Lamb, Wally 1950–
Lamb, Wally 1950–
PERSONAL: Born October 17, 1950, in Norwich, CT; son of Walter A. (a utility superintendent) and Anna (a homemaker; maiden name, Pedace) Lamb; married Christine Grabarek (a high school teacher), July 1, 1978; children: Jared, Justin, Teddy. Education: University of Connecticut, B.A., 1972, M.A., 1977; Vermont College, M.F.A., 1984. Politics: "Left of center." Religion: "Questioning Catholic." Hobbies and other interests: Racquetball, running, rock and roll.
ADDRESSES: Office—P.O. Box 795 Willimantic, CT 06226.
CAREER: Norwich Free Academy, Norwich, CT, English teacher, 1972–88, writing center director, 1988–98; University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT, associate professor of creative writing, 1997–99; writer. Fresh Air Fund, host parent, 1982–; member of the board of directors of the public library in Willimantic, CT, 1988–96.
AWARDS, HONORS: Literature grant, Connecticut Commission on the Arts visiting artist, 1987–; Governor's Arts Award from State of Connecticut, 1998; Teacher of the Year, Norwich Free Academy, 1989; William Peden Prize in fiction, University of Missouri, and Pushcart Prize, both 1990, both for short story "Astronauts"; national winner, Thanks to Teachers Excellence Award, 1990; fellowship from National Endowment for the Arts, 1993; Friends of the Library U.S.A. Reader's Choice Award, 1998; New England Book Award, 1999; Kenneth Johnson Memorial Book Award, 1999; Writers for Writers Award, 2002.
(Editor) Always Begin Where You Are (poetry textbook), McGraw (New York, NY), 1979.
(As Wally Lamb) She's Come Undone (novel), Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1992.
(As Wally Lamb) I Know This Much Is True (novel), HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1998.
(Editor) Couldn't Keep It to Myself: Testimonies from Our Imprisoned Sisters, Harpercollins (New York, NY), 2003.
Work represented in several anthologies, including Streetsongs: New Voices in Fiction, Longstreet Press, 1990; Pushcart Prize XV: Best of the Small Presses, 1990–91, edited by Bill Henderson, Pushcart Press (Wainscott, NY), 1990; and Best of the Missouri Review, 1978–1990, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1991.
ADAPTATIONS: She's Come Undone (screenplay also written by Wally Lamb), Warner Brothers, 2001; I Know This Much Is True has been purchased by Twentieth-Century-Fox.
SIDELIGHTS: Connecticut author Wally Lamb is only the second writer to have two novels chosen to the nationally popular Oprah Book Club. His debut novel, She's Come Undone, was chosen as a notable work by television talk-show host Oprah Winfrey in 1997, and his follow-up work, I Know This Much Is True, earned the same honor in 1998, resulting in two bestsellers for the author. Both books present unsparing portraits of troubled people in troubled families. On the Web site Teenreads.com, a reviewer observed of Lamb's characters: "Interesting, temperamental, emotional human beings attach themselves to us like barnacles on the bottom of a ship. Characters that engage us—have us laughing, crying, hoping and praying for them as they stumble through life—trying to make sense of it all." New York Times Book Review correspondent Karen Karbo noted that Lamb "clearly aims to be a modern-day Dostoyevsky with a pop sensibility. In his view, it's not just the present that's the pits, that gives you nightmares and ruins your chances for happiness, it's also the ghosts of dysfunctional family members and your nonrelationship with a mocking, sadistic God, whom you still turn to in times of trouble—which is all the time."
She's Come Undone offers a humorous and poignant account of one woman's struggle to overcome a lifetime of unfortunate circumstances. "This is a tragicomic tale of a quirky, loveable, smart-mouthed survivor," wrote Susan Larson in the New Orleans Times-Picayune.Larson added that "this big, warm, embracing book is filled with a generous love and understanding of women." The book is narrated by Dolores Price, who reflects on the important events in her life. As Lamb once explained to CA, the use of a female narrator was not a conscious choice on his part. "The focal character of my novel … came to me initially as a voice inside my head," the author said, "an unnamed, self-deprecating woman joking about her recently failed marriage. As I began to invent a life around the voice, I had no idea that I was starting a novel or that the story would take me eight-and-a-half years to complete."
Dolores's story begins when she is a child. She endures her parents' failing marriage for several unhappy years before a divorce lands her mother in a state mental hospital and sends Dolores to live with her grandmother. The child's time there is also far from happy; she receives little comfort from her distant grandmother and is later raped by a neighbor. By the time she leaves for college, Dolores has become obese and withdrawn. Her fixation on her roommate's boyfriend, Dante Davis, offers little hope of satisfaction, and she eventually attempts to take her own life. Dolores, following in her mother's footsteps, winds up in a mental hospital. But unlike her mother, Dolores uses the experience as a means of reinventing herself. She loses weight, hatches a plan to win Dante's heart, and upon her release, she makes this dream a reality. Further misfortune awaits her after she is married, but Dolores proves herself a durable survivor who is able to carry on.
Though She's Come Undone is loaded with potentially grim material, critics have praised Lamb's use of comedy to lighten the story. Hilma Wolitzer, reviewing the novel in the New York Times Book Review, found that "its pleasures lie primarily in its lively narrative and biting humor," and the critic also characterized She's Come Undone as "an ambitious, often stirring and hilarious book." While Wolitzer did note several "excesses" regarding the inclusion of "topical plot turns" such as AIDS, abortion, and infertility, she found Dolores an engaging character who holds the reader's attention. "Excess is tolerable," Wolitzer wrote, when "characters are … endearing to the reader, as Dolores Price is, even in her most self-deprecatory moments."
The publication of She's Come Undone came eleven years after Lamb's literary career got off to a memorable start. Lamb once told CA, "I began writing fiction on Memorial Day, 1981, the morning our first child was born. After an 'all-nighter' in the delivery room, my wife and baby son were sleeping, and I ran home to grab a quick shower. I don't pretend to understand the chemical or psychological mix of adrenalin, exhaustion, and shower water which produced for me that morning the first fictional voice I ever heard: that of a wiseguy teenager complaining about his summer job as an ice cream vendor. By instinct, I jumped out of the shower, ran naked down the hallway, and scrawled on a piece of paper what the voice had said. About a month later—after I'd become proficient with diaper pins and carseat buckles—the jotted note resurfaced and I began what became my first story, 'Mister Softee,' which was published in Northeast magazine three years later."
Though the publication of She's Come Undone established Lamb as a professional writer, he continued to teach high school and college classes in Connecticut and was the recipient of teaching awards for his writing workshops. He found that the two pursuits—writing and teaching—often complement one another. "My work as a writer has altered the way I teach," he once explained to CA. "During my first years in the classroom, I taught writing by assigning topics and due dates and then evaluating my students' efforts, penning copious marginal comments about what each writer might have done to make the work more effective. My students, who rightfully assumed that their papers were, at that point, faits accompli, usually skipped the comments and flipped immediately to the grade. As I committed myself increasingly to fiction writing, I began to see that the most meaningful assignments come from the writer herself or himself and that feedback is helpful when the writing is ongoing, not after it's finished. With that in mind—and with the endorsement of the school administration—I designed and implemented the [Norwich Free]Academy's writing center. At the center, students are empowered by their own creative instincts and function both as creators and critics of writing—their own and others'. Teachers are trained to facilitate rather than dictate and are encouraged to write alongside their students and to submit their work to the critical process."
Five years elapsed between the publication of She's Come Undone and the citation from Winfrey that catapulted it to bestseller status. In the meantime Lamb published another novel, I Know This Much Is True, which was also chosen by Winfrey for her book club, thus assuring its status as a bestseller. The lengthy family saga is primarily narrated by Dominick Birdsey, whose twin brother, Thomas, commits an act of self-mutilation in the throes of paranoid schizophrenia. As Dominick tries to secure humane hospitalization for Thomas, he must also come to terms with the crib death of his baby daughter, the breakup of his marriage, and a family legacy of violence, depression, and damaging secrets. Karbo declared that the 900—page novel "never grapples with anything less than life's biggest questions."
In the Washington Post Book World, Mary Kay Zuravleff described I Know This Much Is True as "a torrential, encyclopedic saga of a troubled family." Zuravleff further commented: "Lamb's talent is such that he's able to describe Dominick's noble intentions alongside the resentment, embarrassment and fear that thwart those intentions." To quote an Entertainment Weekly reviewer, the novel "is about squarely facing your demons—which in Dominick's case means confronting pride, cruelty, selfishness, and guilt—and then changing your life." The reviewer felt that the book transforms one blue-collar New England family "into mythic world archetypes." A Publishers Weekly contributor maintained that the multi-generational story "largely succeeds in its ambitious reach." The contributor concluded that Lamb "creates a nuanced picture of a flawed but decent man," as well as "a fully developed and triumphantly resolved exploration of one man's suffering and redemption."
Lamb's interest in the work of other contemporary artists has helped him better understand the themes in his own writing. "Writers whose work I reread and study include Anne Tyler, Andre Dubus, John Edgar Wide-man, J.M. Coetze, Junot Diaz, Margaret Atwood, John Updike, Toni Morrison, Harper Lee, Alice Walker, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Flannery O'Connor, and Joseph Campbell," Lamb once explained. "These writers shake me up—disturb me in honest ways that allow me to hold onto hope. My fiction is equally informed by other media: the evocative lyrics of Laurie Anderson, Bruce Springsteen, and John Prine; the unexpected juxtaposition of artists Pablo Picasso and Rene-Francois-Ghislain Magritte; the edgy comedy of John Leguizamo, Tracey Ullman, and collaborators Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner. For better or worse, television also fuels my work. I watch TV with a wary eye, acknowledging its influence without ever trusting it. I'm most responsive to artists who juggle three balls in the air: hope, pain, and humor. I aim for just such a juggling act in my own fiction."
The presence of conflicting emotions runs through many facets of Lamb's life, and it has proved a driving force in his writing. "As a father and teacher, I'm both hopeful and afraid," he once told CA, "and I think my stories reflect this. My three callings—fathering, teaching, and fiction writing—are Siamese triplets joined at the head and heart, impossible to separate. I write because complacency disturbs me in the face of the world's pain and because sometimes voices other than my own talk inside my head. I recognize these as gifts and follow."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Newsmakers 1999, no. 1, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Christianity Today, December 7, 1998, Susan Wise Bauer, "Oprah's Misery Index," p. 70.
Entertainment Weekly, June 19, 1998, "Brother's Keeper," p. 66.
Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 1998, review of I Know This Much Is True.
New York Times Book Review, August 23, 1992; June 14, 1998, Karen Karbo, "A Brother's Keeper," p. 15.
Publishers Weekly, May 4, 1998, review of I Know This Much Is True, p. 204.
Time, June 15, 1998, Elizabeth Gleick, "I Know This Much," p. 81.
Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA), July 28, 1992.
Washington Post Book World, July 5, 1998, Mary Kay Zuravleff, "Brotherly Love and Family Madness," p. 1.
Writer, October, 1998, Lewis Burke Frumkes, "A Conversation with … Wally Lamb," p. 15.
Teenreads, http://www.teenreads.com/authors/ (March 6, 2001), "Author Profile: Wally Lamb."