Winter Institute

Winter Institute is amazing and what a joy it was to spend time with independent booksellers.  I was invited by my wonderful publisher, Scholastic (book fairs!  book clubs! Harry Potter! The Hunger Games!)  to join the party in Denver CO and talk about my first YA novel, The Secret Language of Sisters. My fellow authors were Sharon Robinson (great writer, daughter of Jackie, my mother's idol) and Derek Anderson (amazing artist and writer of picture books) and we celebrated the fact that writing for children (in my case teenagers) is a very special calling.  Their warmth and welcome into this new world for me made me feel so lucky.  On top of that, we were taken care of, introduced, and nurtured by Scholastic's inimitable Bess Braswell and Jennifer Abbots.

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Once in a Blue Moon

A blue moon is a celestial rarity and occurs when there are two full moons in one calendar month--such as the one today. It refers not to the color of the moon, but to the wonder.  The title of my fifth novel (first published in 1993) is a play on that, and refers to the rare, once-in-a-lifetime love between Sheila and Eddie, the matriarch and patriarch of the Keating family. The title also refers to a long-disappeared section of sailor's bars and nefarious doings in Newport, Rhode Island.  The name "Sheila" was inspired by Sheila Dingley Mularski, one of my favorite little girls, who has grown up to be a Title One reading teacher, working with 10-12 year olds. Her school has a small library, but no librarian, so Sheila started volunteering her lunch hour to help kids check out books. Could we take a moment of appreciation for Sheila as well as your own favorite teachers and librarians, people who encourage and celebrate reading?

I have very happy memories about the publication of Blue Moon...  The Happy Carrot had just opened in Old Lyme, Connecticut.  It was a wonderful independent bookstore owned by Paulette Zander, and this was the first reading she'd hosted.  She decorated the store windows in such a mystical way, full of blue moon-inspired art, and it was the first of many great book events we would have together.

My launch party was held at the Old Lyme Inn--then owned by my dear friend Diana Atwood Johnson, who ran it like an artists' retreat and literary salon (she's an artist herself, I was honored to introduce her at last summer's exhibition of her bird photographs at the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts.)  For the Blue Moon party she served blue cocktails and seafood delicacies.  In the novel, Shore Dinners were served at the Keating family restaurant, and Diana outdid herself recreating the lobster-and-clam-bakes cooked by the Keatings.  She decorated the inn so beautifully, and we invited old and new friends.  I remember being totally surprised and delighted to look up and see the Reducers, a band I love, walk into this classic New England inn in all their black leather punk glory.

Blue Moon was later made into a CBS Movie-of-the-Week.  It starred Sharon Lawrence, Jeffrey Nordling, Kim Hunter, Richard Kiley, and Hallie Kate Eisenberg, and was filmed in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, one of the most beautiful seaside towns I've ever seen.  My love for Nova Scotia had already begun, but it certainly deepened during my visit to the set.

Happy memories...I am glad for the chance to share them with you.  The sky does inspire me.  I hope you look up tonight and all nights and enjoy what you see...

No Animal is an Island

I was lucky enough to read Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina in galleys, a few months before publication.  Carl and I had been introduced via email by a mutual friend, Pete DeSimone of Starr Ranch Sanctuary, and we had corresponded about owls and whales.  A snowy owl had been visiting Carl's beach on eastern Long Island, and knowing my interest in owls in general, snowies in particular, he sent me photos and reports about the visitor. His book The View From Lazy Point had long been a favorite of mine.  He makes science personal, writing about the beach he loves, the species he's studied, the world travels he's taken to observe animals in varied habitat.  I like that he doesn't hide his love for the oceans and his commitment to the environment.

His new book Beyond Words, is brilliant, gets truly and deeply into the mind and emotions of animals--the inner lives of elephants, wolves, and killer whales.  He talks about families, love, loyalty, betrayals, intense grief of different animal populations.  He discusses endangered species, in some cases the erosion of protections, the reality of humans hunting for sport and trophies and monetary gain.  The sections on elephants, what happens when humans poach them for ivory, delineate with such compassion the devastation and grief felt by the family members left behind.

His work with killer whales--a name he prefers to orca, deriving as it does from the Latin  Orcinus Orca and referring in an inescapably demonizing way to Orcus, god of the underworld--took him to San Juan Island  and Haro Strait.  He discusses two populations--transients, who hunt mammals, such as sea lions--and residents, who eat fish, mainly salmon.  With Ken Bascomb he listens to the whales via hydrophones, chirps and whistles and clicks.  He differentiates their echo-sounding sonar from communications.  They form strong family units and stay together for decades, for life.  They kill for food, and it's brutal to watch the transients go after seals or California Gray Whales.  But killer whales are social beings, very curious, and love to play; they seek attention from other killer whales and from people they encounter.  Carl quotes an observer who said they "look through their otherness at you."

I took this in July 2014: killer whales off San Juan Island
I took this in July 2014: killer whales off San Juan Island

He writes about the tragedy of killer whales being netted, taken captive for aquarium exhibits--what it's like for a mother whale to see her baby captured, unable to stop what's happening.  And how the baby whale feels, ripped from a mother and the voices of her family, "going from the limitless ocean to the confinement of a concrete teacup, the terror and confusion..."

Overfishing and chemical run-off contribute to a combination salmon shortage and toxic load that is endangering killer whales.  They can live forty to fifty years, but the population isn't reproducing.  Recovery of the salmon fishery doesn't look likely, and the Pacific Northwest's logging industry isn't about to stop using river-killing fertilizer and flame retardants that get into the food chain, into the plankton eaten by the fish eaten by the seals eaten by the whales.


After reading Beyond Words I felt so happy to give it a quote.  Carl came into New York to record the book for audio, and we finally met.  He's a kindred spirit.  Now that we're friends, do you think I can ask him to write something on cats?

I want to know what mine think and feel.  I keep them inside partly for their own protection and also to keep them from following their natural instincts to hunt birds and mice, but they are still wild things, with distinct personalities, and eyes full of soul.  When Maggie died a few years ago, I watched Mae-Mae and Maisie grieve.  The two survivors returned again and again to the spot where they'd last seen Maggie, before I buried her.  They meowed, and it sounded like keening.  I would have given anything to be able to read their minds, to understand their feelings.

Carl's book helps me to know that such understanding is possible.  Translation may be harder, but I keep trying.  I share my house with these creatures, and we all share the planet with a whole lot more, and I am grateful for all of them, and for this book.

Species are connected to each other, and we to them.  When we forget that, we forget our humanity.

As I write this, social media is full of new about the death of Cecil, a thirteen-year-old lion in Zimbabwe.  Walter J. Palmer, an American dentist, paid $55,000 to hunt him down.  Cecil was lured out of Hwange National Park, the sanctuary where he lived, and was shot with a bow and arrow.  There's a photo of Palmer grinning over the corpse.  Cecil looks majestic and dignified even in death, but they beheaded him and left his corpse to rot.  The dentist's grin makes me sad--the whole story does.  I wish I could have given him a copy of Carl's book.  Maybe Cecil would still be alive if he'd read it.

Maybe the planet will be healthier if we all do.

No Man is an Island

by John Donne

No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. As well as if a promontory were. As well as if a manor of thy friend's Or of thine own were: Any man's death diminishes me, Because I am involved in mankind, And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

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.

Talking Bruce Springsteen

Today at 4 pm I'll be the Guest DJ on SiriusXM's E Street Radio, talking about Bruce Springsteen and playing ten of my favorite songs of his. I am inspired by Bruce's music.  From the beginning I was captivated by his passion for storytelling, the way he focuses in on the places and people he loves most, the issues he cares about, the underdog and the downtrodden, people's stories that otherwise might not be heard.  He's been a voice for migrants, the deeply human story of immigration, and that touches me so much.  I love his song Matamoros Banks, which he introduces with these words:

"Each year many die crossing the deserts, mountains, and rivers of our southern border in search of a better life. Here I follow the journey backwards, from the body at the river bottom, to the man walking across the desert towards the banks of the Rio Grande."

There is so much to say, and I make a start during my hour on E Street.  I hope you'll join me.

the songs:

~matamoros banks live from devils and dust tour, along with bruce's psa about immigration.

~land of hopes and dreams (from live in nyc)

~ghost of tom joad (acoustic)

~my city of ruins from the concert for new york city after 9/11

~born to run

~incident on 57th st from the june 22 2000 show including bruce's psa for new york cares.


~badlands from the october 1, 2004 vfc concert in philadelphia

~if i should fall behind (live in nyc)

~the river, if enough time the live version with bruce's intro from live/75-85