Lamb’s fifth work of fiction, "We Are
Water," is a mesmerizing novel about a family in
crisis that pulls together many characters and diverse
themes and sets the bulk of its action against our
collective modern angst and ambivalence.
yet it was still a breeze to write —compared to his
massive "The Hour I First Believed."
Hour I First Believed’ came to me in the wake of those
two wild and crazy rides on the Oprah Book Club,"
Lamb says about his first two novels, "She’s Come
Undone" and "I Know This Much Is True."
"Then suddenly it’s just me and the computer and
an empty house when my wife and kids weren’t there. My
agent had dollar signs in her eyes, and she got me this
super-duper contract, and I signed the devil’s
agreement. I was so intimidated by success I froze, and
I couldn’t write. I was thinking about giving back the
advance money and going back to high-school
63, eventually finished "The Hour I First
Believed," but at a price. He "checked in with
a therapist," after working on the book, a big part
of which involves the Columbine High shootings, and
learned he was suffering from "vicarious
traumatization" from spending so much time probing
the aftereffects of that day. Via Facebook, he
befriended Columbine author Dave Cullen (who spent 10
years writing his own book on the subject) because, as
Lamb notes, "It happened to both of us."
brighter days were ahead. His next project was the
hilarious, nostalgic novella "Wishin’ and Hopin’,"
a delightful Christmas story told by Catholic school
fifth-grader Felix Funicello that’s light-years from
the horrors of Columbine.
was the comic relief book," Lamb says fondly.
"I was laughing, but I didn’t know if anyone else
would find it funny. But if you’re writing about the
aftermath of Columbine for nine years, you have to
remind yourself you can walk on the sunny side of the
"We Are Water" (Harper, $29.99), in which the
Oh family prepares for an unconventional wedding, Lamb
returns to the darker side of the street. Mom Annie has
divorced her husband Orion and is planning to marry a
woman, and their three adult children are reacting to
the news in markedly different ways. Secrets about the
past begin to spill out as the wedding day draws near,
and Lamb revisits past horrors that have shaped this
uncertain present as well.
novel was inspired by tragedy: a real-life flood in 1963
that killed five people, including Margaret
"Honey" Moody, the mother of three small boys,
in Lamb’s hometown of Norwich, Conn. Lamb was 12 at
the time, and he remembers the water roaring past down
the street from where his family lived. They were safe,
but in "We Are Water," Annie’s mother and
baby sister are killed in the disaster, a loss that
shapes her life in terrible ways.
precisely what he wanted to tackle after the
soul-soothing "Wishin’ and Hopin’," Lamb
had casually said in a radio interview he was thinking
about writing about the flood. A few days later, a woman
called him and told him that the three little boys who
survived were her cousins.
were 4, 2 and an infant," Lamb says. "The
father climbed up in the tree, and the mother handed the
boys up. Just as she was about to go up, the floodwaters
took her away, and she drowned."
oldest brother, Tom Moody, is in his 50s now, living in
Texas. Lamb met with him, and they walked the flood path
from the dam that burst to where Margaret Moody’s body
obsessed with finding out details," Lamb says.
"He has vague memories. He remembers the car going
underwater. They had tried to outrun a flood in a car.
... He remembers being put in the tree and looking down
at the water and thinking it was exciting. Then all of a
sudden his 2-year-old brother started screaming, and he
realized something was bad."
walk with Moody through town "was one of the most
moving experiences of my life," he says.
used another real-life story as inspiration in the book:
Josephus Jones, the black outsider artist who died under
mysterious circumstances on the Ohs’ property decades
earlier, is based on Ellis Ruley, a laborer who started
painting in the 1940s and 1950s.
stuff was really wild," Lamb says. "It lacks
perspective and isn’t technically artful, but it’s
dazzling. He couldn’t sell anything in his own
lifetime but was discovered in the ’80s. Now he’s
writing about Josephus and the flood required research,
the toughest part of "We Are Water" was (not
surprisingly) channeling the voice of a pedophile who
plays a major role. For help, he turned to members of
the writing group he teaches at the Women of York
Correctional Institute, many of whom have been victims
of incest and abuse. Lamb has co-authored two books with
the group, "Couldn’t Keep It to Myself:
Testimonies from Our Imprisoned Sisters" and
"I’ll Fly Away: Further Testimonies from the
Women of York Prison."
felt very uncomfortable writing him," Lamb
confesses. "I didn’t want to go there. ... but I
walked reluctantly into that dark forest because I
wanted to know who he was. And I found out."
result — a complex, fully formed, repulsive character
— drew praise from one unexpected area.
kids are happy for my success, but they’re not wrapped
up in it. They’ve got their own great lives. But my
oldest son Jared read the book and said, ‘Dad, I
really liked your book, but it kind of creeped me out
that my dad nailed the pedophile character."
credits the women in the group for inspiring him in all
sorts of ways. His recurring preoccupation with the
corrosiveness of secrets, perhaps the defining theme of
We Are Water, is largely due to his experiences with
women are stuck in prison, some for the rest of their
lives," he says. "I teach them about writing,
and they teach me a lot about life. So many of them have
been derailed by toxic secrets in their own homes. ... I
see them write and see the way it unburdens them. Those
secrets finally come out when they feel comfortable.
They become a little lighter. And then we all carry the
burden with them so they don’t have to."