Giving something back

Wally Lamb's latest book lends voice to female inmates

Sunday, February 9, 2003

— For Wally Lamb, success as a best-selling author has meant a new home in rural eastern Connecticut and global fame. But it also has bred a keen sense of responsibility -- a desire to give something back to society.

His gift comes in a slim book, "Couldn't Keep It to Myself," a collection of stories by 10 female inmates in a Connecticut prison whom he coached and edited through a writing workshop.

The stories are sad and funny, shocking and thought-provoking, and, at times, almost unbelievable.

Lamb says the stories should offer an insight into the criminal justice system, as well as the sexual abuse, violence, drugs, alcoholism and poverty that shape many inmates' lives.

"I hope this book will become a vehicle for educating and for rehabilitation and for healing, not just for the writers, but for the rest of us, too," he says.

Chilly reception?

The book already has drawn criticism from some victims' rights advocates, who think the women should not gain fame or money through their writings. The state is trying to recover any proceeds the writers receive.

"It's terribly unfair," says Dee Clinton, president of the Connecticut chapter of Survivors of Homicide. "Other people are profiting from our misery. ... The guilty has become the victim -- that's twisted."

Reviewers wonder if fans of Lamb's best-selling books, "She's Come Undone" and "I Know This Much Is True," will fall for his latest project, which has many of the author's touches but is fundamentally written by others and with a very different subject matter.

Lamb's philosophy is to let his books freely out into the world. He was reminded of a writing teacher who once told him: "You let the audience who is meant to find it find it. You let it go."

"I have a readership who trusts my instincts," Lamb says.


AP Photo

Author Wally Lamb poses at home with his pets, Icarus and Echo, right, in Mansfield, Conn. Lamb's new book, "Couldn't Keep it to Myself," is a collection of stories by female inmates in a Connecticut prison, whom he coached and edited through a prison writing workshop.

His most famous fan is talk show host Oprah Winfrey, who chose his two novels for her coveted book club, sparking huge sales and publication around the world. Winfrey has since suspended her book club, but authors still make appearances on her show.

Lamb says he does not know whether Winfrey will feature the book on her television talk show or whether it is appropriate to do so. A spokeswoman for Winfrey's production company, Harpo Productions Inc., said Winfrey has no plans to feature Lamb and the book on her show at this time.

'The guy who was on Oprah'

Winfrey's influence on his life, however, is what got Lamb to the prison and made him want to give something back.

In 1999, as he launched his book tour for "I Know This Much Is True," Lamb tried to limit the number of charitable causes he supported. Because he has a hard time saying no when good causes ask for his help, he has a standard written response to let requesters down gently.

On the day he received a call from Marge Cohen, prison librarian at York Correctional Institution, Lamb could not find his let-down-gently speech and agreed to talk to a group of women.

The women mostly saw Lamb as "the guy who was on Oprah," and they wanted to know all about her.

After the talk, as Lamb got up to leave, one woman's question stopped him cold: "You coming back?"

So he gave the women an assignment -- to write two-page stories -- and agreed to return in two weeks to review them. Writers who completed the project would gain admission to the workshop. He has been returning ever since to help inmates write about their experiences.

At first, the women were emotionally guarded and stiff, and their prose was, too. Over time, they opened up, laughed and cried, and got some healing as they bared their souls on paper, Lamb says.

The stories range from the humorous tale of a quirky ex-employer to a young woman who joins a street gang. One inmate wrote about the significance of her hair in her life, while another gave a blow-by-blow account of her domestic strife.

Some of the women have since been released from prison and have joined Lamb on a book tour, while others remain incarcerated; one has died.

"I guess this is kind of a cliche: I just thought it would never happen to me," said one writer, Robin Cullen, speaking both of the circumstances that put her in prison and her status today as a published writer.

Cullen wrote a short essay about what Christmas is like in prison. She was in York Correctional for three years for a drunken driving accident that killed the passenger in her truck. Today, she has a painting business and has been certified to coach writing to underprivileged children. She said Lamb taught her the need to give something back to the community.

"I think that if I didn't have my own really cool dad already, that I would pick him, and not just as a father figure, but as the kind of man to be proud of in his service work to humanity," Cullen said.

Women's voices

Because of Connecticut's "Son of Sam" law, named after the New York killer who tried to sell his memoirs, the stories in the book do not deal directly with the crimes the women committed.

Lamb says he doubted the book would make much money through sales, but his publisher, HarperCollins, did pay an advance.

Those writers who are no longer in prison received a small amount from the advance -- "enough maybe to buy a used car or put down a security deposit on an apartment," Lamb says. He donated his share of the advance, and more, to battered women's shelters.

Under a law that requires inmates to pay for their incarceration if possible, the state has placed liens on the writers.

"They might not be publishing anything if they had never been convicted and spent substantial time in prison," said state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal.

Lamb says the women's voices deserve to be heard and that they worked very hard to get their stories into print.

"I know there is going to be some controversy about this book, but I just hope the women's voices don't get drowned out by the rhetoric," he says.