Two of American author Wally Lamb’s novels were selected for Oprah’s book club. His newest, We Are Water, came out last month. Here, he reflects on the influences that have shaped him as a writer.
When you started to write, which writers did you revere?
That’s an easy one for me: Flannery O’Connor. I loved her audacity and her daring as a writer and yet she’s very ironic, she’s very acerbic. Also, she’s a very moral writer and I like that combination. John Updike’s early work, Pigeon Feathers. For several years in a row I taught three books that I really began to see were interconnected: Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. They’re all first-person narratives and coming-of-age stories and so, without realizing it, I think that was my tutorial as far as how to structure a novel. Certainly I learned about voice through those stories. Through preparing lessons over the years, you begin to see the scaffolding, the architecture of these novels, how they were put together. So I ended up writing first-person stories about people coming of age, largely, and being launched out into a world that isn’t perfect.
Did you imitate any of them?
I don’t have that sense that I did, although now I see their influence more clearly than I might have back then. But I’m as drawn and inspired by art as I am by writers. Painters like Edward Hopper, Magritte, those were two big influences on my fiction. And performers, as well. The comedian Lily Tomlin. Tracey Ullman. People like that. Because in general I write about pretty serious subject matter. And yet I like to leaven it with comic relief.
I tend to gravitate toward painting that suggests a story and Hopper’s got these lone figures, like a woman sitting on a bed in a hotel room in her slip and looking out the window... what’s she thinking about? Who does she love, what does she hate? That kind of thing, it invites me into storytelling.
How did you forge a distinct voice? How did you escape their influence?
Just by practice. I work in writers’ groups as well. And I run a writers’ group for incarcerated women, and so it’s the feedback, more than anything else, that has allowed me to become my own writer.
Which perhaps unexpected book(s) share a commonality your new one? What would you think of as its distant cousins?
I started writing late, about 30, and I slammed into the wall of all I didn’t know about how to do it. So, pretty early on, I think I was maybe 32, I entered an MFA program and I worked with a wonderful writer called Gladys Swan and she said to me, “Wally, the world is a very old place, and you’re never going to tell an original story because all the stories that people need are already out there, and so,” – I'm sure I looked at her kind of dopily, and she said “go back and read the ancient stories, the archetypes, because they have lasted for a reason.” So I went out there and started reading Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and Heinrich Zimmer and Claude Lévi-Strauss and those guys and I began to see what she meant. So there is always a spine or backbone to my older stories that ties back into ancient myth.
Which author(s) do you think are most influential today?
A lot of people, myself included, are fans of Neil Gaiman. I think that Dave Eggers is influential. Not only as a storyteller but as a promoter of other works. He’s a little bit like Twain in that respect, because Mark Twain was also a publisher as well as an author. Alice Munro is at the pinnacle as far as the short form goes – I think now that she’s been given the nod for the Nobel, she’s getting even wider readership.
Who do you wish were more influential?
There are a couple of wonderful writers who are new discoveries for me and I wish they had wider reach. One of them is Amanda Coplin, and I think it’s her first novel, The Orchardist. It’s about the Northwest part of the U.S. – apple-growing country – and a wonderful, wonderful story, beautifully written, fascinating characters. Jacquelin Gorman, who just won the Flannery O’Connor Award, was a chaplain in a hospital. Apparently when somebody dies in the hospital, before they are brought to the undertaker or crematorium, there is a little room, dark, windowless, where loved ones can go and say their last things… the body hasn’t been glamourized or anything. The Viewing Room is a group of interlocking short stories, and it’s wonderfully done, about a unique subject. Hannah Kent is another one I’ve just discovered, Burial Rights. I did a gig with her in Chicago and I was blown away by the little bit that she read and since then I’ve caught up with her book and really admire that.
Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?
For vastly different reasons, I would say William Faulkner, who writes the kind of sentences that I could never write but I marvel at, but equally I’m a big fan of Fitzgerald. When I went to college, I thought I was going to be an art major, and The Great Gatsby probably turned me into a literature major, because suddenly I saw how much writing can be done between the lines of the actual text. Implied rather than spelled out. So I try to land between those two in terms of style.
When you are in a period of writing, do you change your reading habits for fear of being unintentionally influenced?
I love finishing a book because then I can tackle all the novels that have been waiting for me in a stack on my bedstand. While I’m writing, I can read non-fiction. I read a lot of magazines. I usually read The New Yorker from cover to cover, pretty much, and I can read genre fiction a little bit, but I don’t like the voices of other writers and other characters interfering with the voices that I’m coaxing out of my own story.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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