Writing on the edge
Over her decades-long writing career, Luanne Rice ’77 has amassed a large, devoted following. Most of her 31 novels feature breezy titles, like “Dream Country” and “The Perfect Summer,” with covers featuring softly hued images of young women staring off toward the sea. Those perusing bookshelves might be quick to classify them as “beach reads,” but with those pastel-colored sunsets come turbulence and unpredictability. It’s the prevailing metaphor of Rice’s fiction — and her life.
Rice herself projects the serenity of a calm sea. Gulls wail in the background as she reminisces about her life from inside the beach cottage in Old Lyme, Conn., that her grandparents built in 1938. It’s a scene pulled straight from her novels — readers will recognize the half moon-shaped Point O’ Woods Beach as the fictional Hubbard’s Point, the setting of several of the novels that define the most prolific part of Rice’s career.
She has a way of drawing you in like an old friend, and even the sound of her smooth, measured voice is soothing. But there’s a roiling intensity to Rice’s inner life, and that placid exterior belies the razor-sharp intelligence she packs into her work. From her debut novel, “Angels All Over Town,” to her most recent, “The Lemon Orchard,” her characters struggle with family and loss, all the while being drawn inevitably to the ocean.
“I’m interested in the way people live on the edge, the borderline. There’s something about stepping off that intrigues me,” she says. “Also, there’s hardship and beauty — the light and the tides and the currents of things that are swept in and swept away.”
Rice was lucky enough to experience some very early success: She published her first work, a poem about Christmas lights, in The Hartford Courant at age 11 and had her first short story published in American Girl magazine when she was 15. “I got the idea early on that when you wrote something, it appeared in print — I didn’t realize my mother was sending in everything I wrote for me,” she says with a laugh.
Her mother, Lucille, a schoolteacher, wrote every night after putting her three daughters to bed. While Lucille never published her prose, her influence on Rice was indelible. “Her devotion to writing was very poignant,” says Rice. “My lullaby was the sound of her typewriter.”
In 1974, Rice enrolled at Connecticut College. Geographically, it wasn’t far from her hometown of New Britain, Conn., but in most ways, the College was a world away from her working-class Irish Catholic upbringing.
“For a writer who was inspired by the sea, the setting was very important to me,” recalls Rice. The view from Branford House — of the Thames River opening up into Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean — stirred her imagination. “I wrote a lot of short stories at school sitting in my dorm room and hearing the foghorns.”
Her Branford House roommate, Diane McKeever ’77, impossibly worldly and sophisticated in Rice’s eyes, introduced her to the works of Matisse and Miles Davis and engaged her in all-night philosophical conversations. “We’re still in very close touch. She calls me her fellow metaphysician, which I love,” says Rice.
One larger-than-life anthropology professor, June Macklin, took Rice under her wing and even took her horseback riding. “She traveled to a lot of very interesting places and did archaeological digs, and I remember thinking, ‘I’d like to be like her and do that’ — discover things and write about them and learn the stories of humanity,” Rice recalls. “Several of my characters have been anthropologists because of her.”
When her adviser discovered Rice’s interest in all things seafaring, she enrolled her in a navigation course at the nearby U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Rice recalls that because she was the first and only woman in the class, her white-uniformed classmates would stand whenever she entered the room. “They didn’t know how to behave with me,” she says fondly, letting loose a laugh. The knowledge she gained about using sextants as a navigational tool has made its way into several of her novels.
From all outward appearances, it should have been an idyllic time in Rice’s life. It wasn’t.
At the beginning of her first year on campus, Rice’s father, whom she describes as a deeply complicated World War II vet who had survived being shot down from a plane after bombing Dresden, fell ill with lymphoma. His condition deteriorated rapidly, leaving Rice feeling divided between her new, exciting life in college and her family.
The emotional upheaval took its toll, and Rice took a leave of absence from the College. She attempted to return two separate times, but all told, she spent less than two years on campus. “It was such an important place to me, and then I left it so sadly and abruptly,” she says. “I never got over feeling unfinished at Connecticut College.”
In 2002, three eventful decades after she left the College, Rice was invited to donate her papers to Connecticut College and accept an honorary degree. Even after landing 22 of her novels on New York Times’ best-seller lists and receiving the 2014 Connecticut Governor’s Art Award for lifetime achievement in literature, for which she shared a stage with Academy Award-winning actor Christopher Plummer and artist Tim Prentice, Rice considers her better-late-than-never degree from Connecticut College as one of the biggest thrills of her life. “I wore a cap and gown — I still have my tassel. It’s right by my desk.”
Rice’s papers, correspondence and manuscripts are now housed in the College’s Linda Lear Center for Special Collections & Archives, and her experience on campus continues to impact her life in the most unexpected ways.
“I was giving a talk this past June in Bank Square Books in Mystic, Conn., and I saw this beautiful woman sitting there in the crowd wearing a purple hat,” Rice recalls. “It was Professor Macklin. I hadn’t seen her since 1975 or ’76. … I was so moved that she even remembered me.”
Macklin certainly does remember Rice. “She was one of my first students,” Macklin says, “and she was one of those students who made me realize I had picked the right profession.”
Mining life for fiction
After her father died, Rice spent three months on a schooner studying whales. The majority of her 20s were spent in New York City, cleaning houses to make money, falling in love, and rubbing shoulders with the literary elite, including her late friend and mentor, New Yorker critic Brendan Gill.
She wrote whenever she found a spare moment, but she quickly found that getting published wasn’t quite as easy as it had been when she was 11 years old. She completed her first novel, “Favored Daughters,” in the early 1980s, but you won’t find that title on any bookshelf.
“It’s the classic ‘novel in a drawer,’” Rice says. Thirty publishers turned it down.
“It was the only thing of hers that we did not sell!” recalls Andrea Cirillo, Rice’s literary agent of almost three decades. “But it was so wonderful that there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to work with her.
Rice got the sense that the rejections were “good rejections,” and she used them as inspiration to write “Angels All Over Town,” a novel about three sisters dealing with the death of their father. It was published by Atheneum in 1985.
After her first taste of success, Rice immediately started work on her second novel, “Crazy in Love,” which, to her surprise, became the splashy novel that really launched her career. It eventually became a best seller and was adapted into a television movie starring Holly Hunter, Frances McDormand, Bill Pullman and Gena Rowlands.
Throughout her career, Rice has mined the upheavals of her personal life for her fiction. She wrote “Crazy in Love,” about a woman in a seemingly perfect but troubled marriage, while living in Paris with her first husband. Their marriage ended shortly after the book was published. The devastating loss of her mother after a long battle with a brain tumor inspired her 1999 novel “Cloud Nine.” Two more marriages and subsequent divorces, along with the relationships within her own close-knit but complicated family, make their way into nearly all of her books.
Rice admits she uses her writing as a way to “figure it all out,” working out her issues in the pages of her books. For her 2004 novel “Beach Girls,” she decided to be more honest than ever. “I decided to write a novel about a woman who’s me,” says Rice. “She writes about the Connecticut shoreline and wears a straw hat and has an herb garden, but in real life has a darkness inside her.” By then, Rice had built up an allegiance of devoted fans and she worried that her readers might desert her. Instead, they embraced the story. It spent six weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, rising as high as No. 3, behind only Dan Brown’s “Angels & Demons” and Nicholas Sparks’ “The Notebook.” It was adapted for a Lifetime miniseries soon after publication.
Master's chambers: Author Luanne Rice '77 enjoys stunning views of Long Island Sound from inside her beach cottage in Old Lyme, Conn. In her fiction, the beauty and the unpredictability of the ocean are recurring themes. Photo by Bob Handelman
‘Still an enigma’
Despite having worked much of her life into her fiction, Rice worries that she’s still an enigma to even her most loyal readers. At one point early in her career, she posed for an author’s photo in her herb garden wearing her straw hat. It was an image her then-publisher told her would be most appealing to her fans. “I always thought that’s how my readers saw me,” she says. At the time, she wondered, “What would my readers think if they knew I wore black and live in Chelsea and have been divorced three times?”
Today, she splits her time between homes in Malibu and Manhattan, but there is something about the Connecticut coastline of her childhood that always calls her back to her grandparents’ cottage. She still writes daily, and the success of “Beach Girls” gave Rice the license to drift away from that serene image and plunge into darker emotional territory and the political issues that inspire her.
Recently, she braved 106-degree heat in the Anza-Borrego desert in Ocotillo, Calif., to aid Mexican immigrants crossing the U.S. border. Her interactions with undocumented workers inspired her most recent novel, “The Lemon Orchard.” She’s also an advocate for victims of domestic violence — she has opened up about her own experience with emotional abuse on her blog — and lends her time to environmental causes. Although she doesn’t have children, she is close with her four nieces (including Molly Goettsche Feinstein ’07 and Molly’s husband, Alex Feinstein ’07) and considers herself very maternal. Over the last few years, she has developed a close bond with a student originally from Zimbabwe who is now a sophomore at UMass Boston. “I’m her person,” says Rice, who considers the young woman a surrogate daughter.
“Luanne has so many stories inside of her,” marvels Cirillo, her agent. “She’s going to write until she’s a hundred.”
It’s likely, since Rice equates writing to breathing. It’s the way she takes life in and makes sense of it, and she encourages others to do the same. “When you’re writing, don’t think about what your mother’s going to think, what your teacher’s going to think,” she says. “Let yourself be scared, without boundaries.”
- By Stephan Lee
Filling in the blanks
We asked ... Rice answered:
I am currently reading: “Collected Plays” by Beth Henley.
The writer I admire most is: Joseph Monninger, for the way he writes about families, love, nature and humans’ relationships with animals.
My favorite book of all time is: “Franny and Zooey” by J.D. Salinger.
The book I started months ago but still haven’t finished is: “Birds of the New York Area” by John Bull.
While I’m writing, I: Forget where I am.
Right now, I’m working on: A novel about two sisters in the aftermath of a family tragedy, set on the Connecticut shoreline.
This story originally appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of CC: Magazine.
October 27, 2014