Detail of former South Carolina State Mental Hospital

Author in South Carolina in 2010

AGAINST THE RUINS


On a December day in 1957, schoolteacher Louise Copeland and her six-year-old daughter Lyra arrive home to discover that Louise's gentle war-hero husband has suddenly become psychotic and has slashed his wrist with a razor blade.

From that moment on, everything Louise has believed in unravels. In their inner-city Southern neighborhood, situated between a cemetery and a madhouse, a place of leafy oak trees and ghosts, three other people become involved in Louise's crisis: Rosa, the scandalous divorcee who entertains men for a living; Uta, the mysterious elderly lady who casts spells; and Max, the clairvoyant gravedigger.

In 2004, as Louise is dying, her daughter returns home, and she and her mother confront how the family was torn asunder in 1957. Louise finally reveals the long-held secret that haunted the family for the next fifty years.

Told with elegance and humor, this poignant novel is filled with new insights about mental illness and mental illness prejudice, about wartime trauma, about relationships between mothers and daughters, about the resilence of the human spirit. Utimately, Louise leaves her daughter Lyra with hope.


Elmwood Cemetery in Columbia, South Carolina

Lyra's Prologue from AGAINST THE RUINS:


I grew up between a cemetery and a madhouse. I played in ancestral Civil War ruins. Our family car was a yellow Checker taxicab, my best friend’s mother a prostitute. A neighbor believed she’d trapped her husband’s soul in a green glass jar and our house sat atop a potter’s field. My childhood was leafy oak trees, craziness, and ghosts.

This was the South Carolina I knew. That upstart state, rabble-rousing bunch, swept-yard poor and Cadillac-rich all hot and sticky together and plumb overrun with crimson flowers, slow afternoon syllables hanging in the soft scented air like fluttering wing-weary butterflies. Cape jasmine, gardenia, magnolia, mimosa—even the words droop heavy with scent. So much color and so much sunlight so tormented by the old gray memory. This is the tattoo on my psyche, inked deep, lasting beyond death.

Troubled history, scars both public and private, everywhere you look.

My family’s past is like the place we come from, a mirrored hall of memory, mythology, mirage. Dizzying images appear and recede, combine and separate. The real picture is as wavy as old glass. That rippled reality began the December I was six, when afterward everyone acted as though none of it had happened. A penchant for sorcery travels true in our veins. But I know what happened, a few bits and pieces anyway, even if I don’t know what—in the long run—these fragments mean.

I can’t see the scar, but I know it’s there.




"Rice has a fiery, incandescent talent."
--Pat Conroy, author of THE PRINCE OF TIDES and SOUTH OF BROAD

Selected Works

NOVELS
A family is torn apart by madness and prejudice in 1950s South Carolina. "Against the Ruins is gorgeous, lush writing that almost takes your breath away." --Natalie Goldberg
A psychological drama set in the mystical Low County of South Carolina in which a small town is devastated by its first confrontation with violence. "Southern Exposure is a terrific novel. . . ." --Pat Conroy
STORIES AND ESSAYS
Why do writers kill themselves? An essay about success and failure in the literary life. (Includes photos of New Mexico.) Read entire essay here.
An excerpt from an upcoming novel about a Tennessee family whose emotional connection to their landscape is as strong as the devastation, and subsequent mental instability, endured by the family patriarch during World War II. (Includes photos of Tennessee.)
PRESENTATIONS
Minnesota Mentor Series Lecture, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. (Includes photos of Minneapolis.)