San Francisco Chronicle

Memories of Pier 39 imbue weighty novel

- TONY BRAVO Tony Bravo’s column appears Mondays in Datebook. Email: tbravo@sfchronicl­ Twitter: @TonyBravoS­F

When Christophe­r Rice revealed that San Francisco’s Pier 39 would play a significan­t role in his new novel, “Decimate,” I was intrigued.

Some love the waterfront destinatio­n’s souvenir shops and attraction­s, the call of the sea lions and smell of caramelize­d sugar. Others love to hate the tourist trap.

For Rice, who now lives in West Hollywood, Pier 39 evokes memories of his childhood in San Francisco in the 1980s. In “Decimate,” which came out last week, it is used as a powerful metaphor for how certain locations become endowed with deep personal significan­ce.

When Rice was a child, his father, Stan, was the chair 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 wasn’t yet the world-famous author she would become via Neil Jordan’s film of the book and her further installmen­ts of the “Vampire Chronicles.” The family moved to New Orleans when Christophe­r was 10, but Rice calls San Francisco a kind of utopian period for the family.

“There was a sense of longing for childhood and longing for those experience­s of going down to Pier 39,” Rice told me about the feelings a recent trip to the city evoked in him. “I still have a picture they took as you got on the ferry: I’m about 4 years old in this big puffy jacket. … I guess I’ve always had this sense of connection with it.”

It’s a connection many who were raised in the Bay Area feel to the landmark, and it feels totally authentic in the novel.

“Decimate,” which was completed before Anne Rice’s death at age 80 in December from complicati­ons of a stroke, revolves around questions of grief and family connection. Claire and Poe, the sister and brother at the story’s center, are shaped by an otherworld­ly neardeath event in their childhood that leaves them psychicall­y connected. Pier 39 exists as a memory space the siblings find themselves returning to, as happy a scene in their lives as it was for the author.

Rice said he did not set out to write about the city in “Decimate,” but in telling a story centered on life-and-death themes, “it inevitably churned up all of this San Francisco imagery.”

Rice, a New York Times best-selling author and Lambda Literary Award winner, lived with his parents in a gray Victorian at 17th and Noe streets in the Castro. He still remembers class lunches at the Synergy school in Alamo Square Park, a setting that was straight out of the “Full House” opening credits. For Rice, now 44, those years are both idyllic and tinged with awareness of the tragedies of the AIDS epidemic that changed the face of the Castro in the ’80s. (In his novel “The Snow Garden,” Rice set another scene at Pier 39 that revolved around a character revealing their HIV status.)

The trip he made to the city last month stirred these memories further, part of a journey up the California coast that Rice undertook while grieving his mother.

It wasn’t just the reality of AIDS in the Castro that links the city and loss for him. As a child, he learned that his parents had a daughter, Michele, who died from leukemia before he was born. The event partly spurred Anne Rice to write “Interview,” which includes a child vampire, Claudia. It’s possible to view the sibling bond portrayed in “Decimate” as a way of grappling with that absence in his own work. Throughout all these big questions, Pier 39’s presence looms both as a setting and as a representa­tion of the power of memory.

During our recent phone call, Rice told me that “Decimate” is the book his mother had long hoped he would write, because of the exploratio­n of larger themes that permeates the story.

“She very much wanted me to go deeper 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 weighty concepts of mortality and existence, he makes those themes accessible. For anyone who also grew up hearing the barking of the sea lions and smelling caramelize­d sugar at the pier, it may hit home in an even more powerful way.

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