At first glance, Lisa See would not seem to be a likely candidate for literary voice of Chinese-American women. With her flaming red hair and freckled complexion, she hardly adheres to any stereotypical conceptions of what an Asian-American woman should look like, however, her familial background has given her roots in Chinese culture that have fueled her eloquent, elegant, and exciting body of work.
See grew up in the Chinatown section of Los Angeles. Although she is only 1/8 Chinese, her upbringing provided her with a powerful connection to that fraction of herself. "I really grew up in this very traditional, old Chinese family," she revealed in an interview with Barnes & Noble.com. "It was very traditional, but also quite magical in a lot of ways, because I really was in a very different culture then how I looked."
See's Chinese background was not the only aspect of her family that affected the course her life has taken. She also comes from a long line of writers and novelists. Her somewhat morose relatives initially led her to believe that writing must be the result of suffering and pain, which turned her off from literary pursuits at first. Ironically, despite her strong family roots, See only decided to try her hand at writing as a means of embarking on a lifestyle without roots. "I knew three things," See said, "I never wanted to get married, I never wanted to have children, and I only wanted to live out of a suitcase. How am I gonna do it? And I was really thinking about it, and then one morning, I woke up, and it was truly like a light bulb went off -- ‘Oh, I could be a writer!' Many, many years later, here I am, married, I have children, [and] I am a writer."
In the wake of this unexpected epiphany, Lisa See began work on her first book On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family. This highly detailed family history charted the events that led her great-grandfather Fong See to become the godfather of her Chinatown neighborhood and the 100-year-old patriarch of her family. See interviewed close to 100 of her relatives while researching the book that both gave her a clearer portrait of how her racially mixed family developed and broke her into the publishing business.
See then went on to explore other aspects of both Chinese and American culture via fiction. She followed her debut with a series of popular political thrillers set in China and featuring American attorney David Stark. Her novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan abandons Stark and his pursuit of justice for the time being with a tale that reaches much further back into Chinese culture, and more specifically, the subordinate role women have traditionally played in that culture. This more personal novel scored See accolades from The Washington Post, The New York Times, Publisher's Weekly, and The School Library Journal, while also further solidifying her role as a significant Chinese-American writer. And See's Peony in Love (2007) is a jarring historical novel set against the backdrop of an early-17th-century Chinese opera
See's position in the Chinese-American community has also extended beyond her writing. She was honored by the Organization of Chinese American Women as National Woman of the Year in 2001 and is also responsible for designing a walking tour of her Chinatown home in L.A. Her devotion to that apparently-small, but actually-vast, 1/8 of her ethnicity proves that well-worn adage about never judging a book by looking at its cover.
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In our interview, See shared lots of fun facts and anecdotes about herself, including:
"I asked my husband what he thought was an interesting fact about me, and he said that he always thought it was strange that when we first met I had to drink three cups of coffee before I got out of bed, but that after I got pregnant I never ever had another cup of coffee again. That didn't seem terribly exciting, so I asked my sister. She said that I take perverse pleasure in grossing people out, which I do. But this didn't seem very interesting either. I asked my mother and she remembered that I'd been a demon crawler and had once crawled away from the house, down to a busy boulevard, and was rescued by a couple of barbers. So I was a demon crawler and probably took ten years off my mother's life that day, but was it a fun fact? I've even asked some other people and they all have talked about my desire to travel and the scary places I have traveled alone. While I know that I'm a compulsive traveler, a lot of other people love to travel, so it still doesn't seem that unusual to me."
"I never wanted to be a writer. My mother and my grandfather were both writers. When I was a kid, they both took the position that writing was about suffering and pain, so you can see why I didn't want to be a writer. There came a time when I was about twenty and living in Greece, and I knew three things: I didn't want to get married, I didn't want to have children, and I only wanted to live out of a suitcase. But how was I going to support myself and how was this ever going to happen? One morning I woke up and it was like a light bulb went off: ‘Ah, I could be a writer.' Within twenty-four hours of returning back to the States I had my first two magazine assignments. But if you've been reading this at all closely, you know that I got married and had children. And thank God, because I would have been a pretty boring person and not a very good writer if I didn't have those three people in my life. But I still do love to live out of a suitcase and have been writing most of these answers on a plane from Shanghai to San Francisco."
"I think one of the strangest things about me is the way I read books. This dates back to when I started reading chapter books as a kid and continues to this day. I read the first 20 pages, then the last 20 pages. After that, the second 20 pages and the penultimate 20 pages. I read from front to back and from back to front until I meet in the middle. Why? I can't stand not knowing what happens to the characters. Will they be okay? Will they live? Will they get together? It doesn't take away from the suspense or ruin the story for me in any way. Not doing it would ruin the story because I would have to rush and I'd be so anxious that I wouldn't be able to do anything else until I was done."
"I'm a movie fanatic. I see more than 100 movies a year. Sometimes I'll see two or three movies in a day. Between this and reading books the way I do, I have a very good sense of plot. I can watch the first five minutes of any television show and the first ten minutes of just about any movie and tell you everything that will happen. It's very rare that I'm taken by complete surprise. But to me it isn't about the surprise. I'm just curious to see how things have been structured, if the right clues have been doled out, and if the right people will get together."
"I like to eat, but I don't like to cook. I'll eat anything and have -- a low point would have to be the stir-fried pig penis in China -- but there are only three things I won't eat: lima beans, brains, and kidneys. I hate exercise, but I love to play tennis, walk, and hike. I love stories in any form: film, books, song, and TV. Yes, I'm a real couch potato! I'm a nut for reality shows like ‘Survivor' and ‘American Idol.' My three favorite shows this season are ‘The OC,' ‘Lost,'and ‘Battlestar Gallactica.' And I'm a not-so-closet Trekkie. (Yes, I've even been to Star Trek conventions, but I blame that on my sons.) For so long I would say I hated sci-fi, and then I finally realized that it was one of my favorite genres. Go figure. My favorite way to unwind? That would have to be sleeping, hands down. I love to sleep and I take it very seriously. We recently got a Temperpedic mattress and it's my favorite purchase ever. I long to go to bed and feel enveloped."
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In 2005, Lisa See took some time out to answer some of our questions:
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. I read this novel just before I started writing On Gold Mountain. I loved the way Stegner combined family story with history. I know that this book has come under severe criticism in recent years for possible plagiarism. Nevertheless, it inspired and continues to inspire me. In fact, I used a quote from the book as the epigraph for On Gold Mountain. "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..." Even now, those words resonate with me, since I too spent many years in the papers and photographs that my grandmother left behind.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?The Handyman by Carolyn See -- Carolyn's my mom and this is my favorite novel that she's written. It's about a young man who wants to be an artist but is killing time by being a handyman until he can start art school. Along the way he discovers Los Angeles, love, what his subject should be in art, and what it means to be an artist. I feel that I've been on that journey myself. It's a great story for anyone who wants to be an artist or wants to know more about what it takes to become an artist.
The Jungle Book series, by Rudyard Kipling -- Many of my favorite books are those I read as a child. Every Saturday morning, I used to treat myself by reading "Rikki-Tikki Tavi," the first of the short stories in Volume II. I loved the way Kipling played with the fragility of life and the bravery of the mongoose, but I have to say I was entranced by all of the characters in both volumes. I think my feelings had a lot to do with being transported to another land. I always hated the Disney version, though.
Howard's End by E. M. Forster -- Probably the greatest novel in the English language ever written: "Only connect." With those two simple words Forster got to the heart of human need and desire. He wrote, "Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height." I've tried to live this way myself, and with my new novel I tried to show it in the characters of Lily and Snow Flower.
The Kitchen God's Wife by Amy Tan -- I know Amy and love all of her books. This one I listened to on tape. Amy read it. There's a place in the story where the main character is talking about her little boy dying. As Amy read, her voice broke. Later she told me she was really surprised when that happened and was even more surprised that the producers left it in. But I'm glad they did. I didn't cry at all when I was writing Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, but when I read it to my husband I cried. The same had happened with Amy. I don't know what that means about the writing process. Maybe we're so involved in the story and are working from such a deep place that the tears don't come. But later it's surprising when the emotions break through -- sometimes at places that I never expect. It's as though I lived the moment of Snow Flower dying.
Ameliaranne and the Magic Ring by Eleanor Farjeon (with pictures by Susan Beatrice Pearse) -- My grandmother picked up this children's book at a thrift store many, many years ago, so it was old and very used when she gave it to me. It's about a little girl who longs to own a special doll from the local toy store but can't possibly afford it. Ameliaranne wins a toy ruby ring from a grab bag run by gypsies. Then she finds out that the old woman who runs the toyshop mistakenly gave her life savings away to the gypsies, who also deal in rags. Ameliaranne finds the daughter of the gypsies and trades her ruby ring for the old sock with the money. Grateful to have her life savings returned, the old woman gives Ameliaranne the doll as a reward. I loved this story! Then my sister lost it. Spring forward about thirty years. My sister did a search on the Internet, found a copy, and just gave it to me for my birthday. (It turns out that while there is an entire series of Ameliaranne books, only 2,000 copies were printed of Ameliaranne and the Magic Ring.) It's amazing how clearly I had remembered the story and even whole sections of text, but what really struck me was that in many ways I had modeled my life on Ameliaranne. Not only that, the title for my new novel bears a striking resemblance to this book. The subconscious works in mysterious ways.
The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright -- Here's another children's book -- actually the first in a series -- that I loved and that really inspired me. My mother also loved this book when she was a girl and she had recommended it to me. All the children in the family pool their allowances, which allows one child each Saturday to go out and have an adventure. I'm a big believer in adventures for kids and adults.
My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki -- I had this book sitting on my nightstand for a couple of years before I finally picked it up. I don't know if it's truly one of my all-time favorites, but it has really stayed with me. I loved the way Ozeki was able to take a controversial topic like hormones in meat and turn it into a fabulous and deeply emotional story.
Eiger: Wall of Death by Arthur Roth -- This is one of the first of the adventure-disaster books to be published and it's recently been re-released in a new edition. In it, the author recounts every ascent on Eiger. What I loved was that you just couldn't tell which expedition was going to make it to the summit and which was going to fail or end in death. So much has to do with the fickleness of nature combined with man's persistent belief that somehow he will be able to bend nature to his will. So foolhardy! But also so human. So obviously I also loved Into Thin Air and Into the Wild. To me there's something very compelling about what people will do in the worst circumstances. Will they rise to the occasion or fail miserably through some particular human weakness? Quite apart from all that, I think these books helped me focus on the characters of Lily and Snow Flower. They both live under such harsh and difficult conditions, yet again the question for me was who would persist and triumph and who would fail.
Chronicles: Volume 1 by Bob Dylan -- In many ways, Bob Dylan, as a songwriter, has been the greatest influence on my writing. He knows how to tell a story in just a few minutes with gorgeous language, full emotion, and great pacing. I found that he was able to convey that same sense of storytelling in this first volume of his autobiography. He doesn't care too much about keeping things linear, which I think is brilliant and refreshing. Of course we're born, live, then die -- that's linear -- but within that, life doesn't necessarily follow in a straight line. I can't wait to see what he writes next.
The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri -- I usually don't like short stories, but I loved these. In my own work I've been interested in dislocation and disruption, especially for Chinese and Chinese immigrants. Reading Lahiri, I saw, once again, that everyone in this country shares in the immigrant experience. Certain emotions and life experiences are universal: falling in love, the death of a marriage, worry over children, infidelity, a life unfulfilled. The only real differences we have are in the particulars. She writes beautifully about food too!
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?The Gay Divorcee, Flying Down to Rio, Top Hat -- any Fred and Ginger film, actually. He has such grace, but he's a bit funny looking. She's so light and luscious on her feet, but she has a sly way with him that I've always admired. The music, the dancing, the silly dialogue, the stock characters are all so wonderful. I've seen some of these films dozens of times, but I can watch them dozens more. They transport me out of everyday life.
Jules and Jim -- My mother took me to see this film when I was a little kid. I didn't get everything that happened in it until later, but even as a child I seemed to understand the idea of a triangle and how harmful and hurtful it could be. Even after all these years, there are certain images that have stuck with me.
The Matrix -- The first time I saw it I was blown away -- just like everyone else, I guess. I found it visually exciting. It's so rare that we ever get to witness something completely fresh, and The Matrix was just that. My favorite part was when Neo wins the last battle, and then pulls everything within himself in such a calm, settled, and centered way. It's such an interesting way of looking at energy in the universe.
Aliens -- This is my all-time favorite movie. I went through a long period of terrible insomnia, which happened to coincide with the release of Aliens on cable. I could flip from channel to channel in the middle of the night and watch my favorite parts over and over again. I have whole scenes memorized! One night my husband woke up and called from the bedroom, "That's it. I'm getting you knitting lessons!" He thought knitting would make me calm and I'd have something to show for it at the end of the day (or night). He didn't know that I would continue to watch Aliens and knit, too. Sigourney Weaver's Ripley is a true adventure heroine. I wish there were more female characters in books and film like her. And the movie has one of the great lines of all time: "Get away from her, you bitch!"
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I listen to all types of music -- opera, hip hop, Mexican jarocho, norteno, and mariachi music, Indian tabla, South African township, soundtracks, everything, really. I love the Beach Boys, Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt, and lots of stuff from the sixties; on the other side of the spectrum, I think 50 Cent, Eminem, and Outkast are great. They all know how to tell stories through song, and they're funny too.
I often find that words are distracting when I'm writing, so my favorite CDs to work to are Puccini without Words, which has, obviously, Puccini's opera scores minus the words, the soundtrack to Monsoon Wedding, and Mitsuko Uchida playing Mozart sonatas. For my new book, I've been writing a lot to Very Be Careful -- the first CD by a local Los Angeles band called El Grizz. It starts with some music from a palleta (popiscle) cart and has a great homey feeling.
Not to work to, but I do love Dylan. I realize his voice isn't as melodious as it could be, but I still think the guy's a genius. And while I would never listen to opera when I'm writing, I've learned a lot about storytelling through opera, specifically how to tell a story through the pure emotion of music. The language is gorgeous too. In fact, I'd have to say that music has probably been a greater influence on me as a writer than books.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
In the Absence of Sun, by Helie Lee. Helie's first book, Still Life with Rice, is a Korean counterpart to my book, On Gold Mountain. But the book I think would be fun to read in a book group is In the Absence of Sun. Helie once again is telling a family story. After her first book came out, she received a letter from her "lost" great-uncle back in North Korea. Her family had thought he was long dead. Helie and her very old grandmother went to China and then to the border with North Korea to try and get the uncle and his family out. It's a true-life story of courage, adventure, and family love. I've gotten to know Helie in recent years and I still can't believe that such a sweet little thing could be so brave and sometimes reckless. So often when I was reading the book, I thought, "Oh, Helie, don't do that!" She has tremendous personal courage, a wonderful ability to show what someone will do for the love of family, and a lovely way of telling a story -- all attributes that I admire tremendously.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I love to get certain types of coffee table books, especially those about old China. I love to open the pages and be transported to another place and time. I love looking at the details of the clothes and the scenery, but most important I love to look at the faces. I rarely give books as Christmas or birthday gifts. However, if there's a book I think someone will really love or has a particular resonance at a particular moment, then I'll order a copy online and send it as a little surprise.
For example, a couple of years ago a friend had a bad rafting accident in Colorado. I sent her a copy of Lisa Michael's Grand Ambition, which is about the first husband and wife team to try to go down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. The mystery of their disappearance has captivated people's imagination for seventy-plus years. Or my stepmother is African-American and spends a lot of time in Africa. I got a copy of the English edition of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency about two years before it came out here and gave it to Anne because I knew she'd enjoy it. Similarly, I was at a book show and was able to pick up two advance copies of Ender's Shadow, the sequel to Ender's Game. My sons were both fanatics for the first book and were ecstatic to have early copies of the sequel. Books are wonderful little treats to have arrive unexpectedly, and the Internet has made it much easier to find them and give them.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I don't have any special rituals other than starting early so I don't get distracted by the day and drinking lots and lots of decaffeinated tea. On my desk I have photos of my sons, Chinese wind-up toys (a goose, a pecking chick, and a little blue bird), a pencil holder my youngest son made me, a clay duck my other son made me, a photo of a dim sum lunch I made that was really gorgeous (if I do say so myself), a dictionary of Chinese street language, and the notebooks I've used to keep notes on each book I've written.
To my right, I have a set of shelves with all of the projects I'm currently working on: the boards I sit on, reports from the commission I sit on, two big writing projects, and two small writing projects. To my left is another shelf with folders and stacks that have to do with projects that have to be done pronto. To my right, on the floor, are two piles of notes, articles, and books for the new book I'm working on. I like to keep my desk relatively clean but I also like to be able to keep everything that I'm working on very handy, which means that there are stacks of papers everywhere!
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
No one would ever describe me as an overnight success, although I have had a lot of successes. My first article was published about 30 years ago. (Yikes! That's a very long time ago. See what I mean about not being an overnight success?) But as I said, I've had things happen along the way that in the moment I thought made me think I was a "success." One of my proudest moments was when I was asked to be a judge for the Miss Chinatown Pageant. I don't think this would have meant anything to anyone else, but it was a big deal to me. In my family, the Miss Chinatown Pageant was huge! This made me feel like I'd arrived but also that I'd finally been accepted in Chinatown.
Another high point was when Flower Net was optioned to be a film. I found myself one day having lunch with the producer, Alan Ladd Jr. -- Alan Ladd's son, and I can tell you that if you ever meet him you're supposed to call him Laddie -- in the commissary at Paramount Studios. He had won the Academy Award for Best Picture the night before for Braveheart. Everyone was coming up and congratulating him. It was all very exciting. At one point he leaned across the table and asked, "Who do you see as David (the main character in my mystery series), Mel or Harrison?" Well, the film was never made, but on that one day I felt like I'd really made it.
But I can honestly say I have never written with success in mind. Maybe I should have and I would be more of a household name today. I've tried to write from my heart and I've always started from the position of being a reader first. What I love about books is when I open the pages, fly to a different world, time or culture, and connect to the characters and by extension to the human condition. So when I sit down to write, what I hope is that readers will open the pages, enter my world, come on a journey with me, connect to my characters -- whether real or imagined -- and then think about their own lives.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
I think Joy Nicholson, who wrote The Tribes of Palos Verdes, is a very interesting writer. I'm very much looking forward to her new novel, The Road to Esmerelda. She's a big environmentalist, very political, and really knows how to tell a story.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Write a thousand words a day, no matter what. That's only four typed pages, not much. At the end of the week, you will have 20 pages. At the end of the month, if you worked every day, you will have 80 pages.
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