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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The book really does have any extraordinary sense of place. When you're reading it, you're always very conscious of where you are and the characters' relationship to where they are. I know one of your mentors was Brendan Gill of The New Yorker, who was, among other roles, the magazine’s architecture critic. Did he teach you anything about writing with the keen skill you have for portraying physical and emotional landscapes?
It’s so interesting because he and I were both native Nutmeggers: Brendan grew up in Hartford. I sent some stories to The New Yorker when I was really young, about 18, and somehow one of them landed on his desk—maybe because someone noticed that I was also from central Connecticut. He invited me to New York City and told me I "had to" move there: "Connecticut is a wonderful place to grow up in but all writers need to live in New York." I took his words really seriously.
It's interesting that even though I've lived in New York for such a long time, I still feel these connections to Old Lyme. It's sometimes easier to write about an experience from a distance in space and time—it's almost as if when you're in it, it's right there and all around you, but when you're away from it, it's conjured up in this almost mystical way. I can feel my feet right this minute on the rocks of the beach, and can smell the black walnut and sassafras trees and the salt air. I mean, it's so vivid when I'm not there. I'd say Brendan encouraged that.
His mentorship wasn’t so much about actual writing; it was more about living as a writer. He saw me as a babe in the woods, which I totally was, and introduced me to New York City's literary world.
In the book Dar, the protagonist, is a graphic artist. Was there some special reason you chose that career for her?
My guitar teacher loves graphic novels. He really introduced me to reading and enjoying them. Then, along the way, my niece—who's a really talented artist and writer—decided to go to graduate school to become a graphic novelist. She was definitely my technical consultant on this book. But I just find it a very interesting and magical way of telling a story.
At the beginning of this interview, you mentioned that the three sisters theme is something you've returned to more than once, and there's always more to tell. What makes The Silver Boat stand apart from the other stories?
That's such a rich question. Being one of three sisters is a singular experience, and when you meet another three sisters person, there's an instant connection. There's an archetypal dynamic that even as I've gotten older I recognize. It serves me in my writing—it's not that I write about my three sisters and me; I write about something bigger and deeper. Even though my sisters and I are not always in close contact, that relationship is one of the most important in my life. I was talking about this with an analyst the other way, and she said that Freud never really acknowledged how important the sibling and sister relationship is in people's lives. As children, the three of us shared the same bedroom. We spoke a language that other people didn't speak. And I could know at a glance what the others were thinking.
I remember this moment in high school where we'd been at the beach, and had come back to New Britain—I think we'd been in Old Lyme for a fall weekend—to go to school. It was a beautiful, beautiful day, and we needed not to be at school. My mother taught in the New Britain school system, so she and the three of us were in the car. I was driving the car, and my middle sister was the first to be dropped off at New Britain High. And she just got out of the car and said to me, "See you later." And I knew exactly what she meant. My sister and I dropped my mother off at her school, then swung back and picked my middle sister up at the exact same spot and headed back to the beach. That's how we were. That's never going to leave me. But I don't write about sisters in the same innocent way I might have when I first started out. There's now an accumulated life experience that now works its way in.
You first had a poem published—in the Hartford Courant—when you were only 11. What do you remember about that?
I remember assuming that all you had to do was write a poem and someone would print it! My mother submitted it. I was just this passionate, avid writer, and reader as well. I never wanted to be a writer; I never thought of it as an ambition. It was just who I was and what I did.
The poem appeared in Malcolm Johnson's column "The Singing World," which was just a wonderful place for poets. I'd read it all the time and be just touched and amazed by the poetry that appeared there. When I was 14, they reprinted the poem on a full page in the Courant’s Sunday magazine, with a photo of Constitution Plaza at Christmas—which is what the poem was about.
It's interesting because I'm reading Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford now, which is about Edna St. Vincent Millay—she was the oldest of three sisters; and had a mother who was a writer and a poet who submitted her early work for publication. I just had such recognition reading and thinking what that must have been like for my mother. My mother was a writer too, and she originally submitted her own poem to the newspaper at the same time she submitted mine. When the magazine reprinted it, she told me, “You know, I also sent a poem about Constitution Plaza at Christmas, but they chose yours because it was so good.” I don't think I realized until much later how poignant that was. It actually pains me to say it, because it makes me think about what a writer she was and how she really gave it up to be mother to the three of us. She was very torn between her life as an artist and her life as a mother. But she chose to be more the mother than the writer.
I was going to ask what the biggest challenge of writing is for you, and whether you think women writers have challenges that are different from men's.
I grew up with a woman who . . . I would fall asleep every night to the sound of her typewriter. When she was finished with what she had to do, the last thing she did was to write, to work on her own poems and short stories. That made such a deep impression on me. I'm the type of writer who makes it not only the first thing of my day, but in some ways the only thing. I'm not sure how conscious a choice it was with me, not to be a mother.
It's funny . . . recently, previews began on this play that I'm involved with—it's at the Geffen Playhouse, called In Mother Words. I'm the stepmother in it; I wrote a piece called "My Almost Family." It addresses how I never had children of my own. I just feel that you have to give everything to something. I don't seem to be someone who can split that up. So, I've given everything to writing, and I don't regret that—I don't have my own children; I have nieces and stepchildren I adore. But I get up in the morning and go straight to my work. I've always done that. Probably, one of my biggest challenges is the Internet was invented. I really love the solitude and continuity of going straight from your dreams to your work of fiction that's underway. But it's hard now, because there's the temptation to check email and Facebook. For a while that really got in my way, but I've gotten back into my normal routine.
The thing about being a woman writer—it's sort of inescapable—I feel like we get characterized, we get pigeonholed in "women's fiction." I don't object to it; I feel as if . . . I mean, I've talked about it with other women writer friends, we feel we write what we write, not with a particular audience in mind. I feel lucky that many women readers have found me and I speak to them.
I imagine being put into a niche is frustrating.
I try not to let it be. I have this outlook that's worked for me, which is to keep everything between me and the page. I don't read reviews; my publishers don't send them to me. I don't want to know about marketing strategies. I feel like all I want to do is write. There's a great book I read when I was pretty young called The Writer on Her Work. There's an essay in it by Mary Gordon about how women are categorized as "watercolor painters" and men are categorized as "important" oil painters.
Interesting she should use those distinctions, because some of the most important male artists were watercolor Impressionists. So the lines are blurred in reality.