Author Talk: July 11, 2013
New York Times bestselling author Luanne Rice returns with her newest novel, THE LEMON ORCHARD, a love story about two people from seemingly different worlds who share a heartbreaking connection. The book deals frankly with the friction between citizens and immigrants along the U.S.-Mexico border. In this interview, Rice shares how she was able to find empathy for both sides of the conflict and humanize a very polarizing issue --- including visits to the border and getting to know families with firsthand experience of it. She also talks about her fascination with anthropology --- the way people naturally move toward a better life --- as well as the danger of black-and-white thinking and the importance of compassion.
Question: Julia has always felt close to the Mexican people, in part, because of her Irish ancestor John Riley, who fought for Mexican independence. Was there a real John Riley?
Luanne Rice: John Riley was born in Galway, Ireland and immigrated to America through Mackinac, Michigan in 1843. He and other Irish immigrants, fleeing famine and oppression at home, took jobs as soldiers in the U.S. Army. He defected to Mexico to form the San Patricio Battalion with other Irish–born soldiers. He was young, idealistic, charismatic and saw Mexico as being the “side of right.”
Q: You write very empathetically about Julia’s desire to be an anthropologist. Is this a field you ever considered going into yourself?
LR: I studied anthropology with Professor June Macklin at Connecticut College. She was a wonderful teacher and ignited my lifelong interest in the subject. I’ve remained fascinated with migration, the movements of people in search of, always, a better life: more food, less hardship, opportunity.
Q: The novel powerfully evokes the tensions of life along the Mexico-United States border and the horrors faced by Mexicans trying to cross the desert illegally. Did you spend a lot of time there while researching and writing the book?
LR: I visited the border several times but did most of my research in Los Angeles, getting to know a family who crossed the desert much the way Roberto and Rosa did.
Q: Are there organizations like The Reunion Project and the Found Objects gallery that are working to help undocumented immigrants who are separated from loved ones during their journey across the border?
LR: There are forensic anthropologists who study human remains found in the Sonoran desert, and there are many people working to help immigrants during and after their crossings.
Q: While Roberto and Rosa’s story ends well, you share the stories of others that did not. Did you feel hesitant about including some of the more graphic details?
LR: I wanted to tell the story in the truest possible way. I spoke to people who nearly died on the journey. Others saw death along the way. These stories affected me deeply. They are a part of our national history, shocking and real, happening right now.
Q: Malibu and Boyle Heights may only be a short distance apart in terms of miles, but they couldn’t be more different. What inspired you to bring these two disparate worlds together?
LR: Living in Los Angeles has shown me how these worlds merge. You see workers waiting along the roadside, hoping to be chosen for a day’s work. How can we not look beneath the surface and see them as people? Oscar Mondragon has done that. He runs the Malibu Labor Exchange out of a trailer near the Malibu City Hall and the public library. It’s a place where workers are matched with employers, treated with dignity and respect.
Q: Handsome, charming, and delightfully self–centered, Lion Cushing is a character straight out of Hollywood’s Golden Era. What movie star or stars did you base him on?
LR: Lion is inspired by the same friend upon whom I based Harrison Thaxter in THE SILVER BOAT. But I also think of him as Peter O’Toole meets Albert Finney and fast–forwards to George Clooney.
Q: Immigration reform is one of today’s most hotly debated issues. Where do you see THE LEMON ORCHARD fitting into the discussion?
LR: I hope that readers will see immigration as a human story.
Q: Whichever side of the issue one might be on, your novel humanizes both the would–be immigrants and the law–enforcement officials charged with patrolling the border. Was this your intention?
LR: My intention was to write a good story with real characters. Black and white thinking --- all good versus all bad --- makes me uncomfortable. It’s easy to blame one side or one group, but how realistic is that? I try to take a gentle approach, with compassion, not automatically shut down to ideas that make me feel uneasy. Everyone has a point of view, everyone has a story.