Like so many Chicagoans, I’m a transplant from the Mitten State. A mere 70 miles from the Michigan border border, Chicago is an obvious destination for so many neo-urbanites who still hold Michigan’s beaches, small towns, and quintessential Midwestern charm close to their heart. So when I heard about Swarm Theory, Chicago author Christine Rice’s recent novel-in-stories set in 1970s and 80s Michigan, I was excited to take a trip back to my roots through her unflinching, captivating prose.
Swarm Theory follows a number of well-drawn high school and adult characters over the course of a dozen years in the small town of New Canaan, on Michigan’s faltering east side. Disappointment, loss, and resignation are centerpieces, with tales of failed marriage, absent mothers, suicide, AIDs, and teenagers racing their parents’ cars on lonely stretches of farmland roads.
But Rice’s characters aren’t even the best part: her rich, detailed setting plays just as much of a starring role. Take teenager Astrid Miracal’s spot-on description of the land she loves and hates:
Out here, where we live, in the vast inner gut of Michigan, in this former corn field converted to upscale subdivision, I’ve stood in our family room, palming the picture window overlooking the eighteenth hole of a golf course and, beyond that, miles of farmland, to watch tornadoes in the distance, their swirling tubes scoring the land…
I recently spoke with Rice about Swarm Theory and growing up on the east side of Michigan (including the infamous Detroit-area Coney Island restaurants), as well as dealing with loss and the Flint water crisis. If you’re in the Chicago area, you can hear her read from her work at the Sunday Salon on June 26 at 7 pm at the Riverview Tavern, 1958 West Roscoe.
Lauren Stacks: Swarm Theory is a novel told through linked stories, and is set in the fictional town of New Canaan, based on your hometown just outside of Flint, Michigan. Tell me more about the setting: how did you construct the town of New Canaan? How is it similar to your hometown, and how is it different?
Christine Rice: When I start a story, establishing place is as important to me as developing characters. The first scene I wrote was “The Art of Survival.” I very vividly saw that scene taking place in my hometown of Grand Blanc, Michigan, in a place where the ‘in crowd’ teens (of which I was not a member) would go to smoke, make out…whatever. I think it was called ‘High Point.’ I might be making that up. Not sure. But in my mind, High Point sat on a hill high atop the city. I see it very vividly in my imagination…whether it is a real thing or not! And that was where I imagined the first half of “The Art of Survival” taking place. Astrid saw Grand Blanc below. It’s when she first consciously dreamed of escape.
As other chapters developed, I really got tangled in the details of my decision to set Swarm Theory in Grand Blanc. I would be writing a scene and start thinking about where Holy Family Catholic Church or the train tracks or Grand Blanc High School or the car dealerships or the library or Bella Vista Mall were in relation to each other and that reality often didn’t match the narrative’s reality.
Trying to recreate the town I knew–on the page–kept bumping against the story’s demands. And I kept getting frustrated by that. So finally, I just said, screw it, and created New Canaan. I also didn’t want people who intimately knew Grand Blanc to be pulled out of the narrative by details that didn’t add up.
I also liked the Biblical definition of Canaan as ‘a place of abundance.’ The area was and remains just incredibly beautiful and bountiful. That’s what the Midwest, that area in particular, felt like and still feels like, for me. At that time, in the 1970s and 1980s there were still many farms and prairies. Urban sprawl has trimmed a good deal of that.
As far as what’s the same…
In the summers, we rode our bikes to Bella Vista Mall (and saw KISS perform there before they hit it big). There’s Holy Family Church, a really awesome library, ACE Hardware, WTAC radio station, HALO Burgers. The layout of the fictional New Canaan High (at the time) is very similar to the present Grand Blanc High School. We actually had two high schools separated by a football field. Angelo’s Coney Island, though, is in Flint (and it’s the best diner on the planet).
Lauren Stacks: It’s impossible to talk about a book of linked stories without mentioning Winesburg, Ohio. Was that book an inspiration for Swarm Theory? What about other novel-in-stories collections?
Christine Rice: Winesburg, Ohio most definitely influenced Swarm Theory. Equal to Winesburg, Ohio, is Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine. I, somehow, read Love Medicine before Winesburg, Ohio. Both of those books knocked the wind out of me. I have been very much influenced by the structural risks taken by writers like Sherwood Anderson, Louise Erdrich, Carson McCullers and, in a sense, Ernest Hemingway (in the Nick Adams Stories).
It’s no secret that the concept of the ‘novel’ has been changing, is changing…most writers and readers understand that the definition of novel is no longer rigidly set by dead male authors (although I adore and admire scads of male authors), that a novel might lead to multiple destinations, and that the terms linked stories and novel-in-stories can be and is often interchangeable.
Lauren Stacks: As a fellow native of the mitten state, I can attest that the sense of place—small-town, rural Michigan—is spot-on in these stories. Physically, where were you when you wrote this book? Were you still living in Michigan, or were you in Chicago at that time?
Christine Rice: I’m relieved to hear that!
I am a creature of habit…and wrote most of the book in my cramped little home office in Chicago surrounded by disorganized bookshelves and stacks of books covering the floor. But during the writing of this, we were often back in Grand Blanc where my Mom still had a home. We would be there for holidays and for extended weeks throughout the summer. I did write some sections of Swarm Theory at the Grand Blanc Public Library when I needed some quiet time away from the family.
In fact, my publisher emailed to tell me they’d accepted Swarm Theory for publication one weekend when I was in Grand Blanc with my mom for a baby shower or some other family event.
Lauren Stacks: Swarm Theory juggles at least a dozen well-defined, vibrant characters in its pages. Which character(s) do you most identify with, and why?
Christine Rice: Different parts of me identify with different characters at different times. That’s weird. I know. I often feel like an 18-year-old. Sometimes I feel very adult (but not often).
I definitely identify with the usual suspects: Will, Caroline, and Astrid. Each of those characters represents different parts of me. Caroline seems the most confused (for good reason…she’d been physically and emotionally abandoned by her mother) and I felt pretty confused as a young person (even now…). Astrid is much cooler than I was but is nerdy in all of the best ways (we both play the piano, French horn and trumpet) and she felt stuck between her dueling parents. Both Caroline and Astrid are only children, too. Will…I just love Will. I identify with his inability to affect change, his misguided life decisions, and his desire to not be defined by his past.
When I’m feeling more adult, I really identify with Elizabeth Aboujamra. She’s the teacher in “King of the Lakes.” And Louise Shaheen…the daughter of Leila’s best friend Mae Shaheen. Those are both composite characters based on Lebanese women in my mother’s extended family.
Lauren Stacks: Loss plays a large role in these stories. How do you think loss affects people differently based on place? What is unique about how a small town deals with loss opposed to a large city?
Christine Rice: That’s a really interesting question. I’m thinking back to the late 60s and 70s… Probably the biggest obstacle (not just in my town, but in most small towns and, perhaps in larger towns too) at that time was the lack of family resources. My parents’ marriage started falling apart at the same time in my life as Astrid’s parents’ marriage began to fail. At that time, I knew of maybe one other single-parent household–in all of Grand Blanc.
At one point, after my Dad left, when my mom and I were really struggling…we ended up going to see our minister at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Flint. We were looking for some solace, some guidance…and he actually said to us: He threw you out like a pair of worn socks, huh? I’ll never forget that. Ever. I mean…it was true but so incredibly harsh. And of course he was trying to help, I guess, but seemed woefully unqualified.
But there it was: old socks.
And people would ask: What did you do? What did your Mom do? As if we had done something to make him leave. That was…yeah…that was weird. He had simply (or not so simply) fallen in love with another woman.
So there was a lot of misunderstanding. And I really didn’t have the resources to explain any of it.
I suspect (but can’t verify it) that a bigger town, a less sheltered town, a town with more resources or better therapists, might have helped my mom and me process that series of events. I might have found someone to help me identify the fact that my father left us and that I, as an only child, couldn’t fix my parents’ relationship…nor was I responsible for their problems.
Unfortunately, I carried that burden for far too long. I tried to fix them. And, of course, you can’t fix other people. It’s just impossible.
Lauren Stacks: The City of Flint has been under much scrutiny with its recent water crisis and contaminated drinking water. How might these current events have affected your town of New Canaan, if you were writing these stories to be set in the modern day?
Christine Rice: I’ve always found it challenging to set a story in present time. There’s something magical about looking back…or looking into the future. The present presses down too hard on me. I really admire essayists and memoirists for their ability to access the past, to pull events forward, present them in ways that help make sense of the now. I have an incredibly hard time doing that.
But can you even imagine living through what Flint residents have gone through? It would take me years to get my head around the long-term implications of such an event. The stories…and characters…it’s just incredibly tragic.
I was there two weeks ago and met a friend at a restaurant at the Flint Farmers’ Market. When I sat down, I asked for water and my friend joked, “It’s Flint water.” And I paused, and the waiter said, “It’s filtered.”
And that was one little incident. Can you imagine having a baby and trying to make formula? Or bathing your children? Or cooking? It just seems overwhelming…and I’m not even living there. I can imagine how terrifying this must be for Flint parents…it’s our job, after all, to keep our kids safe…but how can you do that when the people in charge of delivering something as basic as water have so utterly and profoundly failed?
Downtown Flint was and is, actually, experiencing a renaissance. Like I said, there’s the new Farmers’ Market, and a half-dozen or so new restaurants have opened on Saginaw Street. And the Flint Cultural Center institutions are amazing. There are still relatively strong neighborhoods. But this is another huge setback because property values have plunged even lower.
The cumulative effect of so many setbacks is dark subject matter…even for me.
Lauren Stacks: Can you tell us more about what else you’re working on currently?
Christine Rice: I have been working on a number of short stories, a novel about physician-assisted suicide, and also a novel set in the near future. Can’t say much about the novels because I’m just feeling my way into it. But the short stories are set in Chicago…in the late 1970s and early 1980s. For now, that seems to be my sweet spot.
Swarm Theory by Christine Rice
University of Hell Press
Published March 9, 2016