Popular author Wally Lamb shared insights into his writing process with a huge and happy crowd at Darien Public Library Sunday evening.
Lamb, a Connecticut resident, has written five novels, including "She's Come Undone" and "I Know This Much is True," both of which became No. 1 best sellers after they were selected for Oprah Winfrey's Book Club. In fact, Lamb, who was a high school and college teacher for many years, credited Winfrey's endorsement with allowing him to become a full-time fiction writer.
"I was a high school English teacher for 25 years," he said, noting that he never lost his love of teaching, continuing it through volunteer work at York Correctional Institute, a women's prison in Niantic, where he established a writing program.
"I never burned out in teaching," he said. "I loved being in the classroom with students."
He said he didn't start writing seriously until he was 30.
"I didn't think I was anything special as a writer or a reader," he said of his childhood, though he admits that when he was a kid, "writing came fairly easy to me."
He shared a funny story of his eighth-grade teacher -- Mrs. Kramer -- coming over to him and quietly whispering in his ear one day, "I suppose you know what a good writer you are." Later that year, he received the Julia Peas Award for writing, which included a five-dollar bill that he went and spent on "skeeball" at an amusement arcade before anyone could realize a mistake had been made and ask for it back.
"I didn't love to write when I was kid and I didn't like to read, but I really loved to draw," he said, especially comic books, which his mother would help assemble for him with her sewing machine. "People think that my first publisher was Simon & Schuster, but no, it was my mother."
"That constant love of drawing was my leg up on my career as a writer," he said, enabling his creative skills.
Lamb kept people laughing with a story of a recent speaking engagement he had at a Costco outside of Chicago, where he received a reception quite different to the warm one the 200 or so people gave him in Darien.
Lamb said when he arrived at the Costco people didn't even expect him nor know who he was, and he had to get his own books from the shelf to set up a table. The visit continued to unfold like a scene out of fiction, with people hardly noticing him or merely stopping to ask why he was there.
He told one unfriendly man his latest book, "We Are Water," was "partly about a wife who leaves her husband for a woman," Lamb reported. In response, "The husband frowns, takes his wife by the arm and rushes her away."
Later, he said, two women arrived who had actually come to see him. "Wow, we thought there'd be a line," one said. But after a few minutes of chatting, when he asked them if they'd like to hear him read from the new book, one said, "I have to go home and defrost my turkey."
"I swear this is all true," Lamb said, adding how he told one young boy, who rudely declared he didn't like reading, that his haircut looked stupid.
"I have to say in defense of Costco that I have heard over and over that they are very good to their employees, and that is ultimately much more important that how they do the book signing thing," Lamb said.
Lamb was more serious in describing his choice to focus on a famous 1963 Norwich flood in his new book, which incorporates the breaking of a nearby dam that resulted in five deaths.
"Even though I live in a fictional world called Three Rivers, Connecticut, when I'm composing my work, I live in the real world in Connecticut," he said, having grown up in Norwich and now living in the northeast portion of the state with his wife, Chris, who is a retired elementary school teacher.
"When the dam collapsed at the edge of town ... six million gallons of water were unleashed and took a downward path of death and destruction," he said.
"I still remember that night vividly," he said. "I was 12 years old and the water came eight or nine houses from where we lived."
Lamb said he could hear the rushing water and, more frightening, "the screams of third-shift factory workers who were buried in the rubble when the factory they were working in collapsed.
Lamb also talked about his experience writing "The Hour I First Believed," which was a fiction novel centered around the real-life shootings at Columbine.
"It took me nine years to write," he said, with his extensive research leaving him quite depressed.
Someone asked if he would ever consider doing a piece on the Newtown school tragedy, and while he said he didn't think he would be "strong enough" to invest the time, he felt it might be a worthwhile endeavor for some other writer.
"It might help people to somehow understand that unfathomable tragedy," he said.
After his talk, which included Lamb reading some short passages from "We Are Water," close to 100 people stuck around to have books signed by him.
"He's one of my favorite authors," Liz Callahan, of Darien, said. "He's just an unbelievable writer. He has the capacity to take you out of yourself and reach inside of you simultaneously."
Jarret Liotta is a freelance writer.