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Delicately built and looking fully a decade younger than her 45 years, Luanne Rice seems to embody all of the positive characteristics of the earnest heroines she creates with such skill. In a parallel universe Rice would be a kindergarten teacher, a floral designer or a wedding planner, like May Taylor, the protagonist in Summer Light, her latest novel. Warm eyes peer intelligently from behind wire-framed glasses, bobbed hair falls unpretentiously to her shoulders, her clothes are sensible and attractive, her voice soft and well-modulated. Spend an hour in her company and you begin to understand the place from where her well-loved characters spring. Luanne Rice embodies a gentle thoughtfulness that cheerfully reminds us that, yes, sometimes authors can be exactly as we imagine them and precisely like the books they create.
None of this should suggest that Rice has led a placid life. There was a marriage break up that immobilized her for a while and the loss of her mother in 1995 was a blow that was difficult to recover from. In her presence, however, 11 novels into her career and some of them New York Times bestsellers, it's difficult to imagine Luanne Rice ruffled or perturbed. The gentleness is something Rice exudes -- seems, in fact, almost to exhale and an hour in her company is a peaceful, happy place.
All of these things -- the gentleness, the peace and even the inherent happiness -- are present in Rice's work. In a world where humans are often accused of loving the perverse, the dark and even the deranged, the enormity of Rice's popularity is almost difficult to credit. Rice's novels are happy. Sure: there is conflict -- there can't really be a story without some type of conflict -- but an afternoon spent with a Rice novel is like being wrapped in a cocoon. Problems, when they occur, are always surmountable, the bad guys are never as bad as they seem and there is always -- always! -- a happy ending.
In Summer Light, the action occurs between the aforementioned wedding planner and a hockey player named Martin Cartier. A previous relationship has left May with the feeling that happily-ever-after is for other people. And we discover the Martin's injuries are not all due to hockey: his own shell is hard and well tempered. May and Martin come together joyously near the beginning of the book, then discover that the baggage they've brought to their mid-life romance might be more than their relationship can take. Might be. Add to this May's six-year-old daughter, the slightly mystical Kylie, and you have a recipe for... well... a Luanne Rice novel.
The writer lives in New York City and in her family home at Old Lyme, Connecticut with her husband Bob.
Linda Richards: I understand that your mother was also a writer.
Luanne Rice: My mother was a writer. She was a teacher of English and when we were young she used to encourage me and my sisters to write. Every summer -- many days during the summer -- she would have writing workshops at our summer cottage ... on the beach. We'd just sit around the table and write stories and she would do things like tell us to describe the tree outside the window. Or she'd have us close our eyes and describe how the wind in the trees sounded. She really was an encouraging and inspirational mother.
Did she get the chance to see your success?
She did. She had a bit of a chance to see. She died in 1995. So she saw many of my books come out. She was always so excited about it. It was a wonderful thing for me to be able to have somebody who had really been with me since the beginning and had been so instrumental -- I think -- in my start as a writer. I would show her jacket proofs and she came to a couple of my book parties. Then she got sick, but I still think of her every time a book comes out.
Was she a published writer?
She was. She wrote short stories as a young woman and she had a play produced when she was young. Then she had three kids and I think about it very often now, what it must have been like for her because she really had a burning desire to write. I always remember going to sleep to the sound of her typewriter. That was a lullaby, really, to hear her typing and working on her own material. She never did publish a book. I know she very much wanted to.
What was her name?
Her name was Lucille Arrigan Rice.
If you were to put your writing in a genre, where would you place it?
I always think of myself as writing general fiction. That's the tradition I grew with and grew up in. Partly, again, it was my mother's influence. We were a very book-oriented family. Our house was just filled with stacks of books and bookshelves and she had this sort of literary style and she passed that on to us. We really grew up reading a lot of Dickens, we acted scenes from Shakespeare as kids and kind of grew up with the New Yorker magazine as my guide as a writer. I loved the early stories of Alice Munro, for example. I went to college and I dropped out in order to write full time. My mentor was this man named Braydon Gill who was the drama critic for the New Yorker. So my early influences were quite literary but, you know, as I've grown up as a writer, I've kind of let go of any labels or any idea of category. I feel as though I have this inspiration that comes from somewhere outside of myself and I just follow it. So I don't really categorize my writing. I leave that to others.
You said the inspiration comes from outside of yourself. Are your books heavily plotted or do they come from above, as it were? I get a sense that they do.
They absolutely do. I don't plot at all, consciously. All of [my] books always start with one character. It's amazing how that happens. It's when I least expect it. The character emerges and [that] tells me what the book will be about. There's actually a story -- I don't know if you want to go back this far, but it's kind of an amazing story.
It was with Cloud Nine which was a few books ago now. I've been writing my whole life. I started when I was 11. I had a poem published at the age of 11 and have always just written and just taken for granted this incredible process. And then my mother died in the first week of 1995 and I had gone through a really traumatic breakup and those two things together contributed, I guess, to my first ever case of writer's block. Not only was I unable to write, I was unable to think like a novelist, which is what I think happens. Like we could be sitting at this table and all of a sudden I'll hear something out of the blue in the corner of my ear and it will remind me of what I'm working on at any given time. That just stopped. Everything was very flat. And I didn't write again for about a year and a half. During that time I met a man that I ended up marrying and he was very kind and that was wonderful but I still wasn't writing. And then it was Christmas a year and a half later and I was back at that cottage that I was telling you about: the family house. And I was actually sitting at the table where my mother had had the writing workshops and, not having written in so long, I was just sitting there and all of a sudden the idea for ... the main character in Cloud Nine. And she just showed up and I just had the whole idea right then and there and I went to my desk and started writing and it just all came out. From then on it's been nonstop.
How long did Cloud Nine take you to write?
Just a couple of months from start to finish. I really made myself available and I just wrote nonstop: I didn't do anything else during that time.
What was your first book?
It was called Angels All Over Town.
What year was that?
It was published in 1985.
I didn't realize you'd been publishing for that long.
I have. I've been at it for a really long time. That's why it's amazing that it's taking off suddenly. It's very heartening to me as a writer and I always like to tell about this for any readers who might be writers too. It's a very difficult business. Not just because the business itself is challenging but because it's so easy to lose hope at any given moment along the way. It's very hard to stay in it and stay believing in yourself and believe that something good will happen around the corner. And that definitely has been happening for me.
How old were you when Angels All Over Town was published?
I was 29 when it first was accepted and came out. I have the ubiquitous novel-in-a-drawer. I wrote a novel just before Angels All Over Town that was good enough to attract an agent's attention, but not good enough to be published. It's interesting because that novel's title is Favored Daughters and it's really the same novel as Angels All Over Town. The theme is the same, the characters are the same, but I had written that first novel, I think, with a very big lack of faith. I was really trying to be a certain kind of writer. Probably a more literary writer than I really am. And I set it aside and somehow found the courage to go back in and just rewrite it, but with my heart. And that's where I learned how to write with my heart: is with that experience.
Writing what was inside of you rather than what you felt you should be writing?
Exactly. It was a three sisters novel. And I write a lot about three sisters, because I am one of three sisters. It's a very inspiriting combination of characters.
Are the three of you still close?
Are they writers as well?
No, they're not. They're both artists. They both are mothers and they both raise their children and do a certain amount of painting and sculpting.
Are you a mom?
I'm a stepmom. I have a stepson. Rob, is was actually the inspiration for Summer Light: the hockey player.
Oh yes: I saw that in the acknowledgments. You said something like: Without Rob, I could never have known Martin.
Yes. And it's absolutely true. Both my husband and my stepson are massive hockey fans. When I married Bob I sort of married into hockey. [Laughs] And I spent a lot time at the rink watching Rob play. He's 20 now and it's really funny because he's extremely tender. A very sweet person. But when he hits the ice he's totally different. I would sit there in the stands watching this transformation and I'd really start wondering: What is it about this? It was very intriguing to me. The transformation that occurs from the everyday street life of a person to what happens to them on the ice. So I started taking that to: What would it be like for a professional player?
So recollections of a hockey mom!
Yeah. [Laughs] I'm not like a rabid hockey fan. I've become a hockey fan partly because it's fun with the guys.
I can see where May's excitement for the game comes from, then. And how she related to hockey [in Summer Light], how she was really excited about it through the involvement of the person she was involved with.
Yeah. And she knew nothing about it before: that's very much based on my experience. And it's sort of scary, in certain ways, when you're not into blood sports, so to speak. [Laughs] But I think it's primal, you know? Something seems to just kick up in people.
And hockey is beautifully simple, isn't it? There's like a goal over here and a goal over there and you have to get the puck into the other team's goal. Lovely simplicity, unlike some other sports.
There's also a beautiful flow to it. I hope this isn't too alienating to the hockey fans out there, but it's very balletic. It's just so graceful. It really is. In spite of the rough and toughness of it, there's like this flow on the ice.
Kylie's magic is a fun aspect of Summer Light. Where did that come from for you?
I believe that children have this natural innocence and openness that enables them to see the truth. And it's impossible for them not to see the truth. They haven't built any walls, especially at six: at her age. That's something that happens as life goes on. We build up defense mechanisms, but she's at that really shimmering age where she can just see straight into a person's heart and that's why she is so critical to the story: because she helps Martin, who is the opposite. Martin is somebody who has become so well defended over his lifetime that he is completely shut down and completely walled in and has been, for a long time, unable to give love or receive love. Kylie sees that so purely and she helps him to open up. I think she knows that his sort of closed-off-ness comes from a great deal of hurt that has to do with losing his daughter and, in a sense, losing his father. His father, I think, is an interesting character because he's a decent man who did a bad thing and who kind of took the wrong path. I don't know, in my books my characters are a lot wiser than I am. They can find redemption and I think they do.
That wisdom must come from somewhere though.
I guess I believe that we're all wiser than we think. There's a lot of accumulated grace from just everything: our ancestors and all the good people in our lives that sort of is in us, but it's hard to get to sometimes, you know? It's like we want things to turn out a certain way so we ignore what we really know to make those things happen. Or, sometimes fear is one of the greatest blocks to being open. For me anyway. It's amazing: the minute I get scared, that's when all the defenses kick in and so they keep me from knowing what I know. [Laughs]
In your writing? Is that what you're relating it to?
I was thinking more in terms of relationships with other people. Important people in my life. People I love. I've battled fear -- most people have battled fear our whole lives, because it's a normal human emotion but one of the ways my old enemy fear and I relate to each other is that I acknowledge it and then I try to move through it. As a writer my motto is: don't be afraid of being a fool. And don't worry about what my first grade teacher would think, or the critics, or if the readers will buy this book: all those people. Don't worry about what they're going to think about anything, because if I start worrying about those things while I'm writing I'll be so inhibited nothing will come out. [Laughs] Or I'll be blocked again.
Where do you live?
Half the time in New York City and half the time in Connecticut, on the ocean.
Do you work in longhand or on a computer?
I do both. I used to always work in longhand and then I did get a computer a few books ago. It makes the revisions a lot easier but I'm still really comfortable writing in longhand and I do it at least for parts of each book.
Are there certain parts where you'll take the pen out?
It seems as if I get to a certain point in the novel where it's really moving along and it will be that the characters are just living in me: I'm so involved that a lot of times I wake up at night and instead of going to my desk I'll just keep a notepad next to the bed. Often that will be scenes of dialog between two people in the book. I don't know why it works that way, but it does seem to.
The characters talk to you in your sleep.
They do. They really do. And I begin to see my own world the way they would see it, I think. I think in a way it might be like acting when actors stay in character when they're filming a movie or something or doing a play and they stay very much in character. I think that works for a writer too: you're sort of inhabited by the characters you're creating. As strange as that sounds. [Laughs]
No, but it doesn't: because you're creating a world. What world are you creating now?
Because of this flow that began after I wrote Cloud Nine I've been writing, it seems, two books a year which has been a lot. So Bantam has decided to publish me twice a year, which is wonderful and generous of them and exciting. So I have one coming out in February called Safe Harbor and then I'll have another one coming out next summer. That's the one I'm just finishing up now, the one that's coming out next summer. Safe Harbor is done.
Wow. You're a demon! [Laughs]
I'm a demon! [Laughs] It's true.
Will you keep up that pace?
I'm not in control of it. It's just happening. I hope that it continues this way because it feels very good.
So you're not committed to keeping up that pace?
No. I'm really, really fortunate in that way. My editors are so supportive and if it's happening they're ready for it and if it doesn't happen there's no pressure on it.
Are you a disciplined writer?
I think so. [She pauses to consider.] Yes. I know I am. I try to treat it like work: like a job. And I get to my desk early in the morning and I stay there all day. When I left college, I realized: If this is going to be my life's work, I actually have to work at it. For people who go to graduate school, they put in all that time at university and then grad school and then apprenticeship and then finally... for a writer it takes a certain amount of time to do that as well. But while you're doing it, you have to be your own best support system because you don't have the same feedback and the same encouragement that people get in a job at an office because you're really on your own. Especially until something has been accepted and there's an editor or an agent there. So it's been very important for me to believe in that and keep showing up for it every day no matter how I feel because if I had a job, I'd have to go to the office no matter how I felt.
Do you keep office hours?
I don't really... but yeah I guess I do. I get to the desk at 7:30 or something and stay there until lunch and then come back and stay there again until night. But once the novel is rolling, it takes on a life of its own. Then I work all the time. [Laughs] Late at night or sometimes the weekend: there are no vacations. And I love to do research. All the novels are different and all the characters are very different. They all come to me with these interesting jobs that I then have to find out about. [Laughs] In a way Martin was easy because I would just ask my stepson: What about this or what about that?
But what about May? A wedding planner.
And I didn't know very much about it. I did research it. I spent more time reading bridal magazines than I ever have. [Laughs] Things like that, just to get an idea of it. She's a very interesting wedding planner. She's not a conventional person at all. She's a very big picture sort of person. She's very spiritual and it's also something that she inherited from her mother and her grandmother. In a way it's a gift: she knows that a wedding is not just a one day thing. She knows that it's much bigger than that. And I think she helps her brides and that's what makes her so interesting: to see the big picture and help them really connect.
What is Safe Harbor about?
It's about a woman who returns to the east coast [of the United States] from France. She's a painter: she's an artist. And she returns home to raise her sister's daughter.
So that was a whole other line of work to research.
My mother was a painter as well as a writer and my sisters are both artistic and I grew up in this area that is filled with artists. It's in Connecticut. The town is called Old Lyme and it's the birthplace of American impressionism. And we have a little museum there that celebrates that. As a kid I used to go to the museum and learn a lot about the artists. I've always envied people who are able to paint and see something with their eyes and then translate it onto the canvas.
And you're still there. In Old Lyme.
Yeah. I bought the family house.
You understand May's affection for her home and family. You share it.
I do. In fact, these towns that I'm writing about are very much inspired by my own home town. That affection for a landscape is a big theme of mine. It's something that I follow up on again and again. Knowing every tree and as a kid playing in a certain tidal pool or climbing all the trees or whatever.
Do you have a favorite book among your novels?
I love Summer Light. I love the characters. Kylie's openness and the way the two people -- May and Martin -- are led to each other. Sort of led to love. And having both of them so closed off in various ways. I feel like it's a really hopeful book. I feel like it's about seeing with new eyes. About seeing the familiar with new eyes. I love that part in "Amazing Grace,:" I was blind but now I see. I think it's something that I need to be reminded of again and again: to see what I have with gratitude. That is what I think Summer Light is really about. | August 2001
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.