A molecular-biologist-turned-Buddhist-monk says altruism is the answer to many of the world's most pressing challenges. Can concern for others help solve wealth inequality, climate change and world hunger?
After 27 years of marriage and three children, Annie Oh has fallen in love with Viveca, her art dealer. Annie, a self-taught artist, and Viveca plan to wed in the family’s hometown of Three Rivers, Conn., where gay marriage has recently been legalized. But the impending wedding provokes mixed reactions among family members and opens up a Pandora’s box of painful secrets that have festered below the surface. In the latest novel by best-selling writer Wally Lamb, he details the lives of a troubled family struggling to find redemption in the aftermath of childhood trauma and abuse.
- Wally Lamb author of five novels including two No. 1 New York Times best sellers, "She's Come Undone" and "I Know This Much Is True."
Read An Excerpt
Excerpt from “We Are Water” by Wally Lamb. Copyright 2013 by Wally Lamb. Reprinted here by permission of Harper Collins. All rights reserved.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. We are like water, fluid and flexible when we have to be, but strong and destructive too. Words from the latest novel by best-selling author, Wally Lamb. He returns to the fictional town of Three Rivers, Connecticut, the setting of some of his other novels, to tell a story about the fallout of events related to a 1963 flood that killed five people. His new book is titled "We Are Water." Author Wally Lamb joins me in the studio.
MS. DIANE REHMYou are welcome to be part of the program. Call us on 800-433-8850, send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, or send us a tweet. Welcome to you, Wally Lamb.
MR. WALLY LAMBThank you, Diane. It's great to be here.
REHMAnd good to see you again. Tell us about the flood that actually occurred in Connecticut in 1963. You were 12 years old.
LAMBI was, yeah. I had fallen asleep watching "The Beverly Hillbillies" that night. My mother shook me awake and she said there's been a terrible accident. There's a flood. It was about maybe six or seven houses down from where we were, and I walked down the street with my mother and saw and heard this raging roaring water speeding by. There were chunks of ice the size of refrigerators. There was all kinds of debris. Trees were, you know, shooting down the rapids.
REHMAnd you're standing there watching all this?
LAMBYes. Yes. And also I think it's -- I think it's the sound memories that really haunt me because one of the -- there was a factory in the path of the water and the building collapsed, and it buried I think about four factory workers who were working the third shift. And I remember hearing their screams. And so it was vivid in my memory, and the most vivid was the story of three little boys, the Moody brothers, who were ages four and two and infant, and their young parents, they were in their 20s, and they tried to outrun the flood water and were caught up in it instead.
LAMBThe managed somehow to get out of their car and the father climbed into a tree with a neighbor boy who was 19, and the mother was handing the three children up to the dad and the neighbor and then the water carried her away.
LAMBYeah. And she died in the flood.
REHMThe question of how you could see this and yet not be affected by it. How was that?
LAMBIt was scary and then, you know, in my 12-year-old mind, it was also quite exciting. Those three little boys and I connected while I was writing this story. They're now in their early 50s and the only one who remembers his mother or that night in the flood, he has distinct memories of it, was the then four year old, Tom Moody, and he said he was up in that tree and he said, it was kind of exciting to him too. He didn't realize, you know, everything, you know, that was going terribly wrong until he looked over at his brother who was two and he was screaming and crying, and of course they were wet. They had gone underwater.
LAMBIt was cold, it was a March day. And he said it was his brother crying that made him realize, oh, this is not good.
REHMAnd the whole idea of how powerful water can be.
LAMBYeah. It's a destructive force. I mean, I still it almost like a movie in my head from that night.
REHMAnd yet you titled the book "We Are Water."
LAMBYeah. Because I think, you know, of course, water is and has been essential to commerce.
REHMEssential to life.
LAMBTo life itself, right. So I was looking -- I came to see, while I was writing the novel, that water is sort of a metaphor for life itself and how life can be both wonderful and affirming, but also can be dangerous and destructive.
REHMTell us about Annie Oh.
LAMBYeah. Annie is one of the main characters. She grows up under very difficult circumstances. It is Annie's mother in my fictional version of the story who dies in the flood that night, and she had an older brother and a little baby sister, and the little baby sister dies in the flood that night as well, along with her mother. And in the days afterward, there is sort of a troubled young man, a cousin, who lives in the house and sort of becomes Annie's babysitter, and unfortunately begins to, you know, sexually abuse her.
LAMBThey have a pact because Annie dropped the baby in the flood water, the baby was squirming, and so he uses this terrible secret. He says, you know, I dropped the baby, you got that? And he sees it as a generous act. He's going to sort of cover for her, but then in his twisted mind he begins to use it against her. Anyway, Annie grows up to be an outsider artist. She marries Orion Oh, her half-Chinese, half-Italian husband.
REHMAnd Oh is spelled, O-H.
LAMBRight. Mm-hmm. And Orion is a psychologist. He works at a university, and he sort of -- he's -- he doesn't really understand this sort of strange outsider art that Annie begins to make. She has no training. She has no history of...
REHMShe sort of gathers whatever is available her kind of art, and he, a psychologist, is not paying much attention.
LAMBRight. He's a workaholic. He's very dedicated to his job, probably overdedicated to helping the university students that he's working with. And meanwhile, he comes to realize he's been asleep at the wheel. They have three children, and Annie is pretty much responsible for, you know, for the home life.
REHMEverything. Taking care of the life of that family while he's not paying attention either to what's going on in the family or to his wife and her interests. Therefore, he is totally taken aback when she announces she not only a divorce, she wants to marry her female art dealer.
REHMWhat a twist.
LAMBWell, you know, um, during the day I live in my fictional world, but as soon as my workday is over, I live in the real world too.
LAMBAnd, of course, you know, the changing social morays with regard to gay marriage, that was very much going on while I was writing that novel. And so I began to explore what that was all about, not only for this couple, but also for their three grown children. The Oh's have twins who are now in the 20s, and a younger 20-something daughter, Marissa. She's the wild child. So I didn't plan it, but suddenly those three children began to speak in the novel as well, and I listened.
REHMAnd it's also the effects on the town itself. This small, fictional town you've been writing about. Tell her about the nature of the town and their reaction.
LAMBYeah. Well, you know, Diane, I grew up in Connecticut, and I grew up in Eastern Connecticut. Lots of times people around the country, when they think of Connecticut they think of the sort of tony, wealthy bedroom towns in and around New York, but that's not my Connecticut. I live in a more humble Connecticut, and, you know, we're more influenced by Boston than New York City, and I like to see that we're more feisty than fashionable and more liverwurst than pate.
LAMBAnd so I base Three Rivers on three towns in eastern Connecticut -- the town I was raise in, Norwich; New London, which is down by the coast; and a little bit of Willimantic which was an industrial town. And, you know, really these towns thrived during the industrial era then began to decay after it was over.
REHMSo their general reaction to this woman who's been married for nearly 30 years, leaving her husband to marry a New York City art dealer?
LAMBRight. Well, in some ways, this is an examination of class, and Annie herself feels guilty about this sudden (word?) that she's come into. She's marrying a New York sophisticate who is very wealth.
REHMVery wealthy, yeah.
LAMBRight. And this is the woman who has made her a star in the art world.
REHMFrom this junk she's been collecting.
LAMBRight. Yeah. She's a scavenger, and she sort of makes it into art that is really quite angry, and it is the anger in the -- that's the impulse for Annie to create this art.
REHMYou know I found myself wondering whether you envisioned this art, because you call it angry. What does angry collective art look like?
LAMBWell, in one piece that she's done, she has imagined serial killers, famous serial killers, Richard Speck and Ted Bundy and the like, and they are being birth from between the legs of women as -- and they are sort of victims. So this is the kind of stuff that she's making. So, of course, Orion is looking at this art and thinking, whoa.
REHMExactly. Wally Lamb. He's the author of five novels, including two number one New York Times best sellers "She's Come Undone," and "I Know This Much is True." His newest is titled "We are Water." I look forward to hearing from you. Stay with us.
REHMIf you've just joined us, Wally Lamb is my guest. His newest fifth novel is titled "We Are Water." Do join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. You talk about the fact that Annie Oh takes out her anger on her son. She is angry, as you've already said, because her husband literally pays no attention to the family or to her. How does she hurt her son?
LAMBWell, it comes out in angry outbursts that she can't quite control. And when I began to see to peel back the layers of this character Annie and start to investigate what her childhood was like, I see the connection between her having been sexually abused, incested as a 4- and 5- and 6-year-old, being victimized serially by this cousin who lived in their house, and what happens to her in her adult life. And so the Ohs have the three children, and -- but it is her male child who becomes her victim.
LAMBHer target in way that she can't seem to control these outbursts. You know, this is directly related to the education I got from the women of York Prison. I've been running a volunteer writing program for about 14 years there. And of course there's a very high correlation between incest victimhood and criminality.
LAMBYes. And I deal with a lot of women. I teach a lot of women who imploded for most of their lives and then in one dreadful scene exploded and took a victim. And so they have taught me. I've taught them a little bit about writing, and they have taught me a lot about what that kind of life and that kind of childhood, you know, with that evokes.
REHMAnd do they express it in their writings?
LAMBThey do, Diane, and it's a really -- you know, I've been a teacher all my adult life. I was a high school teacher for many years. I taught at the University of Connecticut for a couple years. But I've never worked with such dedicated students. They're very serious about their writing. They become wonderful critics of one another. And so even though, you know, I'm hardly a therapist, I see the therapeutic effect of their -- you know, they can write in any genre they want.
LAMBBut most of them choose to write, you know, memoir pieces. And what they're doing in sometimes a very dramatic way is connecting the dots between where they are and what happened to them and how this happened. Nobody starts out life saying, gee, I think I'll commit felonies and end up in prison. And so many of the women arrive there confused and bewildered about how these things happened to them. So it's wonderful to see their transformations once they start digging in and looking at the tough stuff and then writing about it.
REHMHow serious are their crimes?
LAMBQuite serious. Some of the women are in there for life for having committed homicides. And, you know, there are people who have fallen into bad times because of drug abuse and committed robberies because of that and so forth.
REHMDo they come in to the writing class in cooperative moods or reluctantly or just to do something?
LAMBWell, these are -- you know, the program is voluntary, completely voluntary. And there's at this point a long waiting list. But they come in because they want to or because they've heard or seen the results of the other women.
REHMHow large are these groups that you take on?
LAMBI like to cap the number at about 15 or so so that whoever has new writing in the three hours that we work together once every two weeks can, you know, sort of have the floor and then listen to the critical feedback that they get.
LAMBYou know, they've created this -- you know, prison is a place where it's probably a good idea not to trust many people. And yet they've created this sort of oasis of trust of one another and then trust of me, you know, this sort of late middle-aged white guy, you know, who comes in and says, you know, write what you want, tell your stories.
LAMBAnd there's usually a sort of a period where the newbies come in, and they write cautiously. They write about things like, you know, our family's trip to Disney World when I was eight or something like that. And then eventually they get to the tough stuff. And, boy, once they start, they can't stop.
REHMWhy did you want to get involved with that writing program?
LAMBI did not want to get involved actually. I avoided it. This was back in 1999. I had just come off my second road trip with the Oprah-selected title "I Know This Much Is True." And I was scratching my head thinking to myself, gosh, you know, there are so many writers who are as good, or better, than I. Why did the universe, and Oprah, you know, grant me this?
LAMBSo I was sort of looking around for ways that I could give back, you know, karmically. But I did not plan at all on going to a prison. I got a call from the librarian at York Prison, a woman who I had played dodge ball in the street with when I was a kid. And she said there is, you know, there is a despair here that is infecting the women.
LAMBAnd a couple of women had committed suicide. Two or three had attempted it and unsuccessfully. And she said, we're just trying to get the women distracted. Could you come and talk about your writing? And I didn't want to do it, and I kept procrastinating. Finally, I went, and that -- I thought I was going one time for about 90 minutes. And, you know, 14, 15 years later, I'm still going, and it has changed my life to work with these women.
LAMBIt sort of opened me up to the sad reality that not everybody has had the kind of life that I've been blessed with, and I...
REHMWe all keep that at a distance, don't we?
REHMWe really do that. We read about it. We hear about it. And yet it's other.
LAMBRight. And also, I mean, you know, what I've learned is, you know, there but for the grace of God go I. And, you know, prisons operate -- they don't like people to know what's going on within their institutions, you know. And I think we as a society are complicit in that, too, because I know that, you know, people sometimes have reacted by saying, you know, why would you want to do that or, you know.
LAMBBut I have come to see that it's not a black and white world, that there are not good people and bad people. There are people, some of whom who have done bad things but are very good people in spite of that.
REHMAnd when you are working with these women, what kinds of questions do they ask you about making their writing better?
LAMBWell, you know, I like to demystify the revision process. Basically revision is some kind of strategy whereby you either add things that are missing, cut things that are, you know, not necessary, clarify things that may be clear to you, the writer, and not to a reader or a listener, and then maybe reordering, you know, putting things in different places for better effect. And so I teach the women those strategies, and then they take it and run with it.
REHMWould you be teaching any differently if you were teaching the same group at Connecticut in a university setting?
LAMBNot really, no. But one of the things that I've noticed is the difference between, you know, the way university students or high school students don't necessarily want to invest in revision. But these women are -- you know, they've reached a time in their life and a place in their life where they really want to get it right. And so they revise relentlessly.
LAMBThere was a woman who passed away, unfortunately, but she was one of the early students. And once she started writing about her childhood, she couldn't stop. And so the -- I made an arrangement with the warden whereby she could fax her stuff. She couldn't wait those two weeks to get her feedback. So I would be in the other room, you know, sort of laboring away one sentence at a time, maybe getting a paragraph done in an hour.
REHMOn your own work.
LAMBAnd then I'd hear the fax machine in the other room whirring. And Diane Bartholomew would have another 50 pages or something.
LAMBI said to her one day, gee, Diane. I said, you make Joyce Carol Oates look like a piker.
LAMBYou know, are you trying to write a novel? And she said, yeah, maybe I am -- not a novel, but I said a book. And she said, yeah, maybe I am. And she said, I'm going to hold that book up and say to my dead mother, look, ma, we weren't so stupid after all.
REHMOh. Have any of those inmates ever come to you as people who can neither read nor write?
LAMBYes. Not totally illiterate, but we have a lot of people who are native speakers of other places. I work with a wonderful writer, a fascinating woman who is a Korean native. We have several people who are Latinas. And so there's a real variety not only of nationalities and locations but also of, you know, levels of education.
REHMI wonder if this experience you're having at the prison is going to find its way into your fiction.
LAMBWell, I think it already has, Diane. And I am really pleased to say that the women themselves have published two anthologies of their work through HarperCollins.
REHMOh, how wonderful.
LAMBOne is called "Couldn't Keep It to Myself," and the other is called "I'll Fly Away." They were published in the -- one in 2003, one in 2007. And we -- I think we probably have a third book, you know, that's sort of coming together now. But as far as my own work, yes. One of the things that the women has taught me is how debilitating it is to live with post-traumatic stress disorder.
LAMBAnd when I wrote my third novel, "The Hour I First Believed," which starts out with the Columbine tragedy, and one of the main characters there is a school nurse at Columbine. And so I took the real event, and I began to fictionalize around it. And that became a study of the effects, of PTSD, long-term effects. And I learned that directly from the women.
REHMAnd the trauma that they had experienced both in private life and perhaps even within the prison?
LAMBYes. Yes. Sadly, you know, that can be true. Mm hmm.
REHMWally Lamb, his newest novel is titled "We Are Water." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's open the phones, hear what listeners have to say this morning. To Clare in Texarkana, Texas. You're on the air.
CLAREHi. Mr. Lamb, I wanted to talk to you for a long time, especially since I read "The Hour I First Believed." And that was just so incredible to me because, as it turns out, I was the first person on the ground shot by Charles Whitman back in '66.
LAMBOh, my goodness.
CLAREAnd I was 18 and eight months pregnant, and he aimed directly. His first victim outside was my eight-month baby.
CLAREAnd then he killed my boyfriend. He shot my boyfriend. And we lay there 90 minutes until they could get to us. Tom was killed instantly. But, you know, there...
REHMOh, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry, Clare.
CLAREOh, thank you. Thank you. But -- thank you so much. And I didn't realize really what a huge toll that took, you know, because I was 18. And you just bounce back, you know, after three months in the hospital I'm gone. But when I read your book on Columbine, it was just -- I think it was the first book I ever read about a mass shooting like that. And it just so resonated, I just felt like you so got the way that people felt toward each other, you know. And I'd just love to hear anything you have to say about the process of writing that book and the motivation.
REHMThank you, Clare. And, again, I'm so sorry.
LAMBAs am I, Clare. Well, you know, one of the things I -- I, of course, when I was writing about PTSD in connection with Columbine, I did two kinds of research. Certainly I did a lot of reading of books and articles on both the short-term effects of PTSD and also the long-term effects if it is not treated in those early stages.
LAMBAnd the long-term effects are like tendrils that shoot out and sort of invade and affect life into the future for the sufferer. But the other kind of research I did was with the women at the prison that I teach. And many of them -- the majority of them suffer from PTSD, you know, either from, you know, sexual abuse or physical abuse, verbal abuse as well. Sadly, women who are raised in these environments tend to team up, marry, have partners who sort of continue that pattern. So I'm wondering if I can ask you something, Clare.
REHMShe's not there any longer. I'm so sorry.
LAMBOh, okay. Sorry. There I go playing therapist again.
REHMOh, but what would you have asked her?
LAMBWell, I would have asked her how she eventually wrestled with it, how it...
LAMBYou know, what was the long-term effect for her? But I'm -- you know, you write these things -- or I write these things. I write myself into places that I don't necessarily know that much about, and I learn as I'm writing the fiction. And for a reader to say to me, this book helped me or this book made me feel not so alone, there's nothing better for a writer to hear than something like that.
REHMI wonder if she might be writing that as we speak.
REHMWould be great if she would send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and tell Wally Lamb how you have grappled with your experience and how it has left you feeling inside. One does say, well, you know, at some point, we have to move on. But the wounds never, ever go away.
LAMBYeah, that's right. You learn to manage and cope with it, not to eradicate it.
REHMThe idea of closure has never been something I have felt was real.
REHMWally Lamb, his new novel is titled "We Are Water." Short break here, more of your calls when we come back. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. Here's an email for Wally Lamb whose newest book is titled, "We are Water." Terry in Cleveland writes, "Sexual abuse at a young age has an almost indescribable cascade effect on the victim. It is as crushing as an avalanche, a tsunami and it never quite leaves you. Your body is the crime scene and all of your feelings, gestures and sensations trigger horrendous responses and memories."
REHM"I was molested once when I was five years old by a male cousin. During a later period in my life I was used by a serial pedophile. A friend asked me which episode had a greater effect and without hesitation I said the first one. He was shocked. And most, if not all, of these women your guest studied will understand the nightmare a child is left with after such a degrading, painful introduction to sexuality."
LAMBUm-hum, yeah. Well, I was very moved by the phrase in this email you just read, your own body is the crime scene.
LAMBWow, if that doesn't, sort of, zero in on, you know, some of the self contempt that can result from this kind of assault. You know, when I was writing this novel I began to get curious and I began to get afraid to go there in the writing of the pedophile's consciousness. The cousin, who when he's 15, starts molesting his little cousin, Annie, he, sort of, began to play in my head. And because I have heard so much from the victims and, you know, in other words, the women that I worked with at the prison, I began to, sort of, get curious and also to dread my curiosity about, you know, how does this happen. What -- what motivates somebody to do this? What kind of justification did they come up with and so forth.
LAMBAnd so I began to write later in the novel, in the later chapters, in the voice of Kelly who is the pedophile. And it was really creepy to write in his point of view, but also very instructive. You know, he, himself, was molested by a babysitter when he was a little boy and, of course, you know, we have all come to understand that this kind of predatory behavior is more about grabbing power from somebody than it is about sexuality. And so I -- everyday when I was writing the Kent chapters I was always very glad at the end of the day when I could go up and take a shower and, sort of, wash him off, but I was ultimately glad that I went there.
REHMIt is very interesting to me that Annie, who was molested by this young man, after so many decades of marriage turns to a woman. Now the woman she turns to is not your kind of warm and fuzzy person. She is a hard dealing, New York art dealer who takes not only this art that Annie has produced, but somehow seduces Annie herself.
REHMAnd my question was to what extent was Annie really looking for love or was she just looking to being taken care of?
LAMBI think the second. And Orion for all of his neglect later in the marriage his initial appeal to Annie is as a caretaker. And that's his impulse with his students, as well, the ones that he, you know, he psychoanalyzes. And so I had to come to learn that. You know, I don't write with a game plan. My...
REHMYou don't outline you just begin?
LAMBI wish I could, but it doesn't work that way for me.
REHMNor me -- nor I.
LAMBSo my writing is much more intuitive than that. And the best days actually, Diane, are when the writing surprises me, when a character says something or does something that I didn't expect. And so little by little I began to peel back the layers on Annie and I asked myself that same question. You know, is she -- is it really sexually -- a sexual attraction? Has she been a lesbian all this time? You know, what's...
REHMAnd just not known it or...
REHM...Who was she? Who is she?
REHMWhat does she want to be?
LAMBRight and so I had to do that by figuring out Viveca from Annie's perspective. And even though, you know, she describes in the novel that sex with Orion felt something like an invasion of her body that -- and she has, you know, enjoyable sex with Viveca. It's not at all about sex. It's about, you know, she lost her mother in that terrible flood when she was four. Her father takes to alcohol and she loses him as well. And I think the relationships that, as an adult, that she seeks are caretaker relationships.
REHMAnd if we can quote Terry in Cleveland her body is the crime scene.
REHMI want to ask you about your son. You son is here in Washington with you. He is a poet. Why is he here?
LAMBWell, my son -- I have three sons, Jared is an educator, Justin is a poet and Teddy, our youngest, is still finding himself. But Justin has been on my book tour with me. He is a performance poet, a slam poet, and he is part of -- I am very pleased to tell you -- this year's national winners, team slam New Orleans won the National Slam Poetry competition in Boston this past August. And Justin has been touring on his own and now he's touring with me. He thinks of me as his closer. I think of him as my opening act so it's probably in between.
REHMTell me about slam poetry.
LAMBWell, it's not a traditional form of poetry yet it is because it is in the oral tradition of poetry and it is as much about the performance as it is about, you know, the lines. And Justin is -- a lot of his stuff is about social justice issues, but he also laces it with a lot of humor. So one of his poems -- he's also a teacher -- and one of his poems is called, "Tips for Climbing Barbed Wire." And it's about a young man that he worked with who was, I think, 15 or 16. He was in a sixth grade class in New Orleans where Justin lives and he read at about the age of three or four. And he, unfortunately, has had prison experience this young man.
LAMBAnd so Justin goes about it with humor and more than that, compassion. And I don't know I'm a little questioning my invitation for him to join me on book tour because, you know, he's kind of stealing the show. The audiences really react very favorably to him.
REHMI'm glad to hear that. That's just great. All right, let's go back to the phones to Cape Gerardo, Mo. Good morning, B.J.
B.J.Good morning, Diane, and thank you for taking my call.
B.J.I enjoy your show every morning.
B.J.I'm especially thrilled to hear you speak with Mr. Lamb. I've enjoyed his book so much. My main question was the first book I read was "She's Come Undone" and I -- halfway through the book I had to turn back and look at the author's name. This is a man writing this book, right? How did he know what was going inside my female head? I was just amazed by how perceptive and intuitive you are in bringing out -- I don't know -- you learn the secrets that we thought were hidden.
B.J.And bring those out and I just love it. It's positively great. I can't wait to read your new book.
LAMBOh, thank you, B.J.
B.J.It's such an honor to talk with you.
LAMBI appreciate that. You know, I grew up with older -- bossy older sisters and we had bossy girl cousins who lived next door to us. And the only boy in the neighborhood who was available to play with used to throw rocks at me and that would be Vido Signarino (sp?). And so...
REHMYou remember his name?
LAMBOh, of course. And I, you know, so I was cast usually in the role of observer for all of my sisters and cousins wild and wacky games of pretend and so forth. But, you know, I was also an overweight kid. And so weight issues...
REHMYou're not overweight now.
LAMBI'm working on getting there, but the -- you know, I think that, sort of, preoccupation with weight issues more often than not is a female thing. So that, you know, that may be -- that was certainly part of what I took into the writing of "Delores" and "She's Come Undone."
REHMI'm glad you called, B.J. Thank you. Let's go now to Aurora in Orlando, Fla. Hi, there, you're on the air.
AURORAHi, thanks for taking my call.
AURORAMy comment is in regards to the novel, "This Much I Know is True." That was the first book that I read and what struck me was the relationship between the two brothers, one of them being handicapped and how that relates to my own life as I have a handicapped twin sister and have had that moment being asked, you know, how come you get to be the normal one. So it struck me that there was such a great dichotomy of feelings in these "normal" brother, but ultimately there was such a love and concern that developed between their relationship that it's probably resonated more with me than any other book on the subject or relating to the subject that I've ever read so I just wanted to make that comment.
LAMBThank you so much, Aurora. And, you know, when I was writing "I Know This Much is True" Dominick and Thomas Birdsey started out as brothers, but not identical twins. And what I started with when I spoke in Dominick's voice was his anger. You know, I knew he was angry at something. I didn't know what. And as I began -- as the story began to unfold and I realized that they were not just brothers, but they were identical twins I figured out his anger was actually, sort of, covering over his fear.
LAMBYou know, identical twins, you know, start out as a single fertilized egg that then splits in two. And Dominick is resentful of having to be his brother's keeper because he suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, but he is also afraid that because they started out life as one that the disease is coming to get him as well.
REHMWow. Your mind really does go to wonderfully exploratory places and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." In the few moments we have left tell us about the artist, Josephus Jones, whose character you base on the real artist, Ellis Ruley.
LAMBYeah, well, Ellis Ruley was a Norwich native as am I. He painted obsessively. He, like Annie, in the book, is an untrained artist. He's never taken art classes, but he paints pictures because he can't not paint them. And they are wild and full of color, lacking perspective or any of the more technical aspects, but I based him -- I based Josephus Jones on Ellis Ruley who has always fascinated me and his story is really very sad. He could not sell any of his work in his lifetime. And now he is highly collectible by people who collect folk art and, you know, he's represented in the museums.
LAMBThe sad and disturbing thing about Ellis is that he died in 1959 under mysterious circumstances. He was found frozen to death at the bottom of his driveway. The coroner back in 1959 said this is an accidental death, but the black community -- Ellis was African American and the black community was convinced that it was a racially charged murder. Ellis was a black man who had married a white woman and a lot of people in the town were not happy with that. This was back in the '40s, 1940s, and so, you know, there is always that question with regard to his life and his death.
REHMSo many secrets in small towns, big towns, small families, big families -- secrets are so much a part of "We Are Water." And, of course, water itself holds its own secrets.
LAMBUm-hum, um-hum, yeah, and it's the -- it's the toxic secrets that we bury out of shame or guilt that will come back and get us, I think. That's one of the things that I learned by writing "We Are Water."
REHMYour next book?
LAMBWell, I'm actually taking a look at a funnier, you know, more lighter look and this will probably be a novella, but it is going to be -- it is going to be based on a juggernaut in advertising from the 1950s. Only East Coast people would remember the Miss Rheingold beer contest.
LAMBAnd so I'm going to write, you know, a comic novel and then go onto more serious work again.
REHMAnd, of course, what the Oprah experience has meant to your career I gather has been absolutely extraordinary.
LAMBUnbelievable, yeah, you know, to go -- you know, to go from having written a first novel by Wally who what, you know, why should I plunk down money for this to suddenly have Oprah hold up your book and recommend it to her millions of readers. It changed my life, but it's also something that you have to manage because with this kind of success in the world -- for a while there I was, you know, I was asking the question why me and, sort of, shutting down afraid to write because I didn't want to disappoint any of these millions of readers with my next book.
LAMBSo I had to figure out how to get around that and shoo all those prospective readers out of the -- out of the office.
REHMAnd clearly you have figured it out, Wally Lamb. So good to have you here.
LAMBSo good to be here, Diane.
REHMThe book is called, "We Are Water." Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
Most Recent Shows
Kate Mulgrew, who stars as "Red" in the Netflix TV series "Orange Is The New Black", opens up in a new memoir about her complicated family and the baby she gave away for adoption as a young woman.
On the 100th anniversary of the publication of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," a discussion about why the poem and poet are well-loved but misunderstood.
"My Brilliant Friend" by Elena Ferrante is the first of the mysterious Italian author's Neapolitan novels. The series tells the story of a life-long friendship between two working class girls in Naples. Critics have called Ferrante “one of the greatest novelists of our time.” Yet nobody knows her true identity. Join Diane and her guests for a discussion of “My Brilliant Friend.”