Lisa Joins KCET for Charming Notes, A Tribute to Carolyn See

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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.

The Los Angeles Times Pays Tribute to Carolyn See

The Los Angeles Times, NPR and the Washington Post all paid tribute to Carolyn See. From the Los Angeles Times:

Awarded the L.A. Times Book Prize’s Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement in 1993, See was long established as a leading literary figure of Southern California. She wrote more than a dozen books and received a Guggenheim Fellowship; taught creative writing at UCLA; was a regular book critic at the L.A. Times and the Washington Post; served on the board of PEN Center USA West; and was the mother of the best-selling novelist Lisa See.

Born Carolyn Penelope Laws in Pasadena Jan. 13, 1934, Carolyn See wrote of the Southland with a native’s intimacy. Her fourth novel, “Golden Days” (1986), brought her the greatest attention. A dark comedy set in Topanga Canyon, where See lived for many years, the story builds around misfits, free spirits and the starry-eyed graduates of self-help workshops. The novel sealed her identity as a writer.

“Carolyn was the defining voice for a certain kind of California experience in the mid-’70s and 1980s,” author and critic Jonathan Kirsch told the Times in 2008. “Others looked at California as a cliché, a broken dream, a joke. Carolyn looked at the same California and saw redemption.”

In “Golden Days,” the narrator, Edith, rails against the powerful men in Washington who seem bent on war and the ruin of her utopia. Then, a lone “crazy” drops a nuclear bomb somewhere in Central America. Edith and her friends see nuclear fallout as the start of a better world to come. They watch for new growth on the hillsides and they survive while others in See’s story do not.

“In its weird way, this may be the most life-affirming novel I’ve ever read,” wrote Carol Sternhell in the New York Times.

See’s most recent novel was 2007’s “There Will Never Be Another You.” She moved fluidly between fiction, criticism and nonfiction.

Her 1995 memoir, “Dreaming, Hard Luck and Good Times in America,” was among of her most popular books. Her parents’ drinking binges, her mother’s nasty snipes and her own wild streak are detailed with humor and understanding.

“Carolyn could be brutally honest, never more so than about family,” author Judith Freeman, a longtime friend, said in 2008.

Her third novel, “Rhine Maidens,” (1981) established See as a distinctive voice from the West Coast. The story builds on the strained relationship between a mother and daughter that seems inspired by See’s own experience with her mother.

“See’s depiction … is so vivid the reader sees, smells, feels, weeps, even laughs along with the characters,” according to a 1981 review in the Washington Post. It is a novel “in the best tradition of comedy, where laughter is close to tears.”

In all of her fiction, See dotted the scenery with unofficial Los Angeles landmarks. “Rhine Maidens” unfolds against the May Company department store on Wilshire Boulevard’s Miracle Mile, the Georgian retirement home in Santa Monica, the Charthouse restaurant in Malibu.

“People referred to her as the Grande Dame of Southern California literature … and she took some pride in that,” Lisa See said Thursday. “When she started, there were very few women writers on the West Coast.”

In her life, she said, “everything was related to writing and friendship.”

See’s parents, George and Kate Laws, were both alcoholics who had survived their own miserable childhoods; they reminded her of “starlings getting sucked into the jet plane of life.”

Her father was a reporter for the Daily News who later wrote pornographic pulp fiction. He slathered his daughter with kindness while her mother often locked her out of the house. “She hated me worse than snakes,” See wrote.

In August 1945, when See was 11, her father left home. Three weeks later, the United States dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. For the rest of her life she linked the two disasters. “A bomb dropped in two separate ways in my life and I began to have nightmares about the bomb from then on,” See said in a 1986 interview with the New York Times. The tangled memories surfaced in “Golden Days.”

Her mother remarried, and See went to live with her father and his new wife until she graduated from John Marshall High School. She then left home and worked her way through Cal State University Los Angeles. She graduated in 1957. Five years later she earned a doctorate in English at UCLA.

In her memoir, she describes her two marriages with a lingering fondness for the good times. She married Richard See, an anthropologist, in 1954. They spent a year living in Paris where their daughter, Lisa, was born; they divorced in 1959.

Lisa See is also a successful writer, author of the  novel “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” and the “Shanghai Girls” series.

The year after See divorced her first husband, she married Tom Sturak, a teacher and editor. In their nine-year marriage, See wrote, alcohol, Beatles music and parties on the deck of their Topanga house were the glue that kept them together. They had one daughter, Clara, before they divorced.

See had no regrets. “There’s something to be said for free fall, the wild life,” she wrote in her memoir. “It’s given us our stories.”

Her most lasting romantic relationship was with John Espey, a professor of English at UCLA. He was 21 years older than See and had been her dissertation advisor. They never married but remained a couple from the mid-1970s until Espey died in 2000.

“What kept John and me together … was John’s relentless goodness and the fact that we both loved to drink,” See wrote in her memoir.

See, Espey and her daughter Lisa co-wrote two popular novels under the pseudonym Monica Highland: “Lotus Land” (1983) and “110 Shanghai Road” (1986). They also wrote “Greetings From Southern California,” a nonfiction book about vintage postcards, in 1988.

For many years See taught creative writing classes at Loyola Marymount University and at UCLA. Before she retired in 2004 she created a $100,000 endowment at UCLA, for the study of Southern California literature.

Her guidebook for beginning writers, “Making A Literary Life” ( 2002), came out of her teaching experience. The humor and a few of her tips resonate with her offbeat fiction.

“This book is for the timid, forlorn, and clueless,” See wrote in the introduction. To learn about story structure, she advised reading detective novels, those “guy-written, plot-driven novels that don’t pretend to be masterpieces.”

As a leading figure in the Southern California literary scene, she never forgot the hard work of getting started.

“Carolyn’s role as a mentor was huge,” Freeman said of See. “She was incredibly supportive in every important way. Carolyn was pivotal to the writers’ community in Los Angeles.”

Former Times book editor and critic David L. Ulin also found her to be a powerful example. “Carolyn taught me how to be a writer in California,” he wrote in 2014, when See retired from reviewing for the Washington Post. “For her, that meant a three-dimensional literary life: writing, teaching and reviewing, all of them inextricable from the whole….[she] always regarded reading as an act of engagement.”

But for all her seriousness, insight and craft, See’s work never lost its sense of humor. “Support Your Local Author,” the license-plate frame on her car once read. “Buy My Book.”

She is survived by her two daughters

Rourke is a former Times staff writer. Times staff writer Carolyn Kellogg contributed to this report.

LA Times Loves Snow Flower

From the Los Angeles Times:

See’s translucent prose style gleams with the beauty of 19th century Chinese culture but also makes us burn with indignation at its sexist ugliness and injustice. By bringing the secret world of these Chinese women into vivid relief, See has conjured up an alien world that is the better for being lost. Read the full review.

Snow Flower is EW's Editor's Choice

Snow Flower is an Entertainment Weekly Editor’s Choice and an A rating. “You can relish See’s extraordinary fourth novel as a meticulously researched account of women’s lives in 19th century China, where it is “better to have a dog than a daughter…. You can also savor See’s marvelous narrative as a timeless portrait of a contentious, full-blooded female friendship, one that includes, over several decades, envy, betrayal, erotic love, and deep-seated loyalty.”

Snow Flower is a one of Good Housekeeping’s 10 Fictional Babes We’d Like You to Read This Summer.

“A longing for connection is at the disciplined heart of Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, a novel set in a remote province of 19th-century China. For Lily and Snow Flower, lifelong friends and prisoners of domestic tradition, the coded women’s language of nu shu was “a means for our bound feet to carry us to each other…to write the truth about our lives.” Intimate revelations about betrayal and forgiveness artfully bridge the cultural divide.” O Magazine

“As both a suspenseful and poignant story and an absorbing historical chronicle, this novel has bestseller potential and should become a reading group favorite as well.” Publishers Weekly

“See’s writing is intricate and graceful, and her attention to detail never wavers, making for a lush, involving reading experience.” Booklist