Carla Tomaso's Frozen Tackles Mommy Issues, Reincarnation, and Multigenerational Lesbians
BY Sunnivie Brydum
January 18 2013 1:20 PM ET
Being a lesbian runs in author Carla Tomaso's family. After Tomaso's grandfather died, her grandmother spent the last several decades of her life living with her daughter's female gym teacher in what was then called a "Boston marriage."
Tomaso's mother followed in those footsteps, marrying Tomaso's father but maintaining same-sex affairs on the side. When Tomaso's mother and father divorced, her mother moved in with another woman, and they spent the rest of their lives together. Today, Tomaso lives with her partner of 40 years, psychologist Mary Hayden, in the same town she grew up in — Pasadena, Calif.
Tomaso, a soft-spoken but friendly woman with a warm, welcoming smile, has been teaching English at a private, all-girls Catholic high school in nearby Sierra Madre, Calif., for 35 years. Inside a stately library on the campus grounds — which were, at one point, a monastery — Tomaso sat down with The Advocate to discuss the "unremarkable" nature of being a third-generation lesbian, how that affected her own internalized oppression, and mostly, how she managed to process her toxic relationship with her cruel, narcissistic mother through her latest book, Frozen, on sale now.
Frozen, Tomaso's fifth book, which she says she spent an entire decade writing, was the author's way to find closure on the tense relationship she had with her mother, who was fond of referring to herself as "Mommie Dearest" and contending she had no heart.
In the semiautobiographical novel, the protagonist, Elizabeth, believes she is finally free of her demeaning mother, Helen, when Helen dies at 70. But in just one of many odd but interesting curveballs Tomaso throws readers, Elizabeth suddenly finds herself forced to care for her mother again, when Helen is reanimated after being cryogenically frozen — and returns in the body of an 11-year-old, but with all the memories, bite, and bark the elderly Helen fiercely wielded.
The Advocate: Was writing Frozen and creating a character based off your mother, a cathartic experience for you?
Carla Tomaso: This is the first [book] where I really focused on the fictional character of my mother, and I thought it would be really interesting to try to see what would happen if the fantasy of a daughter ... could come true. If she could change the character of her mother.
We don’t like to not be able to [change reality], and I think that’s an OK desire. I don’t think it’s negative or not accepting of reality. I think it's wonderful, trying to change your reality. That’s what the narrator tried to do in this book.
And of course, it's based on the character of my biological mother, which made it really hard to write, to tell you the truth. It was very therapeutic, but it was also really hard to get the distance I needed to craft the book. ... It was meant to have depth, but it also has this science-fiction quality, and the exaggerated quality of the behavior is pretty farcical. Which is how I like to write anyway.
How did it feel to write a character who had the chance to essentially re-create this archetype of your mother, giving Elizabeth the opportunity to try to raise this person who she was hoping would become the mother she always wanted? Was that bittersweet? Cathartic?
I went through stages with that. At the beginning I would cry, [thinking] this is so moving, and what a horrible bitch this character is. I thought that meant it was good writing. I then proceeded to get off of that a little bit. What I discovered [was] ... the narcissistic mother was taking over the book. Just as in real life. That was becoming a real problem, because it wasn’t her story. But she wasn’t the changing, dynamic main character. I think that’s my story too. I think that’s cool the way that happened. I really had to push it, I had to try to make the narrator change and grow.
And you started writing the book when your mother was alive? Did she live to see the publication?
She was alive at the beginning of it. And then I got to realize through critique that it was just repetitive — the mother being a horrible bitch through the book, and then she's gone. That didn’t give the narrator enough to do.
How are far into the writing process when your mother passed away?
Let's say I'd written half.
And you felt liberated because your mother wasn’t going to read this? Or was it multilayered?
I think it was more my own personal view of myself. I know there are websites of narcissistic mothers and fathers, and I started defining her more that way — how she really sucked the air out of every room she was in. She even used to call herself "Mommie Dearest" and she thought it was funny. She used to walk around with a letter opener — a knife — and I said, "Be careful with that, you might fall and pierce your heart." And she said, "Who says I have a heart?" and I thought, Whoa. No one’s going to believe she said that. I thought I was being so transgressive, playful with her.
It sounds like there are certain instances of fictionalized accounts of real life. How much of that was in the book?
I think it started as more of that, but as I pulled back I took out characters and added characters, I manipulated a little bit. A lot of scenes have basis in things that happened.
Many of your books have that fictionalized autographical component, but why write this one now?
I think it was something I knew I had to deal with. It's not interesting to me to write complete fiction. I think I saved my life by writing it. I wanted to be more playful with my settings and magic. I've always been attracted to magic and sci-fi, not in a deep way, but in going out of reality. I like being transgressive. I like to shock. I'm fascinated by people who would murder someone. And people who would want someone dead. Just those extremes of human behavior. I think finishing the book I feel a little bit of a loss, because it was a way to connect to [my mother], even though the book isn’t a positive mother-daughter experience.