Interview with Lisa See

Posted by Goodreads on June 8, 2009
Lisa See Author Lisa See spent her childhood immersed in a cultural mélange, exploring Los Angeles's Chinatown and listening to her grandmother's stories about her family's ancestry—tales filled with missionaries, concubines, and glamorous nightclubs. Curious about her roots, she spent years poring over documents and interviewing relatives for her first book, On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family. A self-proclaimed "nut" for research, See then turned to historical fiction with the bestsellers Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love, which spotlight the experiences of women in China. Her new book, Shanghai Girls, begins with two heroines in 1930s China who immigrate with their husbands to America and must learn to assimilate. See tells Goodreads about her signature touches as a writer, traveling with Amy Tan, and her love of Bob Dylan.

Goodreads: Shanghai Girls addresses some thorny issues in American history—such as maltreatment of Chinese immigrants at Angel Island, the Ellis Island of the West. What do you hope readers will learn about the Chinese American immigration experience?

Lisa See: History is written by the victors, so isn't it up to us to look deeper, think harder, and learn so we aren't doomed to repeat our mistakes? Obviously what happened to Chinese Americans in the past is a disgrace and an embarrassment, but there are things happening right now that recall those days. I don't mean to get political here, but we have racial profiling, and some people are being detained without having rights to habeas corpus proceedings. In the days immediately after 9/11, there was even talk of detention centers for American citizens of Middle Eastern descent.

What I'm saying is that there's fear on both sides: fear from those who are targeted and fear from those who feel that their lives are being put in danger. This is quite personal to me. Not only did my grandparents and great-grandparents experience these things (and I should point out that my own parents were only the second couple in my entire extended family to marry legally in the United States, because it was against the law for Chinese and Caucasians to marry in California until 1948 and some other states until 1965), but my future daughter-in-law is Iranian American. She was born here, grew up here, is a brilliant lawyer, loves my son and adores her dog, and yet she's often pulled out of line in airports for special search and treatment. I've seen people say things to her that have absolutely stunned, shocked, and infuriated me. I like to think things have changed—and in so many ways they have—but there's also a part of us, as Americans, that still fears "the other."

That said, I'm a writer, not a politician. My primary goal with my writing is to tell a good story that will be entertaining to people. I hope people will connect to my characters and by extension to the human condition. I don't think Shanghai Girls will make people change their minds about things, but it may make them think a little bit about the past, the present, and the future. Isn't that what art is supposed to do? Make us think about things in new ways?

GR: Your first book, On Gold Mountain, painstakingly traced your family history from China to the United States. And now in your new book, Shanghai Girls, the main characters, two sisters named Pearl and May, follow a similar path with similar obstacles. To what degree did the true stories of your family's heritage influence or inspire this fictional story?

LS: My family's heritage has influenced all my books to one degree or another. There are a few things in Shanghai Girls that very specifically come from my family, but that I either didn't write about or only touched on in On Gold Mountain. The first is the idea of arranged marriages and how they played out in America. We had a lot of arranged marriages in my family. In China, these women had servants; in Los Angeles Chinatown, they became the servants. They had very hard, very cut-off lives. I also wanted to write about Angel Island from a different perspective. My great-grandfather was a legitimate merchant and so one of the legal classes of immigrants to pass through Angel Island. In Shanghai Girls, I wanted to write about what it was like for people who were not legal, who were going to be questioned relentlessly. For example, I have the transcript for the wife of one of my great-grandfather's paper partners. I used that interrogation almost verbatim for Pearl's hearing.

Finally, I wanted to write about China City. In 1938, there were four Chinatowns in Los Angeles. One of them was China City, an early tourist attraction. It was supposed to be an "authentic" Chinese city, but it was built from the leftover sets from the filming of The Good Earth. It wasn't too authentic, but it had a lot of charm. I had relatives who worked in China City, and they were able to share their memories with me. But there was another reason I wanted to write about it. After China City closed, my family rented a part of it for our family antiques store. Some of my earliest memories are of spending time in what was left of China City. There were upturned eaves, hidden nooks, and an old goldfish pond. This was a place that has lived on in the memory of people who worked in China City but was also a place of great significance for me personally—a place of very happy memories.

People who have read Shanghai Girls tell me they see traces—almost like spider filaments—of On Gold Mountain. I think that's interesting. Sometimes when I'm writing I think, "Oh, here's a word or a phrase or an idea I've used before." I rather like that. To me, it's like a painter always putting a daub of cobalt blue in the upper left-hand corner of a canvas. It's like a signature in the sense that you know the work could have been produced by only one artist or, in my case, writer.

GR: Shanghai Girls is set in the 1930s, a time when Shanghai was caught between traditional values and modernization, especially concerning roles for women. One of the main characters, Pearl, has a college education, a rarity for women at that time, and says, "I consider myself to be a modern Shanghai girl. I don't want to believe in all that obey, obey, obey stuff that girls were taught in the past." Why did you choose this era to begin your story?

LS: This is an example of the "signature" I mentioned above! Here I used the "obey, obey, obey" line from Snow Flower and the Secret Fan to show just how much things have changed. It's almost like shorthand or a touchstone. It helps me as a writer, but I hope it helps readers as well. And yet in many ways things hadn't changed that much for women in China. They no longer had their feet bound, they could go to college, and they thought they had choice, but Pearl and May still had to enter arranged marriages.

There were several factors that contributed to when I set the novel. I wanted to write about the Confession Program, which happened in the 1950s. I also wanted to write about what causes people to leave their homes to go to a new country, how people make new homes in new countries, and what are the things we keep and what are the things we leave behind. I was also curious about the nature of place. Pearl and May come from one of the most sophisticated cities on earth, and they move to the fake China City. So which is more real, more Chinese, more authentic, and when and how do the sisters find their own "Chineseness"? To be able to tell that story, I had to start in the 1930s, specifically 1937, which was the beginning of the end of Shanghai as the Paris of Asia. So I don't know if I chose the time to begin the story. Rather, to tell the story I wanted to tell I was constrained on both ends: the invasion of Shanghai by the Japanese in 1937 and the Confession Program, which began in 1957.

GR: Although your writing has previously been set in 17th and 19th century China, Shanghai Girls brings the setting forward into the living memory of the 1900s. Have you considered a novel about modern-day China (returning perhaps to the setting or characters of the Red Princess trilogy, Flower Net, The Interior, and Dragon Bones) or the experience of contemporary Chinese Americans? Or do you prefer to write within an historical context?

LS: As you point out, the Red Princess mysteries are set in contemporary China. Interestingly, though, they now read a bit like historical novels. Flower Net came out in 1997. It's not that long ago, but it's an eternity in China these days. China, and Beijing in particular, have completely changed. So to me, these books are like snapshots of particular moments in time in a fast-changing and rapidly evolving country and culture.

I don't know if I'll write about contemporary China or about the experience of contemporary Chinese Americans in the future. I'm not being coy. I just don't know. The right story would have to formulate in my brain, and who knows how that happens? Inspiration and imagination are a mystery to me. What I will say is this: Sometimes I think we're too close to events and things in the present to really understand what's going on or their deeper meaning.

GR: Your previous novels, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love, both focused on female relationships. Why did you choose a sister relationship as the heart of this new work? How does Pearl and May's sisterhood in Shanghai Girls impact their stories?

LS: The sibling relationship is typically the longest one we'll have in our lives. A sister is someone who should stand by you, support you, and love you no matter what, and yet it's your sister who knows exactly where to drive the knife to hurt you the most. Also, you can't get away from comparisons in families: Who's the prettiest, the smartest, the thinnest? Who's perceived to be Dad's or Mom's favorite, and why? Who gets special treatment, and why? All that intrigues me.

Beyond that, when I look at these three novels, I can see that I'm not just interested in female relationships but more specifically in what I call the dark shadow side of female relationships. Finally, I'm a sister myself. When my sister Clara read the manuscript she marked several places in the margins with notes like, "Wait till Katharine reads this!" or "That's not how it happened!" Pearl and May are fictional sisters, but there are a lot of silly things between sisters that come from my own experience.

GR: You come from a family of writers, notably your mother, Carolyn See. Did you begin writing at a young age? And today, do you and your mother read each other's writing and provide feedback?

LS: My mom is a huge inspiration to me. I was fortunate as a girl that my mom asked me to read her manuscripts. I was 12 or something like that, and she was asking me to look for repeated words, missing commas, and holes in the plot! I was a writing apprentice. My mom and I write about very different subjects and have very different styles, but my work habits come 100% from her. So yes and absolutely, we share our writing, edit each other's work, gripe about the state of publishing, commiserate when we get bad reviews, and rejoice in each other's successes.

GR: With several works of historical fiction under your belt, you must have a penchant for research. Can you describe your research process for Shanghai Girls?

LS: I'm an absolute nut for research. In some ways it's my favorite part of writing a book. I go to all the places I write about. (I just got back from China. Amy Tan and I traveled together. We stayed in a 17th century house in a small village way out in the countryside. I'm really interested and curious to see how we'll each use the same material and experiences in our next books.) For Shanghai Girls, I went to Angel Island, among other places. The Angel Island Immigration Station had been closed for many years, but I was invited on a special private tour. It was deeply meaningful to me to walk in the same places where my relatives had been held when they were entering the country all those years ago.

I also interviewed people who'd been affected by the Confession Program. This is a subject that people still don't like to talk about. One man said to me, "We aren't dead yet, so we aren't safe yet." So much fear about that time still lingers, and getting people to talk about it was quite difficult.

Finally, I spent a lot of time in libraries and archives. Some writers hire people to do research. I could never do that, because I never know what I'm going to find that will completely change the course of a book.

So I look and look and look. That continues all the way through the writing and editing process. Then I take long walks or stare at the ceiling and let my mind wander. Certain things start to come together—themes or odd bits of ideas. For example, I'm beginning to think about the next book, and I've been rather entranced by the idea of paper. Now that's not a character, plot, or theme, but paper is a Chinese invention. You can write on it, burn it for heat or to hide a secret, stuff it into gaps in walls to keep wind from entering a room, piece it together like a puzzle, turn it into art, or destroy someone's heart with it. How I'll use that I don't know, but I'm doing research on paper and letting my imagination wander.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

LS: When I'm writing, I get up around 7 a.m., make a cup of English breakfast tea, and toddle down the hall to my office. My husband exercises to really loud music right next to where I write, so I answer e-mail until he's done. I'd say I begin to write in earnest around 9. I have a bowl of Rice Crispies with blueberries at 11. Then I get dressed. At some point I try to get some exercise. I'm a big walker, but I also play tennis and do Pilates. By the end of the day I have to write a minimum of 1,000 words. Sometimes I can get that done in two hours; sometimes it takes all day. I don't know if I have any unusual writing habits. Do the Rice Crispies count?

The only other thing that might be considered unusual is that I like to have music playing, but it can't have words, or if it does have words, they have to be in a language I don't understand. One of my favorite CDs to listen to when writing is called Puccini without Words. It has all the great arias and soaring music, minus the words. I also like the soundtrack from Monsoon Wedding. I listen to these two CDs over and over again when I'm writing.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced your writing style?

LS: Geez! This is such a huge question! I'm going to limit myself to just three. My mom has been the greatest influence on my writing life. Bob Dylan has had a surprising influence on my writing style and word choice. And William Faulkner's line, "The past is not over and done. It's not even past," has been almost like a mantra for me.

GR: What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors?

LS: I'm reading Southland by Nina Revoyr. I think she's a fantastic writer. I loved The Age of Dreaming, so I've gone back to Southland, her first novel. I love first novels. They're so fresh and raw. But I'm also enjoying Southland as a break from reading four nonfiction books in a row about China: Hungry Ghosts, Shanghai Year, Chinese Stories from the Fifties, and Art and Politics in China. I have to say that Hungry Ghosts was a truly stunning read. It's about China's Great Leap Forward, when 30 million people died in a man-made famine. It made me think about China, Mao, and human nature in new ways. It's heartbreaking and startling.

Most of my reading is about China, because I'm always in research mode. I'm either working on a new book or thinking about the next book or even the one after that. I'm always poking around in libraries or doing Internet searches for books that have long been out of print. I also have to be very careful about what fiction I read when I'm writing. I don't want other voices, characters, or even plot developments to sneak into my subconscious. This means that as soon as I finish writing a book, I spend about three months reading novels. Books I've read that I really love include: Astrid and Veronika by Linda Olsson, The Chinchilla Farm by Judith Freeman, The Summer of the Big Bachi by Naomi Hirahara, and L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy. I also read everything Amy Tan writes. She's a friend and a wonderful writer. The Kitchen God's Wife is my favorite of Amy's books. And of course I read everything my mom writes. I particularly love Golden Days and The Handyman.

GR: What's next?

LS: Every single person who has read Shanghai Girls so far has asked if there will be a sequel. And yes! There will be. I can't say much more than that without giving away the ending of Shanghai Girls. (Although I think there are some hints in what I've written above about the kinds of things I'm thinking about.) I haven't started writing yet, but I'm researching, brooding, and imagining.

Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)

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message 1: by Riley (new)

Riley I think it's so cool that she traveled with Amy Tan, who she says is a friend. (I met her in Cincinnati last year and corresponded via email for a short time.)

I think I want to read On Gold Mountain and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan first, but Shanghai Girls may have to go on the list next.


Carolgblanchard Lisa, I am just beginning Shanghai Girls after hearing your speak in Corona del Mar...Thanks for your research ,having lived and worked at a Chinese American University (SIAS) in central China , and known students from freshman to seniors to grads now working all over China, I know how authentic your books are..The foreign teachers in CHIna pass your books around like crazy and love them!!!!Please keep writing about the women---they are so interesting!!!


message 3: by Julie (new)

Julie Horner Kristan wrote: "I think it's so cool that she traveled with Amy Tan, who she says is a friend. (I met her in Cincinnati last year and corresponded via email for a short time.)

I think I want to read On Gold Mount..."


Snow Flower and The Secret Fan was WONDERFUL!



message 4: by Ramona (new)

Ramona Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was an emotionally-charged little book. I couldn't stop reading it until I had finished, and I found it very moving. I read another book shortly thereafter (the name of which I can't remember) which made me realize the many similarities in marriage customs between Chinese and South-Asian women. I found it fascinating!


message 5: by Sarah (new)

Sarah Elsea I cried so hard when reading "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan." I absolutly loved it. Lily's forshadowing regarding the end of her and Snow Flower's friendship didn't prepare me for what happened to them... I hope that Snow Flower knew how loved she was and that she was able to forgive Lily even if she didn't deserve it.

Context is important!


message 6: by Julia (last edited Jul 04, 2014 03:37AM) (new)

Julia Spencer Lisa, I want to read one of your books. I'm legally blind so my reading is limited because my eyes get very tired from using my computer all day writing my second book. What book would you recommend that would tell me the deepest messages you are revealing? I loved your interview. You talked about fear. I see that fear in America now on both sides. The immigrants looking for a better life and the American's fearful of losing something.

I love the history of China. I was a child during the war and saw all the war pictures and news about China. It stayed with me, as all the people from history does.


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