Wally Lamb's fifth work of fiction 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.
In "We Are Water" (Harper, $29.99), the Oh family is preparing for an unconventional wedding. 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.
The 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 where his family lived. In "We Are Water," Annie's mother and baby sister are killed in the disaster, a loss that shapes her life in terrible ways.
Unsure what he wanted to tackle after his Christmas story "Wishin' and Hopin' " (2009), 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.
"They 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."
Walking the flood path
The 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 was found.
"He's 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."
The walk with Moody through town "was one of the most moving experiences of my life," he says.
Lamb 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.
"His 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 quite collectible."
Help from inmates
The toughest part of "We Are Water" was channeling the voice of a pedophile who plays a major role. For help, Lamb turned to members of the women's writing group he teaches at York Correctional Institute in Connecticut, 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."
"It 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."
The result -- a complex, fully formed, repulsive character -- drew praise from one unexpected area.
"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."
Lamb 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 them.
"These 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."