I have been told Carolyn See is a literary legend in California, so I welcomed the opportunity to learn more about her. Her latest book is There Will Never Be Another You: A Novel. She is currently working on a second memoir, this one about getting older.
This session was packed to the walls and buzzing with excitement before Carolyn entered the room. When she arrived, a hush fell over the room probably for a couple of reasons. I always worry when I see an author being very slowly and painfully escorted on someone’s arm into a room. The entire room breathed a huge sigh of relief when Carolyn informed us later not to worry about her – that she was just recovering from a non-life threatening hospitalization.
The Los Angeles Times has said of Carolyn that “…all of her novels, even ‘The Handyman,’ a soothing and addictive fairy tale for frazzled women, are hung around a dark core. She’ll pull hope and humor from a suitcase bomb or a failing marriage, then rub your nose in the sorrow that, if you’re paying attention, comes with falling in love.”
The moderator for this conversation was Thomas Curwen, who Carolyn says is “a terrific writer, and what more could be said about anyone.” Thomas introduced Carolyn by saying she has been writing for 30-40 years, providing collisions of the human heart and everyday moments of grace while painting portraits of Los Angeles. He considers her to be a national treasure, to which she laughed and quipped, “Why not an international treasure?”
One of the first things I noticed as Carolyn began talking is that she has an almost childlike wonder about her, and she is a very animated storyteller. She grew up in Eagle Rock when it was the last stop on the #5 red streetcar from downtown LA. Since the end of the line was the turn-around, she loved to watch the conductor turn the seats around for his run back to downtown. She gets nostalgic for the Los Angeles of her youth because it was very magical; however, everything takes on great importance when you’re a child. The skies over LA were a clean, sparkling blue in those days of the 1930’s, and the place smelled marvelous. It seemed like paradise before World War II, before the smog. That said, she is as in love with the present as she is with the past. She can’t imagine writing about anywhere in the world, other than Los Angeles.
She and her daughter, Lisa See, both write novels of manners but in different landscapes since Lisa’s novels predominantly take place in China. Carolyn says her sense of manners came from her mother, who was crazy as a bat but had good taste in manners. Her dad was an advertising writer and aspiring (fiction) writer. Carolyn says he was thrilled when he saw the #5 streetcar conductor reading a story he had written.
She doesn’t do much research for her novels because she pulls them from things she has seen. Carolyn works with her memory and imagination almost exclusively. She loves some of the sentences she writes, and some are real stinkers.
Not much happened/happens to women of her generation, a lot like Jane Austen’s era. That really was reinforced for Carolyn recently in the hospital, when she is embarrassed to admit she was so bored she resorted to watching soap operas. Nothing happens in soap operas because they are about women. She was amazed at how often people in soap operas abducted each other. The other astounding thing was that men were so anxious to claim babies as theirs, so unlike real life. “Women tend to look through the big end of the telescope.” She believes women pay so much attention to tiny details because not much is happening. An example is how women behave at social occasions – sometimes they play an game to figure out hidden relationships by noticing who is looking at whom with what expression, who is bored, who’s gradually moving toward whom. She’s usually very good at that game and, of course, sometimes she completely screws it up.
She believes it could be a disadvantage for a writer to have a nice childhood because storytelling is a great coping mechanism. We all laughed when Carolyn said she considers herself white trash and that Dreaming: Hard Luck And Good Times In America was a white trash memoir but she assured us that she was serious. She said she comes from two of the oldest failed families in the U.S., one side of which lived in Jamestown in the 1600’s and the other side of whom were pilgrims. She believed she could break the chain of failures but that it would cause heads to roll, so she wrote Dreaming about making yourself into a better person. She laughingly said that some people in the family still don’t speak to her because of it.
Carolyn told the moderator before the session that she believed Los Angeles has the potential to become in 2020 the equivalent of Paris in the 1920’s. As she said to us, “Who doesn’t wish they could have lived in Paris during that decade? It was a city of geniuses.” She wants LA to be a city of the arts, a literary city containing something like The Bloomsbury Group in London, and she believes that has the very real possibility of coming true. I, for one, would love to see that happen!
If you want to read more articles about the LA Times Festival of Books author sessions, just click on the title below:
LA Times Festival of Books – LA Stories
LA Times Festival of Books – Stories from the South
LA Times Festival of Books – Mysteries: A Question of Character
LA Times Festival of Books – Mysteries: Dangerous Histories
UCLA vs. USC – Which Is Best for the LA Times Festival of Books?
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