Luanne Rice probes psychological depths in novel after novel

Adrian Kinloch photo

Not many writers can claim to have not only written but also published, 30 novels in 27 years — 22 of which have been “New York Times” bestsellers. Luanne Rice can make that claim — marked by the recent publication of “Little Night,” a novel that goes to the dark heart of domestic violence.

In fact, fiction writing is so embedded in Luanne Rice’s DNA that she pretty much is always in the process of writing her next novel and she admits that as a result, sometimes the line between reality and fiction becomes blurred.

Many of Rice’s novels take place in the town of Black Hall, her fictional name for Old Lyme, where she spent summers as a child at a family cottage she still frequents. These days, she splits her time between the Connecticut shoreline, New York City, and more recently, Southern California.

Writer’s block or indecision about the subject of her next work of fiction is simply not in the prolific writer’s vocabulary.

“I feel as if my stories choose me,” Rice says. “My characters have always seemed so much wiser than me. I remember reading one time that John Updike would drop the babysitter home and then write about it. I very much identify with that. If something is really pressing on my heart or my dreams or emotional life, that’s what I want to write about.

“What always draws me,” she continues, “are stories about family, events of my own real life, loss, and getting older — I feel I’ve had the dubious gift of a life that’s given me a lot of material.”

Rice’s new novel, “Little Night,” arose from that “dubious gift.” Herself a past victim of domestic violence, Rice has written about this subject in several of her novels, this one about tangled family ties and loyalties and the devastation wreaked by an abusive relationship.

“He never hit or physically abused me,” Rice says, referring to her own situation. “When it’s emotional and psychological, it’s so insidious,” she says, stressing that she’s very careful to say that “Little Night” is not her story.

“It’s more like an emotional truth. It’s more what I felt,” she explains.

And Rice hopes this book helps other women recognize and acknowledge if they’re victims of abuse.

“If it’s happening to you, if you feel it in your gut, it’s real,” she says.

Environmental advocate

Clare Burke, the protagonist in “Little Night” is an urban birder and nature blogger. Rice’s love of nature and her passion for protecting it informs all her novels, and she says goes back to wandering the paths behind Hatchett’s Point in Old Lyme as a young child, continuing when she dropped out of college in 1975 and moved to New York City.

“I moved to Chelsea (where I still have a place) because I sent some of my short stories to the ‘New Yorker’ and one of them landed on the desk of (writer) Brendan Gill,” she recalls. “He invited me to lunch at the Algonquin Club. He told me I had to move to New York if I was going to be a writer and a creative person. And he said, ‘Since you’re a Connecticut girl, you’re going to need nature — discover Central Park and go there a lot.’ I found the beauty and actual tranquility of it.”

When she’s not writing, Rice is an environmental activist involved in a number of organizations including NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), New York City Audubon, and the SEA education program that she participated in when she was young.

“I feel that experience really taught me a lot about our stewardship and responsibility for nature and the oceans,” she says.

“I’m doing my part, I’m taking responsibility for (the environment) but mostly I’m loving it,” she says. “I look around the shoreline and think what incredible beauty we have. The feeling of walking through the marshes and feeling the water beneath your feet, going to Rhode Island for the big waves, the Mountain Laurel in Old Lyme in the spring — it’s why the Expressionist painters flocked here.

“I grieve the amount of habitats taken away by development,” she adds. “It shrinks and it’s sad … you can’t replace land or the contours of the rocks.”

Advice for writers

“I’m very lucky that the way I learned to write is that I loved to read,” Rice says. “We had a very literary mother who encouraged us to read. I’d say for any writer, read a lot — and (writing becomes) intuitive.”

One gate you have to open if you’re going to write novels, Rice says, is to give yourself permission to tell your story — the biggest thing that holds people back.

“Try not to think about what your mother or teacher is going to think. It’s your life and your story so tell it,” she says.

“My very first novel came from a deep place I wrote about after my father died—about three sisters coping with the loss of a father and going from being girls to being women. The novel caused a huge tsunami in my family. How did I get the courage to write it? I really don’t know. It’s writing from the depths of your bones.”

Rice quotes from one of her favorite passages in “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” by J.D. Salinger, in which Buddy, a writer, says:

“Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die? ... I’m so sure you’ll get asked only two questions. ‘Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out?’”

When asked if there’s another novel in the works, Rice doesn’t hesitate.

“Absolutely. And it starts out on the Connecticut shoreline in my town of Black Hall…”

That’s all she’s giving away. You’ll just have to wait ‘til next year to meet the characters in Rice’s newest work of heartfelt fiction.

“Little Night” (Viking) is $26.95, hardcover. “The Silverboat,” published in 2011, is now available in trade paperback. (Penguin Books).

 

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