We Are Water is the richly detailed story of the Oh family of Three Rivers, Conn., a family of five coping with tragedy and secrets, including murder and molestation. The Hour I First Believed is an even more detailed narrative about Caelum and Maureen Quirk, also of Three Rivers, as they grapple with tragedy and secrets, including mass murder and molestation.
At first, Lamb simply says that We Are Water is about power versus powerlessness. Then he interjects, “You know, in an earlier book, I wrote about the Columbine tragedy. And you know, in that one, it’s about a terrible misuse of power.”
That’s The Hour I First Believed—a novel he struggled with and through for nine years, and it’s a book that received mixed reviews, which may be why it seemingly haunts him. Or maybe it’s because—since he always writes in first person—it forced him to “become” Columbine shooters Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris.
“I didn’t particularly want to write from the point of view of the Columbine perpetrators, but I had to,” Lamb says. “I could not figure out those two—what their motivation was, why they would presume to play God with other people’s lives…and where that sociopsychopathy came from. So I was both afraid of Klebold and Harris and also went looking for them to see if I could figure them out. I didn’t want to do it, but I also felt driven to do it.”
While reviews for The Hour I First Believed may have been mixed, reviewers are gushing over We Are Water, a book that came to him quickly and without drama and that he practically zipped through in four years. Still, it’s a book that required him to “become” pedophile Kent Kelly:
“You think I want to be this way? That it’s a choice?” he writes as Kent.
“I didn’t used to work crap jobs. I made decent money selling life insurance.”
“Those sales skills? They were transferable. Single moms with little girls….”
“I think that when something scares me,” Lamb says, “it’s a red flag for me to investigate it whether I want to or not, to explore both my fear and also sort of get inside the character’s head.
“See, I’m a fairly hopeful person,” he adds, “but I think I write because my sense of hope and my sense of fear are sort of balanced. And these characters sometimes scare me, and sometimes my protagonists’ actions kind of scare me, too, but it’s like taking a dare. It’s kind of like—I don’t mean to get too literary with you….”
And Lamb delves into an explanation that he’s been telling interviewers for years—the Greek myth of the Minotaur inside the maze. “The maze being the story that you are trying to tell, and you go this way and that way, and there’s the monster in the middle, and it’s you versus the monster. And you know Kent is a kind of monster to me. I had to wrestle him down by figuring him out.”
But Kent’s a monster that Lamb wrote with great sympathy, a sympathy that the two-time Oprah’s Book Club author attributes to his 14 years of working with incarcerated women, teaching them how to write. “Once they get to trust me and their own voices and also the other people in the group, they begin to unleash some of their secrets,” he says. “And lots of times in incarcerated women, there is incest in their childhoods. And so I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of writing about that but from the point of view of the victim.”
That still doesn’t explain how he got into the mind of a pedophile, a task that so disturbed him that every day after writing as Kent Kelly, Lamb had to take a shower in an attempt to wash off the predator.
“Well, I just used my imagination. I didn’t do a whole lot of research into pedophilia, but I tried to figure out what his past had been,” Lamb explains. “And, um, what I came to believe about Kent is that in his own perverted way, he was looking for some kind of closeness—that he might have suffered from something like attachment disorder, based on the rejection by parents and so forth.”
Lamb describes a pivotal scene in We Are Water, as a killer flood roars through Three Rivers and a teenage Kent rescues his young cousin Annie. “They’re cold and they’re wet, and they’re up in the tree, and he wraps Annie inside of his jacket and feels the closeness in that way, and it’s completely protective at that point. And in some ways, I think he keeps trying to sort of, you know, get that back, but in ways that go terribly wrong and are terribly traumatizing for Annie.
“I don’t pretend to be a psychologist or anything,” Lamb adds, “but I am fascinated with the way the mind works and quite often the diseased mind.” He notes that his hometown of Norwich, Conn., “housed the largest hospital for the mentally ill in the state of Connecticut, so ever since I was a kid, I was always fascinated with emotional disorders. And I remain fascinated and sometimes puzzled by them.”
Lamb’s readers will be fascinated too. But thanks to his writing, they will be less puzzled. In fact, if there’s only one message readers take from We Are Water, Lamb wants it to be: “In body and mind, keeping painful secrets can become toxic for you, and you run the danger of either exploding or imploding.”
That, he says, he learned from his incarcerated women. Secrets and tragedy. Those with power versus the powerless. Themes that he can’t stop writing about.
Suzy Spencer is the author of the New York Times best-selling true-crime book Wasted and the memoir Secret Sex Lives: A Year on the Fringes of American Sexuality.