Bonnie Nadzam on Endearment and Endangerment



Literature is full of sexy, scandalous figures, but perhaps none as disturbing and fascinating as the nymphet. In Bonnie Nadzam’s deliciously dark novel Lamb (Other Press), 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. When middle-aged David Lamb meets a gawky eleven-year-old girl named Tommie, he is enchanted with her innocence. Tommie, friendless and covered with freckles, is starving for attention. Her mother and stepfather, crippled by poverty, barely notice Tommie is suddenly spending all her time with a handsome older man. Lamb himself is broken, his marriage over, family dead. At first, the two seem to be healing each other. Yet, when Lamb decides to take Tommie on a road trip out of Chicago to his isolated cabin in the Rockies, their relationship inevitably becomes more complicated, taking some provocative turns. We spoke with Nadzam about what children teach us about love, keeping secrets, why Lolita makes her angry, what she thinks about lingerie for tots and how her characters changed each other’s lives.

ROYAL YOUNG: What do children teach adults about how to live and love?

BONNIE NADZAM: I think it’s possible to love like a child as an adult, if you maintain some sort of innocent mind about the world. Which is not to say you’re naïve. You see people behave badly, you know you have the potential to behave badly, and you trust anyway. And you fall in love anyway, and make yourself vulnerable in relationships.

YOUNG: How often do you think we win trust from others only to abuse it?

NADZAM: More often than we think.

YOUNG: What’s behind that impulse?

NADZAM: I’m not sure about Lamb, himself. But the times that I’ve mistreated people or people have mistreated me and we have some sort of dialogue about it, it’s usually not because of some malevolence or evil intention. It’s people seeking happiness and usually being mistaken about what happiness looks like. Though I’m not completely discounting that there are people out there who make evil choices so many times, they become lost causes.

YOUNG: So you think evil is more so a mistake or a sadness?

NADZAM: Something about mistake sounds right, about delusion, about pursuing something that you think is true and you’re pointed 180 degrees in the wrong direction.

YOUNG: When does an innocent child-adult relationship turn into something more sinister?

NADZAM: In the context of Lamb, it’s hard to know. I’m not sure if readers will see that as a pedophile relationship or some kind of abuse.

YOUNG: I thought they shared a lot of true love and was very moved by it; that being said, I wouldn’t discount that the relationship could be damaging, to both of them.

NADZAM: It’s interesting, because when I reflect on my relationships, even with my mom, my dad, my siblings, good friends, there is not a single one where I haven’t hurt them often and repeatedly and gotten hurt by them. So that’s what’s kind of confusing for me about Lamb and Tommie. Yes, it’s damaging, yes they hurt each other, and use each other, but it’s caring. There’s some degree of real love and affection between them.

YOUNG: So where does a relationship like that go wrong? Where does it detour and stop being innocent and start turning into something dangerous?

NADZAM: For Tommie and Lamb, it begins to happen when Lamb starts using some kind of intelligence that looks like sympathy and empathy, but is not.

YOUNG: How does sharing a secret shape a relationship?

NADZAM: I think in general, secrets are bad news. I don’t ask anyone I know to keep secrets, and if someone asks me to keep a secret, I’m pretty cautious. It becomes an evil kind of currency.

YOUNG: So how does it impact Tommie and Lamb to live in this secret world?

NADZAM: The secrets for Tommie become a source of potential shame and Lamb knows that. “If you tell anybody that this stuff happened, your mom is going to be hurt, the police are going to come, we’ll both get in trouble.”

YOUNG: Not to do the obvious comparison to Lolita, but some of the imagery of that Lolita figure, I do think applies. We’re so culturally obsessed with it. Where do you think that desire comes from?

NADZAM: I don’t want to get all political and wax about capitalism and lingerie for eight-year-olds. But, I do think when there’s actual desire for a child, that’s just mental illness. It’s sickness. It’s some shadow that’s been passed on generation after generation. Why people that don’t really have that desire are obsessed by it is a really important question. Part of the reason that some of the comparisons to Lolita upset me has nothing to do with the writing, but because I think it’s too easy to look at Lamb and go, “Oh, he’s a pedophile!” and put him in the same category as Humbert Humbert and not talk about him or worry that we might have anything in common with him. 

YOUNG: I actually thought there was also a lot of beauty in the relationship between Lamb and Tommie. Could we talk about the good side of it?

NADZAM: Lamb says things to Tommie about the world and about beauty, about her impoverished life in Chicago, the lack of natural landscape he is now showing her. And he’s right. It’s not so simple. It’s not, he offered her good things, but he was a bad guy. It’s more like, he showed her some truth, and he also hurt her.