Checking in with Wally Lamb

Wally Lamb was in New York City in mid-March to watch a rough cut of the screen adaption of his second novel,  “I Know This Much Is True,” which is streaming now on HBO as a six-episode tv drama. 

“I had chosen Mark Ruffalo as the one and only person I wanted to take on the role of the twins and he was so genuine,” Lamb said, in a phone interview on Aug. 20. “My agent sent the book to him. Mark was in Europe filming. He was halfway through and said he already knew that he wanted to do it. My characters were the kind of people he said he knew from his hometown and growing up.”

The series was filmed in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., but the novel was set in Three Rivers, Connecticut, a fictionalized combination of Lamb’s home town of Norwich, with bits of New London, Groton and Willimantic thrown in. 

In the series, Ruffalo plays the dual roles of identical twin brothers Dominick and Thomas Birdsey. Thomas suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and violently mutilates himself as a protest against the Gulf War. Dominick attempts to take care of his brother while facing his own demons, including the death of his only child from SIDS, a painful divorce and an ongoing hostile relationship with his stepfather. 

After interviewing three or four directors, Lamb and Ruffalo chose Derek Cianfrance, known for “Blue Valentine” and a number of other films. 

Lamb said that although he traveled to Poughkeepsie a few times to watch the filming, he let Cianfrance translate the novel to the screen without interference.

“Derek said, ‘I just want you to know I’m going to be very respectful of your story.’ And I said ‘That’s nice but don’t forget to make it your own,’” said Lamb. “They’re different animals, a novel and a screenplay, and so he asked if I wanted to look at the scripts as he was writing them and I said no, I want to trust you. And it all came out beautifully, I really loved the work.”

Lamb said his stories often come to him visually and aurally, “almost like a little movie and sometimes a voice starts speaking in my head.” 

“When I was a kid I wasn’t a big reader. I read stuff we had to do for school, but what I did love to do was draw. I always had a pencil in my hand and a stack of plain paper , i used to make my own cartoons and my own comic books,” he said, adding that he especially enjoys writing dialogue. 

“Maybe it all boils down to nothing more special than when I was a kid, I watched probably too much TV, so that was the pictures and the words,” he laughed.

He said that he always writes in the first person and that the process is similar to acting. “I always become the characters,” he said. “[Actors] sort of climb out of their own skin and inhabit somebody else’s skin to play a part.”

Lamb said the most difficult part of writing a novel is the beginning because he doesn’t know the character very well yet. 

“As I’m writing, I’m trying to figure that out. I generate a lot of throwaway stuff, but little by little I get deeper and deeper into this person and there are almost daily discoveries,” he said. “The best writing days for me are the days when what comes out of me surprises me in terms of a character will say something or do something and I hadn’t expected that could happen. It’s like whoa, this is more interesting than I had planned for this scene.”

Lamb has his own writing process that unfolds and reveals itself rather than following an organized structure. 

“I wish I could write chronologically and I wish I could be one of those writers that works from an outline and knows what the ending is going to be and writes toward that but it doesn’t work out that way for me,” he said. “I write in these little islets of story and then I have to figure out how or even if they all get connected — my process sort of intimidates me.” 

Norwich roots

“We lived on McKinley Avenue in a very girl-centric neighborhood. I have two older sisters. We had had girl cousins who lived a couple of houses down and most of the neighborhood was female,” he said. “There was only one other boy to play with and that was Vito and he used to throw rocks at me. I didn’t really have a lonely childhood so much as I had a solitary childhood, but when you’re cast in the role of the observer as a kid, if you’re going to become a fiction writer, that’s probably not a bad thing to have happen.” 

The classic advice to creative writers is to “write about what you know,” which is how he started, Lamb said.

A few places in Norwich have had an outsized influence on his writing, Lamb said, including the Slater Memorial Museum at the Norwich Free Academy, where he attended school and later taught for about 25 years. While teaching there, he started writing fiction in 1981 and published his first novel, “She’s Come Undone” in 1992. 

“I particularly love the Plaster Cast Collection, which depicts all of the ancient myths, pretty much all of the classical myths, Greek and Roman,” said Lamb. One of his writing teachers told him he needed to put his own spin on archetypal stories. “That’s when I started to look very seriously at some of these ancient myths, not only the Greek and Roman ones but then I got curious about Egyptian myths and Hindu myths and Inuit myths. I began to see that those prototypes are from very different cultures, but they all tell those same kind of stories,”

Norwich State Hospital, now closed, was also an influence in Lamb’s work, which deals often with mental illness. 

How it sort of loomed at the top of Laurel Hill when I was growing up and I was always kind of fascinated and a little bit scared of what I used to think of as ‘crazy,’” he said.

Lamb said his maternal grandfather had also been incarcerated there after committing a violent crime against his grandmother. 

“He went to the state hospital for the criminally insane. I never knew anything about him, he had died when I was I think three years old, and nobody would ever talk about him,” said Lamb, who added that he based the grandfather, Domenico, in “I Know This Much Is True” on his own grandfather. “People had very different ideas about mental illness back then. It was a very shameful thing, that’s still true to some extent, but it’s better in terms of the acceptance of it as an illness rather than a family shameful secret.” 

York Correctional Institution

Already five years after “She’s Come Undone” was published, it was chosen for Oprah’s book club, which shot the book into the stratosphere, said Lamb. Oprah would choose “I Know This Much Is True” soon after its publication in 1998.

“I like to think of it as I had two rides on the roller coaster and then I came back and I was scratching my head. There are so many writers that are good or way better than I am so why did this happen to me? I could never figure out why. I began to think about what I could do to give back,” he said. 

Then, a librarian at the York Correctional Institution in Niantic called him to ask if he’d do a presentation. There had been a couple of suicides and suicide attempts, Lamb said, after cutbacks to the institution by then-Gov. John Rowland.

“Because I’d just been in the Oprah book club on tv she thought that would be of interest to the women so I thought I was just going down for one 90-minute class,” he said. “I was going to give a talk and we were going to do a couple of exercises then I’d pack up my briefcase and get the hell out of there. I was going.” 

Then one woman who had a very angry look throughout the class asked Lamb if he was coming back. 

“And because I’m such a chicken, I said yes. And she became one of the strongest and most faithful writers,” said Lamb. “I was the teacher of this thing, but I was also a student of them.”

At first the women wrote about fond memories, but eventually they shared pieces of their trauma. Lamb said that the program offered the women a voice and a connection to each other.

“They unburdened some of those terrible secrets that they had been keeping for years and they connected with one another and began to trust one another. All of a sudden they didn’t have to carry those terrible burdens all by themselves,” he said. “I had been a teacher all my adult life, but I’d never seen such profound growth as in these women and once they started to claim their voices, they couldn’t stop, they wrote a lot.”

After teaching at the prison for 20 years, Lamb stopped last year. He said he misses the women in the program individually and collectively. 

“Especially now, I worry with the isolation because there are no programs going on because of COVID,” he said. 

At some point, Lamb said he’d like to see what it’s like to work with male inmates. 

“I suspect there will be a lot of similarity and it’s kind of the way that I feel about how men are supposed to be from Mars and women from Venus — I think that’s probably true until you go beneath the surface. We all come from male and female. I’m not so sure that we’re stranded on different planets,” said Lamb.

New work

Lamb said he has more time for writing than before, and that he’s in the middle of writing a new novel.

“I would like to think that because I’m writing on a more full time basis that I’m more productive, but I’m not. It’s coming very slowly and very painfully,” said Lamb. 

Lamb said he went to the gym regularly before COVID, but now he walks the neighborhood. He uses physical exercise to help himself through writer’s block.

“I think that gets the blood flowing,” he said. “The best writing I do is in the morning and in the afternoon my creative brain just sort of shuts off. Whereas a lot of writers I know get very productive later in the day and can write into the night, I can’t do that, but I can get up early and get started and those are the days when I’m the most productive.”

Lamb said that his standard advice, for writers who want their work published, is to “humble yourself to the process of revision.” 

“Nobody gets it right or publishable in the first draft and you have to be patient with the process,” he said. “If you can get feedback from other writers who you trust, that’s going to help you too.”

His early “literary gods” were John Updike, Margaret Atwood, Flannery O’Connor and Andre Dubus.

“Probably the most valuable book that I go back to again and again is by the anthropologist Joseph Campbell, ‘The Hero With a Thousand Faces.’ He went back to the ancient myths and studied the similarities among stories from different cultures. That’s the backbone of a lot of my work,” said Lamb.

Lamb said at the moment he’s reading nonfiction.

“I don’t want my voice to get mixed up with other people’s voices, particularly the writers that I really admire, I don’t want to sort of subconsciously start copying their style or something,” he said. “I catch up on the novels I want to read after I finish a novel and other than that I read the New Yorker every week from cover to cover and I read a lot of magazines, a lot of short nonfiction and poetry.”

Feedback

Lamb said that when his novel “I Know This Much Is True,” was published in 1998, it quickly sold to 20th Century Fox, now 20th Century Studios. 

“They tried for about 15 years to come up with a script — 150 pages, basically two hours of a feature film — and it was such an ungodly long story that they couldn’t do it without cutting a lot of stuff out,” he said. “Nobody was satisfied with what they came up with and it was sort of in limbo for 15 years.”

Directors came and went, screenwriters came and went, and Lamb said that he knew he didn’t want to tackle it either. 

“Then my agent called one day and said, that contract said, that if they don’t make the film within 15 years that the rights revert back to you,” said Lamb. “So I got the rights back and meanwhile in those 15 years along came premium TV, with great directors and limited series and so forth. And that was just a much better fit for this material  with six one-hour installments.”

When COVID was spreading in mid-March, he said that after watching a rough cut of the series, he left the city.

Lamb said that he continues to work on material he finds interesting, which to him means writing truthfully. 

“I really care more about what interests me, particularly in the early part of the story. I’m more interested if it seems interesting to me or seems truthful to me than I am about worrying about what an audience will think of it yea or no,” he said. 

He especially values the feedback from his writers’ group, which meets every couple of weeks. 

“I’ve been in one group for a long time now. We’ve been meeting for maybe 25 years, pretty much the same people, some of them are poets, some are creative nonfiction writers, and some of us are fiction writers,” he said. 

The group has given Lamb a safe place to try out and refine his ideas. 

“We read something new or bring a revision in and that’s very helpful to me. Hopefully I can give help to the other writers too because if you get the gift of feedback, you can get beyond yourself and your own suppositions about what’s on the page,” he said. “I love that, and sometimes I’ll hit false notes.”

Lamb said that he hit a lot of false notes writing “She’s Come Undone.”

“I was always grateful when the women in the writers’ group would point out things to me and say, ‘A woman would never think that way or she wouldn’t say that.’ So I had a lot of opportunity to write it more truthfully or more credibly because I was open to that kind of feedback.”

Latest from Art & Culture