The PEN Ten with Luanne Rice

I felt honored to be interviewed by Lauren Cerand for Pen America's Pen Ten series.


The PEN Ten is PEN America's weekly interview series curated by Lauren Cerand. This week Lauren talks with Luanne Rice, theNew York Timesbest-selling author of 31 novels, which have been translated into 24 languages, including The Lemon Orchard, Cloud Nine, and Dream Country.

When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?

From as far back as I can remember. As a child I wrote poems about nature and stories about people with secrets. As a child I could look out my bedroom window and see the Children’s Home on top of the next hill.  We went to school with kids who lived there. There was one boy I wanted us to adopt, but our family had our own sorrows, and my parents said it wasn’t possible. I remember crying that night, and instead of sleeping I wrote a story about a boy with freckles and a hole in his sweater.

Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?

The idea of stealing another's work is horrifying to me. Writing is the closest thing to sacred I know.

Where is your favorite place to write?

By a window with cats on my desk.

Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?

I’ve never been arrested, but as a teenager I was accused of vandalism. A state trooper came to my house late at night. It was frightening to be accused of something I hadn’t done, and to feel I wasn’t being believed.

Obsessions are influences—what are yours?

Coastal New England, factory towns, Chelsea prior to gentrification, sisters, fathers, love, immigration. I’ve gone to Ireland to stand on the docks and commune with the family ghosts. I have Mexican friends living undocumented in LA. One woman was trafficked, and she is traumatized and can’t go anywhere for help because she fears getting caught without papers, and she fears the coyote who imprisoned her will come after her or take revenge on her family.

What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?

In my first novel I wrote about growing up with an alcoholic father. I had been tempted to censor myself, but somehow I didn’t. I wound up being disowned by some members of his family, and at my first-ever reading—at the New Britain Public Library, in my home town—a friend of his stood up and said he was glad my father was dead so he didn’t have to read what I’d written.

What is the responsibility of the writer?

To tell a story.

While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?

Yes, I feel it strongly. At this year’s Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Literary Festival I sat on a panel with Luis Alberto Urrea and Cristina Henriquez. It was powerful for me—they have written wonderful books about immigration, and I felt honored to join my voice with theirs. Luis is a kind of spirit guide for me.  I keep his book about death on the border, The Devil’s Highway, close to me, on my desk. Before writing The Lemon Orchard, I asked him if it was okay for me to write about illegal immigration because it’s not, literally, my story. I’d never worried like this before—I’ve always written from my heart and obsessions, written what I dreamed and felt. But in this case I was writing about people crossing the border, dying in the desert or living in fear, undocumented in Boyle Heights, and it was inspired by real families and actual events. I worried that this story wasn’t mine to write. But Luis told me that not only could I write it but that I must. I felt tremendously supported.

What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?

Freedom in Exile by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Where is the line between observation and surveillance?

Observation is gentle, surveillance is brutal.

Q & A with

Below is an excerpt of a Q & A I had recently. Question: You made your writing debut in 1985 with ANGELS ALL OVER TOWN. THE SILVER BOAT is your twenty-ninth novel. How --- if at all --- has your writing process changed over time? Have the Internet and other technological advances affected your writing experience?

Luanne Rice: In many ways my process has changed very little. My novels always begin with a character. I wait for her to tell me who she is; often she inhabits my dreams. Once I know her name, I'm ready to start writing. Although I now work on a MacBookPro 15, I still like to write the earliest scenes on a yellow legal pad with a fountain pen. The Internet makes research go faster, but something is lost. It's too easy to search for information, take what I need, and move on. I prefer to do research from books, getting lost in the background and immersed in the realm of whatever I'm trying to learn.

Q: The importance of family is a recurring theme in your novels. How did your own upbringing influence your decision to become a writer?

LR: My family was loving but complicated. Our house was filled with secrets and bass notes. As a child I was a detective, listening at walls and going through drawers, looking for answers to what was wrong. My writing has been my lifelong solution to figuring things out, finding the love I know was there, learning everything I can about the way families work, ways of loving and trying to be happy.

Q: "Was that the inspiration for Dulse's latest adventure? Dar wasn't sure. She only knew that her ideas came from deep down, experiences and emotions of her own" (p. 282). Part of what makes your novels so heartfelt is that each of them comes from a deeply personal place. What was your inspiration for THE SILVER BOAT?

LR: The answer has three parts:

a) Like the McCarthy sisters, my sisters and I had to face what to do with our beloved family beach cottage after our mother died. It was an immense challenge. The house contained so many ghosts and memories. My grandparents had built it; no other family had ever occupied it. It sits on a granite hill, and the top step still has three pennies placed there by my grandfather in 1938, the year it was built. We put it on the market for ten seconds --- selling felt unthinkable. My sisters were very generous and let me buy them out. I still want it to be the family house.

b) My father had a way of disappearing. Not forever, like Michael McCarthy, but frequently, and without explanation. I've been writing my way into that situation my whole life.

c) The silver boat actually exists.

You can read the full interview here >

Luanne on Deep Blue Sea for Beginners

What could be more disturbing than a mother who leaves her daughters? She's not sick, there's no deep dark secret, she doesn't have amnesia. One day she just walks out. To those who've read Geometry of Sisters, you'll be familiar with Pell Davis. When she and her sister Lucy are abandoned by their mother as children, their world is turned upside down. They have the world's best dad, and for a while he holds the children together. But when he dies, Pell has to grow up almost overnight. She doesn't pity herself, she doesn't look back.  She strives for excellence in everything she does, she cares for Lucy with the ferocity of a mother lion. They attend boarding school in Newport, Rhode Island, and even after Pell finds a new friend on the football team, she has a single-minded plan: to find her mother.

Lyra Davis's whereabouts are no secret—she lives in a romantic villa on Italy's Isle of Capri. But Pell has to travel there to ask the question: why? Why did you leave? How could you have?

In a wild, rocky landscape surrounded by the deep blue sea, Pell will learn the truth about her mother. Nothing about the visit is easy, and Pell is forced to stay true to herself, to keep believing in love and goodness, to try to bring her own gifts to her mother. She's tested in ways we've all been: should we stay the course or give up when it becomes impossible? Be loyal or decide to do something unexpected? And most of all, can we forgive the worst?

I hope you enjoy The Deep Blue Sea for Beginners. I'd love to know what mothers and daughters, friends and fellow readers would have to say about Lyra's choice, and what Pell has to do to proceed in her own life.

On Cloud Nine: Interview with Luanne

The following interview appeared on Book Page in 1999. Luanne talks about her book, Cloud Nine. Luanne Rice describes Cloud Nine as a book that demanded to be written. Like Susan, Luanne's experience of caring for her own dying mother affected her profoundly, and for two years she was unable to write. Her mother "was the constant, encouraging figure in my life," notes Rice. She attended the same small public school as her mother, and credits her teachers with reinforcing her mother's support of her writing. "The years of her treatment and decline were so terrible and compelling," Rice says. "The whole thing affected me really deeply, and I stopped writing. I stopped being able to think like a novelist, I couldn't make the emotional connections I've been so blessed to be able to make."

Read the full interview here >