Internationally acclaimed for the hilarious and sublime Golden Days, which chronicles the survival of the human spirit after a nuclear apocalypse, Carolyn See has just written her fifth novel, Making History, which is just out on Houghton Muffin. In Making History, Carolyn See expands her setting beyond LA to the Pacific Rim and takes on bold new subject matter with venture capitalist Jerry Bridges, who, like a contemporary Ahab, “voyages out to fix the world and ends up getting fixed instead.” With daring shifts in voice, superb narrative agility, and irreverent, upbeat characterizations, Carolyn See has created a work of searing compassion, bracing humor and ruthless originality. I spoke to her at the Warwick Hotel, New York, in September, on the first leg of her book tour.
Liza Béar Do you get a lot of flak because you wear two hats, you’re a novelist and a reviewer?
Carolyn See No, I get a lot of flak because I try not to be scholarly. I can’t stand all that scholarly stuff. I’ve got my Ph.D. I’m Doctor See. I’m smart. I don’t have to go around pretending to be smart. So that really ruffles the feathers of a lot of people who …
LB You’ve lived all your life on the West Coast?
CS Yes, but I’ve traveled an awful lot. My home is California. I have to be in Topanga to write. And literally grounded, pulling weeds and fern brush and so on.
LB There are such wonderful sensuous descriptions of Topanga in Golden Days. I think you’re the first California novelist I’ve … fallen in love with!
CS (laughter) Thank you. Well, you know, it’s because it’s not talking about the damn movies, or television. It’s my house, my yard, my view … Well, ask me a question.
LB Oh, a serious question. See, I get told I’m too sincere. Since sincerity is in short supply on campus …
CS Oh God, no kidding! I don’t know when’s the last time I saw any. The only sincere emotion on campus is fear. Don’t you think?
LB Yeah. The wages of fear. Here we go. Is the notion of hubris central to Making History?
CS Whoa! Stop! Yes. Yes. Yes. But it goes hand in hand with the idea that the universe is essentially chaotic. My last novel, Golden Days, is totally about male hubris: my rocket is bigger than your rocket, though this configuration I’m holding two fingers up like rockets may or may not still be appropriate. Unfortunately right now, right after the so-called disintegration of the Soviet Union, they’re hiring like crazy out in California. This is the big moment for the defense industry. So there were bad guys in Golden Days, in a simpleminded way. Jerry Bridges, in Making History, is the same kind of expansionist guy but he’s a good guy. He wants to perfect the soft, the murky, the jungly, the essentially feminine, the disorganized, the crazy. He wants to change that and make it all climate controlled and air-conditioned. And he actually thinks he can do it. Let’s perfect it out there, while back here, it’s falling apart. So, yes, hubris in the sense of vaulting and inappropriate ambition, which is a very male trait. Ladies don’t have it. I think it’s gender-specific.
LB You do?
CS I do. Except for Margaret Thatcher. Or Queen Elizabeth the First.
LB What was the impetus for the writing of this book?
CS My daughter Clara’s two accidents. They changed the world for us, they slapped us silly. One day, we were happy. My older daughter was rich. My younger daughter, who does avant-garde theater, was in the middle of a production when the first accident happened. She was sideswiped by a drunk Salvadoran hit-and-run driver. But the car spun across and actually, it was only Clara who was really hurt. Her foot was destroyed and people wanted to amputate it.
LB Is she OK?
CS She still limps. She had to have three very bad operations, and she doesn’t have the energy that she used to have. It changed her life. Also, her friends began dying like flies.
LB The notion of catastrophe or accident since it’s unmotivated by definition, is tricky to handle in a story, isn’t it? The first accident, I wasn’t ready for that …
CS You’re never ready.
LB I felt that everyday life would be shattered by that phone call from the emergency room.
CS But see, it wasn’t. It’s not supposed to be devastating. It’s all so standard, every day. You get that phone call, you dread it, and you go …
LB So you didn’t want to get any dramatic mileage out of the first accident?
CS No, no, no, no, no. It’s just ordinary life.
LB The second accident was really stunning. It did use suspense. The way you put us in the position of all the characters who were going to be in the crash was very moving and powerful. So there, you did want to get dramatic mileage out of it.
CS Yes. I was very affected by my daughter’s second accident when she was alone and her car was totaled by a galloping runaway horse. It didn’t hurt her body, but her mind took a little turn. She came to Topanga at three in the morning and flung herself into my arms, covered in broken glass, screaming like a banshee, “This is a random universe, this is a random universe, there is no God, the concept of God is faulty!”
LB What did you grow up as?
CS Just a straight-off Catholic. Born in Pasadena, but raised in Eagle Rock, a working class suburb of Pasadena.
LB The setting of Rhine Maidens?
CS Uh-huh. Anyway, once you get the idea that you’re not safe… See, there’s our fiction, that we’re safe. That’s the theory that we live off of. And that’s why it’s always news when somebody gets mugged. In fact, it should be news when nobody gets mugged…
LB A lot of the book’s written in interior monologue, as a chronicle, from the points of view of the members of the family and some of their friends, dead and alive. How did you approach the structuring of the seventeen episodes?
CS It has the structure of a suspension bridge. And Thea’s two chapters on either side are what hold it in place. Thea is the artist, the seer. The travel section in the middle, where everything just blows out, that’s the wobbly part of the suspension bridge… The bridge is suspended over the abyss of chaos.
LB Did you think of that beforehand or did you think of it afterwards for when people ask you about structure?
CS When I’m writing, I sit around and draw a picture of what it is I’m doing. One day, I had all these chapters out on the dining room table and I knew that that was the day where I had to decide where everything went. The Robin sections weren’t there until the very end. The original beginning of the book was, “Standing on the backyard, she could look two ways.” In an earlier draft, Donny was Darlene, a broken-down housewife who’d been left in the valley. And then I decided no, no, no, it has to be a guy, and with the computer I changed her name to Donny. It was amazing how the same set of complaints, the same bitching, and the same being in a backwater with life passing you by and not knowing what to do, being stuck in one of those giant houses in what is essentially a ghost town—it was amazing how few lines I had to change [when I changed genders]. For all these deserted wives, there’s a deserted husband. Donny’s the guy who’s thrown up all his canned ravioli and is lying in all these wrecked trucks. But look the other way, and there’s an incredible bed of roses as far as the eye can see.
LB Robin the beach bum is one of my favorite characters. He’s literally out of this world. He goes on speaking in this amazing way after he dies.
CS Robin is a composite of a lot of my daughter’s friends who were dying. The funeral’s from real life and I had to clear that with his folks. Because the worst thing that can ever happen to you is to have a dead kid. And to have it thrown into a novel… I had to explain to them that it wasn’t frivolous at all. This is how he can live for a long time.
LB You also had Whitney, the Clara character, dying in the story. Wasn’t that kind of scary?
CS Well, Clara has been a little grumpy about it! But where real life stops and the fiction begins, Whitney and her stepfather are made for each other. They’re soulmates. They love each other. And there’s nothing they can do about it. So how can this relationship be resolved?
LB Oh, you have to kill off the heroine.
CS Well, she can’t live in his bed, so she has to live in his heart! Also, I happen to believe it’s not such a terrible thing to die. Maybe you just find the next… That’s why Thea’s in the book also. I know she’s a pain in the butt, I know a lot of people aren’t going to like those chapters. But she’s there to say there’s a bunch of stuff going on and you don’t have to be a genius to see it. You just have to keep your eyes open.
LB How close are you to Eastern philosophy, say Buddhism?
CS Weeell, no, no, no. I feel emotionally close to these women I know in L.A. who’d say, when the waiter was pouring the coffee, “You’d better look out after that spleen now.” I mean, they’re seers. It’s no biggy. They’re stuck with this, in the same way that an artist is stuck with being an artist and having real life and trying to put those two things together.
LB The Pacific Rim is the setting for Jerry’s exploits as a venture capitalist. I love your image of the Pacific Rim as a gold plate.
CS Me, too. I’m crazy about it. My first novel, The Rest is Done with Mirrors, is set in UCLA and the Rand Corporation. It’s very close in theme to this book because it’s about when you grow up from UCLA, then you go over to the Rand Corporation.
LB The industrial-academic tie-in.
CS And everybody said, “She’s got Vet’s Housing down pat. But anything she says about the government is, of course, ludicrous, it’s stupid because she’s just a woman.” And I got terrible reviews. Nobody knew who I was, they really hurt my feelings. Some drunk exstudent of mine said, “You really write well, Carolyn, but you’re never going to get anywhere until you write about men.”
LB There are men in Rhine Maidens and Golden Days.
CS No, but nice men, decent men. I thought, well, he may be right. And so! started looking at the good guys. They’re all around.
LB I took the title, Making History, to refer ironically to Jerry, but maybe it’s broader than that…
CS The abyss is always there. And when people make history, what they’re trying to do is get across the abyss without noticing…
LB The story gets them across.