Bonnie Nadzam is the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel prize-winning author of Lamb, the story of a complex, flawed and misguided middle-aged man who funnels into Tommie, an awkward 11 year-old girl, his wayward desire to re-discover the world and to re-connect with wilderness and youth. In the weeks and months following the death of David Lamb’s father and the disintegration of his marriage, he and Tommie travel westward on a journey of perverse honesty and storytelling. Lamb helps himself to Tommie’s trust and childishness along the way. He convinces her through gaslighting, outright lies and subtle manipulation that she deserves a life rich with an abundance of nature and simplicity, rather than the life she shared with her mother and stepfather in urban Chicago, and that her relationship with David is special and unique.
As a study of pathology, lies, sociopathy, mid-life crises and child abuse, Lamb is spellbinding. As a tale of two people, of kidnapper and loving victim, it is realistic, quirky, original and slightly off-putting. As a novel about humanity, it is profoundly sad. As a piece of writing? It’s absurdly good.
Reading Lamb, I was immediately interested by the strange and sometimes bewildering subject matter. However, I quickly became far more pulled in by Nadzam’s writing and the way in which she weaves sympathy for Lamb through a story that feels, on the surface, like it should pin you squarely in Tommie’s corner. Lamb is a bewitching character; everything he haunts and hunts becomes a question mark, even our own opinions about him. The doubt and curiosity that burgeons from the very first sentence – “We’ll say this all began just outside of Chicago” – peaks in the resolution of the journey Lamb builds with Tommie. It reaches a fever pitch of uncertainty by way of the disjointed narration and floating voice that tells us the tale. The backdrop for the meat of the novel is a richly-drawn mountain scape: the wilds of the Western United States. Nadzam brings the scope of a boundless place and a small, gritty cabin to life in excruciating detail, a feat not easily achieved.
Here, without further ado, are my 9 questions for Bonnie Nadzam.
Christine: Was the last name “Lamb” an intentional choice for David?
Bonnie: The choice was intentional, but the resonances readers have pointed out are accidental, to some extent. I wanted a name that evoked for me something simultaneously spiritually fraught, powerful, scary, childish and mundane. That, to me, was the heart of this guy. When “David” and then moments later “lamb” almost immediately occurred to me, I did not think about it or jot down lists of potential associations; but because those associations were already built-in, in the language itself, the name opened up more than I’d consciously planned. It’s mysterious—I think somehow if I’d been aware of all the resonances, it would have affected the manuscript in a powerfully negative way.
C: Inevitable (and, I think, too flip) comparisons to that other book about a young girl and an older man aside, was employing a detached narrative voice something you did to keep from having the focus fall on David Lamb as an unreliable narrator – an unreliable man, period?
B: I was thinking first and foremost of the stories we subconsciously and unconsciously tell ourselves about who we are, and the ten thousand stories a day by which we are seduced. On some days I was more interested in this than I was in Tommie or David. I think that’s why there ended up being some distinctive formal attention on the narrator telling the story of David and Tommie telling themselves stories.
C: Considering that the book, even through Lamb’s muddled and fried vision, is a paean to the cruel disregard we have for the natural world and it for us, how much of your own childhood experiences with nature filtered into your writing?
B: Well, I am originally from Cleveland. I remember my sisters and I playing a game from the backseat of the Pontiac on gray, gritty days on the highway: first one to see a patch of green wins. And especially in the long gray winter just living for the spring days when we’d visit one of the Cleveland Metroparks. Eventually I moved to places where sometimes the opposite became the case: where is the road? How did I lose the trail? Will I ever get a hot shower and warm bed again? My experiences with nature are probably pretty average/representative of most middle class Midwesterners who eventually travel the more remote places in the US: they are punctuated by mistakenly separating myself from nature, and all of the opinions and illusions I have about “it” when I think I am experiencing it as something separate from “me.” In Lamb, the complex Western landscape David and Tommie traverse is not unlike the interior of their hearts and minds.
C: What can readers teach writers?
B: I’m foremost a reader, and when I think of what I could possibly teach a writer, I have to laugh. I have nothing to teach writers! Based on my particular experiences with readers of Lamb, however, and with whom I’ve had some pretty difficult and grisly exchanges and conversations (more than one reader who has admitted to child abuse in their background has asked me: “Who do you think you are?”), I’d say one thing I’ve learned from readers is that what you’re writing alone at your desk, regardless of its merits or flaws, may actually get out into the world and into the hands of real people with hearts and histories…and that stories are powerful, so we should be careful how and if and when we make them. That may sound a bit generic, but there have of course been many times when I wasn’t so careful, when I wrote with complete selfishness and irreverence. Additionally, I imagine there are plenty of artists in the world who disagree with this, who align themselves more with something like art for art’s sake and the audience be damned. I don’t mean every work of writing should all be heavy and serious and grave, or supremely rhetorically crafted for some particular audience. Just that we ought to be aware, and take some care. Especially if there’s any chance that that old cliché is true, that the world is what we make it.
C: Your descriptions of the most incidental objects – cans, greasy food, Tommie’s hair – are often richly-drawn images, in stark contrast to the overall clipped style of phrasing that would seem to characterize Lamb; I have a sneaking suspicion that you read a lot of poetry. What do you think is the importance of imagery and language in fiction?
B: It’s an interesting and vast question—as a student of both literature and writing, I have long been irritated by the mandate writers are often given to create a movie/dreamlike narrative, to use sensory detail, like imagery. I think mandates like this are based on a particular aesthetic that calls upon works of art to evoke feelings akin to feelings of actually experiencing some event. For example, if the writing is vivid enough, it will feel to a reader like she has actually been to and lived on the Big Two Hearted River, or in Thornfield Hall, herself. And these reading experiences are wonderful, for sure. But some of my favorite authors—Borges, Cervantes, Sterne, Woolf—seem to have pretty different aesthetic “goals” in mind. I’m not sure what fiction is for. If it is foremost for flexing our empathy muscles, I think imagery in language and sensory language in general are probably helpful and useful. More likely, though, each work of fiction has its own purpose.
C: How often do you talk to other writers about their craft?
B: I think almost never, at least these days. I did when I was in school. Probably I exceeded my quota those days.
C: Did your approach to composition and editing change once Lamb was complete?
B: I’m afraid the approach seems different for every “assignment” at hand. Perhaps the one thing that hasn’t yet changed, and that has so far become increasingly important, is that if I examine my motives for including something, and I find it is a motive about me and not about a character or a narrator, etc., it has to go. I’m not always good about making such cuts. If ever I master making such cuts, I will probably not be writing anymore.
C: You made an incredible gambit out of using Tommie’s vulnerability and simplicity to illustrate the pathology of the adult mind. How much do you think this pathology is present in all of us?
I think if there’s one guy in the world like Lamb, then we all have the capacity to behave like him. And, I think, if there is one guy in the world like Lamb, he is all of our responsibility, and his are situations to which we all, in measurable and immeasurable ways, are contributing.
C: Does every child have something to teach adults about innocence, or the other way around?
B: I don’t think innocence has much to do with age, or that it’s lost once and forever gone. And I think we ought not confuse innocence with naiveté. I think that when—for seconds or minutes at a time—a person is utterly without self-consciousness, without that familiar narrative mind (we see it on facebook: “I’m shopping now. I’m on the toilet now. I’m cleaning now” —the notation or announcement of which, of course, is nothing like shopping, being on the toilet, or cleaning). When you get that feeling of wonder, of complete awe as if you are experiencing something for the first time (even if it’s just drinking coffee, or seeing a tree), that’s an innocent mind. And that’s available to David & Tommie both, and we see each of them behave that way. It’s always available.
An excerpt from Lamb
She carried a huge pink patent-leather purse and was possibly the worst thing he’d seen all day. Scrawny white arms and legs stuck out of her clothes. The shorts hung around her pelvic bones, and her stomach stuck out like a filthy, spotted white sheet. The skin on her belly, God, that sheen of purple filth sprayed across her flesh. It was grotesque. It was lovely. Freckles concentrated in bars across her cheekbones and down the tiny ridge of her nose and the slightest protruding curve of her forehead just above her eyebrows. There were huge freckles, pea-sized, and smaller ones. Some faint, others dark, overlapping like burnt confetti on her bare shoulders and nose and cheeks. He stared at her. He had never seen anything like it.
“Hi.” She had a little gap between her teeth, and her eyes were wide set, and she had one of those noses with perfectly round nostrils. She was a pale little freckled pig with eyelashes. “I’m supposed to ask you for a cigarette.”
Behind her, huddled near the trashcan up against the brick wall of the CVS, three girls were watching in a bright little knot of bangles and short shorts and ponytails. He looked at the girl. Her chewed and ratted fingernails. Her small feet in shoes two or three sizes too big for
her. Her mother’s shoes, he supposed. He felt a little sick.
“What is this,” he said. “Some kind of dare?”
Nadzam, B. 2011, Lamb, Other Press, New York