Interview with Lisa See

Posted by Goodreads on March 6, 2017
When The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane begins in 1988, Li-Yan and her family work as tea pickers in Spring Well, a village in the Yunnan province of China populated by the Akha people. Spring Well has no running water, no electricity, and has only ever seen one car. Over the next 25 years, with the skyrocketing popularity of Pu'er tea, everything changed.

Pu'er is a rare tea made from the leaves of tea trees in the Yunnan province, some of which are thought to be thousands of years old. As the most educated girl in the village, Li-Yan finds herself at the center of her village's new relationship with tea exporters, a path that will take her far away from the village she never thought she'd leave, all while hiding her own painful secrets.

Author Lisa See, who lives in her home state of California, is known for the extensive research and rich detail she puts into her bestselling novels set in China, including Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love. She spoke to Janet Potter about the lure of Pu'er tea and the joy and challenge of presenting little-known Chinese customs to Western audiences.

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Goodreads: How did you became interested in the topic of Pu'er tea?

Lisa See: I was giving a talk, and they had brought in somebody to do a Chinese tea demonstration. It's very different from a Japanese tea ceremony, which is so neat and elegant and very stylized. With Chinese tea they're pouring it all over the place, even on a table where it just overflows, goes through the table, and into a bucket. It's all about abundance and messiness. He was pouring Pu'er, and since I was the speaker, I got to sit at the table and taste everything. He talked a little bit about the history of the tea. He told me about one cake of tea that had recently sold at auction for $150,000. After that, I knew what the next book would be.

GR: Your books are so thoroughly researched that a lot of people mention how much they learn about Chinese history and culture from reading them. Does that give you a sense of responsibility when writing your books?

LS: Well, yes! I think sometimes when people think about China, they think, "Oh, it's just a bunch of Chinese people." You don't really think about it having ethnic minorities who are so different that they have their own language, clothes, and traditions. If you're going to write about that, especially because the Akha have some old traditions that are gone now that are pretty harsh, you have to be as accurate and as fair as you can and try to put it in context of how they're living and why it made sense to them.

I remember with Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, one of the very early readers asked why I wasn't more critical of foot binding. I don't think that's my job to be critical of foot binding; I just want it to be in the room so people could understand it within the context of the culture and the time period.

GR: Has there ever been something you found in your research—a custom, historical event, etc.—that you wanted to put in a book but couldn't find a way to fit it into the story?

LS: If there's something I really want to write about, I can find a way. In the 17th century there was an opera called The Peony Pavilion. Women weren't allowed to see it; they could only read it. When young women read it, they would catch cases of lovesickness, like the main character in Peony in Love, and waste away and die. And as they were dying, they wrote poems and stories that were published after their death, and much of that is still in print today.

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There were three of them who were all married to the same man, one right after the other. The first one was 16 years old, and she would write her thoughts about love in the margins of the book, and of course she got lovesickness and died. He married a second time, and he gave her that same copy of the book. And she got a case of lovesickness, and she also wrote her thoughts about love in the book. The third wife was a little different. She also wrote in the margins, but she pawned her wedding jewelry and used the money to publish the book. It became the first book of literary criticism to be published anywhere in the world by women.

So this book had a lot in it about ghosts and burial practices. I was at the UCLA research library reading it, and I came across something called ghost brides, and I just thought, "Oh, I have got to have one of these." It wasn't just something I kind of tossed in there; that actually became the central plot. After the first wife dies and she becomes a ghost, and really the whole book is how to get her to that point.

GR: I think after finishing this book a lot of readers will want to try Pu'er tea. Can you recommend certain brands or places to buy it?

LS: During my research, I traveled to China with a tea exporter named Linda Louie. She and I designed a section on my website on how to have your own tea-tasting book club. We made a selection of three teas, so people can try a raw one, one that's two years old, one that's ten years old, and they're all teas that relate to different parts of the book.

You can also buy it off the shelf at many Whole Foods stores. Linda's website is the Bana Tea Company, and she has a great selection of raw and ripe Pu'er. I know that a lot of people like the aged. I personally really love the raw. It feels very light to me. I have now tasted a tea that was $1,000 an ounce, but I wouldn't say my palate is that sophisticated.

GR: Goodreads user Stephanie asks: Since your books center on strong women, did you have a woman in your life who was a strong influence?

LS: I was very, very close to my grandmother on my father's side. I would say that there's a version of her in every single book that I've written. In one she's the neighborhood committee director. In Peony in Love she's the actual grandmother, in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan she's the matchmaker. There's some aspect of her in everything. She was a huge influence.

And also my mom. She was a writer, and certainly in terms of writing I feel like I had a lifelong apprenticeship. My mom started writing and getting published when I was 12. She was a single mom, and she always gave me everything she was writing to have another pair of eyes.

GR: Goodreads user Elizabeth asks: I'm interested in learning about Chinese culture and history as a result of reading your books. What other books (fiction or nonfiction) would you recommend to get a better understanding of China?

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LS: Peter Hessler went over to China as an English teacher and lived in a little river town along the Yangtze. The book he wrote about it, River Town, is charming, but he's also written several others that are really great.

Nicholas Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, have written several good books about China—they were New York Times correspondents in China together.

Simon Winchester went to the very source of the Yangtze River and then followed it down to the mouth of the river. His book The River at the Center of the World is sort of a history of the river, what's along the river, and how life is changing there, and it's fantastic.

GR: Goodreads user Michele asks: Once you complete a book, do you find it challenging to move on from the characters you have so thoroughly cultivated in order to create your next work, or do some characters continue to occupy your consciousness long after the book is finished?

LS: Absolutely. I don't think of it as my moving on; it's more like they move on. I hate to say it, because it makes me sound like a crazy person, but there are times when I'll be out doing something and I can hear Lily say something to me, or Pearl, or A-ma. They'll talk to me—the ones from the past, but also the ones I'm currently working on. They'll kind of crop up like, "By the way, I'm still here."

GR: What was your favorite book as a child?

LS: The Second Jungle Book. It's not the one with Mowgli, the one that's the short stories. The first story is called Riki Tiki Tavi, and it's about a mongoose that has to kill a cobra before it kills the little English boy. Every Saturday for years and years I would read that before I got out of bed.

GR: What are you reading now?

LS: I'm reading The Hidden Life of Trees. It's a nonfiction book about how trees communicate with each other and how they take care of each other. For example, if you go into the forest and see a tree stump that was cut down 100 years ago—if you go into that stump, it's still alive, and that's because the trees around it have been feeding it. And I just bought The Refugees.

GR: What are you working on now?

LS: My next novel is set on an island off the southern tip of Korea called Jeju. They have a matrifocal society—not a matriarchy but woman focused. The women there are historically free divers. They go down up to 60 feet on a single breath and stay down for about two minutes and harvest seafood.

They've been around for about 1,000 years. It used to be that they retired at around age 50, but now the youngest ones are about 55. Starting in the 1970s and 1980s, things changed; the women would save up their money and send their daughters to college. Before that, girls didn't even go to elementary school.

Now there are no young people free diving, so I interviewed women who were in their eighties and nineties and still diving. In the 1930s and 1940s, even during World War II, they would hire out like itinerant workers and go dive in Japan and China, but also off of Vladivostok in midwinter. They didn't have wet suits; they had little cotton shorts and a little cotton jacket, and that's what they wore. These women, especially the ones in their eighties and nineties, have such incredible lives of hardship, but also incredible bravery and courage.

Read more of our exclusive author interviews on our Voice page.

Comments Showing 1-11 of 11 (11 new)

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message 1: by Stephanie (new)

Stephanie Thanks to Goodreads for allowing me to ask Lisa See a question in this month's newsletter! The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is already on my "to read" list. The research and detail of the Chinese culture she adds to her books makes her one of my favorite authors and historical fiction my favorite genre.

message 2: by Shirley (new)

Shirley Pearsall I was lucky enough to read a pre-pub of the book. I love all of Ms. See's book, but I think this was my favorite because of learning the tea culture of China. Who knew?


message 3: by Ellen (new)

Ellen I also got a pre publication copy and devoured it. I love all Ms See's books. In all her books I learn so much about China and Chinese culture.

message 4: by May (new)

May I have not read Lisa See in years, although I loved "Snowflower and the Secret Fan". This interview has enticed me to read her new novel. Thank you GR for the interview!!

message 5: by Daisy (new)

Daisy Church Awesome question Elizabeth!!!! Got a bunch of new books on my to-read list now :D Can't wait to read this one, thank you for the interview!

message 6: by P.A. (new)

P.A. De Voe Great interview with lots of fun information about your research and even your personal background. I look forward to reading The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane.

message 7: by Bkwmlee (last edited Mar 09, 2017 11:54PM) (new)

Bkwmlee Thank you GR for the wonderful interview with Lisa See!

I was also fortunate enough to get an advanced copy of Tea Girl and I absolutely loved the book! I'm a huge tea drinker too and love Pu-er, plus I'm a Chinese-American living in California, so there were many areas of the book that I was able to relate to. It is one of the best books I've read this year!

message 8: by Barbara (new)

Barbara I read all of Lisa lees books they are wonderful,my favorite is Secret

message 9: by Linda (new)

Linda Pierce I have red all of Lisa See's books and I am looking forward to this one. Good interview-- I have seen Lisa interviewed several times at the LA Festival of Books and she is always interesting!

message 10: by Angela (new)

Angela Ray-Sanders Thanks so mu h cor interviewing one of my favorite authors. Lisa See is a truly literary genius.

message 11: by Joan (new)

Joan Vokac I am looking forward to reading this when it is released, as I have enjoyed all of her earlier books. I also plan to attend her appearance at Warwicks in La Jolla; she is also a great speaker. Thanks for the interview!

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