Questions for Bonnie Nadzam on Lamb
Q: Lamb deals with a complicated relationship between a child and an adult that blurs the lines between friendship and intimacy. How did you approach such a difficult subject?
A: The age difference between them is not that essential to me; what is essential to me is the way they communicate, the way Tommie is seduced by the same narratives and lies with which Lamb seems to seduce even himself. In this final draft, some of the more interesting work I think the age difference accomplishes involves the way it points to different kinds of human vulnerability on one hand, and on the other hand, a very common adolescent human desire—regardless of age—to experience at any cost something like beauty, something like love, something bigger than ordinary daily life seems to offer. That’s a powerfully seductive desire—and so ubiquitous it’s easy to miss it’s influence in our lives. It can be a helpful compass point, a misguiding force, or—as I think it is for Tommie and Lamb—both at once. Adolescence is really a state of mind, which Tommie is just entering, and which Lamb seems hopelessly trapped in—and it’s not something that’s easy to outgrow in contemporary American culture. I would hope beyond a knee-jerk reaction to the age difference, some of these issues would become more engaging for readers than, say, a mistaken first association with something like Lolita.
Q: David Lamb behaves badly at times, and yet, there is a sympathetic quality about him. Are you afraid that readers won’t understand your decision to portray him in a somewhat compassionate light?
A: Wow, no. That never crossed my mind. I wasn’t consciously trying to be compassionate, rather to show, as much as possible, that someone making decisions like Lamb doesn’t make them because he thinks or believes they are the wrong decisions to make. I do know other people—and recognize in myself—a capacity for self-delusion that can make almost any horrible thing seem like a good idea, perhaps even divinely inspired. There’s nothing special about Lamb behaving badly.
Q: Lamb has a voyeuristic feel. Was it a conscious decision to write in third person to give the reader some distance from what is unfolding?
A: The questions of who is telling it and why are as vexing for me as I imagine they’d be for any reader. Actually, it isn’t really a third-person point of view. It’s first-person, albeit a distant one, yes. Every now and then this narrator shows his or her hand. I would love to hear from some reader just exactly who this narrator is. Of course I have some theories, myself.
Q: Lamb decides to “save” Tommie by taking her into the wilderness. Do you think that nature played a role in the evolution of their relationship?
A: I think Tommie and Lamb, both, are hoping to find something that transcends ordinary life, or contemporary American culture—and not only their lives in it, but their dependency on and service to that culture, as well. To find it, they look to each other and to this odd, supposedly divine or special romantic friendship with each other; they also look out of the suburbs and into “the West.” Their assumptions about nature and life in the West are so convoluted it’s hard to tease them apart. For example, the very idealized image of ranch life beyond Nebraska that Lamb paints for Tommie is what precludes that particular Western landscape from being an escape from anything like familiar American culture. They see more cattle, cattle tracks and cow patties than anything. The native and endangered species exist mostly in sentences, not in the world they’re traversing. If their friendship seems somehow analogous to the state of what was once a “wild” landscape, I think that’s only because it’s not really possible for anyone—or any two—to be ahead of (or behind) their time. All of their longing and delusion are parts of the age in which they’re living. There is no escape, there is nowhere to go. I do believe they experience some of this, too, about what is valuable—even miraculous—about their relationship and degraded landscape.
Q: Were there certain writers or books that you turned to for inspiration while writing Lamb?
A: I was studying Eighteenth Century literature for a PhD when writing this. Perhaps there’s some Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding influence. I would love to think so. I hope there isn’t any John Locke in it. I also read an embarrassingly huge amount of Louis L’Amour books while working on the manuscript.
Featured Review by Aimee Bender
Aimee Bender is the author of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
Bonnie Nadzam's debut, Lamb, satisfies a reader on so many levels. For one, it reads like a thriller, and there's a tense and compelling drive to the prose that turns the pages. What will happen to this older man and this girl on the cusp of adolescence as they head into the American West? How unsettled will I be? But then there's no easy answer or moment to make it into an easy-to-dismiss kind of thriller--Nadzam makes sure to keep all the novel's territory in a delicate, complex and unsettling moral territory. I found myself wanting to have easier answers than were offered to me, and I truly appreciated being thwarted so expertly in this way.
And Nadzam's prose is just gorgeous--she writes about people and skies and mountains and landscapes with incredible precision and appreciation of beauty. A reader can swim in these sentences and soak up the landscape via the prose with great pleasure. Nadzam's operating on these three levels and excelling over and over in all three--her language is fine-tuned, she's keenly aware of plot and tension, and most of all, she refuses to compromise in terms of letting us, the readers, off the hook morally.
This is a remarkable debut, by a writer to watch. Both Tommy and Lamb are characters who linger with the reader, and I found myself caring deeply for Tommy, whose eagerness and vulnerability soar off the page. What helps us grow and stretches us? What goes too far? Who are our teachers and who hurts us? Can a person be both, and how? What are the stories we tell ourselves? All these kinds of questions hover in the air long after the last page turns.
“Only an immensely promising young writer could bestow such grace on such troubled characters.” —Boston Globe
“A beautiful book. Nadzam’s sentences are admirably clipped and controlled, nesting the emotional turmoil of its two subjects within the stability of their natural surroundings.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Beautifully written.” —More Magazine, Editor’s Picks: The Hottest Fall Novels
“Brilliant, dark and very disturbing…In this stunning debut, Nadzam takes a lot of risks, and the results are thrilling.” —The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Nadzam pulls off a neat trick here…While kneejerk comparisons to Lolita are inevitable, David Lamb is playing a different game than Humbert Humbert.” — The Daily Beast, “Great Weekend Reads”
“Surprisingly tender, highly inappropriate…Nadzam deserves credit for her convincing portrait of a middle-aged male burnout…[Lamb] is difficult and beautiful, and though it may not be normal, it feels very real.” —Time Out New York
“In Bonnie Nadzam’s deliciously dark novel Lamb, the author digs deeper into the human urges that drive us to deviant extremes. Instead of taking the lurid turn of Lolita, Nadzam cracks tougher truths.” —Royal Young, InterviewMagazine.com
“Unnerving and haunting.” —Daily Candy
“A remarkably gentle first novel about the brutality of self-discovery.” —Shelf Awareness
“Lolita gets a 21st-century spin in this gripping debut… Nadzam has a crisp, fluid writing style, and her dialogue is reminiscent of Sam Shepard’s…it’s a fine first effort: storytelling as accomplished as it is unsettling.” —Publishers Weekly
“A disturbing and elusive novel about manipulation and desperate friendship.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Compelling…[Lamb] will find an audience among serious readers.” —Library Journal
“Bonnie Nadzam manages to write gorgeous prose about people and skies and mountains while still creating tension and suspense on the level of a thriller, while also walking us into complex and delicate and unsettling moral territory with brilliant subtlety and insight. Lamb is a remarkable debut, by a writer to watch. I will be thinking about these characters for a long time.” —Aimee Bender, author of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
“Lamb is one of the most powerful and original novels I have read in years. Beautiful, evocative, and brilliant.” —T.C. Boyle, author of When the Killing’s Done
“Lamb is a wonder of a novel. Bonnie Nadzam has offered an exploration of interpersonal and sexual manipulation and power that left me reeling. This is a novel about responsibility, complicity, blame, neglect, and finally love.” —Percival Everett, author of I Am Not Sidney Poitier and Erasure
“Every sentence in Bonnie Nadzam’s Lamb teaches us about love, necessity, and the mysteries of the heart. I am haunted by her two protagonists, and by the journey they take together. This utterly compelling novel has launched a major new voice in American fiction.” —David Mason, author of Ludlow
“Bonnie Nadzam’s debut is gripping, gorgeous, and utterly original. The disturbing story resists easy categorization, challenging what we think we know about childhood, adulthood, pain, beauty, and love. This book will jolt you awake.” —Anna North, author of America Pacifica
“Throughout the novel, Nadzam keeps the reader off-balance, veering between sympathy and repulsion for Lamb and his actions. Lamb puts an original spin on the traditional myth of the West through modern-day characters who long to be "saved" and renewed by the Rocky Mountain landscape.” —High Country News
"The reader has no time to wonder what’s going to happen next, Nadzam just pushes the reader into the characters’ lives and forces them forward until they reach the end. This tale will make you question yourself, your virtues, your perceptions of society, and by the end, you still may not have any answers. And that’s okay." -The Examiner
"Lamb is a complex and beautifully crafted tale...A delightful creepiness extends throughout this novel, but there are also moments of soft, quiet, beauty. That Nadzam managed all of this in her first novel is extraordinary."—NomadReader