An Evening with Wally Lamb

Best-selling fiction author, Wally Lamb, came to the Carroll Arts Center on Friday, Oct. 25. The event was sold out and the house was full—with women, as well as some husbands that they dragged along.

Lamb came to Westminster as part of a 40-city book tour to promote his newest novel We Are Water. Lamb’s fifth novel, We Are Water sold half a million copies within the first few days of its release. His first two books, which were endorsed by Oprah Winfrey, has earned Lamb a great deal of attention and numerous television appearances.

A charming, cheerful older man dressed in a brown blazer, jeans, and a black hat, Lamb quickly won over the audience with a humorous poll.

“Should I speak with my hat on, without my hat on, or I don’t give a crap?” He followed this up with a joking remark about wanting to impress the audience with his new skinny jeans, which he claimed were less comfortable than maternity jeans.

Wally Lamb attended the University of Connecticut for his bachelor’s degree in Education and a master’s degrees in Writing. Lamb started out teaching high school, which he loved, but ended up embarking on a career in writing. His mentor gave him two pieces of advice that have guided him and his writing: never write with an audience in mind, and there is no such thing as an original story, so tell it in your own way.

“What a long, strange trip it’s been,” Lamb says, quoting the Grateful Dead, as he talks about his writing journey.

His first novel, She’s Come Undone, took nine years to write, while his most recent only took four. None of his books followed any outline in the writing process, he just “follows the voice of the characters,” which fits because his stories are character-oriented.

She’s Come Undone was banned for inmates for a period of time, but through social media, Lamb was able to get the ban lifted after only 24 hours. The book has since been turned into a play.

Many of the characters in Lamb’s books are women. He is great with speaking from a female’s point of view because he grew up with sisters, female cousins, and female friends. Currently, Lamb is a regular workshop leader at the York Correctional Institute for Women. He started this when a childhood friend who worked as a librarian at the prison asked him to come in to interact with the women after psychiatric funding had been cut. Lamb won over their trust and was inspired to go back regularly.

At the prison, Lamb was able to learn about PTSD by seeing it firsthand, which helped inform his books and inspire characters, especially in his novel She’s Come Undone.

His newly-released We are Water was inspired by two events that happened in his hometown of Norwich, Conn. The first happened when he was too young to remember. An African-American painter named Ellis Ruley married a white woman in the ‘50s which drew attention at the time. Ruley’s works were not very famous when he was alive, but have been celebrated since his untimely death, some thought to have been murder.

The second event that inspired his book was a flood that happened in 1963, where a dam collapsed and ruined many stores and lives. One family, the Moody’s, tried to outrun the water. The father of the family and a 19-year-old neighbor were up in a tree while the mother was down below, handing the three small children up to the men to safety. The water reached her before she could climb to safety and she died.

Lamb decided to write his book on these events during an interview for radio, when the host asked what he would write about next. He had no idea at the time, but being put on the spot he responded “the flood,” because everyone in Norwich knew about it. One of the station’s listeners called in, saying that she was the cousin of the Moody kids, and asked if Lamb would like to interview the children and neighbor. Naturally, he accepted the offer.

We Are Water has more to the story than its connection to the true events. He tells his story through eight different voices and weaves the plot with modern issues and drama. Lamb read a passage to the audience, making it clear his book has plenty of humor, too.

During the event’s Q&A session, Lamb discussed that one of his favorite fictional characters is Scout Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird (a book which he helped make a documentary about with Tom Brokaw and Oprah Winfrey). Some of his favorite books in childhood were Homer Price and The Black Stallion. He somewhat enjoys being on the road because he loves being around people, and thinks of himself as a good observer.

Wally Lamb is an engaging speaker and writer that relates well to his audience and tells the stories of many people. Though many members of the audience were established fans of Lamb’s works, some had not read his books before. To new readers of his books, Lamb said, “I hope you enjoy the ride.”