Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Q&A: Leaping over the 'author wall' with Wally Lamb

I've interviewed many writers. It's a joy and a privilege to hear about their writing process and thoughts about book tours and current events. But there's always a bit of distance, a clear feeling that really, they'd much rather be in a room alone, typing out their vision of the world than having to schmooze with it. Introverts all.

And then there's Wally Lamb, author of books such as I Know This Much Is True, She's Come Undone, and The Hour I First Believed.

He had some questions about my TV writing. We chatted about The Swan, a terrible reality show where women fought to get plastic surgery. We talked about music, the election, that he really doesn't do the laundry very much. He still belongs to a writing group, and the members feel free to critique his work.

There was no author wall there. Maybe it's because he was a teacher first (and still). Maybe it's because he didn't start writing until he was 30. Maybe he was faking it really, really well.

My point is: I need to be Wally Lamb's friend, and not just for his yearly CD mixes. That probably won't happen, so I'll take the next best thing and go see him next Tuesday at the Philadelphia Free Library when he chats about his new book, I'll Take You There. On Sunday, it was released as a Metabook through an app, including a short film by Pitch Perfect 2 director Elizabeth Banks, a sound track, and an audio version with actress Kathleen Turner. It comes out Tuesday as a regular book.

This book isn't just a book; it's an app, a movie, a sound track. ... How did that come about?

I'd seen the first Metabook they did, on Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and thought, "This is really cool." I'm about a day and a half's drive from being cutting-edge, and this way I could pretend that I'm cooler than I am. So I said I would do it as a side project -- and instead it grew into a regular novel.

Do you read paper or electronically?

I read regular books with pages, but I lie in bed with a wife who is an electronic reader. She likes the convenience and being able to tap a word and find out what it means. I'm open to both ideas.

This book is much shorter than your others -- 272 pages versus 928 pages for 'I Know This Much Is True.' Was that hard for you?

I know, right? I didn't feel like I had to follow the formula dictated by my earlier stuff. Those novels got very deep in character and backstory, and some were very historical -- one went back to the Civil War to follow the antecedent to develop the modern story.

Do you ever read your earlier work?

I would be too afraid to go back. I would feel apologetic. When I'm speaking and I see people reading along with their copy of the book, I feel queasy. Because whatever I write is imperfect and a candidate for change. Sometimes I change it on the fly as I'm in front of an audience, and they get confused.

What kind of editing comments do you get?

I was in an MFA program in writing, and right at the start I got used to being in a writer's workshop. It's useful not only for receiving feedback but learning how to diplomatically give feedback. I'm always part of a writer's group; it's crucial to hear the comments in an open-minded way and think about what they said, then decide for yourself later.

Your first book, "She's Come Undone," did pretty well.

The funny thing is that when that came out way back in '92, it did OK for a first novel. Oprah called me right after the book came out, and my child had answered the phone and didn't have the best phone manners. I thought it was a joke. I heard this voice say, 'Hey, Wally, what are you doing?' And I said, 'I'm doing the laundry, who is this?' (My wife hates when I tell this story because I've probably done the laundry four times.)  And she said, 'It's Oprah,' and I said, 'Yeah, and I'm Geraldo Rivera.' She said she was an avid reader, and when she found a book she loved, she liked to call the writer and say thank you. But I was well into my second book, five years later, when She's Come Undone was chosen for Oprah's Book Club.

What do you do to celebrate when a book is finished?

I get on Facebook way too much. I feel really depleted and let the well fill up again. I'm a total music head; I buy way too much music, mostly contemporary stuff. I am presumptuous enough that I think my friends and family want to know what I like musically, so every year I make a CD of my top picks.

I make my students do a "CD of Me," where they have to pick a theme song for their life. What would be yours?

[He said he had to think about it, and then e-mailed me this:] Hey, Dawn -- I got it! My theme song would be John Lennon's "Imagine," not only for the obvious reason (I make my living communing with my imaginary friends and writing their first-person stories) but also because, as a glass-half-full kind of guy, I like to think that the stories I tell imagine a world which can change for the better. (Hope I can still say that in the coming days.)

Wally Lamb. 7:30 p.m. next Tuesday. Free Library, Parkway Central Library, 1901 Vine St. Tickets: general $15; students $7. Information: 215-567-4341 or