When Christopher Rice revealed that San Francisco’s Pier 39 would play a major role in his new novel, “Decimation,” I was intrigued.
Some love the waterfront destination’s souvenir shops and attractions, the singing 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 evokes memories of her childhood in San Francisco in the 1980s. In “Decimate,” which opens Tuesday, May 10, it is used as a powerful metaphor for how certain places They take on deep personal meaning.
When Rice was a boy, his father, Stan, was the chairman of the creative writing department at San Francisco State. His mother, Anne Rice, had already published “Interview with the Vampire” and other novels, but she was not yet the world-famous author she would become through Neil Jordan’s book movie and her subsequent book installments. The Vampire Diaries. The family moved to New Orleans when Christopher was 10, but Rice calls San Francisco something of a utopian period for the family.
“There was a sense of childhood longing and longing for those experiences of going down to Pier 39,” Rice told me of the feelings evoked in her by a recent trip to the city. “I still have a picture that they took when you got on the ferry – I’m about 4 years old in this big puffer jacket. … I guess I’ve always had this sense of connection to it.”
It’s a connection that many who grew up in the Bay Area feel to the landmark, and it feels totally authentic to the novel.
“Decimate,” which was completed before Anne Rice’s death at age 80 in December from complications of a stroke, revolves around questions about grief and family connection. Claire and Poe, the sister and brother at the center of the story, are shaped by a supernatural near-death event in their childhood that leaves them psychically connected. Pier 39 exists as a memory space to which the brothers return, a scene as happy in their lives as it was for the author.
Rice said she didn’t set out to write about the city in “Decimate,” but by telling a story focused on life-or-death themes, “it inevitably stirred up all these images of San Francisco.”
Rice, a New York Times bestselling author and winner of the Lambda Literary Award, lived with his parents in a gray Victorian house at 17th and Noe streets in the Castro. He still remembers class lunches at Synergy Montessori School in Alamo Square Park, a setting that came right out of the opening credits of “Full House.” For Rice, now 44, those years are both idyllic and tinged with an awareness of the tragedies of the AIDS epidemic that changed the face of Castro in the 1980s. (In his novel “The Snow Garden,” Rice set another scene at Pier 39 that revolved around a character revealing his HIV status).
His trip to the city last month further stirred these memories, part of a trip up the California coast that Rice undertook while mourning his mother.
It was not just the reality of AIDS in the Castro that left the city and the loss for 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’s possible to see the sibling bond portrayed in “Decimate” as a way of dealing with that absence in his own work. Throughout all these great questions, the presence of Pier 39 appears as a stage and as a representation of the power of memory.
During our recent phone call, Rice told me that “Decimate” is the book her mother had long hoped she would write, because of the exploration of larger themes that permeate the story.
“She very much wanted me to delve into my own cosmology and thoughts about the universe,” Rice said.
Rice does exactly that in “Decimate.” And by using a location as unexpectedly ordinary as Pier 39 while investigating important concepts of mortality and existence, he makes those themes accessible. For anyone who also grew up listening to sea lions barking and smelling caramelized sugar on the dock, he can come home in an even more powerful way.
By Christopher Rice
(Amazon Publishing; 432 pages; $24.95)