I don’t feel completely comfortable calling Wally Lamb a chick-magnet. Yet, after attending his reading in Glastonbury earlier this year, I’d have to at least dub him the literary lodestone - to a flock of mature hens – myself included. The elder English-teacher type out-numbered all others the hour before doors opened at the Riverfront Community Center. When folks did start crossing into the big and bright reading room, set up to seat at least 300 attendees, the ladies still outnumbered the gentlemen, 20 to 1 I’d say, with three – maybe even four – generations of readers present. By the time the program began, , people were being turned away at the door.
I watched Wally stand by the entrance minutes before he was introduced. He blended with the ebb and flow of walk-ins. Earlier, the Rham English teacher in line next to me had referred to his looks as generic. That pretty much coincided with a story a colleague of mine recently shared. It seemed his sister, who had joined a health club in Eastern Connecticut a few months back, spoke regularly of pleasant conversations with a low-key gentleman at the facility. Weeks passed before she figured out this other member was Lamb – even though she knew his name was Wally – and she had already read all three of his novels.
In the minutes before he would address the packed room he chatted, probably as nonchalantly as he had at the health club. Then, after my hour wait outside the room and another hour wait inside the room, Wally was introduced. Wearing a charcoal jacket atop a like-colored, mock turtleneck sweater, Wally approached the podium, his generic appearance soon refashioned by his way with words.
Lamb has a tendency to smile even as he speaks. He grinned as he sized up the crowd. “Wow, you people come out for these things.” He grinned as he positioned the mike. “I always freak out on AV stuff.” And he grinned through his half-hour essay about growing up (mostly) Italian (on his mother’s side), working class (Dad was a superintendent at the local utility company), and hen-pecked (by his sisters and gal cousins). The local Norwich Free Academy graduate ventured on to UCONN and back to Norwich Free Academy (a public high school) to teach for 25 years – until Oprah rocked his world in 1997 with Book Club Invitation Number One (for She’s Come Undone) followed by Book Club Invitation Number Two a year later (for I Know This Much Is True), an unprecedented literary feat.
As acclaimed as his writing is, Lamb insists he is not the novelist by which to model process. He has a terrible time starting books. Claims years go by before a main character takes him, the mere recorder of the journey, through his or her story. And, he follows the lead with little or no insight about how his character will fare – until he pens the end. Lamb says he grew almost despondent trying to move The Hour I First Believed along until, while teaching at a writer’s workshop in Louisiana, he meandered into Saint Louis Cathedral, lit a candle, and prayed for help to “start the story.” In time, a line that began, “My mother was a convicted felon. . .” entered his mind, beckoning him through the high school English teacher’s life and Columbine times of his troubled narrator: Calum Quirk.
Lamb, who also read an excerpt from his latest novel, says placing his “fictional protagonist inside a nonfictional maze,” takes him down unknown corridors too. One of these could very well be the book-signing event he attended in Colorado during his 22-week book tour last year. A man approached his table asking, “Do you think Eric’s brother should read this book?” The question unnerved the author when he soon realized it was posed by the father of the real-life Columbine killer and suicide victim - Eric Harris,- who along with Dylan Klebold enacted the all-out assault on Columbine High – April 20,1999.Stunned, Lamb held out his hands to Mr. Harris. As they embraced tightly, Lamb replied, “I don’t have any answer for you.” Mr. Harris countered, “I don’t have any answer either.”Wally Lamb, the gifted writer who filled the Riverfront Glastonbury Community Center with hundreds of friends and fans that Sunday afternoon, managed to manifest not only the popularity and charisma of a best-selling novelist, but the loneliness and vulnerability of the writer as well.