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How to Write About the ‘Other’ and Not Be Terrible About It, According to Wally Lamb

In his new book, the bestselling author makes a convincing case that other perspectives can broaden a writer’s worldview, as well as a reader’s.
Wally Lamb.

Wally Lamb.

Is there a way for authors to responsibly write from the perspectives of people outside of their own cultures and life experiences? It’s a question that’s been batted about in the literary world since author Lionel Shriver delivered a controversial speech in September that sharply criticized any concerns over cultural theft in fiction.

Shriver’s diatribe raised quite a few eyebrows, with many established writers jumping to offer their own alternate, perhaps more tasteful approaches to writing about people outside of their day-to-day purview. African-American novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge suggested writers try harder “to afford the same depth of humanity and interest and nuance to characters who look like them as characters who don’t.” Vietnamese-American novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, asked his colleagues to “engage in careful and curious conversation with people different from ourselves,” suggesting that fiction writers haven’t, as a whole, been doing following that sage etiquette too well of late.

Wally Lamb’s latest, I’ll Take You There, offers a refreshing exception to Nguyen’s and Greenridge’s implicit critiques. Centering on a film professor who is approached by the ghosts of director Lois Weber and actress Billie Dove—both powerful women in silent-era film who have since been neglected by film historians—to watch a movie of his life (directed by Weber, and occasionally narrated by other women), the book underscores how female storytellers widen male perspectives. As protagonist Felix Funicello revisits earlier decades, he comes to better understand the challenges the women in his family faced—anorexia, adoption, an unwanted pregnancy among them—and their once-strange or shrouded reactions to them. As he is guided through the story, Funicello demonstrates a capacity for change.

That transformation is analogous, in part, to Lamb’s own writing process. Telling female-centric stories is a signature technique for Lamb, whose books She’s Come Undone (1996) and The Hour I First Believed (2009) both featured major female characters fueling their plots. Lamb believes the process of writing about an “other” can teach writers something about their experiences. So does reading their stories: For over a decade, Lamb has taught writing at the York Correctional Institute in Connecticut, a high-security, all-female prison. “The women there have also given me an education,” he says, “in some of the ways their lives have been thwarted because of men who were bullies, and men who exploited them.”

I’ll Take You There makes a strong case for the world-changing power of women-helmed narratives at a time when it matters—women constituted just nine percent of top film directors in 2015. And the book practices as it preaches: In addition to in print, it’s being released as a Metabook that includes an audiobook in which Weber is voiced by Kathleen Banks, a documentary about Weber introduced by actress and Pitch Perfect 2 director Elizabeth Banks, art galleries, and an original soundtrack.

We talked to Lamb about silent movies, feminist waves, and his advice for writers who want to write beyond the bounds of their own experience.

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Tell me a little bit about how you became so interested in women’s history in Hollywood, and how that came to play such a major role in this book?

I had a little movie come out based on a book I had written [Wishin’ and Hopin’] and they did a premiere at a big, old, glorious vaudeville theater in eastern Connecticut. When I was talking to the theater managers, they said the first movie they ever showed was called The Marriage Clause, and it was by a film director and producer named Lois Weber. I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting.” There are so few opportunities for women directors in the 21st century, I certainly didn’t assume that there were women directing films in that era.

The other thing the managers told me, which was also intriguing, was that they had some ghost sightings at the theater. So I went home, and I put those two things together—Weber, early film director, and ghosts.

I did a lot of research on Weber—I hadn’t known who she was at all. She had, unfortunately, faded into the woodwork while, of course, the male silent film directors, the early guys in film, became the geniuses. I wanted to give voice to her. So I had great fun creating the ghost of Weber. In the story, she sort of educates Felix Funicello, the main character, not only about who she is, but she gets him very interested in women’s issues of all kinds.

You mentioned this earlier, but the underemployment of female directors in Hollywood movies, and the typecasting of female stars, is a major talking point in Hollywood right now. Were those contemporary conversations on your mind as you wrote this book?

I’m a big movie fan, and, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve actually gotten more interested in the films that you can catch on [Turner Classic Movies]. In the novel, Billie Dove is Weber’s sidekick, and she was a silent film star. I wanted to take away her voice and have that be sort of symbolic for what the expectations were and weren’t for women back then. While Weber was behind the scenes, Dove was all glammed up and had to emote and play these traditional female roles [in front of the camera].

The book is described primarily through the eyes of a man, but deals with many of the issues that the women in his family have faced. Why was it important for you to have a man take us through topics like anorexia and unwanted pregnancies?

Funicello is a hybrid of myself. I’ve always been comfortable in the company of women, probably because, when I was growing up, it was a very female-centric neighborhood and family life. I grew up with two older sisters—as does Funicello—and we had girl cousins growing up right next door to us. I had a traditional 1950s childhood; mom stayed home, and dad went out to earn a paycheck. I had an Italian grandmother who birthed and raised 11 children, without the help of a husband, who was not very interested in the family stuff. I had a lot of female role models who I wanted to celebrate from a male point of view.

Because Funicello has a daughter, Eliza, does that change his perspective on what women in his family have gone through?

I always wanted a daughter but never had one, not counting our golden retriever—so I wanted to give Funicello something that I had not had in my own life. And I began to have a lot of fun with [Eliza]. One of my sons is a slam poet down in New Orleans, and we were talking one day, and he said, “Yeah, I have some friends who are polyamorous.” He started to give me an education about all that. So I had some leads that I could then take and run with.

Giving voice to Eliza was also a way to explore the difference between [waves of feminism]. I think of her as a third-wave feminist in the 21st century, as opposed to her mother, who came of age in the ’70s. And of course you’ve got Weber, who couldn’t vote until she was in her 40s. She was well-established as a mover and shaker in film, but she did not have a right to vote until the 19th Amendment.

You said you wanted to “give voice” to Weber. There’s been a lot of conversation recently in the literary world following Lionel Shriver’s comments about cultural appropriation earlier this fall about who writers can or cannot write. Tell me a little bit about your approach to taking other people’s perspectives, and who you feel you can responsibly write or not write about.

I don’t feel restricted. I don’t feel that there are barriers that I necessarily have to adhere to as far as points of view. The best thing about writing is moving beyond the perimeter of my own experience and stretching and growing and letting the writing change me, or the perspective of the other teaching me.

I remember that, when I was just finishing up my first novel, She’s Come Undone, which is from a female point of view, the Senate hearings on Clarence Thomas, who became a Supreme Court judge, were just finishing up. There was a lot of controversy swirling around the question of whether Anita Hill—who was speaking out against some of his sexist behavior—was lying, or whether he was lying. And I remember, after a long stretch of writing from a female perspective, I was very much sure that Hill was telling the truth. I’m not sure if that would have been necessarily a focus had I not been writing from that viewpoint. I want to write for myself and I want to challenge myself and see where it lands.

That said, I work in a writers’ group, and I get a lot of feedback from a lot of people, and I’m not insensitive to the issues. When I was starting my second novel, I went to my writers’ group with the first 10 or 12 pages of the first chapter, and, when I finished reading, there was an elderly woman in the group who slapped her notebook shut, stood up, shook her finger at me, and said, “Look, if you’re going to take up the subject of mental illness, you better get it right, because there’s all this psycho this and psycho that crap that makes it harder for those of us who are family members and parents of people with mental illness.” She said, “Go ahead, take up the subject, but you better do your homework and get it right.” She got up and walked out at that point.

That was a really awkward moment, and I felt very upset by it, but the next six years while I was writing that book I felt more and more grateful to her. Because her warning to me, her challenge to me, was, if you’re going to take it up as a subject, you’ve got to get it right. And that has served me well for whatever point of view I’m writing in.

If you had advice for younger writers about how to get it right, what would that be, based off of what you learned?

I would say humbling yourself to the process and persevering. Very often I get stuck with my writing and I feel like giving up, but I don’t give up. Usually when I get stuck I will bring it to somebody and have them read it or read it aloud to them, and you listen gratefully to whatever feedback you get. And that allows you to figure out whatever you need to add, and what you need to cut, what you need to clarify, and maybe what you need to change as far as how you’re telling the story. So it is a humbling process, but if you stay with it, your writing can teach you all kinds of things that you would not have known otherwise.

What are some of the main messages that you want your reader to take away from this book?

I do my best, I work hard, I work through several drafts, and then I send it out into the world—sort of the way I did with our kids. And I don’t presuppose that anybody has to get some kind of message. But I’m a political person, and I have been very, very disappointed about what happened in terms of the election. And so one of the things that I’m glad the book does—of course, I didn’t have any insight into what was going to happen—but one of the things I’m glad that I was able to do—hopefully—is celebrate the accomplishments of women. I dedicated this book to feminists of all kinds, of all ages. And I’m glad I did that because, in a personal way, and also hopefully in the books that I write, I stand against male chauvinism and I’m very much in favor of the rights and opportunities that women deserve.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.