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How Wally Lamb’s Italian-ness Inspires Everything He Writes

Interview with author Wally Lamb, whose work is translated in 18 languages

Known for featuring strong women characters, spotlighting mental illness and grabbing titles from songs he loves, the mainstream press never seems to notice one strong theme: Lamb’s Italian background.

Wally Lamb is the author of five novels including The New York Times and national bestsellers “The Hour I First Believed” and the best-selling novella “Wishin’ and Hopin’.” His first two works of fiction, “She’s Come Undone” and “I Know This Much Is True,” were both number-one New York Times bestsellers, New York Times Notable Books of the Year and featured titles of Oprah’s Book Club. “I Know This Much Is True” was a Book of the Month Club main selection and Bertelsmann Book Club’s featured selection in June 1999, the national book club of Germany. Together, “She’s Come Undone” and “I Know This Much Is True” have been translated into 18 languages in total. His fifth novel is entitled “We Are Water.”

Wally Lamb.

Lamb’s recently-released sixth work of fiction, “I’ll Take You There,” hits bookstores in hardcover and the cyberspace as a meta-book featuring text, audio, music and film. Lamb has also edited “Couldn’t Keep It to Myself” and “I’ll Fly Away,” two volumes of students’ essays from his writing workshop at York Correctional Institution, a women’s prison in Connecticut, where he has been a volunteer facilitator for the past 16 years.

Full disclosure: I met Wally Lamb on Facebook. His post about going to the San Gennaro Feast in Little Italy caught my eye. Because I curate the Italian American Writers Association’s (IAWA) literary readings, I am always on the prowl to “out” an Italian or Italian American writer and lure him or her to feature at our 26-year-old literary reading series in Greenwich Village. Nearly three years later, I managed to do just that. Lamb attracted an attentive crowd to IAWA’s reading at the venerable Cornelia St. Café. And I was so over-the-moon about him and his work, I wanted to tell more people about this multi-dimensional author that we can call “our own.”

What follows is a condensed version of a three-hour interview I had with Lamb in his New York City weekend-getaway apartment he shares with his wife, Christine.

Tell us about your Italian background, is Lamb your real name?

Lamb is my real name. My dad was of German and British descent, but I always referred to his heritage as “Swamp Yankee.” My maternal nonno was from Calabria and my nonna was from Sicily. My mom was one of 11 children and only one brother moved away from Norwich. The extended family (siblings, their spouses and their kids) gathered every Saturday for supper at Nonna’s. When I was growing up, she was a widow, but before then, she arrived in Brooklyn at the age of 13 and lived with her older brothers.

My grandfather, who was a calzolaio – a shoemaker – in Connecticut. He was the “unofficial” mayor of the Southern Italians in Norwich. People claimed that pregnant women would go to his shop and walk up and down the sidewalk so that he could predict the sex of their babies – they say he was right about it half of the time. I guess you could say that we were our own Italian enclave. In 2014, I was named Norwich’s Italian-American of the Year.

Jeffrey Berman had this to say about your work and commented on Food and Fatalism: “Lamb doesn’t seem like he conducted lots of outside research other than maybe asking his family about different stories.  His writing is more of family experiences and his own memories of his family members and childhood. An example from the writing would be the very first line; ‘When I was a kid growing up in Norwich, Connecticut, my family and I were on the road for Christmas-not over the river and through the woods but across town to Nonna’s two-story tenement, stucco façade, Pepto-Bismol pink.’” How accurate is his observation?

What I loved best about family gatherings was definitely the stories they told; I would linger and eavesdrop. I was not a very athletic child, I liked to draw and be alone but not at the gatherings, there, I wanted to listen and learn.

Italians are known for “omertà,” the need to be silent about family secrets, did your family ever try to silence you?

Definitely, but I faced it down. I got very curious about my grandfather’s fate, even though I had been told he died when I was four. Through various people and coincidences, I learned that he had been a patient in a forensic mental facility. As I pieced the story together, it became a story within a story in “I Know This Much is True.” My uncle was so riled about this, he went to every bookstore in Naples, Florida, and bought every copy just to get them off the bookshelves. There were other secrets I divined: I had a gay uncle who went to college, became a dentist, and he was the one who documented the family’s stories and histories and ultimately helped me convert films we found in old cigar canisters into CDs. Other tales seeped in: in the old days when the city gangs or small mafia-types were looking for a hideout, my grandfather provided “vacations in the country” for them.

Family portrait.

Were you ever able to reconcile with your uncle?

Yes, he did a very loving thing: he sent me 14 tape cassettes of daily life he had made as he grew up and remembered it; it was sweet and kind. Certainly, it was a whitewash, but it meant a great deal to me.

Your Italian heritage surfaces in several of your novels, doesn’t it?

In “I Know This Much Is True,” there is a story within a story about the main character’s Italian immigrant grandfather told in the old man’s voice. In “We Are Water,” the protagonist has an Italian mother and a Chinese father. That novel also features a character who I named, tongue-in-cheek, Gualtiero Agnello (Walter Lamb.) “Wishin’ and Hopin’” and my most recently released novel, “I’ll Take You There,” both focus on the Funicello family. They’re cousins of Annette Funicello and, for those who don’t know her, she was an American actress and singer who began her career as a child performer and rose to prominence as one of the most popular “Mouseketeers” on Disney’s original TV show, the Mickey Mouse Club.

Why are the locales in your novels based in and around Connecticut?

I’m a very rooted person. I grew up in Norwich Connecticut, where I still live. The ghosts of New London’s glorious Garde Arts Center are the central characters in my new novel, “I’ll Take You There.” And back in 2014, my novella, “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” premiered at The Garde and was shot at my alma mater, the Norwich Free Academy.

How did you start writing mammoth novels?

Shortly after Gay Talese published his opus “Unto the Sons,” he wrote a NY Times Book Review essay titled “Where Are the Italian-American Novelists?” (March 14, 1993). I took that as a challenge at the time and still do. My first novel started off as a short story, but it kept growing and I had a teacher, Gladys Swan, who suggested, it might, in fact, be a novel. I followed her advice and kept going, it turned into “She’s Come Undone.”

Some authors create a graph or map to plan out a plot, how about you?

I wish I did that, it might have been easier to know where I was going. I write in chunks, one bit at a time and possibly string it altogether, shifting to fit. I am a plodder; I make an appointment with my computer everyday and I have no idea where I am going. I need to get lost and sometimes my characters lead me to places I don’t expect to go. For instance, in “I’ll Take You There,” I never expected Felix to be confronted by Hollywood’s ghosts.

 

Author Wally Lamb.

Where do you find inspiration for plot ideas? And what type of research do you use when dealing with subjects like schizophrenia, for instance?

I don’t know all that much about schizophrenia, but a workshop participant told me his own story and, from there, I tacked on details of what I knew about mental illness in my own family; I wound ancient myths into the story regarding the twins and the plot simply continued.

Do you read much?

I read the New Yorker from cover to cover but, I won’t read novels while writing novels; I am more likely to turn on the soaps and watch “As the World Turns” or something else on TV.

Do your travel plans include visiting Italy?

Definitely, it’s just a question of when, not if.

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