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Wally Lamb

Genre: General Mainstream Fiction, Mainstream

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Wishin' and Hopin'


By Elissa Petruzzi

Wally Lamb is known for his serious, heartwrenching
tales -- of which Oprah Winfrey and
her famous book club are fans. But this year
he's trying out something different, trotting out
a new skill that readers haven't really experienced
before: his sense of humor. Lamb lighthearted
Christmas novella, Wishin' and
, is out this month from Harper. Set in
1964, it's the tale of 10-year-old Felix Funicello
-- Annette's distant cousin. We caught up with
Wally and talked time periods, women's prison
and, of course, Oprah.

Why did you decide to set your
book in 1964?
It really was a watershed
year. I have two older sisters, and they're
not that much older than I am, but it's
almost like we're from two different generations.
1964, I think of it as the year when everything began
to shift. I'm just thinking of one example, but when
my sisters went to college, the sexes were very separated,
and I remember when I was in about eighth
grade, helping one of my sisters move in. I'm carrying
these big boxes, and the rules were so strict that
she had to yell as I'm coming in with the boxes, "Man
on the floor!" For an eighth grader, all of the sudden
being called a man, that was pretty cool.

And by the time I got out of college, all hell had broken
loose. Suddenly we had the legalization of the birth control
pill, the civil rights riots, the protests of Vietnam, and right around
the corner was the Woodstock festival and so forth. So in some
ways, I was acculturated in a different way than my not-too-mucholder
sisters, and that's always kind of fascinated me. I targeted the
year 1964 because I believe that that's when the ball started rolling
down the hill and getting bigger. The world was changing.

There's a personal note to it too. I dedicate the novel to my sisters
but also to my wife Chris and I say, "To Christine, a happier
1964." She was the oldest of five children, it was a sad time in her
family's life. Her father developed melanoma and he died really
very quickly, right in the wake of President Kennedy's having been
assassinated. It's kind of like comic relief for her too.

You volunteer at a women's prison, the York
Correctional Institution. How did you get involved
with that?
I teach at the York Correctional Institute. That's a
fancy-sounding name for the women's prison in Connecticut. I
started sort of reluctantly, thinking I would go for one 90-minute
session. That's turned into, at this point, a 10-year commitment.

At first I didn't know what to expect. I tried to put it off for as
long as I could. The reason why I went the first time was that
there had been a sort of a tightening of the
screws in terms of prison policies at the
same time as they paramilitarized the staff
and began to have male guards there, and
in some cases, male guards with dogs. They
also cut back on the psychiatric services, and
it was terrible because a couple of women
had committed suicide and several more
had attempted suicide. The school librarian
called me up -- she's a woman that I happen
to know -- and she said, "We're in
trouble down here. We're just groping. We're
looking for anything that can distract the
women and get them thinking about other
things." But that first class was a little wary
of me, and I realized that most of them had
signed up -- it was a voluntary program --
not because they were interested in writing, but
because they wanted to listen to "that guy who
knows Oprah."

What's the most important thing you've
learned from the prisoners?
I'm sure this
sounds cliched, but "There but for the grace of god,
go I." I used to dismiss that kind of trite phrase, but
that means something very deep to me at this point,
because I see, basically, good human beings, some of
whom have done very bad things.

Oprah first called you many years before she
started her book club. What was that like?
was way back in 1992, when the novel She's Come Undone
came out. I remember it came out Fourth of July weekend in
1992. It was maybe not even a couple of weeks later when the
phone rings. One of my kids picks up the phone and, not too
famous for telephone manners, [he's] like, "Yup," "Who?"
"Yup," and he hands me the phone. The person on the other
end says, "Is this Wally?" and I said, "Yes," and [Oprah] said,
"What are you doin'?" and I said, "I'm taking the clothes out
the washer and putting them in the dryer." For some reason she
thought that was hilarious. She was very sweet and funny, and
she said, "I'm calling to tell you that you owe me two nights'
sleep. I stayed up two nights reading your novel. When I read
a novel, I'm an avid reader. When I finish a book that I really
enjoy I like to, if I can, track down an author and just say
thanks." That was years before the book club, and then she
really shocked me in 1997. I had no fantasies that she would
even remember that she had read the book, but she had.

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