In Dori Carter’s luxurious and leafy Southern California town of Rancho Esperanza, the setting for her second book, everyone knows the neighbor’s social status, but nobody knows each other — or, it seems, themselves.
“We Are Rich” (Other Press) is, at once, a novel and collection of short stories — 12 chapters and 12 first-person narratives — in the distinctive voices of the town’s fictional inhabitants. Beneath the book’s magazine-like front cover is a story that is both gossipy-light and poignant; a sympathetic satire of old money and new money, Jews and Wasps, and time passing under the threat of the California wildfires.
The author, just returned safely home from a wildfire evacuation herself, spoke recently to the Forward’s Sarah Kessler.
You use photographs of your friends at the beginning of each chapter, and you live in Montecito, a beautiful small town in California. Is this book really a novel?
The book is complicated, and I was afraid people wouldn’t have the concentration to keep track of all the characters. The pictures are my friends who generously agreed. People were so gracious, playing gay decorators, social columnists. … Montecito, Calif. and Santa Barbara — it’s an amalgamation. I keep telling people it’s not about them, but they won’t believe me. It’s about rich people. They come in to these small places and they change them; they bring their own tastes and values and change it to just what they left.
So the incidents aren’t taken from life?
Well, there is one person that I know I took from his life, but I got permission. A friend of mine, who I hiked with for years, would talk about his father, the Holocaust, his father’s life. He is a child of a Holocaust survivor, and it has affected every moment of his waking life. So I put these little tidbits together and wove a story about a guy who’s afraid to tell his gardener that he’s Jewish.
Does any of it come from your own life experiences?
The gardener — that’s actually my story. I have a gardener. He doesn’t like Jews, and I didn’t know how to tell him. He’s a great guy; he was just brought up in that way. I made the revelation and we got past it.
How much is the book influenced by your Judaism?
I think if you are a Jew of a certain age, you certainly understand that there was a time when the Wasp culture kind of set the rules. You can’t escape being Jewish, and as a Jew you are aware of that. I don’t particularly look Jewish, so I certainly hear things that I wasn’t meant to hear. But you go into a room and the Jews find each other. There’s an understanding of a common culture.
Where do you see yourself in the wider world of Rancho Esposito?
I’m just an observer! Being a writer I work, so I’m not out there as much as other people are. I’m not retired yet. There are a lot in Montecito who are; they have a lot of time to sit on boards, go to fundraisers constantly. I just don’t have the time or the money. I think writers are outsiders. If they were insiders they’d be living it, not writing about it.
Why did you decide against a straight narrative?
What interests me is to see people tell their own story without an omniscient narrator. And then to see the same story from someone’s other perspective, and realize: They don’t know themselves at all; they’re not seeing themselves. … It took me five years to write, and I didn’t know what was going to happen. The web began to be very tangled. I had to keep track of what was going to be the most surprising for the reader. I came up with this sentence for Gerry: “My father had an expression: ‘If you want to be happy, put your head up your tuchas.’” I figured that’s what an Eastern European Jew would say when the children were kvetching. But I couldn’t figure out what he meant at all. But at the end of the story, I understood. It’s another way of giving a life lesson. Don’t hide your head because there’s evil out there; you could pretend it doesn’t exist, but it does.
You’ve created a diverse group of characters — and not all of them act particularly admirably, or make themselves easy to like. Whom do you have sympathy for?
I can kind of put myself in everybody’s head. You have to as a writer. I guess the only people I don’t like are the nouveau riche. At the end Fred and Freyda Ball go over to Santa Lucia — the innocent ranch, still the way California used to be. And they’ll change it. They’ll go, bring their big house there, tearing down the ranch house and their ilk will follow them. They’ll ruin the place. … That Wasp dynasty that George H. W. Bush started — its dead now. That whole generation of people who set the standard when I was growing up, they’re all dying off. The people driving around in big American cars, their pants too short, their brights still on. They’re all being replaced by new people who set their own standards – which are constantly changing because they’re so worried about standards. It will never be the same again.
Are you nostalgic for any of that, like some of your characters?
Nostalgic? Nah. I don’t think they did such a great job. The rich white men — great for them. If you were black or Jewish or Italian or … no. They had it sewn up. Why would they want it to change?