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The Novelist Who Came in Like a Lion

Wally Lamb has been likened to Joyce and Tolstoy. But this teacher keeps his feet firmly on the ground.

October 02, 1998|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tired of all the subterfuge, sleaze and self-serving "spin"? Maybe it's time to tune in to someone like Wally Lamb, a humble guy of 48 who has spent the last 25 years teaching and can't imagine a more exciting career. Who is still teaching, even though he's so rich and famous that he doesn't have to work anymore.

And who has a fictional population the size of New Jersey constantly prattling in his head.

His good fortune springs from two blockbuster novels he has written: "She's Come Undone" (Pocket Books, 1992) and "I Know This Much Is True" (ReganBooks, 1998). Both were touted on TV by Oprah Winfrey, propelling them onto bestseller lists. "Undone" has been there 53 weeks; the new book, out since July, has been there 16. Both have been optioned for films.

We checked in on him by phone the other night, to see how he's handling all this income and fame. He said he was hunched over the kitchen table, in jeans and a T-shirt, frantically stapling syllabuses to give to his college students the next day. After years of teaching high school English, he signed on as an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Connecticut this semester.

It had been the first day of school for all the Lambs (except the dog). The three kids (7, 13, 17) were doing homework with Chris, Lamb's wife of 20 years, who teaches first grade. It was late. Lamb was tired--but too polite to cut us off. Besides, unexpected phone calls have been good omens for him.

In 1991, for example, he was on hands and knees removing a wad of gum from the classroom floor when the phone rang and he learned that his first novel, which he'd been working on for nine years, had just been sold.

Publisher Judith Regan, resting after the birth of a child, had picked up the manuscript of "She's Come Undone" and couldn't put it down. The book's tragicomic, overweight heroine Dolores Price--who endures abuse, rape, abortion, infidelity and abandonment before she finds true happiness--was "lovable, hateful, tragic, exasperating--she's everything we are," Regan said. "It was a rare gem that came to me already polished."

(Lamb contends that the polish is not really his doing, that he simply lets the voices inside his head say what they want.)

Picture the joy in the Lamb household that evening when Papa relayed the news of Regan's call. For years he had struggled out of bed each weekend at 4 a.m. and had written in longhand until the rest of the family awoke; had worked part of each summer at writing workshops in Vermont; had spent winter evenings in local writing groups. And for nine years, Chris--the "most honestly critical fan a writer could have," Lamb says--had been reading his work-in-progress. Their most fabulous fantasy had been that some day, somehow, the story might find a publisher.

And now it had.

*

With part of the $150,000 advance, Lamb bought the family a Honda, their first air-conditioned car. When the reviews came out, the New York Times called his book "stirring and hilarious"; Time deemed it "funny, touching, deliciously offbeat."

Other reviewers were amazed that such bull's-eye insights about womanhood could have been written by a man. One reviewer in the Midwest forgot to check the facts and actually hailed Lamb as "one of a select group of women authors" reshaping '90s literature.

(Growing up with two sisters in the house and a bunch of female cousins down the street can give a guy near-perfect female pitch, Lamb explains.)

He became a minor celebrity in his hometown of Norwich, Conn. But he kept his day job. And he started a new novel in his spare time, working on it steadily for the next few years. Along the way, some more lucky phone calls came in.

He was home doing the family laundry and "almost fell into the spin cycle" when he answered the phone one day to find Winfrey on the other end. She was calling just to say she liked "Undone." In 1997, after Winfrey started a book club on her TV show, she called again to say she'd selected the by-then 5-year-old novel for her viewers to read and discuss. "Undone" zoomed to No. 1 on the bestseller lists; the number of copies in print soared from 4,000 to 3 million.

This was success of a serious sort.

"Surreal is the word I'd use," Lamb says.

Suddenly, other celebrities he'd never met started calling to congratulate him. Major media types showed up at his door for interviews. Financial consultants counted his assumed millions and phoned to offer investment advice.

His 80-year-old father started wearing "full Oprah regalia" (a T-shirt and hat he'd gotten from the show) and appointed himself unofficial Lamb publicist. Now, when the author visits his parents, who live down the road, they often have a pile of books brought by neighbors for their son to autograph.

Lamb even found one of his own sons leading a group of local kids inside the house to hear "Oprah's actual voice" on the answering machine cassette. ("I never found out if he was charging them," the author says with a chuckle.)

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