America is a puzzle for me, and I'm still trying to figure it out

Wally Lamb is the author of four New York Times best-selling novels: Wishin’ and Hopin’, The Hour I First Believed, I Know This Much is True, and She’s Come Undone and was twice selected for Oprah’s Book Club. We Are Water is his fifth novel.

The title may seem quite enigmatic. Could you tell us a few words about it?

Unlike some of my earlier novels, I had the title before I had the story. I had no characters. I went to an off Broadway musical in New York that was all based on the work of Patty Griffin, and one of the songs that they performed there was called “We Are Water”. I think I was intrigued by the alliteration more than anything else, and also by the enigma of what that meant. I remember writing it down on the program, and I took it home, and I played with it for maybe several weeks. Then, I recalled a terrible flood that happened in my hometown, and I think it was a fusion of that title that I was sort of playing with and the very vivid memories of the flood that happened way back. That’s when the story kind of took hold.

During the four or five years that it took me to write the novel, that riddle was always in front of me. I was wondering what that meant and how it applied to those people.

The story spans over several decades, with digressions, flash-backs, memories… What does it mean in terms of writing process and narrative structure? Is everything mapped out and planned before you start to write?

I wish I could write that way! I occasionally reread how other writers make novels, and I’m always a little bit envious of people like John Irving who says that you have to have the ending story in mind. That may be true for him, but not for me. Every day, I have to show up at my writing desk to see what is going to happen. It doesn’t necessarily happen sequentially, and I may suddenly veer off in unexpected ways to a whole other part of the story. There might be a character that I didn’t necessarily think was going to speak, and I just sort of follow the lead, that’s an instinct. To me, it almost seems as if the character is demanding to be heard. That’s the way I put it together, so it comes to me like puzzle pieces.

There is a sort of unexpectedness sometimes. I’ll write something that I think is going to be significant, and then it turns out to be a dead end, so then I have to scrap that… It takes me a long time to write my books, and that’s because I follow intuitions and I value surprises when I’m writing.

The story can be seen as a chronicle of an American family, from the 1970s to the Obama years. Would you agree?

I make my living as a fiction writer, but I also live in the real world. There were many things that were happening while I was writing this story that snuck into the story.

I run a writing program for women who are in prison, and I work with them. When they trust me, many of them will write about sexual abuse when they were children. I’ve been doing this program for about fifteen years, and over the years they have given me a knowledge of what the victim feels, how the victim falls into the trap of the perpetrator. When I wrote in the voice of Kent, I was sort of investigating who does this to children, what their story is.

As far as a chronicle of an American family goes, now that gay marriage is starting to be accepted in America, I was sort of looking at that. I was looking at the fact that we adjust. We elected a Black president, although America has a long history of racism… All of that sort of bled into the story that I was telling.

When I started, I wasn’t sure if Annie or Orion was going to be the main character. But when the three adult children began to speak, what I came to see as the main character of the story is the family unit. It was almost like a Rashomon kind of thing, where there are different slants… What I saw as the protagonist was this family unit rather than an individual.

It’s interesting, because I actually thought that all the different voices were telling something about Annie, and that she was the main protagonist.

I think it definitely could be interpreted that way. When I write a novel, I work as hard as I can, and then I bring it to my writer’s group, they’ll give me feedback, and then little by little, the story merges in a way that I’m not too embarrassed about. But once it’s between covers, it goes out into the world, it’s not mine anymore. So I’m very happy when people have very different interpretations than mine. I’m not looking to guide them in any way. It’s interesting because when I gave copies of the book to imprisoned women I work with, I thought they were going to be more sympathetic to Annie! But they were not, and that was a surprise, they were rooting for Orion.

I could understand… Annie is ridden with guilt and does things she never would have done before.

She is not necessarily likable, but I think she is understandable. That’s what I was trying to do with Kent too. It’s not like I was trying to get you to be sympathetic to him, only to understand where his motivations might come from.

The voices in the novel are first-person narrators, and what we read is what they choose to tell, but what is not said is as important. How did you decide that the novel would be written in first person?

This is my fifth novel, and I’ve only written in first person. When I hear actors talk about their work and how they have to shed their own skin and become somebody else, that’s what it’s like for me. By taking on the persona of somebody whose experiences are very different from mine, what happens to me is that it stretches me beyond the limitations of my own life, so I go beyond the boundaries. In one of my novels, I’m the brother of a twin who develops paranoid schizophrenia. It’s nothing like my life, but when I become him, over the years, as I’m writing and researching, that stretches me, I grow from these experiences.

You are right, not all of the narrators in the story are reliable narrators. I think it makes it more interactive for the reader if they’re trying to figure out who is telling the truth and who is not. Hopefully, by the end of the story, you have a better sense of who these characters are.

How do you work with time in your novels?

You have to picture my writing room: I have not only the computer and all the dictionaries, I also have a series of books, some of them are about the history of popular culture in the 20th century, some of them are just history. If I want to write about the year 1964—I was alive then, but I don’t necessarily have great recall of that—I can see which songs and movies were popular for example. I sort of weave a texture of the time.

I’m very interested in how America has changed over the years—in the years since I’ve been around. When I look at a racially charged murder—which happens in this novel—I’m taking a look at that, and then I’m taking a look at the fact that Barack Obama was elected in 2008, and I try to make links between not only the differences but also the similarities.

America is a puzzle for me, and I’m still trying to figure it out. I’m very glad that I was born in this era. There’s been so much dramatic change, in terms of race and attitude towards sexuality, but also politics, and technology. Of course, that’s not strictly an American phenomena, these are worldwide things.

When I write these stories, I’m looking to play with the facts, in order to get at some more universal truth. That’s what I hope for. I don’t necessarily achieve it, but that’s sort of my goal.

The puzzle you are referring to, it’s also the paradoxes we see in every character, for example Andrew, who joins the military and ends up rejecting Annie, his mother…

When I had the whole story in its sort of lump of clay form that I could sculpt, Andrew was the one who, for me, emerged as the most sympathetic character. In a lot of ways, he is a victim, and he is a victim of those paradoxes. It is not only his mother’s fault, as there is also the fact that his father, who is after all a psychologist, is missing all the signals at home. Whether it is conscious or not, he is kind of asleep at the wheel in his own family, even though he’s fixing all these other families.