Tuesday, November 14, 2006

From The Bloom Blog

Wally Lamb And His Flock
Spring 2006

By Lary Bloom

On Sunday afternoon, Wally Lamb came to an auditorium in Deep River. He brought with him two of the 11 co-authors of Couldn't Keep It To Myself, the collection of memoirs that stirred all the trouble at the highest levels of Connecticut government a couple of years ago.

I have known Wally for more than 20 years, since he submitted his first piece of fiction to me when I edited Northeast magazine at the Hartford Courant. Like everyone who knows him, I celebrated his subsequent great success as a novelist (She's Come Undoneand This Much I Know Is True) -- for once, the phrase "It couldn't happen to a nicer guy" really applied.

Even the inmates at York Correctional Facility -- women who committed felonies ranging from fraud to murder, and who enrolled in Wally's memoir class -- found him so. When I did a piece about Nancy Whitely, one of the authors of Couldn't Keep It To Myself, she told me, "You knew instantly that Wally would nothing to hurt you."

In his remarks in Deep River, Wally recalled the outrageous reaction of the state Department of Corrections to what happened at York. After working with the inmates, Wally decided that their memoirs could be collected into a compelling book. Harper Collins agreed, and in 2003, Couldn't Keep It To Myself was published. Each writer was given a $5,600 advance, small in the publishing world, but huge to them. And to the State of Connecticut, which sued the women. It wanted not only the money they were paid but reimbursement, under a rarely enforced law, for the costs the state incurred for incarcerating them -- $117 for every day they were under lock and key.

It was ridiculous. The state was punishing prisoners for learning a skill that could help them when they got out. Many observors (I was one of them) thought part of the state's motivation was that the book contained criticism of York and its policies. After an anti-state onslaught in the press, the DOC backed away from its demands.

And yet, as Wally pointed out yesterday, ironies abound. For one: Many of the inmates are now free, and leading productive lives. The governor of Connecticut, who supported the action against the inmates, became an inmate himself. The head of the DOC at the time went on to a position at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

In the program yesterday, two former inmates read work by them and others. Brenda Medina said her greatest challenge after getting out of prison was technology. She didn't know what an ATM was. And she confided that she was startled just before she came on stage in Deep River when the toilet in the women's room flushed automatically.

Robin Cullen said she was startled when she first went to York. She had assumed that a prison wouldn't kick people while they were down. But it was clear to her that York wasn't interested a the time in rehabilitation (a position that has changed).

Wally, it would seem from the evidence, has started a new prison industry: Memoir. And poetry and fiction and art and dance (taught by others, and inspired by Wally and by Dale Griffith, who co-taught the memoir workshops).

We shouldn't, of course, forget the victims of the crimes of these inmates. But it seems a reasonable idea that it is possible for people to emerge from prison with the tools and motivation to become productive citizens.

Lary Bloom’s work spans an array of writing genres – nonfiction and fiction, plays, and magazine pieces. His newest book, Lary Bloom's Connecticut Notebook, was released in September 2005 by Globe Pequot Press, and his one act-play, Paradise Village, was staged in October 2005 at EST (Ensemble Studio Theater) in New York. As a longtime magazine editor, he discovered and nurtured several new talents, including Wally Lamb, Dave Barry, Madeleine Blais, Susan M. Dodd, Edna Buchanan, and Carl Hiaasen. As a memoir editor and consultant, Lary helped bring to fruition many popular narratives, among them the New York Times Best Seller, My Old Man and the Sea, by David Hays and Daniel Hays. He is the author of the classic text, The Writer Within, used in his seminars at Trinity College, and in many other classrooms. His column in Connecticut magazine won two consecutive national awards. He was lyricist for the musical A Woman of a Certain Age. Lary lives in Chester, Connecticut.

Upcoming Events
In the fall of 2007, Crown Publishing will release a book featuring letters written by Thomas J. Dodd during the time he served as a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials. The letters will be edited by Senator Christopher J. Dodd and Lary Bloom.

Gotham has just published The Book That Changed My Life, essays by 71 writers, including Lary, who writes on Hiroshima.. Other writers include Elizabeth Berg on The Catcher in the Rye; Harold Bloom on Little, Big; Steven Brill on The Making of the President, 1960; Da Chen on The Count of Monte Cristo; Maureen Corrigan on David Copperfield; Nelson DeMille on Atlas Shrugged; Tomie dePaola on Kristin Lavransdatter; Anita Diamant on A Room of One’s Own; Linda Fairstein on The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; Sebastian Junger on Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee; Wally Lamb on To Kill a Mockingbird; John McCain on For Whom the Bell Tolls; Lisa Scottoline on Angela’s Ashes; and Susan Vreeland on To Kill a Mockingbird.


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