Southern Characters at Odds
An Interview with Robert Lamb
by Joyce Dixon
Robert Lamb brings to his writing old south traditions with new south "in your face" change and non-conformity. He captures the essence of the modern south: urban, small town, self-exploration, and heritage. His southern characters are at odds with their world. Lamb's writing brings self-discovery and heart, not to mention a hell of a thrill ride.
Born in Aiken, South Carolina, Lamb grew up in Augusta, Georgia, and graduated from the University of Georgia. His career in journalism began at the Augusta Herald and the Augusta Chronicle. He tried his hand as editor and publisher of a weekly paper in Hazlehurst, Georgia. Lamb moved to The Atlanta Constitution where he worked as an editor feature writer.
In 1991, Robert Lamb published his first novel, Striking Out, a coming-of-age story set in Augusta. Striking Out was nominated for the PEN/Hemingway Award, a coveted prize for first novels. That same year, he began teaching writing at the University of South Carolina and still teaches there.
Was the naming of Atlantaís paper as The Phoenix an homage to Henry Grady and The Phoenix Statue in Woodruff Park? What does Henry Grady and the Phoenix mean to Atlanta?
Although I genuflect at the mention of Henry Gradyís name (Ralph McGillís, too), I used The Phoenix because the phoenix is the symbol of Atlanta.
While at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution you found yourself covering stories similar to those of Ben Blake in the novel. What story of that period stands out the most? Did that event change your view of society?
No particular story changed my view, but work in journalism in general changed it. I still tell my students that reporting is the worldís best job. I loved it, and I especially loved working in Atlanta and for The Constitution. I still canít believe they paid me to do that job. What a newspaper! What a city! And what a talented bunch of people I was privileged to work with.
Why are runaways drawn to cities? Why do the police and newspapers ignore them to some level?
Most runaways are young, and the young everywhere seem drawn to cities Ė I guess because thatís where the action is. Runaways are of relative unimportance to the police and press because most runaways return home in a few days.
ďLossĒ is a theme throughout Atlanta Blues Ė loss of innocence, loss of ideals, loss of ethics, loss of identity, and the ache caused by losing loved ones. How can a great personal loss prove to be a soul-affirming moment leading to change? Who suffers the greatest loss in Atlanta Blues?
That is an astute reading of Atlanta Blues. I, too, see it as a novel about loss. While I consider loss to be more soul-tarnishing than soul-affirming, I do believe that grievous loss begets change. Whatís that saying? ďLive and learn.Ē Early in chapter 1, the protagonist reflects on how the death of his wife changed him. Until her untimely death, he had lived a charmed life, never been seriously hurt. Her death taught him how vulnerable he really was. Thatís what makes him identify with the distraught motherís loss and persuades him to help her, after all. Who suffers the greatest loss in Atlanta Blues? Johnny Lee gets my vote. Police work rubs his nose in a reality he was not sophisticated enough to cope with. Ben and Rick adjust to this reality. Johnny Lee canít. By the end of the book, heís lost his innocence and his idealism, and been unable to replace them with another positive world view.
Each major character makes changes in his/her life at the end of the book. Do you hope for the reader to experience a change of some sort?
I hope only that the reader feels enriched in some measure for having read Atlanta Blues. Itís part of the magic of story that we as readers can learn through them about other sensibilities, other places, other lives.
The Class Managerie was a collection of stories you compiled from your creative writing course at the University of South Carolina. As an evening class, what do non-traditional students bring to writing that is unique?
Nearly all my students are traditional students, simply college-age students who for whatever reason prefer a late afternoon/evening class. On the whole, they bring the perspective of their generation; consequently, I learn as much from them as they do from me, maybe more. From time to time, however, I do have a non-traditional student or two. Invariably they bring a life experience that traditional students, because of their youth, donít have.
Why did you choose teaching creative writing over journalism? How are both writing styles alike? How are they different?
I didnít exactly choose. First, I majored in English, not journalism. Even so, I had taught journalism at Clemson University before moving to Columbia and USC, where I became an editor/writer in University Publications. Then, in 1991, my first novel, Striking Out, was published and nominated for the PEN/Hemingway Award; after that, some faculty member, I never knew who, whispered in the right ears that I ought to be teaching creative writing. Iíve been doing it ever since and I tell all who will listen that this is proof that USC knows how to think outside the box; I have no advanced degree. As to the difference between journalism and creative writing, over the years, journalism has adopted every technique of fiction except making it up (and sometimes even that happens). Thatís why some of the best writing in America appears in newspapers and magazines. But, basically, journalism is formula writing, while creative writing isnít.
What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and write. Start today and donít quit until youíve finished what you set out to do.
What book are you writing now? Will we see Ben Blake in the future?
I recently finished writing a new novel titled A Majority of One. Itís about a high school English teacher in a small South Georgia town who gets into trouble when she resists the ministerial associationís efforts to ban certain classic American novels from the classroom. The rest of the faculty caves in to the pressure; she doesnít. Iím now working on a new novel, untitled, about the fragile connections between emotion, memory, and mental health. Yes, I do foresee another novel in which Ben and his two policemen friends are reunited to work another case. Iíve already written some of it. They reunite in a South Georgia town where Johnny Lee is now the police chief and needs help on a particularly difficult case. He rings up his old pals and they come running.
© 2004, Joyce Dixon, All Rights Reserved