Wally Lamb on the Family Secrets, Scars, and Sacrifices of We Are Water

Told via eight different alternating narrators, Wally Lamb‘s newest bestseller-to-be We Are Water, slowly unfolds the story of the Oh family–feisty artist Annie; her ex-husband psychologist Orion; Ariane, the good daughter; her troubled twin, Andrew; and Marissa, the free-spirited youngest member of the family. The inciting incident of the novel takes place when Annie, after 27 years of marriage to Orion, decides to leave him for Viveca, the woman who owns the Manhattan gallery where Annie’s work is sold. The story takes another twist when Annie and Viveca announce plans to marry in the Connecticut town where Annie and Orion raised their family together.

Fans of Lamb’s unhurried family sagas should find themselves in comfortable territory with We Are Water. And like his previous bestesllers, including his two Oprah Book Club selections, I Know This Much Is True and She’s Come Undone, and most recently, The Hour I First Believed, there are a number of social issues to grapple with throughout the book.

ith We Are Water (a title inspired by the song by Patty Griffin) what emerges is a layered and complex family portrait featuring issues of class, race, along with the emotional issues and questions still fresh from the headlines in post–gay marriage America.

Lamb shifts between the multiple characters’ point of view with a deft hand. Indeed, one of Lamb’s specialties as a writer has been his ability to completely embody his characters’s personalities, male, female, young or old–a skill that helped rocket him to literary fame with his debut bestseller, She’s Come Undone, featuring female protagonist, Dolores Price. As Lamb explains though, his characters become so real as to take on a life and personality of their own. Once that happens, it’s up to Lamb to keep up with the characters wherever they might meander.

“It’s sort of bizarre in a way, I’m one of the few adults that still plays with his imaginary friends. I’m sympathetic toward them, I’m not always approving of what they are doing and saying, and even though I am writing from their point of view, I’m actually feeling very parental about them. I worry about them sort of like you would worry about them like a wayward child of yours that you can’t quite control.”

Lamb’s characters dictate the story, so that each morning when he sits down to write, he’s not always sure where he’ll end up at the end of the day. “They take me to places that I didn’t necessarily think I was going to go to,” Lamb says. “I always feel very envious of writers who have it outlined and write toward some preconceived ending and I’d love to write that way but it just doesn’t work that way for me.”

For this novel, Lamb also incorporated some local history from his hometown of Norwich, Connecticut. “I was doing an interview in Norwich, promoting a book that had just come out. The interviewer asked that dreadful question who’s still in recovery from the last book, ‘What’s next for Wally?’ I was thinking, I have no idea, but I had to come up with an answer and I said, ‘Well, maybe I’ll write about the flood. Lo and behold that actually happened.'”

“The flood” Lamb refers to was the 1963 Norwich flood that killed five people. Lamb was a young boy at the time, but the memories of the flood linger. “The flood water came close to where we lived and it killed people,” Lamb said.

Despite the fact that Lamb has become one of our best known American writers–thanks certainly in part to Oprah, with Lamb still the only author to make the vaunted book club list twice–he never envision himself as a writer as a child or even during his time as a high school teacher.

“I was an English teacher and had been for 9 or 10 years, and so when you read great novels like To Kill a Mockingbird or The Catcher in the Rye with students and you do that for several years in a row, you can begin to see not only the story and the characters and the symbolism and all that kind of stuff, but for me I was able to start looking at the architecture of these novels, the scaffolding if you will, without realizing that it was teaching me for something that would later become my life.”

We Are Water is available now from Harper.

Recorded at Book Expo America, New York, 2013.



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