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April 2000

True Knowledge

Bestselling author Wally Lamb's quest for authenticity

When you meet Wally Lamb your first thought is that he reminds you of your favorite teacher in high school — warm, laid back, intelligent and so down to earth. Catapulted to popularity when his first novel was chosen for Oprah Winfrey’s book club, the Connecticut native seems to have been humbled by the attention that has been lavished upon him since appearing on Winfrey’s show. Lamb, American author of the critically acclaimed She’s Come Undone, was in Munich recently to promote the German edition of his latest novel, I Know This Much Is True — the story of twin brothers dealing with paranoid schizophrenia. Munich Found talked with him about pop culture, mental illness and the process involved in writing a novel.

MF: When you meet fans from foreign countries, do you wonder if they understand the allusions to American pop culture in your novels?
WL: I was flabbergasted when international publishers expressed an interest in I Know This Much Is True, because I, like you, wondered if foreign readers would understand the Americana and pop culture references in both books. When I was in Stuttgart, a couple of people wanted to know who Howdy Doody was? I imagine some things are lost in the translation.

MF: Your latest book, I Know This Much Is True, deals with paranoid schizophrenia. The behavior the character with the illness exhibits and the dynamics within his relationships are so genuine. What kind of research did this entail?
WL: It was a really humbling journey. I didn’t know anything about schizophrenia, except a lot of the stereotypes that people have. I started writing this angry character, and I had a voice and a picture of him driving in a pickup truck in the middle of the night. I didn’t know what his deal was. I was maybe about a month into it when I started writing this brother and I knew he was off in some way, but I didn’t know exactly how. I grew up in Norwich, Connecticut, which, when I was a boy, housed the largest state mental institution in Connecticut. I remember, as a kid, driving past there. It was scary and fascinating at the same time. But, I had never entered the grounds. So, when I started writing Thomas Birdsey, I arranged to take a tour. While I was there, I took the psychiatrist aside and said, “Hey, look at this character. He’s saying this and doing that and having these reactions. What would be his diagnosis if he were your patient?” He said, “Sounds like paranoid schizophrenia.” So I started researching the illness by reading a lot of books and articles, but the most valuable research I did was talking to people. They were so generous with sharing sad stories, funny stories. Once I had more access to that world I started to understand Dominic’s anger. Not only anger, but guilt, and he is afraid that this illness is going to hit him because why wouldn’t it — they are identical twins? When I was researching twins, I discovered an interesting statistic: in almost all cases of identical twins, if one becomes schizophrenic, the other one will, too, because of course they share the same biochemistry. But about 6% of the time, one of the twins is spared.

MF: A lot of stuff out there simply reinforces the stereotypes and the falsities that people believe.
WL: I was challenged very early on in the writing of this novel. It was a hard novel to start and I didn’t know where I was going with it. I finally had that opening chapter where Dominic is talking about Thomas going to the library and cutting off his hand. I brought it to my writers’ group. A woman in the group has a schizophrenic son, which I had not realized. I read a version of the first chapter and she slapped her notebook shut and said, “This meeting is over. I want to tell you that if you are planning to write about this subject, don’t you add to the body of stereotypes and misinformation that is out there.” Well, it was a pretty awful moment, but I came to be very grateful to her, because what she was issuing was a challenge. Don’t sensationalize this subject, tell it honestly and learn about it so that you can. The writing group continued and she became a valuable resource for me, and a real champion.

MF: I’d like to know a bit about how the whole Oprah process works. How is it kept top secret?
WL: It’s a lot of fun. I was selected twice for the show, and the second time I enjoyed it a lot more because I knew what was coming. It is very daunting at first. That story goes back to 1992, just after She’s Come Undone had been published — long before the Oprah Book Club existed. The phone rings and the person on the other end says, “This is Oprah Winfrey calling.” She was calling basically to say that she is an avid reader and it turned out she had just read it and liked it and wanted to call and tell me that. It was such a sweet thing to do for somebody who is as busy as she is. Then five years go by, and suddenly I get another call from Oprah. “Guess what? We are going to feature She’s Come Undone on the next book club show.” At that moment I was experiencing the best and the worst in life, it had been a very difficult day. The day before one of my writing students at the high school had been killed by a drunk driver. How could all this be happening at the same time? To Oprah’s credit I told her about it and she was very sympathetic. . . It’s shrouded in secrecy, you have to sign a contract that states you will not divulge that your book has been selected. The publishing industry is so grateful that she has sparked this renewal of reading, so they issue a phony ISBN number and the book is shipped with that number. Bookstores just order “Oprah’s selection #4” and they’re not supposed to put them on the shelves until she announces the book on the show.

MF: When I read She’s Come Undone I kept looking at the back cover to be sure a man wrote it. I was amazed at how authentic the protagonist, Dolores, comes across. How were you able to portray her so convincingly?
WL: I think, when I look back, it’s because I grew up with older sisters and female cousins in a neighborhood where there weren’t any boys to play with, so I was always sort of tagging along. I was cast very early in the role of the observer, which is not a bad thing for someone who is going to become a writer. A lot of it also comes from having taught high school for a number of years. When I started to get interested in writing fiction, I realized [some things about] how I had been teaching writing all along. I had been assigning topics and feeling very liberal because I gave students four or five choices, but then I saw that each writer has to discover his or her own subject matter. So, I began to do exercises that helped the students to find out what they wanted or needed to write about. Suddenly I was getting great material. I was on the receiving end of young people’s voices for many years. It also has to do with the fact that I work in a writers’ group and there are a lot of women in the group. I hit a lot of false notes along the way and they were never shy about letting me know that. She’s Come Undone was written over a long period — it took me almost nine years to complete, so I had a lot of opportunities to sand off the rough edges.

MF: How involved are you in the screenplay for She’s Come Undone?
WL: I’m writing it. Writing is always very humbling for me. Just when I think I understand something, a whole new set of circumstances arises. That is certainly true of the screenplay as a genre. The words, unlike when you write a novel, are all service to the images on the screen. You want to have good dialogue, but it becomes less important than letting scene after scene of the story unfold.

MF: Do you have an idea of who you would like to see play Dolores?
WL: Oh, I have a wish list of possibilities and I play it back and forth with the producer. There is a young actress named Thora Birch from American Beauty. She would be interesting. Kate Winslet has come up as well as Janeane Garofalo. Apparently the obesity stuff is not a problem because of body doubles and special effects. I suppose if they can blow up the White House they can handle Dolores.

MF: Dolores is the type of character you love so much that you want to yell at her when you see her heading toward another mistake.
WL: That’s what writing Dolores was like. I was writing as though I were her, but I was also feeling very parental toward her. Sometimes I thought, “Don’t do that!” — like when she started flirting with the upstairs neighbor. I didn’t know if he was going to be a benign or a malignant character and I knew where she was going, but I was so protective of her that I kept trying not to write the inevitable. It’s like you have this intuition about the story and the characters are leading you. It’s a goofy business.

MF: What are you working on now?>/I>
WL: I’m in research mode for my next book, which is going to be about prisoners. I have been doing some teaching at a maximum security women’s prison and there are some amazing people down there. So, now I have a core of about 15 or 16 women who have come week after week and have some really heartbreaking and moving stories to tell. It is touching to see them come to a place of better self understanding by writing. Now, when I say research, I’m not about to hijack any of their stories. But, as I hope I am giving something useful to them, I get to look around and see how prison operates and eavesdrop on conversations between guards and inmates.

And so, the man cast early in the role of the observer continues to gather the images that bring reality to his writing. The result will surely be yet another novel filled with the emotions he portrays so well.