Q&A: A chronicler of memories, cocktails

Name: Risa Nye

Age: 64

City: Oakland

Position: Author, columnist

J.: This October will mark the 25th anniversary of the East Bay Hills Fire, which killed 25 people and destroyed 3,354 single-family homes (including yours) and 456 apartment units. You just published a memoir, “There Was a Fire Here.” Have you been carrying the idea around for years?

Risa Nye

Risa Nye: Part of it came to be my thesis for the MFA [masters of fine arts] program at Saint Mary’s College. I had been writing bits and pieces without a thought of putting it into a book, but it all came together in my graduate program.

You write about the hasty decisions people made over what to take when fleeing the fire and how everyone second-guessed their choices. You lost almost all your possessions. Do you still think about what you could have saved?

I most wish I had saved all my letters. I had boxes of old love letters from a previous boyfriend and can’t get those back. I had boxes of letters from my husband that we wrote to each other while he was at camp. Also, while we grabbed some photo albums, we didn’t take the photographs you keep on the shelves and look at every day.

I’m a knitter, and I had made lots of sweaters for my kids as babies, and I had kept all of them, as well as those I made for my husband when we were dating in high school. There were years of my life in those projects, and they too were gone.

You also wish you still had your grandfather’s letters. Why were they so meaningful to you?

He had beautiful penmanship, full of flourishes and curvy lines, it was extraordinary. I think he had a history of scribes in the family back in the Ukraine. He would put some Hebrew or Russian words in them and he wrote my name in Russian. He loved getting letters from me and was always so encouraging that I’ll be a writer some day. I liked having a portrait of who I was then in his eyes.

Your narrative is interrupted by fragments of memories of former possessions that make up a life; an heirloom chair and a roll-top desk are two examples. Why did you write it this way?

I read books by some writers who take real liberties with structure. A memoir doesn’t have to be so linear. I wanted to include these things I called artifacts that were important to me, even though they weren’t valuable in a real sense. I’d see them in old photos, and think of the story behind them.

You were almost 40 when the fire happened, and you had a teenager plus two younger children. How did you instill a sense of safety in them?

Our older son started wearing his clothes to bed. He wanted to be ready to run in case he had to. The kids had some wonderful counseling at school, and were able to talk about their feelings, and they gradually went back to pajamas.

When you lived in Moraga while your new home was being built, you decided to skip Passover. Why?

We were still trying to put our lives back together. We had traditionally hosted my parents, my sister, some neighbors and others, but we had no serving stuff and just weren’t prepared. In retrospect, no one cares if your plates match, but we didn’t feel right to host a celebration or observance in those circumstances.

Do you still think about the fire every day?

Any time I look east and at the hills, I remember what it looked like on that day and the aftermath.

Your grandfather owned a bar, right? Is that part of the backstory on your “Ms. Barstool” column for Berkeleyside in which you explore cocktails at local spots?

Long before we were born, my grandfather Moishe bought a bar in the Tenderloin, and he couldn’t be Moses behind the bar, so he changed his name to Mike. But “Ms. Barstool” came about because I don’t drink very much at all. I nurse a drink for a really long time and my kids tease me about it. They started calling me “Ms. Barstool” as a reverse funny nickname, and I took it as a Twitter handle when I began writing about happy hours for the Examiner.

I’ve learned a lot about what goes into a cocktail and I’m still learning. But for me, it’s more about what it’s like at that particular place, the crowd and what I’ll order next time.

“Talking with …” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to [email protected].

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."