Q&A: Luanne Rice
The best-selling author discusses her 29th novel, "The Silver Boat"—and prepares for an April 8 appearance at Madison bookstore R. J. Julia.
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On April 5th, best-selling novelist and New Britain native LUANNE RICE, 55—who now divides her time between New York City and Old Lyme—publishes her 29th book, The Silver Boat (Viking; $25.95). Rice will visit Madison’s R.J. Julia Booksellers April 8 at 7 p.m. for a talk, Q&A and book signing. For more info on this event, call (800) 74-READS or visit rjjulia.com; for purchase info on the new book, visit luannerice.net/category/books-written-by-luanne-rice/.
What inspired The Silver Boat?
So many things. I write so much about family, and especially sisters—that territory is very important to me. I keep going back to it as I feel it’s never-ending. There’s always so much more to write about, especially as time goes on and your perspective changes. This book was really inspired by my own experience with a beloved summer house in Old Lyme. My grandparents built it. I grew up in New Britain, but we spent all our summers in this little summer cottage in Old Lyme, overlooking Long Island Sound. It was more than just a place, a piece of land or real estate. It was really the soul of our family. It was representative of all the fun things; all the closeness my family had.
My mother loved it so much that she held on to it even after my father died. She taught in New Britain so it was quite a sacrifice for her to go back and forth every day, but it was worth it to her. As soon as she got really sick—she had a brain tumor—it was as if our relationship to the house changed. It was one of the first really big shakeups to our family. The message was, "This isn't going to stay the same forever." It had always been there and had always been a certain way. Obviously, the most traumatic thing was when she died; next most traumatic was going to that house and realizing she was gone, and kind of facing that things were different and we'd have to decide what to do with it.
Because I'm the oldest of three sisters and my other two sisters live in Connecticut and have their own lives there, I had a desire to sort of take over and be the matriarch of the house—have family gatherings there and have the beach be available to my nieces. So the three of us came up against each other and our different desires as to whether to keep or sell it.
As you're saying all this, the book is playing back in my mind. It seems clear that the novel is autobiographical.
It's been so long since this happened that I don't feel as if I wrote exactly our experience of it. Because it's been many years, it was 1994 when we went through that. After all that time I've kind of had a chance to let it go, although i ultimately kept the house.
I know you've talked in the past about going through a difficult time with your writing after the death of your mother. I know you just said that the back story of the book was well in the past, but was it hard to write in any way?
I actually found it a beautiful book to write, because the house is very much alive and a part of our lives. I liked being able to explore what it had been like for me at that time, to see in retrospect how important it was to keep that place. I didn't really find it painful.
I don't know whether this is part of your personal story, but in the book you also have a father who was lost as a result of a trip to Ireland, and you have your three sisters go to Ireland to "reclaim" him. I'm just wondering how much of the book is based on research outside of yourself. Were there any elements of the book you had to study to write?
Yeah, definitely. For one thing, the idea of a "land grant" was fired by the history of Griswold Point, also in Old Lyme. That land was granted to the Griswold family by the King of England. I was just so intrigued by that, to think about what that meant and how that would work. For a short time, I rented a tiny cottage on Griswold Point when my mother was sick, and that's how I got to know the story. I mixed that with the fact that my family is of Irish ancestry. So i went to Ireland and searched out my own family tree there—and in doing that, really absorbed the feeling of our own Irishness, and though none of us was first generation as are characters in The Silver Boat, it really affected us a lot and informed who we were, my father especially. It's interesting because my grandmother, who lived with us, was English, and there was a little friction between her being so English and my father being so Irish. I thought that was interesting and wanted to go into it a little bit.
On the face of it, the novel is a valentine to Martha’s Vineyard. Is that a particularly beloved place for you, too, or was it simply a stand-in for Old Lyme?
I’d say everything is a stand-in for my experience at the beach in Old Lyme, but Martha’s Vineyard does have a lot of meaning for me. It started when I was very young; I babysat for this very well-off and well-known family from New Britain. They spent every summer at the Vineyard and I would go stay with them for a week or so. I fell in love with the Vineyard later; as a teenager I started hanging out with the other kids listening to music—so I felt I had a kind of outsider's perspective. When I was 21, I had my only real job for which I had to get dressed in the morning and go to work, at The National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. My boyfriend, another writer at the academy, had a house on the Vineyard and we’d go up there every weekend. I feel like it’s a part of me, even though I haven’t returned there as much in recent years.
You also worked at Woods Hole, am I right?
I attended school at an oceanographic program at Woods Hole, and then I also did stay and work with the group I studied with. You know, there are so many good journeys I've taken at places in New England. I've written lots of books set in Newport, R.I., because I've had a life there. I believe this is the second I've written with a Vineyard setting.