New York Times best-selling author Luanne Rice reaches into her own past to frame the story of her atmospheric and deeply moving new novel The Silver Boat, a tale of three sisters who take a trip to Ireland that changes them forever. CAHIR O’DOHERTY talks to the author who’s famous for her unforgettable portraits of families navigating the anger, resentment, laughter and love that binds them together.
On paper author Luanne Rice (McCarthy on her mother’s side) has it all. A New York Times bestselling author, she has published 29 novels that have been translated into 24 languages. She has a devoted international following who turn out by the thousand for her all too rare book signings and her atmospheric new novel The Silver Boat (which is partly set in Ireland) is already certain to be one of the biggest books of the summer, so you’d think she be as content as any person has a right to be.
But the thing is, no writer (and Rice is a born writer) ever springs fully formed into the profession. There’s a back story to contend with usually, and in the case of the best writers, for some reason, it’s often a sad one. Maybe it’s the need to stand witness to their own lives, or maybe it’s the need to contend with the private hurt that often compels them, but the fact is the strongest voices often have the darkest pasts.
In The Silver Boat the main character Dar is, to put it mildly, struggling with a few of the ghosts from her own past. Having not seen her sisters since their mother’s funeral they gather to at the families summer beach home one last time before they have to sell the property. Just like in Rice’s own life the house was a gift of their grandmother to their mother and Irish-born father, and now the sisters are faced with the prospect of packing up the past and the sad process of letting go of it all.
Interviewing Rice about the new book is a pleasure because she’s uncommonly straightforward about the parallels between what happens in the book and in many of the events of her own life. You can sense what it has cost her too, this book, because so much of it comes from a deep part of her own past. That’s what makes it such a spellbinder, and one her fans may grow to appreciate above all others to date.
“When my father died I was 21 and he’d been sick for a few years,” Rice tells the Irish Voice. “He changed during his illness. He kind of softened during it. He was a haunted man, he had a lot of dark in him, and I think some of it was related to the war. He would spend a lot of time unavailable. We wouldn’t know where he was. In writing the new novel that was what I was trying to get at. There was a sense that we didn’t really know him or where he was, literally.”
Rice was the eldest daughter in the family and very close to her father, which meant she was also the one most affected by his absence. But for years, in that Irish way, she tried valiantly to shield her younger sisters from the harsher realities that no one softened for her.
“I remember kneeling on the floor of my bedroom window and watching the headlights coming down the street and getting to know which his headlights were his. He’d often come home at three in the morning and he’d sit in the car and I’d see his cigarette glowing. There were windows of glass between us and I could see him but I could not get to him. There was a very big mystery about what all that was about.”
To this day she calls six in the evening the witching hour because as a girl she figured out that by then she’d know if her father would come home that night (from wherever he had gotten to). “I’d have a pit in my stomach all day. If six o’clock went by then he was gone. I was worried because so much was hanging on it. I worried he was going to die or kill someone, either by drunk driving, or by getting into a bar fight, because he was a very passionate man and things could happen.”
Rice was very religious at that time too, because it seemed to offer her some structure and looked like the best hope of saving her family. “I was a like a little junior martyr. I used to pray on the hard floor for him. I had a crucifix attached to my bedpost. My sisters thought it was hilarious,” she laughs.
So in a very real sense the great journey of Rice’s life (and The Silver Boat) has been to piece together all the missing details of her father’s life (and behind that, in a way, all her Irish ancestors). In the process her hope was that maybe she would make some sense of all the heartache she saw around her (other people’s, not her own) growing up.
On a recent trip to Ireland Rice’s made my way down to Cork to find the grave of her great grandmother, who had been born and raised in Timoleague, west Cork before coming to the United States. “When I drove into Timoleague I had tears in my eyes because it was so like the area in Connecticut where her family ended up settling. It’s on an estuary on the mouth of a river that opens into the sea. So it has that sort of salty brackish smell. The low-lying landscape had marshlands and harbors and it’s exactly like her original home. All I could think of was how she must have felt when she made her way here to Connecticut, to a place that was so reminiscent of home for her.”
Rice admits that her own parents had a much more humble cottage than the one she writes about in The Silver Boat. It was where they spent all their summers and it was filled with happy memories. But as in many Irish stories, those idyllic summers came to an end and the three sisters were faced with stark choices about what to do with the house.
“It brought us into quite a bit of conflict because we all had ideas about what that should be. We resolved it but I remember it was difficult deciding what that should be.”
In the process of taking an inventory of the old cottage Rice happened upon a trove of old photos that became part of the inspiration for her new book. “I remember going through all the things my mother and father had saved. There was things one leather box that was beaten up and in it I found all these photographs of my father in Ireland during World War II. He had been stationed in England and every chance he got he would go to Ireland. I know now what that must have meant to him.”
There are many kinds of Irish Americans, Rice admits. There are those who wear it very proudly with symbols on the surface. Her own family were not like that. “Being Irish was just part of who we were, it just came to us through poetry and writing – my mother was an English teacher and we just read Irish writers. My father just had it in him. For him to go back to Ireland and see where his loved one came from was important for him.”
You can hear the enduring bond between the father and daughter in the respectful and at times mystified way Rice still talks about him. “As the poem goes after the first death there is no other. His death was so before and after. One minute he was in the world and then mentally he was not there. That death had such an affect on me that I went back to it when I wrote The Silver Boat.”
Healing takes a lifetime, just making sense of what you’ve lived through does too, but the message of The Silver Boat is that it’s possible. “It’s a lifelong thing for me. He died when I was so young – and he was young too, he was 57. There was so much I didn’t understand and so much he didn’t understand about me – we were in tremendous conflict when he died. I loved him but he was so mysterious. I often wonder what it would have been like if he had lived longer so I could have gotten to know him better. But I’ll never know the answer to that to that. So now I have to make peace with it the best I can.”