An Interview with LINDA LIGHTSEY RICE about AGAINST THE RUINS
(Transcript of an interview conducted on October 1, 2012)
WHAT DREW YOU TO CREATE THE STORY IN Against the Ruins?
My childhood. I was born many years after World War II ended, but in my South Carolina neighborhood were many men who were suffering from what we now call PTSD. At that time there was little help for them, and so the aftereffects of wartime trauma often ruined their lives, as it still can today. The husband of a good friend of my mother’s was repeatedly suicidal and hospitalized during my childhood as he struggled with what was then referred to as shell shock. Many in my generation were affected, via our parents, by a war that for us remains only a mystery. After she died I found my mother's ration book, and I recall staring at it almost incomprehensibly--I of course can't imagine living that way. Here was literal proof that that time, that world event which is part of my life because I had several older relatives--including an aunt who was an Army nurse--overseas during it, really did take place.
The mental illness exploration also comes from my own experience of doing long-term battle with manic depression. I’ve seen up close how mental illness can destroy lives, and I’ve seen the demeaning ways in which the mentally ill have sometimes been treated. And I did really grow up a few blocks from an overcrowded state mental institution, about which horrifying rumors circulated.
And finally were these questions: What if you had to commit a loved one to such a place? What would happen after that? What happens to children who grow up in that circumstance? I felt this was a mental illness story that had never been told. I was interested in how PTSD and mental illness can alter entire families.
HOW ARE YOUR FIRST NOVEL AND THIS ONE RELATED?
SOUTHERN EXPOSURE is really the story of losing a sense of external safety, safety in the environment around you (this was the first murder in that sleepy little town). AGAINST THE RUINS is about losing internal safety—safety within the family and safety within one’s own psyche. Both are about not knowing what you can depend on, a paradigm of the modern world. Governments we thought would stand forever but don’t, banks we think we can trust and find out we can’t, etc. But, to me, the devastating sense that you cannot trust your own mind is maybe the worst loss of a sense of well being.
DESPITE ESSENTIALLY BEING A TRAGEDY, THERE’S MUCH HUMOR IN Against the Ruins. HOW DID YOU GET THOSE TWO TO WORK TOGETHER?
Not always easily! There’s definite suffering in this story, but also a subtle redemption. And in life sometimes things that seem so tragic at the time feel far less so later, and even downright funny. I wanted to capture that paradox. Balancing the two is a trapeze act, however—one wrong move and you’re flat on the ground. Using the double narrative, two viewpoint characters, allowed me to mix the two more easily, but that only developed in the later drafts of the book. There was much intensity in my first novel, but little humor--I wrote SOUTHERN EXPOSURE in my thirties. Many things only become amusing with seasoning.
DO YOU CONSIDER Against the Ruins A “SOUTHERN NOVEL”?
Not necessarily. It's certainly less so than SOUTHERN EXPOSURE, which employed classic Southern imagery—heat and sex, especially. Of course, everything I write is inescapably Southern in one way or another, despite my having lived outside the South for a third of my life. The things that obsess you in adulthood, the things you wonder about, things you care about and those you don’t, all these take root in childhood. The sense of history in this new book, the adoration (and destruction) of literal historic ruins, the iconoclastic characters amid the very traditional, the emphasis on landscape, the use of atmosphere, all these are hallmarks of Southern writing. But the story here, of losing a sense of safety, is a universal story. That story has formed the basis of most of western civilization's literature, the coming of age story in which the hero/heroine eventually discovers that the world is full of considerable darkness over which we have no control. But there are things we can place "against" the inevitable ruin earthly human life leads to.
WHAT WOULD THOSE THINGS BE?
Love. Hope. Beauty. Kindness. Art. Above all, laughter.
In my own moments of despair, I find much comfort in what Susan Sontag wrote in her journal as she researched and struggled through grueling new treatments to try to beat the cancer that would kill her. She wrote "In the valley of sorrow, spread your wings."
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE LINE FROM Against the Ruins?
I have quite a few, given that I wrote every one of them! But a favorite passage, which I wrote many years before the novel itself, is:
"The city of one’s birth, the small town, the family farm, the old home place. These are the beams we use to build a suspension bridge across the accumulating waters of change and inconsequence. The place of youth rises as a beacon of hope across that water—there my existence began, might be remembered. Home illuminates the darkness of our lives and harkens us back to a dim unremembered consciousness—why were we born there and not in some distant hamlet, why did we blithely sail away or remain rooted in place, what is it about that earth that both attracts and repels, and why can we never escape its persistent yet elusive ghosts?"