by Patricia Grandjean
Apr 1, 2011
03:47 PMBox Office
Q&A: Luanne Rice
(page 1 of 3)
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.
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.