by Carole Ann Borges
Wally Lamb, this year’s guest speaker at the Volunteer Ministry Center’s “Carry the Torch” fundraiser at the Knoxville Convention Center, is a very funny man who writes books on serious subjects. I first met Wally in 1985 when we both enrolled in the Vermont College MFA in Creative Writing Program. As I watched the thin handsome writer with the soulful eyes approach the podium to give his first reading, it was apparent he was nervous. But the minute he started reading he shed that quality and took command of his short story. It was called “Mr. Softee.” A hilarious tale about a perverted ice cream truck driver that had us all laughing until our sides hurt.
Wally Lamb and I bonded immediately and we spent endless hours in the dorms talking about our passion for writing. When I read his first book, She’s Come Undone, I expected it to be funny. As I moved from page to page, I could see shades of his wit, but David Sedaris he was not. Amazed at Wally’s ability to probe into the deepest levels of the human condition, I couldn’t put that book down.
Eight years after graduation I went to see my now famous friend at a reading in a Boston bookstore.
“I don’t know if you remember me, Wally…I’m…”
“Carole!” He grinned broadly. “Of course I remember you!”
Before he started reading, Wally said he wanted to acknowledge some important authors in the audience. When he said my name, when he said how much he admired my writing, I felt like I had been blessed by a Pope.
The summer Oprah announced she had chosen She’s Come Undone for her book club, I felt no one deserved the honor more. When she also chose I Know This Much is True for the same honor, it had the literary world buzzing. Everywhere I looked I saw Wally’s grinning face. I saw his interviews on TV and read his reviews in all the important magazines. Wally Lamb was famous!
When Wally told me he was invited to come to Knoxville, I couldn’t wait to thank him in person for writing such a beautiful blurb for my Dreamseeker’s Daughter memoir. I had self-published the book because my mother is 94 years old and I didn’t want to wait around seeking an agent who might find me a big publisher. Self-publishing or Indie publishing, as it is now called, is seen by many “celebrity” authors as only slightly above drinking your tea from a saucer, so I was afraid when I sent my manuscript to Wally that he would turn me down. For a few weeks I felt scared every time I opened my email account, afraid to face the inevitable disappointment of his rejection. When I finally did get his answer, I almost wept.
Just finished this morning. I LOVED your book! It was like all those years between our MFA program and today evaporated and I was in the dorm again, listening to your great stories. Congrats on seeing it through to the finish line.”
Besides his sense of humor Wally Lamb has one other endearing trait. He is a man of great compassion. That attribute is what prompted the Volunteer Ministry Center’s board of directors to choose him as their 2013 guest speaker. He gave the audience a history of his writing life. How early failures kept pushing him toward the two things he excelled at—teaching and writing. His honesty charmed the listeners, and the tales he told about his early academic misadventures filled the big room with laughter.
After finishing I Know This Much is True and The Hour I First Believed, two dark but fascinating novels exploring schizophrenia and the effects of the Columbine shootings on our national psyche, Lamb was invited to teach a workshop at the York Correctional Institute, a maximum security prison near his Connecticut home. Wally told the VMC audience that at first the women there were surly and suspicious, but when one of the toughest of them read what she had written it was as if a dam had burst and words long held inside came pouring forth from all the female prisoners. When the class ended the tough woman who had read first came up to him. “So are you coming back?” she asked skeptically.
“I couldn’t help myself,” Lamb said. “I’ve always been terrible at saying no. The next thing I knew I was saying yes!”
Two anthologies edited by Lamb emerged from those workshops. Couldn’t Keep it to Myself and I’ll Fly Away immediately garnered critical acclaim, and one of the workshop participants won a Pen/Newman First Amendment Award.
Wally’s love for his students was apparent and his speech was met with loud applause. Later standing in line to get my book signed, I once again felt nervous that my old friend might not recognize me. Wally was busy chatting with the woman in front of me, and he didn’t look up from his book signing as I moved in front of him. When I announced I didn’t want his signature, just a hug, his head shot up. Leaping to his feet, Wally threw his arms around me and gave me a big theatrical kiss that had everyone in line laughing.
“Whew!” I fanned my face with my hand and pretended to swoon. “That was some smooch!”
After we spent time chatting, I drifted home full of good feelings for my old friend, and two days later when a picture showing me collapsed in a chair with my two dogs at my feet appeared on Face Book, I found this comment by Wally beneath it:
“I see you’re still recuperating from our big smooch.”
In a world where things are always shifting, old friends can change, but with Wally Lamb his basic personality has not been affected by fortune and fame. Wally is still Wally—a very funny man who writes about serious things.
© Carole Ann Borges, 2013