June 2010

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Against the odds

Robert Lamb’s improbable journey to journalism, novels, publishing and honors

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Robert Lamb. Photo by Bond Nickles

In 1962, The Augusta Chronicle needed a reporter. Robert Lamb (BSEd ’61) impulsively responded. This accidental journalist would become a novelist, professor and publisher but famously pass on being a columnist.

Born in Aiken and living for a stint in Clearwater, S.C., a mill village, Lamb grew up in Augusta.

“In a large, extended family,” Lamb says, “I never saw but two books in their homes: the Bible and Erskine Caldwell’s God’s Little Acre or Tobacco Road. My mother urged me to attend the University of Georgia. When you have only a fifth grade education, you know—as few others do—how important education is.”

“It was a wonderful experience, but small-town life has its limitations,” he says.

Lamb joined The Atlanta Constitution in 1975. Writing features, he covered homicides and street crime and wrote a series, “Cops and Stress.” He left in 1982 after writing a freelance cover story for Atlanta Magazine on Brother Dave Gardner.

“I found Brother Dave down and out in Dallas. I knew I’d never write a better feature story if I stayed in journalism 20 more years. I loved every minute of my Atlanta experience, but I wanted to write a novel.”

In 1991, the Permanent Press published Lamb’s Striking Out, nominated for the PEN/Hemingway Award. In 2004, Harbor House published Atlanta Blues, an Edgar Award nominee. One newspaper cited Atlanta Blues as “one of the best three novels of the year by a Southern writer—and maybe the best.”

“My mother said, ‘No, it was the best’—and I don’t argue with my mama,” says Lamb, who was inspired by Erskine Caldwell to write. Lamb, in fact, was the last journalist to interview Caldwell, for The New York Times.

Lamb won the 2009 Fiction Project, and his name made the South Carolina Literary Map.

For more than a decade, Lamb has taught writing and literature at the University of South Carolina. At the urging of two lawyers auditing his fiction workshop, Lamb in 1998 founded the Red Letter Press and has published nearly 20 titles by South Carolina writers, many former students. Two titles won national awards. Despite his Palmetto state success, Lamb can’t deny that his heart belongs to UGA.

“If I could arrange it, I’d be buried on the Old Campus when I die,” he says. “At least part of me is already buried there. The university’s library requested the original manuscript of Atlanta Blues. I gladly sent it.”

That daily column Lamb passed up at the Atlanta Constitution? Lewis Grizzard wrote it instead.

“Readers lucked out on that one,” Lamb says. “Lewis was perfect for the job.”

—Lincolnton, Ga., native Tom Poland is a freelance writer living in Columbia, S.C. The University of South Carolina Press has published three of his books, most recently Reflections of South Carolina.