NAW Interview with Lisa See

Lisa See

© Patricia Williams

Lisa See was born in Paris but grew up in Los Angeles. She lived with her mother, but spent a lot of time with her father’s family in Chinatown. Her first book, On Gold Mountain: The One Hundred Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family (1995), was a national bestseller and a New York Times Notable Book. China Dolls, her latest book is already a bestseller. Read more about her here.

NAW-When did your literary journey begin? At what age did you discover that you wanted to write?

My mother is a writer and my mother’s father was a writer.  I guess like most kids I didn’t want to do what they did.  I wanted to be a costume designer or maybe a landscape architect. Then, two years into college, I took off for Europe. This was back when you could do it for under $5 a day. I was nineteen and thought I knew everything about myself. In fact, I was certain I knew everything about myself! I didn’t want to get married, I didn’t want to have children, I didn’t want to be a writer, and I wanted always to live out of a suitcase. There came a point when I was living in Greece, staying in a house for $35 a month. (Cheap!)  But I kept thinking, How will I support myself?  How will I support my dreams of being footloose and fancy free? Then one morning I woke up and it was like a light bulb went on: Oh, I could be a writer!  When I came home a year later, I got my first two magazine assignments within forty-eight hours, thanks to my mom. I’ve been writing ever since. But here’s the thing:  I was still just a kid when I came home.  I clearly didn’t know myself very well, because I’m married, I have children, and I’m a writer.  I actually do spend a lot of time living out of a suitcase, but the bloom is completely off that rose.

NAW- Tell us about your book, ‘China Dolls.’ How did you get the idea for it? How long did it take to finish the book? What is it about?

Here’s what the book jacket says about China Dolls: It’s 1938 in San Francisco: a world’s fair is preparing to open on Treasure Island, a war is brewing overseas, and the city is alive with possibilities. Grace, Helen, and Ruby, three young women from very different backgrounds, meet by chance at the exclusive and glamorous Forbidden City nightclub. Grace Lee, an American-born Chinese girl, has fled the Midwest with nothing but heartache, talent, and a pair of dancing shoes. Helen Fong lives with her extended family in Chinatown, where her traditional parents insist that she guard her reputation like a piece of jade. The stunning Ruby Tom challenges the boundaries of convention at every turn with her defiant attitude and no-holds-barred ambition. The girls become fast friends, relying on one another through unexpected challenges and shifting fortunes. When their dark secrets are exposed and the invisible thread of fate binds them even tighter, they find the strength and resilience to reach for their dreams. But after the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, paranoia and suspicion threaten to destroy their lives, and a shocking act of betrayal changes everything.

In other words, China Dolls is a story of friendship, dancing, ambition, stardom, betrayal, and perseverance.

I started with the idea that I wanted to write about three friends.  That triangle is so complicated – for men and women!  I recently learned that NASA even did a study on the subject and learned that they should always send two not three astronauts into space, because otherwise the two-against-one scenario always arises.

But I’d also been thinking about writing about the Chinese-American nightclub scene of the 1930s and 1940s for years.  I have fans who have sent me photos of their mothers, aunts, fathers, and uncles who performed.  There were so many great stories. I also felt that if I didn’t do this now, then I might not have a chance to interview some of the earliest performers.  I interviewed Dorothy Toy and Mary Ong Tom when they were 93; I interviewed Mai Tai Sing and Trudi Long when they were 88.  Happily they’re all still alive today, but I count myself very fortunate to have captured their stories and had a chance to experience their humor, courage, and persistence firsthand.  Those four women were my greatest inspiration for China Dolls.

How long did it take to write? Hmmm…  This is a little hard to answer.  I usually have a project in the back of my mind for many years before I decide that this is the one I’m going to write or that I’m ready internally to write it.  I had this idea floating around in my head and was collecting bits of information about it for five years or so before I committed.  Writing a novel isn’t a one-night stand, you know!  We’re in it together for the long haul, so we’d both – the idea and me – better be sure!  Once I decided that China Dolls was the one, then it took about three years.

NAW- Your books are unique because they tackle Chinese culture in the United States. I don’t think many American authors have done that except Pearl S. Buck I guess. Was your own life experience a strong motivation for writing in this backdrop?

Did Pearl S. Buck write about Chinese culture in the United States? I didn’t know that.  I’ve only read The Good Earth.  But you’ve phrased your question in an interesting way.  Do you think Amy Tan, Gish Jen, and Maxine Hong Kingston are “Chinese authors,” “American authors,” or “Chinese-American authors”?  I’m not positive, but I doubt any of those three self-identify as “Chinese writers.”  Wouldn’t that be someone like Ha Jin, who lives here but was born and grew up in China?

Anyway, to answer your question specifically, my family background is why I write the kinds of books I do.

NAW-Will we see the same trend (Chinese- American culture and influence) continue in your future works or do you plan to explore other areas?

I just had to stop typing, make a list of my nine books, and take a count. Two of my novels take place entirely in China. Four of the books are set primarily in China with one or two scenes in the U.S.  Two of the books have most of the story in the U.S.  And only one book takes place entirely in the U.S., and that one is China Dolls.  The next novel will be about 50% in the U.S. and 50% in China.

I can tell you that a good part of China Dolls has to do with a Japanese-American performer who is masquerading as Chinese so she can work in a Chinese-American nightclub. She is sent to an internment camp during World War II. I’d say that one of the big underlying themes of China Dolls is identity and the ways we use it to protect ourselves, sometimes hurt others, sometimes be targets of discrimination and racism, and sometimes suffer from cultural animosities that have more to do with countries than they do with friends or neighbors.

As for what I might write in the future… Who knows?  What I write about is very personal to me and has very little to do with what readers might want.  I’m on a personal journey to see where I fit in, what I know, what I don’t know.  And all that stems from the fact that I look like I look in a very large Chinese family.

NAW- Tell us about your other works.

My first book, On Gold Mountain, tells the history of the Chinese in American seen through the eyes of my family.  That book led to other projects. I wrote the libretto for the opera based on the book. I also curated an exhibition on the history of the Chinese in America at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage.  That exhibit was the largest ever on the history of the Chinese in America, and it later travelled to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

I next wrote three mysteries set in contemporary China: Flower Net, The Interior, and Dragon Bones.  The first in Red Princess series was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan came next.  It’s about nu shu, the secret writing system that the Yao ethnic minority used in southwestern Hunan province.  This novel was translated into 39 languages and was an international bestseller–my first.  It was also made into a film directed by Wayne Wang.  The producers were Wendi Deng (then Murdoch) and Florence Sloan.  All of my novels from Snow Flower on have been New York Times bestsellers.

Peony in Love and Shanghai Girls came next, followed by Dreams of Joy, which debuted at Number One on the New York Times bestseller list. I’m happy to report that China Dolls, which just came out, is a New York Times instant bestseller.

NAW- You don’t really look Chinese from any angle (in a lighter vain). Tell us about your familial roots.

Although I have red hair and freckles, I grew up in a very large Chinese-American family.  In other words, I don’t look like most of the people in my family.  And yet those people were my mirror.  They told me who I was, despite how I looked on the outside.  That sense of always being a bit of an outsider – an observer, if you will – has been what’s propelled me as a woman, an artist, and a mother.  I’m always trying to figure out where I belong and who I am.  We all do that, but I’m doing it within a Chinese context.

I grew up hearing stories about my great-grandfather, Fong See, and all the amazing things he did.  I also heard stories of people in my family who weren’t extraordinary.  They were just simple people who worked very hard and had difficult lives.  Sometimes they succeeded, but mostly they didn’t.  I feel I am here and doing the things I’m doing because of them.  I stand on their shoulders, but I also feel their presence on my shoulders.

NAW- Do you carry out any research for developing your characters and your stories? How do you go about it?

I do all kinds of research. I spend time in archives and museums, I look on the Internet, I hang out in research libraries, and I talk to people.  With China Dolls, I was helped by dozens and dozens of people and institutions.  The acknowledgements go on for four pages!  I will spend hours on even the smallest detail. For example, I probably spent fifty hours figuring out what my main characters would wear for undergarments since bras and panties are very recent inventions.

I was helped by the Museum of the Chinese in the Americas in New York and by the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco. Individual people helped me tremendously. For example, Eddie Wang, who was then the executive director of the Angel Island Immigration Foundation, called one day to say that someone had told him what I was working on.  I’d known Eddie for years and we’d worked on various projects together, but I’d never mentioned the new novel I was working on.  Anyway, when he graduated from college, he thought he wanted to write a play about the Forbidden City nightclub.  He interviewed about a dozen performers.  All of them are gone now.  He never wrote the play, but he gave me his interviews to use.  I now had the voices of a dozen people who I never would have had otherwise.  So many people shared their knowledge, previous work, insights, and connections with me.  I don’t think they would do that if they didn’t trust me with the material.  They know I will be fair and truthful.

In addition to the original performers that I interviewed, I also loved talking to the sons and daughters of performers who had grown up backstage or had travelled in the backseat of the family car as their parents went from club to club across the country in the so-called Chop-Suey Circuit.   I remember the story of one little boy who always used to get in trouble for peeking out the stage curtain at the back side – the naked side – of a particular fan dancer.  There’s a lot of darkness – secrets and tragedies – in China Dolls, but stories like that always lifted my spirits.

NAW- Which authors have influenced you?

First, my mom, Carolyn See, who is a wonderful novelist and book critic. I lived with her when I was growing up, so I feel that I had a life-long apprenticeship to be a write.  Second, Wallace Stegner, who wrote Angle of Repose.  I used a couple of lines from that novel as the epigraph for On Gold Mountain.  I didn’t realize when I used those lines that they would continue to define me as a writer.  They are:  “Fooling around in the papers, 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 third, Bob Dylan. He isn’t a novel writer, but he knows how to tell a wonderful story in just a few minutes.  (Yes, I know his voice is terrible now, but he still does have a way with words.)

NAW- Tell us about yourself. What do you do when you are not writing?

I love to garden, play tennis, hike, and see movies.

NAW – Tell us about your literary journey. How easy (or difficult) was it to get your first book in print?

In one way, I was extremely fortunate with my first book.  In another way, I’d already worked a very long time as a writer.  To backtrack…  I had worked as a journalist for many years and had been the West Coast correspondent for Publishers Weekly for about eight years when I started On Gold Mountain.  Like I said, I’d already been working a long time as a professional writer, so people in publishing knew me and my work.  (They may not have known me personally, but they read me almost every week and knew, among other things, that I could meet a deadline.  I also benefited from the success of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club.  Publishers were actively looking for more Chinese-American stories.  Amy and I also shared the same agent.  Sandy Dijkstra has a great American art collection and she helped me with some of the art sources for On Gold Mountain.  After two years of work—doing interviews, traveling back to the home village, searching out what I could find in archives, and then writing the proposal—I thought that Sandy would be the perfect person to sell the idea.  There was an auction…a miracle as far as I was concerned.  So, hard work, timing, and good luck.

NAW- What is the one thing that your readers don’t know about you?

I only know how to type with three fingers.

NAW- What are your upcoming projects?

I’ve finished most of the research for the next novel, and I can tell you a few things even though I don’t know exactly yet how it will all fit together.  The Fox Spirit of Hummingbird Lane (working title) has three main elements:  fox spirits, the mother/daughter relationship, and tea.  Fox spirits can be naughty or nice, and their main desire is to become human.  For the mother/daughter story, I want to write about a woman who gives up her baby for adoption in China, the woman in California who adopts her, and the girl herself.  Tea will provide the historical backdrop. Tea is the second most popular drink in the world after water.  I recently returned from the birthplace of tea in the mountains of Yunnan.  I’m so excited about this new novel.  I think it’s going to be great!

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