Carolyn Butcher’s passion for literature is quite infectious. In a sonorous voice that’s lifted by her British accent and powered by a phenomenally educated usage of the English language, she talks ardently about the books she’s been reading and re-reading, from James Joyce to T.C. Boyle.
After crossing the Atlantic, Carolyn received a Ph.D. from UCSB and now teaches English lit at Santa Barbara City College. For eight years, she was the president of Speaking of Stories, the Santa Barbara organization, now celebrating its 20th year, that promotes literature appreciation through live theatrical readings and educational programs.
Carolyn is hosting a fundraising garden party at her home on September 14 where guests will be treated by a performance by T.C. Boyle himself. See speakingofstories.org.
She spent some time away from her books to answer the Proust Questionnaire.
What do you like most about your job?
Being in front of a class and seeing light bulbs popping behind the students eyes. Let’s face it, being a good teacher isn’t about entertaining but it does involve performance. It takes a lot of energy to keep 36 young people engaged enough to think, analyze, and discuss literature for several hours a week. I love it when they observe something that I had not noticed before and point it out. I learn something from my students at every class.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Achieving my Ph.D. in English. I grew up in England at a time when girls were not encouraged to go to college to the degree that they are now. There was even an attitude amongst some people, including my father, that it was a waste to give a university place to a girl who, after all, was only going to get married and have children.
But when I came to America I discovered that everyone had a college degree. So when my youngest child went into 1st grade, I took an Art History class at Santa Monica College and aced it. After that, I couldn’t stop because I absolutely loved being on campus. Sometimes it was hard trying to balance being a wife, mother, and student, but I had the unwavering support of everyone in my family. I consider myself privileged to have had the opportunity.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
My baby grandson fast asleep on my shoulder. I know that sounds really cheesy, but it is true. When he was born, I realized that people of my generation have a unique opportunity to touch lived history. There is a billboard that is (or was) on the 101 freeway somewhere around Gilroy. It says, “The first person to live to be 150 years old has already been born.” Maybe that is fallacious, but let’s just suppose for a moment that that is true and that little Ben is that first person. That means he will live until 2162. My grandfather, whom I loved and admired, was born in 1896, and so I can “touch” the 19th century with my left hand and reach out four more centuries, to the 22nd, with my right. I love the sense of wonder that that brings.
What is your greatest fear?
Who do you most admire?
Several of the students in my classes at SBCC over the years who have had to struggle to get where they are: physically, emotionally, financially, culturally, or legally. My class is tough – I have a reputation as a hard grader and I don’t make many allowances – but I see determination, kindness, and tolerance every day.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Skin care. I’m not someone who has bottles and jars all over the place, but let’s just say that when I walk into Saks, the Sisley staff greet me warmly.
What is your current state of mind?
It’s early morning and so I am still in post-gym endorphin bliss.
What is the quality you most like in people?
Honest engagement. By that I mean: Don’t try to impress me, don’t take yourself (or me) too seriously; a sense of mutual interest in the other person.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
What do you most value in friends?
Apart from the above? And a sense of humor (because everyone says that)? The ability to relax around me, and allow me to be relaxed around them.
What is your most marked characteristic?
In America – my English accent; in England – my American accent. Go figure.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Sorry I’m late…
Which talent would you most like to have?
Multi-linguistics. I can get by in very elementary French and Italian, but I have no confidence in speaking either. I so admire people who can converse comfortably in several languages.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Where would you most like to live?
Are you kidding? This is IT. London is in my bones and I need to touch base there every year, and I liked living in Toronto where I still have close friends, but Santa Barbara feels like home now. It’s funny, but wherever I travel I find myself falling in love with houses and thinking, “Yeah, I could like there,” but I always come to my senses as soon as I get back here. Anyway, I’ve travelled about as far West as I can without getting wet and moving to the Far East – –and that would really test my linguistic skills.
What is your most treasured possession?
Something I call my Posterity Box. For more than 40 years I have put in a box items that are not beautiful enough to frame or to display, but that hold too much of me to be discarded. Each item is totally ordinary (a scrapbook I kept as a newspaper reporter and a ragged script for my high school play, for example) but each says something about my identity and I am writing a memoir to figure out what that is.
What makes you laugh the most?
Witty humor that shows the absurdity of life without bitterness or anger. I’m a huge fan of Eddie Izzard, Monty Python, and Graham Norton. Oops…looks like British humor!
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
The problem with this question is that by definition, historical figures are famous and I have little inclination to be famous. But I admire Virginia Woolf as a writer, for her extraordinary insight, and her honesty and courage about herself.
On what occasion do you lie?
If ever I say I always tell the absolute and honest truth.
What is your motto?
I try to live by, “If not now, when? If not me, who?” But sometimes I lack the energy.