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Lamb’s new novel flows through rough waters

By Rick Koster

Publication: The Day

Published October 25. 2013 4:00AM

It's been almost a year since New York Times bestselling novelist Wally Lamb astounded a capacity crowd at the Arts Cafe Mystic by reading an excerpt from a then-unpublished novel titled "We Are Water." The chapter Lamb selected was a perfect microcosm of everything great about his work - gorgeous prose, wit and depth and pacing, and the ability to instantly capture the reader with compelling plotlines.

Of course, one of the truly superb things about Lamb's writing is his capacity for taking on all sorts of characters' voices in empathetic and singular fashion - even, as the Arts Cafe audience learned that evening with dawning horror, when the theretofore charming narrator was revealed to be a child molester.

"We Are Water" is now out from Harper Collins, and Lamb kicked off an intense national signing tour with an appearance Monday at the University of Connecticut.

The new novel centers on late-breaking artist Annah Oh. After nearly three decades of marriage and three children, Oh falls in love with and plans to marry Viveca, the Manhattan art dealer who orchestrated Oh's success. But the wedding provokes some very mixed reactions and unveils a spider's web of secrets that have darkly burbled in the lives of Oh and her family.

Told from the perspective of several different characters, "We Are Water" builds on a literary legacy that includes "The Hour I First Believed," "Wishin' and Hopin'," "She's Come Undone" and "I Know This Much is True" - the latter two of which were Oprah's Book Club selections. Lamb is also revered for his work as a mentor/editor on two collections by women inmates.

In the midst of gearing up for the "We Are Water" tour, which includes stops on Nov. 15 at the Otis Library in Norwich and on Dec. 11 at the Waterford Public Library, Lamb answered a few questions.

Q. The point of view in "We Are Water" shifts from a variety of minor and major characters. When you started the manuscript, did you have all of them sketched out in advance - or at least the major characters - and how difficult is it to capture the voice of so many different people?

A. "I sometimes envy novelists who can outline a story, then write toward a preconceived ending, but it doesn't work that way for me. What does work is imagining characters and then letting them speak. I began with the voices of Annie and Orion, whose 27-year marriage was crumbling. I let each tell his and her versions of why. I hadn't planned to give voice to their three 20-something offspring, but I learned more about their mother and father when I did. For me writing is intuitive, not strategized. The days when the writing surprises me are the best ones. Speaking in a variety of voices (with this novel four women and four men) is no more difficult than what an actor does: go to work and become someone other than yourself."

Q. You take on several hot-button issues in the novel, including gay marriage and lightning-flash racial and social changes. Assuming you started the novel somewhere near the start of President Obama's first term, how have real-world and real-time events affected plot minutiae? Yes, it's fiction - but you've set the story during an incredible time in our history. Were you (or could you have been) thrown a major plot curveball simply by something happening in the world?

A. "I began 'We Are Water' in the first months of President Obama's first term in office. Many of the talking heads on cable were referring to America's new post-racial period. I don't buy that we can so blithely discard the shameful aspects of our past history simply because we elected a half-black president.

"When I write a novel, I live for a period of years in a fictive world during my work hours. Simultaneously, I live in the real world. So this contemporary novel reflects contemporary times. Thus, everything from presidential politics to gay marriage to the popularity of Jersey Shore and the arrival of great white sharks in the waters of Cape Cod become usable in the telling of my tale."

Q. Given the overwhelming success of earlier works - and expectations by fans and critics - is it possible as a writer for you to burrow inside your own work and ignore any pressure? Do you have to fight to not tailor a manuscript in progress to anticipate reader reaction in a desire to please?

A. "With the writing of 'We Are Water,' I became a better burrower. But the expectations of fans and critics was something I struggled with in the wake of my double ride on the Oprah's Book Club rollercoaster as I labored to write 'The Hour I First Believed.'

"Maybe that's why it took me nine years to complete. Nevertheless, I don't write in a vacuum. I belong to two writers' groups and receive wonderful critical feedback from some very talented scribes. I also seek critical reaction to my work in progress from my students at York prison, as I offer critical reaction to theirs. Writing is really more about revising than generating a first, imperfect draft, and whatever help you can get toward that end, the better."

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