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Wally LambDescribe your latest project.
"Ask any of us cynical bastards to lift up our shirt and we'll show you where we got shot in the heart," Caelum Quirk, the beleaguered and somewhat belligerent protagonist of The Hour I First Believed, tells the reader. Like Dolores Price and Dominick Birdsey, the focal characters of my earlier novels, Caelum is one of the walking wounded.
My latest novel explores chaos theory, spirituality, and the invisible pull of ancestry by interfacing fictional characters with such nonfictional American events as the Columbine shootings, Hurricane Katrina, and the war in Iraq. Ancient myth serves as the backbone of the novel, specifically the story of Theseus's confrontation with the Minotaur at the center of a confounding maze. In this modern retelling, the "two-headed monster" Caelum must confront is the posthumous pair of disturbed high-school seniors who planned and executed the slaughter at Columbine.
Caelum's wife, Maureen, a school nurse, is trapped inside the Columbine library on the horrible day when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris open fire. Miraculously, she survives, but at a cost: she is unable to recover from the trauma. Caelum and Maureen leave Colorado and return to an illusion of safety at the Quirk family farm in Connecticut. But the collaterally damaged Maureen continues to suffer, and further tragedy ensues. As Maureen struggles to regain her sanity, Caelum wanders into a maze of family history and unnerving ancestral secrets which he must negotiate and survive. Is human existence governed by random chaos or by a benign ordering presence? This is the novel's central question. Yet readers need not fear a ponderous philosophical narrative or a hopelessly bleak outlook. The Hour I First Believed is leavened with comic relief and populated with characters whose human flaws are as recognizable as yours and mine. I took my time with this novel, which I began in the summer of 1999 and finished in March of 2008. In that time, our nation and our world have shifted beneath our feet, and that's very much reflected in the story. I hope that, should you choose to read it, it will prove worth your while. Thanks!
As a teenager, my education came not only from the high school I attended but also from the part-time jobs I held. I painted porches, scooped ice cream, shined shoes. One summer I babysat for the Riley brothers, a quintet of rascally Irish leprechauns who jump-started my interest in working with young people. Another summer, I was a poolside short-order cook at a country club, frying hamburgers for rich kids and learning about the sociology of privilege. My favorite high-school job was as a delivery boy at a local pharmacy. Two or three times per shift, my boss would send me out on the road in the Medical Drug Volkswagen ("punch buggy" red). I'd deliver medicine to sick kids and shut-ins, honchos and hypochondriacs, the afflicted, the addicted. At 16, I was getting my first close-up look at the myriad ways in which people lived, and my first conscious realization, I think, that life wasn't necessarily fair. "Medical Drug," I'd say when customers came to their doors, and as they ran to get their money or bent to sign their welfare paperwork, I'd study who they were via their furniture and framed photos, the magazines and snacks on their coffee tables, the shows on their talking TVs. Good stuff for someone who would later in life fall into fiction writing. Research, really. My eyes and ears could not get enough of other people's lives.
Writers are better liars than other people: true or false?
Having already spent the school day with three dozen or so parochial school students, Sister Mercy was never happy to see the arrival of three dozen rowdy public-school students for catechism class. We were equally unhappy to be there. There was acting out, answering back, rulers slapped against desktops, spitballs launched from the barrels of ballpoint pens. One afternoon while Sister patrolled the aisles, a wild girl named Pauline Migliaccio went so far as to affix a paper sign to the back of her veil. Shake It, Don't Break It, the sign said, and so that you might appreciate the full-fledged audacity of Pauline's act, keep in mind that this was decades away from the invention of the Post-It note.
Unlike Pauline, I was far too scared to make trouble for Sister Mercy. My modus operandi for survival was to sit in back, say nothing, and try as best I could to blend in with the wainscoting. But on the afternoon my fate as a fiction writer was sealed, I got a strange and inexplicable urge. I wanted Sister to like me. Or, if she could not like me, then at least to notice my existence. And so, at 4:30, when Sister Mercy intoned those liberating words, "Class dismissed," and my peers lunged en masse for the exit, I hung back. Stood. And with a wildly thumping heart, I approached Sister's big wooden desk. She was correcting papers and scowling didn't notice me at first. And when she did at last look up, she said, "Yes, what is it?"
She had spent the better part of the previous hour talking about the Vatican. "Sister," I said. "My grandfather moved to America from Italy in 1890." Which was true. He had. Pure, unadulterated nonfiction. But I could see from Sister's clenched facial muscles that she was unimpressed. My knees knocked; my mind ricocheted. Now, as it happened, earlier that same day, two of my public-school classmates had brought into class a papier-mâché volcano, poured baking soda into the core, added vinegar, and made lava bubble up and fizz down the sides. And this demonstration suddenly came to mind.
"And...before Grandpa came over here? When he was still living in Italy? This volcano erupted in his town. It was early in the morning, and he was the only one awake, and so he pounded on people's doors and everyone escaped and so he saved a whole bunch of people's lives."
Sister's facial muscles relaxed. She cocked her head and her gold-rim glasses glinted a little from the light of the fluorescent lamp above. But I could see that my marriage of falsehood and fact had fallen just short of being enough. It was my moment of truth a moment suspended in time. Sister looked at me and waited. I looked back at her and waited, too. And then, finally, I added, "And... the Pope gave him a medal."
Sister nodded. She smiled. She reached into her bottom desk drawer, removed a holy picture, and presented it to me. The following Wednesday afternoon, Sister knew my name, I had preferred seating up front, and for the rest of that school year, whenever there was need for a note to travel from Sister Mercy's room to the office, you can probably guess who got to deliver it.
And so, at the tender age of 10, I learned of the rich rewards that can be yours if you take the truth and lie like hell about it. Now, I could have become a politician, I suppose. But no, I became, first, an English teacher, and later, a fiction writer. Still, it's not as ignoble as it sounds. What I'm doing when I play fast and loose with the facts is attempting to discover deeper truths.
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
I seek in fiction some hint that imagination can change the world, that the world is unfinished, a hint that we are not always doomed to make copies of copies but possess the power to see differently and the guts and good fortune to render accessible to others some glimmer of what our souls experience. Stories, after all, are a gift. Unless we're willing to imagine what it might feel like inside another skin, then we are imprisoned in our own.
How did the last good book you read end up in your hands and why did you read it?
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
What is your astrological sign? If you don't like what you were born with, to what sign would you change and why?
Why do you write?
Who's wilder on tour, rock bands or authors?
Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration and talk a little about their work.
Make a question of your own, then answer it.
A: Beats me.
Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan (novel)
Empire Falls by Richard Russo (novel)
Girls of Tender Age by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (memoir)
Uphill Walkers by Madeleine Blais (memoir)
Death and Rapture in the Animal Kingdom by Norah Pollard (poems)
Swerve by Bruce Cohen (poems)
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The author of the number one New York Times bestsellers She's Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True, Wally Lamb still contributes time as a volunteer facilitator at the York Correctional Institution. He lives in Connecticut with his wife, Christine.