Wally Lamb Mines Childhood Memories For New Novel

Oct 31, 2013
Originally published on October 31, 2013 5:35 pm

In novels such as “I Know This Much is True” and “The Hour I First Believed,” best-selling author Wally Lamb explores how a traumatic incident continues to reverberate years afterward.

His new book “We Are Water” continues in that tradition (see excerpt below). It centers around Annie Oh, an artist whose provocative work is often generated by anger at abuse she suffered as a child. Annie is also haunted by the loss of her mother and sister in a flood when she was four years old.

As Lamb tells Here & Now’s Robin Young, one of the springboards for the book was a devastating flood that he witnessed as a 12-year-old in his hometown of Norwich, Conn.

“I still have vivid memories of the roaring water rushing past and also the screams of people buried alive in a mill that collapsed” he says.

Norwich inspired another plot line in “We are Water,” as well. Lamb tells the story of Josephus Jones, a self-taught African-American artist who in the 1950s lived on the property that Annie and her husband now own.

Before Jones could attain success, he died under mysterious circumstances. As Lamb tells Here & Now, he used real-life outsider artist Ellis Ruley, who lived in Norwich and died under mysterious circumstances, as the springboard for the Jones character.

Book Excerpt: ‘We Are Water’

By Wally Lamb

I understand there was some controversy about the coroner’s ruling concerning Josephus Jones’s death. What do you think, Mr. Agnello? Did he die accidentally or was he murdered?”

“Murdered? I can’t really say for sure, Miss Arnofsky, but I have my suspicions. The black community was convinced that’s what it was. Two Negro brothers living down at that cottage with a white woman? That would have been intolerable for some people back then.”

“White people, you mean.”

“Yes, that’s right. When I got the job as director of the Statler Museum and moved my family to Three Rivers, I remember being surprised by the rumors that a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan was active here. And it’s always seemed unlikely to me that Joe Jones would have tripped and fallen headfirst into a narrow well that he would have been very much aware of. A well that he would have drawn water from, after all. But if a crime had been committed, it was never investigated as such. So who’s to say? The only thing I was sure of was that Joe was a uniquely talented painter. Unfortunately, I was the only one at the time who could see that. Of course now, long after his death, the art world has caught up with his brilliance and made him highly collectible. It’s sad—tragic, really. There’s no telling what he might have achieved if he had lived into his forties and fifties. But that was not to be.”

I’m upstairs in my studio, talking to this curly-haired, pear-shaped Patrice Arnofsky. When she called last week, she’d explained that she was a writer for an occasional series which profiled the state’s prominent artists in Connecticut magazine. They had already run stories on Sol LeWitt, Paul Cadmus, and the illustrator Wendell Minor, she said. Now she’d been assigned a posthumous profile of Josephus Jones in conjunction with a show that was opening at the American Folk Art Museum. “I understand that you were the only curator in his lifetime to have awarded him a show of his work,” she’d said. I’d told her that was correct. Agreed to talk with her about my remembrances of Joe. And so, a week later, here we are.

Miss Arnofsky checks the little tape recorder she’s brought along to the interview and asks me how I met Josephus Jones.

“I first laid eyes on Joe in the spring of 1957 when he appeared at the opening of an exhibition I had mounted called ‘Nineteenth-Century Maritime New England.’ It was a pretentious title for a self-congratulatory concept—a show that had been commissioned by a wealthy Three Rivers collector of maritime art whose grandfather had made millions in oceanic shipping. He had compensated the museum quite generously for my curatorial work, but it had bored me to tears to hang that show: all those paintings of frigates, brigs, and steamships at sea, all that glorification of war and money.

“On the afternoon of the opening, I was making small talk with Marietta Colson, president of the Friends of the Statler, when she stopped midconversation and looked over my shoulder. A frown came over her face. ‘Well, well, what have we here?’ she said. ‘Trouble?’ My eyes followed hers to the far end of the gallery, and there was Jones. Among the well-heeled, silver-haired patrons who had come to the opening, he was an anomaly with his mahogany skin and flattened nose, his powerful laborer’s build and laborer’s overalls.

“We watched him, Marietta and I, as he wandered from painting to painting. He was carrying a large cardboard box in front of him, and perhaps that was why he reminded me of the gift-bearing Abyssinian king immortalized in The Adoration of the Magi—not the famous Gentile da Fabriano painting but the later one by Albrecht Dürer, who, to splendid effect, had incorporated the classicism of the Italian Renaissance in his northern European art. Do you know that work?”

“I know Dürer, but not that painting specifically. But go on.”

“Well, throughout the gallery, conversations stopped and heads turned toward Josephus. ‘I hope there’s nothing menacing in that box he’s holding,’ Marietta said. ‘Do you think we should notify the police?’ I shook my head and walked toward him.

“He was standing before a large Caulkins oil of La Amistad, the schooner that had transported African slaves to Cuba. The painting depicted the slaves’ revolt against their captors. ‘Welcome,’ I said. ‘You have a good eye. This is the best painting in the show.’

“He told me he liked pictures that told a story. ‘Ah yes, narrative paintings,’ I said. ‘I’m drawn to them, too.’ His bushy hair and eyebrows were gray with cement dust, and the bib of his overalls was streaked with dirt and stained with paint. He had trouble making eye contact. Why had he come?

“ ‘I paint pictures, too,’ he said. ‘I can’t help it.’ I knew what he meant, of course. Had I not been painting for decades, more involuntarily than voluntarily at times? ‘I’m Gualtiero Agnello, the director of this museum,’ I said, holding out my hand. ‘And you are?’

“He told me his name. Placed his box on the floor and shook my hand. His was twice the size of mine, and as rough as sandpaper. ‘You the one they told me to come and see,’ he said. He didn’t identify who ‘they’ were and I didn’t ask. He picked up his box and held it at arm’s length, expecting me to take it. ‘These are some of my pictures. You want to look at them?’

“I told him this wasn’t really a convenient time. Could he come back some day the following week? He shook his head. He worked, he said. He could leave them here. I was hesitant, suspecting that he had no more talent than the Sunday painters who often contacted me—dowagers and dilettantes, for the most part, who became huffy when I failed to validate their assumptions of artistic genius. I didn’t want to be the bearer of bad news. Still, I could tell that it had cost him something to come here, and I didn’t want to disappoint him either. ‘Tell you what,’ I said. ‘You see that table over there where the punch bowl is? Slide your box underneath it. I’ll look at your work when I have a chance and get back to you. Do you have a telephone?’

“He shook his head. ‘But you can call my boss when you ready to talk, and he can tell me. I don’t know his number, but he in the phone book. Mr. Angus Skloot.’

“ ‘The building contractor?’ He nodded. The Skloots were generous donors to the museum, and Mrs. Skloot was a member of the Friends. ‘Okay then, I’ll be in touch.’ He thanked me for my time. I told him to help himself to punch and cookies, but when he looked over at the

refreshments table and saw several of the other attendees staring back at him, he shook his head.

“He stayed for a little while longer, repelling the crowd wherever he wandered, as if he were Moses parting the Red Sea, but unable to resist the art he would stop before and study. As I watched him walk finally toward the exit, Marietta approached me. ‘I’m dying of curiosity, Gualtiero,’ she said, her mouth screwed up into a sardonic half-grin. ‘Who’s your new colored friend?’

“I stared at her without answering, waiting for her to stop smirking. When she did, I said, ‘He’s an artist. Isn’t that the reason the Friends of the Statler exists? To support the artists of our community?’ She nodded curtly, pivoted, and walked away.


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Wally Lamb's bestselling novels "I Know This Much is True," "The Hour I First Believed" and his new release, "We Are Water," all explore how the past impacts the present. "We Are Water" opens with the story of Josephus Jones, a self-taught African-American artist from the 1950s on the cusp of acclaim when he's found dead in a well in Connecticut.

Then suddenly, we're at a modern-day same-sex wedding, the marriage of artist Annie and art dealer Vivica. Vivica has picked out three Vera Wang dresses for Annie to choose from, selecting one for herself that even has a name, Gaia for Earth goddess. That provokes a rage in Annie that always seemed just below the surface and, as we're about to hear, fuels her provocative, disturbing artwork.

WALLY LAMB: (Reading) Before I can stop myself, mug in hand, I throw my wine at her pale green wedding gown. It lands halfway down the skirt. The red wine against the green silk makes it look like Gaia, the primordial Earth mother, is having her period. I know I should feel guilty, contrite. I should be rushing to the fridge and grabbing a bottle of club soda before the stain sets or rushing Vivica's dress down the street to that drycleaning place. But I'm not contrite. I'm a little giddy, in fact. I pour another mug of wine and throw it at the other three dresses. In some places, the wine seeps in, and it dribbles down to the hems in others. I do it again: pour, splash. I feel like Jackson Pollock must have felt, except I'm not dribbling paint. I'm staining beauty with blood.

YOUNG: Behind her anger, Annie was abused as a child and a devastating flood swept away her mother. Oh, and did we mention that Annie and her ex-husband Orion owned the house and well where that artist Josephus Jones died in the 1950s? Author Wally Lamb weaves all of these stories together and joins us in the studio with more. Wally, good to talk to you again.

LAMB: Hey, Robin. Nice to be here.

YOUNG: And nice to have another big, sprawling - all these stories intersecting. Where did this come from?

LAMB: Well, actually, I grew up in Norwich, Connecticut. And I based the story or started springboarding from two incidents. One was a devastating flood that happened in March of 1963. I was 12 years old, and the floodwaters came about six or seven houses down from where we were. And I still have vivid memories of the roaring water rushing past and also the screams of people buried alive in a mill that collapsed. Four, five people died.


LAMB: Yeah. Four from the mill, and then a young mother who had three little boys - age four, age two and infant. She and her husband were attempting to rescue the kids. He climbed up into a tree. She was handing the kids up to him, and then the floodwater took her away and she died. So that was one. The other is an African-American artist who lived in Norwich, same as I did, back in the '40s and '50s. And he was a laborer, he was unschooled, but his stuff was vivid, and it suggested story.

Now, the real artist's name was Ellis Ruley. He couldn't sell paintings in his own lifetime, but since about the '70s and '80s, he became, you know, posthumously very...

YOUNG: Yeah. They're collectibles.

LAMB: ...very famous. Yeah. Yeah.

YOUNG: Yeah. Yeah. So there are these two truthful threads - and we should explain that Annie, your character, her mother and a sibling died in a terrible flood. That's her backstory.

LAMB: Right.

YOUNG: Well, and so exorcising this yourself, but Annie is also trying to exorcise that flood and not always in an appealing way. She's not always appealing, this character. She is abusive to her kids sometimes.

LAMB: Yeah. She targets her male child especially. Mm-hmm.

YOUNG: Yeah. What were you saying there?

LAMB: I think I was making a comment about how toxic long-held secrets can be. Annie, she was abused sexually as a little girl, and that sort of plays out in her life. Somebody a couple of days ago said - who had been sexually abused - a woman said to me, you know, it's a very hard thing to get over when the crime scene is your own body. And, boy, did that sort of bring it home for me.

YOUNG: Well, in addition to having the voice in her head of her abuser and the memory of this flood that took her mother and sibling, she's got this cyclone that comes. It's the storm that propels when you've got a good idea, when you - there's something you have to write about, something you have to do, it is almost like a windstorm in your head.

LAMB: Mm-hmm.

YOUNG: She's got that. Do you have that?

LAMB: I get it sometimes, but all too infrequently. Every once in a while, I'm so living the story that the room around me, the calendar on the wall, the deer eating the zinnias outside, it all blurs away. And it's the story that is where I'm living. It doesn't happen that often. I don't know whether it's a matter of brain chemistry or what it is, the muse, if you will. But I love when it happens because, usually, that's when the surprises come, things I hadn't expected.

YOUNG: But as you also point out, there's a thin membrane between the voice in her head that's her abuser that's constantly, you know, telling her, you're never going to get rid of me, and the artistic cyclone.

LAMB: Yes. Yeah. She's goaded into making this angry art of hers by the voice in her head that haunts her.

YOUNG: Yeah. USA Today wrote, it's the kind of book where you get to the last two chapters and you really want to find out how those loose ends tie up, but you don't want to go too fast because then it'll be over. When it was over for you, Wally Lamb, do you feel in a way that you did justice to that mother that you remember as a child? What a story.

LAMB: Well, what happened while I was writing this book is that a cousin of those three little boys who were rescued from the tree called me up out of the blue. I didn't know her. And she said, would you like to be connected to Tom and Jim and Shawn Moody? Well, I...

YOUNG: Wait. Did she know you were writing the book and...

LAMB: Yes, she had heard that on a radio station interview. So she - through her, I met Tom Moody, who, as a four-year-old, was the only one who remembered his mother and also the only one who remembered the night of the flood and going under water in their car. And so he and I and his two brothers met at the dam site. You know, the flood had happened because a dam collapsed. And we walked the flood path, and we found the tree. It was one of the most moving things that ever happened in my life. We found that - you know, the Moody brothers call it the tree of life. And indeed, it was for them, because that was where they were rescued from. But unfortunately, it's a sad place, too, because it's the place where their mother's body was found.

YOUNG: But how do they feel about, in a way, her story finally being told through your novel?

LAMB: Well, they're very happy with it. But also, it's not the only avenue of storytelling. Tom Moody, that older brother, he wrote the nonfiction version of the flood. And so while I was writing my novel and he was writing his nonfiction, we would swap back and forth and give each other feedback. And his book is called "A Strange and Deadly Maelstrom."

YOUNG: Well, a two-fer, Wally Lamb.

LAMB: Yeah.

YOUNG: And again, the other story that you make people aware of - say again the name of the real-life African-American artist from Connecticut.

LAMB: His name is Ellis Ruley. He did die under mysterious circumstances. He was somewhat controversial in town because he was an African-American with a white wife in 1950s America. He received money from an insurance settlement, and so he had a big, nice car, and he bought property. And the black community feels that his death was not accidental, as the coroner ruled it, and that he was a target of a racial killing.

YOUNG: Well, and in your novel, you give them a far more satisfying answer to his death than they may be getting in real life. Wally Lamb. Again, his new novel is "We Are Water," springing off of two real-life stories that impacted him as a young person in Connecticut. Always a pleasure, Wally. Thanks so much.

LAMB: And for me to - coming here to the - your studio here in Boston is like coming home for me.

YOUNG: Oh. Thanks, and it's great to have you here. Thank you.

LAMB: Thanks.

YOUNG: By the way, Wally Lamb also says his awareness of the effects of abuse comes from the women he meets at the writing program he runs at the York correctional facility in Connecticut. For more information about his other inspiration, artist Ellis Ruley, go to hereandnow.org, where you can also read an excerpt of "We Are Water."

From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.


I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.