Zibby Owens: I had the best time doing an Instagram Live with Wally Lamb who is the author of six New York Times best-selling novels: I’ll Take You There, We Are Water, Wishin’ and Hopin’, The Hour I First Believed, I Know This Much is True, and She’s Come Undone. I Know This Much is True and She’s Come Undone were both selected for Oprah’s Book Club. Lamb also edited Couldn’t Keep It to Myself and I’ll Fly Away, two volumes of essays from students in his writing workshop at York Correctional Institution which is a women’s prison in Connecticut where he has been a volunteer facilitator for the past seventeen years. A sought-after keynote speaker, he has spoken at universities and colleges, libraries, arts and lecture venues, and literary festivals around the country, and has won a bazillion awards. His latest project, I Know This Much is True, is an HBO original limited series which just aired. Lamb is a Connecticut native who holds a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in teaching from the University of Connecticut and a master’s in fine arts in writing degree from Vermont college. He currently lives in Northeastern Connecticut and in New York City and is a parent with his wife, Christine, of three sons.

Thank you so much for coming on my Instagram Live. Thank you for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” So exciting to have your show, to be able to watch it and read it at the same time. It’s really, really a pleasure, so thanks.

Wally Lamb: Sure.

Zibby: Because the show has just come out, what is it like for you? Your book came out so long ago. Now suddenly, here’s the show. What does that feel like for you?

Wally: It’s very exciting. It has been exciting for a couple of years. I was able to be on the set several times in the past year and working with Mark Ruffalo before that to put everything together and get the right director and so forth. Everything came out beautifully. It was a long haul. Back in 1998 when the novel was first published, Oprah picked it up for her book club right out of the gate. It was sold to the movies. The intention by a major studio that had bought it was to make a two-hour movie. The problem is that it’s pretty impossible to turn a nine-hundred-page book into a two-hour movie. It’s a small container to put all those pages into. It went on for about fifteen years. They kept trying to write screenplays and so forth. They couldn’t get it to work. Then at the end of fifteen years, there was this little thing in my contract with this studio that said if they couldn’t make the movie in fifteen years the rights would revert back to me.

Lucky me, along had come premium series with major actors in them and so forth in those fifteen years. My agent said, “Let’s shop that around as a series. Who would you like to play the twins?” I said, “That’s easy. My first choice would be Mark Ruffalo.” She sent him the book. He was filming in Europe at the time. About maybe a week and a half later, I get this unbelievably sweet email from him saying, “Wally, I’m a slow reader. I’m only half of the way through, but I already know I want to do this.” He said, “These are my people. This is the family that I come from and the place I come from.” He was talking about the similarities between my working-class background and his. He just jumped on and was loyal for the next couple of years until we got the right producer and the right director who was Derek Cianfrance. Amazing, amazing talent between the two of them and everybody else who plugged into this whole project.

Zibby: Wow. This is the one example of why it’s great that the film industry can be really slow. You try to fit a round hole in a square peg fifteen years ago. Now finally, you just didn’t know that pegs came in this size, so it’s great.

Wally: That’s exactly right.

Zibby: Fantastic. I don’t only want to talk about the show, but it’s so exactly like the book. I was prepared to watch the show and have some sort of interpretation of the book, as so often happens. This is literally the same dialogue, the same scenes. How did you do that? It’s impressive.

Wally: I certainly didn’t ask for that. What happened was that Derek, I saw that he had great instincts right at the beginning. I had loved some of his earlier films, Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines. He said to me, maybe the first or second time that we met in New York, he said, “I want you to know that whatever this turns out to be, I’m going to honor the story that you created.” My response was, “That’s great. I really appreciate that, but don’t forget to make it your own.” I helped them take a look at the setting of Three Rivers, Connecticut, a sort of fictional amalgam of some of the towns in Eastern Connecticut where I grew up and where I live now. I did preliminary work with them. Then I just let it go. Derek wanted to write the screenplays for the six episodes. I said, “I don’t need to see them. I don’t need to be consulted. You make it your own.” I could see when I made those visits to the set while they were filming that, okay, this is going to be really special. There are changes. The dialogue is pretty much the same dialogue as the book. I think he made some really wise changes. Those roll out as the episodes continue. I was perfectly happy with them. I didn’t miss what I had written in the book that didn’t get into the series. All was well.

Zibby: What is it like for you sitting on the couch? I’m assuming. What’s it like for you just turning on the TV and here is this project that’s been in your heart and your world for so long and suddenly, finally, it’s up there? What was that feeling like for you? Now in quarantine too, I’m sure ordinarily you would’ve had a big to-do. What was it like for you?

Wally: When Derek was still editing the episodes, that was just about the time that the coronavirus was taking over in New York. It was kind of on my backburner. Derek invited me and my wife to come in for two different Mondays to a screening place, like an editing studio. He said, “These are still kind of rough cuts, but we want to show you the series.” We went in on one Monday and saw episodes one through three. Then the following Monday, we saw episodes four, five, and six. My wife went back to Connecticut. I hung around at our little apartment in New York to do some work. Every day, I walked out either to go on the subway or to the movies or something. It’s like, man, there are more masks today than there were yesterday. Finally after about four or five days, I said, I think I better hightail it into quarantine. Luckily, I didn’t get the virus while I was hanging around in the city. I had the six episodes. I’d seen them, but it was a way different thing on Sunday night. We were invited by the producer, Film Nation, to have a toast. The episode aired at nine. We all convened by Zoom at eight o’clock. The actors and the producer and the director and Mark was there and so forth. We all just expressed how excited we all were because we could finally share it with everybody else. It really had been a labor of love for so many people.

Zibby: Congratulations on the show being out in the world. It’s the perfect complement to this book being out in the world. Great job. Congratulations.

Wally: Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: Let’s go back to the book. Let’s teleport back to the late 1990s. What made you write this book to begin with? Why these characters? Why the twins? Why paranoid schizophrenia? What drew you to these characters? Tell me about writing the book at the beginning.

Wally: My first book, She’s Come Undone, was published in 1992. I had a breakfast meeting with my then agent out in California. She pulls out some legal-size paper. I said, “Oh, what’s that?” I was on book tour for She’s Come Undone, a modest little story by Wally who? She said to me that, “The publisher would like to do a second book with you. They would be willing to give you some advance money.” I said, “Well, that seems a little backwards to me. I haven’t done any work, and they’re going to give me money for it?” My agent said, “That’s an interesting point of view. Would you like a little bit more chardonnay?” Anyway, I ended up signing on the dotted line. Then I went home, and I could think of a damn thing, Zibby. I was so freaked out that here I had been paid and I couldn’t think of a topic. Then one day, I was facing desperation at that point. I remember I extracted one of my kid’s toy from their toybox that they had, at that point, abandoned. I one of those little wooden paddles with the elastic and the rubber ball. I had gotten embarrassingly good at that, ninety-four, ninety-five, ninety-six, ninety-seven.

In that era of panic, I got a little — it was almost like a movie in my head, not longer than five or six seconds. What I saw in that silent movie was a guy in a pickup truck driving on a sleepy country road. I didn’t know who he was. I didn’t know why he was out driving in the middle of night when everybody else is home sleeping. I started writing in this guy’s voice. It turned out to be angry voice. That was the beginning of Dominick, who is the main character of the story. I didn’t know, at that point, he had a brother. I didn’t know, certainly, that he had a twin brother. The more I wrote, the more that character revealed himself to me. Earlier, about 1988, ’89, ’90, I had been a high school teacher. I still was when I started this novel. I was running a writing center. We were writing across the curriculums. I had a history class come in. They had been studying the Great Depression. I said, I think I’ll create a program whereby people who had been teenagers during the Great Depression and are now elderly, retired, and so forth, I’ll have them come in and the kids can interview these different subjects. They came in. It was a three or four-day program.

The first day, there was a guy, he was a little bit unusual. He didn’t say anything. Finally I said to him, “Mr. Mayock, would you like to tell us your story of growing up during the Great Depression?” At that point, he took off his dark glasses, and he had a missing eye. He uncrooked his arms from — he had his hands in his armpits. I saw that he had a missing hand. He proceeded to tell us a story about how he had been a pacifist in World War II. He had studied his bible. From that bible, God had spoken to him that if he could make a huge personal sacrifice, then he could stop the war. I saw all my high school students look at each other like — . He was coming back the next day, but none of the kids wanted to work with him. They were too freaked out. I started talking to him. I got to be friends with him and learn his very sad story. He had been locked away in the state hospital for the mentally ill for years, for decades. He had gotten out back in the 1980s, I think.

Thomas Birdsey is an amalgam of this guy. Also, he is sort of consumed by the twin thing. As I realized that Dominick and Thomas were twins, what I began to figure out, and I’m talking about slowly over years, was that the reason for Dominick’s anger is that it sort of covered over his fear. These guys had started out as a single fertilized egg that for reasons we don’t know split apart and became two different people. One of them develops the disease. One of them does not, but is sort of cast into the role of his brother’s keeper. Dominick is reluctant as his brother’s keeper. He promises his dying mother that he’ll take care of his brother, but that’s a pretty big assignment. The more I got into it — I don’t write with an ending in mind. I write to discover on a daily basis what’s going on with these people. Little by little, I realized that Dominick, in his own way, was damaged by their upbringing. Then it calls into question things like nature or nurture. Which is the dominant one? Did Thomas develop the disease because of his environment or because of his biochemistry? I ended up not coming to any conclusion about that, but I investigated. I think probably, fiction writers don’t need to answer questions. They just need to ask them.

Zibby: There’s one perk of fiction writing. Wow, that is a really interesting story. I would never have guessed that that was based on a true occurrence, that someone had actually done that. I’m assuming the Depression-era man also took out his own eye like he did his hand? Both?

Wally: Yeah.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Insane.

Wally: He took out his eye first and was locked away in the hospital, given electroshock treatments. This is back in the 1940s. He told me, “I had to be cagey or else they’d keep giving me those things.” He said, “I worked in a defense plant.” He worked in a tannery. He said, “I promised that I would go back and work in this defense plant if they would let me out.” They did let him out. Then a year to the day later he cut off his hand. There is a biblical dictate in there. If thy right eye sinith, pluck it out for the Lord. Cut off they right hand, and so forth. When I went on a book tour back in ’98, ’99, I had many people come up to me from the audience afterwards and say, “Did you write that based on so-and-so?” They gave me names that I didn’t know. I realized that that had motivated a lot of people to mutilate themselves. There were a lot of examples of that.

Zibby: Wow. When you were on book tour, did people ask if you shared some of these pacifist beliefs?

Wally: Yeah. This was in the time after the Gulf War, but the wars were still stirring around. I was very candid about that. Yes, I do feel that war is a waste. I still feel that way. Ironically, here’s this guy, Peter Mayock, who was certifiably crazy to some people, yet he and I thought alike in terms of politics.

Zibby: Interesting. When you were working on this book, did you have to do a lot of research of paranoid schizophrenics? I know you’ve done a lot of in-depth work at different prisons. Did you do similar work at state institutions like Hatch and all the rest?

Wally: What happened was I had grown up in Norwich, Connecticut, which housed the largest state facility for the mentally ill, huge campus, lots of different buildings and so forth. When I was a kid, I would be riding in my parents’ station wagon in the backseat. Whenever they drove by this facility, I would be curious about it and a little bit scared by it, but also fascinated. It just seemed mysterious to me. I never walked the grounds until I started writing this novel. I learned somewhere along the way that my own grandfather, my maternal grandfather who was an Italian emigrant, had been housed in the last years of his life, not only at that prison, but in the forensic building with the bars on the windows. He had committed a criminal act against my grandmother. He had a brain tumor, and it had turned him violent. He tried to kill my grandmother. I knew my grandmother and loved her very much. My grandfather, I didn’t know at all, deep dark family secret. Old-school Italians, you didn’t talk about the shame of this and so forth. I didn’t know anything about him until I was about a teenager. In some ways, I think I was reaching, without realizing it while I was writing the novel, I think I was reaching to create a grandfather in the vacuum of the one I didn’t know anything about. Of course, the grandfather I created is not a nice guy.

Zibby: I was going to say, you could’ve made him a little warmer and fuzzier if you were going to make yourself a grandfather.

Wally: It came from that too, my curiosity about mental illness. Did I do a lot of research? The first research I did was I got myself a tour of the Norwich State Hospital in its closing days. It was closing down building by building. I think there were two buildings left. This was in, it would’ve been the early nineties. During the tour that I got, I buttonholed a psychiatrist who happened to be walking by. I was introduced to him. I said, “Hey Doc, I got this character.” At that point, I had started writing Thomas, but I didn’t know what his mental illness was. I said, “This guy is saying this and doing this.” He was the one who said to me, “Sounds like paranoid schizophrenia.” Now it was incumbent on me to learn all I could about that disease. It’s not in my family, thank goodness. I really felt like I needed to do my homework. Obviously, I read a lot of books. I read a lot of articles. The most useful research I did was talking to people, family members of people who had this disease, psychiatric nurses, that kind of thing.

Zibby: Then you end up writing a nine-hundred-page book about it. How did you do that? How did you keep it all straight? I know you said you didn’t have an ending in mind. Did you write it by hand? Did you write it on the computer? Did you have papers everywhere? What was it like? How long did it take for you to craft the whole narrative?

Wally: She’s Come Undone, my first novel, I had written all in longhand with BIC pens and loose-leaf paper. Then I got very modern with number two. I had one of those eight-hundred-pound computers with dot matrix printer and all that kind of stuff. I started writing with the technology that was available at the time. It just sort of lived in the hard drive of my computer for years. I had index cards all over the wall in the office where I wrote so that if I forgot a section or if I forgot something that had happened or a date or something, I could just look up and see that. I had those kind of visual aids. It took me six years to write that novel. Somewhere around year number four I decided I should probably print this out to see how long it is. When that dot matrix printer was still going about an hour and a half later, I said, uh oh, who the hell is going to read a book this long? I just kept going because I needed to find out what was going to happen. When it came in at about nine hundred pages, with a great deal of trepidation I sent it off to my editor. She said the whole story was worth it and they were going to print it, with some editing, but as is. I was lucky.

Zibby: That’s amazing. It wasn’t luck. It’s really fantastic. I wonder if that would happen today, if editors would be like, sure, no problem, nine hundred pages. I feel like it’s harder and harder to do that.

Wally: Because of the technology and maybe other factors too, I think all of our attention span is sort of reduced from what it used to be. I don’t know. Thank goodness too, Film Nation and HBO decided to go with a six-episode series as well.

Zibby: That’s true. Although, when it ended on Sunday, I was sad they — sometimes they do two at once in the beginning, but no, just one at a time. We have to wait. Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? Is there something that you always aspired to? How did you end up doing She’s Come Undone? Not to take too much of your time, but how do you realize you’re such a gifted writer? How does that happen?

Wally: First of all, I would quibble on how gifted I am or not. I always feel sort of apologetic about anything that I’ve written. I hate it when I’m giving a reading of a book that I’ve published, sometimes years before, and I hate it when people are sitting in the audience reading along from their copy of the book because I’m still fixing it in front of the microphone. I’m changing this and that and everything because I feel that my writing is imperfect. As far as how I started, I didn’t want to be a writer. I talked to a lot of writers who were journaling when they were eight, nine years old. That wasn’t me. I was too busy plopped in front of the TV watching things. I did always draw. I love drawing still. When I wasn’t watching TV, I was drawing, and sometimes doing both at the same time. I think without realizing, that was my leg up into preparing to be a fiction writer. Also, as far as She’s Come Undone is concerned, I grew up in a very girl-centric neighborhood. I have two older sisters. I always wanted a brother. That never happened. Every other kid on the street on McKinley Avenue where I grew up was a girl. There was one boy, Vino Signorino, but whenever I went outside he used to throw rocks at me. He wasn’t exactly good material for a playmate. I wasn’t really such a lonely kid, but I was a solitary kid. Occasionally, I would be cast in some fantasy thing that my sister and their friends would be — one time, they were nurses at a hospital. They let me play with them so that I could be the patient and they could give me shots. They would stick comment pins into my arm and stuff like that. Other than that, I would kind of be an observer of their weird games and play.

I think that’s not a bad thing if you’re going to grow up to be a writer, particularly a writer of a book with a female character who is speaking to the readers. All this is Monday morning quarterbacking. This is looking back on a life. I think all of those things, and also the fact that I was a high school teacher for about twenty-five years — about nine years into teaching writing in the English classroom, I became a writer myself. I hadn’t done that in the early years of my teaching. When I started writing fiction, I threw out all that I thought I knew about how to teach writing. Instead of assigning writing, I would play games with the kids so that they could figure out what they wanted to write about or more importantly, what they needed to write about. What they needed to write about was themselves, being adolescents. Now I’m on the receiving end, particularly with the girls, with a lot of confessional kind of writing. I think that helped me. I certainly didn’t steal anybody’s life or story or anything, but I think that helped me to figure out the voice of Dolores.

Zibby: Interesting, wow. I can’t imagine you being my high school English teacher and then going on to write all these books. I feel like I would be very intimated in that classroom.

Wally: They didn’t know that was going to happen.

Zibby: Okay, fine. That’s true. Once you started writing and realized you were — let’s pretend you’re not gifted just to make you feel better, but I can believe what I believe. Let’s at least both agree that are you are a writer. Now that you agreed that you’re a writer, what kept you going? What did you like about it? What made you keep churning out beautiful books? Let’s not say beautiful. Books. What was it about it that appealed to you the most? What did you love about it? What kept you coming back to starting new projects?

Wally: This has happened with every single novel that I’ve written. I’m working on number seven right now. Starting novels is always difficult for me. I spin my wheels for a long time before I get traction on something and start going. I have to fall in love with and worry about the character in whose voice I’m speaking. It’s only then that I can move forward. Like I said, I don’t plan out a plot line. I don’t know what the climax is going to be that I write toward. I’m sort of envious of writers who can do that, but that’s not me. It’s the daily discovery. On the best of writing days, it’s the surprises that occur in the middle of writing. I’ll maybe plan out what’s going to happen. Then all of a sudden, it turns into something else. I like chasing those surprises. I certainly didn’t write for royalty checks or anything like that. I still don’t. I’m not a very good money manager. My wife is. She’s the controller. She’s the accountant in our relationship. She handles that. That’s how I do it. I think —

Zibby: — What — oh, sorry. I just want to know what your latest book is about.

Wally: I can talk a little bit about that. I realize I write to address my fears lot of times. One of my biggest fears when my kids were little, and now that I have little grandchildren — we have a grandson who’s five and two granddaughters who are two years old and I think seven months old. My fear has sort of been relegated to fear of my grandchildren’s safety. What I’m writing about is in the voice of a guy who is incarcerated doing a three-year prison sentence for involuntary manslaughter because he has backed his car up without realizing that one of the kids was there. It’s a dark beginning, but I’m rooting for this guy. I’m rooting for his marriage which is crumbling because of this. I’ve done that volunteer work in the prisons, so I have that kind of knowledge, even though I volunteered in a women’s prison. I’ve got a lot of the material about the restrictions and the craziness and the abuse of power that goes on in prisons. I’m writing about his prison experience and what happens when he gets out of prison.

Zibby: Wow, that sounds really good. Whatever happens while you’re spinning your wheels, you end up with these great ideas. I guess that’s just part of the process.

Wally: I hope so.

Zibby: You’ve been so generous of your time. Just one last question. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors? I know you must. You’ve sprinkled some already. Just any parting advice?

Wally: It’s the same advice that I always give people who are at the starting gate of writing or who want to write a book or who want me to write their book. Oh, I’ve got a great story, do you want to write it? If you’re serious about writing, then I think that what you need to do is dispel your fantasies about what’s going to happen when it’s finished. What you need to do is get excited about what’s happening as you’re writing it. Reject any fantasy you have of best-seller-dom. That’s a crapshoot. That’s like winning a lottery if it’s going to happen. What you need to do is humble yourself to the process. You need to realize that nobody gets it right in first draft. My first drafts are kind of embarrassing, actually. You humble yourself to know that real writing comes in rewriting and revising. I also feel that if people do what I did, which is join a writing group and stay with it and not only give feedback to other writers but also receive feedback in a humble and generous way, that both of those things teach you how to be a writer.

Zibby: Excellent. Thank you so much. Thank you for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” and this Instagram Live. I’m so excited to watch the rest of your show. I read it after college. Now I’m reading it again. This is such a treat for me and for my listeners, I’m sure. Thank you so much. Congratulations.

Wally: Thank you. Despite the technical difficulties at the beginning, I really enjoyed this exchange, Zibby. You had great questions. Once I mastered the technology, I was instantly comfortable being your interview.

Zibby: Oh, good. I’m so glad to hear that. That makes me happy. Sorry about my kids. I can’t believe it. These things happen.

Wally: Can you tell me their names and their ages?

Zibby: I’ll tell you their ages. They’re five and almost seven. Then I also have twins that are about to be thirteen.

Wally: Oh, wow. Identical or fraternal?

Zibby: Fraternal, boy, girl. Although, I do have identical twin uncles. I had them in mind as I was reading about Dominick and Thomas.

Wally: Our grandkids live in New Orleans. We’re doing literacy lessons. We have class with our five-year-old, Ethan, every weekday and sometimes on the weekends too. That’s a lot of fun.

Zibby: Aw, that’s so nice you do that. I try to homeschool. I don’t know who’s more frustrated, them or me.

Wally: I don’t know how people do it.

Zibby: I don’t know. Just doing our best every day. One day at a time. Thanks so much. It was really fun. Have a great day. I’ll be watching this Sunday again, every Sunday until it’s over.

Wally: Thank you very much. I just want to tell all your listeners and your viewers to stay safe and stay healthy.

Zibby: Thank you. To you too.

Wally: Thank you.

Zibby: Bye. Thank you.