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Wally Lamb discusses new novel based on Columbine High School tragedy

- November 3, 2008

The Hour I First Believed (HarperCollins) is the third novel by best-selling author Wally Lamb, ’72 CLAS, ’77 M.A.

The book tells the story of Caelum Quirk and his wife who, touched by the chaos of the 1999 Columbine High School shootings, move from Colorado to Connecticut. There they struggle toward emotional recovery, even as Caelum uncovers long-held secrets embedded in his family history.

Here, Lamb discusses the book with Stefanie Dion Jones, ’00 CLAS.

Q: You’ve said that when you’re writing a book, you “live” with your characters every day. What was it like living with these particular characters?
A: It was worrisome. I need to feel lovingly about characters and, more importantly, I need to worry about them. I could tell that Caelum was troubled.

I could tell he was angry and, most of all, that he was alienated and had trouble connecting to people. I did have the Columbine connection almost from the start, so I knew there was going to be sadness and chaos in Caelum’s life.

Q: Did you consider Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold – the two boys responsible for the Columbine shootings – as characters in the book, and did you live with them as well?
A: I did, and it was really hard. I began by Googling school shootings. I was drawn deeper and deeper into it. It was very disturbing, very punishing in a lot of ways.

Those kids scared me – these seemingly normal, middle-class kids, hiding in plain sight and planning something so horrible. So some of the stuff that Caelum wrestles with was also some of what I was wrestling with, too.

Q: Why did you decide to include a whole chapter in the book with real excerpts from the videos and writing of Harris and Klebold?
A: It was not a decision that I made lightly. I thought: Nothing is going to communicate the terror created by these two domestic terrorists more than their own voices. I realize that I am really challenging the reader by having that in the book.

Q: Were you in touch with families of victims?
A: No. It all pretty much came from books and the Internet. I tried to be responsible and not add to the pain – and add to the understanding. But all the way through the writing, I worried about the Klebold and Harris families and, of course, the families of the victims.

Author and UConn alum Wally Lamb.
Author and UConn alum Wally Lamb. Photo by Elena Seibert

Q: How do you continue writing about characters that undergo so much heartache and suffering?
A: Sometimes it’s hard. One of the ways that I survive is through comic relief.

You know, people will say about all of the books that I’ve written, “It’s so sad, and yet it’s partly funny.” I do believe that life is both sad and funny. Sometimes the two are intertwined.

Q: Having written this story, has it helped you make sense of violence, or where it comes from?
A: I’m scared by the randomness that can happen in life, yet I ended up feeling hopeful about a world that somehow goes on in spite of it.

Q: You’ve been working on this book for nine years. What is your process for getting feedback?
A: Lots of times I will show my wife Chris the writing. And I belong to two writers’ groups. They help; they feed me. A lot of writers try to keep their stuff under wraps until it’s ready.

But I like to read my work in progress. I find it’s helpful to read a work in progress to an audience, say, at a library or a bookstore.

Q: What do you expect readers to take away from this new book?
A: The writing of the story is my way of teaching myself what it means.

But when I’m done and I shove it out into the world, then I feel people will find their own meaning. They’re entitled to do that. At that point, it’s not mine anymore.

Lamb begins a national book tour with a reading and fundraiser at the UConn Co-op in Storrs on Nov. 11. With the pre-purchase of at least one book, you will receive two tickets for the reading.

Bookstore profits will go to two New Orleans schools that serve a majority of low-income families and where Lamb’s sons work. Please call 860-486-5027 to sign up.

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