The lyrical Lamb stops in at Arts Cafe

The writer Wally Lamb has a steadfast rule about music in the context of his work. He only listens to tunes when he's writing and, ah, when he isn't writing.

"Yeah, music's important. If I'm actually working, I listen to quiet music, then look forward to taking breaks where I can jack up the volume," Lamb says.

Though his clever and informed sonic favorites indicate Lamb has wide-ranging and even obscure tastes - he compiles mix CDs for friends based on his annual year-end Best Of lists (see sidebar) - he isn't particularly worried that listening to a particular artist or album might hijack a scene or character while he's writing.

"I'm aware of what's playing, and it can have an effect," he says. "Not so much mood-wise, but maybe a snatch of lyric might suggest a shift in tone. If it happens and it works, I don't fight it."

Lamb, who headlines tonight with a reading at the Arts Cafe - Mystic, is on the phone a few days after Hurricane Sandy. There's no electricity at his house, so he's speaking from his office, which never lost power.

"We do have a generator at home, so that's good," he says, cheerfully accepting of nature's circumstances. "Unfortunately, I'm becoming very reliant on the generator. I'm not sure if the word 'generator-philia' is listed in the psych textbooks, but ..."

In conversation, Lamb, who grew up in Norwich and still lives in the area with his family, is witty, friendly and happy to discuss just about anything. He's just naturally gregarious. Plus, he laughs, "I'm always looking for excuses not to write."

Which might partially explain why it sometimes takes several years between books. Another reason might be that Lamb's novels, while eminently readable, are typically long, multi-layered and very nuanced. So far, they include "She's Come Undone" and "I Know This Much Is True" - both of which were singled out by Oprah Winfrey - as well "The Hour I First Believed" and the Christmas novel "Wishin' and Hopin'." (And, yes, all of his books are named after song titles.)

Lamb has also worked extensively as a teacher in a writing class at York Correctional Institute, Connecticut's only prison for women. Lamb has mentored and edited two collections of student essays, "Couldn't Keep It to Myself" and "I'll Fly Away."

Of late, Lamb's been working on his current novel-in-progress, "We Are Water," for more than three years, and the good news is that, indeed, there is a tentative publication date: November, 2013.

"To know it's due that far in advance is sort of like birthing a baby on the schedule of an elephant, but I'm getting there," Lamb says.

At its most stripped down, "We Are Water" is about the wife in a middle-aged couple who leaves her husband for another woman. But there are many textures and a quiltwork of plot threads in the story. As with much of Lamb's work, he mines his own childhood in Norwich and other nonfictional elements to help mold the book.

One tangent involves the relatively unknown African-American folk artist Ellis Ruley who lived, farmed and painted outside Norwich from the 1930s to the '50s. Though his work has gained appreciation over time, his mysterious death and the posthumous burning of his farmhouse were at the very least curious.

"That Ruley had a white wife in 1950 Norwich sort of put him in a little danger," Lamb explains, "and though his death was officially accidental, there were elements that made the black community suspicious."

Another real-life element that surfaces in "We Are Water" is the collapse of the Mohegan Park Dam in 1963 - an event that released millions of gallons of water and resulted in the deaths of six people. Lamb, 12 at the time, actually witnessed the crumbling of the dam.

"I vividly remember the flood racing by and ice chunks in the water. We later found out from the newspaper that one of the people who died was a young mother in a family who lived seven or eight houses down from us," Lamb says. "The father and a neighbor were able to rescue their children - an infant, a 3-year-old and a 4-year-old - by putting the kids in a tree, but when the husband turned around to get his wife, she'd been swept away in the water."

The image of the flood and the scope of the family tragedy remained indelible to Lamb and, in his fictionalized "We Are Water," one of the children who survived the flood grows up to become the wife who leaves her husband.

After he started writing that part of the book, Lamb was in touch with a cousin of the family from the flood.

"I walked the course of the flood with the cousin and the neighbor who helped save the children," Lamb says. "It was a very powerful day."

Lamb's books have always been complex in terms of narrative and character, but "We Are Water" is ambitious even by his standards.

"This novel is a bit different for me. There are eight different voices in it," he says. "Still, they came naturally. Actually, to take three years to write a book is wicked speedy for me. Maybe I've finally figured out how to do it. Either that, or I've gone terribly wrong!"

As for what fans might expect when he reads tonight at the Arts Cafe - Mystic, Lamb laughs at a suggestion that he bring copies of all his books and do a "greatest hits" all-request performance. Just like touring rock stars.

"I don't know if I can accommodate people that specifically," he says. "My novels are like fever dreams for me to some extent. I'm very separated from them, and I sometimes wonder, 'How did I come up with that?' And I definitely never re-read them or even go back and look through them."

Still, the idea intrigues him. "It might be kind of fun." He thinks a moment. "I suppose I could do a few warm-ups from the earlier ones, but I also want to test the waters a little bit with 'We Are Water.' I'll just hit the diving board and jump in."

For more material about Wally Lamb, go to theday.com and see Rick Koster's new blog, which focuses on books, authors, readers and the publishing biz.

 

IF YOU GO

What: The Arts Cafe - Mystic

Who: Wally Lamb with musical guest Sylvia Berry and poet Owen Hughes

When: 7:30 tonight (doors open at 7 p.m.)

Where: Mystic Arts Center, 9 Water St., Mystic

How much: $8; free for students 21 and under

For more information: (860) 912-2444, theartscafemystic.org

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