An Interview with Carolyn See
Linda Rigel: One of your two daughters, Lisa See, is a writer. (I’ve just started reading her book Snow Flower and the Secret Fan; so far, it’s lovely). In fact, with the writer John Espey, the three of you wrote a book together. Can you talk about what it’s like to be a mother and a writer in a family of writers?
Carolyn See: Actually, many people in our family are or were writers. John Espey’s fairly nutty aunt wrote a wildly popular set of self-improvement books for young girls that were best sellers in their time. John wrote for The New Yorker for many years and also had four wonderful novels. My dad started writing hard-core pornography at age 69 and published 73 volumes before he died. My younger daughter, Clara Sturak, is a marvelous journalist with a perfect, clear prose style. And Lisa, of course, has a best seller on her hands right now, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, with half a million books currently in print. It’s the exception in our family NOT to write!
I sense, though, that you’re asking another question — are Lisa and I in any kind of competition? I can honestly say no. We’re doing two very different things; it’s like the difference between eggs Benedict and lemon meringue pie. Both are foods, both have elements of yellow and white, but both are great on their own terms. They don’t compare.
Lisa, Clara, and I stick to each other through thick and thin. Lisa drives me to out-of-the-way signings; Clara has made herself Lisa’s archivist. And John, when he was alive, supported all of us unstintingly. A lot of that competition myth is macho-derived — we see it, I think, with the two Bush presidents: myth would have it that the son wants to avenge his dad as regards Saddam Hussein, but he also wants to make his dad look like a bozo. (The law of the jungle and all that.) But there’s no hierarchy to writing, no matter how much people want to “rank” the “twenty-five best novels” or whatever. There’s room for everyone. There’s enough joy and honor in the profession to more than go around.
LR: When you met your life partner, John Espey, the novelist and UCLA professor of English, you were twice divorced, broke, middle-aged and had two kids. What did it take for you to be willing to try that kind of love again?
CS: About John Espey . . . it didn’t happen very neatly. He proposed marriage and had a literal nervous breakdown later that same day, and was in severe clinical depression for several months. I thought that “respectability” would be anathema to me. I’d had a pretty wild-and-fun eight years or so. That’s why we never married. Even though John was an atheist, I think he had a thought that there might be a pretty indignant first wife waiting for him in the Beyond if he took up with me. And I knew I never wanted to be a wife, because I was never going to be bossed around again. Then I bought a different house in Topanga and very tentatively asked him if he wanted to move in. His kindness, and his special kindness to my younger daughter, was what won me over. We both had doubts all along, but we really loved each other. He stuck up for me and helped me in every way, and I think I did the same for him.
LR: In Making A Literary Life: Advice For Writers and Other Dreamers, you say for a while after John Espey’s death when you tried to write you would think, why did I bother? Then you realized you get joy from writing a beautiful sentence. Your latest novel, There Will Never Be Another You, opens with a woman cleaning up just after her husband has died at home after a long illness. I took care of my ex-husband at home when he died of cancer, and I just love that scene in all its mundanity with the adult diapers and the filthy sheets and the bit about hospice showing up to take away the really good drugs. Then, in Golden Days, is this fragment: — “all the sorrow that comes from pursuing the wrong things and then getting them.” That is like poetry, so much packed into so few words. My pedestrian question after all this is: How many drafts do you go through to get your wonderful pacing?
CS: I go through about twenty revisions. Or more. Until it feels right. Sometimes it feels like forever. I can obsess about words; I think every writer does. When you start changing “this” to “that” and then back again enough times, you know — or think — you’re done.
LR: I love your gleeful use of exclamation marks! Did it take courage to use them at first? It seems against all the “rules” of serious writing.
CS: I used to worry about exclamation marks, but what the hell. Sometimes I feel some enthusiasm. So I put in an exclamation point. About five years ago, I began to question the whole concept of “improvement.” I think I’m done being “improved.” That’s part of my prose style, and I’m certainly not going to change it now. And I may lose weight or get my wardrobe finally in order, but the chances on all that are low. “I yam what I yam,” as Popeye says.
LR: In your memoir Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times In America, you mention Leonard Orr, the man who developed Rebirthing-Breathwork, and I flashed back to taking Loving Relationships Training seminars years ago in the Bay Area. Those “prosperity seminars” were goofy — your chapter about those things is called “The Embarrassing Californianess Of It All” — but they were great. I can’t think of any place where that kind of energy or quest is being expressed today. Do you agree, and why do you think that is?
CS: Leonard Orr and Leo Sunshine and even Werner Earhardt are “on to brighter subjects,” but I think some of their ideas have made it into the mainstream in a big way. Look at Bono, who sees the world as changeable and then goes on to improve it. There’s no reason why a lowly Irish musician could get into a position to do that, but he did. And all that “New Thought” stuff came from Middle America in the mid-nineteenth century; it’s not going anywhere. Despite “common sense,” there’s something in Americans that is still incurably optimistic.
LR: In Dreaming, you write about horrible things in your family history: a few suicides, your mother beat you pretty viciously, a lot of alcoholism. We might need boundaries to be successful human beings, but it seems we need to tear them down to be successful writers. In that sense, is it dangerous for you to write? On completing a novel or your memoir, do you have to reconstruct boundaries you’ve pulled down in order to write the book?
CS: I don’t worry too much about “boundaries” when I write my books — or when I live my life, actually. I think they’re artificial constructs made up by social workers, rules that are made to be broken. (There’s an assumption that in Dreaming, for instance, I told all, just because I told a lot. Actually, there’s a lot I left out.) Some natural defenses, or self-preservation, always come into play, I think. But if the notion of “good” writing, whatever that is, is to tell the truth, then you should tell the truth. Not necessarily the WHOLE truth but enough of it as you possibly can, without unduly hurting someone else.
LR: In The Washington Post review of There Will Never Be Another You, Chris Bohjalian says you seem to have been changed by the events of 9/11. But in reading your other work — Golden Days of course comes to mind — I would think that 9/11 confirmed rather than changed your world view. Could you speak to that? How is our anxiety over terrorism any different than our previous anxiety over whether or not they would drop the bomb?
CS: Chris Bojalian is partly right when he says my “thinking changed” after 9/11. I did think that about 50 years of fiction had been moderately obsolete — the communists went the way of green jello and little white gloves and manual typewriters. Now it wasn’t us against the godless atheists, it was us against a bunch of guys whose names we couldn’t catch from countries we probably couldn’t pick out on the map. A whole different set of villains, if you will. And they believe in their religion enough to die for it. And most of us haven’t even read the Koran. So storytellers, as well as everybody else in the “western” world, are disoriented, confused. The thrust of stories has already changed. But, as I said, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima just a few weeks after my dad left, so I’ve always had a real sense of how the public impinges on the personal, and vice versa. I think that fear is elemental in all of us. When we drone on about the end of the world, we really mean that we’re going to die. Our part in the cosmic movie is over.
LR: Someone who knows I’m doing this interview with you said that your book reviews are what make The Washington Post worth reading. Is there anything you’re reading or following right now that has you excited?
CS: Working doing the weekly reviews, first at the The L.A. Times on Mondays and for quite a while now at The Washington Post on Fridays, has been an incredible pleasure and treat for me. It’s like being paid to drink margaritas in a sunny courtyard. The people at the Post are wonderful to me. They send me monthly parcels of books, and what they send are always a surprise. Even the bad ones are fun to read. I think of the review genre as a very little airport — 850 words — and I have to land on it every week. But I try to think of as many different landings as possible, and in a sense they’re more personal essays than reviews. It’s like — to change metaphors — being asked to dance by someone different every week. You have to follow their steps; they’re the ones who are leading. You have to try to look at the book on their terms, not your own. I’ve had wonderful treats over the years. I think of The Joy Luck Club; my review in the LA Times was its first rave review. More recently, at the Post, I fell in love with Augusten Burroughs’ Running With Scissors. And very recently Margaret Sartor’s Miss American Pie, which just knocked me out. And this morning, Ancestor Stones, by Aminatta Forna, who uses the novel form to deal with a hundred years of history in Sierra Leone. She’s comparable to Isabel Allende — her father was finance minister there, was executed under false pretenses. Soon, the country fell into civil war. She returned 25 years later and came up with this terrific book, which is, among other things, a scathing indictment of both Christian and Muslim missionaries who gleefully raped the native culture. My point is: I never gave one thought to Sierra Leone, and now I can’t stop thinking about it. These books keep me in touch with a larger world I’d never know otherwise. And I get to tell other people about them.
LR: In 1995, you wrote, “In my own lifetime the American middle class has taken some awful knocks. America is destroying itself. More specifically, America’s middle and working classes are destroying themselves with a little help from — could it be those Republicans over at the golf course?” Eleven years later, what are your thoughts there? Is the destruction complete?
CS: No, the destruction isn’t complete. It will never be complete, because, just like humans, governments are ever-shifting. Yes, I do think the ruling class in America would like to grab everything for themselves, because they were brought up that way, and early American Puritans somehow had it wired into their religion that poverty is a sign that God doesn’t like you, that you’re not “saved,” that money, on the other hand, is a sign of God’s approval. They say the middle class in this country is shrinking, but I don’t really know who the “they” is in that sentence. I tend to think there’s a natural process of balances — that when the very rich press their luck too far, there’s a danger of a backlash, and the rich know it. There’s often a time when the bully on the playground does one bad thing too many and all the little weaklings gang up on him, and that’s the end of that particular pattern. I look at that stuff as a novelist, and as a human being, but I try not to get too worked up about it. I think of myself as wearing the invisible tee shirt with “You can kill me but you can’t impress me” printed on it. Every second I spend laughing is a second I don’t have to think about Vice President Cheney, for instance.
LR: You have a lot of compassion for your characters. Maybe that’s why people see your ensembles as villian-less. You seem to also have compassion for the human race. You’ve said or written in different places “. . . that our youths are fleeting, our choices were/are mostly wrong, that our moments of joy are lost and gone. And yes, life is still so beautiful!” You say most writers have one story in them; is this yours?
CS: I don’t think there are villains in this world. There are plenty of people who have been broken by life — so seriously damaged that they often behave like beasts or worse, but that’s the fault of their wiring or their circumstances or both. I think, perhaps, of my stepfather, who was treated so shabbily by my mother: There was a huge battle for control in that relationship and then he lost the war. And then he behaved very badly indeed. Plenty of people have faulty wiring. Or maybe they just hate their life, and then lash out. But any of that can change at any time. We love to cast people as devils because then that lets us off the hook. But I don’t think life is really like that.
Just to put it in a political perspective, zealots in the Middle East didn’t just wake up one day and say, let’s have some fun and blow up the Twin Towers! There was a history behind it — Britain in the twenties, doing its Empire thing, then leaving when things got too hot, but leaving Persians, Arabs and so on with a mighty sense of having been ripped off and humiliated. People hold grudges — we all have that trait, I think. Then we try to set things “right” and just make things worse. So people go to war. Add to that the fact that men have a tendency toward aggression, and women have a huge capacity for passive revenge, and you have a nice mix. And yet, the world is so beautiful! And always surprising. That’s the cosmic goofy wonder of it all. . .
LR: Apparently The Handyman, your book about the summer an artist makes the leap from desire to performance, has been optioned for film. Can you tell us how the project is moving along? Has anyone bought the rights to There Will Never Be Another You yet? It seems it would make a great movie.
CS: Nobody has bitten for Another You yet. I don’t think it would make such a great movie, really. A dad saves his son, but there aren’t any explosions, and the sex is silly and not taken very seriously. On the other hand, Warners BOUGHT The Handyman — a huge difference in terms of money from optioning, and that transaction was part of what changed me into a prosperous matron from a respectable, if somewhat impecunious, professor/writer. It’s gone through a zillion scripts and directors, and to quote from Another You, it’s not dead yet. I’m very thankful for that!
LR: What is your next project about?
CS: During the time I was writing Making A Literary Life and partway into There Will Never Be Another You, I experienced four deaths: my darling and esteemed life-partner of 27 years, John Espey; my mother who was so irritated at me (and vice versa) that she cut me dead on her death bed; my sister, who was slowly failing in awful circumstances, who would call and we would talk but she refused to have my daughters and me come to see her; and a dear sweet old boyfriend, Harvard Gordon, from long ago, who’d become a family friend over the years. I took care of John (with help from his daughters and my own daughter Clara) at home, and Lisa, my older daughter, the wonderful novelist, took care of Harvard. During those months I saw, and participated in, a lot of goofy behavior. One reason we have so much trouble with death in this country is that we really are a nation of immigrants, and our sense-memories of how to deal with death diverge wildly. I’m thinking of doing a book of etiquette on death, similar in form to Making A Literary Life.
Part One would be about how to act when a loved one is looking green around the gills (the ancient Roman phrase for it was ‘looking ready for the parsley,’ since they wreathed corpses with sprigs of parsley). Part Two would be about when you look in the mirror and notice you’re looking ready for the parsley yourself. How can we take some of the agony, embarrassment and absurdity out of this process? So . . . that’s what I’m working on, or thinking of working on.