The power of grace
In a long-awaited novel, Wally Lamb revisits love and loss
Having your book picked by Oprah for her book club is a heady experience for an author. Suddenly hundreds of thousands of new readers discover your work, you appear before millions of television viewers to receive Oprah's accolades, and you make a whole lot of money.
But according to Wally Lamb, this recognition can be a double - edged sword. Having had his first two novels chosen by Oprah (She's Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True), the pressure to produce an equally worthy book had Lamb struggling through a year - long case of writer's block. He started and discarded several attempts before finally finding his voice in a new novel titled The Hour I First Believed.
"I was scared to death," laughs Lamb, speaking from his office in Willimantic, Connecticut. "Once the canvas got larger and larger, I was pretty scared I was not going to be able to pull it off and finish it. At one point I talked to my agent and said maybe I should just give this advance money back and scurry back to the classroom and just forget about the whole deal."The acorn which grew into his latest work came to him in a single sentence which his soon - to - be protagonist whispered into his ear: "My mother was a convicted felon, a manic - depressive, and Miss Rheingold of 1950." For the next nine years, Lamb turned this sentence into a 700 - page epic, weaving the real - life tragedy of the Columbine shootings into one man's personal experience of love and loss - a tapestry that stretches back a hundred years, showing how our ancestors can take a greater role in our lives than we might realize."That's exactly what I learned by writing this book. I came to believe that in ways we can never really figure out - because we only knew our grandparents as old people and we didn't know their grandparents - that it's all sort of connected and sets us up for certain kinds of lives. I do believe that we have some control [over our lives], but probably far less than we realize."
This belief is personified in Lamb's central character, Caelum Quirk, a man described by his second wife as "an emotional eunuch." He and his third wife, Maureen, have moved from Connecticut to Littleton, Colorado, in an attempt to save their marriage. Maureen has been unfaithful; the only emotion Caelum seems capable of expressing is anger. However, their efforts to survive these problems are quickly overshadowed by the killing spree of two teenaged boys at Columbine High School where the couple works. Caelum is back in Connecticut, settling his recently deceased aunt's estate, when he learns of the horrendous events. Maureen is at the school; it is only by the slimmest of chances that she is spared. But she becomes a victim of "collateral damage" - the guilt and devastating emotions often felt by those who escape such a hideous experience. She becomes addicted to prescription drugs as a coping mechanism, so the couple move back to Caelum's family's Connecticut farm in yet another attempt to start their lives over.
An important part of The Hour I First Believed is Caelum's family history, which is thoroughly entwined with the women's prison across the street from his farm. His great - grandmother created the prison, taking as her motto, "A woman who surrenders her freedom need not surrender her dignity." Concurrently with writing the book, Lamb was forging his own connection with women prisoners, teaching a weekly writing workshop at the York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Connecticut. From the first day, Lamb found his students eager to write about where they went wrong, where their lives went out of control. Through their work, Lamb also discovered that about 70 percent of these women were victims of incest - a number born out by national statistics."Through what they write, they free themselves from a lot of that sorrow and a lot of that terrible, terrible guilt that sometimes comes along with being a victim. It's really been a profound experience for me to bear witness to the women and their stories. But also, it's hard because as it comes out of them, it becomes your thing to bear as well."
Lamb was so impressed with the women's stories that he approached HarperCollins about doing a collection of their essays. Choosing selections by 10 of Lamb's students, the publisher released Couldn't Keep It To Myself, promising each inmate $5,600 upon her release for what she'd written. But a week before the book's publication, Connecticut's attorney general sued the writers for the entire cost of their imprisonment, a figure much greater than the modest sum promised by the publisher. An ugly fight ensued, escalating into confiscation of the women's computer disks and, among other things, investigation of Lamb as a volunteer."I thank my lucky stars for '60 Minutes' and the Pan American Center which shed light on all this," Lamb says. "All of a sudden, Connecticut did a backflip and suddenly this program is wonderful and they're really gung - ho on rehabilitation and all that kind of stuff."
The theme of damaged individuals fighting for redemption is a familiar one for Lamb - it's been central to all three of his novels. And while he says he's never sure what will happen to his characters until he writes the end of a book, his personal beliefs would certainly steer him in that direction. As he says in the afterword to this novel, "I believe that love is stronger than hate."With his first two books, Lamb chose titles from old pop songs ("Undone" and "True"). However, in his latest, he took a line from one of America's favorite hymns, "Amazing Grace." "The Hour I First Believed" ends the second stanza, which is about the redemptive power of grace, one of the novel's themes. Lamb says it guided him throughout the nine years he spent writing it."I had that title before I had the book, right from the beginning. It was the carrot before the horse - and of course, I'm the horse."
Rebecca Bain writes from her home in Nashville.