The New Orleans Songwriter That Inspired Wally Lamb
An appearance at the Louisiana Book Festival will introduce Connecticut native Wally Lamb to Mary Gauthier, whose song I Drink inspired a character in his third novel, and reunite the author with his two sons who live in New Orleans.
Writer Wally Lamb became a household name in 1996 when Oprah chose his first book, “She’s Come Undone,” for her book club. He’s continued to turn out bestsellers since, and his latest novel, “We Are Water,” releases October 22. Lamb no longer needs the help of Oprah to find readers for his work, which compassionatelys captures the essence of human experience. After tackling issues like obesity, mental illness and the Columbine school shooting in his previous novels, Lamb takes on marriage, sexuality and a historic flood in “We Are Water.”
Though he lives in Connecticut and set “Water” in his home state, Lamb has several Southern connections, including a songwriter who inspired him while he was writing “The Hour I First Believed.” Born in New Orleans and now living in Nashville, Mary Gauthier is best known for her song Mercy Now, but it’s another song from that album that Lamb credits with helping him to develop the character of Maureen. Gauthier’s I Drink is about a father who passes on his drinking habit to his child.
Lamb listed the song in a personal playlist on Amazon, explaining, “As Maureen’s reliance on prescription drugs increases, Caelum, too, numbs himself – with his father’s, and later Ulysses’s, preferred poison.” He and Gauthier, whose own personal story sounds like it comes straight from one of Lamb’s novels, will meet for the first time at the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge on November 2 and present a panel on writing together. Lamb’s Louisiana trip will also reunite him with his sons, Jared and Justin, to whom he passed on his love of teaching and writing. Both live in New Orleans and, albeit in different ways from their father, are making a name for themselves there.
We asked Lamb via email to tell us more about his Southern connections, how authors like Harper Lee and Flannery O’Connor have influenced his work and what it was like to write his third book without the help of Oprah.
Let’s start with Southern connections. How did two of your sons end up in New Orleans, and do you visit the area often?
My older two sons, Jared and Justin (pictured with his father), both entered the Teach for America program when they graduated from college and both were posted in New Orleans schools. In 2009, Jared founded and is principal of New Orleans Leadership Academy, a KIPP public charter school in the city. (HBO’s “Treme” filmed scenes there.) Justin is a performance poet and a member of Team SNO (Slam New Orleans), which won the national slam poetry championship in Boston this past summer. My wife, Chris, and I visit the city a couple of times a year. Our kids and their friends, the music, the food, Jazz Fest, the indomitable spirit of the townspeople. What’s not to love?
You’ve mentioned Flannery O’Connor and books like “To Kill A Mockingbird” as influences on your work and teaching. Can you elaborate on how those writers/books impacted you?
Back when I was a high school English teacher, a perennial favorite of my classes was “Mockingbird.” Over the years, while teaching that book, I began to take note of its “architecture,” its sense of time and place and the deft way that Harper Lee moves between the child’s and the adult’s voice. Observations like these opened the door to my own first-person stories. I discovered the marvels of Flannery O’Connor in grad school. Her observations of her characters are razor sharp, as is her wit and her grasp of human nature. Both Lee and O’Connor maintain a delicate and sometimes breathtaking balance between humor and poignancy in their work, and I aim for such a balance in my own.
What was it like to become almost an overnight success thanks to Oprah endorsing your books? I know many readers, including myself, will never forget “She’s Come Undone” or your name as an author, but imagine the publicity also put a lot of pressure on you as a writer.
“She’s Come Undone” was a modest success when it debuted in the summer of 1992. Out of the blue, Oprah called me a few weeks after the book was published to thank me for writing it and to tease me for having made her lose two nights’ sleep. That sweet, out of the blue, call had nothing to do with her show. But five years later, Oprah started her TV book club, and when she told her vast audience to read “Undone,” it rocketed to number one. Lightning struck again the following year when Oprah chose my second, just-published novel, “I Know This Much Is True,” for the book club, too. Another number one bestseller, a second ride on the rollercoaster.
But when the excitement ended and it was time to start a third novel, I was, for a while, scared to write the first sentence. All those millions of readers, all those expectations of others. The pressure was self-imposed but, for a while, debilitating. Once I calmed down and started writing again for myself, rather than for all those imagined others, I was off and running into another story. That said, novel number three, “The Hour I First Believed,” took me nine years to write.
What can you tell us about your new book?
“We Are Water” revolves around the breakup of a 27-year marriage, when Annie, a successful artist, leaves her husband, Orion, a psychologist, for the woman who made her a star of the art world. Gay marriage has recently been legalized, and the upcoming nuptials trigger three very different responses from Annie and Orion’s twentysomething children. The pending marriage also triggers a Pandora’s box of explosive secrets that Annie and others have long been harboring. As well as being the story of a single family, “We Are Water” also explores America’s changing mores and attitudes about race and class, and, as in my earlier novels, the complex relationship between the powerful and the powerless.
What are you most looking forward to at this year’s Louisiana Book Festival, and what can attendees look forward to in your presentation?
For me, one of the best things about the Louisana Book Festival is the opportunity to discover new and upcoming writers of all kinds, and of course, lugging all of the books I’ll no doubt buy will give my biceps a good workout. And then, of couse, there’s the food. Pulled pork, jambalaya, Frito pie: mmm-mm-mm.
As for what audiences might expect from me, I’m delighted that my son, Justin, the N’Awlins slam poet, will be joining me in my presentation at the book festival. (I think of him as my opening act; he thinks of me as his closer. ) I’ll read a little and jaw a little about the new novel. Justin, whose poems can be both hilarious and poignant, will emote a bit. I have fond memories of the audiences at my former book festival performances, so I can promise a lively exchange that will be informative and, more importantly, a lot of fun. I’m also excited about joining the great New Orleans musician Mary Gauthier, whom I’ll be interviewing elsewhere at the festival. I’m a big fan of Mary’s music and hope I don’t gush too much, but I make no promises.
See Wally Lamb at the Louisiana Book Festival on November 2 from 2:15-3 p.m. in the Senate Chamber with Mary Gauthier and again from 3:15-4 p.m. with his son, Justin. Lamb will also be signing books from 4:15-5 p.m. in the signing tent.
Photo of Justin and Wally Lamb by Marc Maksim.
Read our interview with Mary Gauthier here.
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