I had the pleasure and privilege of interviewing Michigan born author Christine Rice about her first novel Swarm Theory. I have always dreamed of being able to sit down with an author and pick their brains about their book and writing process. I did just that with Christine Rice. Although I was able to ask many questions, more have come to mind since speaking with her. Swarm Theory is that intriguing! Below is the conversation we shared. Enjoy.
ALSO READ: Swarm Theory – Book Review
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Emily Glover: When I looked up what the swarm theory was, it stated: ‘The swarm theory originates from the consensus among scientists that a single ant, or bee, isn’t intelligent, but the colony, as a whole, demonstrates stunning intelligence as it works together to achieve a singular goal, despite the disagreement and contradictory objectives of individual members of the colony.’ What was the singular goal of the town/characters in your book? Who is the queen bee? (I liked Astrid. I thought that she would be a queen bee if she were a bee.)
Christine Rice: Hmmm … yes. The singular goal might have been that the … takes me while to get my head around that … good question! The singular goal of the town was to contain all of those characters. I had so many characters tumbling around in my head, and I needed a compelling place to let them all behave or misbehave, as the case may be.
EG: Gotcha. The town is the hive and all the characters are buzzing around this town/hive, and the goal is to stay and function, get through life, the best they know how? Is that kind of right?
CR: New Canaan is based on the suburb where I grew up, just outside of Flint, Michigan. But I had to make it very different from the actual town because I kept getting tripped up by facts. Like, the church isn’t north of the train tracks, it’s south. Or there isn’t a restaurant there. The characters are all composite characters, though. And the Queen Bee … hmmm … that might be Billy Durant’s fictional daughter from the story.
EG: Oooh interesting. The one who knows everything and sees everything? Adelaide?
CR: Yes. From Spectacular Diversions. And, too, Mae Shaheen. Ha! And Astrid too! I think that they are all Queen Bees in their own way.
EG: Yeah, Mae was an interesting character, and it was great at the end to see how all those characters were connected. Who was your favorite character to write? And who was the most difficult?
CR: Mae came to me later in the writing. I didn’t know that this was going to be a novel-in-stories. And her character just appeared one day. She really took the narrative in a completely unexpected direction. That’s a good question.
EG: Yeah, she is a tough nut, that Mae. I am glad she came along.
CR: My favorite character to write was actually Dovey, because she turned into a sympathetic character. I first imagined her as the town joke, but quickly realized that I get bored writing predictably horrid characters. She wasn’t as one-dimensional as she’d originally appeared in my imagination. And the most difficult character to write was probably Caroline … because her story was so heartbreaking. Mae. Yes. She is based on a few Lebanese women I know…!
EG: Interesting. Not that those characters are minor, but they weren’t the two characters that popped in my mind. This is why I love actually talking with the author!
CR: I have a soft spot in my heart for Astrid, of course. And Leila.
EG: Yeah. I liked Astrid’s character because she appears so tough, but then you get these glimpses of such a soft and loving person. Like with her mother and then Eric. Even with her boyfriend. She kind of likes the emotionally/mentally fragile people … or a need to protect them at least. That leads into another question. The town is a fictional town that your hometown inspired. How many characters are based on real people and also the events of the book?
CR: All of the characters are composite characters – in other words, one character might possess qualities of many people I’ve known. No one character, except Auntie and Uncle (who appear in the suicide scene) is based on one person I know. The events of the book, too, are fictionalized and might have happened somewhere else in the United States. In other words, the events I wrote about happened all over the world and over a 30-year period. I compressed them to fit my story time. Some of the events, of course, were completely imagined and never happened. A few events, like the raid on the men’s rest area, happened in the 1970s. And there was a big tornado in Flint in the 1940s, I think. Let me confirm that. My Mom saw that tornado and was able to drive to safety. Confirm that date, I mean.
EG: Gotcha. I wondered about the tornadoes. On my side of the state, tornadoes are rare and not many people have actually seen or experienced them ever. In the book, it seems like it happens a lot. Does it happen more on the East side?
CR: Well, we had a lot of tornado drills in school, and I remember going to our basement when there were warnings. But that image really worked organically to establish the tumultuous time of Astrid’s life … with her parents splitting up.
EG: It really does!
CR: The tornado was in 1953. I’m looking at a book that I used a great deal, actually, to research certain aspects of the book. It’s called The Picture History of Flint, edited by Lawrence R. Gustin.
EG: Oh alright. Thank you. It will be nice to know the title of a book you used for research. When did you start writing the book? How long did it take you to write it? Did it come in spurts or was it a fluid process for you? What was the most difficult part of the process?
CR: I started writing the book in 2011 and finished it in 2014. Since I have family – kids, a mother who lives with us, a dog – and I teach and freelance write, it is often difficult to find big chunks of time to write. So, a few years ago, when my children started sleeping in during the summer months, I would get up early (5 a.m.) and write until they woke (10-11 a.m.). During the school year, I would write whenever I had a chance. An hour here, an hour there. The book was being edited – when I say edited, I mean they asked me to write a few more stories – and then produced most of 2015. You know how it is when you have a family!
EG: Wow. It must feel so rewarding and wonderful to have it done and published after all those years having it in your mind all the time.
CR: Yes! It is wonderful to see and hold the finished book! I saw it for the first time in Los Angeles when I went out there for the Associated Writing Programs national convention. And I actually slept with it ALL week. It was on the pillow next to my head.
EG: Was that the most challenging part? Having to write in spurts or in a set time frame?
CR: The most difficult part of the process, I think, is now … just trying to get the book into readers’ hands! I guess that the most difficult part [about writing the book] was figuring out how all of those characters functioned in my overall narrative. I ended up writing the last story, from Mae’s point of view, at the very end. I also added King of the Lakes. About halfway through the writing of the book, I realized these weren’t linked stories but more of a novel. I just took one story at a time. And by that time, I had started to see the overall narrative arc. And then things came a bit easier from there. You always have to have chaos before order.
EG: You did a great job! What was your favorite story?
CR: Thank you! My favorite story? Oh, no! That’s like asking which one of my children I like best! If pressed, I would say … Undesirable Interruptions. But don’t tell the other stories that!
EG: Too funny! The writing process is so interesting to me. Why was it important for you to write this story? What are you hoping that readers get out of the book? And if you could read one story out loud to an audience, which would you choose?
CR: It’s a funny thing. No one asked me to write this novel. Writers just feel compelled to write. It was important to write the book because that is what we do as writers … we make stuff up! We feel compelled to make up stories. There is no other way. We really don’t have a choice in the matter.
EG: Good Answer! Oh Will! I kind of wanted to know what happens to him after he is arrested. Did they watch the confession? It seemed when Lou’s dad was yelling at him that he still had not gotten in trouble for the rape of Caroline.
CR: I want to say that Will does not get convicted, that Lou’s Dad has Lou drop the charges. I want to say that Will is fine. I hope that readers get a sense of what it was like to be a young woman in the 1970s and 1980s, to understand and have compassion for peoples’ stories, to not judge people, to understand that people are made up of their experiences and to try to understand why people react in certain ways.
EG: When I was done with the book and while reading it, I had a sense of wonder and awe of how people have a hidden life, hidden stories and they are deep, deep wells. It makes me want to randomly go up to people and ask them their stories. I used to be able to do that when I was an adoption and foster care worker.
CR: Yes! That’s a much more lyrical way to say what I was trying to say! People are deep wells. And you just can’t know unless you ask. And sometimes it seems nosy. But sometimes it is welcomed. Especially older folks. They’ve been through so much. My Dad was a WWII veteran. He was in many of the big battles, helped clear out a concentration camp. And he would never talk about it. The stories were too painful. And those stories died with him. My Mom is 94. She and my Dad were married late, had me in their 40s. They are not used to talking about every feeling. They were just getting on with life, I guess.
EG: That is so sad. I never asked my brother-in-law about Iraq before he died, because I was too scared to set him off. Not long before he died, he came to talk to my Psychology class about PTSD and he shared a lot about what he was going through. It really opened my eyes. I still wish I’d felt brave enough to let him know I was there and interested in listening, if he wanted to ever share anything.
CR: Oh, yes. There’s a great book called Blue Stars. You should read it. But, yes, PTSD is serious stuff.
EG: What are you working on now?
CR: I’m working on two novels. One set in the 1980s … again … but in Chicago. The other is set in the near future in a world where all books have been destroyed. A little Ray Bradbury-esque.
EG: Oooh interesting. And scary! So, is there anything else that you’d like me to highlight for the readers?
CR: Hmmm … Those were all excellent questions. I think that I do want people to see beyond the terrible headlines about Flint. I hope that, in some small way, Swarm Theory helps people see that Flint was once a great city, that it is still a great city, and that the characters, real and imagined, who live in that area are multi-faceted and need to be reckoned with.
It was a privilege to chat with Christine Rice and pick her brain about her writing process and the book. I look forward to reading her future novels!
A NOTE FROM JANE: I started Old Mission Gazette in 2015 because I felt a calling to provide the Old Mission Peninsula community with local news. After decades of writing for newspapers and magazines like the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Family Circle and Ladies' Home Journal, I really just wanted to write about my own community where I grew up on a cherry farm and raised my own family. So I started my own newspaper. Because the Gazette is mainly reader-supported, I hope you'll consider tossing a few bucks my way if I mention your event, your business, your organization or your news item, or if you simply love reading about what's happening on the OMP. Check out the donation page here. Thank you so much for your support. -jb