When Oprah Winfrey chose Wally Lamb's first novel, She's Come Undone, as a book club selection in 1997, sales surged from thousands to millions almost overnight.
The following year, his second book, I Know This Much is True, skyrocketed to the top of bestseller charts when it, too, earned the Oprah Book Club stamp.
By the time Lamb sat down to write his third, he says, the words just wouldn't come.
"For a while, I was afraid to put down the first paragraph, because I was afraid I was going to disappoint all these readers," Lamb says. "So one day in frustration ... I literally got up from my chair, got away from the computer, opened the office door and pretended I was shooing everybody out."
The ploy worked. Lamb's new novel, The Hour I First Believed, is now in bookstores.
Patient readers will have plenty to occupy them; Lamb's hefty new work spans 740 pages and covers subject matter that's just as weighty. The saga centers around a fictional couple in a real-life situation: Caelum Quirk, a teacher, and his wife Maureen, a school nurse, are both employed at Littleton's Columbine High School in 1999.
When Caelum is called out of town to care for an ailing aunt, Maureen finds herself in the library on that fateful day when two students open fire, killing 12 classmates and a teacher. The ripple effects, in her life and the lives of those around her, serve as the foundation for the remainder of the story.
Lamb, who taught high school himself for 25 years, admits treading on tender ground. But, he says, "the reason I gravitated toward that subject matter actually had to do with an earlier school shooting. Before Columbine, in Paducah, Kentucky, a troubled little 14-year-old kid brought a gun to school and took victims ... I had a cousin whose daughters were in that school, and also were very good friends with the older sister of the shooter."
He couldn't get the incident out of his mind, and one day Googled "school shootings." By then, Columbine had happened and his search turned up "a sea of stuff," much of it very disturbing, that he wanted to address.
"It became really important to me to deal with the actual," he says, "as opposed to making a sort of fictional representation of the tragedy and the players in it.
"I'm of the opinion that things should be examined in a number of different ways. Not talking about things sometimes adds to the problem, rather than brings us closer to the solution."
The Columbine tragedy is only one slice of real life that Lamb's novel cuts from the headlines. As he explores themes of "hope and despair, order and chaos," he incorporates post-traumatic stress disorder, drug addiction, prison reform, hurricanes, family ancestry, 9/11, early feminism and the war in Iraq.
"You know, I live in the real world," he says, "and Columbine was followed 2 years later by 9/11, and then Katrina came roaring through down in New Orleans ...
"So I began to have doubts and questions both as Caelum, writing from his point of view, and on my own about, what is it that controls our lives? Is it all just a scary random thing? Or is there someone or something that is basically functioning as an organizing principle to allow our lives to have meaning?"
Though he's only a few stops into the tour bringing him to Colorado on Sunday, Lamb says he's already met a few readers in signing lines who either lived in Littleton at the time or were students at Columbine. Their responses to the book have encouraged him.
"I have worried through the course of writing the novel," he says. "I tried so hard to write it responsibly, but you're not necessarily in charge of other people's reactions. So far, people have seemed grateful that I took it up as subject matter."
While readers engage him in serious discussion about the book, Lamb says the question that probably gets asked most is about Winfrey: Has he heard from her this time around? Lamb is philosophical about it.
"You know, lightning hardly ever strikes twice. It did for me, but I've never heard of it striking three times," he says. "If she gets a chance to read it sometime, I'd be really pleased with that, but I'm not expecting what they refer to on the show as 'The Call.'"