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In her book “Making a Literary Life,” Carolyn See famously recommends sending a “charming note” to a person — often an author — you admire five days a week; Monday through Friday, as long as you live. She clearly took her own advice. A highlight of my own literary life was receiving one of See’s charming notes after she read my book “Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write.” Her warm words brought me to tears; they felt like a benediction from a queen. See, a novelist, memoirist, book critic, teacher and literary legend, was truly a queen of the writing community — the Southern California writing community, in particular. Her July 13 death from cancer at the age of 82 has hit Los Angeles (and beyond) like an earthquake.
“I was born in Los Angeles and I love it,” See said in a 2007 interview with her publisher, Random House. “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.’”
Reality is deliciously skewed — and sharply, vividly, observed — in See’s large body of work. An atomic bomb goes off in “Golden Days,” perhaps her best known novel. Thanks to See’s humor and zest, a New York Times reviewer called the book “the most life-affirming novel I’ve ever read.” In “Handyman,” an aimless, pot-smoking artist ends up healing everyone he meets with his divinely inspired creations. In her memoir, “Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America,” See manages to make a story about alcoholism, emotional abuse, and suicide as funny as it is moving. A character in See’s novel “Making History” says “The whole point was that you were supposed to see life, and love it too.” See saw life in all its absurdity, all its grit and pain, and she still loved it — fiercely; profusely.