SuperInterview: Lisa See

Lisa See is an inspiration to me. No, I have not yet read her books, but her writing is solid, as her  awards and reviews prove. What inspires is me is the way she starts with a core of personal relationships and then researches, researches, researches. The following superinterview covers her life, her relationship with China and her nonwriting-but-important-to writing activities. The following, from the Phillipine News Now website, nicely introduces us to Lisa... As she pours steaming water over tea in a mini-tasting ritual, See reflects on how a one-eighth Chinese, native Californian whose bright red hair, freckles and pale skin belie her Asian cultural roots, went from freelance journalist to one of the most prominent Chinese-American writers of her generation."I was what they called a critically acclaimed writer," says See, who is as witty in person as on the page. "What that means is you get really great reviews and nobody reads your books." That changed when, against the advice of publisher, agent, fellow writers, even friends, she decided to research a historical novel about two women growing up as best friends in rural 19th century China. Published in 2005, "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" has sold more than 1.5 million copies. It not only established See as a serious literary force but gave her a template for future storytelling. Several deeply researched historical novels have followed, each featuring strong characters who, despite close friendship, sometimes betray one another. They are often day-to-day people caught up in the circumstances and traditions of their time, which can lead to situations running the gamut from laugh-out-loud comical to deeply, darkly tragic. ................................... The following is from Lisa See's website. Why do you write about 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. Lisa's mother, Carolyn See, is also a writer. The following is from an interview the two conducted. Carolyn: You’re one-eighth Chinese but you’ve said many times that you’re “Chinese in your heart.”  You lived with me growing up, but I know your dad’s parents made a tremendous impression on you.  Could you talk specifically of your wonderful grandmother Stella See? I have a hunch you picked up many of your storytelling skills from her. Lisa: Did I? I thought I picked up my storytelling skills from you! I don’t remember my grandmother telling many stories, actually. What I remember most is her essence. She wasn’t Chinese (I got my red hair from her). She was very shy and fearful in many ways, but she also was filled with daring. She married a Chinese man when it was against the law. She lit out on a round-the-world trip with a couple of girlfriends when she was sixty-nine. She traveled through India third class. She was an adventurer and kind of wild in her own way, and yet she was afraid of so many things. She could be very blunt and earthy, but often she was afraid to finish a sentence. It was only when I was writing Peony in Love that I realized that a version of my grandmother has appeared in every book I’ve written. There’s a lot of her in Madame Wang (the matchmaker in Snow Flower), the neighborhood committee director in the mysteries, the grandmother in Peony in Love, and the mother-in-law in Shanghai Girls. Writing these fictional characters has allowed me to have my grandmother with me every day. ..................... From the same interview: But what really interested me about footbinding was that it seemed so tied to the Chinese written character for mother love, which is composed of two elements: one part means love, the other part means pain. Of course, mother love is experienced in all cultures and through all times. I used to think that mother love is what daughters feel for their mothers—because they bind our feet, brush our hair, and nag us to clean our rooms, do our homework, get off the phone, and not stay out too late—but I’ve come to believe that mother love is really about what mothers feel for their children. Any pain or suffering our children feel—a fever or an earache as an infant, getting in with the wrong crowd in high school, failures in business or love once they’ve gone out into the world—we bear for them (whether they know it or not) and carry in our hearts. I’m a woman, a daughter, and a mother. When I was a kid, I had very long hair. Remember what you used to say when you brushed it? “In order to be beautiful one must suffer.” That was coming from you—one of the most liberated, smart, and open people I know. These things are just so deep in every culture ................................ For Snow Flower, she traveled to a remote area of China—where she was told she was only the second foreigner ever to visit—to research the secret writing invented, used, and kept a secret by women for over a thousand years.(THIS IS THE BOOK OF LISA'S THAT I WOULD LIKE TO READ FIRST-SB) Amy Tan called the novel “achingly beautiful, a marvel of imagination.” Others agreed, and foreign-language rights for Snow Flower were sold to 39 countries. The novel also became a New York Times bestseller, a Booksense Number One Pick, has won numerous awards domestically and internationally, and was made into a feature film produced by Fox Searchlight. Ms. 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. The book traces the journey of Lisa’s great-grandfather, Fong See, who overcame obstacles at every step to become the 100-year-old godfather of Los Angeles’s Chinatown and the patriarch of a sprawling family. Research shapes Lisa's signature style of storytelling.  The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, her latest book, is about the lives of a Chinese mother and her daughter who has been adopted by an American couple. The book  features the  customs of a Chinese ethnic minority, the Akha. The Akha grow and produce  Pu'er tea. Lisa did research, not exactly a little bit of poking around on the internet...
The next day, we flew from GuangZhou to Xishuangbanna, arriving in JingHong late at night. After being picked up by our driver, Mr. Lee, we drove an hour and a half to our hotel in Menghai. The next morning, we met up with my tea master, Vesper Chan, at our hotel. Also with us were Jeni Dodd of Jeni’s Tea in NY and Buddha Tamong from Nepal. Master Chan and his associate, Mr. Liu, drove us up the mountain to Mengsung, a well-known pu-erh producing area within Xishuangbanna Prefecture. Upon arrival, a delicious lunch of the local cuisine had already been prepared for us. After we ate, we toured Mr. Liu’s tea processing factory and hiked into the ancient tea garden.
That is an excerpt written by Linda Louie, from the Bana Tea Company. Lisa and Linda spent time together researching tea. One of the results of this is the Book Club Tea Tasting Guide, a package that includes teas featured in the book. The questions I have for Lisa are:
  1. Exposition can really block the flow of a story. Can you provide an example, maybe an excerpt, in which exposition pushed the story or became invisible? It would seem that often you must explain things and I am  wondering if you have a pattern, or patterns, for explaining complex concepts to your readers.
  2. Logistics for appearances and publicity. Do you have an assistant? How helpful is your publisher? It seems you make a lot of appearances and I am curious how you manage, especially with things like having books o hand for signings.
  3. China has seen very difficult times. Our planet is now seeing some very difficult times. Is there a Chinese expression which  expresses the importance of Hope, or perhaps encourages a positive long term view when the short term view is dark?............These questions were sent to Lisa on April 1st, 2017...stay tuned!)
         

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *