An Interview with Lisa See

Conducted by Emma Paxton, Molly McCarthy, and Kate Picone

Lisa See is an author of young adult novels that all incorporate the experiences of Chinese people, particularly the relationships between women within families. Although Ms. See is not completely Chinese, her grandfather was and she has felt very connected to this part of her family. This connection has inspired her to created best-selling novels such as Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Shanghai Girls, Dreams of Joy, and many others. Although these books focus on family, Ms. See also incorporates notable time periods, such as World War II, and how those significant moments in history affect her characters to depict the ways these events affected people’s lives in real life. Before she started writing books, Ms. See was a freelance journalist whose writing has appeared in Vogue, Self, and More along with many book reviews. Ms. See was honored as National Woman of the Year by the Organization of Chinese American Women in 2001 for her continued efforts to represent Chinese-Americans throughout literature.

Emma Paxton, Molly McCarthy, Kate Picone: Your novels are notably set in or are about characters from China. Aside from your own heritage, what is it about China and its history that interests you so much as a writer?

Lisa See: The obvious answer is that China has 5,000 years of continuous history and culture that most people know very little about but that fascinates me.  But it’s more than that. My personal history is inexorably linked to why I’m interested in China. I’m part Chinese.  My great-great-grandfather came here to work on the building of the transcontinental railroad.  My great-grandfather was the godfather/patriarch of Los Angeles Chinatown.  I don’t look at all Chinese, but I grew up in a very large Chinese-American family.  I have hundreds of relatives in Los Angeles, of which there are only about a dozen who look like me.  All writers are told to write what they know.  My family is what I know.  And what I don’t know—the women’s secret language that I wrote about in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, for example—I love to find out whatever I can and then bring my sensibility to the subject.  I guess what I’m trying to say is that in many ways I straddle two cultures.  I try to bring what I know from both cultures into my work.  The American side of me tries to open a window into China and things Chinese for non-Chinese, while the Chinese side of me makes sure that what I’m writing is true to the Chinese culture without making it seem too “exotic” or “foreign.”  What I want people to get from my books is that all people on the planet share common life experiences—falling in love, getting married, having children, dying—and share common emotions—love, hate, greed, jealousy. These are the universals; the differences are in the particulars of customs and culture.

EP, MM, KP: Another common theme that your novels have is that they center around relationships between women—mothers/daughters, friends, sisters, etc. How important is it to you, and perhaps to readers, that you have these kinds of relationships in your stories?

LS: There are millions of fresh ideas about women’s relationships still to be told!  Let’s remember that women writers haven’t been getting published for all that long.  Yes, there are the women writers that we all know about—the Bronte sisters, Emily Dickinson, George Sand, Virginia Woolf, and some others—but really, they were few and far between.  This means that in the great body of the world’s literature most female relationships—mothers and daughters, sisters, friends—have been written by men.  I find it extremely exciting to read about women through the eyes of women, and, again, this is still a relatively recent phenomenon.  And there’s such range to that, right?  Women who shop, tough women detectives, flawed women, brave women, poor women, rich women, women from other cultures, religions, cultures, and traditions. As a writer, I’m drawn to women’s friendship because it’s unlike any other relationship we have in our lives.  I’m especially interested in the dark shadow side of female friendship. We will tell a friend something we won’t tell our mothers, our husbands or boyfriends, or our children.  This is a particular kind of intimacy, and it can leave us open to the deepest betrayals and other failures in courage. 

EP, MM, KP: Co-writing with one other author seems like a daunting enough task on its own, but what was it like cowriting Lotus Land and 110 Shanghai Road with not only two other authors, but your mother, Carolyn See, as well?

LS: My mother, John Espey, and I had so much fun working together as Monica Highland.  John was 21 years older than my mother, and my mother was 21 years older than me, so we had three generations working together.  I feel in many ways like those were my deep apprenticeship years.  I learned so much from the tow of them.

EP, MM, KP: Your mother is a fellow writer, how has she influenced your writing style or vice versa? What other authors have influenced you as a writer?

LS: Wallace Stegner, especially Angle of Repose. I used a couple of lines from this novel as the epigraph for my first book, On Gold Mountain. I didn’t realize when I used them that they would come to symbolize how I see myself as a writer. He wrote: “Fooling around in the papers my grandparents, especially my grandmother, left behind, I get glimpses of lives close to mine, related to mine in ways I recognize but don’t completely comprehend. I’d like to live in their clothes a while.” And that’s what I’ve been trying to do in my work—live in their clothes awhile. E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End.  OK, so this is one of the greatest novels ever written, but I read it for the first time when I was falling in love with my husband.  Forster so delicately, yet eloquently, addresses issues of class, nationality, and economic status.  “Only connect!” which he used as his epigraph, may be the two most quoted words in English literature, but people often ignore what comes soon after. “Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”  You can see how besotted in love I was. James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential.  I love, love, love this novel.  It’s set in Los Angeles. It’s got romance, mystery, corruption, and violence. It’s got cracking great language, because Ellroy is a genius when it comes to the voices of cops, bad guys, politicos, and prostitutes.  The various plots are complicated but dazzlingly interwoven. I’d like to add that the film is one of my all-time favorites too.  I always say that the book is better than the film.  (Who doesn’t?)  But this film is a great for lovers of the novel, because, while the script can’t include all the intricacies of the novel’s various plotlines, it hints at them brilliantly. Last, Nina Revoyr’s The Age of Dreaming. This novel, which takes place in Hollywood, goes back and forth through time between the present day and the silent film era. It’s based loosely on the true story of Mary Miles Minter, a young and popular silent film star, who was involved in the still-unsolved murder case of director William Desmond Taylor.  The main character, Jun Nakayama, is based, also loosely, on Sessue Hayakawa, the first actor of Asian descent to become an internationally-known star. The mix of mystery, period details, racism, and the whole unknown—at least to me—world of the silent film era is both thoughtful and captivating.  I recommend this novel at least once a week.

EP, MM, KP: In the novel Shanghai Girls the character, Joy, runs away to China to try and find her dad. What inspired you to make this choice for the character? Were you worried that this choice was controversial?

LS: Joy is idealistic. It’s 1957, the PRC is still a very young country, and she’s very excited about what’s happening there. She has also suffered a great loss. Her father committed suicide after being targeted during the Confession Program and being accused of being a communist.  To me, it is only natural that she would want to go to the land of her blood and abandon the place that has been so cruel to her family.  But it’s one thing to be idealistic and quite another to arrive in China in 1957 as a Chinese by blood but also as a naïve girl who grew up in Los Angeles.  To me, the end of Shanghai Girls is a new beginning.  With Dreams of Joy, I had the opportunity to write about a period in China that Westerners know very little about.  I love shattering preconceived notions of what China was or is.

EP, MM, KP: In Snow Flower and the Secret Fan there are many references to ancient Chinese practices such as foot binding and matchmaking. Did you find that it was hard to make these practices authentic for the book? 

LS: There are many theories about how the practice started.  One of them is that there was a courtesan who used to wrap her feet when she danced.  Obviously she wasn’t breaking her bones or else she wouldn’t have been able to dance.  Nevertheless, it was said that she looked like she had little fox feet when she danced.  She became hugely famous for this, and all the men wanted to see her.  Pretty soon other courtesans were binding their feet.  Now all the men wanted to see them.  This resulted in a lot of wives saying the Chinese equivalent of “How am I going to get Harry to come home?”  That’s how foot binding made the jump from the courtesan culture to the culture of fine upstanding women. Foot binding wasn’t difficult to research.  What was hard was putting myself in the room with Lily, Beautiful Moon, and Third Sister as they had their feet bound.  I kept wondering how a mother could do that to her daughter.  This question stayed with me.  I wanted to look at foot binding from a mother’s point of view, which is what I did in Peony in Love.  This doesn’t explain why it lasted so long – a thousand years!  There are several reasons for that. First, it was a terrific economic status symbol for men. A man could say, “I’m so wealthy that, look, I have a wife with bound feet,” meaning she didn’t have to work. Or, “I’m so extraordinarily wealthy that even my servants have bound feet.” Now that was an extremely wealthy man.  Second, men are men, so there was a whole sexual component to bound feet. Anything you could imagine they did with those bound feet, they did, and more.  But that still doesn’t explain why it lasted so long. This was something that a mother did to her daughter. It was passed down through the centuries.  I think this is the hardest thing to understand – how a mother could inflict such terrible pain on her daughter. She did it because it was the one thing she could do to possibly give her daughter a better chance at life. If she could give her daughter a pair of perfectly bound feet, then maybe her daughter would marry into a better family and have a better life. If that was the only way you could help you daughter, wouldn’t you do it too?

EP, MM, KP: What is your advice to English majors and young writers?

LS: Look at writing as a job.  That means you get up and you go to work.  I don’t wait for that moment of inspiration.  By now, I do a lot of things—I write, I do a lot of speaking, and I do other fun—rather, what I consider to be fun—projects.  But the most important thing is writing, so that always comes first.  When I get up, the first thing I do is write.  My rule is one thousand words a day—just four pages—that isn’t very much.  Life is short, so be passionate about everything you do.