Add Wally Lamb to the growing list of best-selling writers letting Book-It Repertory Theatre adapt one of his books: Lamb’s first, “She’s Come Undone.” Scripted and directed by Kelly Kitchens, the Book-It dramatization debuts this weekend at Center House Theatre.
The worldwide hit novel is the saga of “a troubled young woman who goes through hard times and then fixes her life,” according to Lamb. And over the past decade it has been translated into at least 18 languages, and read by millions.
In “She’s Come Undone,” young Dolores Price is besieged by familial and psychological travails — from morbid obesity and sexual abuse, to the suicidal impulses and clinical depression that land her in a mental hospital.
Like Lamb’s well-read follow-up, “I Know This Much Is True,” the book frankly depicts mental illness and family dysfunction, but ends on a positive note of accepting one’s past and overcoming adversity.
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Speaking by phone from his home in Connecticut, where Dolores’ story unfolds and he was raised (in the “eastern, poorer part of the state”), Lamb cheerfully admits his own youth wasn’t riddled with the horrors his protagonist faces. But from an early age, he was curious about the unseen inhabitants of the Norwich, Conn. sanitarium.
“I was always fascinated when we’d drive by the huge campus of this building, the largest mental hospital in the state,” he recalls. “It was only when I was 16 that a cousin spilled the deep, dark secret. My maternal grandfather had been locked away in the building for years, for perpetrating a violent crime against my grandmother. Nobody ever talked about him.”
The figure of Dolores (who ages from 4 to 40 in the book) was also partly inspired by Lamb’s experiences as a high-school English teacher. As he gave his students more latitude in their writing assignments, he “grew conscious of all these personal voices on paper. A lot of teenagers do battle with depression, with less than perfect families, with pregnancy. Dolores isn’t the product of any one person. For instance, she battled obesity, and when I was young, I was a fat kid and I still had that in my head.
“I had never planned to write fiction, but I spontaneously began writing short stories and Dolores popped up in one. Her story kept growing and growing. I felt parental toward her, worried for her, and I kept wondering what she’d do next.”
The book took 10 years to finish, in a process he calls “intuitive. I’m not the kind of writer who can outline everything, and know where the story is going. It’s a matter of showing up everyday and parking yourself in the chair and seeing the next thing that’s going to happen. Dolores suggested her own plot.”
Lamb was thrilled when “She’s Come Undone” was published in 1992 and became “a modest success by a first-time author. One day, Oprah Winfrey called me out of the blue. She was very sweet, and said she just wanted to thank authors of books she liked.”
In 1996, she called back to say she’d chosen “She’s Come Undone” for her new book club on her TV talk show. “Oprah announced it on air, and two weeks later it was No. 1 on the best-sellers list,” Lamb says. “It was a wild and wonderful ride.”
Not surprisingly, the novel was optioned by Hollywood studios. A screenplay “went through several different writers, counting me, and about a dozen drafts. Along the way some big stars including Reese Witherspoon and big directors were interested, but nothing came of it.”
“What goes on in Hollywood,” Lamb notes wryly, “is like having the coolest girl in your high school say she wants to go to the prom with you. But the prom is three months away and it never happens.”
No matter. Lamb kept writing popular novels. (His newest, “We Are Water,” comes out in October.) And back in August, when “She’s Come Undone” was banned (due to sexual explicitness) from the library of the York (Conn.) State Correctional Facility where he’s been a dedicated volunteer teacher, Lamb protested, and the ban was lifted.
He plans to attend the Book-It Rep premiere, but says he has no set expectations.
“I feel honored that they’re doing this. As far as what they cut from the book, and how, I don’t care. It’s going to be its own thing.”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org