Wally Lamb won the “karmic lottery,” he said, in 1997, when Oprah Winfrey called him and invited his novel, “She’s Come Undone,” into her popular book club.
The book had been out for five years, but on that day, the Storrs resident “became Wally Lamb.” His own skill as a storyteller, and the magic Oprah touch, turned him into a literary superstar.
To date, Lamb has published four novels — “She’s Come Undone,” “The Hour I First Believed,” “I Know This Much is True” and “Wishin’ and Hopin'” — and all have been bestsellers released worldwide.
Now that he’s achieved such fame, Lamb rolls out a fifth novel this month. “We Are Water” — set in Three Rivers, Conn., a fictional town modeled after Norwich, New London and Willimantic — tells the story of a dysfunctional family preparing for a same-sex wedding, and weaves in fictionalized retellings of the 1963 Norwich flood and the story of Norwich artist Ellis Ruley. The buzz on the book is strong and it is expected to be another bestseller.
With his rise, Lamb has remained firmly planted in Connecticut. The launch of his fifth book will be celebrated with a party on Oct. 21 at UConn in Storrs, Lamb’s alma mater, where he was an associate professor of English from 1997 to 1999.
Lamb also taught at Norwich Free Academy, also his alma mater, for 25 years. “Nowadays, I only teach in the slammer,” said Lamb, referring to his 14-year volunteer stint teaching writing at the York Correctional Institution for women in Niantic.
And when he’s not teaching, Lamb is writing, usually at a place he rents on the second floor of a two-family house in Willimantic. “I got the place after the Oprah stuff. I wanted a place with no phone, because I’m easily distractable,” he said. “The landlady, Bunny, brings me desserts. She is in her 80s.”
His writings are a part of the decor in Lamb’s home in Storrs, where he and his wife Chris, a retired teacher, raised their three sons, Jared, Justin and Teddy. The painting that was used as the cover art for “We Are Water” hangs in the entry way, and a bookcase is filled with foreign editions of his books.
“Sometimes they change the names. In Germany, ‘I Know This Much is True’ is ‘In the Early Morning, Night Begins.’ In Indonesia, it’s ‘The Blood of the Redeemer.’ I don’t know what that means,” he said. “In France, ‘She’s Come Undone’ is ‘Dolores’ Song’.”
Upstairs hangs a poster from a 1995 museum exhibit of the work of Ellis Ruley. That’s where the plot of “We Are Water” comes in.
‘We Are Water’
The seed for Lamb’s new book (Harper, 576 pages) was planted in 2007, when he and his wife went to see “10 Million Miles” in New York. One of the songs in the show, all written by Patty Griffin, was “We Are Water.” “I liked the alliterative sound, but I didn’t know what ‘we are water’ meant except for maybe urination,” he joked. “I thought I’d figure out what it meant by writing a novel with that name.”
He didn’t do that right away. In 2009, he was in his hometown, Norwich, doing publicity for one of his books when the interviewer asked him what his next writing project was. Lamb blurted out “Maybe I’m going to write about the flood.”
He was referring, as anyone in Norwich would know, to the 1963 Norwich flood that killed five people. “Maybe it was knocking around my subconscious, I don’t know,” Lamb said. “And I had the title ‘We Are Water.’ Water, flood …
“I was 12 when the flood happened. The water came very close to our home,” Lamb, 62, remembered. “Still in my ear I can hear the roar of the water.”
He wanted another anchor for his plot, so Lamb chose the life of Ruley. The African-American outsider artist lived his whole life in Norwich. He sold few paintings in his lifetime. His mysterious death was believed by many to have been racially motivated.
“The flood and Ellis Ruley are totally different from each other,” Lamb said. “They are like two electrodes. The fiction crackles between them.”
“We Are Water” tells the story of Annie, a famous artist preparing to marry her longtime female love. As her family deals with the same-sex marriage, Annie deals with traumatic childhood secrets. The home of one of the characters helps reveal secrets about the life and death of an African-American outsider artist, and the long-ranging after effects of the fatal 1963 flood figure into one character’s emotional state.
Lamb said outrage, and his attraction to Ruley’s art, inspired him to include the Ruley story as an inspiration. “I’m always attracted to what outrages me. What outrages me more than anything else is stories about the powerful abusing the powerless,” Lamb said. “Whether it was a racist-fueled murder or two kids coming armed to Columbine High School and decide to play God [the plot of ‘The Hour I First Believed’], these themes come up over and over again.”
The book has many references to Connecticut, including the Altnaveigh Inn in Storrs, Buckland mall, Geno Auriemma and Maya Moore, the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, the Merritt Parkway, Bradley Airport and Wolf Rock in Mansfield.
After doing publicity for “We Are Water,” Lamb plans to write a comic story based on one of his lifelong interests: the Miss Rheingold contests. That advertising campaign, which lasted from 1940 to 1965, named one young woman a national beer spokeswoman based on votes from the public. Lamb has a large collection of Miss Rheingold memorabilia.
“When I was a kid, the other boys were playing ball, I’d go and get one of the Miss Rheingold signs and go up and down McKinley Avenue asking ‘would you like to vote?’ ” he said. “If the girl I liked wasn’t winning I would — um — adjust the vote. … I could have grown up to be a crooked politician.”
He also wants to write a play based on writings of women he works with in York. This project is inspired by the stage play “The Exonerated,” and it taps into Lamb’s sense of fairness.
“When I started teaching high school I got my first awareness that not everybody was getting a fair break,” he said. “The women in York taught me that terrible things that happen to you in your childhood can derail you for life.”
“WE ARE WATER” related events will be held Monday, Oct. 21, at 7 p.m. at the UConn Co-Op in Storrs; Friday, Nov. 15, at 7 p.m. at Otis Library in Norwich, with books sold by Bank Street Books; Saturday, Nov. 30, at R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison; Thursday, Dec. 5, at 6:30 p.m. at Ferguson Library in Stamford; and Sunday, Dec. 8, at Darien Public Library.
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