Wally Lamb may be best known as the top-selling two-time Oprah-picked author of She's Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True , but his soul is pure high school teacher.

I don't say that just because for decades he taught English at a Connecticut high school or because he went on to create a writing program, first at Connecticut College, then at a local prison. I say it because you only have to be in his presence for a couple of hours to realize that at the center of every story he tells, every anecdote he shares, is a guy who's curious about everybody and everything, a guy whose goal, above all, is to connect with the complicated and confused characters around him.

You see this psychological curiosity in his books, of course, most famously in his perspective on She's Come Undone's Dolores, a young, disaffected, lonely and obese woman Lamb says was very loosely based on a student he once had. (Dolores is the character most fans ask Lamb about today, he says, even though the book came out in 1992. He says they expect his wife, Chris—to whom he has been married for nearly 30 years—to be very fat. She's not.) And you see it in his approach to the brothers in I Know This Much... twins who for all their biological connections couldn't be more different. In the forthcoming The Hour I First Believed (Harper, Nov.), readers will sense Lamb's curious, expansive personality again, though most of them will be hard-pressed to define any one character as “like” Lamb himself. (Never mind that the novel's hero, Caelum Quirk, is—yup—a high school teacher.) “People often ask me which character in a book is me,” he says as we sit in his country kitchen in a town in which both he and Chris were born and raised, outside of New London, Conn. “I'm really like the shrink character in most of my books: the observer.”

There's a lot to analyze in The Hour I First Believed, since the novel starts on the day two students open fire at Columbine High School; it tracks Caelum and his damaged wife, Maureen, from Colorado to Connecticut, from Columbine through Hurricane Katrina. Caelum's quest also includes uncovering secrets of his family's troubled past. And as befits a novel of this epic scope, it is filled with an enormous range of characters, from a couple displaced by Katrina to a not-all-there Connecticut caretaker, from a pioneer for women's prison reform to a teenage girl who sees Maureen as the mother she wished she had. Quoting his friend the writer Tom Drury, Lamb admits that “writing a novel is like taking a sledge hammer to a stained glass portrait of yourself and then putting all the pieces back together to create a new picture.”

Which is why, when you spend time in Wally's world, you can see pieces of him, his friends and his family everywhere on the pages of the new novel. The lost teenage girl surely has bits of Teddy, the now 18-year-old son the Lambs adopted from Chris's substance-abusing brother and sister-in-law when the child was four. Many of the prison scenes—including the revelation that inmates are only allowed to receive books that have come shrink-wrapped from publishers or retailers—are a direct result of Lamb's work at York Correctional Institution. (He was the editor of two books of women's prison writings from his program, I'll Fly Away and Couldn't Keep It to Myself, both published by Harper.) Even the corn maze at a dairy farm is like the one he takes me to that's owned by another of Chris's brothers.

But what's Wally Lamb “about”? He's about Chris, whom he mentions every other sentence; he's about his sons (Teddy, as well as two older boys, one who works—aha!—at Teach for America in New Orleans) and about being, well, it sounds hokey, but about being a good person. This, after all, is a guy who took nothing for the prison books so that the women contributors would each earn $6,000—and then fought the Connecticut system to make sure they got it; a guy who once refused a two-book deal because he doesn't “want to feel mortgaged” to his work; a guy who gives away tons of money every year to the Lamb Family Foundation to benefit the mentally and emotionally impaired.

“I feel like your books have changed my life,” Lamb says some readers have told him. Then he smiles, not so much self-satisfied as grateful and proud.

Like I said—a teacher to the bone.