A TALK WITH CAROLYN SEE

A few years back I was going through some trying times. Three of the people
I was closest to died with in a period of a few months, some other bad
things happened. And then there was the World Trade Center, which happened
to all of us at some level in this country. And remember, there was the
anthrax scare. I'm a book reviewer as well as a novelist by trade, and I
found myself alone -- my life partner was dead and gone -- and I'd look at
a stack of packages and think: Is one of them going to kill me? Will I
find the dreaded white powder inside? And remember, some doofus in charge
of national security kept warning us to buy plastic and seal up a room for
when the chemical and/or biological attacks occurred. (Never mind that we
would suffocate if we did that.) Part of you knows this is nonsense, but
part of you (I mean me) couldn't help but think, it could happen. The
way things have been going, anything could happen. And then there was
Sars, and now the threat of Avian flu. Every once in a while anxiety in a
country or any kind of community just goes hog wild. Remember in the
Shakespearean tragedies, there'd always be a scene at the beginning where
two characters come on the stage and say things like "I don't like the way
things are going! A two-headed sheep was born the other night at the next
farm over, and the sun came up in the West yesterday!" And then the
tragedy unfolds. The whole world convulses, from top to bottom. My own
personal losses, the crazy-making"war on terror," seemed a part of the same
awful thing -- like the whole world had acute appendicitis. I wrote about
three sets of good people caught in this convulsion of fear -- of "terror."

Because part of happened in the past-- the way stuff that happens to us is
*always* in the past -- we're in a car crash, for instance, and it already
happened. What we feel from it is what we feel now as time rushed past
us, and how it's all going to turn out lies hidden in the future. In
"There Will Never Be Another You," characters are suffering astonishing
losses, but the threat of what loss is to come just hangs there, we can't
know it until we know it. I like that you called it the near
future. Because that's what is always coming up, and what worries me
anyway, almost to distraction. Once you get a hint of the awful things
that can happen, you're at the mercy of your imagination. One of my
characters, Felicia, the difficult wife of Doctor Philip Fuchs, acts like
an awful pill at all times. She wants another kid even though she can't
take care of the ones she has; she wants to go to Australia, she wants to
buy an avocado farm. What she's really saying is: "Can't you get me out
of this awful place -- the life I'm living in now? I'm dying in here! Get
me out!" But that's easier said than done. How do we get out of a life
that turns awful on us? That's the question I ask in this book.

I was born in Los Angeles and I love it. One of the things I really love
is that it hasn't been thoroughly mapped in fiction yet. It's terra
incognita in a lot of ways. It's true, of course, that anything can happen
anywhere, but out here things are profoundly amorphous. There's a strict
class system, for instance, and yet the class system is really porous. No
one has a clue about "reality."

Waves of immigrants just wash through here, and change in a twinkling to
some other kind of person. I write about a young, wildly attractive
Chinese gang member whose just bowled over by "American life," whatever
that is. And he meets a blonde and virtuous Caucasian beauty -- what's
going to happen to them? Again, they're in a world where officials promise
nightly that the war is coming home, that LAX or San Pedro Harbor are going
to blow up in the very next moment. But Los Angeles stretches for uncharted
miles. Where is that war anyway? There's nothing like the World Trade
Center to really function as a target. The fear, the creepy sense of doom,
is everywhere and nowhere. Just like LA.

The kind of fear I'm talking about happens most of all in our heads. The
kind of fear you feel in the middle of the night that may or may not vanish
in the morning. (The "war on terror" really means that terror itself has
us by the throat.) There was a moment on television after Bush announced
the invasion of Iraq. It was solemn and serious and you hoped to God that
is was all just some propaganda ploy, that "they" were just scaring the
American public for -- whatever -- oil, or because Bush was avenging his
dad -- whatever. Then Bush went away and the journalists got up to go and
the camera caught the face of a respected TV personality, Terry Moran. He
was plainly scared out of his wits. And that's when you begin to wake up in
the night, and try to construct the scenario: What awful things could
happen? (Because awful things happen, we all know that.) If you have
characters in a *group*, they're not going to cop to those fears. If you
set up characters alone, all they can do is *think* about stuff. That's
not much fun, novelistically speaking. But two people alone -- they can
and do let things slip all the time. Phil Fuchs' mother has lost two
husbands. To stave off her loneliness she works in the waiting room of
the UCLA Medical Center. She talks to a brave but terrified woman whose
husband will die if he doesn't get a transplant. They're just chatting
like ladies, but every once in a while they talk about fear, about
terror. Or they see it in each other's faces. Two by two, all these
people eventually open their hearts to each other. (I should add that I
think this novel is at times very funny and that it has a whole series of
happy endings.)

Phil Fuchs has a mother, Edith -- the one who works in the Medical Center
waiting room -- whose beloved second husband dies the night before the
attack on the World Trade Center. She sees the building blow up, and for a
minute she experiences "shock and awe." But then she reconsiders: She's
already lost the one on earth who meant the most to her -- except, maybe,
for her son. What can the world do to her now? It can kill her, maybe,
but it can't impress her. Her grief has already happened.

Phil has worked as a dermatologist -- because he can't stand the sight of
blood. He's allergic to suffering. He has the softest heart in the
world. But because he can identify rashes he becomes part of a government
task force -- again, against "terror." The military invades the hospital
and Phil's life. His life hasn't been going all that well, but this
intrusion is one of several last straws -- straws which kick his life from
being uncomfortable to unbearable. And Phil's "problem" son, Vern, a mean
little kid with terrible grades in school and a personality to match, is
most at jeopardy here. He's the proverbial bird in the coal mine. What
happens in the larger, outside world stands to absolutely wreck his
life. I love Vern! He's the varmint in all of us -- the little kid who
won't knuckle under, who, if he *does* go down, will go down fighting. He
couldn't care less about the war on terror. But he stands to become one of
its victims...

I feel anxiety-both personal and global-is at the heart of the
novel. Why did you choose to explore this emotion?

I think I've partly answered that. But let me say that a lot of my life
has been defined by anxiety. I'm old enough to remember a time when there
wasn't an atomic bomb. The invention of that thing had all the usual side
effects we deplore, but it also -- in my opinion -- gave rise to leaders of
nations *on all sides* who have been absolutely unable to resist the
temptation to become boogie men, emotional bullies who constantly threaten
us -- the whole planet -- with mass destruction. It's not just going to be
death, but horrible, agonizing death! "The survivors will envy the dead!"
-- that kind of death. I'm talking about every president we've had since
Roosevelt, and that long line of Soviet leaders, and now the zealots of Al
Qaida, (sp?), and of course, the rulers of India and Pakistan, and Israel,
and any country who has access to those weapons.

It irritates the hell out of me, frankly. It gives men a bad name. It's
"wienie-waving" in the most unattractive way. Shock and awe, indeed! If
those guys are the bullies on the playground -- instead of staying around
to be bullied, isn't there a way we can sneak off the playground? My novel
"Golden Days" was about that, and so is "There Will Never Be Another You."

I'm so proud of Lisa! She's an absolutely terrific novelist! She's an
amazing woman, wonderful daughter, mother, wife But she's not the only
writer in the family. My father, George Laws, published 73 volumes of hard
core pornography in his later life. They were incredibly funny and witty
and smart, and if this were another kind of society, there would be statues
of him in public parks. My life partner for 27 years, John Espey,
published over fifty reminiscences in The New Yorker of his missionary
childhood in China, as well as several novels. We worked together every
day. And my sweet and brave younger daughter, Clara Sturak, is a
journalist who tirelessly advocates for children with autism. Even my
step-mom, Wynn Corum Laws, wrote one of the most popular life stories in
the AA Book, Freedom From Bondage. (And no, I'm not breaking her
anonymity, because she's long dead). So really, the question is: What
would it be like NOT to have another writer in the family? The answer
is: It would be lonely and sorrowful and sad.

After the book tour, I'm going to India. I just got back from South
America. If I'm lucky, I see a future filled with friends and family and
good restaurants and book reviewing and travel -- until the novel bug bites
me again...

 

Carolyn See Interviews/articles

Random House
Web Del Sol
WriterAdvice
Los Angeles Times
Wigglefish
LA Weekly
Santa Monica Mirror
Newsday