Lamb’s essay “Revisions and Corrections” was published September 3, 2006 in NE (North East) magazine of the Sunday Hartford Courant. The essay evolved from a children’s charity book project of essays by writers about the books that changed their lives. Wally explained that it hadn’t started out to be about his work with the prisoners. He said: “I started what I thought I was going to write and then wrote what I needed to write.” The result was a piece about how the roles of being a teacher, writer, and parent are not mutually exclusive but overlap and inform each other, and includes a gripping account of the fallout surrounding the publication of Couldn’t Keep It To Myself, including a lawsuit against the women prisoners by the state of Connecticut and an investigation of Wally by the state’s Attorney General’s office.
“Wally Lamb: Letting Go of Secrets” first appeared in the Fall 2006 issue of Paper Street and an excerpt also appears in the back pages of the Harper Perennials re-issue of his novel I Know This Much Is True. Since this interview was conducted, Wally Lamb has published a second anthology with his writing students, I’ll Fly Away: Further Testimonies from the Women of York Prison. More information about I’ll Fly Away as well as his essay “Revisions and Corrections” can be found online at the HarperCollins website. His new novel is due out in November 2008.
Dory Adams holds the copyright for this interview.
About the author:
Dory Adams is a Pittsburgh-based writer with an MFA from Vermont College. Winner of the 2002 William Faulkner Award for Short Fiction, her work has appeared in The Avery Anthology, Blue Earth Review, Hobart, Slipstream, The Oklahoma Review, Common Ground Magazine, Shalla Magazine, Workers Write! Tales from the Clinic and Forge. Dory is the fiction editor at Paper Street and the co-founder of Paper Street Press. Her interviews with writers on craft appear in the fall issues of Paper Street. She is currently working on a novel titled The October Earth.