Lisa See is a New York Times bestseller, whose stories often explore narratives that appear to have been lost or forgotten which can lead to her travelling areas of the globe. For her novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa found herself travelling a remote area of China where should we be only the second foreigner to ever visit. Many believe this dedication to unveiling these hidden stories is the secret behind why her novels are so successful. Lisa See was born in Paris and grew up in Los Angeles with her Mother. Her journalistic work has been featured in publications like Vogue, Self and More, as well as in various book reviews across the United States. Lisa See also serves as a Los Angeles City Commissioner on the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Monument Authority, has won National Woman of the Year by the Organisation of Chinese American Women and was also the recipient of the Chinese American Museum’s History Makers Award – so to say she is highly regarded may just be an understatement. Having Lisa on the site is a real please, so please enjoy my interview with the wonderful Lisa See…
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
I’m a writer. I write novels and non-fiction about China and the Chinese American experience. I bet other people would say I write about women, mothers and daughters, and the dark shadow side of women’s friendship.
I’m reading three books right now:
Flesh and Bone and Water by Luiza Sauma. It’s a debut novel that I’m reading in galleys so I can give a blurb. It’s stunningly beautiful.
The Girl at the Baggage Claim by Gish Jen. I’ve been asked to review it for the Washington Post.
The Jeju 4.3 Incident Investigation Report, which is an 800-plus page document about a massacre that happened on an island off South Korea after World War II. I’m reading this one as research for my next novel.
When you think about your childhood, what book comes to mind?
Ameliaranne and the Magic Ring by Eleanor Farjeon, which spoke of goodness, tolerance, selflessness, and adventure. I have the book sitting on my bureau to this day.
Can you remember the first story you ever wrote?
It was a mystery story about our neighbour, Mr. Lopez. I can’t say that I remember much about the plot, but my fictional Mr. Lopez was very handsome, as he was (and still is, or so I hear) in real life. I was thirteen and had a major crush going on.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
First, a ballerina. Then a costume designer.
What do you think your school aged self would think of the present day you?
I couldn’t have imagined myself today. I had a lot of difficulties in my childhood. Most of us do, I suppose. But I don’t think anyone, myself included, would have thought that I’d end up where I am today—the things I’m doing with my writing but also out in the community, that I would be surrounded by a loving family, and that I wouldn’t have to worry about money in the sick-feeling way we did when I was young. Back then, I would have looked at someone like me and thought I was as foreign and unknowable as a space alien. Sometimes even today I find myself in situations where I can hardly believe it’s me there.
If you could wrap up a single book and gift it to yourself as you left education – which book would it be?
I read a book a few years ago about the failure of American education, at the high school level in particular. I wish I could remember the title. I gave away about a dozen copies of that book to friends, family, and educators. What really struck me is that all the research shows that history is the most hated class in our high schools. As I read that book, I not only got a glimpse into why Americans are so disillusioned and disaffected about democracy and the political process, but I also got a lot of insight into me. When I was young, I thought I loved school, and I was a very good student. (History, by the way, was my favourite subject. Math, not so much.) But it wasn’t until the first year after I graduated from college and that first September rolled around that I realized how much I hated school. Even now, all these years later, when summer comes to a close, I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach just thinking about returning to school. Anyway, that book put so many things into perspective for me. Now I’m just sorry I can’t remember the title or the author.
Does your reading have routine? Is there a particular time or place that you like to read?
That’s changed a lot with age. I was a voracious reader when I was a kid. (I may not have loved school, but I was the number one customer in the bookmobile, school library, and local library.) Back then, my favourite time to read was in bed on Saturday and Sunday mornings before anyone else woke up. Later, I used to read long into the night. When I had babies… Reading? Forget it! What young mom has time for that? These days I have three favourite times and places to read. On Sunday mornings, when my husband plays golf, I get a cup of tea and go back to bed to read. During the week, after I’ve finished writing and most of dinner is prepared, I take a break, curl up on the couch with a glass of wine or a cup of tea, and read for a bit before my husband comes home. And, like most people, I love to read once I’ve gone to bed. It’s such a great passageway to dreamland.
Which book has had the biggest impact on your career so far?
Do you mean which book that I wrote? If so, that would have to be Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. When I started writing the novel, I was known as a critically-acclaimed author. Do you know what that means? You get great reviews, and no one reads your books! Anyway, as I was writing people kept saying things like, “No one’s going to read this book.” These were friends, people in my family, my agent, my editor, and other writers. Everyone, really. They had all sorts of reasons. That the novel was set in China. That it was set in the past. That it was about women’s friendship. So I thought, fine, I’ll just write the book I want to write and hopefully it will find its audience. In my mind I had a much smaller number for the readership than for my so-called critically-acclaimed novels. I thought I’d be lucky if 5,000 people read the book, but that they’d be the right people. All the doubt and criticism turned out to be very freeing, and I wrote exactly the book I wanted to write. It turned out all the sceptics were wrong. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was published in 39 languages, and all the perceived negativities turned out to be the very things that people like about the novel — it was set in China, in the past, and it was about women’s friendship.
What two pieces of advice would you give a young aspiring writer?
Write a thousand words a day, and don’t give up.
All the books written by my mother, Carolyn See. My mom passed away a couple of months ago. We asked people to read passages from her books at her memorial. Critic David Ulin made the selections for us, because we were so sad and overwhelmed. He did a beautiful job, but on the day before the memorial my sister and I wanted to look up a few additional passages that were our favourites or that we knew meant a lot to her. My sister was just a baby when our mom started writing, but I had the privilege to watch her when she got her first magazine assignment and when she wrote her first novel. I would not be the woman, mother, or writer I am if not for my mom. (Weirdly, as I’m writing this, Judy Collins’ “Who Knows Where the Times Goes” just came on the radio.) Now I can open any of my mother’s books and hear her voice. And that’s what’s so amazing about books—whether they were written yesterday, or twenty, one hundred, or a thousand years ago. We still hear the unique voices of those authors, in their times, and places. If I were recommending my top three Carolyn See novels, they would be Golden Days, Dreaming, and The Handyman.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
The Age of Dreaming by Nina Revoyr. 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 recommended it again to someone just yesterday.
Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?
I read both about equally. I’ve written non-fiction, but I’m probably best known for my historical fiction. Let’s just say there’s a lot of non-fiction in an historical novel. Oh! Do you mean do I prefer fiction or non-fiction to read? There’s nothing on earth like a great novel.
Do you think reading is important?
Well… YES! Reading gives us a window into other worlds, cultures, and lives. We connect to the characters, whether real or imagined, and by extension think not only about our own lives – what would I have done in that situation? – but also about the human condition. Through the act of reading we can understand our own lives more clearly. It can bring peace of mind. But on a different day and with a different book, reading can agitate and expand our minds. It can transport us out of our daily lives on a purely entertainment level, and that’s great! But reading also gives us the opportunity to transform our thoughts, convictions, and iron-held beliefs by literally opening our minds to ideas that are bigger than we are.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
Do you prefer real books or digital books?
Real books! But a few years ago, when my husband and I went on vacation, I had a suitcase weighted down with books and he had a Kindle. Now when I travel, I bring a selection of digital books. If I haven’t finished reading one of them when I get home, I buy and read the real book. One thing is for sure: I will never again read non-fiction on a device. I like to be able to flip back and forth to see photos, maps, and all that other fun ancillary stuff, which is so much easier with a real book.
Name a book that you feel every human should have to read by law.
I don’t think anyone should have to read a book by law. We don’t live in a police state. At least not yet…
Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner – 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.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
I’m reading a lot about 20th-century Korean history and the free-diving women of Jeju Island. For fun, I’m excited to read Michael Connelly’s new mystery, The Wrong Side of Goodbye, and a debut novel titled The Wangs vs. The World by Jade Chang. I also recently got three advanced reader’s copies that I’m looking forward to reading: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, which is an historical novel set in Korea; We Gon’ Be Alright by Jeff Chang, which is a series of essays on race and resegregation, and Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker, which is about the wild world of sommeliers. I have a lot of reading ahead of me!
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?