The author of ‘The Hour I First Believed’ talks about coping with bestseller stardom.
A number of years ago I came to believe that Wally Lamb was one of today’s great storytellers. I knew of the hubbub surrounding his second Oprah Book Club novel, “I Know This Much Is True,” and taking a chance, I cracked it open to see if it lived up to the hype. It did. Then I went back and read his first novel, “She’s Come Undone.” Again, the rave reviews were accurate. Now, in 2008, Lamb’s third novel hits bookstores. Curiously titled, “The Hour I First Believed,” the read is full of rich and complex characters and plenty of heart-wrenching storylines. It also uses Columbine High School in Colorado as a backdrop to the story. Quite simply, the book is pageturner. It chronicles a troubled couple, Caelum and Maureen Quirk, who both work for Columbine High School. Maureen is onsite the day the horrific shootings take place and the tale story follows the duo as they reel from the tragedy. GT recently caught up with Lamb, who heads to Bookshop Santa Cruz at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 6.
GOOD TIMES: HOW Does IT FEEL KNOWING THAT YOUR NEW BOOK WAS SO WIDELY ANTICIPATED?
WALLY LAMB: After bestsellerdom, I sat down to write this. I was scared to write the first sentence. I [finally] chased everyone’s expectations out of my office and dug in.
GT: WHAT’S YOUR WRITING PROCESS? DO YOU OUTLINE?
WL: I wish I could outline. It doesn’t work that way for me. I can’t do it that way because I’m writing in first person. First of all I find their voice and let them tell the story to me. I’m confounded a lot, actually, and it’s not an easy process for me. I have to sometimes be patient until the character defines himself or herself and brings me deeper and deeper and deeper. It’s like peeling an onion or something. … Writing groups have very much been a part of my process.
GT: YOUR CHARACTERS ARE SO RICH AND REALISTIC. HOW DO YOU COME UP WITH THEM?
WL: With Dolores in “She’s Come Undone,” she started out as a voice. She was kind of funny and self-deprecating and a wise ass. I was working on her for a while and I had a fair number of pages in her voice and one day I thought about a kid [when I was student teaching—an obese girl in high school who had walls and defenses and was very quiet and didn’t take part in class. Everybody treated her like she was invisible. That’s when “She’s Come Undone” propelled.
GT: WHY DO YOU THINK TOPICS OF FAITH AND THE TRAGEDIES AT COLUMBINE ARE SO COMPELLING TO PEOPLE:
WL: I think that in terms of the Columbine stuff, these past 10 years have been scary ones for many of us—the school shootings, 9/11, the ravages of the hurricane in New Orleans. Columbine has become a metaphor for some of these chaotic things and how you survive them. The spirituality thing—in all three of the novels I’ve written, there’s a balancing act between hope and despair. If you look at the cover of “The Hour I First Believed,” for me it represents the two parts of the novel. Part one is about chaos and lives reeling out of control and part two is sort of holding open the possibility that there is a guiding principle to it all that life does make sense.
GT: WERE YOU AT ALL NERVOUS TO ‘GO THERE’ WITH SETTING A STORY TO THE BACKDROP OF COLUMBINE HIGH SCHOOL?
WL: Yes, I was very nervous and uncomfortable with the research. Those two kids (Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris) really began to play with my psyche. I was a high school teacher for 25 years. They were hiding in plain sight … dressed mainstream. Who could have imagined they were planning this horror show? My decision to use them rather than fictionalize [them] and name the victims … challenged me to write it as responsibly as I could.
GT: I NOTICED THAT IN THE BOOK, YOUNG CAELUM BRINGS HOME A PRaYING MANTIS EGG CASE AND YOUR OWN SON DID THIS AS WELL …
WL: He (my son Teddy) was 8 at the time. It was the last day of school and he brought home a praying mantis egg case. It lived in our garage. One day, the case had beat the odds and hatched. That became for me the symbol of hope that carried me through the dark material. Life, against the odds, can go on and babies can be born against the odds. It was hard writing this material and living it every day. That egg case carried me through.
GT: DO YOU AND CAELUM HAVE ANYTHING IN COMMON?
WL: We are both English teachers and we’re both imperfect people laboring to become better people, but that said, what’s different about us is that he … is a pretty cynical guy and I’m not a cynic. … I think cynicism is wounded idealism.
GT: WHAT BOOK ARE YOU READING RIGHT NOW?
WL: In my briefcase I have Ethan Canin’s novel, “America America.”
GT: WHO’S YOUR FAVORITE AUTHOR?
WL: Dickens and Mark Twain, Flannery O’Connor … Richard Russo, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood.
GT: WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON NOW AND WHEN CAN WE EXPECT TO SEE THE NEXT BOOK FROM YOU?
WL: I’m still officially in recovery, and as I’m traveling things come to me—it’s like a satellite dish. I’ve got my radar up and as I think of things … I have a notebook that I’m filling up with these disparate things—jellyfish to quotes I see on a wall.
Wally Lamb will be speaking at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 6 at Bookshop Santa Cruz , 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. His new book, “The Hour I First Believed,” sells for $29.95 at local bookstores.