When Christopher Rice revealed that San Francisco’s Pier 39 would play an important role in his new novel, “Decimate,” I was intrigued.
Some love the destination’s gift shops and waterfront attractions, the call of sea lions and the smell of caramelized sugar. Others love to hate the tourist trap.
For Rice, who now lives in West Hollywood, Pier 39 conjures up memories of her childhood in San Francisco in the 1980s. In “Decimate,” released Tuesday, May 10, it is used as a powerful metaphor for how certain places become endowed with deep personal meaning.
When Rice was a child, her father, Stan, was the chairman of the San Francisco State Department of Creative Writing. His mother, Anne Rice, had already published “Interview With the Vampire” and other novels, but she was not yet the world-renowned author she would become via Neil Jordan’s film of the book and its other installments. from the Vampire Chronicles. The family moved to New Orleans when Christopher was 10, but Rice calls San Francisco a kind of utopian time for the family.
“There was a sense of childhood nostalgia and those experiences of going down to Pier 39,” Rice told me of the feelings a recent trip to the city had evoked in him. “I still have a picture they took while you were getting on the ferry: I’m about 4 years old in this big puffy jacket. …I guess I’ve always had this feeling of connection to it.
It’s a connection that many who grew up in the Bay Area feel with the landmark, and it feels totally authentic in the novel.
“Decimate,” which was completed before Anne Rice died at age 80 in December of complications from a stroke, revolves around issues of grief and family bonding. Claire and Poe, the sister and brother at the center of the story, are shaped by an otherworldly near-death event in their childhood that leaves them psychically connected. Pier 39 exists as a memory space in which the siblings reunite, a scene as happy in their lives as it was for the author.
Rice said he had no intention of writing about the city in “Decimate,” but by telling a story centered around themes of life and death, “it inevitably sparked all these images of San Francisco “.
Rice, a New York Times bestselling author and Lambda Literary Award winner, lived with her parents in a gray Victorian at 17th and Noe Streets in the Castro. He still remembers class lunches at Synergy Montessori School in Alamo Square Park, a setting straight out of the opening credits of “Full House.” For Rice, now 44, those years were both idyllic and tinged with a realization of the tragedies of the AIDS epidemic that changed the face of the Castros in the 1980s. (In her novel “The Snow Garden,” Rice staged another scene at Pier 39 that revolved around a character revealing his HIV status.)
The trip he took to the city last month brought those memories back to life again, part of a California coastal trip Rice took as he mourned his mother.
It wasn’t just the reality of AIDS in the Castro that bound the city and the loss to him. As a child, he learned that his parents had a daughter, Michele, who died of leukemia before he was born. The event partly prompted Anne Rice to write “Interview,” which features a vampire child, Claudia. It is possible to see the brotherly bond described in “Decimate” as a means of combating this absence in his own work. Through all these big questions, the presence of Pier 39 emerges both as a setting and as a representation of the power of memory.
In our recent phone call, Rice told me that “Decimate” is the book his mother had long hoped he would write, due to the exploration of larger themes that permeate the story.
“She really wanted me to go deeper into my own cosmology and thoughts about the universe,” Rice said.
Rice does just that in “Decimate.” And by using such a surprisingly ordinary place as Pier 39 while investigating important concepts of mortality and existence, he makes these themes accessible. For anyone who also grew up hearing sea lions barking and smelling caramelized sugar on the pier, it can hit home in an even more powerful way.
By Christopher Rice
(Amazon Publishing; 432 pages; $24.95)