It's 1964 and looking a lot like Christmas at St. Aloysius Gonzaga Parochial School in Three Rivers, where fifth-grader Felix Funicello is uneasily turning from little boy to pre-teenager.
Felix (or "Fillix Foony Jello," as his Russian classmate Zhenya pronounces it) comes from a family that boasts Mouseketeer-turned-movie star Annette Funicello as a cousin. His mom has burnt her entry in the Pillsbury Bake-off on TV, his nemesis Rosalie is nastier than ever, and Felix is innocently — and disastrously — repeating jokes whose dirty double meanings escape him. When his flamboyant teacher directs a Christmas tableaux, events come to a bright conclusion that is anything but silent and calm.
That's the set-up for "Wishin' and Hopin': A Christmas Story" (HarperCollins, $19.99), the latest from Wally Lamb. It's a departure for the writer from Storrs, whose earlier novels were far less lighthearted.
We spoke with Lamb via e-mail about the new book:
Q: "Wishin' and Hopin'" is your first Christmas book. Tell us how that came to be.
A: The book resulted from a coincidence. On the very same day last winter, Harper publisher Jonathan Burnham and a friend of mine both suggested that I write a Christmas story. Nope, I remember thinking. Too corny.
But the next morning, the name "Felix" fell out of a file I keep labeled "Prospective Character Names." I can't remember how or why I thought to fuse it to the surname of everyone's favorite 1950s Mouseketeer, but once I'd named my pint-sized protagonist Felix Funicello, I was off and running.
I have no plans to write another Christmas story, but then again, I had no plans to write this one, either.
Q: Your previous novels — "She's Come Undone," "I Know This Much is True" and "The Hour I First Believed" — had moments of wry humor but mainly dealt with tragedy and loss. Did you worry whether you could, as they say, "bring the funny?"
A: The ancient Greek masks of tragedy and comedy once hung on the bedroom wall of my late Uncle Bruno, a dentist who loved the theater. As a kid, I used to stare at those burnished metal faces, one contorted with pain, the other with laughter.
As an adult, I've come to accept that life can be both hard and hilarious, sometimes simultaneously. (When my mom had her last, worst stroke, my dad stood at her hospital bed and tried to awaken her with his mechanical fish toy — the one that swings its head around and starts singing the Talking Heads' "Take Me to the River." I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, so I did both.)
In my first three novels, I mostly cooked up pathos but seasoned the story lines with humor. For this one, I simply reversed that recipe. "Bringing the funny" can be both a survival skill and a way to celebrate life. Sustaining the fun came naturally to me with this one.
Q: What was it like to write a much shorter, faster book than the others?
A: It was glorious, liberating — and totally unexpected. Nearing the finish line four months after I'd begun the story, I pinched myself so often in disbelief that people began to assume my wife was giving me hickeys.
"Congratulations on completing your book on deadline," my editor exulted when I submitted it. "Excuse me. Make that two days before my deadline," I reminded her.
Of course, this story is a straight shot, narratively speaking, not one of the multilayered ones I wrote previously or the new one I'm starting now.
Q: Your novels all have titles from song lyrics. Has this become a kind of good-luck charm?
A: Yes, partly. But it's also a nod to the large degree to which music informs my fiction. I have eclectic taste, hundreds of CDs, and an embarrassingly encyclopedic memory for lyrics and melodies. Name a song — pompous "MacArthur Park," something from Springsteen's catalog, some old TV sitcom theme song — and chances are, I can sing it for you from first to last. Because music's always playing quietly in the background during my writing day, a lyricist's phrasing or a song-invoked memory will sometimes inform a character or steer the plot in a direction I hadn't planned.
Q: How much of Wally is there in your young hero Felix?
A: If such things can be quantified, I'd estimate there's about 50 percent Wally in Felix. We were both Italian-American kids raised in eastern Connecticut and coming of age during the same era. Like Felix, I was the pesky younger brother of two older sisters. But Felix and I part company in many ways. I wasn't nearly as mischievous as my fictional alter ego, I'm not related to Annette, and I didn't look anything like the cartoon character Dondi when I was a little boy.
If you look inside the book, you can see for yourself. That's me with my sisters on the inside front and back covers — an assemblage of old Lamb family photos and Christmas cards. A week or so into the book's publication, I'm already sick of the comment, "You were cute. What happened?"
Q: The book has some pretty piquant characters. Are they drawn from life, or just vividly imagined?
A: I think every school kid in America has suffered a classroom Rosalie: the annoying A+ student who was nevertheless always doing extra credit assignments and reminding the teacher just before the dismissal bell that she'd forgotten to assign homework.
Felix's friend Lonny is universal, too, I suspect: the elementary school detainee who's a year or two closer to puberty than his classmates.
I owe the creation of Zhenya to a former student. Reminiscing about her parochial school childhood, she told me about a classmate from the Soviet Union who conditioned her hair with mayonnaise. So the Hellman's in the hair was drawn from life, but Zhenya's salty dialogue was my own creation.
I've recently recorded the audio version of "Wishin' and Hopin'," and Zhenya's naughty accented lines were great fun to perform.
Q: Tell us about being on Channel 3's "Ranger Andy Show" as a kid.
A: I vividly recall the afternoon in 1959 when Ranger Andy gave us our cue — "Say, 'Who's that comin' down the trail?'" — and my fellow Cub Scouts and I (Pack 12, Den 3) clomped onto that cheesy cardboard set and climbed the bleachers under those blazing lights.
Four or five years later, I was a guest on the old Brad Davis dance show, hully-gullying and shing-a-linging with abandon, though mostly, and thankfully, out of camera range. I still haven't quite forgiven Brad for bypassing me when he picked the teens who would do the live commercial endorsing the show's sponsor, Connecticut fresh milk.
Q: The story is set at a parochial school in Three Rivers, a fictional town that's a lot like Norwich. Did you attend one?
A: Both Dolores Price in "She's Come Undone" and Felix in this yarn were parochial school students, but I was not. The closest I came was catechism class on Wednesday afternoons.
The nuns didn't scare me particularly, but I was terrified of their Gestapo-like assistants: plaid-uniformed eighth-grade parochial school girls who hauled us public school kids into the cloak room, grilled us on our answers to those Baltimore Catechism questions and screamed at us when we screwed up. Elaine Hastings, wherever you are, I live in fear to this day!
Q: Annette Funicello, who is now fighting severe multiple sclerosis, figures prominently. Did you contact her for the book?
A: As of this writing, there's an attempt underway to get a copy of the book and the audio to Annette through her brother, a Hollywood agent. If she does read or listen to my story, I hope she receives it as it's meant: a kiss of gratitude and remembrance that I hope might bring her a laugh or a smile.
Q: You use the epilogue for a "where are they now?" update on the characters. Did you surprise yourself with some of them?
A: I had originally written a different final chapter, but my editor and I agreed it was a little too serious, a little too political — in short, out of sync with the tone of what came before it. A writer friend, Pam Lewis, suggested an epilogue approach à la "American Graffiti," and that worked much better. I aimed for a tone that was part comical and part bittersweet — a rendering of who we were at mid-century and how far we've traveled.
It was also fun building "Wally's Time Machine," a collection of vintage video clips — some funny, some portentous — that recall the year in which the book was set, 1964, and serve as a companion piece.
It's all there — black-and-white cigarette commercials, the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march, the Beatles' first "Ed Sullivan Show" appearance, Dusty Springfield crooning the book's title song.
Readers can check out the action at harpercollins.com/wishinandhopin (look under "Essays" on the right side).
Q: What are you working on now, and when will your next book be published?
A: As of today, I have a prospective title ("We Are Water"), a vivid childhood memory of a flood, a mysterious death and a character I've tentatively named Orion Crilley. Oh, yes — and a deadline: 2014. It's puzzle pieces at this point. Wish me luck.
"On the very same day last winter, [two people] suggested that I write a Christmas story. Nope, I remember thinking. Too corny. But the next morning, the name 'Felix' fell out of a file I keep. ... I was off and running." — Wally Lamb
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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